the walled city of Pamplona

of all the medium-to-large sized cities we walked through, nothing compared with the approach to Pamplona. it was damp during the last several kilometers, but not enough to properly be called “rain.” unlike later cities (looking at you, Burgos) the suburban sprawl to the east of Pamplona is limited and relatively picturesque. after crossing over the river, the walls of the city loom up suddenly behind the trees and demand a moment to take them in.

in 75-74 BCE, Pompey set up camp on the site of what is now Pamplona, establishing the village that over centuries grew into the city we see today. it later became the primary city of the Vascones (Basques), called Iruña. the intervening centuries saw the city controlled by all manner of rulers — Visigoths, Basques, Muslims. for a period after the Muslim conquest of Pamplona in 715, things remained stable as the Basques near the Pyrenees seemed disinterested in repulsing or ousting the Moorish troops and the city may have even flourished. as the 8th century progressed, however, control over Pamplona vacillated between Moorish and Frankish control with neither side able to gain satisfactory control. in 778 as he fled back towards the Pyrenees, Charlemagne is said to have destroyed the walls of the city (if not the entire city) in a bid, as mentioned, to prevent his enemies from using it in the future. this went counter to agreements he’d made not to attack the city walls and may have spurred Basque rebels into the ambush and battle that destroyed his rearguard in Roncevaux Pass.

city prospects revived again in the 11th century, helped by the flow of peregrinos along the Camino. the city enlarged with two additional boroughs in the 12th century — meaning three distinct (and often conflicting) towns existed within the city’s fortress walls. the king unified the boroughs into one city in 1423, which remained the capital of the autonomous kingdom of Navarra after its annexation to Spain in 1512. Castilian conquest a year later and advancements in military technology prompted enhancements to the city defenses, including the construction of a massive star for on the city’s south and fortification of the city walls. the walls we passed through date from the late 16th to 18th centuries. 


because of the city’s military importance, the walls restricted growth — expansion had to go up rather than out, resulting in tall buildings, warren-like streets, and a dearth of open spaces and courtyards. by the end of the 19th century, housing density reached a critical limit and modifications to the star fort allowed an expansion by six city blocks. woo! three decades later, however, the advent of the First World War and its attendant military advancements rendered Pamplona’s existing defenses useless and in short order the southern wall was demolished to allow for rapid urbanization and expansion from the 1920s to the 1950s and into the present day.


Pamplona is the home to the University of Navarra (ranked as the best private university in Spain and the campus of which we walked through on our way out of the city) as well as the infamous Opus Dei, which operates the University. city industry is diversified with the automotive industry making up the largest part. renewable energies are also increasing their presence in the economic sector — which is evinced by the line of wind turbines dotting the ridge to the west of the city (about which more in my next post). nearby Sarriguren is home to the National Centre for Renewable Energies.


and of course there’s the (in)famous running of the bulls every year in July during the Festival of San Fermín. can’t say I’m sad we missed it — there’s no way we would have gotten a room at our awesome hotel and would have had to contend with thousands of people while we made our way wearily out of town just as they’re releasing the bulls.

Roncesvalles

the village of Roncesvalles has served pilgrims coming over the pass since the 9th century and in the late 12th century, Sancho VII El Fuerte ordered the construction of a church, done in the Gothic style. his remains and that of his wife now lie in the crypt of the church. in 1400, fire destroyed the original church building, though other structures survived, including the chapel of Sacti Spiritus, which stands over a crypt where Roland is reputed to have stabbed himself after the defeat in the Pass and served as a burial place for peregrinos that perished on the Camino. a bishop from Pamplona bolstered Sancho VII’s decision by creating a co-fraternity to administer to peregrinos at Roncesvalles. in the 13th century, Navarre underwent a period of prosperity which served to enhance the power of this co-fraternity even more; by the end of the 14th century their strength was such that the Navarrese Crown borrowed money from the collegiate at Roncesvalles. reforms over the 16th and 17th centuries enhanced their position, which were threatened by the French Revolution and instability that followed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


as a first experience with albergues (aulberge in French), the one in Roncesvalles was about what I anticipated from one of the most popular points of origination for the Camino. the space we stayed in was recently renovated and modernized to match the rapidly increasing demand for beds and amenities. previously, up to 120 people bunked in the same large room in the collegiate facility on the main road next to the river. the new building (seen above) was converted from an old youth hostel (I believe) and has something like 300 beds on three floors, which are broken up into little bunk alcoves of four beds with a locker for each bed and had a reasonable three-showers-per-gender-per-floor ratio. the Russian guys sharing our alcove snored like the dickens but weren’t the worst we endured by a long shot (our roommates the next night in Zubiri was muuuuuuuch worse).

