Today we ascend to the Camino’s highest point between the middle of France and the Atlantic Ocean. But don’t get excited. The meseta, while offering no perspective, is at over eight hundred metres; the country after Astorga, between nine hundred and a thousand.
So the climb from Rabanal to Iron Cross is only about five hundred metres, and it’s gradual.
While there is a sense of being in a mountainous region, it’s not nearly as dramatic as when one is crossing the Pyrenees or, later on, the Cebreiro.
Close to the top, the village of Foncébadon is reached.
The Bierzo was the richest mining region in the Roman world, and was exploited heavily for minerals long before Romans. Yet, by the Middle Ages, towns like Foncébadon owed their existence to the Camino alone. These stone huts, with the characteristic slate roofs, give a sense of the abandon and decay of the late twentieth century.
In the last decades, the revival of the Camino has brought life to the village, and some new heritage-style buildings. Choose thatch or slate.
Soon the pilgrim arrives at the well-known focal point of Iron Cross, Cruz de Ferro. It’s a pole with a crucifix on top, stuck in a big mound of rocks. The story is that these rocks have been added one at a time, by visitors and pilgrims.
Like much that has to do with old races and traditions, the habit of making piles of stones is of uncertain origin. We think it’s a pilgrim thing to do, possibly because there are so many piles along the Camino. In fact, the piling of stones – for boundaries, waymarking, religion or fun – has always gone on where stones are plentiful and nothing else is.
Perhaps a pillar stabilised in a stone pile would have been helpful to wayfarers, especially in snow, even before pilgrimage. Whatever the origins, the Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, is now a big part of pilgrim ritual. You chuck a rock over your shoulder – preferably one from your home – to add to the pile. I just used a rock from near the base, because I’m such a passionate recycler. (Like I’m going to carry rocks from Oz!)
After this point, we are in the Bierzo, and things get pretty indeed. Postcards.
The last snap shows what most of the Bierzo is: a deep dish between mountains. Though it feels mountainous, because the peaks are seldom out of sight, the base is considerably lower than the meseta and even much of the country before Burgos. The area’s high “feel” results from perspective, not altitude.
Of course, there’s a berciano identity, separatist movement, dialect, boiled dinner and so on. It’s CyL, Castile and Leon, for its administration, yet heavily influenced by Galicia to its west, and has its own Celtic roots. It was very briefly a separate province in the nineteenth century. That language is a mix of Asturian and Galician, though Leonese is an influence in the eastern parts. Yet if local languages are spoken here, I was not aware of it. It’s not like Galicia, where you quickly discover that everyone is speaking the local tongue, and interchanging with Spanish when required.
As one pushes into north western Spain, it’s worth mentioning that its pre-Roman culture was busy and highly developed. It was heavily Celtic, and as I progressed west I saw many people who looked just like Sydney Irish Catholics from around Randwick. Yet the word Celtic is a convenience, of course, since any culture where trade, sea, and mountains come into the mix is bound to be racially complex, and complex in most other ways.
One handy expression is Castro Culture. It describes the town/fortress civilisation that covered the region as it moved from bronze to iron and Celtic influence grew strong. Not long before the Romans arrived, some of these fort-towns covered up to fifty hectares. Trade with Carthage and the Mediterranean was constant, and local artisanry was of high standard.
Fair to speak of a civilisation of city-states? Certainly, baths, street-paving, guttering existed in the most developed settlements.
There is also talk of an interesting form of tourism and cultural exchange. Some say that Celts passed on foot from France, and even beyond, into Northern Spain, on a ritual journey to the Atlantic coast. Don’t know if the Milky Way was involved.
I spent the evening high on the rim of that great dish. The typically slate-roofed village of El Acebo is back in business thanks to the modern Camino. It doesn’t lack Camino ambiance.