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A Brief History of Mount San Cristobal

Ghosts over Pamplona

 Article written by Tim Pinks

A brief history of Mount San Cristobal

 ‘’We looked out at the plain. The long lines of trees were dark in the moonlight. There were the lights of a car climbing the road of the mountain. Up on the top of the mountain we saw the lights of the fort.’’

Ernest Hemingway – Fiesta/The Sun Also Rises.

A winter’s day excursion

What a typically exquisite set of sentences from the maestro of the crisp, understated phrase. A genre he invented…so no wonder it’s good. Another exquisite set of circumstances relating to the mountain mentioned above was down to Stephanie, who suggested going up there one very early January day in the new year of 2020.

Okay, the wee mountain (more a hill – it’s just under 900 metres high) Hemingway refers to may not feature as much as the big mountain Kilimanjaro in another Hemingway story, but it does feature quite big in the history of one of Pamplona’s, and thus Spain’s – and hence the Basque Country’s – darkest periods. Cold days in hell must have come true for some of those imprisoned up there…

A brief history of Mount San Cristobal

Tim Pinks entering the southern flanks of the San Cristobal Fort. This is a winter’s day excursion to El Fuerte de San Cristobal

In contrast, it was a gloriously sunny, but bitingly cold day as I finally got to go somewhere I’d been meaning to go for a long time, thanks to Stephi. That previous summer I’d just completed thirty-six years in a row of Pamplona’s famous, fabulous and fantastic Fiesta of San Fermín, where six noble and ferocious beasts, the toro bravo, or ‘fighting bull’ are let loose in the streets to run with a couple of thousand of dumb animals. Us humans.

El Fuerte de San Cristobal or Ezkaba

Pamplona is the capital of the Spanish state of Navarra, officially called The Kingdom of Navarra. I’ve been up and down and around and around Navarra many a time, but somehow I’ve always managed to miss something that’s actually just outside the city.

The mountain is really called Ezkaba but has become popularly known by the name of the fort on top of it, San Cristobal. There was also a hermitage called San Cristobal dating from around the 13th Century, which lasted until about the 16th.

Patxaran is the Navarre Firewater

Apparently it offered travellers cures for varying things…including headaches. Which always makes me smile. One of THE party capitals of the world and a region famed for its wines…offering a headache cure. Well I never…! And beware the local firewater, patxaran, folks…it may have the colour of a smooth punch but it packs a sucker one too!

patxaran is pamplona firewater

One of the simplest and most delicious ways to eat wild mushrooms is in an egg scramble.

Do we hike up or drive up?

On the roads from the north and south a giant tourist sign with a simple painting of it lets everyone know what it’s called. Many countries let you know the name of the river you’re crossing, and to me, mountains, like rivers, are living, breathing things. So I like it that some countries sign post them.

It adds to the journey, knowing the names of things. And talking of journeys, walking up San Cristobal would have been lovely, but it hadn’t been planned it until Stephi suddenly mentioned it as an option, and as daylight time would be limited, she decided the only way to get up was to drive.

But one day, rather than driving up on a super cold day in winter, I’d like to walk up on a lovely day in the summer. And talking of the weather…gosh, but it must have been a very, very, cold posting back in the day if you were on duty at the fort in the depths of winter. I was dressed up in modern warm clothing but crikey I was brass monkeyed!

A brief history of Mount San Cristobal

A prison during Spain’s Civil War

And as we wandered around on that beautiful, early January day, I also thought of what the conditions might have been like when it was a prison during Spain’s Civil War. It would have been bad enough working there on your ‘friendly’ side as a guard or whatever, but as an enemy prisoner, conditions don’t bare thinking about.

But let’s go back further in time, to when the mountain first appears in printed history. In the 13th century it appears in several similar spellings to the one used now, and there was also mention at the same time of that little hermitage named San Cristobal up there, from which a fortification subsequently built took its name.

