In the previous article Camino del Norte, we traveled along the Northern Way (to Santiago de Compostela). Now we will set off on the second scenic route in Cantabria – through the Liébana region. Here, the inhabitants feel like a Lebaniego first, then like a Cantabro (Cantabrian) and only then like a Spaniard. The pilgrimage route was named after the region as well: Camino Lebaniego (71.73 km). It separates from the Northen Way at Muñorrodero, 12 km from the town of San Vicente de la Barquera, and turns inland towards the Picos de Europa National Park.
“Cruceros” are pilgrims of the cross. Pilgrims do not only visit places with the graves of saints, they also come to Cantabria to worship the Holy Cross (Lignum Crucis) in the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana. Red signs in the shape of a cross mark their way.
Part of the first stage of the Camino Lebaniego is Nansa’River Path (approx. 8 km). It is an old pass that was created in the past by fishermen who came here to fish for trout and salmon. That’s why it’s also called the Fisherman’s Route, and I also walked it.
The route leads along a forest path, wooden bridges and carved stone steps. It is a pleasant, easy walk through woods and meadows, the route is marked with red signs with a cross.
Even if I continued my way by car, there was always something to admire. Outside the window, there were views of small villages tucked under the mountain massifs but also gorges lined with vertical rock walls.
Peña Ventosa is definitely one of the most impressive and photogenic mountains.
Even small towns and villages were dominated by old churches, such as the Church of St. Juliana from the end of the 12th century which stood at the beginning of the village of Lafuente – with two bells hanging in the niches. By the way, not only famous stonemasons and woodcarvers who decorated the best cathedrals came from Cantabria, but also bell makers. Today, only two workshops remain.
However, visitors to this part of Cantabria are not only admiring beautiful landscapes but natural treasures are also hidden underground. I definitely recommend visiting the El Soplao cave with its fantastic drop decoration with lots of helictites – crooked dripstones growing horizontally in all directions. More in the article: El Soplao
Another place worth seeing on the Camino Lebaniego is the Mirador Santa Catalina – a viewpoint at an altitude of 760 m. The bands of mountain massifs wave in front of you like an ocean in various shades of blue.
One stands here in dumb amazement and humility – like a pilgrim bowing before the magnificent work of the Creator or like a tourist simply admiring the majesty of nature. The rugged slopes of the limestone mountains are covered with oak and beech forests. Eagles and vultures nest here in the caves. And indeed, at one point whole flocks flew into this breathtaking scenery, the birds flapped their big wings and then just soared so majestically above that beauty that it made me feel sad I couldn’t fly with them…
Figures of various Cantabrian magical beings are hiding in the nearby forest, it is the so-called Mythological trail (3 km), but I think it is more suitable for local families with children, as most of the information is only in Spanish. Much more interesting in this region is the production of cheese that matures in local limestone caves. We visited the cheese factory (queseria) Rio Corvera in the village of Bejes. You can learn more about this production process in my article Where cheese matures, in which you can also look inside such a cave.
The next part leads from the town of Cade to Cabañes. Near the village of Lebeña on the river Deva, surrounded by high limestone mountains, you will find one of the historical gems of Cantabria – interesting to pilgrims and other travelers alike. Santa María Lebeña is a pre-Romanesque three-nave stone church in Mozarabic style (Mozarabs were Christians influenced by the culture of Islam). This style is also called the “art of re-population” for the reason that these areas – devastated and depopulated during the wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages – were later repopulated by Christians.
The church was built in the 10th century by Count Alfonso de Liebana together with his wife Justa, who dedicated it to the seven patrons. The exact date of construction (between 924 and 959) has not been preserved, but, since in northern Spain there is a tradition to plant a yew tree when a new church is founded, the construction is estimated by the age of the yew tree and the olive tree growing in front of the church. These trees also symbolize the marriage between Cantabria (the yew tree) and Andalusia (the olive tree).
The church of Santa María Lebeña is connected with other mysteries and stories as well. It is the first church in Spain to use horseshoe-shaped arches resting on massive pillars as building elements (you should try it yourself – four people can fit around the central pillar). Monolithic columns bear Corinthian capitals.
The central figure on the main altar is the breastfeeding Madonna. In 1993, someone stole it and the bishop ordered a new copy, but eight years later the original statue was found in the eastern part of Spain.
