The pilgrim´s way to Santiago in Navarra

The Pilgrim´s Way to Santiago is both a cultural, social and religious experience that dates back to the middle ages.  This overland journey of thousands of miles to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia is undertaken by multitudes of people from all walks of life – from the most anonymous to film stars from Hollywood and bullfighters.  One of its purposes is to kneel at the tomb of the Apostle Santiago or St James, but the reasons for making the pilgrimage are many.  The Way to Santiago crosses ancient bridges and fields as well as towns with fascinating architecture.  Those who walk it alone often speak of it as a mystic experience.

The route to honor the saint has changed little over the centuries. In 1985 it was declared by the UNESCO as a World Heritage and then First European Cultural Road in 1987.  The routes cross Navarra at different points from north to south and from east to west, the longest stretches of all.

At the beginning of the 11th century, King Sancho Garcés III el Mayor of Navarra supported the development and consolidation of the route to Santiago for political, cultural and religious reasons, but it is necessary to return to the beginning of the ninth century to study its origins.  During the middle ages, the pilgrimage to Santiago was considered to be even more important than those of Rome or Jerusalem.

The beginning

At this time, a hermit named Pelayo saw in the sky what looked like masses of stars falling on the fields – a “campus stellae” . The story says that in this place a marble chest containing the remains of Santiago el Mayor , one of the apostles closest to Christ, had been buried and later found by Bishop Teodomiro. The apostle had been beheaded by King Herod in Jerusalem around the year 43, and his remains had been carried by his disciples over the sea to Iria Flavia. The tale of Santiago´s being found may be a mixture of myth and reality. In any case, the pilgrimage is today one of the most important in the Christian world.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, the cult to the apostle had a local character. The Kingdom of Asur was engaged in a reconquest and Holy War against the Moors, and King Alfonso III (866 – 809) prayed to the saint for protection of his Christian warriors. It is believed that the king replaced the original church there with a grander one, giving generous donations to those who watched over the relics and welcomed the pilgrims, who by the end of the ninth century, had already begun to worship at his tomb.

From the 11th century, Christian kings, such as those of Navarra – Argon and the Castellano – Leones protected the route because of the importance of the saint and for religious feelings caused by what had become the crusade against unbelievers.

Important routes through Navarra

Shortly before entering the Iberian Peninsula, the four main European routes converge in France and form two major ones.  These two are the routes that cross the Kingdom of Navarra, one from the Pyrenees along Valcarlos, where you can admire a monument to pilgrims, sculped by Jorge Oteiza at the top of Ibañeta and the legendary Orreaga/Roncesvalles, and the other route from Aragon, which crosses the town of Sangüesa.  Both converge in the town of Puente la Reina before continuing on towards the Rioja region

The french route

The Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago leaves France where it is the fruit of the union of the Turonense Limosina and Podense Ways and enters Navarra to finally arrive in Roncesvalles, well-known for its important ties to the pilgrim route. Roncesvalles is considered to be the beginning of the Way to Santiago. Today the complex of the Real Colegiata de Santa María de Roncesvalles is one of the most important cultural patrimonies in Navarra, containing, among other jewels of history, the tomb of King Sancho VII el Fuerte, who promoted the complex and the Chapel of Sancti Spiritus, the oldest building there, which served as a burial ground for early pilgrims. You can also see the Gothic Chapel of Santiago or of the Pilgrims.

From Roncesvalles, the Way crosses the towns of Burguete and Espinal to arrive in Zubiri, capital of the Valley of Esterríbar, after reaching the top of Erro. The Pilgrim´s Way then crosses a bridge over the Arga River, located in the oldest part of Zubiri. This bridge has witnessed many thousands of pilgrim footsteps and is an important stopping place and the scene of numerous legends.

A few kilometres downstream, another Medieval bridge crosses the Arga River at the town of Larrasoaña, which grew up at the border of the Way around the beginnings of the 12th century. This village came to be home to three hospitals for pilgrims that of the Agustinon – like Clavería, dependent on Roncesvalles for payments and worship – and those of Santiago and San Blas.

Upon leaving Larrasoaña, the route passes through the valley to Arre. There the pilgrims cross the Ulzama River on the bridge of the Trinidad, a beautiful, Medieval structure beside the inn of the Cofradía de la Santísima Trinidad and other Medieval buildings such as the hermitage and remains of the old hospital and monastery. After travelling through Villava and Burlada, the pilgrims arrive at the bridge of the Magdalena over the Arga River to the park of Tejería before entering Pamplona through the Portal of France. Once inside the capital of Navarra, the Way continues along Carmen Street, the ancient pilgrim road and through the Burgo de la Navarrería to the Cathedral of Santa María la Real, heart of the old city.

