Ponferrada y Las Médulas

After several days of rain prior, the weather in Ponferrada was warm and cloudless. The short walk from Molinaseca allowed for more energy to explore the wonders of this mountain town. Ponferrada’s most obvious attraction is the Templar castle located in close proximity to the entrance of the city. The site may have originally been a celtic fortification, also used by the Romans and Visigoths. It was originally established in 1178, when Ferdinand II of Leon donated the city of Ponferrada and the castle to the Templar Order so that they could protect pilgrims travelling along the Camino. The Castle hosted the Knights Templar until 1311 when the order was disbanded. Several noble families fought over the assets of Ponferrada (including the castle) until Alfonso XI allotted them to the Count of Lemos in 1340. Finally, the Catholic Monarchs incorporated Ponferrada and its castle into the Crown in 1486. From first glance there are two distinguishable parts of the castle: the northern part constructed in the 12th century and the rest built later in the 15th century. The castle was formerly surrounded by a moat, except on the northwest side where the large river fulfilled the same purpose. Inside the castle there are distinguishably refurbished portions, but largely the interior displays stoic 12th and 15th century stonework. The castle was notably designed to withstand attack, which is clear from its narrow windows and spiral staircases.
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Overall, the castle is a dominant feature of the city, but it is also complemented by the Basilica de la Virgen la Encina to the East, and although we did not get to visit the site, the Basilica and the Templar castle encompass a large portion of Ponferrada’s Catholic history.
After touring the Templar Castle, we all took a brief siesta, even though our morning walk had not been as trying as usual. Waking up was as difficult but we all made the trip back over the bridge to the bus stop. Climbing on to the air-conditioned bus felt good but, at the same time, it felt weird; automotive transportation was not supposed to be a part of this trip after all. When we finally arrived at the viewing platform, the sight was breath taking. It was amazing to see the impression made by the Romans which was still so apparent after 1,700 years. The way in which the environment had reacted to the process of ruina montium, the mining process in which Roman workers (slaves) would tunnel into the side, fill the tunnels with water from aqueducts, and use the water pressure to strip the mountain of gold. Trees and vegetation were making their way back but the scars of human interference cannot be undone.

Unfortunately, we were not able to enter the mines from high in the mountains, as they were closed on Tuesday, but we were able to drive down into town to explore more. While it was technically a rest day, we hiked many kilometers into the mine which gave us some semblance of an idea as to what is was like to work the mines. The caverns were immense and it was a surreal experience to know what had been taking place in that very spot about two millennia ago. Climbing up into the caverns gave students some amazing vistas and the legend of Indiana Gyug was born.
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Getting back on the bus, we mentally prepared for the long stroll through the vineyards of the El Bierzo region, on our way to Villafranca.

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