All the roads across the Pyrenees from Europe eventually arrive at Puente la Reina to become the Camino Francés. From CE 1142 to the early 14th century, Templar Knights oversaw Puente la Reina. They oversaw pilgrim safety and the maintenance of the Camino.
The first iconic marker the pilgrim encounters in Puente la Reina is the Iglesia del Crucifijo. The name, Church of the Crucifix, comes from the cross on its altar. It is an unusual sculpture of the crucified Jesus on a three-pronged cross that looks like a bird’s footprint.
Templars founded the church in the 12th century. While still under their care, in the 14th century, a German pilgrim gave the cross as a gift.
Next, midway on the Calle Mayor, the main street through the town that leads to the bridge, is the Iglesia de Santiago. This is one of the remarkable remaining examples of Mudéjar architecture on the Camino. Constructed in the first half of the 12th century, it has Islamic-style cusped arches that intimately interweave Romanesque sculputral images.
These sculptures include everything from medieval professions to saintly, demonic, and mixed human characters, to sins and the soul’s struggle on earth, to symbols indicating the passage of seasons and time. It is likely that the same craftsmen who built this church also built the scalloped archway churches in Cirauqui and Estella.
The oft overlooked third church in the village, the Iglesia de San Pedro, is a 16th century church near the bridge. San Pedro contains the original 16th century late-Gothic sculpture of Nuestra Señora del Puy. It reflects the popular dedication to the Mary of Le-Puy-en-Velay in south central France. She is one of the most popular Marys, and a famous Black Madonna, on the Camino.
Her statue in Puente la Reina used to stand atop a tower that is no longer on the bridge. Pilgrims would pass under it when leaving town on the Camino.
Puente la Reina’s main street, the Calle Mayor alone carries a powerful energy of the passage of millions of pilgrims over more than a millennium. The street leads to the bridge that gives Puente la Reina its name. It was built either by the Queen Doña Mayor, wife of King Sancho III, or by the next queen, Estefania, wife of King García de Nájera.
Bridges were the most important structures anyone could build to make the Camino more passable. The two Camino engineers, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and his student and friend San Juan de Ortega, in good part made their name through the bridges they built across tough terrain.
A person can sleep under the stars if there are no shelters, but would be unable to cross a deep river if there were no means. Sometimes there were means, in the form of locals ferrying pilgrims across in a craft. But even there, stories abounded of dishonest ferrymen who pillaged or drowned pilgrims for their possessions.
Bridges offered one of the most secure and desired structures for the vulnerable pilgrim. Those who built them were, and still are, celebrated. In the case of the widespread work of these two medieval engineers, they were also sainted.
That the bridge in Puente la Reina is still there is testimony to the quality of its craftsmanship.
In the mid-19th century, many times people began to notice a little lark, a txori, (“tx” is pronounced “ch” in Basque) who was perpetually around Mary’s statue. Daily the lark would remove spider webs from her using its beak and scoop up water from the river in its wings to wash her carved face of accumulated dust. It was such a phenomenon that the statue became known as La Virgen del Txori, the Lark’s Virgin.
It is likely that the tower was destroyed during the Carlist Wars in the late 19th century and that the statue was relocated to San Pedro church.
Puente la Reina is in the heart of beautiful hills that enable the locals to produce great wines and grow great vegetable gardens. All these items that make their way onto the happy pilgrim’s table. The Camino continues deeper into Navarra toward Cirauqui.