Roncesvalles from Col de Lepoeder – today’s peak

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port: a beginning with history

looking west down the Rue de la Citadelle from the Porte St-Jacques

the peregrinos that started coming from “beyond the Pyrenees” in the 12th century were overwhelmingly French, in part because of protection provided by the Kingdom of France. enterprising individuals followed the peregrinos from France and set up hospitals, hospices, inns, and other businesses catering to the needs of those trekking to Santiago. four separate routes originated in France –including the route we followed from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, over the foothills and into Roncesvalles — and converged on Puente la Reina beyond Pamplona.


for those walking “the whole way” St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is the most popular point of departure and head of the Camino Frances. plenty of people start in Roncesvalles or Pamplona instead, avoiding the arduous 1300m ascent (and descent) but coming from St. Jean affords a certain degree of pride and bragging rights. besides, after a climb that challenging and long when your body isn’t sure yet what you’ve gotten into you are prepared for anything over the next 775 or so kilometers.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (St. Jean at the foot of the mountain pass), or Donibane Garazi in Euskara, lies about 8km over the French border straddling the Nive River. the area was settled before the 11th century and, after the destruction of the original settlement in 1127, the King of Navarre had the town reestablished in its present location to fortify the northern defenses of his territory. over the centuries, the location proved strategically important — as a stopping point on the Camino, a trade center, on the route through the mountain pass to Roncesvalles, a military outpost and garrison. the King built a fortress on a hill to make it easier to defend the pass and the town became a key urban center in northern Navarre and important defense against attempts to advance on Pamplona.

in the early 16th century, the unification of Aragon and Castille (through the marriage of Ferdinand & Isabella) resulted in the defeat of the Kingdom of Navarre and, ultimately, closer ties with France in an effort to repel their mutual Spanish enemy. in 1620, Louis XIII (descended from Kings of Navarre) unified the Kingdoms of Navarre and France. as before, St. Jean proved a vital defensive component in the bitter rivalry between antagonistic kingdoms. advances in weapons technology resulted in a more “modern” fort, roughly similar to what exists today. over more than a century the structure was modified, fortified, and improved upon. the town suffered throughout the Revolutionary period and Napoleonic wars, serving as the center of a massive military encampment from which numerous attacks were launched on Spanish cities over the mountains. the town hosted a military garrison until 1920.

the main cobbled road through town retains many of the same features established in the middle ages. the Porte St-Jacques stands on the eastern end of the old town, while the Porte d’Espagne stands at the other. our hotel was one block over, outside the historic center in an area built up in the mid-to-late 19th century, spurred by the Enlightenment and construction of a train station in 1898. houses on along the rue de la Citadelle have changed little and some still bear markings from construction or inscriptions added centuries ago.

because we arrived in St Jean late on Saturday evening, we had to wait until the Pilgrim Office in the rue de la Citadelle opened so that we might obtain our first sellos — stamps verifying we’d walked from St. Jean and  were therefore entitled, as peregrinos, to stay in the aulbergue in Roncevalles. as we waited, we walked up the hill to the Port St-Jacques and took a peek at the Citadelle, duly impressed with the centuries of history surrounding us and knowing these streets and walls weren’t the oldest sights we’d encounter on our journey.

the Cathedral of Santiago and the origins of the Camino

I’ll start with a picture from our destination. 

after departing well before sunrise, using a headlamp to make our way through eucalyptus forest, getting lost for the first time on the entire journey, dodging ubiquitous city traffic, and getting stuck behind slow-moving, German day-trippers, we came through an archway, serenaded by a gaita (Galician bagpipes) and emerged into the Praza Obradoiro. the hulking Ayuntamiento de Santiago (government building) filled one side of the plaza and facing it stood the expansive Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, backlit by the bright mid-morning sunshine. though the architecture of Burgos might seem more impressive from the outside or the stained glass of Leon more impressive inside, neither could compare in the elation that arose while standing in the middle of the plaza looking up at the place we’d traveled 500 miles on foot to reach.

