the hike over the Ronceveaux Pass was one of the most challenging of our trip. it’s not uncommon for people to stop the night in Orisson, which is only about 8km from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. it’s a strenuous climb to reach Orisson, which has the only albergue (and only amenities) before you reach Roncesvalles, and only gets more challenging as your continue on another 20km. (if you’ve ever seen Emilio Estevez’s “The Way”, his character perishes on this segment when he takes a wrong turn and gets lost in the mountain fog.)
once beyond Orisson, we saw lots of animals grazing in the high mountain fields; probably more herds of animals on this day than an other single day of our trek. some of the horses had bells around their necks, as did the sheep. we didn’t try to approach them, but they seemed wholly unfazed by our presence — suppose you’d have to grow accustomed to so many random humans wheezing their way through your breakfast chomp.
in 778, Charlemagne retreated from Spain, and destroyed the city walls of Pamplona as he did so despite assurances that he would not — perhaps to prevent Basque or other fighters from using the city’s considerable defenses in future rebellions. as the army crossed the Pyrenees, a group of Vascones (people native to this region of Spain at the time the Romans arrived) attacked the rear guard, generating mass confusion and leading to disarray and devastation in the French army. Roland was among those killed and, as anyone who studied French for any length of time might recall, immortalized in the Chanson de Roland, a somewhat romanticized account of the battle. a stone commemorates the location in the pass where most historians believe he fell (which we walked past) and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the village of Roncesvalles.
as challenging as this leg proved, the terrain was remarkable: lush green fields grazed by animals; imposing rock faces; dense forest with fallen leaves lying inches deep; stunning panoramas; even snow! though we ultimately found our guidebook more hyperbolic and unreliable than useful, the admonition to stay attentive on the descent that day was helpful. after straining under unaccustomed weight for an unaccustomed distance for hours uphill, it could have been easy to misstep on uneven terrain — and we even took the “easy” route down the mountain into Roncesvalles as the steeper, wooded route was too sloppy from rain in the preceding days. needless to say, we were both very happy to see the welcoming doors of the albergue run by the Real Collegieta de Roncesvalles.