Castillo de los Templarios

one of the more unexpected discoveries we made in the last stages of the Camino was the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, the last large town before entering the eagerly-anticipated province of Galicia. the modern city is situated at the convergence of the Sil an Boeza rivers in the middle of the Bierzo plain (known for wine, among other things!) though the earliest settlement on the site date from pre-Roman times. it thrived as a mining district under Roman control but suffered destruction with Visigoth and Moorish invasions prior to the 11th century. the name derives from a bridge, built to transport peregrinos over one of the rivers, that had reinforcing elements made of iron (Pons Ferrata = Iron Bridge).

towards the end of the 12th century, the kingdom granted control of the city to the Knights Templar as a base from which they might protect peregrinos as they traversed the Camino. though the influence of the Templars proved short-lived (as they found themselves expelled from Spain about a century later), their legacy endures in the enormous Castillo de los Templarios perched on a hill overlooking the confluence of the two rivers. in 1178 Fernando II donated the ruins of a Roman (and later Visigoth) fort to the Templars for the purpose of building their own fortifications. they completed the massive structure (which now encompasses about 16,000 square meters, or more than 172,000 square feet) between 1218 and 1282 — insanely fast for something so expansive — but lost the castle some 20 years later when all the Templar Knights were placed under arrest by the Pope who ultimately dissolved the Order in 1312.

— an aside: in 2001 a researcher discovered a parchment in the Vatican archives that someone misfiled in 1628. dating from April of 1308, the “Chinon Parchment” demonstrates that, prior to completely dissolving the the Order, Pope Clement V absolved all the Templar Knights from the charges levied against them. compounded by other evidence on the issue, the Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges that the persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust, nothing in their order was inherently wrong, and that the Pope suffered undue pressure from the King of France (who was also his cousin).

after the Knights lost possession of the castle dispute over control raged for centuries, passing back and forth between noble and royal families and enduring sieges and attacks from all manner of opponents. in one more unbelievable series of exchanges, following an unfavorable judgement Rodrigo Osorio took control of the castle in 1483 in opposition to Fernando & Isabel; after a settlement he vacated temporarily in 1485 but shortly changed his mind and re-took the castle; the scenario repeated itself again in 1507, but Fernando, fed up with the game, finally confiscated the castle permanently for the Crown. in 1558 the caretaker appointed by the crown (the Marques de Villafranca) purchased the castle from the Crown; in the 17th and 18th centuries a city magistrate oversaw care of the castle on behalf of the Crown. in the early 19th century during the War of Independence it served as garrison and was once again attacked. in the 1850s, the city began to sell stones from the building for use in the construction of new buildings and sidewalks throughout the city. preservation and restoration began in the 1924 when the site received recognized status as a national landmark.

due to an unfortunate consequence of timing, we couldn’t do much beyond walk up to the (closed) front gate of the castle and then enjoy breakfast in view of its massive walls. if we’d read ahead more thoroughly and known the castle stood on our route we might have pushed on beyond Moliaseca and stayed in Ponferrada — it would have made the climb down from the Cruz de Ferro more challenging, but would have made the hot, challenging trek to Villafranca del Bierzo slightly less arduous. three more kilometers would have proven challenging, but … the castle was built in two phases — under the Templars in the 13th century and again under unknown direction in the 15th century. the south-facing entrance has a bridge over a moat and a double gate including barbican. the coats of arms over the front door illustrate the changing oversight of the castle.

Monumento de los Caídos

making our way along the Camino through the Montes de Oca we stumbled up on this intriguing monument … the inscription of which indicated something about the Spanish Civil War but for which our guide book said nothing. well, not exactly nothing, it offered this: “A stark monument to the fallen caídos during the Spanish Civil War with picnic tables in the shelter of the trees and a backdrop of wind turbines on the rise behind.” proceeding on to describe how the track descends sharply to a creek bed before ascending again. it was a rather remarkable site and memorial … though the dozen picnickers (and the peregrinos walking along at our pace) did detract from the solemnity of the site.

I imagine it goes without saying that, as one thoroughly intrigued by all manner of historical background for my travels, this complete lack of interest in non-religious historical sites — really a kind of deliberate avoidance — cemented my antipathy towards our guidebook. how can you bring up picnic tables in the same breath as this stark monument to victims of the Spanish Civil War?! a war that I learned almost nothing about in any of the history courses I ever took.

upon getting home, I was gratified to discover that the book of cultural history we opted not to carry with us had slightly more information on this site. it’s a monument to men from Burgos (35km to the west) who were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night and taken for short drives from which they never returned. rebellion against the ruling Republican government broke out in July of 1936 and violence raged throughout the country over the next two months, with some of the worst perpetrated by fascist right wingers in Burgos: “During July and August of 1936, witnesses speak of discovering dozens of bodies every single day along the Arlanzon River, in the Montes de Oca, on the hill by Burgos’s castle, and on the forested grounds of the Cartuja de Miraflores.” (from Gitlitz and Davidson, 2000).

needless to say: I feel compelled to learn more about the Spanish Civil War to better understand how it ties into the history I have studied of the 20th century. also, I’m even more unimpressed by the guidebook we carried with us. was it worth the weight? perhaps, but only just.