in a few words, the Catholic dimension of the Camino stems from the belief that the remains of the Apostle Saint James lie in the sepulcher under the cathedral. legend holds that, after his beheading in Jerusalem, his remains were brought to Spain in a stone boat by way of Finisterre and buried; his tomb was lost in the 3rd century but re-discovered in 814 when the hermit Pelayo saw strange lights the night sky. the bishop recognized the discovery as a miracle and the king, Alfonso II, ordered the construction of a chapel on the site to which, legend holds, he was the first peregrino. (more on the cathedral itself at a later date.)

parts of the Camino certainly pre-date Christianity — Romans followed the light of the Milky Way along the route to the ocean; even after it became a Church-sanctioned pilgrimage to receive plenary indulgence, various routes (such as the Via de la Plata and the Camino Frances) served as major trading roads. the first recorded peregrinos from beyond the Pyrenees arrived in the 10th century and flow increased in the 12th century when Calixtus II started Compostelan Holy Years and had a guide published (the Codex Calixtinus which remains the foundation for many of the existing routes). infrastructure improved and the flow of peregrinos increased steadily until the Black Plague and political unrest throughout Europe in the 16th century cut down numbers. in 1985, fewer than 700 people arrived in Santiago as peregrinos but, following the Camino’s designation as both a European Cultural Route and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, numbers have increased steadily and exponentially. during the most recent Holy Year (2010) nearly of 280,000 peregrinos received Compostelas (the certificate of completion bestowed by the Church upon those who have walked the last 100km or biked the last 200km).

to be certain — only a fraction of those travel along the route for the distance we trekked. we certainly met many people who did (several fond examples come to mind). on a given day we’d encounter between 20 and 50 other peregrinos, but not all of those intended to complete the whole route in one go. it’s fairly common for Europeans to do the route in three or more stages, breaking the trip up into more manageable chunks that still allow them to receive the Compostela upon conclusion. somewhat surprisingly, though, we also met more than a few people who’d hiked the Camino — from Roncesvalles or St. Jean — more than once. in light of the Camino’s popularity (and thanks, in part, I’m sure to Emilio Estevez’s “The Way”), numbers will surly grow as time progresses.

Štramberk

as promised, more on the lovely Wallachian town that caused me to spend an entire day hiking.

Štramberk is situated in a notch in the foothills of the Beskydy mountains in the Moravian-Silesian Region. the two most famous sights are the castle, perched atop Bílá Hora, and Šipka Cave. the castle tower can be readily seen from the surrounding mountains — as I learned throughout my hike. the northern path from the town square takes you under an arch with the inscription ‘Cuius regio – eius religio – 1111’ (‘Whose realm, his religion’). I can’t find any conclusive explanation (at least in English) as to whether the Romans visited or occupied the site that early, but it seems possible. the town was formally established in 1359, though the first recorded settlement dates from 1211. 


the castle itself was constructed sometime in the 12th or 13th century, either by the Benešovic family or by Přemyslide princes (one of the oldest and most revered dynasties in Czech royal history). at some point, it fell into the keeping of the Knights Templar, but upon the abolition of the order reverted to the hands of the king and spent considerable time passing between owners. eventually, the Benešovic took possession, but by the mid-16th century the castle began to deteriorate. the city, who now owns the site, spruced up the structure that remains, including the recognizable cylindrical tower known as the Trúba. the tower is 40 m tall and 10 m in diameter and was covered at the turn of the 19th century and turned into a lookout tower under the guidance of a famous Prague architect.


the other famous site is a cave where, in 1880, the mandible of a Neanderthal child was found. archaeological excavation in the cave occurred between 1879-1893 and evidence suggests the cave was inhabited by Neanderthals and cave bears alternately. apparently, this was the first discovery of Neanderthal remains in a cultural context.


another interesting piece of history I discovered while researching for this post concerns “Štramberk ears”. I saw people eating these odd, cylindrical treats (check here for a picture), even carrying away bags of them. turns out, these treats stem from a Christian victory over Tartar invaders in 1241. townspeople managed to flood the Tartar camp and allegedly, when checking the wreckage for spoils, found bags of severed ears, which the Tartars had removed from their victims to bring back to Genghis Khan to prove their kills. the inscription on the arch seems to allude to this victory as well — whomever rules the region gets to choose the practiced religion. ever since the defeat of the Tartars, people in Štramberk bake these ear-shaped biscuits to commemorate the event. today, only eight people are licensed to bake them, which explains why I saw Czechs carrying bags of “Štramberk ears” away with them.

