Articulo publicado en octubre de 2003 en ingles por Jason Goodwin en la web http://www.concierge.com junto con la revista Condé Nast Traveler
In the matter of European mountains, may I recommend the Pyrenees? They are thinner, lower, wetter, and more primitive than the Alps. The skiing is not as good. Less chic. Instead of peering down into Italy (bootlike shape, Renaissance, Beatrice, parpadelle alla lepre), they frown over Spain (roast kid, conquistadors, the shape of an oxhide pegged out in the sun to dry).
Over the Alps, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire danced its coy quadrille with the Roman pope. But in the Pyrenees, one side looked white when the other was black. If the northern face was dry, the southern slopes were wet. Here were the Catholics, and there were the Moors; here Bonapartists, there Hapsburgs. ‘Europe ends at the Pyrenees,’ General Franco said. These mountains were always more spiny and forbidding, and the belligerents they held apart more bitter and irreconcilable. The Alps bore witness to a stormy marriage, but the parties of the Pyrenees had separate beds.
There are ten ways to cross the Pyrenees, four among the lower, green valleys on the Atlantic end, in the crook between France and Spain. Hannibal came through here from the south with his elephants, and Charlemagne came from the north, as did generations of pilgrims making their way to the holiest shrine in Europe, the shrine of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela. Around this route grew a kingdom that straddled the mountains and claimed the shore. Lasting from the ninth to the early seventeenth century, it was called the Kingdom of Navarre, and it was powerful, proud, and independent.
Its capital was at Pamplona, in the modern Spanish province of Navarra. Its southern guard post was the little city of Olite, on the dusty plains of the Ebro. In the north, in the modern French district of Basse-Navarre, it operated a turnpike, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (St. John at the Foot of the Mountain Pass), where the pilgrims organized parties to cross the Pyrenees. Navarre took you across the mountains in one hop, with no extra tolls or customs barriers to interrupt the penitent train of thought as you toiled in sanctity up the winding path to Roncesvalles and perceived, from the top, more than another kind of landscape: another aspect of the soul’s journey. ‘E ultreia e suseia, Deus adi-uva nos,’ the pilgrims sang: ‘And forward! And onward! God help us!’
Nature made Navarre a network of passages across the mountain ridge, but humanity, over time, chose to emphasize the mountains more than the passes. In St-Jean-Pied-de-Port you are unmistakably in France. In Pamplona, two hours later, you are unmistakably in Spain. In French Navarre you eat at noon, in Navarra at three. French Navarre includes some of the least populous areas of France and lives for visitors. The hotelier, the planner of excursions, the restaurateur, the castle curator, and the vine grower understand the tourist; they have consulted their records, made their calculations, and now confidently expect his coming. The waiters along the rue Royale in St-Jean-de-Luz tend the tables with a flick of the napkin and a straightening of chairs, like anywhere in France. At Les Pyrénées, the noted chef Firmin Arrambide perfects the details of his signature dish, a prawn ravioli, which has won him two Michelin stars. Festooned with stripy linens and espadrilles—the traditional footwear of the mountaineers (now made in China)—St-Jean-Pied-de-Port fully intends to part the tourist from his money. St-Jean, which is a small and frivolous village, has more hotels than Pamplona, which is grave and big. Farther south, in Olite, a visitor can almost starve but never get bored.
For he is in a country that knows exactly what it is about. The best restaurant in Pamplona doesn’t wink at the street, because the people who eat there come from work; your first impression is that you could never afford it. It is a solemn, ceremonious affair. It is cheap and powerfully good. ‘Pamplona,’ wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is a city which gives much more than it promises.’ French Navarre, poised for the vacation rush, is generous only with promises.
The Navarra wines are magnificent. The local wines on the French side are curious but neither cheap nor very good; you will be visibly despised if you ask for them, and charged for the cost of a souvenir. They are grown, at best, on the southern slopes of a north-facing ridge. Navarra’s wines are rioja in all but name. They are warm and rich and uplifting.
The first thing I did in Pamplona was to buy a wineskin, though not in tribute to the shepherd life of the high Navarre, and only partly because Pamplona does wineskins like Hong Kong does Prada bags. Mostly I was inspired by the memory of an honorary Pamplonan, a muscular American writer. I laid the wineskin in the sun for a day to soften the seams and then blew in it and it was tight, so I filled it up. After a few days I poured the wine away. The skin had lost its goatiness to the wine. Hemingway would have said it was all right.
‘For the San Fermín,’ the shopgirl said, tilting her thumb to her mouth. ‘For the running of the bulls.’
