Roncevaux and the pilgrimage road were bound to each other in an essential way. In order to enter Spain, pilgrims had to cross the Pyrenees. The most popular route was the Cize Pass. The ascent began at Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and passed over the mountains to Pamplona on the Spanish side.
As the descent into Spanish territory began, the road led through a narrow and heavily wooded defile called Roncevaux. It was here that in the long distant and mythical past, the mother of all battles had taken place between the Christian Franks and the Moors of Spain.
They were surprised and overwhelmed by a massive Saracen force and Roland tried to recall the main body of the army by sounding his horn, the Olifant made of elephant tusk, blowing so hard that he burst the vessels of his temple.
In a dying gesture, Roland tried to smash his great sword Durendal against a rock rather than have it fall into enemy hands but finding that his stroke was so powerful and the sword so well made that it split the boulder in two. Roland died a martyr’s death.
At Blaye, not far from Bordeaux, pilgrims could visit the tomb of Roland in the church of Saint Romanus. A little further south at Belin was the burial ground of the fallen Frankish warriors. At the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux, the Olifant was displayed on the altar. All along the pilgrim roads jongleurs would recite the epic poem known as the Song of Roland which was but the most famous of a huge repertoire of popular legends centered around Charlemagne and the heroic feats of his twelve paladins.