(more information can be found here)
Posted by Picasa

the unexpected 28 kilometer hike

many of you have heard my tale of how on one of my wonderful, sunny Saturday afternoons in the Czech Republic I ended up hiking upwards of 28 kilometers. an unexpected 28 kilometers; I set out with guide book in hand, telling me “The most enjoyable way to get here [Štramberk] is on foot through the hills – 8 km on a red-marked trail from Nový Jičín město train station — or across the river from Nový Jičín horní nádraží station” (emphasis added).

my previous hikes proceeded without incident, lasted as long as I anticipated they might, and allowed me to see some lovely countryside and rural Czech life that I would not have seen otherwise. the trail heads were easy to find and easy to follow. and right there — with the trail head — my unexpected adventure began. from the bus station, I headed for the ubiquitous town square, knowing that I could find some direction from there. and so I did, but after spending twenty-some trekking up a steep hill (with exceptional views of Nový Jičín in the valley), I came to a sign that said “Štramberk 14.5km <– that way”. back down the hill I trekked, back through the town square, searching for the the red stripes that would take me in the other direction.


forty-five minutes later, after zig-zagging past the bus station and (what I learned later to be) the město station, crossing over a trickling canal twice, and wandering up and down all manner of residential streets, I gave up … only to see the elusive red-marked trail around the next corner. in spite of what the universe hinted at for me, I shrugged and turned around, in search of picturesque Wallachia…

more back alleys, residential streets with high rises and single family cottages, crossing the canal a couple more times, past the horní nádraží (which certainly didn’t look like it still received passenger trains of any kind …) — thirty more minutes later and I was finally into something resembling “wilderness”, though it was really just farm fields. a sharp turn to the right took me up yet another steep, steep hill, past a fire circle and over trickling streams — now with the red-marked trail always in sight.

one of the most interesting characteristics of the forest on this particular hike was the closeness of the trees. whereas elsewhere undergrowth had been thinned and deadened lower branches removed, throughout the hike, trees (particularly the evergreens) grew close together and were crowded with black, apparently deadened branches.

as interesting as this undergrowth was, however, after about an hour I was getting rather anxious to find another mileage sign or, really, any indication as to the distance to my destination. the last sign I’d seen — at the top of the hill in the wrong direction — said 14.5 km, but where did that measurement come from?

I eventually emerged from the trees (still no sign of distance markers) and, climbing to the crest of yet another hill, spied what seemed to be my destination in the distance and, really, if I can see it from here, the hike can’t go on for much longer, right?
wrong.

for reasons still unclear to me, rather than heading straight onwards towards Štramberk, the path continued to the right, through cow pastures and down the back side of the hill. at about this time I began to seriously question the guidebook and my foolhardy, blind reliance on its advice.
I’ve got HOW much further to go?!
finally (!) I came upon a directional sign and it did nothing to bolster my determinedly-not-yet-dispirited spirits. though upon seeing the distance back to Nový Jičín I felt rather vindicated in all my ill-thoughts about the veracity of my guidebook’s distances: if I’d already come 8.5km from the město station, and the sign clearly indicates at least another kilometer and a half to Štramberk, there is no way on this green earth that the hike is a mere 8km from the central train station. of course (as I learned), that first destination in town is the municipal swimming pool which, really, isn’t anywhere close to the sights. in fact, it’s at least a kilometer back through the valley from the bottom of this hill:
getting closer to Štramberk…
the white speck on the left-most hill in the picture above? that is the hill and tower seen here. still so, so far to go. eventually, after giving up on the red-marked trail after it tried to lead me back the way I’d come one, final time tooooooo many, and detouring past the National Gardens of Kotouč and the Šipka cave (more on that in another post) I finally made it to the central square, really to exhausted to enjoy much of the admittedly picturesque town.

