The Route Napoleon is 26 km long with a cumulative ascent of 1390 metres and it took me 7 hours to complete - 7 of the best hours of my life. (Napoleon used the route to get his troops in and out of Spain during the Peninsula War.) It's strenuous in parts - but hardly beyond the ability of your average hill walker. For me the day was a total joy. The miles seemed to fly by as I climbed higher and higher, and as ever more spectacular views opened up all around me (see 1st photo). The 1st 16 km is uphill - but after that it's more or less downhill for the rest of the crossing. Half the distance you follow a narrow tarmacked road, but it's very quiet with hardly any traffic. Then it's by natural pathways all the way to Roncesvalles.
After 11 km I reached the panoramic viewpoint of the Pic d'Orisson, where I perched precipitously on a narrow ledge of rock for half an hour and ate my picnic lunch. Close by was a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Vierge d'Orisson, which you can see in the 2nd photo. This statue had been brought here from Lourdes by shepherds. High above me 12 griffon vultures soared effortlessly in the thermals. There's a bigger concentration of these magnificent birds here than in any place in the world. It was bitterly cold. When I began walking again I'd lost all sensation in my nose, ears and lips. But I soon warmed up as I continued along the trail.
It was still a further 5 km to the border. The road now became a path ascending between huge rocks. There was a deep frost and some patchy mist but no real snow. I passed a tiny mountain refuge hut and soon arrived at the border fence and found the border marker stone. I was in Spain! The path climbed more gradually now through beech woods up to the Col de Bentarte. I took a picture of some frosted tree tops illuminated by the sun (3rd photo). A stray dog followed me for a few kilometres.
At the Col Lepreder there was another choice of routes: either down a winding, treacherously icy road or by a more direct, stony path which descended steeply through more woodland. I took the latter. Leaving the high plateau behind me I raced down this delightful track, pausing again briefly for a bite to eat and to take in the view which was more restricted now because of the trees. This forest is one of the largest remaining beech woods in Europe.
All too quickly the path levelled out and I glimpsed the roof of Roncesvalles abbey through the trees. I would spend the night here in the spartan refuge of the old hospital adjoining this monastery. What a day to remember...