The claustrophobic cobbled streets and tourist bustle of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port are left abruptly behind at the imposing Porte d’Espagne. Almost immediately, you’re confronted with a signpost and there’s a decision to be made.
There are two routes to Roncesvalles: the Route de Napoléon, which climbs gloriously high and steep over the Pyrenean foothills, and the pretty lower road route via Valcarlos. In mediaeval times, the Route de Napoléon was considered the safer bet, as pilgrims were less likely to be ambushed in the high mountains. On the Valcarlos route, according to Aymeric Picaud,
They come out to meet pilgrims with two or three cudgels to exact tribute by improper use of force; and if any traveller refuses to give the money they demand they strike him with their cudgels and take the money, abusing him and rummaging in his very breeches.
Nowadays, there are fewer vagabonds to worry about, and your choice of routes will be dictated mainly by the weather. The Route de Napoléon is exposed and isolated; it can be subject to snow as late as May and cold winds and rain at any time of year. The Route de Napoléon also makes for a very strenuous first day if you go all the way to Roncesvalles. There’s almost no water along the way and nowhere to buy food, so bring enough provisions for a long day.
The route via Valcarlos is well marked and initially follows the Rivière Nive d’Arnéguy, shadowing the D933 road. You’re mostly walking on minor roads through fields, and past farms and whitewashed buildings.
After 8km, you’ll reach the border at Arnéguy ( ), a pretty whitewashed town with some strangely Bavarian-looking buildings, particularly the church. You can stay at the Hotel Clementenia ( $$ ), but most pilgrims choose to continue for another 3km to Valcarlos. To do so, cross the N135 and take the minor road on its other side. Pass through Óndarolle, then head steeply downhill on a narrow lane, cross a river via a bridge and climb up to Valcarlos (Luzaide) ( ).
The town’s Iglesia de Santiago has a life-size statue of Santiago Matamoros (St James the Moorslayer) inside; outside, there’s a sculpture of pilgrims, who seem exhausted by their trek through the Pyrenean foothills. If you need to stay, the albergue and plenty of hotels.
Leave Valcarlos on the sometimes busy N135, heading uphill. In very bad weather, stay on the road for the 8km to the Col d’Ibañeta. Otherwise, some 2km after a road bridge over the Río Chapitel, veer left down a narrow paved lane signposted Ganecoleta. Walk through the tiny, pretty village, then follow a narrow grassy path back to the road.
After another 2km of road walking, at a bend in the road just after the 56km sign, turn left down a wide grassy track. You’ll soon start heading steeply uphill, zigzagging through beech trees. The area’s beech forests are the only sites in Europe where you can see all seven species of European woodpecker. Look in particular for the black woodpecker and the white-backed woodpecker, but also keep an eye out for the red-backed shrike and the tiny crested tit.
Return briefly to the road after 2km, then turn left once more to reach the Puerta de Ibañeta in another 1km, where you meet up with the Route de Napoléon.
Route de Napoléon
The more dramatic Route de Napoléon offers fabulous views of the Pyrenees and great wildlife watching: look for eagles, vultures, fox and deer. Although the route is loosely named after Napoleon, his crossing of the Pyrenees into Spain was hardly groundbreaking — the Roman Via Traiana, which you’ll follow for much of the next few weeks, went this way, linking Burdegala (Bordeaux) with Asturica Augusta (Astorga).
From the Porte d’Espagne signpost, follow the sign for Chemin St Jacques de Compostelle. The camino soon heads steeply uphill along narrow, quiet minor roads. Look out for lizards in the undergrowth at the side of the road and in walls; listen for rustling sounds to try and spot them.
After about 5km, the road begins to climb much more steeply, and shortly after a sharp hairpin to the left, you’ll arrive at the village of Honto ( ), where Ferme Ithurburia ( $ ), does bed, dinner and breakfast in private and dormitory rooms. There are dramatic views of the Pyrenees to the east, often snow-capped well into the summer. Behind you, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the surrounding valley are strikingly visible when the weather is clear. Immediately after Honto, turn left along a track, and zigzag steeply uphill. The trail is lined with gorse and can be mucky after rain. The mountains here are more barren and the only agriculture is the occasional grazing sheep.
