I return to pack my suitcase, the departure is imminent, this time to cover the first part of the French Way. The objects to carry are minimal, the choice is careful and targeted. Precise and careful. Getting rid of useless objects is an operation where you can breathe again. It may seem difficult to do without many things but it is not so. You return to yourself, you discover that you don’t need anything but the essential and you really feel free and light. This too, especially this, is the path
First day: from Roncesvalles to Zubiri
Do you know those mornings when the sky is an intense blue that hurts your eyes when you look at it and you can’t even see a cloud? That’s how Roncesvalles welcomed us.
It is a small cluster of houses at the foot of the Pyrenees, where there are only 30 inhabitants, where the monumental complex of the Collegiate Church of Orreaga, an old pilgrims’ hospital and the Romanesque church of the Holy Spirit, seem to stand guard with their imposing immobility. In these places Charlemagne was defeated and the glorious deeds of the paladin Orlando were made poems about him.
Here legend and myths merge with history. Is this what makes this place unique? Meanwhile, a sign reminds us that Santiago is only 790 km away, so to speak.
Departure from Roncesvalles
We set off on our French Path in the fresh mountain air, between the branches of the woods green and luxuriant plateaus, splendid horses trotting on the meadows, cows grazing peacefully. You don’t see a living soul, you don’t see any houses.
We coast rivers that descend rapidly from the Pyrenees. The path winds silently, slowly moving towards the valley, alternating between gentle descents and much more demanding ones. The air is getting warmer, and jackets end up in our rucksacks.
Arrival in Zubiri
Zubiri is a quiet village that reminds me of our Trentino, with balconies adorned with flowering geraniums, piles of wood neatly prepared ready for winter. We enter it from the famous Romanesque bridge, under which pilgrims cool their feet in the waters of the river. We sleep in a Rural House. It is ancient and beautiful. The wooden floors are polished and the planks, unconnected from use, convey the warmth of things preserved with love and dedication, like all the rest of the furniture, objects. We are enchanted by them, almost in awe.
Day Two: Zubiri – Pamplona
23 km await us, the right stage, neither too long nor too short.
This is an area rich in fig trees and blackberry brambles. We gorge ourselves. The fruits are ripe and juicy. Here the hills are not as gentle as in Galicia and now it’s all a succession of descents and climbs that take your breath away, make your knees shake. But let’s move on, of course.
We meet two children who have already understood how the spirit of commerce works. They look alike, they must be brothers. They sit on the pavement, giving away coloured stones. I can’t resist, I try to have a dialogue, I choose a small coloured stone of a beautiful blue.
I’ll give it to my daughter, I think. I’ll give the kids two euros that they don’t want at first, but then accept willingly. I am satisfied, but there is one thing. The paint is fresh and I don’t know where to put it without wasting the colour or smearing other stuff. I do not know how many miles with the stone on the palm of my hand waiting for it to dry. But what do I have to do.
Pamplona a dream come true
I’ve always dreamed of visiting Pamplona, even if I’m bothered by the bad end of the bulls in these parts… it will be tradition, it will be what you want, but in short it would be time to end this slaughter.
However we are there, we cross the moat and skirt the walls.
Arriving we saw dozens and dozens of people along the river lying on the grass resting, eating, playing football. The surroundings of Pamplona are a succession of well-kept, clean, well-kept gardens and parks. In fact, it is Sunday and the city is deserted, shops are closed, as are churches.
We are content to take a walk through the alleys, we follow the same path where the bulls run to get to the arena on the feast of San Fermin. The gates that are closed to mark the bulls’ route are now open.
Day Three: Pamplona – Puente la Reina
The next morning it is not easy to find your way back. There are no indications, we ask a few passers-by but nobody is able to help us with precision. We think we are in the right direction and while we get lost admiring the beautiful outskirts of the city from an overpass we notice that the path remains below. There is no way down except to climb over the guardrail and try a bad descent. The day starts well.
The landscape changes, path towards the horizon
Now that we are on our way we leave the city behind us. The territory changes and it doesn’t take me long to understand that from now on this will be a path of perspectives.
