Ponferrada was another one of those cities in Spain that I was extra anxious to visit. Once again my desire was fueled by my keen historical interest in all things Templar. The town boasted a magnificent Templar Castle and I was excited to visit it. My excitement was reaching a climax as Sue and I reached the río Boeza. While crossing the Puente Mascarón I was having visions of the Templar Castle that awaited us but I was disappointed to find the castle closed because we had arrived on Monday – the only day that the castle is closed!!!!
But Ponferrada sitting at the confluence of the río Boeza and río Sil, was and is much more that just the Templar Castle. This town of 68,121 is the capital of the Bierzo region and boasts a metropolitan area that has 88,975 inhabitants. As such, Ponferrada is the last large city before you reach Santiago de Compostela and a great place to get any needed equipment in order to continue your journey. The city in 1905 had a population of only 7,188 that by 1940 had almost doubled to 13,008. The period from 1940 to 1970 saw a spectacular population explosion during which the city’s population tripled. This was due in large part to rapid industrial growth fueled by the mining operations in the area and also a result of the city becoming the administrative center of the Bierzo region.
Gitlitz and Davidson in their, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), list the following 10 important ancient and medieval monuments that are within a 2 km to 20 km side trip from the city:
- Santiago de Peñalba (a village on a rocky spur that was the center of a large mozárabes community boasting a small church in the shape of Latin cross and a Roman canal)
- Las Médulas (spectacular remains of Roman gold mines)
- Cornatel (A spectacular castle, perched on a crag that was said to have been the site of the Templars’ last stand in Spain)
- Santo Tomás de las Ollas (10th century Mozarabic church with a unique 11-sided Dome)
- Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Vizbayo (oldest Romanesque church in the Bierzo dating to at least 1028)
- Ermita de la Santa Cruz (Visigothic elements to the ermita)
- San Pedro de Montes (an important monastery founded in the 7th century)
- Monasterio de Carracedo (important monastery founded in the 10th century)
- Monasterio de Corullón (the little town also boast 3 extraordinary Romanesque churches)
- Compludo (village that was the site of a 7th century small monastery and the church there boasts the earliest datable retablo in the Bierzo)
Sue and I did not have time to visit any of these sites but he next time I am in Ponferrada I will definitely devote two days to them!
Back to Ponferrada and the history of the city. When the Romans got here they found that it was already the site of an ancient settlement and they decided to make it the center of one of the Empire’s richest mining areas. Both the Visigoths and the Muslims, during their respective invasions, destroyed the town. In 1082 Bishop Osmundo of Astorga had a bridge constructed here for the use of pilgrims traveling to Santiago. It was from this bridge, that was said to have been constructed of wood that was reinforced with iron bars and possibly had an iron railing – the Pons Ferrata or Iron Bridge- that the town got its name. Any town named after a bridge built for pilgrim use was bound to have pilgrim hospitals also and Ponferrada had (at least) the following ones:
- El Hospital de la Reina
- Ponte Buesca
- San Blas
- San Juan
- San Martín
- San Nicolás
- Hospital del Carmen
- 2 named after San Lázaro
- Private hospice of Alvarez Pérez de Osorio
All of the above no longer exist.
Speaking of pilgrims it was the Templar Order that had the mission of protecting pilgrims in both the Holy Land and in areas contested by the Muslims. Ponferrada was entrusted to the protection of the Templars in 1178 and by 1218 they had begun construction of a massive castle on the site of a previous Roman fort (that also later became a Visigothic one). The castle was completed in 1282 and what we now see is a reconstruction. Throughout history it has served as fort, palace and monastery. It is a massive structure; triple-walled, having a size of 96 x 164m that totals nearly 16,000 square meters. Sited for defense, the south side of the castle is defended by a moat and heavily defended gate, the west and north sides incorporate the steep cliffs that drop dangerously to the river below and enormous walls throughout would have made taking the castle a tough proposition for an enemy force. In 1312 with the dissolution of the Templar Order the castle was turned over to the count of Lemos, Pedro Fernández de Castro. It was to be the scene of much fighting during the dynastic wars of the 15th century and was confiscated for the crown by King Fernando sometime after 1507.
Sue and I weren’t thinking of the past history of the castle when we learned that we would not be able to see it that day, what we were thinking of was arriving at our hotel for a well-deserved rest and shower before dinner. We proceeded up the Calle Gil y Carrasco that soon led us to La Plaza Virgen de La Encima. This plaza is where you find the 17th century Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Encina. Named for the image of the Virgen de la Encina that was said to have appeared by a miracle in an Oak tree trunk during the period of the Templar occupation. This image can now be seen in the center of the 1630 main retablo located in the basilica. The Virgen de la Encina in 1958 was named the patroness of Bierzo by a Papal order. This basilica is also known for its tower that is called, “La Giralda del Bierzo”. Alas we were too tired at that point to enter the church and when we tried later there was some sort of ceremony going on there that I was reluctant to disrupt. It will have to be next time!
From the Plaza Virgen de la Encina we continued up the Calle Reloj. This street is named after the clock tower emblazoned with the coat of arms of Carlos I. The tower was constructed over one of the gates of the medieval city walls and led us to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento where the Ayuntamiento , a Baroque city hall (built from 1692 to 1705) with an impressive Imperial coat of arms overlooks the plaza. Mercifully for us the plaza was also the site of our hotel, the Hotel Aroi Bierzo Plaza.
Ponferrada provided an important service for Sue that evening. It turned out that her walking shoes had given out (after 1,000 km of service!) and were causing her some discomfort. We walked to Ponferrada’s central business district and were able to find an excellent store that sold sporting equipment. There Sue was able to replace her shoes with a pair of Spanish shoes. Walking back from the store we tried to find a suitable resting place or ritual worthy of her pair of valiant shoes and decided to leave them close to a bridge near the castle. Sue was sad to lose her valiant companions in this way and that sadness found its way to me and for one moment I thought that her shoes deserved better; say a Viking funeral. That probably would of gotten us arrested so we just left the shoes.
Our next order of business was to cheer ourselves up and we decided that a nice dinner was in order. On our way to dinner we ran into Stephanie who was the first peregrina I met while on the train from Paris to Bayonne. She was resting up from an injury and after catching up a bit we went and had a delicious meal at the Restaurante Meson de Cuadras. The food was very good but especially memorable was the desserts! It was a fine way to end our evening in Ponferrada.