The large stone slab is also quite mysterious. In the past, during mass, the priest ascended to the altar by one stone step. No one knew at the time that it was not just any ordinary step… When they decided to remove the step in 1973, it turned out that there were special symbols engraved on the stone slab – a large sun wheel in the center and three circles on the sides inscribed with flower motifs and wavy lines. These are believed to be pre-Christian symbols. Gothic? Celtic? Questions to which there is no clear answer yet.
The motifs of the sun and rosettes on the brackets under the roof are also noteworthy. The belfry was built only in the 20th century as a free-standing structure so as not to disturb this unique historical monument, almost completely preserved in its original state.
Another cheese tasting took place in the village of Pendes. I have to admit that I guess I have never experienced such a strong feeling of déjà vu as here. As if I’ve been here before. Everything was familiar to me: stone houses with white frames around the windows, bunches of green grapes hanging from the roofs, tall yellow flowers of wild mullein, blackberries ripening, a lizard basking on a stone… All this reminded me of the villages in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, where over the years my family used to spend several weeks in the summer…
My thoughts were interrupted by a car. The owner of the quesaria, Pedro, arrived. He was the complete opposite of the calm Ernesto from Güemes (see the previous article). Pedro is always inventing and improving. And he speaks so fast that sometimes even my Spanish guide had trouble understanding him. Pedro was constantly running around, explaining enthusiastically, first bringing a box full of brochures about the Camino Lebaniego, then a hand-made map of the area.
Pedro also took us to a clearing with thousand-year-old chestnut trees, where he initiated the construction of a well with drinking water and swings. Even now, a few pilgrims were resting in the shade of old trees. Some trees were already dry, others were still fresh green. A flock of vultures began circling over a nearby hillside… By the way, did you know that some parts of the 2015 Heidi movie were not filmed in Switzerland, but right here? You can guess three times who of the local people took care of everything…
The next stop on my journey was Potes. It is the capital of the Liebana region, but it is a small town (1,500 inhabitants) that you will fall in love with at first sight. As many as four valleys meet here, and the rivers Deva and Quiviesa, which flow through the city, create romantic corners here.
There are several historic buildings: the Gothic Church of San Vicente – actually two churches, one built in the 14th and the other in the 19th century, with beautiful altarpieces and other paintings, an old Dominican monastery, but above all the unmissable Torre del Infantato – a huge block tower with small windows, battlements and corner turrets – from the 14th century. In the past, it also served as a prison. Today, the town hall and an exhibition hall are located in the tower.
The town also boasts several bridges, the most beautiful being San Cayetano with a semicircular arch, built between the 13th and 15th centuries. The second, slightly higher La Cárcel bridge is from the same period.
The old town was destroyed by fire during the Spanish Civil War but was rebuilt. If you get here once, you don’t even need to explore its monuments in detail, but be sure to walk along its cobbled streets, discover charming neighbourhoods and feel free to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets and let yourself be carried away by the unmistakable atmosphere as well as the delicious aroma from the local taverns, bars and restaurants.
The heart of the city pulsates in the Plaza del Capitán Palacios, but you should turn into any side street. Everywhere, you will find beautiful stone manor houses, some plastered in white, with typical wooden balconies and blooming colorful flowers.
Representative residences with coats of arms on the facades, like in other Cantabrian cities, were built by successful emigrants (Indianos) who acquired their wealth across the ocean in the New World.
The gaps between some houses are narrow, in some places the houses are connected, in others the space is open and reveals a view of the majestic hills nearby.
Don’t forget to taste the local specialities – excellent cocido lebaniego – a simple dish with a long preparation. It’s a plate full of chickpeas and cabbage, and chorizo and blood sausages, beef and goat meat are placed on top. And with that, you have to order orujo – a traditional distilled liquor from the remains of wine production.
When April 16 falls on a Sunday, the Holy Year is declared in Cantabria. Why is this date so important? April 16 is the holiday of St. Turibius (Toribio), the founder of the monastery bearing his name: Monasterio Santo Toribio de Liébana, the final destination of the cruceros-pilgrims. Along with Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Caravaca de la Cruz, it belongs to the most important pilgrimage centers in Christianity.
