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.

Roncesvalles Pass

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.

A reminder of the distance to go to Santiago

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.

The hotel in Burguete where Hemmingway used to stay
And the Hostal Burguete today

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.

A Griffon vulture

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.


Tuesday September 27, 2011

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (27 km)

I had breakfast soon after the hotel opened and was on the road by shortly before 08:00. There was no traffic in the town and there were no clouds in the sky. It was already quite warm.

Apart from the first 100 m, the road climbed quite steeply. Within fifteen minutes I caught up with a couple moving very slowly; much slower and they would have been going backwards. He was a big robust man a bit younger than me, carrying the largest backpack I have ever seen, with camping gear strapped on top and a large sleeping bag below. It was no wonder he was already sweating profusely. In contrast she was young, very attractive and carrying nothing.  Was she his daughter?  I didn’t think so.

The road wound steadily upward, occasionally passing farm houses, and then branched off onto a steeper dirt path. Ahead and above me, I could see a very extremely large obese man in very tight shorts, with inflated and unhealthy looking legs. He was very pale, like Nordic people are after a long winter.  When I caught up with him, he asked in a very strong native Irish accent ‘how much f——g further do we have to go to Roncesvalles’. When I said that we had covered about a quarter of the distance, he swore in apparent frustration, using expletives that would have an army sergeant-major blush.  He said that he would never make it and that he had not realized how hard it was going to be. I suggested that it was not much further to accommodation and that if they had room, he could stay there and carry on the next day.

I hoped that they had a vacancy and that he took my advice, for he was not in good shape.

When I reached the crest of the current climb, I could see the Auberge d’Orrison quite a way below at the foot of a valley and the road climbing steeply up the opposite side. My total estimated ascent for the day had just increased by another 100 m.

ASuberge d'Orrison

Auberge d’Orrison

I stopped at the auberge and had a beer in the welcome shade of the patio. There were quite a few guests and they all seemed to be staying there for the night. The view down the valley was sublime and on a clear night with no light pollution the stars would have been spectacular.

The road out of the valley initially climbed steeply, but soon became more gradual, and for the next three hours it gently crawled up to the highest point, the Col Lepoeder. Everywhere there were huge flocks of sheep. I had never seen such clean sheep; they all looked as if they had just had a shampoo and blow job. There were herds of equally pristine tan-coloured cattle and now and then a band of horses would gallop across the slopes. There were no obvious fences; they all seemed to be free to go wherever they wished.

At some point on this stage of the walk I became conscious of my heart missing beats. It has happened before but not in recent times.  Even without taking my pulse,  I could feel the missing beats in my forehead. At times it was one in eight or ten beats and sometimes in every three or four. I felt well in myself, so there was nothing I could do except to relax and take it slowly.

Finally I reached the Col Lepoeder, and from there, there were two routes down to Roncesvalles; by road or straight down on a steep path through the trees, the ground strewn with early autumn leaves. I chose the latter and descended slowly and very carefully.  Ninety minutes later I was in my room in the albergue.


After a shower I felt somewhat revived, although my legs throbbed as if they had been beaten with a club. On the stairs I passed a Canadian woman, walking down backwards.  I was not the only one feeling a bit sore.

A short stroll did not help much, so I went to dinner. And what a bargain that that was – a fixed menu with three generous courses and as much wine as one desired, all for nine Euros.

Afterwards I sat in the bar with a glass of Rioja. As I was about to leave to go to bed, in walked the guy that I had seen earlier that morning, complete with his enormous burden. The walk had taken them fourteen hours and he was drenched in sweat and looked totally exhausted. In contrast his partner/daughter looked quite fresh and relaxed.

I bumped into them again in the morning, as I was leaving.  They told me that they were from Barcelona and that they were heading home from a camping holiday in France. The walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port had been a last minute decision that they had almost regretted, especially when they had to make the steep descent through the woods in the dark.  They caught the morning bus to Pamplona.

But all’s well that ends well, and happily my heart was beating normally once more.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

The first day of the ‘The Way of Saint James’ is reputed to be the most arduous – 27km and 1100 m of ascent to the pass, with 500 m of descent to Roncesvalles.  And apart from a refugio after 10 km, there is nothing until one reaches Roncesvalles.  Given that I had not done anything approaching that in the six years since my illness, it is not surprising that I started feeling some flutters of apprehension.  And of course I was not accustomed to carrying all my worldly goods on my back.

There were four trains each day from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I decided to take that of late morning.  It turned out to be a local train that stopped at every station. In the names of the little villages, it was obvious that we were in Basque country – Vasco in Spanish, the language being shared across the border with Spain.  En route I spotted many Basque names such as Ustaritz, Jatxou and Itxassou.

The train trundled along a narrow wooded valley, alongside the rapidly flowing river Nive until it arrived at the end of the line, outside Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  From the station it was about a kilometer to the centre of the town.  I arrived to crowded streets and packed restaurants – it was Monday and the weekly market day.

The first hotel I tried was closed for the winter, the second was much too grand for me, in the third the door was locked and the reception closed for lunch and then I stumbled upon a bar with rooms above and it was perfect for my needs and inexpensive.  I checked in, left my backpack in the room and went off to explore the town.

The steep main street with the foothills of the Pyrenees in the background

The name of the town means ‘Saint John at the foot of the pass’ and it has a permanent population of about 2000.  It is a well preserved walled town with one narrow cobbled street rising steeply to a citadel.  The view from the walls was impressive and everywhere there seemed to be flower boxes in full bloom.  From the bridge over the river one could see that the water was sparkling clean and thick with trout.

The bridge crossed by pilgrims as they set off on the path over the Pyrenees

The original town was razed in 1177 by Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, the English King.  It was rebuilt on the present site by the Kings of Navarre.

I found the pilgrim’s office at the top of the steep main street and obtained my pilgrim passport – it is needed to stay at any of the official refugios.

Later I went into the old church by the pilgrims’ gate.  It was empty except for an old lady, on her knees with head down, and seemingly deep in prayer. It was cool and serene.  Periodically someone would enter, have a quick look around and leave.

I stayed there for a long time.  I was not praying like the old lady, but I have no clear recollection of my thoughts at that time.  I imagine that I was very focused on the physical struggle I anticipated having the next day and hoping that my crap leg would get me over the mountain and down to Roncesvalles without having to seek help.

DSC00003 (1)
Looking back at the church and Pilgrim’s Gate

Eventually I left the church to find a restaurant.  When I looked back, the old lady was still there.