after leaving Agés at just after dawn (as I mentioned — some peregrinos get up really early to start their day’s walking), the first town we walked through was home to an archaeological sight excavating caves around Atapuerca. filled with fossils, the caves contain all manner of evidence dating back 1.2 million years; the hominid remains are the oldest ever discovered in Europe.

the first remains came to light at the end of the 19th century because of excavations for railroad expansion; the regional hub of Burgos lies just over the mountains from Atapuerca. full-scale archaeological excavations began in the mid 1960s and continue today. at the most famous area of the site, some 5,500 human bones have been unearthed since 1995 dating from early humans onward. some of the remains might demonstrate the link between homo sapiens and a precursor of neanderthals (known as homo antecessor).

while its archaeological significance has put Atapuerca on the map, it also hosted a major battle in the middle of the 11th century between brothers and rival kings of Castilla and Navarra. problems arose from the father splitting his territory among son and, according to some sources, perhaps fraternal betrayal, double-crosses and imprisonment. whatever the reasons leading to the Battle of Atapuerca on the first of September in 1054, at the end of the bloodshed King García Sánchez III of Navarre lay dead and his brother Ferdinand I of Castilla emerged victorious, reclaiming land he’d previously annexed to Navarra.

Los Arcos

because it is so close to the Castillian frontier, as well as along the Camino, Los Arcos became a toll-collecting station and place to change money. in the 12th century, the king authorized weekly markets and equalized rights between locals and immigrant Francos in an effort to encourage growth of the town. the proximity to Castilla also made it a frequent military target.

the town’s location — on a river with a hill overlooking and farmland spreading out — means it has likely been inhabited since Roman times. a castle protected the city on a hill to the northeast of the city beginning in the 12th century, but that didn’t stop Castilla and Navarra from periodically annexing and/or taking the town by force over the course of the next three hundred years. as elsewhere in the region, the Napoleonic and Carlist wars took their toll on the town, which played host to two battles during the first Carlist War (the one launched from Estella, some 20 kilometers away).

Los Arcos had a tidy, compact plaza in front of the Iglesia de Santa Maria where we enjoyed our afternoon restorative cervezas and, once the kitchen reopened, dinner. construction of the church occurred over six centuries, beginning around 1175. consequently the interior offers an array of decorative and architectural styles including Flamboyant and Flemish Gothic, Baroque, Mannerism, Churrigueresque, and Rococo. beyond the far end of the plaza is the Arco de Felipe V, the last remnant of the defensive system that protected Los Arcos from the 18th onwards.

Roman bridge at Cirauqui

crossing the Roman bridge

the hike between Puente la Reina and Estella was challenging — the temperature reached 26 degrees Celsius by the time we reached our destination and we had trouble finding lunch and a place to refill water during the day. we also learned what the sun can do to the back of a pair of legs if given motive and opportunity.

the name of this town — Cirauqui — means “nest of vipers” in the Basque language, alluding either to the snakes found among the rocks on this steep hill or bandits that roamed the hills nearby. the town grew in three stages beginning in the 9th century, and some of the nicer manor houses remain with familial crests above central doorways throughout town. one of the more interesting monuments in the town is the Civil War monument, which only lists victims on the Nationalist side (fighting for Francisco Franco). while many towns removed the ubiquitous monuments after Franco’s death, loyalty to the Falange movement that brought him to power remained strong in Navarra and in some places these memorials remain.

as the title of this post also alludes to, we climbed over a Roman bridge just outside of Cirauqui. while much of the Camino follows old an old Roman road, the path down the hill leaving Cirauqui and over this bridge are the best-preserved of the entire route, by far. granted, some of the paving stones were repaired or replaced during the Middle Ages, but the essence remains — and besides, a bridge from the Middle Ages is still a sight more impressive than anything I walk over on a daily basis. as our cultural guide explains, the method for constructing our modern roadbeds doesn’t differ much from those used by the Romans. a shallow trench is dug and filled with a layer of gravel, tamped down, bordered by large, vertically-set blocks, and filled in with closely-fit paving stones. it’s interesting to think that the workers digging out, marking off, filling in and paving over Trumpy Road near our house are following in the footsteps of the people (probably local slaves) that built this road and bridge thousands of miles and years away.

an “early Gothic” bridge that dates from “only” the medieval era

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.


the journey from Roncesvalles to Zubiri was our first lesson in the short-comings of our guide book. while it recommends continuing on to Larrasoaña — a further 5 or so km — with the afterthought addendum “if you’re feeling muy fuerte” we were more than ready to stop in Zubiri for the night. it was the first of many experiences in one of the numerous small villages that make up the majority of the stops along the Camino, as well as another albergue experience that quickly amounted to a strong preference for private rooms with fewer snorers and private showers wherever they might be found.

Zubiri is named for the bridge that connects the Camino to the town, crossing over the rio Arga. the name comes from Basque and roughly translates to “town of the bridge.” originally constructed in 1097, the current bridge dates from the 14th century. it’s known as the Puente de la Rabia because of a tradition (or legend) that held that walking around the central pillar three times would cure a domesticated animal (e.g. sheep, horses, cows) of rabies. until the 20th century farmers would bring their animals to receive help from the 5th century virgin-martyr Saint Quiteria, whose remains might have been found or ended up here.

the second day was challenging in a whole new set of ways. it still hadn’t really set in that we were in this for the long haul, though I worked assiduously on not thinking about how many days of walking we had left. even though on some level I knew we couldn’t possibly be facing 33 more days as arduous as the ascent over the mountains into Roncesvalles, I didn’t have any evidence yet to prove otherwise. swollen feet were my worst enemy the duration of the Camino and they showed up with a vengeance on this day; my body wasn’t prepared for the reality of walking for hours every day, for days on end.

physical pain aside, the countryside had a lot to offer, all of which differed from what we saw the on the preceding day. apart from a few days in the middle as we crossed the plains of Castilla y Leon, the terrain differed every day — offered new and incredible vistas and presented unique challenges. on this day, for example, we saw our first group of domesticated animals moving as a herd. after a brief rest and not-yet-underwhelming bocadillo in Espinal, the main road through town was briefly swarmed by sheep moving out to pasture. the shepherd and his dogs kept everyone in line, plodding along determinedly, the old sheep straggling along at the rear with periodic canine astonishment to stay with the group.

in all honesty, I am surprised we didn’t see more herds of farm animals moving through towns. we saw plenty of animals out in fields, sure, but only two or three in being shepherded to a new destination. suppose the farmers were up before even the peregrinos seeing to their animals and getting them out for a nice long, sunny meal in the pasture.


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

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.

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.