I’ve been pushing the last few days because I’ve been eager to get to Ponferrada, which is the last city before Santiago. I’m down to about 130 miles to go, which I should be able to finish in a week or so.
I really, really, really love the mountains. We now have forests, wildflowers, cute little mountain towns and a few ruins here and there that give variety and motivation when slogging through the miles.
Today, I reached the Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross) and the highest point on the Camino. Tradition says you’re supposed to bring a rock from home and toss it on the pile at the base of the cross. The rock represents your former life and all the baggage you bring with you. The rest of the journey can then focus on the changes you want to make. I picked out a nice lava rock from Hanakapiai beach a few months back, but having been born an imbecile, I forgot to pack it. As a replacement, I’ve been carrying a small stone from St. Jean. I’m not sure I have a lot of baggage to dispose of, but I dropped the stone and snapped a picture.After the Cruz de Ferro, the trail has some short ups and downs before dropping ~3,000 feet into Ponferrada. I love steep, rocky descents – the goat is my spirit animal – and I had a blast blowing past all the irritated pilgrims complaining about their knees.
Ponferrada did not impress. I think part of it was due to the heat (today was a beastly hot afternon) and part due to fatigue, but I just didn’t see anything that merited my attention. The city is ringed with high rise apartment buildings, blocking any view of the old town or the Templar castle I was looking forward to touring. And when I finally got to the old town, parts of it was literally falling down.
The economy here must be pretty good judging by the number of people and the newness of the much of the construction. The topography is somewhat unusual with the old town actually in a valley and separated from the new part by a ridgeline and a river. This leaves old city center feeling dead and isolated. Not worth a visit, in my opinion.
Part of my enthusiasm for Ponferrada was because it is the site of one of the few Templar castles in Spain. If you don’t know the history of the Knights Templar, it’s pretty fascinating.
They were founded in the 12th century following the first Crusade. A group of nobles got together and decided it would be a good idea to found a religious order who’s mission it would be to protect pilgrims traveling to the newly “liberated” Jerusalem. It was unique in that it was the first western incarnation of the warrior monk. Men of the cloth didn’t carry weapons in those days and a number of liberal interpretations of theological viewoints had to be made to justify monks wearing armor and carrying swords.
The group received support from several influential people of the day, notably Bernard of Clairvaux (St. Bernard – also a fascinating figure) and Pope Innocent II, who issued a papal decree that the Templars could cross any border freely, owed no taxes and were under the Pope’s jurisdiction Those were huge advantages in the Middle Ages and the order grew quickly. To be a Templar, you had to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as well as donate all your material possessions to the Order, so they really were monks for all intents and purposes.
The Templars were also responsible for the first Western system of banking. Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land could hand over their possessions to the Templars in their home city, receive a piece of paper which they could then exchange for an equal monetary amount (less a fee) when they reached Jerusalem. They also made loans, although they didn’t call them that since collecting interest was considered usurous and hence illegal. Instead, they creatively developed mortgages in which they would take title of a nobleman’s land and he would make “rent” payments to the Templars.
Over the subsequent 200 years, the Templars grew very wealthy and consequently influential, although individual members were still bound by their vows. They financed and fought in wars, including lending large sums of money to King Philip of France, which ultimately resulted in their downfall.
King Philip, deeply in debt and on the losing end of several costly wars, decided maybe it was better to kill the banker than pay him back. On the night of Friday, October 13, 1407, he sent his men to round up all the Templars in France and execute them for heresy. Ever wonder why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky? There’s your reason.
Philip then had asked all his monarch buddies to do the same and thus the Templar experiment ended rather abruptly.
Alas my visit to the Templar castle (built as a base to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago) didn’t provide much new enlightenment. The castle was built in the late 14th century, so only got about 20 years of use before the Templars were eradicated. It was subsequently expanded but only shortly before the advent of gunpowder, rendering it useless pretty quickly.
Most of the exhibits were in Spanish and much of the castle could use additional restoration. Much of what you can see is actually not original since throughout the centuries, people repurposed the stone from the walls to build houses. But at least you get an idea of the castle layout and you can let your imagination wander. Unfortunately I was tired and am an imbecile so this is what most of my pictures look like.
Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada – 22 miles
In a Dan Brown book, he would hide some secret scroll behind this symbol that can only be opened on the 13th day of the 13th month (But there is no 13th month. Wait, the Templars used the Rastafarian calendar which has 15 months. So, let’s see, the 13th day of the 13th month would be… today! Wow, how lucky for us.) I friggin hate Dan Brown. Hack writer.