Pamplona’s weeklong bacchanalia, the San Fermin, ends on July 14. It is the biggest open-air drinking party in Europe—a riot of bulls, rioja, processions, and petty theft, when the cafe tables under the arcades of the Plaza del Castillo are packed day and night and the revelers who are unable to find a bed sleep in the parks. Every morning, half a dozen feisty, powerful, and increasingly bewildered bulls, bearing enormous horns, are let loose in the streets to run toward the bullring. A crowd of macho men, and some women, attempt to outrun them. Blood flows and people die; elegant revenge is taken in the ring, where the bull nods a last time toward the matador’s scarlet cape and dies streaked with blood. All week in the jam-packed streets of Pamplona, the red wine spurts from these wineskins.
La Perla, the bullfighter’s hotel, was Hemingway’s favorite, with sloping wooden floors, cruddy locks, and whitewash, and he always took room 217, which has a window at the back to watch the encierro, or the running of the bulls. He loved Pamplona and admired the Navarrese, who have never produced a great bullfighter themselves but who know how to recognize one. Pamplona likes him back. Beside the bullring is a Hemingway Park, with a bust in it, and I could imagine him leaning against the bar, surrounded by picadors and matadors, in the Cafe Iruna, a cavern of dilapidated golds and greens that opened in 1888. Pennants emblazoned HEMINGWAY hung all around the Plaza del Castillo, and one afternoon, as I was eating bonita encebollado (tuna with onions), Hemingway walked into the restaurant.
I don’t mean he really did: He has been dead thirty years. It was just that there I was in Papa’s town and I saw this very big man with a snow-white beard and a wife who looked like Martha Gellhorn. I couldn’t help watching. At the end of their meal, during which the Hemingways did not say a word, the patrona brought him a tumbler of ice and a bottle of scotch. He drank scotch on the rocks while his wife smoked a big cigar.
Was it miracle or illusion when the body of Saint James the Apostle, reputedly brought to Spain by his disciples in a stone boat, was rediscovered in A.D. 814? By the twelfth century, half a million people a year were trudging across the Pyrenees, journeying to his shrine at Cape Finisterre (World’s End), on the northwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela was fraught with symbolic meaning: Overcoming wolves and robbers and blisters—those mortal perils—to complete the journey and come back alive, the pilgrim achieved a Christ-like rebirth, a victory over death. By the time he made his arrival at the shrine of the saint, a true pilgrim was wound up to a state of physical and spiritual sensitivity that we can only guess at.
What fun it must have been to escape for a few months from the toil and drudgery, following in that colorful procession, tasting new foods, meeting different people, hearing other languages and inspecting foreign lands, discussing the carvings on the churches and hospices that littered the route, and returning cleansed, with an unspotted soul. Details of the journey were supplied by the world’s first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus of 1139, which told you where to drink the water, where to cross the mountains, and how to avoid false pilgrims and other pitfalls.
The Church seized on the climactic moment to erect a great monastery at Roncesvalles. Beautiful chants still waft from its chapel day and night, and its dormitories are thronged with pilgrims on a quest more popular now than at any time since the eighteenth century. They go together, believers and nonbelievers, to escape, to be healed, or just because the Way of Saint James is there. The whole Pyrenees is a magnet for hikers. Old shepherd tracks have evolved into a system of long-distance walks, taking in the great upland cirques beneath the peaks and the colossal primeval forest of Iraty, skirting the lairs of the European bear and the tracks of wild boar and lynx.
The Church had another reason for placing itself on the pass at Roncesvalles. By the early Middle Ages, legend had transformed an obscure Breton knight named Roland, or Orlando, into a full-fledged superhero, equipped with magic sword and bugle, who had marched with his uncle Charlemagne in A.D. 778 to ravage the Moors of Spain, and who died heroically, bugle to his lips, in an ambush on this spot. Under the wing of the Church, the myth of Roland retouched the entire landscape and made it sacred to the French. Weird outcrops of stone, tunnels bored by rivers through rock, and mega-lithic monuments set up thousands of years before became the places where he dropped his sword, cleaved his passage through the mountains, or tossed a huge stone up a hill.
On the other side of the mountains, the exploits of the kings of Navarre made the country an inescapable part of the image of Spain. Navarre was held together by ferocious dynasts, century upon century, until the idea of the nation-state surpassed it and it collapsed. The arms of one of its last kings showed two unicorns pawing at a crown, but the king himself referred to his kingdom as ‘the flea between two monkeys.’
