Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Roncesvalles


In 2006, Joe and I walked directly
from SJPP to Roncesvalles.
Here are the photos I took on that trip.

Wild horses in the fog
What an amazing climb!

The walk up to the top and over into Roncesvalles was stunning.

Rest stop

I was sweaty and fog-soaked as we stopped for lunch.

The mountain crest, and you begin the climb down...
On the trail down
Down through the beech forest
In 2006, this  section climbing down was worse for me
than climbing up.
It is steep and was slippery and I was exhausted.
At one point, I just began crying and couldn't stop, 
my feet hurt SO bad!
I realized my pack was way too heavy,
and I should have followed my own advice 
and stopped half way at Orisson.
I said some pretty harsh words about that hospitalero
who had told us, "Just do it - you can do it!"

On the way down,
a group of busigrinos passed me,
laughing and running down the trail.
They had been let off at the top,
and had skipped the walk up.
Boy, it made me angry and I bristled,
until one stopped and gave me a piece of chocolate.

Later, I was ashamed at my anger.
That chocolate got me to Roncesvalles.
It was my first Camino miracle.
The rest of the walk was cathartic and healing,
though difficult.

It felt so good when I finally saw Roncesvalles ahead.
The albergue was HUGE and full of beds!
This was before the new albergue was built at Roncesvalles...
and we slept with many other exhausted but happy pilgrims.

If I can say one thing about the Albergue at Roncevalles 
it was HUGE. 
There must have been over 100 beds in that giant room! 
But they were very organized. 
Hot showers were available 
and reservations were taken for my
very first Menu del Peregrino.

Ensalada or Pasta?
Pork Chops or Fish
Flan or Helado (Ice Cream)

Wow! What a menu!
I hoped it would be like this the rest of the trip!
Except for my painful feet, 
I enjoyed very much my night there. 
Exhausted, I slept like a log, 
even with the roncadores!

 Spring Group

What your experience will be going up and over the Pyrenees depends on the weather and the time of year you are walking. In some seasons, the weather can be quite foggy down below, but once you're up high, you're actually walking above the clouds and it is ethereal!

In Spring 2012, 
on the second day a taxi took us back to Orisson, 
where we began walking again.

The walk from Orisson to St Jean was nothing short of spectacular! We began inside a cloud and broke through at the summit to gorgeous sunshine... Just in time to see the Virgin of Orisson. We saw mare and foals, sheep, goats, cows, and many large raptors. To hear the tinkling of the cowbells through the mist was haunting! 

One of many shrines to Pilgrims that didn't make it to Santiago

Resting above the clouds

The Lady of Orisson was pretty in the sunshine!

At the top of the hill is a nice man with a wagon full of snacks and drinks.

Teresa and Miranda - we soon were calling them Teranda!

The feeling of walking above the clouds felt surreal.

Only 765 kilometers to go!
All of our walkers did great and are walking fine today! The steep walk down was almost more trying than the walk up, but WE DiD IT by taking frequent breaks and stopping to eat and drink every 2 hours.

Here is Ginny, one of our Canadian Amawalkers taking a well-deserved break above the clouds!

The climb is steady, and for much of it until you reach the summit, you are walking on a road. My advice is to stay to the left side and walk facing traffic.

Walking above the clouds!
Wildflowers carpeted the sides of the road in 2012.

Once you get to the top, 
the trail goes off to the right and onto a dirt track.

The view looking back

There are occasional signs giving information.
Sometimes we wonder if the distances are truly measured.

Notice the sign has TWO names, one is in italics. That is the BASQUE name for the town.

If the weather is questionable (which is unusual, but it DID snow in June in 2014!), then we will have people walk the Valcarlos Route. This is the ROAD route, which goes around the mountaintop. It is a beautiful route also, but safer in bad weather. If we take this option, we will again break it into two days.

In the spring, there is a wonderful fountain half way where you can fill up your water bottles!  If you are walking in summer or autumn, be sure to check at the Pilgrim Office to see if the fountain is running. In the autumn in 2014, it was dry!

Teresa cools off in the Fountain de Roland
The walk DOWN into Roncesvalles
is more difficult for me than the walk UP.
It is steep and if it has been raining, it is slippery.
If it is wet, you may want to cut off here and take the road.
If not, use your poles and go SLOWLY.

In 2012, Joe rescued a Brazilian peregrina
 who was having difficulty.
He carried her pack and his all the way to Roncesvalles!
What a guy!

Autumn Group

The weather today was not as nice.

The taxi picked us up early and delivered us to Orisson,
where we had a cup of coffee
and began our walk.

People were happy they had their Altus Ponchos!

