A pilgrim’s guide

Chapter VII. The lands and peoples along the Camino de Santiago.

Two routes
The Camino de Santiago route along the Toulouse road brings you across the Garonne River into Gascony, then over the Somport Pass into Aragon. From there you come into the province of Navarre, which stretches as far as Puente la Reina and beyond.

Another route is over the Pass of Cize; you go from Tours to Poitou, which has the best countryside on the Camino. The Poitouians are brave warriors, experts with bows and arrows and spears who won’t take a backward step in battle. They’re athletic, good looking men who know how to dress well, to speak astutely, and to be generous and hospitable.

From there you come to Saintonge, and on across a stretch of sea and the River Garonne into Bordeaux, famous for having the finest wine and fish in the world, but remember – the local dialect of French is not easy to understand, even more tricky than the version they speak back in Saintonge.

At this stage you’ll be tired, but must face into three more days walking across the ‘Landes’ – a desolate region without supplies of bread, wine, meat, fish, or water, even springs. Villages are rare, although there is honey, grain and wild boar. If you are crossing it in summer, protect your face from the huge flies that infest the place (insects which the locals call ‘guespe’ and ‘tavones’). And unless you watch your step, you’ll sink to your knees in the quicksand that is everywhere.

When you’ve crossed this place, you come to Gascony, with its white bread and the best and reddest wine, and plenty of forests, streams, meadows and healthy fountains. And the people? Fast-talking, obnoxious, and sex-crazed, they are overfed, poorly-dressed drunks. They’ve two good characteristics: they are skilled warriors, and they give good hospitality to the poor.

They all sit around the fire rather than eating at a table, and drink from one cup. They eat and drink too much and dress in rags, then, unbelievably, the whole household sprawls out together on a little rotten straw.

Leaving this country, if you’re on the road to Santiago, you should meet the village of Saint-Jean-de-Sorde. The village is near two rivers, one flowing to the right which the locals call ‘the brook’ and the other on the left which they call ‘the river’. You cannot cross either without a raft. The boatmen are trouble – big trouble. Despite the fact both streams are narrow, they’ll extort money for their services, whether you can afford it or not. If you have a horse, they’ll get angry and forcefully demand four coins. Be careful here. The boat is small, made from a single tree, not suitable for horses, and you can easily end up in the water. The best option is to take the horse by the bridle and let it swim behind the boat. Whatever you do, don’t get into an overloaded boat, which can suddenly capsize. These boatmen have been known to collect the fares and pile the boat full of pilgrims, so that the boat capsizes and the pilgrims are drowned. Then the evil scoundrels delight in stealing the possessions of the dead.

The Basque Country
Around the Pass of Cize is the Basque country, with the city of Bayonne on the north coast. The language spoken here is incomprehensible. The terrain is woody and mountainous with a serious shortage of bread, wine and other food supplies, except for plenty of apples and cider and milk.

This region – near the Cize Pass and the towns of Ostabat and Saint-Jean and Saint-Michel-Pied-de-Port – has some truly vicious toll collectors. They come at pilgrims with weapons, and demand an exorbitant fee. If you refuse to pay, they’ll beat you up and take the money, even intrusively frisking you to get it. These people are forest savages. Their hard faces and strange language strike terror into the heart.

The rules allow them to charge merchants, and nobody else, but they seize money from pilgrims and anyone else passing through. Even with the commercial tax, when they’re supposed to charge four or six coins, they grab double.

Those involved in this racket must stop: the toll-gatherers themselves, but also the king of Aragon and other rich men, and their fellow conspirators, namely Raymond de Soule, Vivien d’Aigremont and the Vicomte do Saint-Michel, and the boatmen already mentioned and Armand de la Guigne and the other lords of the rivers, who receive money obtained by the ferrymen. Then there are the priests who know exactly what’s going on but who still give the Eucharist and confession, and pray for them and welcome them to church. Until these men publicly make good their crimes and start taking only fair tolls, they should be excommunicated in such a way that it’s heard not only in their local churches, but also in the basilica of Santiago itself, with the pilgrims listening.

And if any bishop decides to pardon them, either because he feels it’s his Christian duty or because he’s been paid off, he should be kicked out of the church.

It needs to be clear that the toll-gatherers cannot take money from pilgrims, and that the ferrymen can charge only one obal to take two men, provided the travellers can afford it. The charge for a horse needs to be simply one coin, and nothing whatsoever for a poor man. Finally, the boats need to be big enough to take both men and their horses.

Over the Pyrenees
The Basque Country has the highest mountain on the Camino. It’s called the Pass of Cize and is both a gateway to Spain, and a commercial route where important goods are carried from one country to another.

The mountain is eight miles up, and eight miles down the other side, and seems to touch the sky. Climb it and you’ll feel you could push the sky with your hand.

The view from the summit takes in the Sea of Brittany, the Atlantic Ocean, and three territories: Castille, Aragon and France.

The summit is called Charlemagne’s Cross, because here Charlemagne, setting out with his armies for Spain, made a track with axes, picks and other digging tools. He first raised a cross and then knelt facing Galicia and poured out prayers to God and St James.