In a little while, the track rejoins the road. Turn left here; you’ll soon pass a fountain on your right and a fascinating map on your left that names towns, peaks and camino routes. Although you’re still climbing, the route becomes less steep now and the views of the Pyrenees just keep getting more spectacular. This is also one of the best parts of the camino to see birds of prey, particularly in spring and autumn when numbers are swelled by migratory birds. Gangs of griffon vultures are fairly common, but you may also see red kites, golden eagles, Egyptian vultures and the rare lammergeier.
Although the route is less strenuous now, it’s another 5km before you reach the Refuge-Auberge d’Orisson ( 18 beds mar–oct), which offers both hotel residents and campers breakfast and dinner. Keep heading uphill and you’ll soon reach the next major landmark, the Vierge d’Orisson. The statue of the Virgin Mary here is just off the main route to the left and is said to have been brought from Lourdes. Any loneliness she might feel in such an isolated spot must be more than made up for by the glorious views she has of the Pyrenees.
Continue along the road, then in a few kilometres keep a look out for a large memorial cross on the right-hand side of the road, surrounded by other plainer crosses left by pilgrims. Here, the camino leaves the road up a wide grassy track, headed for the peaks you’ve been able to see from the road for a while. Hapless mediaeval pilgrims had to be careful here. Picaud’s guide warns,
“On this mountain, before Christianity was fully established in Spain, the impious Navarrese and the Basques were accustomed not only to rob pilgrims going to St James, but to ride them like asses and kill them.”
Climb up the grassy track then follow a mostly flat track that can be clogged with tar-black mud after rain or snowmelt. Follow the signs to the Fontaine de Roland, a disappointing concrete fountain that you’ll get to in about 2km. Almost immediately afterwards, cross over a cattle grid, where a concrete sign welcomes you to Spain.
The route winds through beech forest with a spectacular drop to your right into the lovely valley below, then passes some farm buildings and in a couple of kilometres joins a road at the Col de Lepoeder, from where you’ll be able to see the grey-roofed Roncesvalles monastery in the valley below. In mediaeval times, this was the site of Charlemagne’s Cross, which marked the spot where Charlemagne supposedly gave thanks for his army’s safe crossing of the Pyrenees and prayed to Santiago for help in his battles with the Moors. The fact that Charlemagne’s campaigns in Spain took place at the end of the eighth century and that Santiago’s bones weren’t discovered until 813 didn’t deter mediaeval pilgrims, who would stop here to plant their own wooden crosses and pray to Santiago for a safe journey.
From the Col de Lepoeder, there are two routes to the abbey.
The old Roman road is more direct but very steep: you’ll need energy, good knees and a friend to help find the occasionally obscured yellow markers. From the Col de Lepoeder, follow the signs to the left for the GR65, cross over the minor road and keep straight ahead downhill through a beech forest. It’s a lovely spot, particularly in spring when it’s filled with songbirds and bluebells. In a few kilometres, you’ll emerge at Charlemagne’s Silo, just in front of the Abbey.
Puerta de Ibañeta Route
The second route from the Col de Lepoeder is longer but less steep, and goes via the Puerta de Ibañeta, the spot where Charlemagne heard Roland’s horn, asking for help in his battle against the Moors. At the Col de Lepoeder, follow the signs to the right for the GR11, skirting the road until you reach the Puerta de Ibañeta in 3km.
The ( Chanson du Roland tells of a great battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and local troops (probably Basque but often described as Moorish infidels). Roland was told to blow his horn, Olifant, if he got into trouble, but he left it until the last minute, and in any case Charlemagne, who heard Roland’s alarm from his camp in Puerta de Ibañeta, was persuaded that the sound was a false alarm. Nowadays it’s a pleasant 2km walk from the Puerta de Ibañeta downhill to the abbey at Roncesvalles. In bad weather, though, stick to the road.
(762.5km, 950m, pop 30)
Latitude: 43.009177, Longitude: -1.319510
Roncesvalles (Orreaga) is a small hamlet, utterly dominated by its imposing abbey. Pilgrims’ Mass is held Monday to Friday at 8pm and on weekends at 6pm and, as part of the service, the nationality of each pilgrim is read out and pilgrims are invited to the front of the church. The moving ceremony and the communal meals that follow in the hamlet’s two restaurants make your stay in Roncesvalles feel like the beginning of an important journey. Having said that, the abbey’s strange zinc roof and its location in a sun-starved valley can make Roncesvalles seem rather bleak and grey.
