Our Camino begins in the quaint village of St Jean Pied de Port, today the principal gateway to the pilgrimage. Sitting at the feet of the Pyrenees, “Foot of the pass” Pied de port, the walled town still has a medieval feel about it.
Excitement woke us earlier than even the alarm we had set. Keen to start our journey, we hurried to the pilgrims’ office to pick up the “Credencial del peregrino”, our passport for the journey, and then were soon on our way. Deviating slightly from the traditional route we took a short 1km detour along the river Nive, crossed an old roman bridge and then rejoined the Camino at the foot of the Pyrenees. The mountain chain stretched imposingly in front of us and the ascent quickly got steeper and steeper. A couple of hours into the day we reached the “Pic d’Orisson”, and having got our second wind after the climb, were now striding along. The path had levelled and now it was the surroundings that were taking our breath away.
While walking every small detail is noticeable; your mind is clear and your sight is as sharp as a hawk’s, and in line with Robert Macfarlane’s quote “The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.” You reflect on everything, from the bugs crawling by you on the ground to crickets singing in the fields. Yet to us the most impressive beings of all were the birds. At first we saw falcons, flying low and showing off their beautiful wings. As we got higher two enormous vultures were perched on the rocks greedily staring at the sheep grazing in the pastures. Near the peak we were impressed by some of the biggest crows we had ever seen.
As pleasant as the hike might have been, it did not change the fact that we had arrived at the Spanish border after walking the highest point of the mountain pass, and were now absolutely exhausted. A 1390m ascent is not a walk in the park! Needless to say we were ready to reach Roncesvalles, and so after a short break we began the climb down the mountain thinking we were leaving the hardest part of our day behind us. There are two trails that lead to the town, the harder one and the easier one. Ignoring the advice of a fellow Pilgrim and as the true hikers that we are, we opted for the harder route. Ten minutes later we were already regretting this decision. The descent was steep and painful but, too stubborn to turn back, we battled on. When we thought we could bare it no longer we heard the distant sound of a running stream and turned the last corner to be welcomed by our happiest sighting yet – the monastery of Roncesvalles. We quickly washed our muddy boots in the stream and headed straight for the town. The struggles of that last hike were already forgotten as we remembered all the beautiful sights we had seen during the day and now stared in wonder at the imposing buildings of Roncesvalles.
It was here that in 778 a famous battle took place. In this year Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees and marched with his army to Zaragoza to defend the border of his empire from the advancing western Islamic empire. On route he promised the people of Pamplona that their city would go untouched. Upon his return to France he failed to keep his word and breached the walls of the city. Seeking revenge at the battle of Roncesvalles, the Basques attacked and defeated the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army commanded by his nephew Roland. It was this event that spawned the epic poem of chivalry “La Chanson de Roland“.
It was not until a century later, when pilgrims first started walking to the newly discovered shrines of St. James in Santiago, that the first structures were built here in Roncesvalles: a monastery and a hospital. It is in this ancient hospital that I am sitting now, today a refuge accommodating the many pilgrims who still embark on the journey to Santiago de Compostela.