In front of us there are no more hills, but the French path continues with esplanades as far as the eye can see, stretching as far as the horizon, which opens sharp and clear, as far as the eye can see, as far as we have to go and then continue.
Never as in these places is the path clearly visible, we see the next destination approaching step by step, kilometre by kilometre.
Then, as soon as we reach that same goal, when we turn back, we see it become small until it disappears away. Whether it is a mountain, the bell tower of a church, a village or wind turbines. As in this case.
There they are, forty majestic wind turbines that embroider the ridge of the mountain, the Alto del Perdon, in white,
DONDE SE CRUZA EL CAMINO DEL VIENTO CON EL DE LAS ESTRELIAS
Where the path of the wind meets the path of the stars
I’ll keep an eye on the shovels and let’s get on with it. We walk along a field of sunflowers, they are dry, blackened. The show is ghostly.
But then there it is, the cue, that something that in the midst of sadness rips you a smile, warms your heart. A sunflower smiles, solitary and benevolent, greeting your passage and you feel it there for you, it was waiting for your path.
I photograph the sunflower smiling and I turn back. Here is another perspective: Pamplona is over there, small on the horizon.
Towards the pilgrim’s monument
The path of the French path to Santiago winds white in front of us, it looks like a snake basking in the hot, implacable sun.
After a slow but steady climb we approach the summit. We are welcomed by a sign that reminds us that we are always on our way. It is a refreshment point set up by two young boys, the stones, as usual, artfully placed, form hearts, arrows, mountains… But it is the splendid view of the panorama that opens up below us that leaves us breathless!
In the meantime the shovels are just a few steps away…
And here we are at the summit of the High of Perdon… the heart beats fast at the sight of the famous pilgrim’s monument erected in 1996.
On the High of Perdon the wind beats violently, the wind blades turn with a constant movement that seems to never end and I too would like this moment to never end and I would like to postpone the moment to go down, to leave this enchantment…
But the moment to go down comes and the descent is immediately very difficult… the slope is steep but it is the stones on which we must rest our feet that are insidious, it slips and at every step there is the risk of falling. When I get to the valley my legs tremble so much because of the effort that I have to stop, sit down to catch my breath, stretch my muscles that have been contracted for too long for the effort.
After a few kilometres I turn back. The shovels are already far away.
We walk a few more kilometres and after having cooled down and eaten a salad we meet a diversion.
Eremo Templare Nuestra Senora di Eunate
And we decide to make this diversion, what do you want five kilometres (which will then become seven or eight) more to admire a church that says it is beautiful? We certainly can’t miss it. So here is our little group, hot under a torrid sun, tired but excited and happy in front of the Templar Hermitage Nuestra Senora di Eunate.
Let’s get back on the road. We still have a long way to go. An intense day, full of emotions that never seems to end.
Fourth day: Puente la Reina – Estella
Puente la Reina is a small Pamplona, here too the bulls run, here too there are the gates that delimit the route. The centre is well maintained, narrow alleys, stone houses but the gates are the real attraction. They are all made of wood, imposing, massive. Many windows of the houses have rows and rows of chilli peppers hanging. In the surrounding countryside there are cultivations as far as the eye can see. They are red and sweet, they are eaten fried or roasted. Very good.
Arrival in Navarre
Walking towards Estella you enter the wine region, Navarre. We gorge ourselves with the bunches of grapes left on the rows of vines, the berries are sweet and ripe.
Case wanted that we are traveling in the week where the harvests are celebrated, the Rioja. The villages are celebrating, in one of them the bells invite us to look out to the church. The women of the village are all there, dressed in white shirts and red handkerchiefs tied around their necks. We linger for a moment. We follow the mass until the exchange of peace.
We shake hands and it is an intense moment, we are sharing something different than the inaccessible paths we have encountered, the stifling heat, the food, the moments of extreme fatigue that this journey has put us in front of us. We leave the church in silence. Someone has shiny eyes.
