Camino Francés description : 27. Ponferrada - Villafranca del Bierzo   

 

                       Camino de Santiago / French Way : 27. Ponferrada - Villafranca del Bierzo

                                                                                            (22.7 km)

          

                 

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  Unfortunately the route out of Ponferrada isn’t particularly nice, probably the worst on the route but you will soon be walking through the mountains so keep that in mind as you head out. Walk down the Calle Rañadero and across the bridge over the Rio Sil and turn right down Calle Rio Urdiales, through the big square and towards a junction turning right down the tree lined Avenida del Sacramento. Keep going straight on at the roundabout with the fountain and sculptures on it. At the next junction turn right down Avenida de la Libertad.

 

  At the sign for Compostilla turn left, turn right at the end and then take an immediate left underneath an apartment block and into Plaza de Compostilla and walk past the Iglesia Santa Maria de Compostilla. At the Iglesia Santa Maria de Compostilla cross the road, walk down IV Avenida and then through an unusual residential district. I say unusual because it is very American in style, the sort of town large companies would build to house their workers in the US. Once through the residential district take a left and then a right into 3a Taversia passing the tennis courts and the modern Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Compostilla with its brightly coloured mural on the end wall. From here you will join a footpath which becomes a minor road going underneath the motorway and shortly you will come to the church at the village of Columbrianos.

 

  In Columbrianos you can get something to eat at the café/bar or the shop. The church is a nice spot to rest awhile and look out towards the mountains of Galicia.

  Walk through the village and keep on towards the main road. This is very busy so be sensible and use the pedestrian crossing. Be aware Spanish drivers don’t really slow down for pedestrians. At the Capilla de San Blas take a left. If you didn’t manage to get a drink in Columbrianos there is a small bar just by the small chapel.

 

  Walk down the Calle San Blas and cross the railway line and after approximately 2.5 kilometres you come to the small village of Fuentesnuevas where you will find a small café/bar and the Ermita Campo Divino Cristo.

 

  Walk down the Calle Real, past the church and through fields for about 2 kilometres when you will then reach another small village called Camponaraya.

 

  Here you will find a hostal if you wish to stay the night, some bars, shops and a bank and the Ermita Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. As you walk through the village you get the feeling that it’s never going to end as it is a long narrow village. After passing the church cross the bridge over the Rio Naraya and soon you will come across a track through some vines that belong to the Co-operativa Viñas del Bierzo. If you fancy some wine the company sells it by the glass.

 

  Thankfully we have escaped the ugliness of the exit to Ponferrada and for a little while at least we will be walking through vineyards and orchards. When you come to the motorway take the bridge over it and turn left through some more vines for about 1.5 kilometres, when you will cross the road towards Cacabelos.

 

  Cacabelos as a village first appeared in the 10th century but it can trace its origins to way back in the Bronze Age. Prior to becoming the village of Cacabelos it had previously been known as Ventosa but this village had more or less disappeared before the 10th century when the lands were given to the Monasterio de Carracedo by Bermudo II the King of Galicia and León. The village wasn’t actually rebuilt until the early 12th century when the Archbishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmírez came along and built the Iglesia de Santa Maria. Unfortunately, he caused a bit of a quarrel with the Bishop of Astorga under whose jurisdiction the village came under. The argument was finally resolved when Alfonso VII, the king of Galicia and of Castilla y Leon gave the town to the Archbishop of Santiago.

 

  At the height of the Camino’s popularity in the Middle Ages the town boasted 4 churches and 5 pilgrim hospitals. Nothing remains of these ancient buildings but the 18th century Santuario de la Quinta Angustia, where you will find an unusual carving of the child Jesus playing cards with San Antonio de Padua, has been built on the site of one of the medieval hospitals. This is also where you will find the albergue at the side. There are a couple of museums in the village, one dedicated to the archaeological findings of the region and the other to the wine industry of El Bierzo.

 

  In 1809, during the Peninsula war, General Sir John Moore’s men were trying to retreat across the mountains to get to back their navy which was based in La Coruña when they reached Cacabelos. The French army was forcing them into retreat and as Moore’s men reached the bridge in Cacabelos one of the General’s marksmen, Thomas Plunkett, decided to take a pot shot at the commander of the French army. Thankfully he was an excellent shot and he hit the French commander right through the head. This single act saved the British army from being overrun by the French army and thus allowing a more civilised retreat into Galicia.

  Other than the Albergue next to the Santuario de la Quinta Angustia there are also 3 hostals to stay in. As it is a reasonably large village there are a number of shops, banks, restaurants etc.

 

  Walk out of Cacabelos down the main street passing the Capilla de San Roque and down the Calle de las Angustias. Cross the bridge over the river and walk down the main road for about 2 kilometres until you get to the small hamlet of Pieros.

 

  Follow the road marked Camino Viejo down a track which will take you through the vineyards and past the Iglesia de Santiago and its cemetery on the outskirts of Villafranca del Bierzo.