I climbed the steps to the castle walls and tower (again, more on that another day) and, after spending a few minutes to enjoy the view and sounds of Czech tourism for Czechs, headed down to catch a bus back to Nový Jičín. (that mowed field in the middle of the hill in the middle of the picture below — I’m pretty sure that’s where I stood to take the view of Štramberk picture above.)
after waiting a half an hour and attempting to get on a bus heading to a town farther east (which would get me no closer to Olomouc), I consulted the timetable posted at the bus stop … and discovered that the bus from Štramberk to Nový Jičín runs on weekdays and Sundays only. or, to put it another way: any day of the week except the day of the week that I wanted it to run. the much-longer-than-expected hike that I’d psyched myself up to complete with the knowledge that I could take the bus back to Nový Jičín just. got. longer.

but damned if I was going to follow that twisty, convoluted red-marked trail back. for the umpteenth time in my life, I rejoiced for my excellent sense of direction and headed down the hill on the same road the bus would have taken. I would not recommend walking down a two-lane rural highway that lacks any kind of shoulder — soft, hard or otherwise, but opting for the more direct route provided by the highway cut the meandering four and a half hour “eastward” trek to the somewhat depressing ninety minutes. 

upside to such an abbreviated return trip? no problem catching (what I feared might be the last of the night) bus back to Olomouc. and with time enough to stop at a grocery store for something to eat and the 1.5L bottle of water that I have sitting at my desk at work right now. 

downside? are you kidding me that I could have made it to Štramberk and back in less than the amount of time it took for me to get there? as the Blitz would say: “Aw, man!” needless to say, I spent a good deal of time stewing over this while waiting for the bus, wanting nothing more than to sit for about a week and/or rip my guidebook to shreds and burn the remains.

yet, even as I fumed, I knew that one day I would appreciate the adventure the day turned into. Nový Jičín felt very much like a work-a-day town, with people out doing their Saturday shopping, or taking advantage of the helicopter rides offered by the carnival set up on the outskirts of town. Olomouc is of the beaten track for most foreign tourists and, as a consequence, Štramberk was even farther afield; it was filled with Czechs out for their Saturday excursions — couples come to see the cave, cyclists stopping for a beer at the popular pivovar below the castle, families climbing the stairs of the tower and eating whatever roasted local specialties they had cooking at the base. the walk back took me through through the tiny town of Rybi, where got a close look at all the trappings of small village life, including the local pub and school. coming back into Nový Jičín, I walked down a road filled with compact second/summer homes with spectacular gardens (complete with gnomes) and sheds out back and sweeping back lawns with furniture of varying degrees of apparent comfort, a community vegetable garden, and a whole lot more sights that felt so splendidly Czech.

yeah, I would have preferred to start the day heading in the correct direction, that the trail not take the perplexing meanderings that it took, that the bus be running on a Saturday, that I’d had a detailed topographical hiking map … but in the end I don’t regret the adventure. my feet hurt like hell and I could have spent the night whining about how terrible the day turned out but when will I ever be in Nový Jičín or Štramberk or Olomouc again? got to take advantage and rejoice in the opportunities that life presents you.  that is something that the Czech Republic helped me learn: travel is about the unexpected experiences — the adventure. without the unexpected, we just have the same snapshots of the same sites that everyone else has, with nothing to mark our experiences or ourselves as unique.

Vladislav Hall

the most “castle”-like section of the Prague Castle that I visited was the Old Royal Palace, which occupies a chunk of the southern wing of the structure. the most striking feature of the wing is Vladislav Hall, which, Lonely Planet tells me, is famous for its beautiful, late-Gothic vaulted roof, rough wooden floors and vast, rustic spaces. of course for some reason photography was prohibited in the entirety of the Old Royal Palace, so you will have to imagine this impressive, high-vaulted space that was used for royal purposes like coronation festivities beginning in the 16th century. three original halls were combined into one space that became the “biggest vaulted interior space in Europe without inner supports”. despite the impressive ceiling and impressive spaciousness, the Hall still felt rather Medieval. stand at one end and you can see all the way into the chapel at the other end. to be honest, I’ve seen dining halls in stately homes more impressive. of course, those don’t have the weight of history. in the late 1990s, the Bohemian tradition of electing kings in the Hall was resurrected when members of parliament crowded into the space to elect the Czechoslovak/Czech president (the ceremony has since moved to a larger, more stately room in the palace).

the most unique aspect of Vladislav Hall, however, I have not seen replicated elsewhere. during rainy weather among many, many other things the Hall was used for jousting. I don’t know quite how mounted riders could get up to speed with such a relatively short start but that doesn’t seem to have mattered. the entrance to the Hall from the courtyard is sufficiently tall and wide to let a mounted soldier gallop up the stairs and into the space. I wager they cleared out the market stalls that occupied the space at other times (so that nobles needn’t mingle with the filth that roamed the streets of the city down the hill or across the river). although sealed up somewhat against the elements now, the Riders’ Staircase is wider and more stately than the castle entrance gate facing towards the city.