Not much happened here before medieval times, as far as is known. Then there were lots of pilgrims, and a tricky river crossing near the village of Compostilla. In the eleventh century, pilgrimage suited everyone, so the powerful bishop of Astorga ordered a better bridge to be constructed over the Sil River at a different point. That bridge brought into existence a town whose name probably means “iron-reinforced bridge”, though there are the usual quibbles over etymology.
Ponferrada, crumbly in a graceful way, easy with some urban buzz, is now capital of the Bierzo.
Much of what is interesting in the area lies beyond the city. That suits me, because the Bierzo is like another small region on the Camino, the Béarn, to which I’d like to return as a rambler rather than as a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is about following a long, ever varying line, and provides one experience. However, as you progress, you’ll find pockets where the landscape or people exert an extra attraction. I felt that the people of this little valley culture had a certain desirable pride not blunted by centuries of the pilgrim conveyor belt. They are gregarious Celts to a degree, but distinguished by an alertness, an almost Germanic thoroughness. They were the least off-handed people I encountered in Spain, while remaining thoroughly Spanish.
Or am I imagining this? Please comment.
Many things to check out in the town proper. A lush tower on the basilica, though in two styles, due to lightning damage of the first renaissance structure. So it’s baroque just on the top!
Wines, pears, chestnuts, botillo sausage…the Bierzo has a proud and crowded gastronomy for its size, and all is on display in Ponferrada.
Yet my happiest memory is of hot chocolate and churros in a little churrería adjacent to the covered market. It was a freezing evening, and the enormous churros were all prepared fresh to order, emerging with a hiss from their vat of oil. Sometimes the starchy hot chocolate of Spain disappoints, but this cup did not. I was a touch bloated by the end, but no winter pilgrim leaves a fresh churro to get cold.
About those Templars, and those Crusades…
Few celebrities or leaders, over a lavish dinner, could now say something like: “Actually, I don’t give a bugger about the entropy and carbon involved in producing my Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Please pass the Maldon Salt…”. One can choke on jet-delivered caviar, but not whisper the slightest environmental impiety.
Similarly, in later medieval times, in spite of centuries of frustration, you were still all for saving that Holy Land or nobody would pass you the salt. As a person of money and power, you were almost certainly thinking of a way to dodge or delay that next Crusade, but you didn’t blurt out: “Too hard, too far, too bloody expensive!” By the turn of the fourteenth century – after maybe nine official crusades and those loopy shepherds’ and childrens’ crusades – everyone was thinking just that, yet still no-one was saying it. The boom was over, but an automatic piety made it hard to acknowledge the reality.
There was a genuine defensive and even practical element in the Crusades, which it suits many too-clever moderns to ignore. Yet defense and practicality won’t account for such an enormous and unrewarded exertion over so long. Military prowess and religious fervour were the great public preoccupations; joined, they gave rise to a fashionable activism we may have trouble understanding unless we compare it to our own.
Some would compare the crusading urge to the West’s current military involvement in the Middle East. Yet supporters of such interventions are mostly too tentative, too wait-and-see.
But picture a comfortable inner-Sydney professional who is feeling “utterly passionate” about saving a “living river” or “pristine forest” in remote Tasmania as he pushes his air-conditioned Audi toward his air-conditioned office. He is feeling rage against people he has never met, in a place he has never been. Perhaps it’s an informed reaction, or it may have been stimulated just by some television footage, backed up by mournful classical music, showing a stranded fish or a fallen tree.
He has found a belief which involves his senses as much as his intellect; not a dogma or a policy, but a moral certainty that transports him from the everyday, its exoticism and sentiment made plausible by at least a little science. He feels more human, more engaged, more sexed.
He is a Crusader.
Collective belief, personal escapism and what may be best described as “sacramental frustration” can generate spiritual furies unique to each era. Those of the past seem odd and even ludicrous; yet few of us are steady against the mass moral, or moralistic, surges of our own time.
The Crusades sent much of the activism offshore, where it so often goes, and this suited many in power, until the ongoing costs and failures made it all too hard. The Fourth Crusade, so tragic and absurd, was really the beginning of the long-delayed end. The sacking of Christian Constantinople was too much even for the daffiest idealist.
Yet for a while it looked good, and felt great.
So who were the international stars, the Greenpeace, of this activism? More than anyone, a religious and military order that began in Jerusalem as a dinky little outfit after the First Crusade, the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. After a couple of centuries, their Ponferrada branch looked like this.
In a much earlier post I talked about a competing organisation, The Knights of St. John. What was said about them goes double for the Templars, but the Templars had a much shorter history. To paraphrase a line from “Casablanca”, they were like all great organisations, only more so. Much of their enormous prestige was, indeed, deserved. Their unique mix of valour and piety had amazed the world for two centuries; their confidence was unshakeable. So when times changed…
Honey, they forgot to duck.
In the twelfth century, Ponferrada had been given over to the Templars by the Crown of León. Their main function was the service and protection of pilgrims, so large a business by then was this Camino de Santiago. Yet their splendid fortress, built much later, was theirs for only a couple of decades. This abrupt loss had nothing to do with anything they did in Ponferrada.
The Templars had become a great multinational power divorced from their original crusading roots. Unfortunately for them, the 1300’s were a new era of more powerful nation states. Philip the Fair of France would soon have no trouble telling a pope to move shop to Avignon. His son, Philip V, would have no trouble manhandling cardinals till they elected the Holy Father he wanted.
The proud Templars – who has ever been prouder? – would not do as they were told and merge with the Knights of St. John. They would not do as they were told generally. And when they had lent Philip the Fair more money than he could ever repay, Philip decided that all those dark rumours about Templars were true.
And, very suddenly, there was a large vacant possession, here on the banks of the Sil River.
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