PONFERRADA’S TEMPLAR CASTLE
We left the vast expanse of La Meseta behind today, heading down into the comparatively verdant embrace of the Bierzo Valley. Our home-away-from-home for tonight is the town of Ponferrada, the largest city in El Bierzo and another popular stop along the Camino de Santiago. Like most of the mid-sized towns we’ve stayed in during our travels across Northern Spain, Ponferrada is cute and quite photogenic, with a few modern suburbs clustered around the historical town centre. It’s also small and easily explored in half a day, leaving us ample time to sit and enjoy a few tapas whilst people watching. The people watching was especially good in Ponferrada today as it’s a public holiday here in Spain and, despite the grey clouds and occasional drizzle, there were lots of families out enjoying the day together. Like us, most people spent the day relaxing, eating, drinking, and exploring Ponferrada’s Medieval old town and its glorious Templar Castle.
Ponferrada lies on Sil River, deep in the Bierzo Valley and completely surrounded by mountains. After so many days of seeing nothing but the dry plains of La Meseta, the change in scenery was welcomed, though the rain that swept through less so. Our sympathy went out to the pilgrims we saw walking the Camino today – being rained on can’t make for a fun day’s walking!
Ponferrada was established as a military citadel in Roman times, and soon became an important mining town as a number of gold and iron deposits were discovered in the surrounding hills. At that time it was known as Pons Ferrata (i.e. Iron Bridge), named for the town’s iron-reinforced bridge built across the River Sil. As well as mining, the Romans also brought grapevines to El Beirzo, and wine production remains an important part of the region’s economy to this day.
The advent of the Camino in the 11th century added to Ponferrada’s prosperity; so much so that, in 1178, the King Fernando II placed this flourishing settlement under the custody of the Order of the Temple. The Knights Templar were tasked with keeping the pilgrims passing through Ponferrada safe and ensuring the thriving town was similarly protected. In order to carry out this edict the Templars built an enormous castle* above the Medieval town, the ruins of which still overlook the city.
*The castle’s area covers more than 16,000 square metres.
The castle was built on top of the old Roman fortress and incorporated the stones of the old fortification into its walls. We’re partial to a good castle and happily spent time exploring the recently renovated ruins.
One section of the castle has been turned into a small museum, housing the remnants of the Templars’ library. Some 1,400 books and scrolls are stored here, including copies of works by Leonardo da Vinci.
The building’s outstanding features were, above all, the entrance (which required us to cross the moat on a drawbridge).
The castle was home to dozens of Knights Templar, including the Grand Master of Castille. However, the Templars were only able to enjoy the use of their fortress for a few years before the order was disbanded and its properties confiscated in 1311. The castle was left to go to ruin after that and has only been partially restored recently in an effort to attract more visitors to Ponferrada.
At the foot of the Castle is the historic quarter of the city, with the town’s original entry gate along Calle del Reloj (i.e. Street of the Clock Tower) still clearly visible.
Walking through the gateway, under the Clock Tower, we found ourselves in the town’s central square. Flanked by the 16th century town hall and a number of colourful buildings, Ponferrada’s Plaza Mayor made a great place to stop for some tapas and a drink.
We found a funky little tapas bar to stop in whilst we waited for the rain to abate.
When the skies cleared we set back out to explore a bit more of Ponferrada’s old town, with its narrow streets and old buildings.
Soon we found ourselves in the town’s other square, Plaza de la Encina, traditionally the market square.
The Basilica de Maria de la Encina stands on the square and is the town’s main church. In keeping with the town’s size, the church is much smaller and humbler than the grand cathedrals in Burgos and Leon, but was still worth visiting.
Leaving the oldest part of town we walked for a while along the river and through some of the newer parts of Ponferrada. Here our attention was drawn to some of the street art and murals that decorated the walls. Signed by the artists, these were real works of art – not just the scribblings of bored youths.
The clouds dissipated around 8:00pm, just in time for us to head out for dinner. Along the way we stopped to admire the old town again. Lit up the castle was even more impressive, as where the Basilica and Town Hall. The nicest thing, though, was seeing everyone out for the evening, enjoying the break in the weather and cool autumn night.
And so ends another day in Spain. This part of the trip has been VERY relaxed – despite moving towns every day we’re finding the pace is suiting us fine (mostly because the town’s up here are so small and easy to explore, leaving us lots of time to relax as well as be good little tourists). Our sojourn in Northern Spain will come to and end soon though – tomorrow we reach the end of our “pilgrimage” with one final bus ride into Santiago de Compostela.