Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz – a hidden gem

Leaving Zubiri, we passed a noisy, dusty manganese processing plant, which supplies to the steel industry, including the arms factory down the road. Some people feel the sights and sounds of industry to be incompatible with the Camino.

Manganese plant, Zubiri

In reality, industry has sat alongside the spiritual path for millennia. The Romans mined this area. Stone houses were built from locally quarried stone, indeed industry has been part of the human cultivation of this land since palaeolithic times. So for me, this is all part of the Camino. It is part of the human journey, as essential as bread, and shelter and of course the mindful path we take along this road.

I made a short video comment about this – click below to view it


Soon, however, we were back in the countryside and heading up to Esteribar – a well-kept hamlet with a wonderful pilgrim shelter and water fountain built in 1917. The water is potable and we refilled our bottles here after a short rest and some breakfast (bananas and a muesli bar).

Esteribar water fountain

The Abbey

Then a surprise highlight – we turned to descend the hill, and noticed an old building, perhaps a church, on the right. I stopped to take some photos and was hailed by the owner, who invited us in for a closer look.

Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz

It turned out to be the Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz. And what a story he had to tell! Neill from South Africa was a pilgrim some years ago, who met his English wife Catherine in Madrid. Some time later, looking for a place to restore along the Camino trail, he found this church – long fallen into disrepair. It had been the C16th Church of St Lucia, but the history turned out to be far more interesting!

After a lengthy negotiation with the local Bishop and ultimately the Archbishop he gained permission to buy the building from the Diocese. Neill had had a lifetime career restoring old buildings in South Africa, and was not daunted by the state of the building. Working with art historians, he discovered C12th wall paintings behind the altar. And there were intriguing touches that revealed the building to have been originally a C12th fort of possibly Templar origin, converted to an abbey church in the C13th – the Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz.

Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz altar

There were pre-Christian motifs incorporated into the wall painting – a sign this church was built in a period of transition in which local pagans were being brought into the Faith through symbolism, such as two sun designs and a myriad dots contained within squares – perhaps stars or souls.

“…the church’s hand-painted altar was dated as being from the mid-13th century (which was exposed after the church’s 16th century altar was stolen during the time it stood abandoned). The altar is apparently unique for the fact that it contains both Christian and Pagan symbols.”

It makes sense that the building was once a fort – perhaps a fortified house – at a time when the Order of Templars was established for the protection of pilgrims enroute to Jerusalem and to Santiago de Compostele. There would have been small forts and larger castles all along the route from this period. But with the disestablishment of the Templars, many of their properties were taken up by the hospitallers who cared for pilgrims’ more immediate needs for food and shelter.

shrine in the Abbey of Eskirotz

It is Neill’s ambition that the Abbey will once again cater for pilgrims – in the form of accommodation in exchange for labour on the restoration project. It is Neill’s ‘Grand Design’.

This was a real highlight and well worth being a ‘slow pilgrim’ – Neill told us that he only came out to talk with pilgrims later in the morning, as the early birds are usually just out to make distance fast, the later ones made time to take in the environment around them.

The Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz

I have the utmost respect for what Neill is trying to achieve here – and I look forward to seeing how it is going when we next pass this way – in about a year or two.

At length we took our leave and will treasure the stamp in our credential. Climbing the hill, crossing the medieval bridge  we descended into Larrasoana and decided to stay there. At the supermercado (supermarket) we were again welcomed to Basque country before buying our bananas and retiring for beer and chips – and of course the washing…



Espinal to Zubiri: A sketch and a close call

After a sparse breakfast, (I’m beginning to wonder if the Spanish DO breakfasts!) we had a delightful walk through light woodlands, with a few short steep climbs. The light through the trees is wonderful.

forest light

Welcome to Basque country

We walked to Viscarret/Guerendiain (the latter being the Basque name) for lunch and coffee. The village is picturesque, and we are greeted with a booming ‘Welcome to Basque country’ – a preface we heard at several shops along this part of the Way – before taking our order. And everywhere there was graffiti proclaiming ‘This is not Spain’ in Spanish and English.


It struck me then, that the locals identified far more strongly with their Province than with the notion of a nation. We would encounter this time and again along the Camino, whether in Navarre, La Rioja, Castille/Leon, Astorga, or Galicia. Spain, we came to realise, is less a country, and more a loose confederation of regions. The Basques were not wealthy or prosperous, and I sensed that the pilgrimage route was the lifeblood of their economy, along with wine, agribusiness, forestry. But I wondered if they resented their economic dependence on us pilgrims – the Basques are a proud people.

The 12th Century Codex Calixtinus says of the Basque people:

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.

Thankfully, times have changed. A lot. But the Basques do maintain their traditions and customs, and have a strong sense of loyalty to their region. Indeed the Basque separatist movement is alive and well, fed, no doubt, by a sense – real or imagined – that Madrid’s largesse is kept largely in the South. Spain has been hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis, and unemployment remains high – particularly in the rural areas.


Notwithstanding all that, our reception at Juan’s Bar was friendly, the wifi worked well, and the loos were clean. We ate lunch slowly in the sunshine. The ham and cheese bocadillo was huge – one would feed us both. The coffee and water were refreshing; Sharon’s omelette was, well, swimming in olive oil [see also: bocadillo].


