Camino Highlight: Cruz de Ferro

Pilgrims lay their burdens and prayers at the foot of the  Cruz de Ferro

Pilgrims lay their burdens and prayers at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro

Pilgrims who walk the entirety of the French Way will notice that, in the last stage through the autonomous community of Galicia, the terrain and even some of the art and ruins are reminiscent of Celtic art seen in Britain and Ireland. The town of Foncebadón, nestled in the Western arm of the Cantabrian Mountain range where it becomes the León and Galician mountains, has an especially strong Celtic feel, with thousand-year-old ruins of a chapel and a hospitality center for medieval pilgrims.

Just past the diminished town, pilgrims pass the highest point of the French Way, where the Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross stands. Guidebooks and other sources are hazy on the origin of this spot, where a tall pillar topped with a large iron cross stands by the road – some suggest it was a marker for the road in snowy seasons, while others claim it was a place of significance before the Camino was founded. All agree it is very old, and the current tradition that surrounds it is a beautiful one.

One of the most noticeable details of the site is the huge pile of stones that surrounds the base of the pillar. These come from all over the world, as pilgrims take a stone – sometimes small enough to fit in their pocket, sometimes surprisingly large – from their hometown in order to lay it at the base of the cross. The size of the pile shows that the number of pilgrims who have done this over the years is beyond counting.

Closer observation of the stones will show that some have prayers written on them, some hold down longer messages written on paper or photographs of deceased loved ones. Through the decades and centuries, pilgrims have carried a stone to symbolize the weight they carry – physical, emotional, spiritual – from haunting sins, failed or broken relationships, and pain or loss. Here at the Iron Cross, they lay down the stone as a gesture of release. As men and women for thousands of years have found freedom from their burdens at the cross of Jesus, so pilgrims experience the physical unburdening of leaving the stone at the Iron Cross.

It is a beautiful spot, even for those who may not find much meaning in such symbols. The pile of stones stands as a testament to the thousands and thousands of pilgrims who have gone before, taking comfort in their faith. The messages and photographs and other tokens are windows into the personal pain and experience of others – the very pain and experience that lies beneath the surface of all you meet along the Camino. The spot has the air of the sacred, and yet is very much human as well.

What pain or memories would you lay at the base of this monument? What stones would you place there? Write to me at


Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter.