Saturday, May 25, 2002
St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona
77.46 km, total for trip 144.30 km
After a rather sleepless night–the French mountain biker began snoring immediately when the lights went out, continuing to around midnight, only to be followed by another snorer who went on until 6 am!–I got up at 7 am and got dressed. During the night I had gone off to the bathroom and was alarmed by the sound of pouring rain hitting the roof. But it was coming down so heavily I figured that it would not last too long. As to hygiene, I had learned already that I had change my schedule a little, with my shower and shave coming in the afternoon after my bike ride rather than in the morning. But this morning I was anxious to shave and try out my new razor to get rid of two days’ worth of beard. A smooth pilgrim is a happy one. And showering and shaving when I arrived at my accommodation for the night usually meant I was there before many others and had the showers to myself and did not have to face the rush for limited facilities the next morning.
Working in shifts at the table for four, we quickly downed our simple breakfast of baguettes and jam and tea and got our bikes ready. Paul had an older Peugeot with an amazing load on it, with both front and rear panniers as well as a lot on the rear rack. A very pleasant older German named Siegmar also had a seriously-equipped touring bike and as I rode out I did not envy their day’s route across the Pyrenees with all that weight. I figured that it would be bad enough for me...
Leaving St. Jean-Pied-de-Port on the road that the pilgrims took traditionally as they went off to Spain, I saw that the streets were quite wet but it was already starting to get warm and right outside of town there was a little climb already. I rode along a superb street running alongside my familiar river, the Nive, its valley lush and green and quite narrow. There were of course more traditional Basque houses along the way as I headed for the Spanish border, which I crossed after about 14 kms of riding. The road had climbed fairly gently up to the point but here in Navarre there was no more fooling around.
This road, over the Ibañeta Pass to Roncesvalles, is known as the Camino Navarro and was favoured by the majority of pilgrims as the pass is somewhat lower than the one at Somport to the south, on the Camino Aragonés. There is a footpath that dates to Roman times, the Via Traiana, but I was forced to take the more modern route, a road that was paved in the 1880s to allow mules and carts to get over the mountains. When the road was still a footpath it was considered dangerous by pilgrims as it offered many opportunities for ambush and they preferred the higher route.
Taking a break on the climb
Valcarlos is a small village on the highway and the Carlos in its name actually refers to Charlemagne, who suffered one of his worst defeats in the valley in 778 at the hands of a Navarre army. The victory led to the creation of the Kingdom of Navarre. It flourished in the 11th Century, particularly under Sancho III the Great, who established the Camino Francés and hoped to unite Christian Spain. But under his sons, Navarre did not survive long as an independent country and in 1234 a French dynasty occupied the throne. In 1512 the Spanish seized it and only a small part, of which St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is the capital, remained in French hands as Lower Navarre. Navarre is notable today as a hotbed of the Basque terrorist organization, ETA.
As I was crawling up the road, I was joined by the French mountain biker and we took turns leading and giving each other encouragement as the road climbed on and on and upwards. We stopped twice to rest briefly and have something to drink. I noticed that he had some small pieces of wood on his rack and he told me that the pilgrim custom was to erect a little cross at the top of the mountains. I knew that another custom was to bring little stones from your hometown to put on top of the road markers but as someone who begrudged any extra weight, I was certainly not prepared to haul a load of rocks with me. But the cross idea seemed nice, so I picked up two little twigs on the side of the road.
The weather seemed to be changing very rapidly as the clouds blew over us at high speed but the day still looked fine. Off with the armwarmers and onwards and upwards. At one point we made a left turn and saw the road, miles away it seemed, cresting the mountain. We kept on going, slowly but steadily, and after 25 km from our start we reached the top of the pass, 1060 m above sea level. And almost froze.
Siegmar at the summit: not travelling light!
Rituals of the Pilgrammage
The difference at the top of the pass was remarkable. A fierce, cold, raw wind was blowing and we had to put all our warmer gear back on. The armwarmers, the sweatshirt, the wind vest. We walked around a bit, near a little modern chapel, took some pictures and looked down into the deep valley we had come out of. While we were recuperating, some Italians we had met in St. Jean came up too and then I noticed that Paul and Siegmar finishing the climb, not all that far behind us. There was a little hill where all kinds of makeshift crosses had been set in the ground. The French mountain biker put up his; I had a bit of string to tie my two pieces together but my wet hands were so cold that Siegmar had to help me tie it together. So I suggested that this cross would be “for Germany” since he did not have any sticks on his own.
