Pilgrims who are following A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Santiago by John Brierley while they travel along the Camino Frances in northern Spain start Stage 1 of their journey in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and reach Ponferrada in the El Bierzo region of the province of León by Stage 25. Eight more days to Santiago. With a population nearing 70,000 Ponferrada is the largest city between León and Santiago. It’s also the capital of the El Bierzo region of the Province of León. The Rio Sil runs through the city and pilgrims had to cross the river on a bridge that the bishop of Astorga way back in the 11th century reinforced with iron to accommodate all the traffic to Santiago. Ponferrada was named after this iron bridge (from the Latin pons – bridge and ferrata – iron).
Ponferrada is 70 miles west of León. We took the train from León that tunnels through several of the hills between the two cities and reached Ponferrada in an hour and a half. We stayed at the AC Hotel Ponferrada by Marriott (rated # 1 of 15 hotels by Tripadvisor) for three days and each day we walked about a mile to the city’s Old Town which consists of two colorful little plazas and one enormous castle.
Click on a photo to see a larger version of that photo.
Fifty years ago Ponferrada was just an old coal and steel town and a mountain of coal on the town’s outskirts was higher than any building in the town. Then the mines closed in the 1980s and the town began to take a step backwards but soon three things happened that brought the city back to prosperity: more pilgrims began to walk the Camino, more tourists came to visit as vineyards and wineries began to sprout up in the hills surrounding the city, and, finally, a renewed interest in the history of the Knights Templar brought on the recent renovation of the old castle that had been lying in ruins for decades.
The Knights Templar (full name: the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) were founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The organization soon became famous for their warrior exploits during the Crusades and from the late 12th century and throughout the 13th century they expanded across Europe into other activities including banking and became wealthier than most countries. In 1178 King Ferdinand II of León gave the Knights the town of Ponferrada and asked them to protect pilgrims on the Camino Santiago. It took the Knights about a hundred years to complete their castle in Ponferrada. Then in the early years of the 14th century the King of France concocted a conspiracy against the Knights, rounded up all of the leaders and burned them at the stake. Then he grabbed all of the organization’s wealth within France. Other countries followed suit and surviving knights joined other organizations such as the Knights Hospitaller. Finally, Pope Clement V transferred the remaining wealth of the Templars to the Hospitallers and dissolved the organization in 1314. Different owners of the castle renovated and restored the castle over the centuries with the result that only about 10% of the present structure was around during the time of the Templars.
We walked from our hotel one afternoon to the old town and through the two plazas to the castle but discovered that the castle closes between 2:00 and 4:30 every afternoon. So I walked around and took many pictures of the castle’s exterior and we came back the next morning to tour the interior. I’ll show you my photos from both excursions in future postings.