Day 2 – Orison to Bizkarreta


We leave a few minutes before 8 a.m., after breakfast, and I get up early enough to take a morning shower, which will prove to be a rarity. Its still overcast, but not actively raining. We get some of the views we’d hoped for the day before. At 9:30 we pass a guy with a van selling fruit, eggs, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. He also offersv the last stamp in France. We each get an egg and a hot chocolate. Pilgrims gather in droves, and we see a few familiar faces from the night before, like the Australian who sat with us at dinner.

We pass the “Fountain of Roland,” which doesn’t work, and I consider leaving my Song of Roland book there, but decide its more likely to be ruined by rain than picked up by a curious traveler.

In Roncesvalles, (the valley of thorns) we pass the monastery hostel and get a stamp. Many of our Orison compadres are staying here, which, in all likelihood, means we’ll never see them again. So long, Louis Robert!

The town is tiny! I knew the name from the legend, but had no idea it was so small – basically a monastery with a few houses and cafes around it. Our guidebook says the population is only 30, and the monastery albergue has beds for 183 pilgrims.

I’ve finished the Song of Roland, and despite my enjoyment of tales about medieval knights and their exploits, I did not enjoy it. So repetitive! Some Saracen champion kills a Frank chevalier, then Roland/Oliver/Bishop Turpin gets mad and kills the infidel, slicing through shield and held and body, and horse to boot! Rise and repeat, three times, and them the fourth Saracen champion, perhaps as bored with the proceedings as the readers, kills five chevaliers in on paragraph before Roland takes his revenge. Everyone has a bit of land, a fast horse, and a cool shield. There are some rather gruesome descriptions of people getting chopped up, but even those are repetitive and boring after a while.

Here’s a somewhat typical passage, to give you an idea:

“Grandonie was both proof and valiant,
And virtuous, a vassal combatant.
Upon the way there, he has met Rollant;
He’d never seen, yet knew him at a glance,
By the proud face and those fine limbs he had,
By his regard, and by his contenance;
He could not help but he grew faint thereat,
He would escape, nothing avail he can.
Struck him the count, with so great virtue, that
To the nose-plate he’s all the helmet cracked,
Sliced through the nose and mouth and teeth he has,
Hauberk close-mailed, and all the whole carcass,
Saddle of gold, with plates of silver flanked,
And of his horse has deeply scarred the back;
He’s slain them both, they’ll make no more attack”

I’m a bit confused when Roland blows his horn so hard  his temples burst – it seems to be literal, with brains actually streaming out of his head, but he staggers on for quite a while after that. Who needs brains, anyway?

We arrive in town a bit before 2 pm, which is when things close for siesta. We race through one chapel, with a tomb of Sancho Fuerte, a king who was reportedly 7 foot four. We don’t get to see the graveyard where pilgrims and the supposed peers of France are buried. Nor Roland’s horn, but, hey, we saw that in Toulouse anyway.

I consider leaving my Song of Roland near the cemetery where the peer of France, and unnumbered pilgrims, are supposed to be buried, but Dorcinda decides she wants to read it. I take a picture instead and hand it to her, swapping it for Jack Hitt’s Off the Road, which she’s finished. I had read it before, but I hope for a refresher, a way to tie our journey closer to the stories we read before coming here. As part of this process, I realize that I’m missing the Camino de Santiago: A Cultural Handbook that was one of the two guidebooks we’d brought to share between us. It’s a relatively thick book, and we had planned to lighten the load by ripping out irrelevant pages about the areas we bypassed as we continued our journey. In fact, we had just the night before taken some measure of sacrilegious joy in ripping out a whole section of the book that deals with an alternate road from France that leads in to Puente La Reina, bypassing Roncesvalles entirely. We debate going back, but we’ve already lost a lot of time with our early end to the first day. We’re stuck with just John Brierly’s guide, and whatever else we manage to glean from fellow pilgrims and the occasional town where we can access the internet.

We pass Burguete, where the hospitalero in St. Jean recommended us to stay, and ask to see a piano signed by Hemingway. It’s there, the barman tells us, but we can’t see it because that part of the bar is closed until evening. We shrug and move on.

We stay in Bizkarreta, but  the Pension Pura Corazon, where we’d hoped to stay, and three casas rurales are totally booked. It is about 6pm, long after the typical pilgrim arrivals around 1 or 2. The last casa rural, however, it almost empty, and we stay there in a double room with a private bath- the shower, with good temperature and water pressure, is a true luxury. We ask a woman on the street where to eat, and she points out the two bars in town but seems flustered by the question of which is better.

We end up choosing the one atop the hill at the start of town and eat a lot for not a lot of money. We drink a whole bottle of wine. The barman knows we are American, talks to us about the Olympics, which are ending. An old man comes into the bar, and the barman, on his way over to serve him, breaks a wine glass so loudly and dramatically, that I assume it was a prank, meant to startle a friend/customer. But it was an honest mistake, and anyway, the old man barely seemed to notice.

The barman is grateful for the not-great tip we leave (10% or so).

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