Foncebadón is one of the last villages of La Maragatería, region in the west of León. Located before entering El Bierzo, on Monte Irago (Mount Irago), 1450 metres high, next to the Foncebadón mountain pass. We are located between the leonese cities of Astorga and Ponferrada, 26 and 30 km away from each one.
First time appearance of Foncebadón in history books is dated while the Mount Irago Council was celebrated in 946. Later, in the XIth Century, a hermit living in this area called Gaucelmo, fouded a lodge to take care of the growing number of pilgrims who passed to visit the grave of apostle St. James. As a recognition for that work, King Alfonso VI of León gave Foncebadón a Royal Favour that established a tax payment exemption in the year 1103. At that time, there are records of Gaucelmo’s lodging. Nevertheless hints of human activity in this area many time before Gaucelmo were found. A few hundreds of metres off the village, we can find the traces of a Roman gold mine.
Thanks to its location, next to the only mountain pass to El Bierzo existing at that time, Foncebadón did not lose its importancy as a strategic place. Apart from the pilgrims, this village was frequently used by the muleteers carrying goods on their way during the XVth and XVIth Centuries. Due to its situation on the mountain, it was an mandatory stop for rest.
During the Spanish independency war (1808-1814) against France, the village was completely destroyed, but later rebuild to the east of the original place. It is now less protected from adverse weather conditions, but in a location less prone to the formation of snowdrifts and snowfields totally cutting off communications during the long and cold winters. Even today you can see the ruins of the convent, with the church tower and the walls of the current graveyard. The original one was located just where the church of Santa María Magdalena is settled today.
During the XXth Century, Foncebadón starts to lose population quickly, due to the rural exodus. In the 90’s, there were only two inhabitants. After the resurgence of the Camino de Santiago as a way of pilgrimage and alternate tourism, the village started slowly to recover its life, although the majority of its buildings are completely collapsed. Several businesses were settled next to the Camino, and even some families moved to the village to live here all year long. Today, Foncebadón has, officially, 22 inhabitants.
For years, in many guides of the Camino de Santiago, Foncebadón disappeared as the end of one of the traditional stages, but today it is being recovered, being the number of pilgrims who stay here significantly bigger.
Foncebadón has a mystic ambience. The Celts considered Mount Irago, in which slope the village is located, as a sacred place. According to the tradition, in its surroundings live goblins (in leonese language “trasgus”), witches, hermits and mythologic animals like the cuélebre, the yobu and the xana.
If there is a singular place in Foncebadón, it is the Cruz de Fierro (most known as “Cruz de Ferro”. Nevertheless, this name would be wrong because it would be the galician translation. The cross stands in an area of clear leonese language influence).
It is a pile of stones having a standing pole on top. This pole is topped with an iron latin cross. It is believed that the origin of the pile of stones comes from the astur period. It was a meeting point for hermits to change knowledge and wisdom. Currently, there are still two other piles of the four that existed on Mount Irago. They are oriented to the four cardinal points, the Cruz de Fierro being the eastern one. In the Roman period, people passing there left a small stone as a tribute to Mercury, one of their god. Gaucelmo planted the wooden pole and the Cruz de Fierro over it, christianizing this way that habit. The original Cruz de Fierro is being kept at the Museo de los Caminos in Astorga. The current one is a replica.
According to the legend of the Camino de Santiago, pilgirms must carry a stone during their pilgrimage. This stone symbolizes theis problems and worries, thus leaving it at the base of the cross, it liberates the pilgrims from them. Many of the pilgrms bring stones from their origins with messages or memories written in them, making the moment to leave the stone an intimate instant of reflexion.
Each year, on July 25th, the holyday of Santiago Apóstol, a festivity is celebrated in this place, taking the apostle’s figure out of the small chapel.