Or the Spanish Conques?
Nicknames with a smidgin of substance. Villafranca del Bierzo does have a special status, not shared with other towns along the Camino. Here pilgrims, suffering disease or injury, could be granted jubileo, an absolution from their pilgrim vows and entitlement to all benefits of a completed pilgrimage. This was done after passing through the door of Perdón in the Church of Santiago, on the approach to the town. I suppose quite a few cheats, fibbers and loafers sullied this threshold. (Why are you all looking at me like that?)
The church was founded by papal bull in the twelfth century mainly for that very purpose of granting jubileo to bona fide invalids. It was a humane solution to a very real problem as thousands of people poured through the region in an era when medicine and transport weren’t so fancy, a vow was a vow, and dawdling tourist-types like me were the exception.
So, yes…little Compostela.
One could think of Villafranca as a Spanish Conques, without taking the comparison too far. Conques is a perfectly preserved medieval abbey-village which is the single best example of French marketing and presentation I can think of, which is saying an awful lot. Villafranca has its abbey and French origins, and even had a separate French local authority for a while. Like Conques, it is set in a small, deep valley, which confers an intimate glamour, and even makes the air smell different.
To explain the French influence, which brought a successful wine industry to the region, one should point first to the Cluniac movement, something strange to us, but perhaps one of the West’s great forward strides. Like the Templars, the Cluniac monasteries, with headquarters in France, were powerful, wealthy and cosmopolitan. Also like the Templars, they had full legitimacy and a prestige that could give a little extra twang when that legitimacy was stretched too far.
I’m not sure how much my reflections on Camino history entertain or bore (or annoy), so I’ll say just this. In times of virtual or actual serfdom, a local authority could often do what it liked with you. A royal authority in Castile or León might be some kind of resort. A powerful bishop in Astorga might also be a counter-balance, as might a local parish priest.
But a powerful Cluniac monastery, if you’ll excuse some vulgarity, was nobody’s bitch.
That’s the monastery in Villafranca now, rebuilt in the sixteenth century after Cluny’s influence dissipated; yet it retains some Romanesque shape and still exudes Cluniac power. If I had to live in the countryside in medieval times, I’d like to live where I could knock on that monastery door if necessary.
The internationalist Cluniacs, with many reformist and swingin’ ideas to annoy conservatives like me, were also scholars, intellectuals and artistic pioneers. All that Romanesque and Gothic we lap up along the trail to Santiago wasn’t conceived by village masons.
The West has been built not so much on abstract notions of human rights, but on providing what Fallen Man really needs to defend himself against Fallen Man. Abuse and corruption are perennial, but when you need to appeal and find an alternative, the alternative needs to be serious, needs to be fat and powerful. Nobody’s bitch.
That’s what Fallen Western Man got right.
Much that’s interesting in the town dates from after the medieval period. Saint Francis is said to have stopped here on pilgimage. This church, a mix of Romanesque and Late Gothic, with maybe a touch of Moorish design, carries the name and statue of the saint.
San Nicolas, a Jesuit church of the seventeenth century, is very beautiful in its two-dimensional way.
When the area became a marquisate in the fifteenth century, this Castillo was more of a palace for the marquis, than any kind of fort.
I would not be surprised to find these fussily topiarised gardens in a medium sized town in France. In Spain, it does surprise. Maybe Villafranca, after all these centuries, is still aware of its frogginess?
I’d been thinking of stopping at that much touted albergue described in so many pamphlets distributed on the trail, when a freezing drizzle set in. I walked toward the river and found the Hostal Burbia. Once again, it was a family of courteous, enthusiastic bercianos, who could not do enough for my comfort.
I also had the good fortune to meet another pilgrim, something that was getting to be a rarity. An Austrian, he introduced me to his pilgrim staff, to which he sometimes spoke. The name was Wilson…the staff, not the Austrian. This gentleman was feeling a little guilty about doing it easy in a nice individual room. I was able to counsel him…the Austrian, not the staff.
The view from my room.