Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Roncesvalles to Zubiri (21 km)
From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port there are two routes into Spain – the road via the Roncesvalles Pass or the pilgrim path across the mountain, via the Col de Lepoeder, at 1410 m. Either way one ends up at Roncesvalles about 8km from the French border and at an altitude of 952 m.
Apart from the Augustinian abbey, built in 1130 by the King of Navarra for the use of pilgrims, the church built in about 1230, and a couple of restaurants, Roncesvalles consisted of little else.
Roncesvalles is reputed to have been the site of the battle in which the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army was decimated by Basque tribes in 778. Charlemagne was King of the Franks and had been waging war against the Muslem Saracens in the Iberian Peninsula, when he was forced to return to his homeland, due to news of an uprising on the Rhine. The event was later recorded in the epic poem ‘Song of Roland’, written some three centuries later. Although loosely based on oral tradition, with the attacking force being changed to the Saracens, the poem probably served as propaganda to justify the Crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslems.
In 1813 another notable battle was fought in the same pass. During the Peninsular War between Napoleon and the combined forces of the English and Portuguese, Napoleon had retreated out of Spain, leaving Pamplona and San Sebastian under siege to the English commander, the Duke of Wellington. From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port Napoleon launched a counter attack over the Roncesvalles Pass, with 40000 men against an inferior force of 11000. Outnumbered the English were forced to retreat with 450 casualties versus 200 for the French. They retreated to Sorauren and with the timely arrival of reinforcements, the French advance was halted and eventually forced to withdraw from Spain. In the battle of Sorauren alone, there were a total of more than 7000 casualties.
Over the centuries a lot of blood has been shed in the pass.
When compared to the first day of my camino, the second promised to be more leisurely – some ascents, but with each descent ending lower than the previous one. My bad foot felt very numb from the day before and I started out walking quite slowly and tentatively.
After less than an hour I arrived in Burguete, the village made famous by Ernest Hemmingway in his novel – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, first published in 1926. The novel was based on real characters and events that took place in July 1924 and 1925.
Hemmingway wrote of a fishing holiday in Burguete, prior to Pamplona’s San Fermín festival, with the running of the bulls and the bullfights. He also wrote of the heavy drinking, fighting and debauchery involving him and his friends, that took place during the week-long festival.
Perhaps it is still like that.
The river Irati, where the fishing account took place, is about four kilometres to the south-east of Burgete. The hotel where Hemingway stayed still exists, although no longer owned by the family that he knew. And more than 80 years later, fans of Hemmingway still visit the area to walk in his steps.
Outside Burgete, at the ford across a small river, I met two very friendly and charming old couples, who were seated on the bank. They were from Guatemala and they were walking to Logroño. One of the ladies was over 80. I was to see them several times again prior to arriving in Pamplona.
The ascents proved to be much steeper than I had expected and with my numb foot I found the going quite hard on the rocks and loose stones. By late morning it was quite hot and when I came to the next river crossing, there were several pilgrims lying on the bank and some paddling in the water. As I was crossing on the concrete causeway I was distracted by the antics in the water and did not notice the slippery moss underfoot. In a flash my feet went from under me and I crashed face down in the water, whacking both elbows on the concrete bottom. One of the guys on the bank rushed into the water and helped me to my feet. Apart from being soaking wet, I seemed fine. I thanked my rescuer and somewhat embarrassed, continued on my way.
But I had not gone more than a few steps when I felt a sharp pain in my left buttock, the recurring injury that had plagued me ever since I slipped on the ice in Sweden some two years previously. Both my elbows ached, but I kept going, albeit with a lot of discomfort.
At one point I sat on a grass bank on top of a hill. I could not see any sign of habitation or hear any people, just birds singing and grasshoppers sawing, or whatever it is they do. The sky was totally clear and there was no breeze; it was quite hot.
Above me I could see a very large bird. It was circling as if it was watching me. It occurred to me that it might be thinking that I was a dying animal and was waiting until it could feed off my flesh? I had no idea of how much further I had to go that day, but I decided to keep moving on.
So down one slope and then up another I limped, and each time I looked up, the bird was above me and seemed to be lower than the last time I had looked.
Eventually the path entered a thick wood and I was quite relieved to be in the shade, for the day was unseasonly hot. The wood continued for quite a way and when I finally emerged, there was no sign of the bird. Perhaps I was safely out of its territory, or maybe it had lost me in the trees.
Not long after I reached Zubiri, where I decided to make a premature halt for the day; I did not think I could walk any further without doing permanent damage to my buttock. I crossed an ancient medieval bridge, up a short street lined with stone-walled buildings and filled my water bottle at the fountain and drank the refreshing cold water. I felt quite dehydrated.
Just up the street was a small hotel and thankfully they still had vacancies. It turned out to be an excellent choice, and with a little bar, wi-fi and a ‘gourmet’ restaurant. I found myself very comfortable.
When the restaurant opened at eight, it quickly filled with the few residents of the hotel. All were pilgrims – six Dutch speaking Belgian women, two attractive Italian women, two older French men, and yours truly. The Belgians were loud, the Italians were beautiful, but I was totally distracted from either, discussing rugby and the World Cup with the French guys. They turned out to be retired Perpignan players, now coaching teenage teams. They were very depressed with the poor performance to date of the French team in the World Cup and were quite incredulous at my view that the French would go all the way to the final. As it turned out, I should have put a bet on it, for I would have received good odds. France eventually ended up losing by a single point to New Zealand in the final.
And as a bonus to the good conversation, I found the food and wine to be out of this world. I would never have anticipated such quality in a tiny hotel in a remote village in Navarre. For a while I forgot about my wounded bum, at least until I stood up, when I had a sharp and painful stabbing reminder. And then I had to negotiate two flights of stairs to my room.
But despite that, it had been a pleasurable end to an eventful day.