In November 2019 we drive from Moissac to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then up to the pass Ibañeta and to Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed in 778 and where pilgrims stay overnight on the Way of St. James (Via Podiensis).
We stroll through the narrow streets, climb up to the town wall and look at the half-timbered houses from the backsides, with lush gardens.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the last larger stop on the French side of the Pyrenees, located at about 200m above sea level. From here our car climbs up into the Pyrenees.
Puerta de Ibañeta (1057m)
We reach the pass of Ibañeta on 1057m and look back north towards Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we came from (Valcarlos). Two young pilgrims from South Korea reach the pass at the same time. They look exhausted and thankfully accept the lift to Roncesvalles in our car.
A small and modern chapel greets the pilgrims on the pass. The legend goes that monks used to ring the bell of the chapel to make sure, they do not lose their way in the fog. The chapel is locked. We look through the tiny hole. It is full of atmosphere with the colored windows and the sober altar.
Above the chapel, the Roland monument reminds us that he has been ambushed somewhere here in 778, when returning with Charlemagne from their campaign to Spain. Charlemagne had been called by the governors of the northern Islamic principalities to support them against the Emir of Córdoba. When returning to France, Charlemagne had Pamplona destroyed, before leading his army up to the Puerta de Ibañueta. The Basques revenged the destruction of Pamplona by ambushing the Franconian rear guard led by Roland, governor of the Breton March. This is the monument – the rain has started again.
The hikers on the Way of St. James are directed to use this path down to Roncesvalles, which is at a 2kms’ foot walk from here.
Our exhausted pilgrims happily jump into our car and we drive to Roncesvalles. We settle in the Hotel Roncesvalles. They continue their way to another hostel.
Roncesvalles (Orreage in Basque)
We spend two nights in the cosy Hotel Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles means “valley of thorny bushes”.
The complex of the former Augustinian monastery from the 12th century is beautifully located below green hills and on green meadows.
The emblem of Roncesvalles is the green bishop’s crook. It is present all over here, in windows, on fountains, tombstones, doors, ground slabs etc.
The Collegiate Church Santa Maria is of Gothic style (the construction followed the model of Notre Dame in Paris).
The choir holds the much venerated Virgen de Roncesvalles from the 13th century. It is said that a shepherd found her.
The cloister has been rebuilt after heavy snow falls that made the old gothic cloister collapse.
Sanchez VII, king of Navarra (1194-1234) has been buried here. He is known for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) which was decisive for the further course of the Spanish Reconquista.
The window above his tomb tells about the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
The Chapel of St. James from the 12th century reflects in the ground slabs that are wet from all the rain of the last days.
In a guided tour, we visit the Museo-Tesorio. Amongst the treasures, we admire the so-called chessboard of Charlemagne. It is not a chessboard, because it has only 63 fields. Furthermore it is not from around 800 (when Charlemagne lived), but it is a beautiful work of email from gothic times (14/15th century). But – it is known as the chessboard of Charlemagne.
As I have just come back from Usbekistan, this map from the early 17th century fascinates me. It shows Central Asia with the country of the Tatars. In the very east, China is presented as a relatively small country, separated from the Tatars by their Chinese Wall.
The sheep of Navarra have black legs, black tails and black faces. There are many of them here. The cheese made from them is called Roncal.
We say good-bye to Roncesvalles and continue to Pamplona.
Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakonsweg”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ortsfildern 2018.