And so it’s traditional for pilgrims to knell here facing St. James’ homeland and to plant their own crosses. You might find a thousand crosses here, the first station of prayer on the Camino de Santiago.

On that mountain, before Spain was Christian, the pagan Navarrese and Basques would not only rob pilgrims to Santiago, but mount them like donkeys and then murder them.

Near the mountain, to the north, is the valley where it is said Charlemagne was a guest with his army after his soldiers had been killed at Roncevalles. This route is taken by many pilgrims who don’t want to climb the mountain.

Coming down from the summit, you’ll come to the hostel and church with the rock that the great hero Roland split with a triple stroke. Next up is the town of Roncevalles, where the battle took place in which King Marsile, Roland, Oliver and another 40,000 Christian and Saracen soldiers were killed.

After this valley you come to the province of Navarre, which has plenty of bread, wine, milk and cattle. The Navarrese and the Basques have similar food, clothes and language, although the Basques have a fairer complexion. The Navarrese wear black outfits down as far as their knees, like the Scots. They tie untreated leather scrips around their feet, leaving bare everything except their soles. They have dark, elbow-length woollen cloaks, fringed like a traveller’s cape, which they call ‘sayas’. Their clothing is visibly shabby.

Navarrese eating and drinking habits are disgusting. The entire family – servant, master, maid, mistress – feed with their hands from one pot in which all the food is mixed together, and swill from one cup, like pigs or dogs. And when they speak, their language sounds so raw, it’s like hearing a dog bark.

They call God ‘Urcia’, the Mother of God ‘Andrea Maria’, bread ‘orgui’, wine ‘ardum’, meat ‘aragui’, fish ‘araign’, home ‘echea’, the head of household ‘iaona’, the mistress ‘andrea’, church ‘elicera’, priest ‘belaterra’ which means ‘good earth’, corn ‘gari’, water ‘uric’, the king ‘ereguia’, and St James ‘Jaona domne Jacue’.

These are an undeveloped people, with different customs and characteristics than other races. They’re malicious, dark, hostile-looking types, crooked, perverse, treacherous, corrupt and untrustworthy, obsessed with sex and booze, steeped in violence, wild, savage, condemned and rejected, sour, horrible, and squabbling. They are badness and nastiness personified, utterly lacking in any good qualities. They’re as bad as the Getes and the Saracens, and they despise us French. If they could, a Basque or Navarrese would kill a Frenchman for a cent.

In some places, like Vizcaya and Alava, when they get warmed up, the men and women show off their private parts to each other. The Navarrese also have sex with their farm animals. And it’s said that they put a lock on the backsides of their mules and horses so that nobody except themselves can have at them. Moreover, they kiss lasciviously the vaginas of women and of mules.

Everybody with sense slams the Navarrese. However, they’re good in war, although not so effective in a siege. They pay their church taxes and present their offerings to the altar; every day a Navarrese goes to church, he makes an offering to God of bread, wine, corn or something else suitable.

Wherever a Navarrese or a Basque goes, he has a hunter’s horn around his neck, and carries two or three spears, which they call ‘auconas’. When he comes to his home he gives a whistle, like a bird. When they’re lying in ambush and want to call companions quietly, they hoot like an owl, or howl like a wolf. Tradition has it that they’re descended from the Scots, because they have such similar customs.

It is said that Julius Caesar brought three tribes to conquer the Spaniards who refused to pay him taxes: the Nubians, the Scots and men with tails from Cornwall. He ordered them to kill all the Spanish men, and to keep alive only the women.

The invaders came across the sea and, with their ships having been destroyed, devastated the country with sword and fire, from the city of Barcelona all the way to Saragossa, and from Bayonne to the mountains at Oca.

They didn’t get further because the Castilians united, defeated them in battle, and drove them back.

They fled and settled in the mountains at the coast which are between Najera and Pamplona and Bayonne, towards the sea in Biscay and Alava. They built many forts and killed all the local men. Then they raped the women and had children with them, who afterwards were called Navarrese. This comes from ‘non verus’ (not true), because the children didn’t come from a true family.

As well as that, the Navarrese may first have taken their name from the city of Naddaver in Ethiopia, where they originally came from. The apostle and gospel writer Matthew converted their city with his preaching.

After Navarre, the Camino crosses the forest of Oca and continues through the Spanish territory of Castile and Campos towards Burgos. This country is full of royal treasure, of gold and silver, fabrics and the strongest horses, and flush with bread, wine, fish, milk and honey. It is however lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.

Next is Galicia, which you enter after crossing Leon and the mountains at Irago and Cebrero. Galicia is well-wooded, with rivers, meadows, and orchards, and the deepest clearest springs, but with few towns, farmsteads or wheat fields.

It is difficult to get wheat-bread and wine. However with plenty of rye bread and cider, livestock and work-horses, milk and honey and enormous seafish, there is little lacking. And there is gold and silver, fabrics and furs from the forests and other riches, as well as Saracen treasure.

The Galicians are more like us French people than other Spanish savages, but nevertheless they can be hot-tempered and litigious.