Deep within the spectacular Picos de Europa National Park in Northern Spain there is a relic that is inextricably linked to the Camino. On her recent visit to Europe, RAW Travel’s sales manager Mel Reynolds found herself in the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana kissing this treasure – purportedly the single biggest chunk of Christ’s cross and featuring the hole made by the nail that passed through Christ’s left hand…
I am not a staunchly religious person, but I do have a healthy curiosity for religious relics and the historical stories surrounding them.
Relics were once quite a business throughout Europe. A church or monastery with an ‘authentic’ relic could make a great living from the plethora of pilgrims who walked across Europe.
Today, the allure and questions around religious relics remain relevant and inspiring to millions of people. In fact, one of our most popular walks is along the Camino de Santiago to the city of Santiago de Compostela where, according to legend, the bones of the apostle St James were buried after being brought by boat from Jerusalem.
The week before my visit to Spain I had spent time in Istanbul and been fortunate to see not only whiskers from Mohammed’s beard, but also the pot of Abraham, the staff of Moses, and the sword of David, along with scrolls that were possibly John the Baptist’s and a turban said to have belonged to Joseph, son of Jacob. (You can read more about those here.) My relic radar was on and I was in the perfect place to pursue this fascination!
I had in the past researched the Camino Lebaniego in Spain and wanted to learn more about the existence and motivation for this route. This pilgrimage is essentially a detour from the stunning Camino del Norte where I had been walking, and does not end in Santiago. What is special about this area is the opportunity to visit the largest surviving known piece of the Lignum Crucis: The True Cross, The Crucifixion Cross.
This True Cross is linked to Turkey. By all accounts, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, the first Christina ruler of Rome travelled to the Holy Land in the 4th century. She reportedly discovered the hiding places of the three crosses used at the crucifixion of Jesus. Santa Toribio was a bishop in Astorga in the 5th century and is credited with bringing this relic of this piece of cross to Spain where it remained in Astorga.
After the Moorish invasion in the year 711, the Christians from the Northern Meseta and the Asturian Kingdom created a strategic place to act as a barrier against the Muslims invading. This was deep within the rugged territory of what is now the Picos de Europa National Park with its challenging terrain and unpredictable weather. The Monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana was founded prior to the 6th century and is located in the district of Liébana near Potes in Cantabria in Spain within the Picos de Europa National Park.
It was to this safe place that this iconic relic was relocated within isolated Christian territory, and it has been worshipped there since its arrival. Along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, the monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana has long been a site of pilgrimage and an important place for pilgrims to include on their way to Santiago.
I found myself very close to the monastery when I was in the historical and picturesque village of Potes, known for its maze of medieval streets and bridges over the river. It is now somewhat of an epicentre for hikers and tourists alike. Two kilometres south of Potes and half hidden within the folds of the mountains is the monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana – a place where Benedictine monks chose to seclude themselves from the rest of the world at the beginning of the Christian era. (A visit to the monastery is not included in our RAW Travel itineraries; however, you can reach it by 3 days walking from the Camino del Norte).
I arrived at the monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana around 10.30am and I took a moment to reflect on and admire the pilgrims before me who had made this journey by foot. At the information desk there was limited information available in English. I was shown around the monastery and the grounds with its many hermitages and then led to the church. Mass was at 11am; I was told I must attend.
From my pew I could see the piece of the cross in its heavily gilded and secure casing. The piece is reportedly the left arm of the true cross, and measures 63cm long, 39cm wide and 4cm thick. According to scientific testing, it is made of Cypress wood and is more than 2000 years old. It has been a guarded treasure in the Christian world since its discovery. The sermon was in Spanish, so I took some time to absorb and reflect on where I was and considered the journey and significance of this revered relic.
The priest opened the cage and gingerly laid the precious cross on a piece of velvet. The congregation stood and, to my surprise, people began to make their way in procession towards it. I’m not overly religious, but I was deeply moved at the thought of seeing up close a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. I realised that this was probably the closest I would ever get to something of such religious significance. I followed the lead of the nun in front of me and bowed my head to kiss and touch the cold hardwood cross worn smooth by the many pilgrims before me, noting the nail holes that reportedly nailed Jesus to the cross. My hands and lips tingled! I was in the presence of one of Christianity’s most revered possessions and it was a deeply moving and once in a lifetime experience.
For believers and non-believers alike, if you’re travelling in Northern Spain, the monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana is definitely well worth a visit.
Monastery of Saint Toribio De Liébana
Picos de Europa National Park
For lovers of the outdoors, this park itself is deserving of a visit. It encompasses a long chain of dramatic 2000m peaks and deep ravines, wild rivers, and canyons. The Picos de Europa are included in the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves and are known for hiking, mountain and rock climbing, canoeing and flora and fauna, including wolves and Cantabrian brown bears. As is typical of the region, the weather is unpredictable and the peaks are often shrouded in heavy mists. While this wet weather somewhat prevented us from exploring the natural surrounds fully on foot, it did not detract from the stunning natural beauty of the area and only added to its allure.
Walk the Camino de Santiago
Relax and enjoy the spirit of the Camino. We take care of all the details: accommodation, luggage transfers, maps, breakfasts and transport. We listen to what you want and tailor the walking to your ability and timeframes, giving you the experience you want, not what’s easiest for us! We can vary the length of stages and find the accommodation that best suits your needs and budget. Find out more: https://rawtravel.com/destinations/camino-de-santiago/