On the Road to Spain: Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed

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).



Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a fortified small town on the river Nive de Béhérobie.

We stroll thorugh 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 reargard 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’ footwalk 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, tomb stones, 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.

On the road to France: To Moissac with the Abbey Saint Pierre

On second of November 2019, we continue our way to Moissac.

Source: Google Maps.

We have booked a room in the centrally located Maison Lydia, where friendly Beatrice welcomes us with a Refreshing drink.

Immediately we set out to explore the famous cloister of the Abbey Saint-Pierre.

88 columns dance around the meadow and the huge cedar, alternating between single and double columns. The capitals are richly decorated. This is the baptism of Christ…

… and this is the dinner of Herod, when John the Baptist was killed – here he is in prison about to be decapitated.

In the middle and at the egdes are larger columns, mostly with portraits of apostles or prophets such as this Petrus.


The capitals are damaged and difficult to see in the misty, rainy weather. See, how the rain is running down from the roof.

We escape to the side rooms, where we find a well curated museum with films that explain the works of art, in particular the beautiful porch. With what we learnt here, we look at the porch.

This is the tympanon with Christ in the middle above eight rosettes.

Around him are the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, all turning their heads towards Christ, while playing an instrument.

The right hand side of the porch shows the life of Christ. The top relief has to be read from right to left: Simon holds Christ on his arms tenderly looking at the child. Then there is Joseph, who is told by an angel that he should take Maria and her son to escape to Egypt. They escape with Maria and her child on the donkey and reach Egypt, where the former gods fall down from the walls.

The left hand side is dedicated to a variation of the Last Judgement: In the top panel, a rich couple eat and drink eagerly. They live in luxury, while sick Lazarus is about to starve outside – a dog licks his wounds. But then, the rich man dies and falls into Hell, while an angel takes Lazarus to Paradise, where he sits in the Bosom of Abraham.

In the center of the porch (trumeau) there are statues of St. Peter, St.Paul and the Prophet Jeremy, the latter being Ursula’s favorite: Jeremy stands, his legs crossed and his head bent down to the side, with his eyes looking “inside”.

Animals creep up on the sides of the portal. My favorite is this dog.

Inside the church, we find more works of art from the 12th and the 15th century such as the Romanesque Christ or the Gothic Holy Family on the way to Egypt. A panel explains that Saint Cyprien, bishop in Carthago (Africa), was martyred in 258 and his relics were transfered to Moissac in 1122. This is, how he became the patron saint of Moissac.

Building the monastery has been completed in 1100. The golden times of this Benedictine monastery were in the 11th and 12th century. It was related with Cluny.

We return to our Maison Lydia to warm up  from the rain. Then we have a delicious dinner near the Abbey.

Tomorrow we will continue our way to Roncesvalles. We expect more rain. Though traveling in our car, we feel a  bit like pilgrims.


Sources: Presentation at the cloister of the Abbey Saint Pierre; Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992; Chantal Fraïsse: “Die Abtei Saint-Pierre von Mossaic”, Yann Le Chevalier, 2019.

On the road to France: Conques in the mountains

First of November 2019, we drive through the mountains of the Auvergne to Conques. 

Source: Google Maps

The weather is misty and rainy. We drive through the Aubrac. Through chestnut trees, the road takes us down to the Lot valley.

We cross the river Lot, reach Conques and settle in the Auberge Saint Jacques.

Conques became an important pilgrim place, after the relics of Saint Foye had been moved here (the story goes that a monk from Conques had stolen the relics in the monastery of Agen, where they had been located before).

The Abbey Church of Sainte-Foye was built from the middle of the XIth to the early XIIth century.

The main portal is decorated with the beautiful tympanon showing the Last Judgment (late Romanesque style). About 120 figures populate the tympanon. It can still be recognized that the Last Judgment was originally painted in colors.

Christ sits in the middle. To his right is Paradise (his right hand up), to the left is Hell (his left hand down ).

Below Christ, Archangel Michael and the grinning devil are facing one another. Between them is a set of scales, and the devil is touching one of the pans. Farther below, Petrus welcomes those that enter Paradise and a devil throws the condemned subjects into the gorge of a wild animal – this is the entry to Hell.

In Paradise, all is fine and people are arranged around the Bosom of Abraham.

Above to the right of Christ (seen from his viewoint), there are the donator and the founder of the abbey with Charlemagne lead by the hand.

I feel overwhelmed, when entering the church. The nave is 22m high and seems to reach into heaven. The decoration is sober which adds to the solemnity.

A colored medaillon decorates the top of the crossing. To the sides of the naves are galleries with double openings.

Next to the church is the cemetery, for All Saints’ Day beautifully decorated with flowers.

Across the church is the exhibition of the rich treasure of the abbey with the statue of Sainte Foye (no fotos allowed).

The small Museum of Joseph Fau has been carefully arranged and shows tapestry from the early 17th century such as this representation of the three women at the empty sepulcher of Christ.