Photo from Linda Hendricks
Photo by Linda Hendricks
We had fog and rain all the way to Roncesvalles today.
It was so foggy, many of us nearly missed
the turnoff to Roncesvalles.

This shrine was filled with Pilgrim mementos,
many more than we saw in the Spring,
and very colorful in the damp wind.

Photo by Linda Hendricks
I could barely make out Eileen in this photo.
Photo by Linda Hendricks
Linda and Patti near the summit.

The path down the mountain
was very steep and rocky and slippery
but beautiful.

Photo by Linda Hendricks
The first views of the village
were happy moments!

Photo by Linda Hendricks
I was able to make reservations at Roncesvalles,
so sat and waited for each of our group to arrive.
Many wet, muddy, and weary pilgrims 
walked through those doors,
and were lovingly greeted
by volunteers.

We were directed to leave our shoes 
in the mudroom.  
This is the first time a pilgrim has to really experience
that feeling of "letting go" of possessions.
Some do not want to leave their expensive shoes
in a room with 100 other pairs of shoes.

What if someone steals my shoes?
Well, it DOES happen.
And even funnier things happen,
like one of our gals,
(dare I say her name?)
who looked down at her feet
halfway down the mountain
into Roncesvalles 
and realized
with horror
that in the darkness of the morning,
she had put on somebody ELSE's shoes!

Oh well.
Those were the shoes that fit,
luckily, so we went to find our beds.

We arrived in time to stay in the new dorms.
They were lovely!
(though later we think they may have been bed-buggy)

After a hot shower,
a bit of reorganizing our packs,
and some excited, but exhausted chatter,
the lights went off and we slept.

All had a feeling of accomplishment,
"We did it!"

If the weather is horrible (snowing, storming) we will help our pilgrims make arrangements to taxi directly to Roncesvalles. In this case we will share bus/taxis and there could be a cost. I think the taxi charges about 80 euros to taxi from SJPP to Roncesvalles, but she has taxis that hold 4 to 8 people, so the cost would be split between them. This means each person would pay 10 to 20 euros or maybe less. If the weather is bad, there will be a lot of taxis going to Roncesvalles, so no problem :)

There is no way to predict the weather on the pass.
Nobody knows for sure what the weather will bring until spring!
In 2014, there was rain and snow in June!
This is what walking in the snow can look like (from Linnea Hendrikson's blog "Camino Bleu." 

Even if it does not snow, it could rain!

2014 Spring/Summer

I have so much to report!
This morning was beautiful but the weather report 
said more storm. 

I suggested we might want to taxi to Roncesvalles. 
Three walkers agreed. 
Barbara, Paul, Jack and I took a taxi.  

The rest wanted to walk and walk they did!  And what a walk it was!  They had fog, rain, sleet, hail, SNOW, 
and over 75 kph gales! 
Chantal lost her glasses and had to walk blind
the rest of the Camino
as it was impossible to get a prescription
for glasses filled without waiting.
We four were safe and snug in front if a fire, 
watching as frozen wet pilgrims slogged in. 

There we met two pilgrims from Las Vegas, Ralph and Toni Marie. They made the nearly fatal mistake of leaving Orisson the day before at 4 pm. Much too late!

By 9:30 it was getting dark.
Toni used her iPhone for light, 
but after half an hour the batteries were gone. 
It was so dark they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces.
 It was snowing and hailing and the wind was howling. 
They were shivering, wet, and cold. 
They huddled together under their small fleece blankets 
next to a bush and said the rosary to stay awake. 
Tonie, a nurse, knew that falling asleep 
could mean they would die. 
Seven long hours later, at dawn, 
they limped down into Roncesvalles, 
leaving their gear behind. 
They actually had a room booked at La Posada 
and the staff had left out a bocadillo for them. 

Here they are, next day, 
with a story to tell their grandchildren 
about how they almost died on the Pyrenees!  

Our pilgrims came in late with their own stories. 
After a nice trout dinner we all slept soundly. 
Roncesvalles albergue was quieter than I've ever seen it. 

Moral #1:  If the sky looks threatening, do not attempt to cross from Orisson to Roncesvalles. The views are not worth your life!

Moral #2:  Do not leave too late. Better to arrive early than not at all!

Update!!!  June 16, 2014

Ralph and Toni Marie made it, safe and sound, to Santiago!!!
I ran into them at breakfast at San Martin Pinario!! Congratulations 

* * *
When walking the Camino, it's best to lay aside all expectations. The only thing we are SURE of is that we will arrive in Santiago!
If you have NO expectations, then you are not disappointed.

So open up your mind and let the Camino guide you.
Whatever the road brings...