As it broke,it flowered. In Shakespeare’s mind, the court of Navarre was where the prettiest and the wisest games of love were played, in Love’s Labour’s Lost. At its very weakest—when the Kingdom of Navarre was split in two, absurdly Protestant, utterly impotent—the king of Navarre became the king of France, Henry IV (son of a terrifying Protestant queen), who dryly dismissed a whole century of battle and debate with an ounce of common sense. Paris, he remarked, is worth a Mass.
I prefer a Navarrese royal who ruled nothing bigger than a castle. Prince Carlos (1421-61) lived in Olite, an hour’s drive to the south of Pamplona. The country around Olite is the very image of Spain: flat and dusty, without obvious rivers, practically treeless but with bluffs crowned by castle ruins. The villages cluster tightly together, gathering rainwater in cisterns. Olite itself is deliciously walled and withered, and its castle just the sort of chivalric, mystical, medieval fortification you would expect to find in a Spanish romance, with its Tower of the Winds, its lost menagerie, and its little elevated gardens touching the walls of the ancient cathedral.
Evenings here come spiced with the south. The children shunt and chuff around the square, mothers drink thick chocolate under the arcades, a daredevil youth manhandles his scooter through the crowds, and a little white dog with a ruff, a pointed nose, and a frisky tail, trotting purposefully along as if on an errand or making a rendezvous, seems to have skipped right out of a painting of the Spanish court in the age of Philip II.
Shuttered all afternoon, bars reopen: dark, smoky dens for men and women, the cake and coffee shop for mothers and their friends, and even a children’s bar, with table football and counters piled with candy and soft drinks. A chalked-up board announces a funeral in the cathedral, and when the mourners emerge onto the square, they seem to pause collectively before joining the throng, perhaps to reflect on the paseo as an allegory, as it surely is, of life itself: a caminoin miniature, a perpetual echo of our pilgrimage.
Well after dark, as I sat on the balcony with a book, the warm air stayed full of the sounds of children bicycling around the flower beds, and of their parents’ talk at the café tables. I remembered Prince Carlos, who grew up in the castle, heir to the kingdom he never got. His stepfather swindled him out of it, while French and Spanish parties clashed at court. But I suspect he didn’t mind too much, and liked it best in Olite, because in the end he chose for his coat of arms the deviceutrinque roditur, or two dogs quarreling over a bone.
Come north again now, out of the plains, to the little green valleys that crisscross the Pyrenees to the west of Roncesvalles, toward the coast, where the villages are very ancient and pretty much undisturbed, and where July 13 means that the mayor of Isaba, in traditional dress, will be climbing up the mountain to receive three cows from the people of the Valle de Baretous, across the French border. Paying this tribute allows them to pasture their cattle in the Valle de Roncal in August. This has been going on for more than six hundred years.
Historians no longer think that Charlemagne’s army was ambushed by Moors. ‘It is a barbarous people, unlike all other people by virtue of their dress and race, full of wickedness, black in color, ugly of face, debauched, perverse, traitorous, disloyal, corrupt, voluptuous, drunken, expert in every violence . . . ,’ wrote a medieval monk, and he was describing not the Moors, who have been exonerated, but the Christian Basques, who had the means to sling Charlemagne out, and the motive: He had just razed Pamplona. They are also, certainly, a people unlike any other, in point of language, culture, history, origin, preference for salt cod, knowledge of whaling, and length of ears. The Basques are not restricted to these mountain villages; it is just that in the villages, Basqueness is unmissable.
Basque may be the world’s oldest living language. The Basques say that when God decided to create man, he took the bones from a Basque graveyard; and everything about the Basques suggests that they lived in these mountains from prehistoric times. Franco made it a crime to speak Basque, but you might think it deserved a prize, since Basque is one of the most terrifyingly rebarbative tongues in the world. It has no roots in the Indo-European languages spoken in modern Europe, nor is it related even to Hungarian, which is somewhat as bristly to the untutored eye. In Basque, hegiis a hill, harri is a stone, and the road signs point to Ixxurrsa and Xchtxhua. The word for stone, interestingly, is the root of the word for knife. Pamplona, founded by the Roman general Pompey, is Iruña, which simply means ‘city.’
As the Pyrenees end their long journey from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, they throw up huge, sudden peaks among the forested hills. Rivers scour deep systems of caves full of stalactites, and it may have been long-eared Basques, calling a stone harri, who twenty thousand years ago painted amazingly vivid bison and gazelles deep in these caves.
