I fell a bit behind on my blog so I am consolidating days 29 and 30 with today’s entry.
Day 29’s walk was uneventful and mostly a pleasant hike through orchards of cherries and other fruit. I am also seeing a number of vineyards likely planted with the bierzo grape that does well in this micro-climate. There is definitely a more alpine feel over the past day. The weather continues to be unpredictable but generally cool and overcast. I asked a local when he expected summer weather to arrive in this part of Spain. Without thinking he said, “next week”. Seems like a stock answer given by people weary of getting the same question over and over from migrant pilgrims!
Villafranca is a beautiful old town with a couple of rivers running through it, several old churches and a nice park off the main square (Plaza Mayor). The surrounding mountains rise directly from its outskirts on all sides protecting the town, and this evening shrouded with low clouds.
Day 30 was my last day off until I reach Santiago de Compostela. Instead of lounging around, I decided to go back to Ponferrada to see the Castillo de Los Templarios (Knights Templar Castle) – very glad I did.
A brief history on the Knights Templar. In the early 1100’s, a small group of monks banded together to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Lands. This ragtag group grew in size and strength rapidly, and within 25 years was a legitimate fighting force that had the explicit support of the Pope. Over a period of 200 years the Templars acquired/built castles throughout Europe and the Holy Lands which allowed them to protect pilgrims, including those bound for Santiago de Compostela, and even developed a basic system of banking. However, the Templar’s power, secrecy, and rumors of unsavory practices caused a fall even more rapid than their rise. On a Friday 13th (note the link to modern day superstitions) in 1312, as many as 2,500 Templar Knights were rounded up, accused of heresy, and eventually executed ending their 200 year reign.
The castle I visited in Ponferrada was acquired by the Templars in 1178 AD. They made substantial reinforcements in keeping with the mission of protecting pilgrims headed to Santiago. After the Templars were disbanded, powerful dukes in the region expanded the castle still further until it was eventually made obsolete by gunpowder-based weapons.
Today the castle, restored in the early 1900’s, is a double-walled fortress covering a couple of acres. You can readily see the ingenious defensive systems put in place over the years that made the castle virtually impregnable back in the day. There is also a restored palace inside the walls that now houses an incredible library of hundreds of documents from the Middle Ages – some religious and some focused on science, etc. The visit to the castle was a great way to spend my day off!
Heading to O’Cebreiro tomorrow. It will involve a lot of uphill hiking but my reward is that I will lodge at the 1,300 meter “alto”.