It is THE WAY!

More about Roncesvalles:

The walk up and over the Pyrenees
is nothing less than breath taking. 
The Virgin of Orisson watches over the landscape and
 blesses the pilgrims as they pass. 
In return, the pilgrims leave gifts and requests
in the nooks and crannies at her feet. 

Griffon vultures soar in deep valleys below you.
It's an upside down, strange feeling
to see birds below rather than above.
They share the air with Kites, Sparrow Hawks, and Falcons. 

Wild horses graze the verdant hills,
barely acknowledging the trudging pilgrims.
Sheep-speak and the soft jingle of cow bells
occasionally break the silence. 

There is water everywhere, 
on the road, in your hair, 
ready to fall from every plant.
 Everything is lush and green.
Even the slugs are fat and pretty!

If you are lucky, you may see the sun. 
Otherwise, a mystical fog seems to engulf you 
as you walk through the clouds
up, constantly up,
one foot in front of the other.

This first day,
though beautiful,
is commonly known among pilgrims as “hell day."
Muscles you didn't know existed
make themselves clearly known to you,
and there is no doubt,
this is a very strenuous climb.

Try not to pay as much attention to your pain
as to the journey.
Drink in the beauty around you
and soon you will find yourself in a deep meditative descent
through beech forest 
into the village of Roncesvalles .

an autonomous community of northern Spain,
 is in Navarra province. 
It lies 3,220 feet above sea level, northeast of Pamplona. 
Nestled in this “Valley of Thorns” in the foothills of the Pyrenees 
is an Augustinian monastery.

 A hospital was built here in the 12th century 
by Sancho de Larossa, the Bishop of Pamplona.

Sancho was a swashbuckling but enigmatic personality who offended the Holy See by his friendship with the Muslims; he was in Africa in the service of the Amohads. His absence cost Navarre the provinces of Álava and Guipúzcoa, seized by Castile 

In 1212, Sancho fought with the allied Christian army that crushed the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa.  Sancho granted many municipal fueros (charters).  On his death, he was buried in the collegiate church at Roncesvalles, which he had built.

Sancho was the last Spanish-descended king of Navarre for 200 years, for the crown went to Theobald the Troubadour,
Count of Champagne,
and thereafter remained in French hands.
Statue of Sancho VII, called the Forte (Strong), King of Navarre, (1194-1234).
In the corner North-Esth facade of the Main Floor of the Real Palace in Madrid.
Sancho the Strong's father, Sancho the Sixth.
He was known as "the Wise." See the book in his hand.
The hospital at Roncesvalles received “pilgrims and others
who might wish to lodge at the peak
near the chapel of Charlemagne”.
The papacy assumed responsibility for the maintenance and running of the hospital.

The monastery at Roncesvalles has always been of major importance to the Camino. It was once one of the wealthiest on the entire route and was famous for the treatment which pilgrims received here. A 12th century poem sings the praises of the monastery´s legendary hospitality:

The door lies open to all, to sick and strong,
Not only to Catholics but to pagans too
Jews, heretics,
idlers, vagabonds,
In short, to good and bad, sacred and profane.

Monastery records from as late as the 17th century speak
of up to 25,000 meals being served to hungry pilgrims
in a year´s time,
with the number reaching as high as 30,000 in some years.

The numbers of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles
currently rivals that of the pilgrimage´s original golden age.
By July 2011, a Holy Year, over 1000 pilgrims per day
received a Compostela,
and many passed through the village
on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

In 1132, the hospital was transferred to the spot
where it stands today.
In 1984, the chapter passed
to the control of the archbishop of the city. 
In the 15th century the hospital was temporarily closed.
Two fires in 1445 and 1468 caused great devastation,
but only briefly interrupted the work of the hospital.
In the early 17th century it was revitalized.

The collegiate church was consecrated in 1219.
It is considered to be one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture in Spain.
Fires, a constant hazard in the medieval era
reduced much of the collegiate church to ashes.
It was lovingly and painstakingly restored in 1940.

The Colegiata Real or Sala Capitular (chapter house),
has served pilgrims down through the centuries.
It is also known as La Preciosa (“the beautiful”).

In 1600 the cloister was demolished by a severe fall of snow.
The poor standard of the reconstruction
offended many artistic and religious sensibilities.

The Capilla de Sancti Spiritus or Silo de Carlomagno (XII century)
is built over the graves of pilgrims who only made it this far.
The 13th century  Capilla de Santiago is much admired
for its Romansque-Gothic architectural style.
The bell is known for guiding pilgrims in from the Pyrenees snow.

