1 . BORDER CANFRANC
Route: Somport Candanchú Santa Cristina Canfranc Estación La Torreta CANFRANC
The central Pyrenees is a region of jutting peaks whose summits and upper slopes lie high above the tree lines. On the French side, north of the watershed axis, the valleys are wet, cold, and heavily forested. On the Spanish side, during the Pleistocene epoch massive glaciers scooped out U-shaped valleys perpendicular to the watershed divide, with lateral streams plummeting into the central valleys. The Spanish valleys drop rapidly into a much drier Mediterranean climate with markedly different vegetation: with each 200 m. of descent, 1 degree of mean annual temperature is gained, and several centimeters of annual precipitation are lost. The high valley walls all catch the winds and moisture and block the sunlight differentially, creating numerous microclimates. Overall, as you drop toward Jaca you will note a half dozen different ecosystems.
Several types of oaks are found in the upper valleys. The slopes and edges of the valleys are dense with heath-type plants: gorse (spiny, low, evergreen shrubs with yellow flowers), bracken ferns, Spanish broom, and heather. Along the streambeds are willows and poplars, and in the lower valley are thick tangles of briar. From midvalley almost to Jaca are thickets of boxwood (boj; bojerales). You will also see increasing quantities of wild herbs, particularly lavender (lavanda) and thyme (tomillo).
Along most of the descent, agricultural villages, spaced at 3- or 4-km. intervals, cling to small promontories or terraces that both offer protection and free up valuable bottomland for agriculture. The violent history of this region at the time the villages were established meant that there were almost no dispersed farmsteads. Instead, peasants clustered their homes and barns for protection and walked daily out to their fields. Most of the isolated buildings you will see are modern.
Somport The Somport pass (Summus portus; 1,640 m.) has been the preferred Roman route across the central Pyrenees ever since Cato conquered the Jacetania tribes around Jaca in 195 B.C.E. This relatively easy corridor from Oloron, France, to Jaca has been favored by merchants, pilgrims, and invading armies over the centuries. In the 4th c. the Vandals invaded through this pass. A century later the Visigoths swept through. In the 8th c. ragtag bands of Christians defended these heights against the Muslim invaders from the south, struggling to keep them from spilling into France. The 16th-c. Hapsburg kings fortified the pass against anticipated French invasions, but these did not come until 1809, when Napoleon's Mariscal Suchet swept through here on his way to occupy Jaca. When General Espoz y Mina finally ousted the French in 1814, they retreated along this same road. And modern bunkers from the time of the Civil War (see ch. 24) can still be seen along every pinch point leading up to the pass.
The pass also channeled most pilgrim traffic until the 12th c., when Navarran and Basque bandits were brought under control, making the much easier pass to the west through Roncesvalles safe. For most pilgrims, both medieval and modern, the entry into Spain was an emotional experience, for it meant that they had left their old lives behind and had reached the land of the Apostle. The breathtaking view of snowcapped peaks from the pass didn't hurt either.
The pass is marked by the Ermita del Pilar, built in 1992, and a modern pedestal decorated with the cross of Santiago.
At the border you are roughly 850 km. from Compostela.
Candanchú (Camp d'Anjou). This was the camp established by the French Anjou dynasty that claimed sovereignty of the valley. At 1,560 m., today it thrives as a ski resort. Just below the town, on a spur of rock to the left of the highway, are scattered ruins of a castle erected early in the 13th c. for the protection of pilgrims. It was purchased by the king of Aragón in 1293 and abandoned in 1458. From the ruins you can see the glaciers of Candanchú and Rioseta. Look here, too, for Civil War bunkers.
The reddish conglomerate and sandstone La Raca cliffs on the east wall of the valley are fragments of the mountains that preceded the Pyrenees some 300 million years ago. To the south are the so-called interior mountains, recrystalized calcium deposits of the Devonian period, twisted by tectonic forces and dissolved and eroded by water in a karstic action that has created many caves.