It is pouring with rain. We see some pilgrims with short trousers wrapped up in their rain capes. I shiver and admire them for undertaking this long, long walk along the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostella. We imagine, how dangerous this was in medieval times, especially here in the rough mountains of the Auvergne. We return to our cosy hotel named after St. James and have dinner.

The next morning we return to the church and the cloister. I discover this fountain with the conch of St. James in the middle and with the reflection of the Abbey Church ornated with the coins thrown into the fountain.

We look back and say good-bye to Conques.

Our next target is Moissac.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.


On the road to France: Issoire with its Paroisse

It is late autumn 2019. With Ursula, I travel to Spain with stop overs in France. The weather is rainy and chilly. Our first stop is in Issoire, where we spend one night in the convenient IBIS hotel.

Source: Google Maps

We visit the Paroisse St. Austremoine. Austremoine was a preacher that christianized Clermont around 250 and the church of Issoire is named after him.

The Paroisse is famous for the choir that has been freshly renovated. We admire the fine patterns created by black basalt, grey granite and yellow arkose. We are in the area of the volcanic Puys around Clermont-Ferrand.

We like the reliefs of the astrological signs. Here are Virgo and Libra.

This is Capricorn.

And this is my astrological sign, Gemini. It is the third relief, as the series start in March, with Aries.

In the 19th century, the church has been painted inside. This creates the solemn atmosphere that existed in Romanesque times, though the painting is not authentic. Ursula discovers maize plants on some columns… definitively not authentic for the XIth or XIIth century.

The choir is decorated with eight columns. The ambulatory allows to walk around the choir.

Here, the Last Supper circles around the capital. I have never seen this before.

We leave the Cathedral. We may have to return once more to see the parts that are now under renovation.

It is around six in the evening – already dark. We take a last foto of the Bell Tower near the Republic Square.

Then we return to our IBIS hotel and have a light dinner. Tomorrow we will continue our way to Conques.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.

Léoncel near Valence – Romanesque church

On Wednesday, 5th of June 2019, we drive back to Switzerland, with a break in Léoncel in the Vercors mountains.


Approaching the Vercors mountains

After an overnight stay in the practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we cross the Rhone valley and the Vercors mountains are ahead of us.

The Vercors mountains belong to the Western Pre-Alps. Their highest peak reaches 2341m. The mountains consist of four districts that are separated by cliffs and canyons. These rough mountains were one of the strongholds of French resistance in the Second World War. Now it is a natural reserve that tourists come to for hiking, climbing, cross country skiing and skiing.


Looking back into the Rhone valley around Valence

Our car climbs uphill, hairpin bend by hairpin bend. We look back down to the Rhone valley around Valence…

… hiding behind grass and blue flowers.


Reaching the high lands of the Vercors

We definitively leave the Rhone valley at the Col des Limouches – at 1086m above sea level.

We are now in the Vercors. Meadows around us and in the background more steep mountains.


Approaching Léoncel

In these secluded and rough mountains, the Cistercians founded a monastery in the 12th century.

Donkeys and horses welcome us on the meadow in front of the church.

The well-kept garden with yellow lilies leads to the entry gate.

We enter the church.


Inside the church of Léoncel

As it is typical for the Cistercians, the church is sober inside. Five ribbed vaults in the nave. Some adornments on the chapters of the columns. The oculus above the choir symbolizes God. Or, as the panel in the church says, it is to remind us that we adore one single God. The arch that partially hides the oculus, remains from the former one nave church that ended there.

In front there is a modern ambo that has been selected with care. A panel explains that the stone comes from Tavel. Engraved is a curved cross, giving it a dynamic aspect.

An octagonal cupola covers the crossing.

We find some artefacts such as this icon of the Madonna and her Son.

In the church we had noticed the tomb slab of an abbot that froze in the cold winter of the Vercors. Indeed, the Cistercians have selected a rough place for their monastery.

Near the entry I find this religious panel written in French. It is difficult to translate the elegance of the French language.

Let me try nevertheless:

What did you come to see in Léoncel?
A lost place wiped by the wind?
Well, what did you come to see?
Stones placed harmoniously
on top of one another?
But much more than stones!
Will you be able to hear them breathe
conveying the singing and silence of a thousand years?
Will you be able to find the praying and the belief of the men
hidden in each of them?
Will you try to detect which Presence lives in them?
Will you not drink from the source of the Word of God?
If you would like to understand,
it is this Word that the stones testify.


Leaving Léoncel

The sun enlightens the pentagonal central apsis, the two smaller apsides and the tower from the south east – it is still morning.

I walk around…

… and uphill.

I say good-bye to this church that has withstood the obstacles of the Vercors mountains for a thousand years.


