Archive for the ‘L. WEST FROM PAMPLONA’ Category

The tale of Italy’s greatest scoundrel always ends with a brief reference to his obscure death in a skirmish, somewhere in Spain. That’s all you get.

Well, he died near Viana, defending the Navarrese against those bloody Castilians, though more for something to do than for any ideals. His unwanted remains, after some back-and-forth due to spiteful moralists and bloody Castilians, still rest here in Santa Maria.

It’s a fitting place for him. A lover of art, Spanish by descent, he was the son of a pope, was made a cardinal in his youth (by dad), resigned from the clergy to marry Navarrese royalty. I say, let him stay here…but let him stay dead!

Guys, I’m Catholic if I’m anything. But if you are ever wondering why there was a Reformation, just recall the lives of Caesar Borgia and his father, Rodrigo Borgia, also known as His Holiness Alexander VI.

Today’s naughty boys are pussycats. When Pope Alexander had a bastard, he didn’t fudge it. He didn’t say: “I did not have sex with that woman…with Miss Vannozza…” Nor did he hit the Renaissance equivalent of rehabs or blubber a public repentance. Instead, he called the bastard Caesar, made sure he was a proper bastard, and sent him out to conquer as much of Italy as Alexander couldn’t handle on his own.

Caesar Borgia was supremely capable. Admired to some degree by Leonardo and by Machiavelli, he is still remembered as a just and efficient ruler from the time he spent running parts of Northern Italy. Like England’s equivalent, Richard III, his problem was not ability, but rather his impatience, and his wild ambition which overrode all morality. It’s not so much the murders one minds, it’s the fibbing. Feeling protected from childhood, (he was Bishop of Pamplona at fifteen), Caesar lied, betrayed, broke oaths with such ease and frequency, it’s a wonder anyone ever believed him. But charm, self-belief and that undeniable ability stretched his successes beyond what seemed possible.

As the result of a poisoning (possibly) which made both Caesar and Rodrigo very sick, the father died. Now the great flaw in Caesar’s plans became apparent: he couldn’t do without dad, and couldn’t determine a papal election. To make things worse, after a brief lame-duck papacy, possibly ended by poison, a della Rovere became pope, the worst possible outcome if you are a Borgia.

And so the phenomenal condottiere and potential stupor mundi ended up in Navarre as a hired lance. And so, just 31, he ended his days in that obscure skirmish, somewhere in Spain. And the pilgrims troop past his remains in Viana every day.

His motto was Aut Caesar Aut Nihil. To be Caesar or nothing. If he hadn’t been such a daddy’s boy…who knows?


Viana is worth a long stroll if you’ve got some energy left after the hike. It’s the last of Navarre, before we head to the Rioja, so check out that architecture.



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…and rosemary, and juniper berries, and bay leaves!

In this rough, scrawny country on the track to Viana you’ll find all the flavourings for a good braise or pot roast. And to sweeten up a long cooked oxtail alla romana…there are even free raisins strewn on the ground!

Don’t pick the grapes still attached to the vine: they’ve sent their sugars back to the root. In fact, just scavenge off the roadside, since farmers are rightly fed up with pilgrims tramping on their land.

A day of open panoramas…

And a foretaste of the Rioja, with its endless vineyards.

Though the olive grows well enough in the alkaline scrabble.

The architectural highlight before Viana is the twelfth century church built by the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and named after their order. The lovely Romanesque structure is an unusual octagon, and actually burnt a lantern in its linterna to guide pilgrims by night. Serious, round-the-clock business, this pilgrimage thing.

The day’s destination, Viana, is a substantial town with emblasoned houses and some of its old wall still standing.

Look, when you’re situated between Navarre and Castile, you’re one bone between two hungry dogs who loathe each other. Such was Viana’s history.

Re-established by Sancho the Strong, and possibly receiving its name as a fashion statement to reflect the very prestigious French city of Vienne, it earned its epithet of  “Most Noble, Most Loyal” by adhering to Navarre whenever possible.

One of history’s most famous and capable villains died here, a man who lived all his short life in the glare of notoriety but died quite obscurely in Viana. His family name will never be obscure.

Let’s make it a story for the next post.

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Leaving Estella at eight on a winter’s morning, you’d need to check your watch to believe the time.

And you’d need to watch every step on the film of ice.

This would be the weather’s day, unfortunately. Some of the best country of the Camino was cloaked in rain and cloud, and it was hard to lift the head let alone take snaps.

