When people ask which has been my favorite trip, I never hesitate: Walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. In fact, I usually say, “Except for giving birth, it’s the best thing I ever did.”
You’re carrying a backpack with everything you need for the next 4-6 weeks. Every item in the backpack is essential; there’s no room for indulgences. Ideally, it all weighs no more than 10% of your body weight.
And yet, you allot space and a few ounces for a stone. Because of the Cruz de Ferro…the iron cross.
What is the Cruz de Ferro?
You may wonder why all the fuss about a simple metal cross on top of a wooden pole. Plus, it’s a replica; the original is preserved in the Museo de los Caminos in Astorga ( 17 miles/27 km before the cross) must be a backstory, right? First, a few logistics…
The cross is located in the province of León, between between the towns of Foncebadón and Acebo. It’s still another 138 miles/222 kilometers–about 48 more hours of walking–from Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of Saint James rest in the cathedral.
This is the highest point of the entire walk. After climbing through the pass of Irago, which requires pure determination (In my journal, I wrote “Brutal!”), the Cruz de Ferro stands at 4,938 feet (1,505 meters). Note: As a reference, this stage of the Camino begins at 2,001 feet (610 meters), so the day’s ascent is incredibly steep.
How did the cross get there, anyway?
No documentation is available, but there are a few explanations for how the Cruz de Ferro was placed at this spot:
- It was simply a road marker. Because of snow, the road could be impossible to locate, so the cross indicated the high point.
- It replaced a pile of stones, one of many placed by early Celts that marked strategic spots along the road. The stacks were actually Roman altars, called Montes de Mercurio. After the Celts were converted to Christianity, crosses were added to the piles.
- It was erected in the 11th century by Gaucelmo, the hermit who became the abbot and founder of the monastery at Foncebadon. Crop reapers used the road to get to the farmlands of Castile and León. They’d toss stones at the base of the cross on their way to or from work.
It actually makes sense that all three could be true. After all, the road has been there for many centuries, and could have been marked for practical and religious reasons.
What about the stone?
One of the highlights and rituals of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is bringing a stone to the Cruz de Ferro. A steel cross placed on about 16 feet up on top of a wooden pole might not seem significant, but peregrinos approach the small hill with silence and respect. And their stone.
The stone usually comes from the pilgrim’s home and is carried nearly all the way. Placing it at the cross before entering Santiago symbolizes a release of burdens. People bring other objects, too: photos, religious tokens, letters.
Approaching the cross is not only a relief, but also emotional. This is an important symbol, no matter what your beliefs. It’s a moment to consider your reason for deciding to walk, as well as to join the hundreds of thousands who have stopped here and left their own stones.
There is a traditional prayer that accompanies the placing of a stone or object:
O Lord, may the stone which I bring to this holy place be a sign of pilgrimage to Santiago. When I reach my final judgment, tip the balance of my life in favor of my good deeds. I lay down this token which I carry from [starting point]. Please forgive my sins and help me carry my burdens in life. Amen.
As I prepared for The Camino, it took me a long time to decide on my stone. I’m from the Chicago area, but had been living in Seattle for 12 years before returning to be near family. Seattle had my heart, so I settled on a stone from Golden Gardens, a park on the edge of Puget Sound. I liked how the water had smoothed and rounded the stone over time…something I hoped was also true for me.
Some people sign or date their stone. They write a quote or a message, whatever makes it meaningful for them. I decided to place the stone as I found it. Simple, clean, perfect.
In only a few more days, this magnificent journey will end, when pilgrims reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. Here, they report to the Pilgrim Office, Oficina del Peregrino, to show their Pilgrim Passport. The stamps are proof that the pilgrim did, indeed, walk the path. In return, the office awards a certificate, the Compostela, the document that verifies the completion of the journey to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle.
Interested in making your own pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago? After I walked it, I wrote an ebook to help others plan and pack: Follow the Yellow Arrows: Planning and Packing for the Camino de Santiago. If I can do it, so can you!
Want to learn more about The Camino de Santiago?