Of Crosses And Cures

Map from Beautiful Basque Country

Cherry blossoms, Easter Sunday, and lingering daylight all remind us why spring makes us so happy – it’s a season of promise: of warmth, new life, and sunshine.  Yet in the Basque country, I can be frozen, yet happy too.  And I was, just a few short months ago.  Was I hypothermic and confused?  No, just following the Basque cure for the winter blues: spending time in the mountains and breaking bread in those mountains.  Long before doctors were prescribing time outdoors to improve health, the Basques had already been decades (if not centuries) into the practice of mountain therapy.  With 3,483 named mendiak (the Basque or euskera word for “mountains”) dispersed throughout the Basque landscape, it’s only natural that hiking and other mountain activities are a regular part of Basque life – and a regular part of what keeps people in the Basque country so healthy.

A dose of nature with friends that winter day instantly lifted my spirits. And given the Basque country’s reputation as a gastronomy destination that takes pride in its local food, it’s only natural that the other part of my joy that day came from local (mountain) comfort food.

As I peeled my jacket’s hood off of my head, wet and wind-lashed from the inconsistent rain, I stepped into Agirretxe Borda, a cozy “white cabin” on the plains of Zelatun, at the foot of Hernio (also spelled Ernio), an iconic Basque mendi (euskera for “mountain”).  Our small group, several Gipuzkoans and an American, had just hiked through a couple of windy, muddy, and occasionally rain-splattered hours.  To escape the wet winter chill and give ourselves a boost for the final ascent, we had stopped in for a break and a bite.  

Just your everyday restaurant nestled in the foothills of a mythic mountain. Photo by Agirretxe Borda

The warm smiles of the restaurant staff, a comfort in and of themselves, were a prelude of good things to come: the soothing glow of a fireplace and simple, steaming foods.  Without having to look at a menu, my friends knew exactly what to order: salda (“broth” in euskera) and txorizoa (chorizo in Spanish, a type of smoked sausage).  Knowing better than to diverge from the local culinary advice (and because my favorite, txistorra, wasn’t available), I got the same. 

The salda came first.  Steaming in its cup, this liquid gold brought instant relief to my chilled hands and a nourishing warmth.  A clear meat broth, salda is typical mountain or countryside fare in the Basque country – especially in the colder months.  Forget hot chocolate or coffee, it’s cups of salda that regularly grace the tables of many a hiker, villager or visitor to the Basque hills and mountains.  As one saying goes, “un buen caldito, bien calentito.”  Hailing from states with plenty of cold-weather hiking and with DNA rooted in a soup-based nation, I can confirm the mighty comfort and healing offered by a cup of humble broth.

Salda
Photo by D. Sancho

The txorizoa, resting comfortably in a perfectly toasted baguette-like roll, followed and rounded out the perfect cold weather hiking snack.  With its garlicky, smoky flavor, txorizoa is a cured sausage that can be enjoyed fried, baked, or as is.  When paired with a slightly chewy, yet crunchy bread roll and accompanied by salda, you have a satisfying balance of savory flavors.

Txorizoa
Photo by Agirretxe Borda

As we finished our break and talked about summiting Hernio, I argued with myself: “You don’t really want to go back outside to that, do you?”  As I watched other hikers trudging uphill, fighting against the mighty winds, hesitation turned to inertia.

But after watching my other friends disappear up a slope, I (along with another friend who had also decided to stay behind) had a last- minute change of heart, and we left the comfort of Agirretxe Borda to make our way to Hernio’s summit.  Up until Agirretxe Borda, we had been hiking on paths of dirt, mud, and a few loose rocks, at one point going slightly off-piste through a beautiful mossy, leaf-covered slope. 

The trail 30 minutes before we reached Agirretxe Borda.

But now, starting the ascent to Hernio’s summit, we were met with a well-worn path strewn with smooth, angular rocks – a kind of traction slalom for hiking boots.  Fortunately, the earlier rains had been pushed aside by gusty winds.  

