Anyone who visits Pamplona will catch a glimpse of the mountain San Cristóbal. If you don’t see it on your way in or out of the city, you’ll see it from the city walls or La Taconera park. It’s a small mountain, easy to walk up, that to locals is synonymous with Pamplona. In summer, its bright green hillsides are lit up by the sun often with the backdrop of a clear blue sky. In winter, it turns white, blanketed by icy morning frost or thick snow that covers its grass, trees and tiny villages. But San Cristóbal also has a dark and bloody history, being home to perhaps the eeriest abandoned building I’ve ever come across.
“Don’t call it San Cristóbal. It’s called Ezkaba”. That’s what Oski told me. Oski was one of the first local people I met in Pamplona, a staunch Basque who I once witnessed hitting a cash machine because it didn’t offer him a Basque language option despite the fact that he was fluent in both Spanish and English. Oski lived on the San Cristóbal mountain in a small village called Artica and was the person who first made me aware of the mountain’s bleak history.
It wasn’t until two years later that I would finally climb the mountain with a friend of mine. There is a road that you can easily walk up but we avoided it, opting for one of the steep and bushy hiking paths cutting through rocks, thorns, plants and steep hills covered in trees. I recall stopping to take a rest halfway up the mountain to see a yellow spider crawling across my hand as well as a black and yellow lizard, possibly a fire salamander, resting on a rock beside me.
We reached the top of the mountain within about two hours and caught some gorgeous views of Pamplona and its surrounding countryside but it was the fort that sticks in my mind above all. Fort San Cristóbal was built from 1879 to 1919 during the Carlist Wars but in the 1930s was turned into a prison. When the Spanish Civil War was started by a fascist military rebellion in 1936, Pamplona instantly fell under fascist control and 2,000 people were imprisoned in the fort, mainly for having unfavourable views.
On May 22nd 1938, a huge prison break erupted and 792 inmates escaped. Whilst making their way down the mountain, a prison guard alerted the fascist military rebels who immediately started a manhunt, arresting 585 escapees whilst 211 were shot dead on the spot. 14 of those captured were regarded as ringleaders and sentenced to death. Just 3 escapees successfully got away and crossed over the French border. Many of those brought back to the prison were left there to die of famine and disease in their cells, the death toll for this being over 400.
It was a strange feeling to climb into the abandoned fort, walk through its concrete corridors and even its dark and empty cells; a reminder of a time that must never be allowed to reoccur.
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