The Pass of Ronceveaux or Roncevalles, is an ancient route used to cross the Pyrenees as far back as Roman times. It is the backdrop to many dramatic and fascinating historical events, as it was the only way over the Pyrenees on the western side from Spain to France.
In 778, Charlemagne had invaded the Iberian Peninsula and after a successful campaign, almost as an afterthought, destroyed parts of Pamplona’s fortification on his way back to France. At the time Pamplona was the Basque capital. The Basques retaliated by ambushing the Franks’ rearguard, which was led by a relatively unknown commander, Roland. The 11th century epic poem, The Song of Roland tells the story of the Battle of Ronceveaux Pass. The Basques had the upper hand in the steep hills and valleys of the Pyrenees, which was their home. Roland was killed there and his death raised him and his soldiers into legend. Today there sits a cross and a chapel in the spot where he is said to have died.
Wellington fought off the last of the French forces in 1813, when Pamplona and San Sebastian were the last remaining outposts of Napoleon’s on Spanish soil. The battle at Ronceveaux Pass was once again of enormous strategic importance, and Wellington’s troops fought 40,000 Frenchmen, greatly outnumbered. Squeezing the French from both the north and the south, Wellington eventually was successful in vanquishing Napoleon.
Hemingway, of course, passed through area many times on his various fishing expeditions, picnicking under the beech trees of the Irati Forest, unwinding from his time celebrating San Fermin in Pamplona. His great love of the area stemmed from his love and appreciation of nature, describing the area as the most savage in the Pyrenees. He stayed in near-by Burguete, where the hostel he stayed is still in business. The room he stayed in, described in detail in The Sun Also Rises, is kept as it was in his time. The piano upon which he scratched his name in 1923, still sits in the guest dining room.
The walk from Roncesvalles to Burguete is part of the St. James Way, and passes through an enchanted forest where it said women accused witchcraft fled to hide during the Inquisitions. At the entrance to the forest, a large white cross from the 17th century defends travelers from potential malevolence.
The whole area, with its gorgeous mountain setting, medieval churches and monasteries, and its fascinating history, continues to be one of the most magical places to visit in Western Europe.