thinking back, it’s kind of impressive how much stuff got crammed into day 26 on our Camino — the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, TAL episode #465, tasting at Cuatro Pasos, taking a potentially risky shortcut to shave off a couple of kilometers at the end of the day, Brent Spiner on the Nerdist, and the second-craziest shower I experienced while in Spain. I suppose it should come as no surprise then just how relieved we were to stumble into our boutique hotel in Villafranca del Bierzo, Hotel Las Doñas del Portazgo. (if you ever find yourself in Villafranca del Bierzo, I recommend it).
the earliest settlements around Villafranca date from the neolithic age and there’s evidence to suggest it served as an important hub for communication during the Roman period, sitting as it does at the confluence of two rivers (the Burbia and Valcarce) at the western edge of the Bierzo basin and at the foot of the narrow pass that ascends to O Cebriero and Galicia beyond. in the 11th century, the sister of Alfonso VI granted a church to Cluny for establishing a monastery that began cultivating wine. this, along with the explosion of peregrinos during the 12th century, gave rise to a sizable foreign population including many French who aided developing wines. by the middle of the century more than half the town’s inhabitants were foreign.
the city flourished for several centuries because of the Camino and in 1486 the Catholic Monarchs established the Marquesado in the town; the second man to hold the title, Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, built a castle though the one that overlooks the valley and town dates from the 1490s and was recently restored to clean up the damage done when the French burned it in 1812. following the second Marques’ death, the city endured its first of many significant hardships that concluded with the burning of the castle by the French. the plague decimated the town’s population in 1589; a flood washed out much along the river in 1715; during the Peninsular War the town served as headquarters for the Galician army and was sacked three times by the English until finally, after the municipal archives were burned, churches robbed, and castle wrecked in 1810 Spain regained control of the area. sort of — the French briefly occupied the town following the expulsion of the English. twelve years later el Bierzo was declared an independent province with Villafranca as its capitol; that lasted two years.
much of the late medieval and Renaissance character remains in Villafranca (as much of the modern industrial revolution passed the city over) including several well-preserved churches. subsequent to its construction in 1186, the Iglesia de Santiago offered ailing peregrinos an alternative to crossing the remaining 187 kilometers of the Camino; if you were too ill or too injured to continue on to Santiago you could pass through the northern entrance — the Puerta del Perdon — and receive a pardon for your sins as you would at the cathedral in Santiago if only you were physically capable of continuing onward. along the narrow streets are facades you might imagine lining prosperous towns of the middle ages — sturdy construction with impressive stonework — though care for these buildings varies widely.
our hotel stood at the end of one such street; it used to serve as the gatehouse for the bridge over the rio Burbia and has been attentively restored and updated; while the entire place exudes comfort, during the update process they left elements of the original building exposed to give a sense of what the place might have felt and looked like a century ago. while the hotel at the end of the road was lovingly restored, there were many other buildings along the way that hadn’t received the same attention. from the refurbished window balcony of one updated home you could look directly into the dilapidated and burned-out husk of another once-magnificent home that hadn’t received the same attentions. Villafranca del Bierzo was clearly thriving, but it didn’t take much to see signs of the common challenges afflicting the rest of Spain.