Santa Cristina The 12th-c. Codex Calixtinus (see ch. 16) in 1140 lauded the hospice of Santa Cristina--often referred to generically as simply El Hospital--as one of the world's 3 great pilgrim hospices:
God has, in a most particular fashion, instituted in this world three columns greatly necessary for the support of his poor, that is to say, the hospice of Jerusalem, the hospice of Mount-Joux [a reference to San Bernardo, in the Swiss Alps], and the hospice of Santa Cristina on the Somport pass. [CC: Book V; trans. Melczer, 87]
Tradition holds that the original hospice was built by 2 pilgrims lost in the snow who were led to shelter here by a white dove carrying a golden cross. Documents, on the other hand, show that its founding was due to the collaboration of 2 princes, King Sancho Ramírez of Aragón (who visited here in 1078) and Count Gastón IV of Bearne, who died in 1130 while fighting the Muslims. Donations poured in, so that by mid-13th c. Santa Cristina owned some 14 churches in France and another 30 in Aragón, including property in places as far afield as Tarazona,Calatayud, and Castejón. Numerous kings and popes contributed to its maintenance. In return, Santa Cristina maintained a network of smaller hospices in all of the neighboring mountain passes. They all offered lodging, food, pasturage for the pilgrims' animals, an infirmary, and money-changing facilities.
The hospice and priory of Santa Cristina prospered during the boom years of the pilgrimage. But in 1569 its community of monks was moved to Jaca at the request of the bishop, and in 1592 it was demolished and its stones used in building Jaca's new fortifications. The community maintained a small shelter for pilgrims during the summers until the 1835 general desamortización. Excavations in 1987-9 to the southeast of the Fuente de los Frailes revealed Santa Cristina's general ground plan, including a monastery, church, and a hospice measuring 25 x 13 m.
Some 300 m. below the ruins are remnants of the Escarne Bridge, cited in documents dated 1586.
On the left, 2 km. before Canfranc Estación at the Coll de Ladrones, are extensive late-19th-c. fortifications that incorporate a 1592 castle built as part of the defensive line anchored in Castiello de Jaca. The picturesque drawbridge and moat date from ca. 1900. By the bridge below the castle used to stand the Ermita de San Antón, completely demolished when the highway was built in 1888.
Canfranc Estación A railroad connecting Spain and France through a great Pyrenean tunnel was projected in 1853. But engineering difficulties and politics, particularly the fear of invasion from the north, slowed the project, and actual work did not begin until 1904. The railroad was not inaugurated until 1928. Except for wartime, service continued from then until 1970, when an accident on the bridge of L'Estanguet put an end to scheduled international service. As we write, the tunnels are being reconditioned for modern use.
Canfranc Estación is a town built both by and for the railroad. Its great esplanade was created with earth removed from the railroad tunnel, and the river was rechanneled to permit the esplanade's construction. The town's population swelled in 1944 when a disastrous fire devastated the ancient village of Canfranc, further down the valley. The boom ended when the trains stopped running, and the imposing railroad station was left to crumble to ruin. In the last few years Canfranc Estación has found new life as a ski center.
The reservoir and hydroelectric station below Canfranc Estación were built--largely by manual labor--from 1957 to 1971.
Below Canfranc Estación the valley sides are composed of sedimentary rocks from a 100-million-year-old sea. Pressures from the lifting of the Pyrenees folded the rocks spectacularly. The imposing mountains to the left are Anayet (2,545 m.), La Moleta (2,576 m.), and Collarada (2,886 m.) To the right rises the Pico de Aspe (2,645 m.).
La Torreta This picturesque castle, also called the Torre de Fusileros and the Torreta de Espelunca, is an 1876 fortification built on the site of 16th- and 18th-c. forts. On our last visit for the first time we found it open, splendidly restored to become the Centro de Información del Túnel de Somport.
THE PILGRIMAGE ROAD TO SANTIAGO: THE COMPLETE CULTURAL HANDBOOK. Copyright © 2000 by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.