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Review: Orreaga/Roncesvalles



Start of the Pilgrim route and with a superb Gothic church

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2467 reviews

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  • May 2013
  • Husband

129 people found this review helpful

Orreaga/Roncesvalles is at the foot of the pass across the Pyrenees into France and is the start of the Pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela a distance of 795km. Various walkers were milling around with packs and poles at 3pm. They wouldn’t get very far today. Apart from two restaurants, this is entirely a religious settlement. It is a popular tourist destination and has a huge car park.

At the start of the village is a white painted building which was built in 1612 as an inn and is still a restaurant today. Next to it is Capilla del Espiritu Santo, otherwise known as the Silo of Charlemagne. According to tradition, this was built for Roland and the other knights killed in the Battle of Roncesvalles. This present building dates from the 12thC and is a small square building with an arcade round a small cloister where canons were buried in the 17thC.

Beside this is the 13thC smaller stone Capilla de Santiago. At the end of the road is the long white building 19thC building which was the Prior’s House which has a small museum and library at the end.

An archway leads past the 17thC cloister which replaces the 13thC cloister which collapsed from the weight of snow on it. Beyond is Iglesia de Santa Maria with the 19thC Pilgrim hospital, a large white building on three sides behind it. There has been a hospital here since the 12thC. This is now the youth hostel, still serving ‘pilgrims’.

Iglesia de Santa Maria is one of the best examples of Navarrese Gothic architecture and was founded by Sanchos VII, the Strong, at the beginning of the 13thC, as his burial site. It suffered a series of fires and by the start of the 17thC was virtually derelict and abandoned. There was a major reconstruction. The Gothic interior was covered and given a Baroque finish.

The church has a massive west front with an offset bell tower. This has machicolations at the top and a pointed roof. Entry is through a double wooden doorway, part of the 13thC building. The decoration round the doorway has been recarved and looks very new. On either side are pillars with acanthus leaf tops supporting a pointed arch. The tympanum has a representation of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus, with kneeling angels on either side. Below is a frieze with carvings of angels, the Annunciation and scroll designs with vine leaves and grapes.

Inside is a small porch with a step to trap the unwary and another door into the church, with more steps down from it. Coming from the outside, the church seems very dark until your eyes have chance to adjust. The modern stained glass windows are mainly shades of blue and don’t let much light through, especially in the afternoons of a rather dull day. Two large plain windows at the back of the church flood the back of the nave with light making the rest of the church seem even darker. There is a coin box to pay for lighting. €1 buys 8 minutes.

Large round pillars with acanthus leaf capitals support pointed arches separating the very wide nave from the narrower and lower side aisles. Above are circular stained glass windows with pictures of buildings, Stella Maris with a boat and star above and a three storey fountain.

The nave and aisle ceilings are vaulted. On the walls of the north aisle are recesses with a central round pillar with a carved capital. The south aisle has two large tombs set in recesses. That nearest the door has a carved cross with a circular head on op. On the back wall is the Xhi-Rho symbol. The base of the tomb is carved with shields, bishop’s crook and mitre and has a carving of the crowned figure of the Virgin holding a crowned baby Jesus. The pointed arch above the recess has a shield carved above it. The second tomb is much plainer with a large carved cross with a round top on the front. There was no information about these.

In the south wall is a small recessed area with a metal grille across. This has a crucifix hanging on one wall. On a pillar is the top half of a woman in traditional dress. In front is the usual bank of electric candles for pilgrims.

The large central apse has a small free standing mass altar. Behind is a metal canopy with the figures of saints, bishops and apostles carved on the underside. Beneath it under a gilded arch is a wooden chair with a gilded crucifix carved on the back. Above the arch is the beautiful 14thC silver plated statue of Our Lady of Roncevalles holding the figure of the Christ Child. On either side are angels holding candles (with electric ‘flames’). On the back wall are more carved chairs. Above are three very tall windows with modern stained glass with Biblical scenes.

On the south wall next to the chancel is an altar with a gilded reredos above with a pilgrim in the centre surrounded by elaborate carvings of fruits and flowers. On either side are pillars supported by cherubs and carved with bunches of grapes and vine leaves. At the top is another cherub head.

On either side of the chancel are stained windows with images of saints. One shows St Veremundusa above a picture of a church. Another is St Firminus above a picture of him being beheaded. There is St Michael killing the dragon and St Augustinus as a bishop holding a church.

There is a beautiful round west window. In the centre is Mary with the baby Jesus. This is surrounded by smaller circles with images of angels. Outside these are quatrefoils with crests.

This is a beautiful church and well worth visiting. It is so large that even with a lot of people, it doesn’t seem crowded.

The rest of the sites in the village can only be visited as part of a guided tour booked through the tourism office.

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