Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are three European nations that are not part of the EU but are economically tied to all EU nations via the European Economic Area (EEA). Since 1994 these countries have contributed to the welfare of some of the less developed countries in the EU/EEA. In 1999 Spain was the recipient of EEA-Norway Grants that totaled more than 56 milion euros. Most of the grants in the 1999-2003 period were environmental projects with an emphasis on urban renewal of historical towns. Eight million of this 56 million contribution was allotted to the restoration of the Templars Castle (Castillo de los Templarios) in Ponferrada, thus marking the latest in a series of castle restoration projects that have spanned more than eight centuries. Iceland and Liechtenstein contributed 3% of this 8 million euro fund. Norway donated the rest. Let’s see how Spain made use of these funds.
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The Castle is a huge complex, taking up more than 16,000 square meters of space on the hill overlooking the Rio Sil. And we could tell right away that most of the restoration was concentrated on only two or three places, leaving the rest of the Castle to look pretty much just like it did before.
Local tribes built minor fortifications on the hill more than 2,000 years ago. Then the Romans came by and added more sophisticated structures. The Romans were superseded by the Visigoths in the 5th century and not much happened to the fortress on the hill until King Alphonso VIII of León invaded the El Bierzo region and added the land to his kingdom. Then Alphonso IX in 1211 asked the Knights Templar to protect the pilgrims on the way to Santiago and in return he gave them what would be known as Ponferrada. The Knights apparently were in no great hurry to build their fortress since it took them more than 70 years to complete it. But by all accounts the castle was finally completed in 1282. But then the Templars were driven out of existence by the King of France and others and the Pope abolished the order in 1307. There was some squabbling over the ownership of the fortress for awhile but then King Ferdinand in 1340 gave the whole complex to his majordomo whose family kept ownership for the next 146 years. One of the majordomo’s descendants built what today is called the Old Castle. Then another family member, by this time called the Count of Lemos, built what would soon be called the New Castle. Near the end of the 15th century the Royal Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella decided to take over the castle and they laid siege and overcame the last Count of Lemos. There were some improvements made to the Castle in the 16th century but then it wallowed for hundreds of years and local residents began carving out portions of walls to build their own houses. During the 19th century some people blew up a portion of a wall in order to build a football field! In 1924 the Castle was given a National Monument status and further destruction if not ended was at least slowed down.
We began our tour by visiting the tower known as Torre de Monclin at the southwest corner of the Castle. This is one of the towers whose foundation was probably built by the Templars back in the 13th century. Today the tower contains two floors dedicated to exhibitions of medieval life.
We then walked along the upper slate walkway that connects all of the towers along the southern and eastern walls. Most of these towers are now adorned with slate roofs that seem to match many of the houses in the vicinity. Most of the photos I took of the views from the Castle were from this walkway (see here).
Most of the restoration project was devoted to rebuilding the New Castle. This two-story structure is used for concerts and lectures and even wedding receptions. On the second floor is the Templum Libri, a library of more than 1400 books that are replicas of medieval and renaissance works of art. Included are copies of Leonardo’s notebooks.
It looks like any remaining funds were spent on landscaping and installing lights outside and around the castle to show it off at night.
Thanks to the influx of pilgrims on the Camino these days and the gaining popularity of the story of the Knights Templar the restored Castle has become the city’s top tourist attraction. The number of visitors to the castle has increased from approximately 59,000 in 2006 to more than 100,000 last year. And one day in July every year local residents and Templar fans around the world celebrate Templar’s Night with a parade down the Camino followed by fireworks and other festivities on the grounds of the Castle. See here for a YouTube video of last year’s celebration.
We went to visit the Castle one afternoon only to discover that it is closed during siesta time and so we returned the next morning. I wonder how many more visitors the castle would have if it remained open from 2:00 to 4:30 in the afternoons!
By the way, with the addition of thirteen (mostly East European) countries into the EU/EEA since 2004 Spain is no longer considered one of Europe’s underdeveloped countries and is no longer qualified for EEA or Norway Grants.