Let’s get back on the road. We find ourselves in the open countryside, olive trees on olive trees. It is under some of these that we stop to eat. A boy has organized some tables and chairs, with the car’s generator he keeps a fridge on, from which we buy fresh water.
The place is welcoming, you can see the care it has taken to create it, the artist’s flair that, wherever you look, comes out with strength and determination. In order not to miss anything, before leaving, we ask the boy for a coffee and, of course, a photo.
Day Five: Estella – Torres del Rio
It is nine in the morning when we come across the source of the wine.
Some fill the canteen, others drink a glass. It must be delicious but I can’t make it, too soon for me. You go uphill and uphill. On the horizon the bell tower of the church of the next village where we have to pass, next to it a cone-shaped mountain. I keep an eye on the new perspective.
What we are heading for is the last village we will meet, then for over ten kilometres there will be nothing but fields, fields, fields.
Let’s stock up on water, it’s fresh now but in twenty minutes it will be boiling. It’s forty degrees and you can hear everyone. It is not only the sun that you feel burning on your head, but the glare and the heat that the earth releases burns your face, drains your eyes, dries the mucous membranes of your nose and throat.
After the village the landscape changes drastically. Expanses of cut wheat as far as the eye can see. The colours at the end of summer vary from beige to brown, but there are shades of pink and yellow that enchant. Every now and then the horizon is broken by high mountains of hay compacted into large rectangles, the only shade you can find.
The path runs in front of us and around us, this boundless nothingness is both terrifying and enchanting. You feel strong to be here, you feel brave to face all this space but at the same time you feel small in front of this nature that could break you, could dissolve you like a grain of sand. This is what we are: grains, infinite grains that should walk the earth with humility but very often we forget. I continue with this thought.
Sixth day: Torre del Rio – Logrono
To avoid the heat, we are leaving again this morning that it is still night. But already while I was getting ready I could hear the ticking of the sticks on the pavement from the street under the room. These are precious hours of coolness that we have to make the most of. Never before, the locals say, had such intense heat been seen in mid-September. The sun had discoloured my trousers, my hair, my T-shirts. I burnt my ankles, arms, neck and chest, despite the sunscreen.
Meanwhile, while the very small Torre del Rio fades behind, here it is: the dawn.
There is a close relationship with nature on this path. Accepting its strength, its beauty, its harshness, accepting its supremacy and accepting the fact that I have been one with it leaves my heart filled with a pure feeling that takes me back to being a friend with myself, a bond between soul and dust that is strengthened, strengthened.
The arrival in Logrono for the end of this Path
Logrono is the last stage, this and the last day of walking. In the early afternoon a bus will take us back to Madrid where we have the return flight tomorrow morning.
We are not even halfway there when yet another climb breaks my legs and takes my breath away. A young Japanese girl comes up to me. I take two steps and report back. She takes two steps and refers. She starts to tell me Let’s go when I don’t leave immediately after her.
We go forward like this and we look like two pawns that someone is moving from up there. She, like all Japanese, is dressed like an alien. She doesn’t have an inch of exposed skin. I ask her where she comes from. She tells me the name of an unpronounceable country. We wipe the sweat off our foreheads and move on.
The backpack becomes heavier and heavier with every step and while my companion tells me who knows what my soul becomes light and I get an overwhelming desire to laugh. And we do it, me with her, her with me, in this moment that we are together we will never see each other again. It was a moment but I touched infinity with a finger, I am sure. I don’t know about her, but when, when you get to the top she takes off her hat and scarf covering her face and offers me a selfie, tangible proof of everything we do today, I understand that she must have felt something similar too. And if it is not affinity, if it is not sharing this…
Logrono awaits us in Festa
And then I arrived, Logrono is celebrating. There’s music, dancing, food. The streets are full of people celebrating the grape harvest, a fountain gushes out red water games in honour of the wine of these areas…
We advance among these people with a sense of victory, we have arrived, we have made it, once again. This path is over, we move steps towards the waiting bus and I think that no, this path will never end.