It is said that at this point, near the little chapel built in 1964, Charlemagne fell to his knees and prayed towards Santiago, as part of his campaign to wrest the Camino away from the Saracens. As it would be nearly three decades before the bones of St. James were to be discovered, this showed remarkable foresight on the part of the great Carolingian ruler. However, pilgrims traditionally fall to their knees here on the front porch of Spain, give thanks for their success so far and pray towards Santiago de Compostela for assistance in the next leg of the trip.
We all remarked on how cold it was and it was time to hit the road again, and a fast downhill took us to the legendary Roncesvalles, only about two kilometers away to the west. One of the most famous monasteries in Europe, Nuestra Señora de Roncesvalles was property of the Order of St. Augustine for most of its very long existence, becoming part of the Archbishopric of Pamplona only in 1984. It attracted substantial support throughout Europe and at its height controlled properties throughout Spain and in Portugal, France, Germany, England and Scotland.
There was a complex of buildings at Roncesvalles and I rode over to the local tourism office to get my Credencia stamped. The lady was apologetic about the size of their stamp, which took up two places and looked very impressive indeed. We had hoped to find a grocery store or little restaurant at Roncesvalles, but there did not seem to be much there except for the monastery buildings, a museum, a little 13th Century Gothic chapel that looks like a cow stall or storage building from the outside and a small hotel. We elected to go on because now rain was threatening so the four of us turned on to the excellent road and enjoyed a short downhill cruise to Auritz, where we found a little bakery and pulled in to enjoy some excellent coffee and some of the local baked specialities. It had become quite cold and unpleasant outside, so the coffee was a pleasant respite. By the time we went outside again, the rain had disappeared.
The road was not heavily travelled which was good as it was only two lanes and did not really have a shoulder on it. The sun came out and we rolled onwards, each at his own pace. I was the fastest, with the French mountain biker just behind me, while Paul and Siegmar soon fell behind as we came to a series of little hills. The landscape was rolling countryside, with lots of little farms. We had not descended a great deal from Roncesvalles, probably coming down no more than 250 m but the road continued to climb and descend gently. At one point, as we crossed the 922 m high pass at Mezkiritz, it doubled back on itself and I took a photo of the mountain biker as he came up the turn.
At Erro the mountain biker turned south on a route that would take him completely around Pamplona as he did not wish to ride through any cities but instead enjoy the Spanish countryside. The little road he chose, NA 2330, looked very inviting as it ran along the Rio Erro but I decided to stick with my plan of staying with the Camino Santiago as much as possible. After he rode off, Paul and Siegmar came churning up and I waited for them. We had some water and rested a bit but they were not certain they would go as far as Pamplona today, so I rode ahead on my own once again.
The road immediately rose up and I had a long climb through dense pine forests as I crossed the Pass of Erro, 801 m high, and began the downhill roll that took me through Zubiri. The road now ran along the floodplain of the Rio Arga and the traffic began to increase as I passed through Urdaitz, but I kept up a high average speed as the road continued to descend and take me towards Pamplona.
Near Huarte I had to choose the right road to bring me into Pamplona and this proved to be rather difficult. I soon found myself on a dry, dusty highway, surrounded by very heavy truck traffic and lots of construction, so I turned to the west as soon as I could to head towards the city. The road was quite unpleasant, running through kilometers of industrial district until I suddenly saw the cathedral in the valley below. I stopped at a gas station to have something to drink as it was now very hot and the attendant gave me a map of the city so that I could find my way into the centre.
The traffic was not too bad and I was able to get in to the centre of the city quite quickly but when I arrived at the tourism office I was too early. Everything in Spain, of course, closes for the afternoon, and I had to hang around until 16:00 to see about a room. I was quite tired after my climbing for the day but also tired from the lack of sleep so I was anxious to find somewhere to crash. The tourism office was fairly helpful and with a group of German hikers we were directed to an inexpensive pension a short way away. My room was tiny and very gloomy and not all that cheap, but at least it was fairly cool. The lady who ran the place gave us all long explanations in Spanish but since none of us was fluent this did not help. Of course, I know enough Spanish to understand when she said to herself that, well, we did not speak Spanish, like all the other travellers these days, harumph. Sometimes you wonder why people in the “hospitality” business do it if they are not hospitable by nature. Anyway, I was so tired, I collapsed into my bed and basically slept through until the next morning. So much for seeing more of Pamplona.