Archive for the ‘J. INTO SPAIN’ Category

I was a civilian.

The Hotel Eslava, where I rested for some nights, was near to the Camino’s continuation out of Pamplona. Several times I gestured to pilgrims passing through, said things like ultreia!, bon chemin!, buen camino!. Some of them seemed to understand I was also a pilgrim…or had been. Damn.

It’s July as I write this, and yet another Australian has been badly injured in the corrida and been brought home for hospitalisation. Nonetheless, Pamplona must be a wonderful city for the young. I saw groups of youthful Americans arriving and knew they’d enjoy such a civil yet lively town. Lots of buzz and just enough grunge.

I experienced something like severe jet lag when I stopped walking. Does anyone else get that? Was it the altitude variations, the nine hundred kilometres advanced mainly from east to west? It proved to be limiting.

A personal rule about galleries and museums: no more than two hours every two days. Nothing makes me more hostile to culture than relentless cultural tramping, especially in these days of the hellish school group. Yet the jetless jet lag was so severe I neglected to visit any cultural centres – a disappointing oversight.

The externals of Pamplona made for very rewarding strolls. There’s an easy mix of styles, the colour is unabashed…and I love the way the tight Spanish architecture bursts open into crazy flourishes.

Of course, there’s the bullfighting thing. And Ernest Hemingway, who has his statue and his name about the place.

Let me digress a bit.

I remember an aboriginal soccer player, one who deeply resented Australia, speaking of his dismay when he saw an entire European mob chase a single referee. For all his resentment of us, he confessed that Australians would never form such a mob.

Am I explaining myself well? I like my sporting violence one-on-one, and prefer my bulls slaughtered as humanely and surreptitiously as possible…before they’re put on a plate.

So no bullfighting stuff. No Lorca, no blood on the sand, no poetry of death etc.

As for Hemingway, I just can’t get into him. That spare style and those staccato sentences are more distracting and fatiguing than the excesses they so deliberately avoid. It’s an excess of simplicity. The Hemingway themes – male potency, cathartic risk and violence etc – are a bore. In reading, I can’t excise the chest thumper, wife beater and Chivas Regal socialist from the text. (My love of America and things American is intense, but it’s the frankly popular which I admire: Sam Goldwyn and Richard Rodgers are towering cultural figures to me. Seriously.)


Pamplona began before Christ as a defensive settlement for Pompey the Great. It’s always been a resister, a fighter. Some say that as capital of Navarre it was the primary channel of European influence into the Iberian peninsular. Would the Camino exist without it?

Don’t know. I gave thanks, just in case.


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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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Walking off into Spain in fine weather, belly awash with cafe con leche, I was exhilarated.




Just the words! But now I’d been pulled down a level. All through France I was able to talk with anyone. Spanish, however, is a language I’ve read often but seldom spoken. I could only speak haltingly, and hear with difficulty.


Navarre had its ruler called “the Great”. Why mention Sancho the Great? Well, he was the 11th century king who used his Spanish conquests and influence over Gascony and Cluny to lead a good pilgrim road all the way from Gascony through to León. For pilgrims. Nosotros!

The Sancho tradition of deluxe pilgrim trails is being revived in modern Spain.

And you need some pious prompting on any good pilgrim trail.

Day’s end was at Zubiri, which has a famous medieval bridge good for curing rabies.

The Irish girls, after enduring the snoring symphony at Roncesvalles, were ready to try a pensión where they could have a room to themselves. Here I must give special praise to some of the finest pilgrim accommodation on the whole Camino: the Pensión Usoa, at the bridge at Zubiri. Superb accommodation for the price, and a hostess who must have been a descendant of Sancho the Great.

And all rabies-free!

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When dramatic landscapes are drenched in history, I’m your typical gaping, gibbering tourist.

But for an hour or so, after arriving in Roncesvalles, I had some practical problems which grounded me and silenced the gibbering.

After being processed as a pilgrim for accommodation at the famed Conventus Hospitalis, I went in search of our lodgings, an enormous barrack-like building with two tiers of beds. (My Irish companions had preceded me there). Rather than be a complainer, I’ll state that, after I was told that I must sleep on a top bunk, and after observing that there was no means of ascent to a top bunk, I donated my place to any needy pilgrim that wanted it, and went looking for a hotel.

