At the foot of the Ibañeta pass, where the peaks of the Western Pyrenees start rising up, and close to the broad plain of Auritz/Burguete
, lies Orreaga/Roncesvalles, a natural pass through the Pyrenees where the Battle of Roncesvalles took place in 778. This was one of the most painful defeats of the French army in which Charlemagne lamented the death of Roland, the finest knight in France. The event inspired the Chanson de Roland.
In a setting surrounded by beech, fir and oak forests, the Collegiate of Santa María de Orreaga/Roncesvalles
rises up majestically, a former pilgrim's hospice and one of the most well-known stops on the Pilgrim's Way to Compostela.
The Collegiate was built at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries. The entrance esplanade leads us to the Priory House and the Library Museum
before taking us through a small, low vaulted tunnel to the main buildings.
The restored collegiate church of St. Mary, consecrated in 1219, is in French Gothic style and has a defensive tower dating from the fourteenth century. The high altar is presided over by an image of St. Mary of Roncesvalles (14th century), a wooden Gothic carving covered in silver which, according to legend, appeared miraculously after a nocturnal sighting of a stag in whose horns two brilliant stars shone.
Access to the cloister is from the Epistle side, which was built in the seventeenth century, the early Gothic cloister having been demolished in 1600 after a huge snowfall. From here, you come to the chapel of St. Augustine
, in the centre of which is the tomb of Navarrese King Sancho VII 'el Fuerte'. Take a look at the maces and chains displayed at the head. According to legend, these were the chains that the king snatched from the Moor Miramamolín during the battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212), the story of which is also told in the church's stained glass windows and forms part of the coat of arms of Navarre.
The oldest building is the chapel of Sancti Spiritus
, or Charlemagne's Silo (12th century), in Romanesque style. The building stands over a crypt with a vaulted ceiling, where, it is said, Roland pierced himself with his sword after the defeat.
This magical setting is rounded off by other buildings such as the church of Santiago
(St. James), also known as the Pilgrims' church, and civil buildings such as the former hospital (built between 1802 and 1807) and the museum-library, which dates back to the end of the nineteenth century.
Here you can admire some of the artistic treasures that have accumulated at Orreaga/Roncesvalles through the years, such as "Charlemagne's chess set"
, a reliquary of gilded and enamelled silver regarded as one of the finest works of medieval enamelling; the Virgin of the Treasure (14th century) and a silver Romanesque book of Gospels. It's also placed the Casa de los Beneficiados (18th century), nowadays a hotel, and the Casa Itzandegia, an early hospital which was considered for a long time to be the first sanctuary of the Virgin.
After visiting the Collegiate, let yourself be enveloped by the peacefulness of the extensive beech woods that merge into pastureland on the highest peaks; or walk along one of the trails in the area
, such as the one that runs through the Basajaunberro Forest
(3.9 km). Although it is not signposted, the Canónigos (canons') trail, which leaves from the back of the Itzandegia building, is an easy and enjoyable circular walk of 1,6 km that comes back along a section of the Pilgrim's Way.
You can also discover another of the great treasures of this area: Idiazabal cheese
made from sheep's milk. You can buy it in the Collegiate's cheese shop, but if you would like to find out how it is made, visit the cheese dairies in the area
where they will show you the production process.