The Pyrenean Iron Route is a project that is shared between different institutions and is framed within the philosophy and guidelines of the European Institute of Cultural Routes. Primarily taken into account are the guidelines aimed at fostering unity among members through culture, as well as at promoting, in turn, the diversity of the European identity. It is understood to be essential for new generations to become aware of common European values and it is likewise understood that, in order to identify those values, heritage must be promoted as a link between the different regions and cultures – in addition to being a reflection of history.
The Pyrenees Mountain Chain, which is now considered to be a boundry that separates two states, was once a common area for the different communities that occupy the region, in addition to a trade route and pathway for the transmission of technology and culture. Those relationships were especially intense in terms of iron production – a sector that once had its own culture, perfectly separate from that of the rest of Europe. This is because the process used for iron production was one of direct reduction, meaning that iron was obtained in a single operation using open hearth reduction furnaces. Nevertheless, at the end of the nineteenth century, they had to adopt the indirect reduction process so as to be able to compete on the market, which required the use of blast furnaces and had already been widespread in the rest of Europe for centuries.
That shared steel making tradition brings about a common heritage and legacy that can be seen in the different cultural dissemination programs undertaken in Andorra, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Ariège, and Aquitaine. With that foundation, and through a process that has gradually been scaled over fifteen years, a cross-border cooperative network has been created in the form of an international association whose aim is to renew the Cultural Route of the Council of Europe certification. The association is made up of entities that have museum facilities linked to the steel heritage, the mines, and the iron landscape – all aiming to share experiences and competencies in terms of this heritage’s conservation and dissemination, inviting tourists to visit.
In the case of the Basque Country, a total of 11 entities are members of the network and they manage 14 facilities.
The Regional Government of Gipuzkoa, whose representative chairs the Association, is present through the resources at the Arditurri Mines Interpretation Center (Oiartzun) and the Agorregi Forge (Aia). At Arditurri, the vast underground mining facilities can be visited while contemplating mining artifacts from different eras – including Roman galleries. The Agorregi Forge is an exceptional place due to its design, which faithfully reproduces the workshops of the eighteenth-century hydraulic factories – so much so that iron has even been produced there with the methods of those times.
The City Council of Irun offers the Irugurutzeta Complex, a set of spectacular calcining furnaces, mine shafts, and other mining infrastructure. Errenteria offers the legacy of five centuries of industrial activity linked to iron and the Fandería, which was the country’s most important hydraulic mill.
The City Councils of Zerain and Mutiloa are in charge of managing extraordinary mining landscapes; some around the so-called “Iron Valley” and others around the Aizpea mining area and equipped with their own interpretation center. Additionally, the famous Ormaiztegi Railway Viaduct is located nearby, included in the route by the municipality’s town council.
Also owned by the city is the Igartza Complex, in Beasain, which features a palace from the sixteenth century that is associated with the foundry as well as water mills with their channels and reservoirs. The inside of the palace has pieces of a monumental wooden gravity dam from the sixteenth century on display. Thanks to this dam, the water necessary for the hydraulic facilities to work was collected and diverted.
The Lenbur Foundation of Legazpi manages the Basque Iron Museum, the Mirandaola Foundry, and the Chillida Lantoki Museum – a local route in and of itself that allows primary production activities (the foundry) to be included in the visit alongside artistic creation (through the work by the sculptor Chillida), all in relationship with the iron sector.
In addition to the Lenbur Foundation’s Basque Iron Museum, there is the Elgoibar Machine Tool Museum which is managed by the Elgoibar Machine Tool Foundation and the Arms Industry Museum of the City of Eibar. The former is a living museum that presents (in live operation) how the first factories in the region worked using brackets and pulleys, sets of lathes, drills, milling machines, brushes, saws, etc. The latter houses an extensive collection of weapons and a great variety of products made in Eibar (bicycles, motorcycles, sewing machines, etc.). It is a complete journey through the evolution of Eibar’s industrial history from the fourteenth century to the present day and age.
The museum facilities along the Iron Route in Gipuzkoa are topped off with the Basque Railway Museum, which depends on the Eusko Trenbideak Railway Company of the Basque Government, and the Chillida-Leku Museum: the open-air museum that the sculptor Eduardo Chillida dreamed of.
The Railway Museum shows the evolution of the train as a means of transport over 150 years of history. It has more than sixty vehicles that are fully restored and operational: steam locomotives, city streetcars, passenger and freight cars, trolleybuses, etc. Steam trains that go to the Lasao Station leave from the Museum’s headquarters in what was once the narrow-gauge train hanger of Urola, in Azpeitia, to allow visitors to re-live a time when Gipuzkoa had one of the densest railway networks in Europe.
The Chillida-Leku Museum has its headquarters at the Zabalaga Estate of Hernani, being conceived as a large, open space where the work of this great artist can be displayed. In that well-maintained garden, the beech trees, oak trees, and magnolias live side by side with the monumental steel and granite sculptures in perfect harmony with the environment. It is, needless to say, a unique museum created to be a large work of art in and of itself. Therein, art and nature merge naturally.
It really is worth the time to learn more about these items of vast historical interest and to venture beyond our borders to get to know the entire Pyrenean Iron Route.