If the refuge at Roncesvalles presented problems, the hotel was excellent. My night at Roncesvalles was bliss, especially after a pilgrim dinner at a local inn, in the best company.

For some reason, I don’t do much personal blogging. But here I’d like to thank the friends who made these last days a joy. Paul and Gertz, previously photographed walking down that street in Ostabat, were here in Roncesvalles and I would see them again in Zubiri.

They were adopted by a large dog at Uhart-Mixe and were followed at least as far as Saint-Jean, though they alternately denied this fact or claimed the dog was following me. Guys, I know how to send a dog back home, trust me! (There’s actually a page on this problem in the Miam-Miam-Dodo guide.)

Paul and Gertz are the most punctilious members of the most punctilious race. Nonetheless, after spending time with me, they arrived catastrophically late for breakfast at Larceveau. They blamed my einfluss. What can I say? If you lie down with dogs etc…

This other German couple sparked me by their interest in all about them. We constantly crossed paths after our dinner together in Lichos, at the start of the Basque country. When the stele museum at Larceveau was closed, this lady bloody well got them to open it.

And, of course, Siobhan and Belinda, those Celtic-minority-language-chicks. They are here seen in a rare photo where they were not sucking or chewing on cheap, brightly coloured lollies.


Roncesvalles is associated with Charlemagne and is symbolic of the preservation of Western Christendom at a time when it was most vulnerable. When art historian Kenneth Clark described the period in his television series, Civilisation, he titled the episode: “The Skin of our Teeth”. It was that close, and at least as important as Charlemagne in the defense of the West was his grandfather, Charles Martel.

His name sounds like that of a French cabaret singer, but we need to remember that a generation before Charlemagne entered Spain through Roncesvalles, Muslim forces entered Europe and advanced far into France – over these Pyrenees. If it had not been for an unexpectedly powerful and organised Frankish army, and one of history’s most competent military leaders, there would have been no Western Christendom to survive by the skin of its teeth.

No, he wasn’t a French cabaret singer. Charles Martel means Charles the Hammer. He wasn’t nice. But because of him we can follow this Way of Saint James, as his grandson followed it.

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It alarms me that I can slot in more easily with the Irish than with some Australians. It seems to take no time till irony, gossip, and teasing become the quick-set but firm foundations of a friendship. Our first stop on the road toward Spain was a little bar with a mountain torrent under it. When I asked the girls what sort of chocolate I should buy for the trek, I was expecting the usual Saturday-supplement-reader insistence on dark, 70% min. cocoa, organic for preference, with some gabble about anti-oxidants…

But no! These ladies wanted gooey milk chocolate to go with the gummi bears and other bright coloured lollies they were snapping up from the shelves. I’m with you, girls!

And to go with the delicious edible junk, I suggest some delicious historical junk. Let’s forget that Roland might have been killed somewhere else, that instead of facing a saracen horde he was done in by some local Basque christians.

Guys, this is our day for Charlemagne, Carles li reis, nostre empere magnes, and his Paladins, and Roland at the pass of Roncesvaux.


It’s unsure exactly where we first entered Spain, but Valcarlos was our first definitely Spanish town. It’s Basque, but with a much darker maroon in its colour scheme.

By its situation, and the name meaning “Valley of Charles”, the locals and others claim this as the site of the so-called battle of Roncesvaux – but they would say that wouldn’t they?

Those who go by the classic high track see much…but the alternative route is not just a road trek. It’s a fine hike in its own right, and much of the way is off-road.

Neither route is for dawdlers, I hate to say. To cross the Pyrenees in good time, unless one starts further up at Valcarlos or Orisson, requires a long day’s walk at altitude. Feel that altitude.

Those who went via the actual pass that day found it heavy going. It doesn’t surprise me that lives are sometimes lost up there, though it’s such a well trafficked way. Even in mid-May it was hazardous.

It all comes together at the top, where there is a monument to Roland, who either wouldn’t, couldn’t or actually did blow his horn, depending on which legend you like. I like cavalry movies, so I’ll plump for the legend where he blew his horn at the last moment before death, to alert Charlemagne that there was danger at the rear. I think I saw Burt Lancaster do that once.

So it’s over the top…

…and down a pretty wooded slope…

…with the odd view…

…to Roncesvaux! But now we have to call it Roncesvalles. The long dawdle had taken me to Spain.

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