San Juan de Ortega is a tiny hamlet with a population of 18 permanent residents. Nestled in a calm landscape and rich in cultural and environmental heritage, it serves as a gathering point for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Tourists and pilgrims arriving in the town in the spring and summer months number in the hundreds.
Juan Velazquez, (1080 – 1163), Saint John of Ortega, founded a community of Augustinian monks and built a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari sometime between 1115 and 1130.
Saint John had been a follower of Saint Dominic and had helped him build bridges in Logrono. After St. Dominic died Saint John went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
While sailing home he was caught in a storm and shipwrecked, during this event he prayed to Saint Nicholas of Bari, whose relic he was transporting back to Spain, that if the saint would intercede and save him that he would devote his life to helping pilgrims – something he had already been doing.
On his return, he chooses the dangerous area of Montes de Oca and set about clearing a path and building infrastructure to help pilgrims on their way to Santiago.
Saint John attracted the attention of Alfonso VII, who donated the taxes from most of the Montes de Oca and Saint John became his personal confessor. Pope Innocent II offered his personal protection to Saint John until his death in 1163 when the monastery came under the protection of Burgos Cathedral.
Legend attributes Saint John as the patron of children, hospice keepers, and barren women. Once when his tomb was opened, there was a pleasant odor, and a swarm of white bees flew out.
The white bees were interpreted as the souls of unborn children which the saint was keeping safe pending incarnation in faithful women. This legend was given further strength when Queen Isabel la Catolica visited the monastery in 1477 after seven years of childless marriage.
The Queen took home an arm from the monastery’s ivory crucifix as a souvenir; her son Juan was born shortly later. Queen Isabel, in gratitude, had the Church of San Nicolas de Bari completely rebuilt in a more luxurious style.
Some of the stories around Isabel are incredibly interesting, the following is only a short fragment but she was a remarkable woman. Isabel had married her second cousin Ferdinand in secret as her brother the King wanted her to marry in a political union.
They were married in 1469 and due to their family ties, being cousins, they had to obtain a dispensation from the Pope. Apparently, they were granted the dispensation by Pope Pius II (who had died 5 years earlier in 1464).
There are 114 miracles recorded by the monastery directly attributable to the intercession of either San Juan or San Nicolas.
Three of these are related to pilgrims: an Irish couple were praying by the tomb of San Juan and laid apples on it and the dead child asked for an apple; a deformed pilgrims who walked with crutches vowed not to leave until he was healed, he was; and a French pilgrim with deformed arms, who could hardly walk due to twisted feet was also healed.
It is believed that the oldest part of Church of San Juan de Ortega, three apses, was built by San Juan during the early 12th century. The rest of the church dates from the 15th century. Externally the church is quite plain, unlike Burgos Cathedral which was built by the same architect.
Internally there are three main sights to see. The capitals, (capital are the topmost of columns where they attach to the roof or where the load sits), the right apse capital illustrates again the battle between Roland and Ferragut; however, the left apse capital depicts the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity.
At 5 pm each equinox, (21st March and 22nd September), sunlight strikes this capital lighting up Mary’s belly while the rest of the church is in gloom, quite an architectural feat.
The 1474 Gothic Tomb of San Juan de Ortega is thought to be designed by John of Cologne, the architect who built the rest of the church, and carved by Gil de Siloe. The panels illustrate scenes from the Saint’s life.
Under the tomb, within the crypt, lies another earlier Romanesque tomb with original 12th-century iconography of the saint attended by angels and grieving monks.
As you walk around you will see three interesting retablos; one is designed as a shrine to San Nicolas and San Juan, this was financed by Queen Isabel; there is an interesting six panels in another retablo depicting tortured souls in hell and purgatory with Jesus and the Apostles above; the last is a narration of Saint Jerome’s life, including his time in the desert and the removal a thorn from the lion’s paw.