The Virgin of Roncesvalles celebrates her feast day
on the 8th of September, Mary's nativity. 
But it is in Spring when most of the towns 
and the valleys around make their pilgrimage
to the Virgin of the Pyrenees. 

Photo by Annie
From the Roncesvalles webpage:

Of all the pilgrimages to the Virgin of Roncesvalles, the one of Arce  Valley and the one of Oroz- Betelu, which are done together, are the most constant in history. It has been celebrated since the 16th century, although it must have been celebrated even before then. The pilgrims set off from 2 places: from Oroz Betelu at 6 am in the morning and from Arrieta at 7 am. The pilgrims from Azparren, Olaldea, Gorraiz and Artozqui go in the first procession, and those from Lusarreta, Saragüeta, Urdíroz, Uriz, Muniáin, Arrieta, Villanueva, Imizcoz, Espoz and Lacave go in the second.

Both reach the crossroad and continue, 
each town singing its songs and praying the Rosary. 
The parish crosses close each walk
and precede the mayor of the town,
who walks with his staff of office. 

The pilgrims walk in two rows, 
with the crosses on their backs 
and holding them by the short side, with lifted arms.

When the Collegiate is sighted, and the Rosary is finished, 
people start singing the litanies. 
The "ora pro nobis" is something that has been repeated 
during many centuries in the same place, 
and it represents a clamour for forgiveness, happiness, 
praise and compliments to the Mother. 

The chapter welcomes the pilgrims, led by the prior, 
and all of them enter the church to celebrate a large mass, 
to confess, and offer their presents to the Virgin.

The meal begins after the mass, with the traditional "caldico" at the pilgrims' hostel. 
In the towns, people eat "perretxicos" 
(a kind of mushroom), 
trout, lamb, and "cuajada,"  
a type of curdled cheese

When the meal is over, and it is getting dark, 
in the Arce Valley and in Oroz Betelu
historic songs are sung,
whose melodies are used to conclude the day of celebration. 
After this celebration, the pilgrims return home with renewed hopes.

In the best seller "Iberia," James Michener speaks of going on a picnic in Roncesvalles.

“The success of our picnic was assured by the fine tins Potter had brought and by the rare site I had selected. But insurance was taken out when Bob Daley, fearing that we didn’t have enough food, stopped in the town of Espinal, and while we studied the fine modernistic church quite radical in its architecture, he bought an extra loaf of bread and in doing so acquired a culinary masterpiece; it was round and flat, about the size of a large chair cushion and not more than 2 inches thick, so that it was practically all crust and better crust was never baked.”  

He continues, “I had in mind a spot well beyond the monastery of Roncesvalles. A spot where a small stream came out of a woods, but …she caught sight of a meadow far below the road where 7 rivulets converged, their banks lined with moss-covered trees. We lugged out tins and bottles and Bob Daley’s marvelous chunk of bread down to the 7 streams and there in a glade so quiet, so softly green that it seemed as if defeated knights might have slept in it the evening before, we spread our blankets and prepared the meal.”

Pan Gallego
Photo I took in 2006 of beds in the old albergue.
 The albergue at Roncesvalles was HUGE when I visited in 2006
There were over 100 beds in one giant hall.
It was quite an experience
and for a first time pilgrim, it was very exciting!
 So many people with the same goal
crammed into such a small space;
some too excited to sleep, others too exhausted to speak.

Be sure and make your dinner reservations
when you arrive in Roncesvalles.
The local trout is not to be missed!
It is usually served with pasta or ensalada, bread, and wine.

After you shower and do your laundry,
spend some time taking care of your feet.
A nice foot rub will make them happy.
And don't jump out of bed too fast in the morning,
for they may not hold you
without a little encouragement.
It has been a long hard climb
and they have the right to be stiff and sore.
 Rest assured,
from here forward, the Way is easier.

Get a good night's sleep, if you can...
if the roncadores don't keep you awake.

Hopefully you packed some earplugs
and a sleep mask to protect you
from the snoring and from those who rise before dawn
and flash you with their headlamps
in their race for a bed.

That's it until next village.
("Ultreya" is a Spanish word, derived from the original Latin, meaning Onward!  
It is used by pilgrims to greet and to encourage one another along the way.)

Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles

One of the stories you'll hear along the Camino 
is about Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles.

The Pass of Roncesvalles is the traditional site
of the Battle of Roncesvalles
fought Aug. 15, 778.

During this famous battle, the Basques ambushed
and totally wiped out
the rear guard of the Frankish army as they were returning
across the mountains to Aquitaine after Charlemagne,
campaigning against the Muslims in Spain,
had ravaged several towns south of the Pyrenees
and had razed Pamplona.

