Pilgrim's Road


The border came soon and suddenly with a right hand turn to cross the river. It
proved a non-event: a French official waved me across from the shelter of his
doorway, and as soon as I was over, a Spanish official also gestured minimally
for me to continue - clearly female bicyclists were above suspicion, or not worth
getting wet for. A sharp left brought me back on line and the climb proper began.
I suppose there is some element of conceit in most of us. In me it takes the form
of pretending that there is no real effort involved in tackling a steep incline,
though I only do this when I think someone might be watching. I made a
determined effort to push on until I was out of sight of the customs posts just in
case someone was idly noting my progress from a window. By the time I judged
I was out of sight, I was around the next bend, and heart, lungs and muscles had
recovered a little from the initial shock of exertion. There was no reason not to
try to make it to the next corner, and having managed that, I carried on to the
next one. At each bend the gradient steepened, and I thought I had reached my
limit, and I would have to get off and walk. But every time a fresh burst of energy
got me round it, and then as the gradient eased a little I found myself able to
continue to the next corner. The only traffic was an occasional lorry, piled high
with tree trunks, and also grinding its way with difficulty around the hairpin
bends. The knowledge that I was not alone in finding the going tough was a
further spur to effort.
About half way up I had the distinct impression that it was St James himself who
was pushing me on from behind. It wasn't a blinding revelation, or anything that
seemed particularly out of the ordinary, just the sense of a large, kindly, practical
no-nonsense sort of character lending a helping hand. But why I should plump
for St James when I didn't believe for a moment that he had ever set foot in
Spain, dead or alive, I'd no idea - other than what I had already experienced in
regard to Charlemagne - that legend can be a more powerful force than dry
historical facts. Certainly I was several times on the point of turning around to
thank St James.
In spite of the rain, which continued off and on but never stopped long enough
for me to remove my rain gear, the climb out of the green valley of Charlemagne
was beautiful. The road loops through broad-leaved forest for most of the way,
and the acres of tender green leaves gave a feeling of abundance and renewal.
But it was the climb itself that brought the real pleasure. In spite of the help from
St James I was stretched to the full, and whether or not it is true that hard
physical exercise causes endorphemes to course through the bloodstream with
the effect of a euphoric drug, I certainly felt elated. By the time I reached the
summit at Ibeñata, where Roland and Oliver fell and where the Medieval Age of
romance and chivalry had its beginnings, I felt on top of the world in more ways
than one.
This could well have proved my undoing, for over heated as I was from the climb,
I should have had the sense to seek shelter, or at least to pile on more clothes
to counteract the drop in body temperature that follows closely upon such
exertion. Instead I wandered about the bleak rain-drenched open summit, trying
to make out from the few stones left in the turf, the ground plan of the monastery
Charlemagne had founded at the historical site.
Coming up the sheltered eastern face of the mountain I had been unaware of the
strong westerly wind, but in this exposed spot it blew with the mournful urgency
of Roland's famous horn.
On that fateful day in 778 AD he had blown it to no avail, for Charlemagne and
the main body of the army were already down in the valley, unable to come back
to the aid of the rearguard in time. The conditions, I thought, were absolutely
right for filming the scene - the grey Celtic light, the rain slanting viciously on
the wind and the huge strewn boulders, any of which could have been the
fragments of the one split by Roland's mighty sword, as he vainly sought to
smash the blade before he died.
I was drenched through and shivering before I realised that the conditions were
also right for the onset of pneumonia. Fortunately Roncesvalles is only a short
distance beyond the summit, but even so I was almost blinded by the sharp
horizontal rain before I got down to it. The acres of depressing corrugated zinc
which roofs the monastery and which met me as I turned the corner were in no
sense a disappointment for they spelt welcome shelter.
A small inn, Casa Sabina, stood beside the sprawling monastic buildings and as
I came to it first, I went in. My temperature had dropped even lower on the short
descent and the hot radiator in the tiny foyer was as welcoming as all the
delights of the Alhambra. While I was hugging it, feeling distinctly the worse for
wear, a young woman appeared from the kitchen to see who had come in.
Discovering that I was English she went to fetch her father. By this time I could
recognise a Basque by the outsize circumference of his black beret, and this
small white-haired man was wearing one which seemed wider than he was high.
He tut tutted at my damp bedraggled appearance, and without a word, poured
me a glass of dark red wine. In my depleted state it raced through my veins with
the speed of light and had an even more intoxicating effect than the euphoria of
the climb. I stopped shivering almost at once.
An hour or so later, after I had eaten a large portion of red bean stew laced with
peppers and sausage, and had finished the bottle of delicious Navarrese wine
with my host, I decided that Aimery Picaud must have based his condemnation
of the Basque race on a very limited field of observation. It seemed to me that
their wine, their food and their company were decidedly civilized, not to say,
The monastery of Roncesvalles took on decidedly more interesting appearance
after this protracted relaxing lunch. It is true that the present buildings are an
odd mixture of styles and periods, and are not in the best of repair, and that the
steeply-pitched zinc roofs are totally out of keeping with its dignity, yet it has
something - atmosphere certainly. Whether one approves of its architecture or
not, its setting among mature beech woods is undoubtedly lovely and its history
is impressive. An Augustinian foundation, it was established here by a bishop
of Pamplona in the twelfth-century in order to maintain one of the most important
pilgrim hospices of the whole route. Poised on the threshold of Spain - St James'
own chosen land, linked through Charlemagne and Roland to the Christian
Reconquest, and coming after one of the most arduous stretches of the route,
Roncesvalles couldn't help but assume a special role in the pilgrim's itinerary. It
is still one of the most emotionally charged positions of the Camino.
In its heyday it was like a small city and the pilgrims who made it here could
relax for three days in what for the time was heady luxury. There was a hospital
for the sick as well as an apothecary's services for those with minor ailments.
There were separate dormitories for men and women, furnished with beds
instead of simply having straw strewn on flagstones. Baths were available, and
there were cobblers to repair the pilgrims' footwear, and blacksmiths to shoe the
horses of the wealthier pilgrims. For their spiritual comfort a miraculous statue
of the Virgin (made not by human hands and discovered through the intermediary
of a stag with a star shining between his antlers) graced the church. A funerary
chapel believed to contain the bodies of Charlemagne's fallen heroes offered a
further focus for devotion. This together with the pilgrims own chapel at the gate
of the monastery are the oldest buildings of the present day complex.

This extract is from 'Pilgrim's Road', a Mountain House paperback

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