Destinations on the Camino: Ponferrada

In pre-Roman times times the region was populated by the Astures, a Hispano-Celtic Gallaecian people. Conquered by Emperor Augustus between 29-19 BC, the area quickly became the largest mining center of the Empire during the Roman period, where gold and other metals and minerals were extracted. Numerous Roman mining sites are still visible in the area, one of the most spectacular Roman mining sites still visible is Las Médulas a few kilometers from Ponferrada center.  Romans imported grapevines and wine production thrived in the region.

The modern name of the city, Ponferrada, derives from the iron reinforcements added to the ancient bridge over the river Sil (Latin pons for “bridge” and ferrata for “iron”), commissioned by Bishop Osmundo of Astorga to facilitate the crossing of the Sil River by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.  Ponferrada is completely surrounded by mountains, and it is the last major town along the French route of the Way of St. James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before it reaches its destination of Santiago de Compostela.

Ponferrada is also noted for its Castillo de los Templarios, a Templar castle which covers approximately 16,000 square meters.  In 1178, Ferdinand II of León donated the city to the Templar order for protecting the pilgrims on the Way of St. James who passed through the province of El Bierzo, Castile and León.

The castle hosted the Knights Templar’s Grand Master of Castille.  Eventually the Catholic Monarchs incorporated Ponferrada and its castle into the Crown in 1486.

The Knights Templar trace their origin back to shortly after the First Crusade around 1119.  A French nobleman and eight of his knight relatives began the Order with their stated mission to protect pilgrims on their journey to visit the Holy Places. They approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who allowed them to set up headquarters on the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock, at the center of the Mount, known as the Holy of Holies by Christians, became a Christian church, the Templum Domini, the Temple of the Lord. The Templars were lodged in El Aqsa Mosque, which was assumed to stand on the site of Solomon’s Temple.  Because El Aqsa Mosque was known as the Templum Solomonis, the knights encompassed the association in their name, and they became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici – ‘the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’, which was shortened to “Knights Templars“.  The Order was also required to swear vows of obedience, chastity, piety and poverty, and hand over all of their goods to the monastic brotherhood.

St. Bernard legitimized the Templars, who became the first “warrior monks” of the Western world, and he wrote:

“[A Templar Knight] is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith, just as his body is protected by the armor of steel. He is thus doubly-armed, and need fear neither demons nor men.

Over two centuries the Knights Templar Order grew in power and wealth yet always remained true to their mission to protect pilgrims on their way to visiting Holy Sites.  Stories of the Knights, their wealth and their status grew to mythological proportions eventually fueling false accusations of heresy and unlawful acts.  King Philip IV of France, financially indebted to the Knights and jealous of their influence and power, initiated the Order’s demise upon these false accusations.  At dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307 (thereafter the superstition attached to ‘Friday the 13th’), scores of French Templars were simultaneously arrested by agents of King Philip, later to be tortured into admitting heresy and other sacrilegious offenses in the Order.  They were then put to death.  Following, Pope Clement issued the bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets.  Most monarchs simply didn’t believe the charges but started proceedings in any event.

(In September 2001, Barbara Frale discovered a copy of the Chinon Parchment dated 17–20 August 1308 in the Vatican Secret Archives, a document that indicated that Pope Clement V absolved the leaders of the Order in 1308. Frale published her findings in the Journal of Medieval History in 2004.  In 2007, The Vatican published the Chinon Parchment as part of a limited edition of 799 copies of Processus Contra Templarios.  Another Chinon parchment dated 20 August 1308 addressed to Philip IV of France, and well-known to historians, stated that absolution had been granted to all those Templars that had confessed to heresy “and restored them to the Sacraments and to the unity of the Church“.)

The arrests caused some shifts in the European economy, from a system of military fiat back to European money, removing this power from Church orders. Seeing the fate of the Templars, the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and of Rhodes were also convinced to give up banking at this time.

In the end, the only three accused of heresy directly by the papal commission were Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and his two immediate subordinates.  They were to renounce their heresy publicly. When de Molay regained his courage and proclaimed the order’s and his innocence along with Geoffrey de Charney, the two were arrested by French authorities as relapsed heretics and burned at the stake in 1314. Their ashes were then ground up and dumped into the Seine, so as to leave no relics behind.

The 12th Century Templar Castle in Ponferrada:

(When I entered the Castle I immediately had a moment of déjà vu – I had been here before at another moment in time.  While walking the ramparts, I visualized a stone with a carved Templar ‘T’ in its upper right location.  I then turned a corner and found myself walking towards the wall.  As I approached I could see the same stone I visualized; I ran my finger along the ‘T’.  I took two photos with my phone, immediately reviewed the photos to my satisfaction and continued to tour the castle.  In later reviewing my photos at the Albergue, I searched for the two I had taken of the stone.  The photos can not be found).

Templar Castle r s

Templar Castle Door

Templar Castle Arch r

Castle Arches

Templar Castle Tower 2 r s

Templar Castle Side Wall r s

Templar Castle Tower r s

Templar Castle Wall

Iglesia de San Andrés:

Iglesia de San Andrés

View of Torre del Reloj(Clock Tower) and Ronferrada Reloj Street:

Torre del Reloj and Ponferrada Reloj Street

Ponferrada Reloj Street and Square

Building in Ponferrada:

Building in Ponferrada

Statue on Square:

Statue in Square

Ponferrada is 223 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela.   From Ponferrada, it took me 8 more days of walking to reach the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela.

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