The Cathedral (XIV and XV) is Gothic and possesses one of the most interesting lancet arched cloisters in Europe. Here are the tombs of King Carlos el Noble and Leonor de Trastámara. In addition to the Cathedral, Pamplona contains numerous signs of the Way of the Pilgrim´s such as crosses, Romanesque bridges and the church-fortresses of San Nicolás and San Cernin, both Gothic. The route leaves the Cathedral to go to the Church of Santo Domingo, the Town Hall and the churches of San Saturnino and San Lorenza in Mayor Street. The way borders the Ciudadela through the Bosquecillo and the Vuelta del Castillo, passing Fuente de Hierro to Larraskuntzea, today the campus of the University of Navarra. After crossing the Sadar and Elorz River, the route comes to Cizur Minor where there used to be a hospital for pilgrims and a monastery, and is now the Church of San Miguel Arcángel. Along the Route of Forgiveness, the pilgrims cross over the highest peak of the same name to arrive in the town of Puente la Reina, after Uterga, Muruzábal and Obanos.

Two become one

The French Pilgrim´s Way to Santiago and the incursion into Aragon meet in Puente la Reina. At the entrance to the city, the Romanesque Church of the Crucifíjo, of the Order of the Templars, receives the pilgrims and invites them to continue along the ancient Rúa de los Peregrinos under a covered passage between the temple and the hospital for pilgrims. In Mayor Street, you can admire the churches of Santiago and San Pedro with lovely Romanesque doors. At the end of the ancient Rúa is the most beautiful and well-known bridge of Navarra´s route. This Medieval bridge crosses the River Arga. Doña Mayor of Navarra, wife of King Sancho Garcés III, ordered it built or restored in the 11th century, giving its name to the city.

From Puente la Reina, the Pilgrim´s Way to Santiago is a vertebral column in the land of Estella. The route begins around the town of Mañeru and continues to Cirauqui, Lorea and Villatuerta to descend to the banks of the Ega River to Estella. It enters the town across the bridge of the Cárcel or San Agustín and arrives in the ancient borough of the Francs through Rúa Street. Estella merits an extended visit to see its many treasures.

In Ayegui, directly after Estella, is the Benedictine Monastery Irache, founded at the beginning of the tenth century and National Monument since 1887. This is one of the most emblematic buildings on the Way to Santiago. The route continues between Montejurra and Monjardín . Montejurra was the scene of Carlist battles in 1835 and 1873 and Monjardín of the Reconquest with its castle of San Esteban de Deyo, and ancient fortress of Arabic origin. After this, the pilgrims direct their steps towards Urbiola and Los Arcos with its church of Santa María, Sansol, Torres del Río and Viana – the last town in Navarra before the Way to Santiago enters the Rioja region.

Other routes to santiago in navarra

The Camino Francés or the route that enters Navarra through Valcarlos and the route that comes from Somòrt and arrives in Navarra through Yesa are not the only ways that lead to Santiago. There are also many, smaller routes all across the territory.

The Baztán way to santiago

The Baztan Way or the Green Way to Santiago begins in Dantxarinea, port of entry from France to Navarra. Its first kilometres follow the old road of Otsondo towards the Valley of Baztan along the route Bayona-Urdax and Santa María de Velate. The Ulzuma River, near the monastery, guides the footsteps of pilgrims to an old hospital and hermitage of Trinidad de Arre, joining there with the Camino Francés.

Route through the passage of Araquil

This route follows the ancient Roman road Burdeos – Astorga in a stretch known as the Passage of Araquil. The Way goes from Pamplona to the Valley of Araquil by way of the gorge of Osquía, following the course of the river that gives it its name to the passage on the limits of today´s Alava, crossing the valley from east to west. Pilgrims go up to the sierras of San Miguel where the Sanctuary of Aralar is located along with that of Andía-Urbasa, in whose highest point can be found the hermitage of San Donato. All along this lesser route, pilgrims can see structures that recall the splendour of the Way , such as the Romanesque churches of Santiago de Itasperri ,Santa María de Zamarce and numerous hermitages.

Route through the Ribera

Pilgrims coming from Aragon and Cataluña who go through the valley of the Ebro can opt for the Ribera among its many paths. The majority take the one that, through Abitas and Cascante, goes to Calahorra in order to reach the Way of Logroño. Others follow the course of the Ebro River through Cortes, Ribaforada and Tudela and from this city to Castejón and Calahorra or toward the north to reach Estella through Arguedas, Valtierra, Caparroso, Olite and Tafalla. This second route is one that was followed by, among others, the Infante don Carlos when he made his pilgrimage from Paris in 1381, before becoming the Rey Noble.

Route through the valley of Aibar

Roman roads already existed in this part of Navarra in the middle ages, and its tracks were used, as in other parts, as pilgrimage routes.  The route of the Valley of Aibar leaves Sangüesa for Puente la Reina, where it joins other major routes.  The names are Eslava-Lera- Monastery de San Ginés- San Martín- Unx-Artajona-Mendigorria and Puente la Reina.