Before leaving Estella, it’s interesting to reflect that it was one of the strongholds of the Carlists during that strange war of the 1870’s, where the tensions between left and right, liberal and conservative, Basques and centralisers, were expressed as dynastic loyalties. I won’t be trying to untangle it all, but the notion is very Spanish, isn’t it? Even sixty years on from that third Carlist war, an uneasy alliance between Basques and fascists was the unlikely fruit of Carlism. If only life was like the movies, with cute rebels wearing red bandanas fighting against anally uniformed generals with facial twitches!

I don’t wish to encourage vice, but there are days when you would be better off holed up in a winery, especially if it has its own wine fountain, like this one outside Estella.

Nonethless, I pressed on…or slid on.

The rain soon arrived, to complete the misery. The uselessness of my Goretex jacket was soon apparent. It kept my torso dry, but if I wanted to keep my pack and most of me dry, I’d still have to put on my Lafuma poncho. If I donned the poncho after the rain started, I’d have to put it over the wet jacket. The jacket had to be abandoned. (The Lafuma functions well as a true poncho. Others, even expensive ones by Exped and Sea to Summit, are neither stable nor fully waterproof.)

So far, nothing beats the Altus jacket I bought later along the trail, a simple long plastic raincoat with a hump to cover the pack. It’s actually made in Spain, and very well designed: stable in high wind, its zip and velcro closures can be operated by frozen hands. An improved version using sil nylon and a better hood allowing for lateral vision would be a pilgrim’s dream, though it’s pretty good as it is!

But what business, even in Spain, wants to stock a jacket that can retail for under 30 euros? When you’ve got racks of Goretex to move?

Finally, Los Arcos.

People have been here a long time. According to local archaeological digs, before it was Roman, this was a Basque city. I say “city” because I suspect we constantly underestimate the civilising, constructive character of the Basque people. ETA and the bomb-chuckers are a bad fit with those they claim to represent: a people who see finished culture in every activity of their lives, from ball games to cookery.


When you stay in modest accommodation along the Camino, you usually have to wait for heating to kick in. Even in my hotel room I was still shivering.

What a pleasure to find a heated bar with menú del dia, even if I had to wait till eight thirty for the meal. And when it stood steaming before me, I was joined by my two young American friends, who’d been in a similar plight to mine through that miserable day.

Peace Corps members are portrayed in cliché as naive, earnest and soft-headed. But these two were a couple of toughies, of the best sort. Their two years had been hard spent in Albania, and both now spoke the language fluently. They were a fount of information unclouded by illusions…and laced with a sharp humour. They would be passing into their country’s diplomatic service, and I’d say their country had made a good choice.

So, a fine end to a foul day!

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Overnight in Lorca I had access  to a television. There are numerous Spanish channels, and just about everything is dubbed into Spanish, or even the regional language. (Later I was to watch The Magnificent Seven in Galician.) This is very bad for Spain’s evolution to a modern and global “brand”, and explains why, as one Belgian industrialist later remarked to me, Spain is such a source of  frustration to northern investors. (When you don’t want to speak English and don’t have dinner till ten at night, you may not cut it in the boardrooms of Brussels or Hamburg? Any dill could have told the EU that, and for free.)

Well, for the learning of Spanish, provided one is already acquainted with the written language or Italian, television is a massive resource. You can even turn on Spanish subtitles, though the text often differs from the dialogue.

That first night I watched an old episode of Columbo. The gravelly voice used for Peter Falk was a challenge, but the strong and simple plotting enabled me to follow what was happening, and tune in more and more to the dialogue.

(I should add that, when you cross the International Bridge at Tui, this learning system breaks down. There are only a handful of free channels in Portugal, the content resembling what might have been Adelaide television in the 1950’s. And there’s no dubbing!)


So, from Lorca, the major town of Estella was less than ten kilometres away. The grey skies threatened, but the weather held for me.

Coffee and snacks at Villatuerta, where the Basque language reappears in an official way.

Here, in a cafe, I met my first pilgrims, a young American couple who had just completed service in the Peace Corps. They were more dining companions than walking companions, since they were quite swift, and I am, well, as you know…

A very old Ermita of Saint Michael catches the eye after Villatuerta.

Then it’s on to Estella. My new friends had rocketed ahead, and I was not to see them that night, but the town was full of interest.

I don’t think it was ever a capital, but I read somewhere that when Navarre was run by the French house of Champagne in the later middle ages, the rulers preferred to stay away from Pamplona and its powerful bishop by nestling here on the banks of the Ega. This attracted wealth and a new population of French to the town, but Estella seems to have been a royal seat even before all that.

