El Cid

my knowledge of El Cid, the legendary Spanish warrior, is limited to say the least. I probably know more about Don Quixote and I’ve never read a word of Cervantes. when we saw his statue leading the charge over the Arlanzón River in Burgos, I had no idea it represented; only after looking at the inscription of the base in a photo later did I see his name.

born in 1043 as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, nobleman, military leader and diplomat, El Cid commanded both Moorish and blended Moorish-Christian troops during the mid-to-late 11th century. he came from a family of courtiers, bureaucrats, and aristocrats, though later peasants considered him one of their own. he significantly elevated his status and those of his heirs through his marriage to a kinswoman of Alfonso VI (Jimena Diaz) and by virtue of his daughter’s marriages to other noblemen. to this day, many European monarchs can trace an ancestral link back to El Cid through his grandson, García Ramírez of Navarre, as well as a great-granddaughter. 

his title derives from both Spanish and Arabic — el signifying “he” in both languages; cid stemming from sidi or sayyid, meaning “lord” or “master;” campeador translating to “champion” or “challenger”: The Master Champion. across the continent at the time, it was common for leaders of armies to pit champions against one another to determine a battle outcome. El Cid served Alfonso VI of Castilla (following an exile from the Castillian court and reinstatement after he’d spent several years fighting for the Moors).

he began his military career under Sancho II, fighting against the Moorish stronghold of Zaragoza in 1057 on his behalf and defeating an Aragonese knight in single combat to receive his honorific title of “campeador.” after Sancho III’s assassination (result of a pact — and possible plot — between Alfonso VI and his sister Urraca), Alfonso VI returned to reclaim the throne of Castilla; the populace was understandably suspicious of his intentions. according to the epic poem, El Cid led a group of men to force Alfonso to swear publicly on holy relics that he did not have a hand in his brother’s death. though widely reported as fact there’s little in the way of “historical evidence” to support this proposition.
several years later, and without Alfonso’s consent, El Cid led an excursion against Moorish-held Granada; Alfonso disapproved and consequently exiled the Campeador for several years (for this among other reasons). El Cid moved to Barcelona at first and later entered into the service of Moorish kings, defending some of the very territory he helped to retake on behalf of Spanish kings a few years previously. his success emboldened him and, once Alfonso recalled him (in 1087), he didn’t stick around Castilla very long — he had an eye to allow the weakening of both Alfonso’s army and the army he commanded, providing him opportunity to ruler over Valencia. by the middle of 1094, El Cid had carved out his own principality along the coast near Valencia; although he technically ruled in Alfonso’s name he acted independently.

his reign over Valencia lasted five years before his former allies/subordinates besieged the city and he died. while the famine and unsanitary living conditions that accompanied the siege undermined his health, many believe that the death of his only son the preceding year precipitated his death. legend holds that his wife had his corpse dressed in full armor and set atop his horse in an effort to bolster morale among his besieged troops. two years after his death (and still several months before Valencia finally fell into Moorish control), his wife fled the city for Burgos where his body was buried (and later re-interred at the enter of the Burgos Cathedral).

Roncevaux Pass — now with animals!

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.