Day 13: Today, by all means, you should ride up to the illustrious and beautiful Roncesvalles (in French, Roncevaux) Abbey, Spain, crossing the Puerta de Ibañeta (Pass of Ibañeta) at 1057 meters (3468 feet), an 877 meter (2,877 foot) climb above St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in 27 kilometers. Roncesvalles is located only 1 kilometer beyond the pass, about 80 meters (260 feet) lower. Assuming that you are returning to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and departing by bike or train to the north, leave your baggage behind. There is no GPX file for today, as one rides always on the same highway.
Bikers who don’t mind an extra climb of 375 meters ( 1,230 feet) may be tempted to take the high route (D428), the so-called Route Napoleon, the route Napoleon took to invade Spain. It crosses a pass called the Col Leopoeder at 1,430 meters (4, 692 feet)—a climb of 1,270meters (4,166 feet) before descending to the Puerta de Ibañeta and Roncesvalles. The Route Napoleon is entirely upon a ridge, with good views, whereas the main road follows the river and then contours up a mountainside. Ancient pilgrims used both routes, but favored the higher one, as it was out in the open, and less subject to surprise attack by marauders. Road bikers can visit a nearby pass called the Col d’Arnosteguy, with views down into Spain. To descend to Roncesvalles from the Route Napoleon, at the point where the walking route branches right (~12.9 km from the start), follow, perhaps on foot, the mainly level Camino path for about 5.7km until you encounter the dirt gravel surface Road NA 2033. This zigzags down 370 meters in roughly 4 km (~10%) to the Col de Ibañeta and from there descend on the highway to Roncesvalles. The direct walking route which turns left almost immediately from NA2033, is considered to be far too steep for bicycles.
Beware of bad weather and the possibility of gale-force winds at elevation (on any of the routes to Roncesvalles/) that could blow you off the road, and possibly over a cliff, and also beware of freezing weather at altitude. More than one pilgrim has lost their life. With a bad forecast, or bad weather, don’t set out.
Leave St-Jean-Pierre-de-Port to the west; D933 branches left almost immediately and curves south. Traffic is normally light or very light, as it was for the author on a Sunday in early July. At least 100 other cyclists were riding up to or back from the pass. For the first 8 kilometers to the Spanish border, you ride in slightly rolling countryside near the river, with very little gain in altitude. While it is possible to avoid this part of the highway by taking minor roads to the west with no traffic at all, you would encounter a number of minor climbs and descents and several kilometers of extra distance. What is the point, since once in Spain the highway is the only alternative?
At a traffic circle in the village of Arnéguy the highway number changes to N135. You enter the Province of Navarra. Now your climb really begins, lasting interminably, until suddenly you round a curve and are at the Ibañeta pass, with its chapel and monument, 27 km from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
After taking in the view, you descend quickly to Roncesvalles.
Lock your bike and visit Roncesvalles by foot. There is a fabulous museum with religious paintings and sculpture. Listening to the organ in the stunning medieval church is not to be missed. Accommodations are available in the refugio (gite) or in the youth hostel (if you qualify), and there are several restaurants.
Both French and Spanish literature have early epic tales recall the events at Roncesvalles in the year 778—from opposite points of view! Today there are no traces of this battle, but its most likely site is near Roncesvalles. The The knight Roland, and other leaders who were bringing up the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, came under attack by the Basques, (according to the French poem it was the Saracens). According to the French version of the tale, Roland, blew an incredibly loud blast on his horn, thus succeeding in warning the Emperor Charlemagne. In any event thousands of men in the rear guard of the army, including Roland, were massacred, while the main part of the troops escaped. The epic poem describing these events is the oldest surviving work of French literature.
I was much moved by the beautiful designs of the windows and the sheer quantity of glass (these brought to mind Saint Chapelle in Paris, the jewel-like private church of King Saint Louis, built two decades later). Since Sunday mass was soon to begin, the organ—with a fabulous tone— was playing, while the stained glass shimmered in the mid-day sun. An altogether fitting experience to end a magnificent trip on the Saint James French Bike Route.