El Camino Frances

The Traditional Route from France

Over the Pyrenees

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St Jean Pie-de-Port to Roncesvalles

14 May 1993 and 30 May 2002

I have walked this route twice (1993 and 2002); both times starting in St. Jean Pie-de-Port. On the first occasion I travelled by overnight coach to Bayonne. The journey was terrible but I arrived late in the afternoon in time to catch the train to St. Jean and find a room in the Hotel Camou. After an evening meal in the hotel I had time for a walk around the old town but unfortunately I was too late to disturb Mme. Debril to obtain a stamp in my pilgrim’s passport. I intended setting off early in the morning but the only establishment open that evening which looked as if it could have a stamp was the local Texaco filling station. My first ever pilgrim’s stamp is therefore “Handy Jules”.

In 2002 my approach journey was much easier but also involved frustrations. Ryanair had daily flights to Biarritz from my local airport (Stansted, London) which enabled me to get to Bayonne just in time to be too late. The last train to St. Jean leaves before 7pm so I had to look for a hotel for the night. The Hotel Monte Carlo across the street from the railway station is not as posh as its name and the ground floor sporting bar was able to supply a sandwich and a couple of beers.

St Jean main street

1993. The first train in the morning was none too early so I had time for a quick walk around town after breakfast. The train arrived in St. Jean soon after 10am and several pilgrims made their way to the pilgrim’s office near the citadel for registration. (Sadly Mme. Debril is now dead and the Camino will miss the service she gave to pilgrims for many years.) At the office we were told that the weather was good on the mountain and Roncesvalles was about seven hours away. Four of us, myself, Jann from California and a German couple from Frankfurt, set off just before 11am after buying some food in a small shop.

Leaving SJPdP

There are two main routes from St. Jean to Roncesvalles. In 1993 I took the lower route via Arneguy and San Carlos. This is mainly by road and fairly flat at first, following a river valley. On one side of the river is France and just across several unguarded bridges is Spain. The official crossing is at Arneguy and here I stopped at a bar/café for refreshments. The village of San Carlos, farther along the road, has a bank and several shops. There is also accommodation to be found here if you want to start with a short day. The road steepened into switchbacks after San Carlos and, at the pass of Ibañeta, I was pleased to shelter from the heavy rain in the substantial porch of the chapel.

It was then an easy walk down to the monastery to obtain a stamp and a blessing from one of the monks. I felt a need for a comfortable bed after my arduous climb so, after checking and rejecting the two hotels in Roncesvalles, I continued down to Burguete and booked into a hostal.

The pass from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles has been used for many centuries by invaders to and from the Iberian peninsular. The most famous incident occurred in 778 when the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army was ambushed and destroyed as it returned from an expedition to the Ebro valley. A very much distorted account of this action was produced about 1100 as the ‘Song of Roland’. In this account the attackers were the Moorish occupiers of Spain and Roland was Charlemagne’s nephew. Roland was also in possession of a magic sword and a giant horn that only he could blow to summon assistance. In reality Charlemagne had gone into Spain to lend assistance to some regional Moorish rulers who were in dispute with the central authority. After failing in his enterprise he laid waste to the Basque capital of Pamplona and the Basques took their revenge when his army was strung out in the mountain passes. Roland was probably Hruodland, one of Charlemagne’s regional commanders. In the early 1100s, when the more romantic version was written, there was a concentrated effort to increase the popularity of the Camino led by Archbishop Diego Gelmirez of Santiago. Any tale of chivalry against the Moors would serve as propaganda for the reconquest of Spain by the Christian forces in the north. A monument is erected to Roland near the summit of the pass although there is some doubt as to the exact location of the battle.

Roncesvalles Collegiate Church

Other famous invaders were The Black Prince on his way to the battle of Navarrete (Nájera) and various Napoleonic armies in the early 1800s. In more modern times Ernest Hemmingway often fished in the region and used the pass and the village of Burguete as one of the settings for his book ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (‘Fiesta’).

The monastery at Roncesvalles is a large complex of buildings founded in 1132 by the Bishop of Pamplona and subject to the Augustinian order in that city. The Collegiate church was built on the orders of King Sancho VII (The Strong) of Navarre to a French Gothic design and consecrated in 1219. There was a major restoration of this building in 1940.

The Chapel of Saint Augustine houses the tomb of Sancho the Strong (1194 to 1234) and also some of the chains brought back from the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). This battle was a major turning point in the Reconquista when all the Christian forces in the peninsular (Castile, Aragón, Navarre and Portugal) combined to defeat the Almohad forces in the Islamic south. Legend has it that the Navarrese forces played the decisive part in the battle when they fought their way through the bodyguard of the opposing King who were chained together. Tradition has it that these chains are incorporated in the design of the coat of arms of Navarre.

leaving St Jean

In 2002, together with Jann, I went for the traditional Route Napoleon. This is quite steep at first and the first section is mainly by asphalt roads. Hountto is only just over 5km. from the start but it took us almost two hours to reach it. It was then a very slow walk with lots of rests until we were able to leave the road and walk over moorland to the first pass of Bentartea. We were in clouds now and sheltered from the wind amongst some rocks for a bite to eat. The frontier is not far from here and it is just a cattle grid in a barbed wire fence. There is a fuente on the Spanish side so we replenished our water bottles before the climb to the high point at Collado de Lepoeder.

Here we sat in the clouds for another rest and some food before walking down, via the chapel at Ibañeta, to the monastery of Roncesvalles. As we walked into the monastery grounds we heard the church doors slam shut so we missed the pilgrims’ mass. The rest of the monastery was closed so we lay down to rest outside until we could register and obtain the last two bunks in the refugio. We were too late to order a meal in the local restaurant but the hospitalera found us a half bottle of wine and chocolate biscuits. Our remaining bread and cheese made up the meal and we just had time for a shower before lights out at 10pm.