The people of Navarra made the first pilgrimage to Javier in 1886, to the birthplace of their patron saint and pioneering missionary San Francisco Javier, to petition him to end the cholera outbreak plaguing the area at the time. Now called the Javierada, every March thousands of people from Pamplona and its surrounding towns and villages make the pilgrimage through the countryside to honour their patron saint at this historical and sacred site.
People choose to start from various locations but from Pamplona the pilgrimage is roughly 50km and although this is a fair distance the walk is mostly flat and runs along pathways or roads that are closed for the event. Me and Esteban, the father in my host family, set off early in the morning to arrive in time for the celebration that is held in Javier for the pilgrims at around five o’clock in the afternoon. There was a cloudless, blue sky and the sun was creeping up over Pamplona as we left the house loaded with supplies for our journey. It’s not a trek through the wilderness so all you really need is food and water for the day. We had made a couple of huge tasty looking baguettes the night before and because in Spain it seems unthinkable to eat without it, we also took a bottle of wine.
As we began the walk I was surprised by the amount and variety of people the pilgrimage attracts. For the duration of the walk it seemed like there was an endless stream of pilgrims and you will find people of many different ages and nationalities most of whom are more than willing to have a chat and share some stories. It is a long, enduring walk but like any hike, take some comfy shoes and clothing, food and drink and maybe some company and you will have everything you need. As we left Pamplona behind the route passed through some small villages as the countryside becomes more dominant and after a few kilometres we were surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards circled by the mountain ranges in the distance. Walking through the peaceful countryside in the sunshine, soaking up the friendly atmosphere of the pilgrimage and the buzzing collective energy for reaching the destination my mind was easily diverted from my tiring legs and sore feet and the kilometres rolled by.
The first real landmark or dramatic change in scenery came a few hours into the walk when my energy was dwindling and we were both ready for a break. After powering up a gently inclined path for a little while we came to a clearing at the top where panoramic views of the snow topped Pyrenees in the distance instantly re-energised me. I didn’t expect to see them so clearly and dramatically. This was a perfect opportunity for a rest so we had a sit down in the grass, took out the baguettes and cracked open the wine to enjoy our lunch with a view.
Now feeling refreshed, we continued the route with renewed pace and were soon descending to the small town of Sangüesa, the next checkpoint of the walk. Just 10km from Javier, Sangüesa is a popular starting point for many of the pilgrims as, from here, you can follow the procession all the way to Javier. Here we met the two boys of my host family and grabbed a coffee to give us the last push to the end. By late afternoon we began the descent to the castle of Javier in time for the mass that is held for the pilgrims.
Although the journey is what this experience is all about, the sight of the town of Javier and its impressive castle swarmed with people feels like an oasis in the desert after a day of hiking. It was great to lie out in the grass in the shadow of the castle and celebrate our arrival with the buzzing of pilgrims around us. You will need to save a little energy reserve however as a visit of the castle and its adjoining Basilica is very worthwhile. Dating from the 10th century the castle was the property of the family of San Francisco Javier and now that it has been restored you can explore the rooms and courtyards and climb the central tower to see uninterrupted views of the grounds and mountains in the distance.
An exciting journey through the less well explored countryside of Navarra, this is a great event that gives you an opportunity to meet all sorts of people and be part of this historical and unique pilgrimage. If you are planning to visit Pamplona during march I definitly recommend the Javierada!