Text by Steve VandeGriek
Photos by Jan Behmer
The Camino de Santiago is a centuries old roughly five hundred mile walking pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain. The first leg of the journey is a fifteen mile hike down through the Pyrenees from St. Jean to Roncevalles in the Spanish Basque region in the province of Navarre. It is reputed to be at once the most difficult and the most beautiful day of the entire Camino. I was eager to take it on, but my wife, whose name is not Patience, was with me, so we drove down.
Roncevalles, Basque name Orreaga, is a speck in the magnificent mountains that enfold it. A beautiful old church, a few smaller religious structures, the tomb of Sancho VII – King of Navarre from 1194 to 1234, one hotel and some rudimentary first night overnight facilities – a couple no frills bars included – for the pilgrims. The non-pilgrim population is about two dozen souls, apparently there primarily to service the Camino hikers. Apart from the centuries of pilgrimage, there is another history here. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was fought in August 778. The army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, led by the legendary knight Roland, was ambushed by the local Basques. Roland died while blowing, or refusing to blow – there is some legendary dispute here – his elephant tusk horn to advise Charlemagne to send backup. Charlemagne is said to have been busy playing chess. The French epic poem “Song of Roland”, in which the Basques are replaced by the Moors, was composed some three centuries later and bears little resemblance to the actual battle, which is thought to have been waged on the vast plain of Burguete, a mile and a half south of Roncevalles. It began to rain. We eased on down the road.
Burguete, Basque name Auritz, population circa two hundred, lies on that vast plain about three thousand feet above sea level. It sits astride the N-135 we drove in on, just below the Irati River, about fifteen miles south of the French border and some twenty five miles above Pamplona, of the running of the bulls fame. This twelfth century town has no art scene, no museum, no nightlife. The red-roofed white stone houses sit along the road, which becomes the narrow main street through the village. There are a couple small hotels and a general store. Burguete’s real attractions are the meadows, forests and streams that surround it. And the Hostal Burguete.
The Hostal Burguete has a few unassuming rooms, all of them comfortably clean, basic and simply furnished. On the ground floor is an amiably rustic lounge and restaurant area with a few wooden tables.
Turns out the hotel was the preferred accommodation of Ernest Hemingway while he fished the Irati River, prior to nine days of debauchery at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. He and his buddy Bill were in residence the afternoon we checked in. They had finished that day’s fishing, and were in the lounge working on the sturdy local wine. My wife was wearing a long-light-weight-loose-flowing-easy-to-travel-in white dress. While getting from car door to hotel door, the rain had lent the dress a semi-transparent effect. Hemingway thought it fetching and said so. In vino veritas.
We took our bags upstairs to our room, changed out of our wet clothes and hung the dress up to dry. When we came back down, Hemingway was noodling on the piano in the far corner of the room. We ordered wine from the old woman tending the inn, and chose a table near the fireplace. Bill engaged us in conversation. He offered that they had had the place to themselves for three days and it was good to hear a voice other than Hem’s. Hemingway feigned resentment and quit the piano. Soon the four of us were deep in the wine. On Ernest’s advice, we ordered the fresh local trout and potatoes. The old woman cooked it, served it and kept the wine flowing.
At some point in the party, my wife complained of a cold coming on due to the soaking she’d suffered that afternoon. She went up to bed. A bit later, Hemingway declared he wanted to rise early to dig worms. He went upstairs. Bill and I continued to tipple and babble, about baseball, I think. The old woman had disappeared without notice. Bill eventually put his head on the table and went to sleep. I finished the wine and stumbled upstairs.
We woke latish in the morning. My wife’s cold had not materialized. We packed our things and went downstairs to check out. The old woman said Bill and Mr. Ernest had long since hiked to the Irati. We drank a coffee and got in the car. The rain had stopped. We drove down out of the Pyrenees, through Pamplona and leisurely southeast along the River Ebro toward Zaragosa, a beautiful city with a magnificent old bullring. I wanted to see a corrida.
We checked into a more-upscale-than-the-hostal hotel and unpacked. I needed to have the concierge take care of some laundry, and asked my wife if she wanted to throw in her white dress. It was nowhere to be found. After much hemming – no pun intended – and hawing, she confessed. “I must have left it in Hemingway’s room.”
Moving on now to reality. Hemingway was at the Hostal Burguete in 1924. We were there a decade shy of a century later. Because he was there, if I’m honest. And the place is so embalmed in Hemingwaybilia that he is all but there. You can stay in Hemingway’s room, “unchanged since he left”. Which we did. On the restaurant’s menu there is the Hemingway soup, the Hemingway trout entree, and Ernest’s preferred wine. In the lounge/restaurant area is the piano Hemingway played. Ernest’s favorite chair. His usual table. Where he stored his fishing gear. The couch where Hemingway dallied with your girlfriend. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but you get the idea. I’m a Hemingway fan, but it was a bit much.
That being said, it is worth wading in the hype. The hotel is a rustic gem, quaint and comforting, and the Irati trout is ambrosial. Wandering through Burguete, Roncevalles and the surrounding old world forests and cold streams put me back in the Burguete chapters of The Sun Also Rises. They smack of timelessness, and there the Hemingway aura lingers unforced. We steeped ourselves in it all for a few days before embarking on the drive along the Ebro.
As it happens, my wife had indeed accidentally left her dress behind in Hemingway’s room – the room we had stayed in, where she had hung it up to dry. I’d gladly go back to Burguete to look for that dress. And not give a damn if I found it.