Estella’s founding goes back to pre-Roman times but the town became a major destination in the late 11th century when King Sancho Ramírez made the town a market center. He directed funds, including tribute from al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), that he sent into building up the Camino, including Estella.
Ramírez also enticed settlers with land grants to come, populate, and develop the town. Many were people from French Occitan speaking areas in France’s Auvergne and Limousin regions. Up until then, Estella had been a small, Basque-speaking settlement called Lizarra.
Medieval pilgrims often called the town Estella la bella, Estella the beautiful, as it was one of the most desirable destinations to reach on the road. The medieval pilgrim’s guide, the Codex Calixtinus, hailed it as a place offering great cheer, food, and wine.
By 1164, Estellans had a well-known Thursday market, a market that continues to set up every Thursday. The good cheer, food, and wine persist and I think that Estella remains one of the most enjoyable towns on the Camino. It has preserved several of its remarkable medieval buildings as well as its medieval town plan, which straddles the Ega River. Four hills define the town. Once, each hill had a castle but none survive today.
The hill where Estella’s Basilica del Puy stands, in local lore, was believed to be an ancient goddess veneration site. In the Middle Ages, it was the site of a visitation from Our Lady of Puy and why the basilica was built there.
The Mary from Le-Puy-en-Velay has already appeared, in Roncesvalles and Puente la Reina, given the large number of French settlers dedicated to her along the Camino. Her cult dates to the 5th century and is much older than the Camino. This, coupled with the many French pilgrims and settlers dedicated to her, is good reason why she appears so often on the Camino.
In the late 11th century shepherds saw stars raining down on this hill and when they went up to investigate, found an image of Our Lady of Le Puy in a cave. Those stars in Estella give the town her name.
Star is stella in Latin and estrella in modern Spanish. All through town the star is always depicted as an eight-pointed star, which was originally Isis’s star, and after her, Venus’.
The Mary in the present church is not the original (and not a black Madonna like the original Mary from Le Puy) but still a beautiful Gothic-image from the 14th century that shows Mother and Child seated on a crescent moon as if they are taking a ride through the sky.
The current basilica was built in the 1950s and replaces the older destroyed church. It is built from its foundation to its ceiling on the Islamic-styled eight-pointed star pattern, that of rebirth.
Another remarkable site is Estella’s Iglesia de San Pedro de la Rua. Located across the Ega river from the basilica, on one of Estella’s other four hills. Its approach is a dramatic ascent up steep stone steps arriving at the beautiful 12th and 13th century Romanesque church. Its doorway is a cousin to the multi-lobed Mudéjar doorways already seen in Puente la Reina and Cirauqui and was most likely built by the same craftsmen.
The church cloisters are harmonious and peaceful in spite of their partial destruction in 1572, when an explosion intended to demolish the neighboring castle of Zalatambor rained down on the church.
In the cloister garden stand tombstones that are the hybrid of pagan and Christian styles, taking a Basque sun disk and transforming it into an equal-armed cross set in a circle. The cloister’s west side has several Mudéjar-styled plants and animals. (Mudéjars were Muslim craftsmen working in Christian Spain.)
Inside the church, the most striking characteristic is the open, round space, and the three chapels that form apse and altar. From the visitor’s perspective, Mary is seated in the first chapel to the left. In the center is Jesus and to the right, is Saint Peter. Look back at Mary’s chapel and notice the pillar to the left that frames it. The entire pillar is an unusual sculpture of three braided serpents. Their perfectly circled tails form the base, their braided bodies the center, and their aligned heads the crown.
The statue of Mary is from the 13th century but the braided serpents are a part of the restoration work in 1893 by the sculptor Cayetano Echauri. He was chosen for this task because he was a known specialist in occult symbolism as well as a talented stonemason. He added his understanding of the medieval esoteric lore. One interpretation of his intentions with the three serpents was to show the interplay of wisdom in discerning good and bad. One serpent represents good, one stands for evil, and the third in the middle, for wisdom weaving the other two in balance.
Estella’s Iglesia de San Miguel is, as are nearly all churches dedicated to Saint Michael, constructed on high places. This one is on yet another of Estella’s four hills. The church dates to the early 12th century but has been altered many times over subsequent centuries. It still retains the intricacy of its Romanesque north doorway, from around 1170.
Not far beyond Estella, the Camino arrives at the medieval monastery (and wine fountain) of Irache.