Starting the Pilgrimage

Ruins of Santa Cristina Hospice in SomportRuins of Santa Cristina Hospice in Somport

One can start the Camino, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, from hundreds of different places all around Europe or even further abroad. But if you want to do the Spanish portion, as we did, then you are most likely to start in one of the spots in the Pyrenees where the routes from France cross into Spain. The two principle passes are in Roncesvalles and in Santa Cristina de Somport, which is only a few miles north of Jaca.

Emblem of the Santa Cristina HospiceEmblem of the Santa Cristina Hospice

Because Somport is where we first meet some of the characters in my novel-in-progress (the knight Fortun, his squire Nicolás, and their followers), I'll start my account here, although we did not actually begin our walk until Puente de la  Reina.

The hospital and monastery of Santa Cristina were build in the XIth century. At the height of the popularity of the pilgrimage between 200 thousand and 400 thousand pilgrims went through Somport every year. (When we did the Camino in 2011 it was estimated that about 250 thousand pilgrims would do the Camino, a peak number compared to previous years.)

Santa Cristina was mentioned in the Codex Calixtinus as one of the three great pilgrimage hospitals in the world. Key to its importance is its location on the Summus Portus, the mountain pass, which was often snowed in.

Santa Cristina in snowSanta Cristina in snow







In fact the legend of its origin involves just such a blizzard. Two noblemen were crossing over the mountains when they were caught in a snowstorm. They took refuge in a cave and prayed that they would survive the night. The next morning they dug themselves out and saw a dove who left a golden cross on a spot in the snow, where they determined to build a pilgrim refuge and hospital.

Model of what Santa Cristina might have looked like in the Middle AgesModel of what Santa Cristina might have looked like in the Middle Ages

Pilgrims could stay at the refuge for free for three days (compared to one or two days at other hospices) and longer if they were ill. If they died at the pass they were buried in the nearby necropolis.

From Somport is a short walk down to Jaca. After Jaca the next big stop is the town of Puente de la Reina. (This is not to be confused with the Puente de la Reina de Jaca, which is a Roman bridge pilgrims would cross as they left Jaca).

The town of Puente de la Reina, which also has a beautiful bridge built to accomodate pilgrims, is seventeen kilometres out from Jaca, a natural stopping point after a day of walking. On the way the pilgrim willing to take a four km detour can see the beautiful chapel of Santa Maria de Eunate.