People who’ve already walked the Camino de Santiago know that there’s one thing that should absolutely not be missed — the Cruz de Ferro. Also known as the Iron Cross, it is set on a gently sloping hill that also happens to be the highest point of the French Way.
The views offered from up top are incredible indeed, and the legends behind it are enough to spark the imagination of any history buff who’s looking for their next adventure. But most of all, the respectful peace of this spot is spiritually uplifting even for the non-religious, and travelers who long to see something unique that reflects much of the Camino spirit should definitely make a stop here.
If you’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago soon, here’s what you can expect from Cruz de Ferro.
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Located between Rabanal del Camino and Ponferrada, this cross is a bit of a mystery even for historians. Erected atop a five-meter wooden pole, most people believed that it was built for a very practical purpose — marking the way for pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances during the winter when everything is covered in a thick layer of snow.
The landmark would rise high enough for anyone walking along the road to notice it and serve as a welcoming beacon that would guide the pilgrim to their destination. Whether this was its original purpose or not, most people today do use it to help them mark their way.
Some historians believe that it was a place used by the Celts even in pre-Christian times and that it was a part of an unknown ritual, while others believe that the ancient Romans used it to mark a border between two territories.
Speculations abound, but the most popular belief is that the cross was put there by Apostle James himself. As the tale goes, St. James was passing through the land on one of his evangelical missions, when he encountered pagan priests who were performing a ritual that involved human sacrifice. Full of righteous anger, he grabbed a stone from his pocket and threw it at the pagan altar. Guided by the Lord, the stone shattered the altar into a thousand tiny pieces, and St. James erected a large cross in its place to mark the power of the Almighty.
Regardless of what the actual truth is, Cruz de Ferro is beautiful to behold and climbing to the top of the hill will allow you to take in your surroundings from a different perspective.
One of the best things about the Iron Cross is that it allows you to partake in a very old, freeing tradition. When you approach it, you’ll see that it’s surrounded by small rocks of all shapes and sizes and that most pilgrims who walk past tend to say a prayer and place a rock of their own near the cross.
According to custom, if you bring a small piece of your own home town along with you, you may place it at the foot of the hill and symbolically “leave your burdens behind.” If you like, you may say a prayer and enjoy the profound peacefulness that envelops both hill and cross.
Getting to the Cruz de Ferro
While the climb to the Iron Cross is one of the most difficult parts of the Camino de Santiago, it can easily be managed as long as you’ve got a good pair of hiking shoes on your feet. You begin the climb just after Astorga, where you won’t even notice you’re going uphill for several kilometers. Even if you’re on a bike and need to be a little more careful, it’s still a very safe road that can be conquered with no issues whatsoever if you take an occasional break.
The cross itself is located in the Leon Mountains in the north of Spain, and you’ll come upon a few interesting places before you even reach it. Astorga itself is worth a visit because of its Episcopal Palace designed by Antoni Gaudí, and after you continue past Cruz de Ferro you’ll see a little town called Ponferrada. In it, you can find the imposing Knights Templar Castle that overlooks the river, and a big old town square full of excellent shops and restaurants.
Once you finally reach the cross, we recommend that you take some time to simply take in the scenery because it’s truly magnificent. The whole area is very soothing and breathtakingly beautiful, so make sure to snap a mental picture or two before you continue your journey.
Continuing Along Your Path
It’s worth noting that the descent can be a tiny bit more difficult than the actual climb in some spots, but it’s generally still safe and easy to cross. You’ll be able to see the El Bierzo province and its many wonders, and we recommend that you stop in a few villages and taste the delicious wines of this region before you continue ahead. With the memory of Cruz de Ferro in your mind, what better way to celebrate than with a glass of fine red?
Regardless of whether you’re a Christian or not, the Iron Cross is worth a visit due to the simple fact that it’s a part of the history of the Camino and that it is shrouded in a lot of interesting mysteries. Visit it, take your time to enjoy it, and you’ll surely find the experience to be very soothing.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.