Anyone who has already walked the Camino Frances route knows about the importance of the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross on the Camino de Santiago). It is set on a gently sloping hill, the highest point on the Camino Frances.
The views offered from up top are incredible indeed, and the legends behind the Cross are enough to spark the imagination of any history buff. 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 will make a stop here.
If you’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago soon, here’s what you can expect at the Cruz de Ferro.
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Cruz de Ferro Legends
Located between Rabanal del Camino and Ponferrada, the Iron 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 was 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 guiding pilgrims to their destination. Whether this was its original purpose, most people today 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 performing a ritual involving 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 the actual truth, 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.
Video of the Cruz de Ferro
This short 4 minute video gives the best overview of the Cruz de Ferro, the location, the surrounding area, and some thoughts on legends I had not come across.
One of the best things about the Cruz de Ferro 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 hometown 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 hills and the cross.
Others write notes and prayers, leave them in the cracks at the foot of the cross, and let go of emotional burdens.
Getting to the Cruz de Ferro
While the climb to the Iron Cross summits the highest point on the Camino France, it can easily be managed if you take it easy and have a good pair of hiking shoes. You begin the climb just after Astorga, where you won’t even notice you’re going uphill for several kilometers.
The cross 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 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 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, I recommend you take some time to take in the scenery because it’s truly magnificent. The whole area is soothing and breathtakingly beautiful, so make sure to snap a mental picture before you continue your journey.
Continuing Along the Camino
It’s worth noting that the descent after the Iron Cross is much more difficult than the actual climb to the Cross. You’ll be able to see the El Bierzo province and its many wonders, and I recommend 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?
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. 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.