Today’s Walk: 24.9 km
If you have an older map of the Camino Frances it will illustrate three routes to Burgos, in reality, there is only one, until Burgos suburbs.
Only the main route is generally marked on modern maps and it is the same with the Camino’s yellow arrows – they will only show the main routes, rarely is there more than one each day.
The first half of the day is pleasant walking underfoot on country tracks with one short steep up and down over the Sierra de Atapuerca, the rest of the day wanders easily downward towards Burgos.
Today it is apparent that we are nearing a major town, you will pass an army base, old mines, and communications masts. As usual there are small villages for food and coffee every 3 to 4 km, except for the last stretch into Burgos.
About eight kilometers before Burgos there is a choice of routes. The right hand route is the older of the routes and it is through an industrial area, it is an unpleasant walk.
Many pilgrims get the bus at the start of the industrial area; there is a timetable at the bus stop and café nearby. It is worthwhile getting the bus and spending the extra time in Burgos; it is a beautiful city with a lot to see and it is also worth taking a rest day here, if you have plans for one.
The left hand route is new and follows the N120 into the city. This route is the preferred route if you decide to walk, however, it is also busy and noisy.
3.5 km, water, bar, cafe
The local parish Church of Santa Eulalia contains an interesting Rococo retablo and was once the resting place of King Garcia el de Najera. At the entrance to the church, there is a marker noting he was was buried here.
King Garcia was killed by his brother,Fernando I of Castilla, in the battle of Atapuerca between Ages and Atapuerca at a site known as Fin del Rey (Kings End).
2.7 km, water, cafe, bar
The 15th century parish Church of St Martin, a saint closely linked to the pilgrimage, is another illustration of the French influence and import of their saints along the route.
Atapuerca was one of the earliest villages reconquered and in 750 already had a small Christian population. In the 12th century the town was given to the Hospitallers of San Juan de Jerusalen as payment for their willingness to fight against the Moors and protect pilgrims.
Europe’s oldest human remains were discovered in caves near Atapuerca in the 1980s. Since 1994 there have been continual archaeology excavations in the area.
The oldest remains are thought to date from 780,000 years ago of a young male, discovered in a shaft known as ‘the Pit of Bones’.
The town of Atapuerca does little to promote these discoveries and it is possible to walk through the area and notice only one sign with a pre-historic human face.
However in recent years, a small exhibition center has been built just out of the village, if you watch carefully you will see the signs. The discoveries are kept in the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos.
From the top of the Sierra de Atapuerca, after Atapuerca, you can see the massive Burgos suburbs ahead and the flatness of the following days on the Meseta stretch out before you. Shortly after Atapuerca, there is a choice of two routes.
The newer of the Camino routes misses the next two villages, it is slightly shorter, but misses a great place to eat called Albergue San Miguel at the start of Cardenuela.
4.7 km, water
The Camino skirt the edge of this small village.
Cardenuela de Riopico
1 km, water,cafe, food
There is a Parish Church of Santa Eulalia with an image of Santiago and a Renaissance entrance. As is common before any large city there is little of interest in the surrounding villages, as if all culturally important information and building have been sucked to the center.
1.5 km, water, bar, cafe, food
Although there is the Church of San Millan, a fairly recent construction in the 19th century, the most important sight in the village is the local cafe.
It is approximately 11.5km into the center of Burgos from here without water fountains, depending on which route you choose, and the food is likely better in Orbaneja than suburban cafes in Burgos.
Shortly after crossing the motorway there is the choice to go left or right. If you intend to walk into Burgos the left path is better and there will be a water fountain a couple of kilometers further on.
If you intend to use public transport go right to Villafria where there is a cafe and the bus stop.
Villafria, located next to the airport, is essentially part of Burgos.
There is a cafe here and if you prefer to use public transport into the center of Burgos, there is a bus stop with the required timetable. If you are walking this route into Burgos some care is required at the few road crossings.
It’s an 8.5-km walk from Villafria to Burgos.
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.