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.

Monumento de los Caídos

making our way along the Camino through the Montes de Oca we stumbled up on this intriguing monument … the inscription of which indicated something about the Spanish Civil War but for which our guide book said nothing. well, not exactly nothing, it offered this: “A stark monument to the fallen caídos during the Spanish Civil War with picnic tables in the shelter of the trees and a backdrop of wind turbines on the rise behind.” proceeding on to describe how the track descends sharply to a creek bed before ascending again. it was a rather remarkable site and memorial … though the dozen picnickers (and the peregrinos walking along at our pace) did detract from the solemnity of the site.

I imagine it goes without saying that, as one thoroughly intrigued by all manner of historical background for my travels, this complete lack of interest in non-religious historical sites — really a kind of deliberate avoidance — cemented my antipathy towards our guidebook. how can you bring up picnic tables in the same breath as this stark monument to victims of the Spanish Civil War?! a war that I learned almost nothing about in any of the history courses I ever took.

upon getting home, I was gratified to discover that the book of cultural history we opted not to carry with us had slightly more information on this site. it’s a monument to men from Burgos (35km to the west) who were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night and taken for short drives from which they never returned. rebellion against the ruling Republican government broke out in July of 1936 and violence raged throughout the country over the next two months, with some of the worst perpetrated by fascist right wingers in Burgos: “During July and August of 1936, witnesses speak of discovering dozens of bodies every single day along the Arlanzon River, in the Montes de Oca, on the hill by Burgos’s castle, and on the forested grounds of the Cartuja de Miraflores.” (from Gitlitz and Davidson, 2000).

needless to say: I feel compelled to learn more about the Spanish Civil War to better understand how it ties into the history I have studied of the 20th century. also, I’m even more unimpressed by the guidebook we carried with us. was it worth the weight? perhaps, but only just.

Alto de Perdon

we had lots of firsts on our hike from Pamplona to Puente la Reina, foremost being our first really sunny day. a good night’s sleep and wonderful breakfast at the Palacio Guendulain had us leaving a bit later than the previous two days, which made the day even more challenging.

leaving Pamplona we walked through the campus of the University of Navarra (you know, the one run by Opus Dei) into a valley where, apparently, the city used to hang felons convicted of theft. beyond the village of Cizur Menor are the ruins of the original Guendulain manor house dating from the 16th century. from here we started an increasingly steep climb up the mountainside, stopping briefly in Zariquiegui to catch our breaths and refill water sacks from the tap next to the church. it was on the ascent into Zariquiegui we saw our first rescue vehicle — a guarda civil followed shortly by some EMT-looking types — assisting someone who hadn’t prepared for the day’s climb or heat. just above the town there’s a fountain of legend — the story goes that the Devil appeared before an exhausted and thirsty peregrino and offered him water if he would renounce his faith; the peregrino refused and Santiago appeared and led him to the fountain that remains today where the Saint offered him a drink from a scallop shell.

a hermitage and basilica once stood at on the Puente de Perdón which ran a hospital for peregrinos that is documented to have functioned until at least 1816. the buildings no longer remain, replaced by a line of wind turbines along the ridge — a parque eólico — built in the region around Pamplona. in 1996, the association of friends of the Camino constructed an impressive and evocative monument to peregrinos in the gap of wind turbines along the ridge. both our guidebook and the cultural “handbook” I’m browsing now bemoan the change wrought by the turbines — adding their “pfoomp pfoomp” to “ruin” the peace of the Camino. I cannot agree on this count — the turbines are incredible feats of engineering to behold and this is by far the closest I’ve ever been to one. you see them frequently along the Camino and I found it a great reminder of how the Camino and peregrinos have changed over the centuries.

well, well, well

tonight, while going through some photo albums for post ideas and realized that I’ve been to Paris on three separate occasions. that’s more than any other single international destination. (and I’m not counting London, though to get technical I came and went more than three times while I was there.)