About four hundred years later,
this battle gave birth
to one of the most celebrated epic poems in French literature,
Le Chanson de Roland or The Song of Roland.

Written in Middle French,
it is celebrated as a landmark of French vernacular literature.
The earliest copy of the Chanson dates back to ca. 1098,
in the middle of the First Crusade.
It is part of a larger piece of work titled Chansons du Geste.

The story recounts a major battle between
Charlemagne’s Christian paladins
against the infidel forces of Marsila, the Saracen king of Zaragoza.

 Any one of the 12 legendary peers or knightly champions in attendance on Charlemagne.
 Any knightly or heroic champion.

 Any determined advocate or defender of a noble cause.

 King Marsila, who reigns
 in the last remaining stronghold of Zaragoza,
devises a plot to fool Charlemagne into leaving Spain for good.
He promises Charlemagne that he will be his vassal,
and convert to Christianity, in return for him leaving Spain.
Once back in France, Marsila breaks his promise,
and Charlemagne, weary of the long war,
plans to send an embassy to Marsila
to negotiate on the agreed settlement.

Roland chooses his stepfather Ganelon to head the envoy.
Ganelon hates Roland and is jealous.
He plans on betraying Roland.
He believes Roland is choosing him for this mission as a way to have him killed.
 * * *
From H.E. Marshall's translation:

Then, as silence once more fell upon them, Roland rose. His cheek was flushed, his eye flashed in anger. "Believe not thou this Marsil!" he cried. "He was ever a traitor. Once before, dost thou not remember it, there came from him false messengers, with olive branches in their hands and lies upon their lips. And when thou sentest two of thy knights to him, he smote off their heads. Listen not unto him, but end as thou hast begun. Carry the war to Saragossa, and if the siege should last all thy life long, it were still worth it, to avenge the death of our noble knights upon this felon Marsil. War! I say war!"

The Emperor bent his head. With his fingers he twisted his long white beard as he sat in thought, and to his nephew he answered no word good or bad. Around him stood his knights and nobles, silent too. 

Then in the stillness, a knight whose name was Ganelon sprang up. His face was dark and haughty, and with proud gestures he strode to the foot of the throne. "Listen not to the counsel of fools!" he cried. "Think rather of thine own best good. King Marsil's gifts and promises, I say, thou oughtest to accept. He who counselleth thee to refuse is a fool, and thinketh not of the death we all may die. Listen not to the counsel of pride. Let fools be, and hearken to the wise." And casting a look of dark hatred at Roland, Ganelon was silent.

* * * 

Privately, Ganelon tells the Saracen king
 that he could attack the rear guard
as Charlemagne leaves Spain.
The one leading the rear guard is none other than Roland.

Assisted by twelve paladins,
Roland leads the march back to France,
only to be overrun by the superior Saracen force at the Roncesvalles pass.

Oliver and Archbishop Turpin of Rheims,
two of the paladins,
bravely fight alongside Roland.

Oliver asks Roland to blow his oliphant horn
so that Charlemagne can return
with a fresh contingent of knights,
but Roland refuses to do so.

After the rear guard is defeated,
Roland finally blows the Oliphant.
He blows with such force that his temples burst,
and he falls to his death.

He is then escorted to paradise by St. Michael and St. Gabriel.
 The use of the term oliphant derives from the medieval epic in which Roland's sounding horn was called 'Olifant' (the Old French word for elephant). Elephants tusks carved for this purpose were made in both Arabic and Byzantine workshops.
Byzantine, 11th century AD
From southern Italy
A sounding horn carved from an elephant tusk
Just outside the walls of the monastery at Roncesvalles
 there is a small Romanesque hermitage
and a quadrangular crypt
which marks the spot where Roland is said to have died.

For medieval pilgrims,
it has been said visiting Roland's memorial stone
was almost as important a motive for visiting the monastery
as the journey to Santiago itself.
The Alps have heroes such as Napoleon and Hannibal,
but the Pyrenees will always remember Charlemagne
because of this battle at Roncesvalles.

The people on the Pyrenees say to­day:
"There are three great noises —
that of the torrent, that of the wind in the pines,
and that of the army of Charlemagne."

As you stand here above the magnificent gorge of Val Carlos
and contemplate one of the celebrated battlefields of history,
remember Roland.

Think about the retreat of Charlemagne
and how the Basques shattered his army 
by rolling rocks down upon their heads.

The Basques...a unique and colorful people.

If you have questions about this stage, please feel free to email or leave a message.

Buen Camino!

See my website at 
for more information about
Guided Walks on the Camino Santiago 

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