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  Villafranca del Bierzo - Villafranca B. city map

 

  Villafranca del Bierzo is believed to have been founded by French monks of the Cluny order. They built a monastery here called el Monasterio de Santa Maria de Cluniaco during the years following the discovery of Santiago’s body in 813 in order to service the needs of the many pilgrims who passed this way. As the monks were French the village became known as Villafranca or town of the French.

 

  In terms of pilgrim architecture Villafranca del Bierzo once had as many as 8 monasteries and 6 pilgrim hospitals. This is the last major town along the Camino de Santiago in León with the Galician village of O Cebreiro only 30 kilometres away. The town could be said to owe its existence to the Camino and both this and the many monuments to be found here make Villafranca del Bierzo a natural tourist destination. There is plenty to see but below are some that may be of particular interest.

 

  Just as you enter the town you come across the 12th century Iglesia de Santiago. This church was granted the privilege of providing absolution to the pilgrims who were too ill to continue along the Camino to Santiago. This absolution was received at the Puerta del Perdón, the door of forgiveness which can be found at the side of the church.

 

  Another building is the Convento de la Anunciada. The church was founded in the early 17th century by Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo y Osorio, one of the Marqueses of Villafranca, for his daughter who had chosen to become a nun. The church is built on the remains of one of the many pilgrim hospitals that had sprung up in the town. Inside are the remains of San Lorenzo de Brindis brought back from Lisbon, where the saint died, by the Marqués. Also inside can be found the Panteon de los Marqueses the crypt for the family who still inhabit the castle.

 

  The impressive building of San Nicolás was founded by Don Gabriel de Robles in the 17th century as a religious school run by Jesuits until their expulsion in 1767. During the early 19th century the building became the centre for local government until it was sold by Roble’s heirs in 1899 to the Padres Paúles who converted it back into a school which was still in use until 1983. Now it is a museum of natural sciences.

 

  The beautiful building of La Colegiata de Santa Maria was built on the site of the original monastery in Villafranca by the 2nd Marqués de Villafranca, Pedro de Toledo in the 16th century. Inside you will find a number of lovely paintings and sculptures and outside the peaceful gardens encourage you to sit and while away a minute or two.

 

  The Calle del Agua has some interesting houses with many of them emblazoned with the crests of the noble families who once owned them. Of particular interest is the Palacio de los Marqueses de Villafranca and the Palacio de Torquemada.

 

  Up on a hill above the town is the Castillo de los Marqueses de Villafranca. The castle was constructed by the second Marques de Villafranca, Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo during the 15th and 16th centuries over the remains of a previous castle which had been destroyed in 1507 by one of the illegitimate sons of the first Marques of Villafranca, Don Pedro Alvare Osorio. Unfortunately the castle was sacked and partially dismantled by the British army as it marched towards Lugo in 1809 during the Peninsula war and again, but by French troops this time, between 1815 and 1819. Over the intervening centuries the castle has undergone some restoration and it continues to be home to the descendants of the Marqueses de Villafranca. You can visit the gardens for free, but as it is a private residence if you wish to visit the interior you will need the permission of the owners.

 

  The Iglesia de San Francisco is also worth a visit. It is said to have been founded by Saint Francis of Assisi whilst undertaking a pilgrimage to Santiago. The building had originally been part of one of the pilgrim hospitals in town but was moved to its current location in the late 13th century.

 

  If you are staying here for the night you have the choice of 3 albergues, one of which is called Ave Fenix (as in the bird the Phoenix) due to it having burnt down in 1996 and then been rebuilt, or you can stay at one of the 3 hostals or the Parador. There are also some reasonable restaurants and café/bars if you want to eat or drink.

 

  Before we leave Villafranca del Bierzo I would like to recount a local legend. It doesn’t have any direct link to the Camino but I thought it was interesting none the less.

  About 11 kilometres from Villafranca del Bierzo you will find el Lago de Carucedo. Many centuries ago it was rumoured that where the lake is now there once was a village. This village was close to a monastery where a young orphan was being raised by the monks. When this child grew to be a man he fell in love with a young woman. However, our young man had a rival, Señor Cornatel, the local squire and owner of the castle had taken a fancy to this girl and was determined to make her his come what may. One day Señor Cornatel was found dead and the young man was accused of his murder so he fled the village. Many years passed and our young man returned to the village hoping to find his lady but he found that she too had disappeared.   Disillusioned the young man went to the monastery where he had been raised and became a monk, eventually becoming the abbot. One day the lady who he had fallen in love with returned to the village and they began a relationship, despite the man having taken a vow of chastity. This angered God and he sent a huge flood towards the village destroying it completely and thus creating the lake that can be seen there today. It is said that during the festival of San Juan the bells of the submerged monastery can be heard to toll each night. Another legend says that the lake is believed to hold the sword that belonged to Roldán - a bit like the Spanish version of King Arthur and Excalibur.

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                                                            delhommeb at wanadoo.fr - 10/01/2014