Route of the Roncal

This minor route is one that goes from the Pyrenees in Navarra – valleys of Salazar and Roncal – to Lumbier, where paths once crossed. From Lumbier, the route joins the Way from Aragon to Puente la Reina.

Route of the Cendea de Cizur

This secondary split in the road permits pilgrims from Pamplona to head towards Cizur Menor and visit other places such as Cizur Mayor with its Medieval Church of San Andrés and Gazólaz, whose building is the most representative of the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Purificación with its lateral atrium. This route joins the French one in Astraín. Pilgrims gather together there at the foot of the Sierra del Perdón – with pilgrims coming from Cizur Menor who are going to Zariquiegui to cross the pass of Santa María de Erreniaga.

Legends of the pilgrims way to Santiago

Not only has the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago left us with outstanding examples of Medieval and Romanesque art, we can also enjoy reading about its many legends. One of those has to do with the charity of San Veremundo, abbot of the Monastery de Irache in the 11th century and actual patron saint of the Way to Santiago, or that of San Guillén and Santa Felicia who inspired the “Mystery of Obanos” or “Chori” of Puente la Reina, a bird that washed the face of the image of the Virgin Mary after wetting its beak and wings in the waters of the Arga River. Another is at Puente de la Rabia in Zubiri where it is said that the relics of Santa Quitería have curing powers or the churches of Olcoz and Eunate where their entrance halls are both covered with identical sculptures of snakes, sooth-sayers and Templar knights. There are the relics of San Andrés of Estella and the legend of the church San Andrés of Estella and the legend of the church of San Cernin in Pamplona that tells of the appearance of the Virgin in one of its beams.

Other itineraries

Although the most travelled itinerary is the French Way, there are seven routes to reach Santiago: the French one, the English one, the Portuguese one, the Vía de Plata, the maritime route from the Sea of Arousa and Ulla, the route from the north and the Camino de Fisterra-Muxia. Each is a showcase for is own outstanding landscapes and patrimonies. The French Way is the classic route to Santiago, having been used for more than eight centuries. It was declared Patrimonio de la Humanidad by the UNESCO and has a length of 761 kilometers from Roncesvalles to Santiago.

  • English Way: Taken by British pilgrims after landing on the coast of Galicia (El Ferrol and La Coruña)
  • Portuguese Way: From Lisbon, enters Spain through Tuy and passes through Pontevedra before arriving in Santiago.
  • Vía de la Plata: With origin in Sevilla. It was used by pilgrims who lived in Islamic territory. Its distance is 900 kilometers.
  • Sea Route of Arousa and Ulla: It begins at the Arosa River and continues along the coast to Padrón on the Portuguese Way.
  • Route of the North: According to Asturian traditions, this is the oldest route and was followed throughout the first thousand years because of the dangers presented by the French Route.
  • Way of Fisterra-Muxia: The first route.

The 11th to the 16th centuries were the years of the greatest splendour of the Pilgrim´s Way to Santiago, but its popularity declined between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Throughout the 20th century, the Way to Santiago regained the importance it once had among the European community. In 1987 the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago was declared First Cultural Itinerary by the European Council. Beginning in 1988, the Department of Culture of the Government of Navarra is responsible for the coordination of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Way to Santiago as well as being the representative of Navarra in the Jacobean Council. Some of its activities are the identification, directional signs and maintenance of the official route to Santiago through Navarra of long distances (GR 65) and of its cultural promotion.

The first foreign pilgrim to Santiago of whom records exist was Godescalco, Bishop of Puy, who around the year 950, walked to the tomb of the apostle, accompanied by an entourage of nobles  from Aquitania.  Kings, princes, popes, monks, courtesans, warriors and thousands of unknown people have crossed the old continent to kneel at the tomb of Santiago.

During Holy Years, there are large numbers of pilgrims, especially when the fiesta of the Apostle Santiago falls on Sunday, as happened on July 25. The year 2010 was the Year of the Saint, and the numbers of pilgrims increased in contrast to other years. The Hostel of Roncesvalles, the only official source of information for the Department of Culture and Tourism of the Government of Navarra, registered more than 56,000 pilgrims pass by with an increase of 7.2 percent over the year of 2009. A percentage of 55.7 percent were foreigners who travelled during the months of May, August and September.

This does not count the number of pilgrims who go by Roncesvalles without having their credentials stamped ( the calculations are some ten to 15 percent) or those from Aragon, who in 2009 averaged around 5,000. These figures demonstrate that there are far more pilgrims than those who passed through Navarra in 2010 from Roncesvalles.

Network of hostels

Navarra offers more than 50 hostels with more than 1,800 beds available for pilgrims. Along the French Way to Santiago, there are 37 hostels, 13 of which are open all year except for the months of December and January and March to October.

The second Aragon route offers five hostels between Sangüesa and Obanos. Three of them are municipally run, one by a society and one by the church

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