By the time we reached the small stone refuge of Erniozaleak, it was time for a quick break and storytime.  The wind continued to lash us as we stopped to explore the nearby Healing Cross (“Gurutze Zarra” in euskera). 

Erniozaleak refuge
The fans of Ernio” refuge

Standing directly to the left of Erniozaleak, the Gurutze Zarra held various rectangular metal hoops on each of its outstretched arms.  My friend recounted one legend of the famous cross: if you place one of the hoops over your entire body – passing it from head to toe – three times in a row, you’ll be healed of body aches and pains (like rheumatism) for an entire year.  If you want a permanent cure from body aches and pains, as the legend goes, you would need to repeat this hoop exercise 7 years in a row

Testing out a legend.
Will report back in a year.

As we made our way up the final short leg of the hike towards the summit, we were greeted by more crosses.  The first three on the left marked a false summit and stood as reminders of when Mount Hernio was known as the Mount of a Thousand Crosses.  From 1911 until 2015, dozens of crosses were erected by the general public in memory of fallen loved ones.  But when the sheer number of crosses made Hernio look more like a a mausoleum than a mountain, eight surrounding municipalities and the Erniozaleak Cultural Association made the decision to move the majority of crosses to off-mountain sites.  

Photo by D. Sancho

 Today, the summit displays only a handful of crosses, including a prominent white concrete cross on the actual summit.

While Hernio doesn’t come close to being one of the highest peaks in the Basque country (standing 1,078 meters tall), it could easily be considered one of the best for sweeping views.  Located just 15 km from the ocean, Hernio’s summit allows panoramic views of not just one, but three of the four provinces of the Spanish Basque country: Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba.  On a clear day, you can also see the shimmering sliver of ocean in the distance and imagine the flaky croissants baking in the French Basque country on the horizon.  To orient yourself, just look to the west of the concrete cross, where you’ll find a beautifully colored circular stone map outlining the various points of interest surrounding Hernio.  Here, other Basque peaks, along with sleepy hillside villages and prominent seaside cities are brought into relief. 

As our group descended Hernio to take a more direct path back to Alkiza (where we had started our out-and-back hike), one friend encouraged me to come back to Hernio in the fall (and not just to cure body aches).  Apparently, I had missed one of the most festive and important times to summit by about 3 months – the autumn pilgrimage or erromeria (in euskera or “romeria” in Spanish).  

Photo by Elisa Alonso

From the last Sunday in August until the last Sunday in September, people of all ages make their way to Hernio for the annual erromeria.  Since at least 1918, people have flocked to Hernio’s summit for this pilgrimage, with a stop at the Gurutze Zarra, and a return to the fields of Zelatun for an open-air celebration, complete with food from local vendors and traditional music and dancing.  As part of the celebrations, visitors and pilgrims bring colorful ribbons to Hernio to tie on its various crosses.

It’s not just in autumn that Hernio welcomes visitors celebrating Christian traditions.  In the spring, Hernio typically hosts an anuual Stations of the Cross, a meditative journey of Christ’s final hours on Good Friday, just before participants make their final ascent to the summit.  Even before the advent of Christianity, Hernio inspired awe among its surrounding communities through legends and rumors of battles with invaders from the east and as being home to a powerful and mythic Basque figure.  Ancient Romans were said to have been in the area around Hernio and, perhaps, even engaged in battle against locals.  Meanwhile, Mari (arguably the most important goddess of the Basque pantheon) was said to have lived in the caves of Mount Hernio and periodically appear in the skies above it.

Standing in the heart of Gipuzkoa, serving as a backdrop for ancient history and legends, and offering cures for both body and soul, it’s no wonder that Hernio is among the most beloved of the Basque mendiak.


Sources:

Sitios Historicos: “Los Secretos del Monte Hernio.  La Montaña Mágica” by Aitor Sarmiento (11 Abril 2020)

Al Filo de lo Improbable: MendiaK Hernio by Alexander Pereda (4 Diciembre 2014)

Diario Vasco: Hernio se cita con septiembre by Iraitz Astarloa (2 Septiember 2022)

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