Fans of the Italian writer Umberto Eco and his filmed novel The Name of the Rose certainly know that the exciting and mystical story of his book is based on the so-called Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse. The author of this work from the 8th century is the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana. His texts have been preserved in richly illustrated editions from the 10th – 13th centuries, depicting scenes from the biblical apocalypse. The origins of the Santo Toribio monastery date back to the 6th century, and it was here that the monk Beatus wrote his works.
Beatus as well as Turibius, the founder of the monastery, are among the 15 saints from Liébana, whose bronze statues by the sculptor Peredo de la Reguera decorate the Door of Forgiveness of the Gothic church, which has been part of the monastery complex since 1256. When St. Turibius of Astorga made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he took with him to the cathedral in his hometown a precious relic – part of the cross of Christ, which was found by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, in Jerusalem. When the Muslims invaded Spain in 711, the relic together with the remains of St. Turibius was safely hidden in the Liébana valley. Later, both relics were transferred to this monastery. Since then, almost every pilgrim walking along the Northern Way to Santiago makes a detour to Liébana and the red signs lead him to the monastery to bow to the relic from the Cross of Christ – the Lignum Crucis.
According to the records of the Benedictine chronicler Father Sandoval, this is a piece of wood from the left arm of the cross, which was cut and assembled into the shape of a cross (length 63.5 cm, width 39.3 cm and thickness 38 mm), leaving intact the hole where the hand of Jesus had been nailed down. In 1958, a team of scientists from the Forest Research Institute in Madrid confirmed that the wood came from the Mediterranean cypress, abundant in Palestine and that it was more than 2,000 years old. This largest fragment of the True Cross is enshrined in an artistically crafted cross-shaped gilded silver reliquary, made in a workshop in Valladolid in 1679. It is located in the Capilla del Lignum Crucis in the Colonial Baroque style, the construction of which had been contributed by wealthy Indianos.
On September 23, 1512, Pope Julius II. granted the monastery through an apostolic bull the privilege of celebrating the Holy Year. This year, 2023, April 16 will again fall on a Sunday. It will be the 74th Holy Year and will begin at 11 o’clock with the traditional three strikes of the silver hammer. The Door of Forgiveness will remain open until April 16, 2024. Thousands of pilgrims will come here to pass through the Door and pray for the forgiveness of their sins.
I visited the monastery during the pandemic when there were only a few people. Anti-covid measures did not allow us to come close to the cross, nor to touch or kiss it. But I didn’t mind that at all. I believe that old churches were built in places with a special, strongly radiating energy. On a bench in an almost empty chapel, I was overcome by the beautiful-sad feeling I wait for every time when I travel. When I’m sad because something is ending, but at the same time very happy and grateful for everything I could see and experience. Moreover, in this place, I suddenly felt as if all my loved ones that I had already lost were here with me. At that moment, I knew that I was here not only with them but also for them…
I received a stamp of the monastery in my notebook as a farewell. Pilgrims will also receive a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage. If you decide to take it too, you can get more information on the website (with translation into another language): https://www.caminolebaniego.com/
During my trip, I also looked at the hostel for pilgrims in the village of Cicera – accommodation for 22 people, simple iron bunk beds, but a new bathroom with a shower, as well as the more modern hostel Horizontes in the village of Cabañes – 54 beds, with the option of ordering breakfast or dinner, there is also an extra kitchen if guests prefer to cook for themselves. A bonus is a wonderful view.
Other accommodation options for pilgrims can be found here: Hostels on the Camino Lebaniego
For those who prefer more luxury, I recommend the spa hotel La Hermida, where you can enjoy the hot springs (60°C) coming from the bowels of the earth. But you can also just come here and bathe in hot water under the bridge leading to the hotel.
Pedro’s cheese manufacture can be found on the website: quesaria pendes
Along the entire route, in addition to signs, there are boards with maps and information about interesting places and monuments in the vicinity both in Spanish and English.
You can also meet a board that informs you about wi-fi options.
If you want to continue to Santiago de Compostela you have 2 options: you can return to the Camino del Norte (Northern Way) or link with the Camino Frances (French Way).
BUEN CAMINO! HAVE A SAFE JOURNEY!
Read also: Camino del Norte (Northern Way)
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri + Camino Lebaniego Foundation/Natalia Magdalena (1)