In the narrow valleys, where the hay is still brought in by hand and piled in stooks, the great Basque homesteads rise like palaces or forts, and on swelling green hillsides, they stand big, stony, and defiant. They group ponderously in villages, like a conspiracy of giants. Weathered stone escutcheons of nobility surmount their carriage gates: All families being equal, all were noble. The great traditional Basque houses were like castles under siege, where the noble peasant farmers of the Pyrenean valleys won their spurs withstanding the winter ice outside.
People above, beasts and implements below, whole farms are contained under a single massive roof: What the Basques call etxe are more than homes or houses—they are points of reference, and lend the people their identity. Some families have maintained their etxe on the spot for more than a thousand years. Surrounded by legends, wreathed in mists, speaking their impenetrable language, these villagers were sometimes reckoned to be in contact with the Other World. When the Inquisition came to Zugarramurdi, it found all the women of the village performing pagan rites in hidden caves. Maybe the whole thing was hysteria, autosuggestion, the power of torture and insistent questioning; or maybe they had never really abandoned the old religion. Forty women were tried in Zugarramurdi in 1610; twelve were burned at the stake.
The witch-hunts stopped, though, just as quickly as they had begun, when the village men came back from the real Other World of salt and waves and legendary fish. They returned to find their women being led off for burning and torture, and they broke up the procession.
Following the rivers brings you quickly out into the Atlantic—the Bay of Biscay, or Basques. Borrowing skills from the Vikings, men from these valleys almost certainly sailed to America, fishing and whaling in those waters from early times. Columbus’s navigator—arguably the true ‘discoverer’ of the New World—was indubitably a Basque, and Magellan’s Basque pilot, Elcano, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. The heartlands of Basque industry—whaling, shipbuilding, and later on steelworking and banking—lie farther west, outside Navarre, but the shipmasters were recruited from these narrow valleys, whose immense churches have wooden decks raised one above the other to form teetering galleries, and pulpits like poop decks. In the Iglésia de Santa María de la Asunción in Hondarripbia, you can see an old wooden construction like a small diving bell, and every Basque ship would have taken one of these to sea, along with an expert to operate it. The expert was a priest, for the doors open out to reveal a shipshape altar, equipped with the Virgin and all the sacramental vessels, neatly stowed.
Arizkun is one of the loveliest villages in the hills, reached up a looping lane from the main road to the pass, its houses grouped around a splendid church with massive columns and an outside staircase. Most unexpectedly, this tiny village shelters a convent with an exquisite little Baroque facade. It was early evening when I arrived, and the village was astir as elderly couples sauntered through the streets, taking the paseo. Four boys were busily practicing in the pelota court, and there was a feeling of evening ease: of bicycles in the street and dinners being cooked at home. A group of old ladies whose paseo days were done greeted me warmly from benches in the sun, where they sat keeping an eye on what looked to be Arizkun’s current small child. An earlier child of Arizkun, the conquistador Pedro de Ursua, led his band up the Amazon in search of El Dorado in the 1560s: Inevitably, people thought that he had found rather more than he let on, and snoops and speculators have been hanging around his house ever since.
Navarre fell prey to the national ideal. Between the two halves of old Navarre, the border grew like a reef. Sometimes the only way to cross from one side to the other was to follow hidden mountain tracks. At other times, the traffic would back up on the border roads as customs men went through the cars. Allied pilots, cheap cigarettes, anticlerical tracts, nylons were smuggled through—even a grand piano. The mountaineers were conscripted into armies. They were taxed by remote officials. Total foreigners came and split them up, and herded them about, and told them to speak differently and to obey new commanders. And very, very slowly, over a matter of centuries, the Basques found themselves with a terrorist organization, a political organization, and some faint hope that the EU would dissolve the kind of big national groupings that they resent.
There is a door in the church in Hondarribia that was created for the exclusive use of the kings of Navarre, and that door, I imagine, will stay shut forever. But who knows? The border guards and customs stations have gone. Their windows are broken, the chained-up doors are covered in rust, and for the first time in centuries people can nip back and forth between Spain and France without showing a passport or answering a question.
What is Navarre? What was it, with its mountains and the sea—taking in pilgrims and raising a line of kings, rich not in the gold of El Dorado but in fish and sheep and places where Roland swung his sword? Is it a place, or an idea? Is it a lost kingdom, or an administrative quirk? Or is it simply one of those strangely European places where all borders mingle and overlap like a complicated Venn diagram—borders of language and history, culture and geography—where the sea and the mountains meet, where you turn your eyes from the rockface to see the gray Atlantic glittering with gold?