Tag Archives: Basque

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

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First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.

Across the Pyrenees

We left Burgos, again without a clear plan, knowing only that we’d spend a night in Pamplona and make it to Cahors in France at some point in the coming days. A quick calculation as the city bus to the train station told us we weren’t going to make our train that day, so we grabbed a empty taxi (somewhat miraculously, as there weren’t a lot just trolling for passengers). Even the cab driver was a little surprised at how close we were cutting it, but he dropped us off in time to make it onto the train.

Pamplona is far too big and full of history and culture to begin to absorb in just a one-night stay. Still, we made the most, getting lost in the narrow, cavernous streets that look deliberately designed to form the racetrack for the annual Running of the Bulls that happens here each July. Tiny balconies seem to jut from every window – perfect for watching the run from a safe distance, or for scoping out the nightly rehearsal for the party that precedes the run, as the cobblestones are covered Bourbon Street-style with tipsy revelers.

Like so many cities on the Iberian Peninsula, Pamplona is steeped in Catholicism, and it shows in the beautiful churches that sit on every corner. The Running of the Bulls, after all, is the cornerstone of the San Fermin festival, which celebrates the town’s martyred patron. He was beheaded, hence the red scarves that folks like to wear. Not knowing much about the brutal sport/art that is bullfighting, Pamplona certainly feels like the center of that universe, from the impressive bullfighting stadium to this magnificent rendering of the run itself. It’s done so well that you almost swear the bulls and people move.

From Pamplona we headed deeper into Basque Country to the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just over the border in France. We ended up staying at the pleasant little Hotel de Paris. The town itself is charming – in fact almost overwhelming with its cuteness. The beach too was lovely, if a bit crowded, and the warmish water made for a nice swim on our second day there.

But we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, and we used our lucky find of a hotel room here (as this was a holiday weekend and the tourist office told us that all the other rooms in the area were booked) to stay a second night and explore some of the Basque region. We made the mistake of taking a train to the top of the Rhune. If we had to do it over, we would take most of the day and hike the 900-m peak, enjoy the tough little Basque ponies that dot the hillsides, and gawk at the views of the coastline and the French and Spanish Pyrenees.

Instead, we cheated, whisked up to the top and back again by the “little train of the Rhune.” That left us more time to explore the nearby town of Sare. While it was interesting to see the feisty independence of the Basque people up close – a friendly shopkeeper explained the graffiti we’d noticed around by stating unequivocally, We don’t want another high-speed rail line built here” – Sare was touristy, and everything seemed to be overpriced.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a lovely spot, and we enjoyed terrific meals, replete with creatively prepared fresh-caught seafood and meat galore, at Chez Pablo and Pil-Pil Enea. I wouldn’t hesitate to return here if I was looking for a beach vacation. But, spoiled as we’ve become, we missed not being with people we know who have welcomed us into their homes again and again as we’ve traveled. Thankfully, our next-to-last stop was Cahors, where Anne-Claire had come to study French last summer and met a family eager to welcome her back.