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  • Writer's pictureDiem Burden

The Alto de Perdón - Legends and History on the Hill of Forgiveness, Navarra.

From the book, Get up and Walk by Diem Burden

At 1pm, I was glad to reach the tiny village of Zariquiegui for several reasons. First, I was starving and thirsty, and I knew that there was a café and a shop there. Second, I knew that the peak of the day’s ascent, the big hill called the Alto de Perdón, was just two kilometres further on from the village, and I wanted to rest and restore my energy levels before the arduous climb.

I sat in the shade of the street outside, along with half a dozen other pilgrims all doing the same. I had a large sandwich from the local bar, along with an energy drink, and sat mostly in silence, as I didn’t feel capable of making small talk with strangers.

Zariquiegui, last stop before the climb up Alto de Perdón.
Zariquiegui, last stop before the climb up Alto de Perdón.

As I delighted in the cold drink, I was amazed to see Tommaso, the injured Italian guy, hobbling towards me. He saw me and I jumped up, and we hugged like old friends. He showed me a knee brace he was wearing, but he still didn’t have a pair of walking poles with him. I was extremely pleased to know that he was okay, and had received some treatment for his knee, yet incredulous to see him still struggling on with his camino. I later learned that he was a nurse, and knew how to deal with his own injuries. I didn’t know if he had walked all the way, or perhaps had stopped for a day in Pamplona, then jumped ahead by taxi or bus. I advise him of the hill up ahead, and watched in admiration as he walked off along the street, determined to get up and over the Alto de Perdón.

After about forty minutes of total rest and preparation, I set off again, aware that the Alto stood between me and the next village, Uterga, 6km away. I soon caught up with Tommaso as he was slowly struggling up the ascent, and I briefly offered him my poles again, knowing full well that he would refuse. He smiled, shook his head, and patted me on the shoulder. I shook my head in frustration and admiration, and carried on up the hill.

Fuente Reniega

Approximately 100m before the summit, I came across a circular stone water font, with water running into a basin. Many pilgrims simply walk on by, but the font has an incredible camino legend attached to it. Now called the Gambellacos Font, the original name was the Fuente Reniega (Font of the Denier - from the verb ‘to deny’).

Fuente Reniega
Fuente Reniega

In times of old, during a particularly hot summer, a tired and thirsty pilgrim was approached at this spot by a handsome young man who was actually the devil in disguise. The man offered the pilgrim the possibility of refreshment and a drink, if he just denied God. The pilgrim’s faith was strong, so he rejected the offer. The man then offered him the same if he just rejected the Virgin Mary. Once more, the pilgrim refused the offer. The man persisted, and this time offering the refreshment if he would just deny the Apostle James (Santiago). The pilgrim once more refused, and began to pray to God for help. Immediately, the man disappeared in a cloud of sulphur, and in his place appeared the fountain. The thirsty pilgrim drank from the font using his scallop shell.

I walked on by and reached the summit. I removed my backpack and rested at the top, taking in the amazing sights. It was the fourth time I’d been there, and the views were always captivating. To the north is Pamplona, with the Pyrenees stretched out beyond. The walk had been all uphill from that distant city, and very uphill for the last few kilometres.

To the south are views over the farmlands of the Valdizarbe valley, with its medieval villages and fields of crops, along with occasional glimpses of the camino as it winds its way down through the rich tapestry of the ancient Kingdom of Navarra.

The high and open spot is always very windy, and, for this reason, it was the first location to have wind farms installed in Navarra, with forty wind-turbines in total, each at 40m high.

Although these turbines dominate the hill, most people come to see the 'Monument to the Pilgrim'. This life-sized, sheet-metal sculpture of a caravan of pilgrims through the ages is a must-see monument⁠1 on the camino, and one of the most famous.⁠

Monument to the Pilgrim

‘Monument to the Pilgrim’ by Vicente Galbete, 1996.
‘Monument to the Pilgrim’ by Vicente Galbete, 1996.

It represents the evolution of the way through history, with 14 figures walking, on donkey or on horseback. A closer look at the individual pilgrims reveals how they have changed over the years, and an inscription on one of the horses reads, ‘Donde se cruz el camino del viento con el de las estrellas.’ (Where the path of the wind crosses with that of the stars.) Above the pilgrims are the stars of the Milky Way, which used to guide them. Sadly, most pilgrims simply pose for a photo with it and walk on.

Donde se cruz el camino del viento con el de las estrellas.
"Donde se cruz el camino del viento con el de las estrellas."

Hermitage and Hospital Ruins

Adjacent to the magnificent sculptures are the remains of a 13th century hermitage, which used to have great importance on the camino. Any pilgrim that reached the hermitage on top of the hill would have their sins forgiven, and their spiritual health was guaranteed in case of their death before reaching Santiago. These days, pilgrims mostly aren’t aware of any of this, and just use the foundations as a bench for their backpacks whilst they take in the surrounding views. The hermitage was plundered by French troops during the War of Independence and eventually disappeared.

Attached to the hermitage was a hospital for pilgrims, and nearby was a henge-like memorial to the local people murdered in Spain’s civil war. It stands off to one side, like an irrelevant and uncomfortable memory.

Some pilgrims spot the nearby signpost, indicating such distances as Berlin 1,600km, and NewYork 5,800 km.

Signpost at top of Alto de Perdón in Navarra
How far home?

Just as I put my backpack on, I saw Tommaso reaching the summit. I congratulated him, patted him on the back, and walked on.

The Descent

Then came the dreadful descent. As expected, it was truly awful. It is possibly the most treacherous of descents on the camino, and not one for cyclists to do! There is an alternative route for cyclists signposted, one that people can also take.

Extremely steep for about 1km, a rubble and boulder-strewn trail runs down the side of the hill. Fortunately, it was dry — I’d hate to do it in the wet! It is a trip hazard, easy to fall, and rather isolated. I remembered the last time I’d descended that hill — it was on my mountain bike when I was a support vehicle, and my friend was shocked when she’d seen me ride over the edge and descend. It was so difficult to navigate on my bike that my cylinder brakes burnt out by the time I reached the bottom, and I had to ride to Villamayor with just the front brakes!

My toes were in agony, and I truly felt for Tommaso and his knee. So many people had suffered on this section, and I was no exception!

I eventually felt the slope flattening out, and the boulders began to reduce in size, often leaving sheets of small stones which threatened to move under foot. I’d never been more thankful for having walking poles than I did that day. I was so glad to make it to the bottom without incident, although the sun was beating down on me. I’d put plenty of sunscreen on at each of my stops, but I really wanted to get to my destination and hide from it.

**Adapted from the book, Get up and Walk, a free ebook of my walk on the Camino de Santiago through Navarra, hand in hand with God. Coming soon!**

Free ebook, Get up and Walk, by Diem Burden
Free ebook, 'Get up and Walk,' by Diem Burden - COMING SOON!

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