It looks different to the French side. Is it a gun-metal colouring in the hills, or the sleeked-down shape of those hills? The different way the snow finds the creases on this side of the Pyrenees?
It’s still Basque country, still Navarre. Yet, with that suddenness with which the language changes, everything changes.
Spain looks other.
The structures look different. Roofs are clipped, oblique like the hills behind them.
An almost featureless church thrusts up with pert, martial air.
I know only very little of where I’m treading. The area finally called the Kingdom of Navarre was meant by the Franks to serve as a buffer between themselves and Islam. Charlemagne wrecked its main stronghold, Pamplona, to stop anyone getting too strong. Interestingly, the local Basques soon rebelled against Frankish rule and for some time the new kingdom was called Pamplona.
More than a buffer, Navarre became something of a Christian power. Later came the partitioning and merging with France and Aragon and so so on into confusion. Juan Carlos gets to call himself King of Navarre when listing his titles, and someone in France probably claims the title as some kind of Bourbon descendant. (Good luck with that.)
But it’s not too romantic to talk of a proud Basque kingdom that defied both Franks and Moors. And that’s where I’m treading.
I’m easily pleased. The approach to Pamplona was described to me as dull. It’s not. An ancient bridge, a series of spillways…
Even stopping at my first Spanish cafe before heading to Pamplona proper was an experience. There’s the shock of fumes indoors. I’ve never smoked, so I tend not to be puritanical about it, or to remonstrate when others partake. But a tiny heated bar full of smoke is a shock after years of smoke-free eating across the world.
Best were the tapas, or pintxos as they are called in the Basque country. Eating is easy, cheap and informal in Spanish bars – quite a change from France – though the quality of these counter snacks can vary. The combination of smoke and mayonnaise was too much for one of my companions, but the amount of coffee and food purchased for a few euros is bound to impress the constantly famished pilgrim.
Also encouraging are the little slot machine internet points, cheap and common across Spain. (One reflects on that fine wall of cultural resistance which, for better or worse, always has to be negotiated in France. The internet is a bit too Anglo: we know it, they know it.)
So it’s on to Pamplona proper, across a large area of parkland which, as I would learn later, is abundant and proudly maintained all around the city.
Pamplona has serious fortifications, built in the era of artillery. No-one would find these walls an easy take.
The pilgrims pass on into the ancient and largely traffic-free city, modern trekking poles clattering on ancient cobbles. Knowing nothing of Spain from experience, I was expecting some local squalor with my local flavour. There is no squalor, just plenty of flavour.
Pamplona is a handsome and well-kept city, both in its ancient centre and its wider boulevards beyond. It’s almost posh.
We dined that evening in a bar area thronged, mostly with locals, till all hours. Even in the cool season before the corrida and tourist peak, Pamplona buzzes at night.
Confectionery shops are a feature of Pamplona. They were numerous, and full of people of all ages spooning loose lollies into bags for weighing. My Irish companions were like sharks attacking the flesh and blubber of an injured whale. I had to turn away!
This would be my last evening with these delightful travelling companions, who were walking on for another day before concluding their brief holiday elsewhere. God speed, Celtic-minority-language-chicks.
My Camino was suspended at Pamplona, to be resumed at Pamplona some time in the next year or two, in a cooler and quieter season.
When you are tired, and know that tomorrow is a definite rest day in a well serviced town, there are no negatives. It’s only when you realise, on that last rest day, that you are no longer an active pilgrim on the Way of Saint James that things feel strange. Strained, even.
Yet there are still some entries to be made before I close off this blog for the year. While the best was behind me – the Voie du Puy! – Saint James still gave the odd nudge, the odd surprise.
I won’t diverge too much into personal reflection and travelogue. It’s about the Camino. For anyone who has found this blog of some interest, you may want to read on a little more.
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