I have used those ultra-reliable internet sources Google and Wikipedia for some of the info in this piece, so eat your heart out, Encyclopaedia Britannica…but trust me folks, as far as we know, these are the facts.

san cristobal

The 3rd Carlist War – 1872-1876

Fast forward several hundred years and after the 3rd Carlist War – 1872-1876 – they’re all too complicated to go into here, (but there’s always that Encyclopaedia Britannica!) a major fort had replaced the various castles and fortifications developed over time. ‘Modern’ artillery of that era had made the massive defensive walls of Pamplona obsolete, so yet another fort was planned.

In 1878 construction of the Alphonso 7th Fort began, soon to be commonly known as the San Cristobal Fort. El Fuerte de San Cristobal. It must have been a cold and uncomfortable posting in the depths of winter, but at least ‘you’ were on the ‘right’ side.

But to be a prisoner there…oh my. And so it came to pass that in 1934 it was converted into a jail. A big, on-top-of-a-mountain, miles-from-anywhere, (‘modern’ Pamplona had only just began to expand outwards) soul destroying, built-into-a-mountain prison. The only thing going for it as a prisoner must have been the views. Out over the landscape of freedom…

And then…the shadows began to fall over this beautiful land and Spain fell into the darkness of the Civil War and horrors began at the once-upon-a-time fort that was now a prison. Now, I’m not going to tread into the politics concerning the Spanish Civil War here…it’s even more confusing than the Carlist Wars, but one day…

A brief history of Mount San Cristobal

The prison break in 1938

… One day there was a breakout from the prison. Conditions were pretty bad up there and on May 22nd, 1938, 792, or 795 (some say 900) Republican (anti Nationalist, so anti-Franco) prisoners escaped. After the revolution of 1934, the prison had housed some 750 inmates. By the time of the escape there were some 2000 prisoners and conditions were not pleasant.

Unfortunately for the escapees, a guard managed to get down to Pamplona and raise the alarm. A manhunt was set in place. By the end of the incident, 585 had been arrested, 211 shot dead, and 14 of those who had been arrested were sentenced to death. Of all those involved, only three made it the 33 miles to the French border. Yup, just three.

Many of those caught and returned, were left to die of famine, disease…or both. Four hundred of them.  A memorial was erected to the event in 1988, 33 years after it closed as a prison. Although still owned by the Ministry of Defence, the last troops left in 1991 and it is now a place of ‘good cultural interest.’

There is more to this of course, but as in many parts of the world since time immemorial, great cruelty has been done by one human to another surrounded by the most beautiful countryside.

And so, on this most gorgeous of sunny but cold early January days, thanks to Stephanie, I finally got up to see the Fort of San Cristobal. But even under the sunshine surrounded by nature’s beauty…there be ghosts out there. May they be at rest and in peace now.

Tim Pinks

And so we returned to Pamplona.

I can’t really remember what we did next, but for those of you who don’t know her, I’ll let you into a little secret. The thing about Stephanie is…just when you want to suck a wet sponge and nibble on a cardboard flavoured wafer…she inevitably drags you, kicking and screaming, to a bar or five for some pintxos and copas. Think tapas and vinos. Or, if you’re English, grog and snacks. (But quality!)

So we no doubt – it would have taken me about half an eye-blink to agree – ended up ensconced in some warm and welcoming bar with wonderful pintxos and fine wines to sustain us after the wee day trip. Thank you Stephanie. She’s my friend folks, but I promise you…I wouldn’t be writing about this if she didn’t merit it. Northern Spain Travel…where the journey begins and the adventures unravel!

And so it came to pass…I was supposed to be in Pamplona for New Year’s Eve this year, (2021-2) but that dashed doodle-hopping Covid devil spawn has got in the way and it’s not to be. But writing this has brought back great memories of the end of 2019 and the perfect start to 2020 in that amazing town, thanks to all the friends who went or I have who live there…and Steph. What a hostess!

stephanie mutsaerts

Written by Tim Pinks

Photos by Stephanie Mutsaerts

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