Europe Travel News

Old forests and mountain mining along the Camino de Santiago

An ancient pilgrimage route stretches across northern Spain, starting in the south of France and ending in the small Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, otherwise known as the resting place of St. James' bones. This path, a must for any prolonged tour of Spain, is the Camino de Santiago - or the Way of St. James - and follows the footsteps of a 10th-century monk who journeyed to the remains of the saint, who had previously made his own pilgrimage through Spain to preach Christianity.

The 500-mile physical and spiritual journey is actually a composite of various possible roads from which to choose, each offering its own series of beautiful and uplifting sights. Any travelers along the Camino de Santiago should be sure to make their own pilgrimages to the Irati Forest of Navarre and the surreal Las Médulas of Leon.

Into the woods
Settled in the Western Pyrenees is the Irati Forest of Navarre, a lush wood of beeches and firs that spreads unspoiled over 65 square miles. Babbling through this resplendent nature reserve - one of the best kept in all of Europe - are the many cool, clear rivers and streams pouring down from the rain-heavy mountains. This rich ecosystem boasts a resounding diversity of birds, flowers and mammals. But don't be surprised if in the fall months the forest is dominated by intense caterwauling. According to the Navarre tourism center, October and November comprise mating season for stately yet wanton stags, whose loud and throaty calls can be heard throughout Irati.  

A wood of this kind of majesty is, of course, possessed by spirits. Travelers are warned never to run from Basajaun, Lord of the Woods, a tall and agile spirit with long hair and superhuman strength. Obey him and he will guide you safely through the forest.

Through the mines
Basajaun might be incredibly strong, but the Romans have moved rivers and worn away mountains. Far west of the Irati Forest is the awe-inspiring landscape of Las Médulas in Leon - long-undisturbed Roman gold mines first established in the 1st century A.D. and abandoned two centuries later. The Romans utilized a technique called ruina montium, in which they routed waters through the red clay mountains of the region to sculpt out the gold deposited there. Since their departure, chestnut trees have repopulated the area, making for surreal and rugged tunnel systems through dense and beautiful forests.

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