Roncesvalles’ attractions are generally related either to Roland and Charlemagne, or to Sancho El Fuerte (the strong), a Navarran king famed for his defeat of the Muslim army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, which marked a turning point in the Christian reconquista. Sancho ordered the construction of the Gothic Real Colegiata, and his tomb, alongside that of his wife, Doña Clemencia, can be seen in the fourteenth-century chapter house that’s annexed to the Colegiata’s Cloister. At the foot of his massive tomb (Sancho was said to be well over 2m tall) are the chains of Christian prisoners freed at Las Navas. In the church of the Real Colegiata is a silver-covered wooden statue of the Virgen de Roncesvalles, who was made patroness of Navarra in 1960.
Legend has it that Charlemagne’s soldiers, including Roland, were buried in the Capilla de Sancti Spiritus, a simple twelfth-century ossuary in front of the monastery, better known as the Silo de Charlemagne. Whatever the truth of the legend, the ossuary also contains the bones of mediaeval pilgrims who died trying to make it across the Pyrenees. The monastery’s museum includes treasures such as Roland’s carved ivory horn, Olifant, with which he tried in vain to summon Charlemagne. Charlemagne’s chessboard, also in the museum, is actually an intricate fourteenth-century reliquary containing the bones of 32 saints and nothing at all to do with the Frenchman.
Accommodation & Information
- Basic but well-maintained, can be very cold; no cyclists (100 beds open all year)
- Youth Hostel in monastery (60 beds easter–oct) cyclists allowed
- $$ La Posada
- $$ Casa Sabina
- There are many hotels too. To find out more visit the Roncesvalles website
To leave Roncesvalles, turn left and walk down the road. In just 200m, just before the Cruz de Peregrinos, a fourteenth-century cross depicting Sancho el Fuerte on the base, turn right down a track marked with yellow arrows and a map of the camino. The flat track runs parallel to the road, through holly and beech trees, then reaches the outskirts of Burguete in a couple of kilometres.
(760km, 900m, pop 300)
Latitude: 42.990466, Longitude: -1.335474
Burguete (Auritz) is a lovely village of shuttered houses made famous as Hemingway’s trout-fishing base in The Sun Also Rises. While here, he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald that, “heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in.” The writer’s presence is less noticeable than camino symbolism such as the house railings decorated with scallop shells and the pilgrim fountain in front of the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari. Burguete has an excellent café-panadería (bakery).
Accommodation & Information
- $ Juandeaburre Calle San Nicolás 28
- $$ Burguete Calle San Nicolás 71
- $$ Don Jauregui Calle San Nicolás 32
- $$$ Loizu Avenida Roncesvalles 7
- There are many more options hotels too. To find out more visit the Burguete's Tourist Website
In Burguete, turn right 50m after San Nicolás de Bari church, cross a stream over a wooden bridge and join a wide dirt track on the other side. From this broad, flat valley, there are good views of the nearby beech-clad hills.
Come to a road, go right and in a few kilometres, you’ll arrive at Espinal (Aurizberri) ( ), a small town with distinctive decorative railings, a bar, restaurant, panadería and shop. Camping Urrobi, at km42 on the N135 has bungalows for rent and a private albergue ( 42 beds apr–oct. There are also a few casas rurales in the village: try Casa Errebesena Calle San Bartolome 25 ( $ ) or Casa Yanborinberri Calle Santiago ( $). In Espinal, turn right at the main road, then turn left in a couple of hundred metres, following the yellow arrows down a broad, semi-paved track.
After a couple of kilometres, cross a road to walk through a beautiful, peaceful beech wood on a path that soon narrows as the road drops steeply away to the left. There’s some erosion here and exposed roots in places, and the path can be treacherously muddy in very wet weather, when it’s worth sticking to the road. The wood is home to bullfinches, coal tits and robins, and to the more elusive fox.The camino almost reaches the road at a tight left-hand bend but then veers away to the right, heading uphill on a shady, stony path. After 300m, turn left to walk along a grey, paved track. The government of Navarra is busy “improving” the camino by paving over some of the paths along the route, which can be hard on the feet.
