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Camino Secrets – Part 3

On our third tour discovering secrets of the camino, we were up with the larks. We had a busy day of exploring ahead of us and didn’t want to miss a thing. Our destination was El Castillo de los Templarios (Castle of the Knights Templar) in Ponferrada. Working backwards from Monforte de Lemos we travelled along the Camino de Invierno (Winter Route) sometimes referred to as Camino Sur (South Route).

After reaching Monforte de Lemos we headed out in the direction of Ponferrada. After 36km we saw signs for Castilla de Torrenovaes, (Castle New Tower) the first place of interest on our tour. The castle dates back to the 10th century: the adjacent palace was a 13th prominent position overlooking the camino and the river Sil. The castle was a stronghold of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. It’s said that the palace was home to the Grand commander of Spain, one of the six top posts within the Order. From here the knights provided protection for pilgrims journeying to Santiago.

The lane leading up to the castle is incredibly steep and difficult to climb but the views over the valley make the trek worth while. A few words of warning though, don’t forget your camera: you certainly wouldn’t want to make the climb twice. On the far side of the castle is the village of Os Novais with ancient, cobbled lanes, picturesque cottages with original wooden balconies, and a tiny church. After leaving the castle, we continued in the direction of Ponferrada for a further 11km. The road passes through a modern tunnel after which there are signs to Tunel Romano de Montefurado (Roman Tunnel of Montefurado).

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During the 1st century the Romans diverted the course of the river Sil in order to extract gold from the river bed. To do this they excavated a tunnel, 400m long by 19m wide and 17m high. The tunnel joined a 3km meander at its narrowest point, allowing them to drain the meander and collect the gold deposits from the river bed.

If you decide to follow the same route you will probably be looking forward to morning refreshments by now, as we were, and I know just the place. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking the town of O Barco is the Hotel Pazo do Castro. We took a seat outside under the covered terrace; relaxed and enjoyed the views across the valley over a cup of coffee. The more adventurous might like to try a glass of Viña Godeval: a fruity and acidic white wine from the area.

Originally called Pazo do Florez, the hotel takes its name from the town of O Castro where it is situated. The house and its adjoined chapel were built in 1630 at the request of Don Pedro de Losada y Quiroga. In the latter half of the
twentieth century it was declared a building of artistic and historical interest. Shortly after this the property was restored and converted into a luxury hotel.

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Feeling rested and refreshed we continued on. The road climbs steadily into the mountains before slowly ascending. We drove through a series of three tunnels, the last of which marks the border with the province of Castile and Leon. Immediately after passing through the final tunnel we turned right, signposted Las Medulas. Although Las Medulas is not on the official Camino Frances, it would be a travesty to travel all this way and not visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. To fully appreciate the unique landscape, head for the Mirador de Orellan.

Mining began here after the conquest of Augustus in 25BC and quickly became the most important gold mine in the Roman empire. The spectacular landscape resulted from the use of the Ruina Montium mining technique. Using aqueducts from the nearby mountains and a series of reducing diameter pipes, they created high pressure jets of water to literally power-wash gold deposits out of the surrounding sedimentary rock deposits. At its height, 60,000 free workers were employed in its extraction, removing 20,000 Roman pounds of gold every year. In total, the mines were worked for over 250 years extracting more than 5,000,000 Roman pounds (1,650,000 kg) of gold.

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Before continuing on to Ponferrada, why not stop for lunch in the village of Orellan. The restaurant El Lagar provides a reasonably priced, three course, menu del dia which includes refreshments. The homemade deserts are a real treat. I can highly recommend the tarta de castañas (chestnut tart) and do try the local El Bierzo red wine. The house red is a full bodied mencia: inky red with deep fruity flavours and long lasting tannins.

The final stop of the day was El Castillo de los Templarios (Castle of the Knights Templar) in Ponferrada.
The castle is open from 11 am until 2 pm and from 4:30 pm until 8:30 pm Tuesday to Saturday and from 11 am until 2 pm Sundays and fiestas; but closed all day Monday.

As with many strategically important sites, fortifications here date back thousands of years. However; in 1178 king Fernando II of Leon allowed the Templar Order to build a castle in the town in exchange for the protection of pilgrims on their journey to Santiago de Compostela. Give or take a few local squabbles, the Templar knights stayed on the site for another 200 years. Over recent years the castle has undergone major restoration with many parts having been rebuilt. Before heading back home to Campo Verde why not take a stroll into Ponferrada’s picturesque old town, you won’t be disappointed.

Copyright © 2013 Craig Briggs

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