Nearby Najera was an actual capital when Pamplona was wrecked by Muslims, but Estella figured strongly in Navarre’s history. San Salvador’s portal is evidence of serious urban investment.

And the Royal Palace is the best non-ecclestiastical Romanesque of the region.

But I love a good bridge most of all…

Estella is a true hub of the Way. It was founded for pilgrims and all the business that came with them. You could have bought miracle foot lotion there nine hundred years ago from a shrewd pharmacist or hospitalero. And if you wanted to try the latest aphrodisiac from the east, after all that exhausting piety…

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I’d covered much ground on that first day, and now had aspirations to a more vigorous Camino. Just like a proper pilgrim.

So over that bridge…

Through the winter campos

…and crumbly pueblos.

On the approach to Cirauqui, a rocky outcrop whose name means “nest of vipers”, a strolling grandmother was so delighted with her charge that she could not stop singing and dancing around his pram. I could hear her from a kilometre away. I met little Tomas after retrieving a soft toy he’d dropped. No gurgling or giggling: just the blithe serenity of a prince for whom constant affection, attention and entertainments never cease, nor ever shall cease. And a good thing, too, Tomas. You might make a fine dawdler.

This is supposed to be one of those parts of Navarre with only one official language, but I neglected to to check if the street signs were in Spanish with no Basque. The real fun in Cirauqui is its luscious Roman bridge.

I’d call it a romantic ruin, but like so many things Roman, like that extraordinary aqueduct in Segovia, it still works just fine. Further along there’s a fine medieval bridge over the Rio Salado.

Still hoping to make Estella, just like a real pilgrim, I pressed on.

Mel Gibson’s been writing on walls again!

I know this crud is supposed to be anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish etc etc…but here in Spain it makes me wonder…

I wonder if, all those centuries ago, Their Catholic Majesties had kept a few more Jews and expelled a few more doctrinal purists whether Spain might have not resolved its great historical lack: a viable middle class.


Soon I arrived in the small town of Lorca, and happened to notice that an albergue was open…something not guaranteed at this time of year. Hmmm…

Thus it was that, after less than fourteen kilometres, I found myself loafing in an empty but warm dormitorio.

Back in my groove!

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That was the Camino west from Pamplona in January. On the first day of my promised continuation – and for the first time ever – I was not overtaken by a single pilgrim. Because there were no other pilgrims. Isolation, good and bad, would be the constant theme of my Spanish Way. Though there were many winter starters, I seemed to miss most of them.

Maybe James wanted it that way. Much later, in fact, upon reaching the Atlantic Ocean, a reason occurred to me .

Day one was Spain’s Big Freeze. Cloudless and windless, with scarcely a glimpse of snow on the tops, Navarre was nonetheless iced over. The puddles and any water that didn’t  move quickly enough were frozen so that a trekking pole couldn’t make a dent.

The problem with this kind of weather is that you cannot stop. A quick snack on a bench was all the rest I could afford, with the perspiration stiffening and chilling inside my clothes.

Crossing from one valley to the next, some interesting metal figures of old style pilgrims…

And a first glimpse of what would become a very familiar sight across northern Spain.

The things you do with Euro-credit. Or used to do.

Descending into a new valley is one of those bracing, uplifting things that walkers get to feel more than other travellers. Sorry for the smugness, but you see my point…

At Obanos I had to pause for a few snaps and observations.

It’s a village that has a lingering nobility, because it was headquarters to a kind of nobles’ union. Sancho the Strong of Navarre encouraged his lesser nobles, or infanzones, to associate against invaders and assorted wrongdoers.

Their junta became a kind of Basque or Navarrese resistance movement: one guesses that the main force to be resisted were those bloody Castilians. And what’s changed?

Finally, Puente La Reina, where the last pilgrim road, that from Arles via Somport, joins all the others. Here, all the ridges of the scallop shell have converged to make one long line to Santiago, (which rather breaks up the scallop metaphor).

Many churches in Spain tend to disappoint by having a drab or lumpish interior electrified by a blingy altarpiece, perhaps acquired at the expense of the New World. But in the church of Santiago in Puente la Reina, it all works.

For pilgrims, the essential landmark is the puente, the bridge which was named after Sancho the Great’s queen. He was such a pilgrim-friendly guy.

The structure doesn’t disappoint.

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