Javierada – the pilgrimage to Javier

 

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!

 

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What is it like to live with a host family?

 

When you are moving abroad it can be really difficult to integrate into a new community and find your feet, especially if you are moving somewhere with an unfamiliar language and culture. To be welcomed into a family, I think, really enhances your experience and it can be very comforting to have a group of people giving you a little bit of love when you are starting out in a completely new environment.

I found my host family by chance. I didn’t realise at the time that it was such a popular option, and how valuable it would be for a family to have a native English speaker live with them. One day at school a fellow teacher asked me if I had thought of living with a local family as he knew many who would be interested in having me stay. He phoned around and I met one of the families after school. They seemed to like me so the next day I moved into my own room in a flat with the family, really close to my school. On the day I moved in I was given a key, presented with my own unique napkin ring and welcomed into the family feeling very blessed to receive such a welcome. They gave me a tour of the house and one of the sons showed me around the town and helped me settle in.

After four and a half years of living with friends at university I had become quite happy living independently and enjoying the freedom that comes from living in your own house so at first it was a bit strange integrating back into family life. I expected this but it was an odd transition. Remembering to be back for dinner, contributing my dirty socks to the family wash at regular intervals and getting my place in the bathroom queue most mornings certainly took some getting used to. Honestly, by living with a host family you have to be prepared to give up some of your freedom. This becomes particularly hard when you start making friends but I still think it is a great thing to do as the benefits more than make up for any freedom you may loose.

So why is it a good thing to do? Firstly, if you are hoping to learn the local language and improve your language skills, living with a family is great. The parents I lived with spoke no English and they enjoyed talking to me in Spanish a lot. I learnt loads just listening to them talking and explaining things to me and after a few weeks we developed a relaxed relationship where I felt comfortable practicing my speaking skills, asking questions, and developing my language with daily practice.

During my time at University I had mastered pretty great pesto pasta however, for the time living with my host family, this skill was not necessary. On my first night staying with the family, I was taught how to make the infamous Spanish omelette, and during my time I have been really lucky to taste traditional Spanish culinary delights daily. Spanish cuisine is quite distinctive and it has been a real treat to learn some Spanish dishes and enjoy them with the family, something I certainly wouldn’t have experienced living on my own in a flat.

 

One of the best things about living with this family were all the random experiences I had with them. For them it was just normal life, but when you move abroad all your senses are heightened to the differences of your new life and the new place you are living in. What may be normal life for your family, can be a great experience for you. Having lunch with the grandparents, helping prune the olive trees and visiting aunty in the mountains are not only all great ways to see what it is like to live here but they are also experiences that I wouldn’t have had without the family.

Living with a family is not all about you and what you can gain from the experience. It is also about what you can give back, like any family. The obvious appeal to having me living with them is the help the family can get with their English skills. The two boys in the family are learning English at school and they got to practice their English daily with me and I gave them a few relaxed lessons a week to help them improve. Furthermore, as much as I enjoyed learning from my family about the Spanish culture, they too enjoyed asking me questions and getting insights in to what it is like to live in England and the cultural differences between the two countries. I even taught the parents a few English words and treated them to a deluxe version of my pesto pasta!

Finally by living with a family you can make a real attachment to the place you are living in and feel like you have integrated into the community a bit. It gives you a chance to meet great people and create a friendship that will last. I will certainly be back to Pamplona in the future!