Villafranca del Bierzo

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.

soaking up Astorga

after cleaning off the day’s Camio, we headed out to the Plaza Mayor for something to eat, finding a place that served pizza and offered a view of the ayuntamiento and its clock tower with typically-dressed figures of Maragatos (about which more later) that have emerged to strike the hour since 1748. not as elaborate as the astronomical clocks in Prague or Olomouc but significantly less touristy.

waiting for our meal gave us an opportunity to watch the locals out and about in the plaza. a group of people with various physical disabilities came by, presumably from an institution for which I saw a sign off to the south. bikers in Very Serious gear but who seemed to simply be biking rather than completing the Camino on bike. and by far the best: three little kids in various stages of learning to ride a bike. older sister was already a pro on two wheels; as we sat down the middle brother was in his first, tentative laps without training wheels and dad holding the back of his seat; the youngest brother was racing around, supremely confident if tipsy on his training wheels, dodging all manner of close calls at top speed. when we came back later, the youngest had just had his training wheels removed and wasn’t moving quite so quickly as before.

pizza consumed, clock strike witnessed, and training-wheel-free biking observed, we headed out to see what the rest of the city held. in the next plaza over we came across a statue of a lion pinning an eagle — homage to Spanish forces that campaigned against Napoleons invading forces in the 19th century. José María Santocildes led the (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of Astorga in the Guerra de la Independencia. the city was the farthest west that Napoleons troops occupied and following their expulsion, Astorga again prospered with a plethora of bakers, chocolatiers, tanners, and craftspeople. now its primarily a destination for tourists though it remains crucial as a trading hub.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port: a beginning with history

looking west down the Rue de la Citadelle from the Porte St-Jacques

the peregrinos that started coming from “beyond the Pyrenees” in the 12th century were overwhelmingly French, in part because of protection provided by the Kingdom of France. enterprising individuals followed the peregrinos from France and set up hospitals, hospices, inns, and other businesses catering to the needs of those trekking to Santiago. four separate routes originated in France –including the route we followed from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, over the foothills and into Roncesvalles — and converged on Puente la Reina beyond Pamplona.

for those walking “the whole way” St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is the most popular point of departure and head of the Camino Frances. plenty of people start in Roncesvalles or Pamplona instead, avoiding the arduous 1300m ascent (and descent) but coming from St. Jean affords a certain degree of pride and bragging rights. besides, after a climb that challenging and long when your body isn’t sure yet what you’ve gotten into you are prepared for anything over the next 775 or so kilometers.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (St. Jean at the foot of the mountain pass), or Donibane Garazi in Euskara, lies about 8km over the French border straddling the Nive River. the area was settled before the 11th century and, after the destruction of the original settlement in 1127, the King of Navarre had the town reestablished in its present location to fortify the northern defenses of his territory. over the centuries, the location proved strategically important — as a stopping point on the Camino, a trade center, on the route through the mountain pass to Roncesvalles, a military outpost and garrison. the King built a fortress on a hill to make it easier to defend the pass and the town became a key urban center in northern Navarre and important defense against attempts to advance on Pamplona.

in the early 16th century, the unification of Aragon and Castille (through the marriage of Ferdinand & Isabella) resulted in the defeat of the Kingdom of Navarre and, ultimately, closer ties with France in an effort to repel their mutual Spanish enemy. in 1620, Louis XIII (descended from Kings of Navarre) unified the Kingdoms of Navarre and France. as before, St. Jean proved a vital defensive component in the bitter rivalry between antagonistic kingdoms. advances in weapons technology resulted in a more “modern” fort, roughly similar to what exists today. over more than a century the structure was modified, fortified, and improved upon. the town suffered throughout the Revolutionary period and Napoleonic wars, serving as the center of a massive military encampment from which numerous attacks were launched on Spanish cities over the mountains. the town hosted a military garrison until 1920.

the main cobbled road through town retains many of the same features established in the middle ages. the Porte St-Jacques stands on the eastern end of the old town, while the Porte d’Espagne stands at the other. our hotel was one block over, outside the historic center in an area built up in the mid-to-late 19th century, spurred by the Enlightenment and construction of a train station in 1898. houses on along the rue de la Citadelle have changed little and some still bear markings from construction or inscriptions added centuries ago.

because we arrived in St Jean late on Saturday evening, we had to wait until the Pilgrim Office in the rue de la Citadelle opened so that we might obtain our first sellos — stamps verifying we’d walked from St. Jean and  were therefore entitled, as peregrinos, to stay in the aulbergue in Roncevalles. as we waited, we walked up the hill to the Port St-Jacques and took a peek at the Citadelle, duly impressed with the centuries of history surrounding us and knowing these streets and walls weren’t the oldest sights we’d encounter on our journey.