You’ll emerge in Biskarreta’s outskirts in a kilometre or so; cross the main road to enter the village proper. Biskarreta (Gerendiain) ( ) is a fascinating village with a distinctive and uniform architecture; look out for wooden balconies, huge wooden roof joists and stone doorways carved with crosses. The stone church has a big bell tower and is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Just as prominent is the village frontón, where the Basque sport of pelota is played. You’ll see these large concrete courts in almost every village you’ll pass between here and Pamplona. You can stay at Casa La Posada Nueva ( $ $ ), where you can arrange meals.
At the end of the village, turn left at the shop, ford a stream and pass a cemetery, then take the centre of three narrow paths, pretty with shade and a great place to see and hear songbirds. In 500m, cross the main road and follow a track into the quiet hamlet of Lintzoai. Walk past the roofed frontón, then turn right to walk under a wooden bridge that links the upper storey of one of the hamlet’s gorgeous stone houses with a high-walled garden on the other side of the street.
The camino becomes a dirt track at the top of the village and begins to climb steeply uphill. It’s a hot slog in summer, with very little shade initially. Cross a road about 1500m after the village, then a kilometre later, look out for a very low, yellow-painted rock just to the right of the trail; this insignificant-looking monument is said to mark the length of Roland’s huge stride.
The trail undulates for a couple of kilometres before reaching the pass of Puerto de Erro. Carefully cross the main road here. Farther on, pass the ruins of Venta del Puerto, a pilgrims’ inn now home to local cows, where the nearby fields are a good place for a picnic. In autumn, there’s a feast of mushrooms in the local woods; make sure you ask for local advice before eating anything you don’t recognize. The splendid crossbill is a year-round resident, but easiest to see in the winter months when it feeds closer to the ground.
From here onwards, it’s downhill to Zubiri, some 2km away along a well-marked track. As Zubiri comes into view, the path becomes steeper: watch your footing on the occasional smooth rock sections. On reaching the first houses in Zubiri, turn right and cross the bridge to reach the village facilities; turn left to continue along the camino towards Larrosoaña.
(741km, 525m, pop 350)
Latitude: 42.930426, Longitude: -1.504637
ubiri’s lovely Gothic bridge, the Puente de la Rabia, crosses the Río Arga to the main part of town. It’s said that if cattle are driven around the bridge’s central pillar three times, they will be protected from rabies.
Accommodation & Information
- Avda Zubiri (52 beds open all year 6 @)
- $ Benta Berri Avda Roncesvalles 10
- $ UsoaPuente de la Rabia 4
- $$ De Zubiri Avda Roncesvalles 6
Leave Zubiri on a well-marked track through farmland, turn right at a gravel road, then turn left at a minor paved road 400m later to walk past a massive magnesite factory. After a couple of days of bucolic, timeless walking, the factory is a jarring reminder of the twenty-first century.
As the factory buildings end, turn right to walk down a flight of steps. Keep straight at a junction, cross a small stream and continue on a path paved with flat stones uphill towards the village of Ilarratz, which you’ll reach in a kilometre. Follow minor roads to the hamlet of Esquirotz, 1km away, which has a fountain. On the other side of Esquirotz, follow a grassy stone track, which soon widens and then crosses a road.
From here, you can see Larrasoaña up ahead. After almost a kilometre, and just as it seems that you have missed the village, you reach a track and a camino map. Turn left to continue along the camino, or turn right for Larrasoaña, entering the village via the Gothic, fourteenth-century Puente de los Bandidos, a camino bottleneck where opportunistic bandits would lie in wait for pilgrims.
(736km, 500m, pop 170)
Latitude: 42.901109, Longitude: -1.542950
Although the layout of Larrasoaña’s main street dates from the twelfth century, the grand houses that line it were mostly built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nothing remains of the village’s two hospices, but the Clavería de Roncesvalles, the long low building opposite the thirteenth-century Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari may have been a monastery warehouse. The village’s small bar is open in the evening for a menú and basic provisions.
