Cruz de Ferro

the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) marks the highest elevation on the Camino at just over 1,500 meters. it was one of the more iconic images to strike me when watching “The Way” — a cross perched atop a pole above a mound of stones, left behind one by one by peregrinos. as a symbol of the spiritual foundation of the Camino, the potential profundity of our approach to the Cruz was undercut by one of the largest groups of cyclists we’d yet seen.

while the precise origins of the Cruz de Ferro remain unknown, they might lie in the traditions of any number of inhabitants or visitors, many of whom used stones as markers. the pre-Roman Celts marked passes with cairns; Romans did the same in honor of Mercury, patron saint of travelers. as my book puts it — the hermit Gaucelmo (who built a church in Foncebadón in the 12th century and put the cross on top of the existing cairn) “essentially Christianized a pagan monument.” another theory posits that Galicians traveling eastward to work on farms during the growing season would deposit a stone to mark crossing over the Monte Irago in each direction.

whatever the origins, however, peregrinos have taken up the tradition of leaving behind stones or other mementos. we’d first encountered the mound in the film, but more than a few people mentioned it early on the Camino; some people bring items with them (there were a couple of printed sheets memorializing individuals, some flags, and other unique items), some people pick up pebbles or rocks along the way. for some these mementos symbolize the sins the hope to absolve by completing the Camino; for some they represent the person for whom they are undertaking the Camino; for some its an acknowledgement of the physical task to which they’ve set themselves. from atop the mound you can see the mountains of Galicia — still another full day’s walk away.

as I mentioned above, the Cruz de Ferro was one of the more solemn places on the Camino; approaching from a distance after hiking for 25 days and hundreds of miles, anticipating it for weeks and finally seeing it against the clear blue sky… it lends itself to reflection. we arrived along with about 20 cyclists who were quite boisterous and clearly aiming for (and having) a different experience. they certainly weren’t rude or disrespectful, per se, just having a very different experience than most of the peregrinos that arrived on foot. as we entered the final week of the Camino, the differences between cyclist peregrinos and pedestrian peregrinos became more apparent. perhaps it had something to do with knowing that the people you saw today, all kitted out in their spandex with panniers, will reach Santiago in three our four days whereas on foot it will take twice as long or more. and the Camino makes different physical demands on the cyclist versus the pedestrian. there was a woman who arrived on foot a few minutes behind us who was quite upset that the cyclists were taking photos and chatting, generally more boisterous and vocal; she wanted a more somber experience, in addition to a more solemn one, and didn’t take it well that not everyone at the monument a the time felt the same way. but as someone observed, everyone does the Camino in their own way; everyone has their own experience and everyone has their own expectations for what they’ll get out of it. sometimes it’s good to just let the experience wash over you and accept what happens — especially on the Camino. there was almost always an expansive blue sky to bring you back to yourself.


something we saw increasingly as we headed from León to Galicia were completely abandoned villages, or villages with two or even one permanent resident. this concept came up for the first time as we walked through the first town beyond Rabanal del Camino — Foncebadón. whereas Rabanal had not only several albergues, two hotels, casa rurales, a neighborhood store, and two cafes its closest neighbor only boasted  three small, moderately-equipped albergues, one of which also served as the town’s only pub.

during the middle ages, however, the town flourished, nestled on a sheltered ridge just below the pass over the Irago Mountains on the Roman-built road that wends its way towards the gold mines of Bierzo in one direction and far distant Italy in the other. for a time, it was the preferred (and only safe) route and received approval and development support from a number of monarchs over the centuries. vivacity of the town dwindled steadily from about the 16th century as the stream of peregrinos slowed; wars and new roads kept people away or sent the few travelers along other paths over the mountains.

by the early 1970s not only were most of the peregrinos gone, but so were virtually all inhabitants. as one of my guidebooks put it, in 1974, the village was in its “death throes” with only 4 inhabitants tending a couple of cows and sheep; by 1990 it was only a mother and son. — “Our pilgrims were permitted to lay sleeping bags on straw in one of the two houses in the village still having a semblance of a roof.” it sounded as if the buildings of Foncebadón crumbled and collapsed with each successive group they shepherded along the Camino until virtually nothing structurally reliable remained. all of which is to explain why we opted for Rabanal instead of hiking the extra 6 kilometers to this near ghost town.

staying over would have probably proven a unique Camino experience; at least we wouldn’t have needed to sleep out in the elements… (which gets me thinking — where along the Camino did Martin Sheen and his companions have to sleep outdoors? perhaps reason enough to go back and watch it to determine if I can pinpoint the general vicinity.) we ran into the Australian couple from San Martin while noshing in Molinaseca (our destination this day) and they related their experience of staying overnight in Foncebadón. very quite and somewhat eerie are the terms that come to mind. as I said, there are some refurbished buildings to cater to peregrinos, but more remain abandoned. in the second picture above you can see the patchwork metal roof on the left barely keeping out the weather and, presumably, just keeping the building from giving up sooner rather than later.

as for the cross in the above image, I forget the origins — perhaps something to do with erecting crosses in order to get a tax exemption — but there were signs asking peregrinos not to leave rocks at the base of each. two kilometers beyond the village is the Cruz de Ferro (about which more shortly) where the growing mound is an important Camino milestone and where people are invited to leave behind pebbles. for the few villagers, however, it seems an undue additional burden to keep the non-Cruz-de-Ferro free of pebbles from over-eager peregrinos.