Driving home with one last lunch stop in Voiron

We continue driving north and have our last lunch stop in Voiron (Département Isère). The Rossignol skis are produced in Voiron, as I learn. We have a light meal – salad with fish – in the Café de l’Europe. The friendly servant says that the manager speaks German and does not like to write menu cards – that is why they do not have any… and indeed, the manager comes from the Black Forest and has lived here in France for many years.

We spend one last night with our friends in Monthey in the Valais – and then, after more than five weeks, we are back at home to unpack, to wash and to meet neighbours and friends.

Around Bayonne – much visited coast in France

On first of May 2019 we take our car, leave Hondarribia and Spain and return to France. It is only about 30kms to Bayonne. At the border we get confused. We are in France, but at the next roundabout, we find a Repsol gasoline station. Right, we are back in Spain.

Using the Route Nationale, we drive along the coast line and find a free parking space right near the old castle in the center of Bayonne. We walk through the narrow streets of Grand Bayonne, with the typical half-timbered Basque houses that we already know from Hondarribia in Spain.

We reach the river Nive which separates Grande Bayonne from Petite Bayonne and which enters the river Adour later.

After an espresso, we visit the gothic cathedral Ste Marie which is not far from the river.

We love the ambiance inside the cathedral…

… and in the cloister.

The cloister is very busy on this first of May. There is a market of creative handicrafts, made by artists from the area.

For lunch we enjoy tapas, ham of Bayonne, cheese from the area and tasty paté.

In the narrow streets we look for the old palace Bélzunce from the 15th century.

This house may need some renovation, though the Salon de Thé on the ground floor looks inviting.

I have already learnt that the Bayonet was invented in Bayonne in 1703. This window tells me that the Makila, the armed stick (la canne armée), has also been invented in Bayonne.

We cross the Nive using the lowest bridge and look upriver.

Vauban has fortified Bayonne after the Peace Treaty of the Pyrenées in 1659. This is the part that protected Petite Bayonne.

The main church in Petite Bayonne is called Saint André. It has been built around 1850.

We return to Grande Bayonne. Not far from the old castle we catch another view of the cathedral Ste Marie.

Then we pick up our car and drive along the coast to Biarritz. We drive along the coast line with many, many fin de siècle grand hotels. The coast line promenade is full with tourists, and there is no place to stop. We continued south of Biarritz to a place called “Chambre d’Amour” with lush mansions, huge hotels and cliffs.

People are swimming in the cold water enjoying the waves of the Atlantique.

We continue to St-Jean-de-Luz. Tourists and tourists… just 7 parking spaces left in one of the park houses. We found one of the slots (uff, narrow!), have a drink in the Pergola and watch life on the windy beach of this beautiful protected bay.

St-Jean-de-Luz has a pretty old city with the cathedral Saint Jean the Baptist built in the 17th century.

The altar and the wooden balconies give it a solemn atmosphere. When Louis XIV married the oldest daughter of Philippe IV from Spain here in 1660, this church was still under construction.

We follow the coast line to Hendaye and stop above the cliffs. I catch the evening ambiance.

Hendaye and Hondarribia both stretch along the Rio Bidasoa, Hendaye on the French side and Hondarribia on the Spanish side. This is the view of Hondarribia seen from Hendaye.

The evening sun plays with the water here.

We say good-bye to another great day. Now we understand why Napoleon III loved to recover near the rocky Basque coast that also offers sandy beaches.



Donzenac – charming medieval village in south west of France

Again I travel to Spain with my friend Ursula. It is end of April 2019. After having shared a traditional Raclette with friends in Monthey, we leave early in the morning, drive to Geneva, leave Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand behind us, follow the signs to Bordeaux and around 4pm we arrive in the charming medieval village Donzenac. One of the medieval houses is the hotel Lagamade, where we have reserved a room for one nght. It is a very cosy hotel with wall paper in bright blue, all tastefullly decorated.

The small medieval City (about 2000 inhabitants) has existed since the 8th century. It is perched on two hills or “puy”.

This is the market square with the fountain decorated for Easter.

On the market square women used to wash their laundry in the laundry house (to the left).

From the market square this gate leads into the one of the two city centers perched on two hills.

The streets are narrow.  Cars are permitted, but not everywhere…

In the 17th century, a former house has been reconstructed to become the chapel of the penitents. Saint John the Baptist stands above the entrance holding the agnus dei (sheep) in his arms.

On the second hill, we find this house from the 13th century that has been carefully restored.

Not far from here, we look back to the first hill with its castle, now a beautiful mansion with a Tower. You cannot visit it, people live here.

Donzenac is full of live, with children, play grounds and kindergardens around the townhall, cosy corners and well kept gardens.

We have a light dinner in our hotel Lagamade – I discover that poultry stomach on salad is delicious (a specialty here). I wrap up the evening with a vieille prune du Périgord (old plum). We are very happy with our first day traveling.

I love the small country towns and villages of France – and I keep on discovering more small gems beyond the beaten tracks.