Accommodation & Information
- Calle San Nicolás (53 beds open all year 6), run by the village mayor with a gentle officiousness
- $ Bidea San Nicolás 100
- $ El Peregrino San Nicolás 100
- $ El Camino San Nicolás 16
At the map of the camino on the far side of the Puente de los Bandidos, head uphill along a gravel track. You’ll soon reach Aquerreta ( ), its three-storey houses typical of the region’s rural architecture, with the ground floor for animals, the first floor for people and the shallow top storey reserved for pigeons. One of these houses has been converted into the Hotel Akerreta ( $$$).
Follow a narrow gravel path out of the village, then cross a minor road and continue on a wide gravel track through pine forest. The forest gives way to farmland as you approach the village of Zuriáian. In Zuriáian, cross a modern bridge, then turn left to walk along the main road, taking care as there’s not much of a shoulder. In about 500m, turn left down a minor road and re-cross the Río Arga. Take the lane to the right, which soon becomes a gravel track and heads into pine forest, before arriving in a kilometre at the village of Irotz, where there’s a fountain and the Iglesia de San Pedro.
Follow the road out of Irotz, crossing the humpback Romanesque bridge. Immediately after the bridge, ignore the first lane which goes straight down to the river on the left, and instead take the next single track on the left. This stretch of the Río Arga is a popular fishing spot with both locals and sparrowhawks, and the path is lined with orchids in spring and summer. Walk straight through the village of Zabaldica, looking out for the twelfth-century Romanesque Iglesia de San Esteban.
In a few hundred metres, cross the main road at a picnic site, then climb briefly and steeply uphill to follow a dramatic trail high above the river. Soon, the camino arrives at the tiny hamlet of Arleta, where there’s a graceful manor house and the lovely Iglesia de Santa Marina. After a pretty, kilometre-long stretch, the trail abruptly heads back towards a major road and passes underneath it via a grubby tunnel. At the top of the rise, you can turn left and detour to Huarte (60 beds apr–nov), just under 2km away. Otherwise, follow a paved track downhill, turning around to see your route from Larrasoaña along the Río Arga. At the bottom of the hill, cross over the Romanesque bridge to walk into Trinidad de Arre.
Trinidad de Arre/Villava
(724km, 430m, pop 9800)
Latitude: 42.8413887, Longitude: -1.6094137
Trinidad de Arre has been a strategic town since Roman times, and the town has a long camino history. The end of the bridge is dramatically marked by the Basilica de la Trinidad de Arre, where there’s a monastery, an albergue and the remains of an old hospice. Trinidad de Arre’s sixteenth-century bylaws, which required each local to provide the pilgrim hospice with half a pound of bread a year, have long since been repealed, but luckily for hungry pilgrims, the main street is now lined with cafés and panaderías.
Accommodation & Information
- End of bridge (34 beds open all year 6)
- $$$ La Buhardilla Calle Serapio Huici 15
Turn left at the end of the bridge and head down Calle Mayor. Trinidad de Arre leads seamlessly into Villava, famous as the birthplace of Spain’s renowned cycling hero, Miguel Induraín. The villages here were swallowed up long ago by suburban Pamplona, and it’s a fair way into town through these suburbs. As city approaches go, however, it’s surprisingly non-industrial, and there’s a pleasant mix of old and new buildings crunched up on either side of the road.
In a couple of kilometres, and just before you reach the river, at a traffic circle with a rusty statue of fish, turn right then left on a side road to cut through to a busy road. Cross the busy road heading towards a garden shop and turn right. Immediately turn left to walk down Carretera de Burlada between the two parts of the garden shop. Pass the Casas de las Conchas, a house decorated with shells. This road ends in about 600m at the Río Arga. Turn right at the river, then turn left to cross the river over the fourteenth-century Puente de Magdalena, decorated with stone statues and a stone cross donated by Santiago de Compostela in the 1960s. Nothing remains of the leper hospital that once stood at this spot, safely outside the city walls.
On the far side of the bridge, you can turn left for the Albergue Paderborn. Otherwise, pass a fountain on the far side of the bridge, then cross a busy road and head towards Pamplona’s imposing town walls. Walk over a drawbridge and pass through the two magnificent town gates into the old town. You’ll reach the Albergue Jesús y María in the old church in a few hundred metres.