Sharon sketched while I found things to photograph – like this sundial on the wall of Juan’s Bar.

Bar Juan

A close call

Suitably refreshed, we went on to Linzoain, thinking to find accommodation there, but it turned out to be a tiny hamlet, with no sign of an Albergue. So on to Zubiri. The weather was getting warmer, and we were beginning to question the wisdom of pressing on. We went up a steep hill, rocky underfoot. Then it was steep down for a long way. It was a 900-metre climb. But there was a picturesque old cemetery at the summit.


Getting short of water (we should have refilled at the fountain in Linzoain), we pressed on. The technique of tacking across from side to side seemed to help a bit. We passed a ruined medieval pilgrim shelter.

ruined pilgrim shelter

Eventually, we reached the Alto de Erro, finding the path at a crossroads with a busy main road. And like a dehydrated desert dweller we saw an apparition – actually a coffee and drinks van. We went nuts with water and coffee and orange juice to rehydrate. Some were consuming beer – but they may already have rehydrated. We were now just 3kms from Zubiri. The drinks van presented us with one of the many eccentricities along the Way in the form of a box full of underwear and bras. There was a sign noting that single women might attract a mate by leaving behind a bra, or single blokes a piece of underwear… I didn’t put it to the test.

underwear box

We thought that being 3km out of Zubiri, we would be there within the hour. We were mistaken. Leading down to Zubiri was a long steep descent on loose rocky ground, forcing us to pick our way carefully. We crossed the medieval bridge into Zubiri at around 6.00pm.

Zubiri Medieval Bridge

Every Albergue was full [one had one bed left, but we needed two]. We were catching the remnants of the bubble of people who had left St Jean a couple of weeks before (900 pilgrims left SJPdP on 1st September alone!). We realised we had tarried too long over lunch and that we really needed to get to our night’s accommodation probably no later than 3.00pm.

The next town was around 5km away and Sharon’s feet were very sore from all the stones. After walking the length of the main street, I saw a hotel sign, so we went to enquire. A lucky late cancellation meant we scored the only double room left in Zubiri! A close call indeed! We checked in, then headed to a tapas bar for steak, salad and chips before retiring for the night.

We took stock for the day: Sharon’s feet were sore, mine were a bit sore but okay. The packs are great – very comfortable, and no blisters so far.

Roncesvalles and the Witches Wood

The first ‘modern’ European travel guide was written in the 12th century by monks accompanying Pope Calixtus II. It was, of course, the guide to the Camino (French route). So the guide, known as the Codex Calixtinus, became the definitive route – and the route today largely follows the one set out in the Codex. It replaced the rather vague directions pilgrims had previously, which would likely have been along the lines of:

“Head south where they speak French, cross the mountains through the pass at St Jean, walk until they speak Spanish, then keep the sun at your back in the morning, and in front of you in the afternoon, or by night, follow the stars known as the Milky Way until your reach the sea.”

The climb over the Pyrenees is challenging today, but it was very different nearly one thousand years ago when the Codex Calixtinus warned of greedy armed toll collectors at St Jean Pied de Port – despite laws restricting them to taking tolls from merchants, and prohibiting them from taking tolls from pilgrims:

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.

Luckily, today the reception is more friendly! The importance of the pass across the Pyrenees in providing contact between Spain and the rest of Europe was recognised even in the 12th century:

“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.”

View over the Pyrenees

The vultures are still there – we thought perhaps, to pick off the slower pilgrims. We were determined not to give them that pleasure. It wasn’t quite soaring with eagles, but they were graceful as they rode thermals in lazy spirals above and below us.

vultures over the Pyrenees

Roncesvalles – a medieval monastery of epic proportions has an extraordinary history. The pass, with its steep Roman road, is where Napolean brought his troops. And in the 10th century, Charlemagne too went this way. In the latter case, he was retreating with the Moors hot on his heels, picking off his rear guard. The story of Roland’s legendary defence was played out near here (more on that later).

Roncesvalles monastery

This is the first village on the Spanish side of the border (the border being marked only by a cattle grid), and is the starting point for most of the Spanish pilgrims – it also avoids the notorious Napoleon Route over the mountains…

The 790km sign is a favourite with Pilgrims – ourselves included – and with relief at surviving the worst of the Pyrenees, we found ourselves in bright sunshine with a new spring in our step.

Santiago 790 sign

The track was well made and soon took us away from the road and into a delightful wood. This is a wood with a history.

Witches wood

It was a bit magic with the dappled light filtered through the trees and the walk was wonderful. Within a couple of kilometres we emerged to see some buildings ahead, but there was also a cross and an information sign. It seems that in the 16th century this wood was a favourite meeting place for the local witches’ coven. I can see why – it was a beautiful spot, and probably good for harvesting medicinal herbs, such as willow bark for headaches and nettles for tea. It was magic in more ways than one!

The cross, presumably, was to stamp Christian authority over the place, and was known as the Cruz de Blanco – the White Cross. It reassured us that we were still on the path outlined in the Codex. In addition, there were the official blue and yellow stylised scallop shell markers, and the occasional yellow arrow – further signs of the Camino.

Cruz de Blanco

We were definitely on the way now!