Walking the Camino de Santiago from Leon to Santiago
Molinaseca to Ponferrada was the shortest walk of our entire trip – only 7km. We were all very excited for the easy day as we set off for Ponferrada, and this was one of the only days when we stayed together as a group for most of the walk.
As we came over the hill on our short walk from Molinaseca, we could see the towers of the Templar castle looming large in front of us. We stopped by our hostel first to put down our bags and settle in, and a big group gathered in a nearby cafe for churros and hot chocolate before we all met to see the castle and the town. The churros were excellent (and also fried in lard, we think. Spain seems to run on ham).
After our brief break we met at the Templar castle. The hill the castle sat on had been used as a defensive fort since ancient times: as a hill fort under barbarian rule, as a Roman citadel, as the local headquarters of the Knights Templar and finally as the property fo the Count of Lemos. The major expansion of the site came in 1178 when King Ferando II gave the land to the Knights Templar, a military order founded to protect pilgrims ont eh way to the Holy Land and by extension, pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. The Templars spent decades building the first part of what would later be a bigger castle but had little time to use it since 145 years after they began constructyion, they were dissolved as an order due to a dastardly conspiracy on the part of the French King Phillip the Fair. (A fascinating story to check out on a rainy day.) The castle then went into the hands of the Count of Lemos and the great ramparts and battlements were never used for their defensive purpose.
Walking across the moat was a childhood dream come true. The Lord of the Rings world every kid dreams of living in was there in front of me (Joe). We could see the military defenses, peek in to the ruins of the old quarters in the tower and feel the cold wind run across the hill that could only be made worse by metallic clothes. The front of the castle was so spectacular that it looked fake, like a Disney version of a medieval castle. Here´s a view of the inside of the castle:
The Templar presence had left a sense of noble chivalrly and other worldly wonder and duty, augmented only by the holographic face at the pit of the tower that had been set up narrate the history of the Templars. Fortunately this virtual creature from the depths of Hell stayed in his pit and we were free to explore the rest of the town.
Ponferrada (from pons ferra, or iron bridge) is the urban center for the rural and beautiful El Bierzo region, but unfortunately the Museo del Bierzo was closed the day we were in town (despite the posted hours on the town´s website). This museum, located in the Royal Prison built in 1565, contains a wealth of information on the entire region, from archeology, anthrop0logy, and history. We´re sad to have missed it. Other closed museums include the Museo del Radio and the Museo del Ferrocarril (trains) – we could have gone to the national energy museum, but our group seems more interested in the history of Spain than in its present energy systems.
The museums having been closed (Latin grammar/syntax), we went to the Basilica de la Encina (Oak). This beautiful church was built between 1573 and 1707, and it may have been built over a 13th century church – a great tragedy, in my opinion (Rachel).
The architecture is a mix of Renaissance and Baroque styles, and the most important feature is the wooden image of the Virgin and Child in the front of the church. This Virgen de la Encina is the patron of the entire El Bierzo region, and her cult is alive and well in the basilica.
There are many accounts of how the image came to reside in the basilica, but here´s my favorite: the Templars needed wood for additional construction on the castle in 1300, but when one of the Templars cut down an oak tree on Sept. 8th, the day of the Nativity of the Virgin, the tree split into a perfect wooden image of the Virgin and Child. The current image in the church dates from the 16th century.
After this we walked right down the street to the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), which was built before 1567. The Torre del Reloj sits on the only remaining section of Ponferrada´s medieval wall, and it´s right next to the Real Carcel, the Royal Prison building now housing the Museo del Bierzo. The Torre del Reloj is an iconic image of Ponferrada.
After the Torre del Reloj the group split for lunch/early supper, and one group went to a nearby pizzeria for the Menu del Dia, which includes two courses, wine, and dessert for a pretty reasonable cost, usually between 8 and 12 euros (this is great in concept, but the content can get repetitive for us pellegrinos – lots of eggs, bread, french fries, and meat with a side of bread). This was a pretty contentious lunch, including intense discussion of such varied topics as environmentalism, evolution, and the pros and cons of L.A.
Finally, we retired for the night. Because Ponferrada is a fairly large city, we didn´t stay in an albergue, but rather in a hostel/hotel, and we were split into singles, doubles, and triples – a great luxury! Foot washing, blister operations and bandaging, and then deep pilgrim sleep.
(Joe Moreshead, Rachel Welsh)