The Camino de Santiago, a path of stars to the tomb of the Apostle (III): from Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela

By David Nogales Rincón, professor of Medieval History at the Autonomous University of Madrid


The route runs through some of the cities and towns linked to the roads that, from different points of Christendom, would go to the place where medieval tradition made rest the remains of Santiago el Mayor, brother of St. John the Evangelist and one of the favorite disciples of Jesus of Nazareth: the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela was for centuries the destination of a set of roads that, from different points of Christianity, led to the tomb of Santiago el Mayor, that humble fisherman from Lake Tiberiades, son of Zebedee and brother of St. John the Evangelist, who would die beheaded in Jerusalem, in the year 44. Far from being a secondary figure, James would end up becoming not only one of the favorite disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, but also one of his strongest defenders, to the point that Christ would give him, because of his impetuosity, the appellation of Boanerges or "Son of Thunder."

The gospels say nothing about the link between Santiago and Hispania, of which we only began to have news at the end of the 6th century or the beginning of the 7th century, when the apostle began to be presented as an evangelist of the Peninsula and the "Western countries". This link between Santiago and Hispania, regardless of its historical veracity, had to penetrate between the peninsular Christian communities, which around year 820-830 believed they found the apostle's body at the end of the known world. According to tradition, it was a hermit, named Pelayo, who, after observing the wonders that manifested in a nearby forest, told the bishop of the nearby headquarters Iria Flavia (current Census), Teodomiro. There, where the wonders had become something natural, the bishop ordered to excavate until discovering a marble ark, which hosted a body: the place of wonders would later be known as Santiago de Compostela.

The cult to Santiago, with initially local profiles, would gradually acquire a European dimension since the beginning of the 10th century, becoming, around the year one thousand, one of the main cults of the Christian West. This to the point that the cathedral of Santiago would become one of the great pilgrimage centers of Christianity, only at the height of Rome or Jerusalem. The route was formed, not only religious, but also cultural, which we now know as the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route would have to maintain great vitality from the eleventh century until the middle of the thirteenth century, when a gentle reduction in the flow of pilgrims began, which would be accentuated since the mid-fifteenth century and especially throughout the sixteenth century. Although the pilgrimage to Santiago never disappeared, only the last decades of the twentieth century and the initial years of the twenty-first century have managed to give a new impetus to the Camino, which has now become a myth in itself, even above the religious significance of the Apostle.

The Camino de Santiago was and is, first and foremost, known as the French Way, which linked, along 800 km., Roncesvalles (Navarra) with Santiago, whose opening the apocryphal Turpini History would attribute in the twelfth century to the fantasy Emperor Charlemagne himself (800-814), who, in dreams, would have been commissioned to release that land route whose celestial reflection was in the Milky Way: that "path of stars that began in the Friesland Sea and, extending between Germany and Italy, between Gaul and Aquitaine, passed directly through Gascony, Vasconia, Navarra and Spain to Galicia, where the body of Santiago was then hidden, unknown. To this main route would be added other secondary roads to Santiago, such as the Camino de la Costa, the Camino del Norte, the Inland Basque Way, the Vía de la Plata or the trip by sea.

Some roads through which thousands of pilgrims would run annually, dressed in their brown coat, their slave and hat, in addition to the shell or scallop badge, which identified them as Compostela pilgrims. Encouraged by the encounter with the Apostle, this path of stars concealed, however, a host of penalties: from the mountain passes, such as the port of Cize, in the lands of Roncesvalles, which the Codex Calixtinus would call «the Gate of Spain », Whose« height is so high that it seems to touch the sky », passing through those little recommended accommodations where pilgrims were sometimes forced to land, or the lush forests that, like the Burgos mountains of Oca, were populated by thieves and bandits.



The route runs through different places linked to the Camino de Santiago in its different historical roads, in the heat of which different burgos or cities would emerge, with a marked artisan and commercial orientation, and a network of hostels, monasteries, churches or hospitals, to welcome the pilgrims. The present route begins in Ponferrada (León), whose origins are linked to an iron structure that would have allowed to strengthen the Roman bridge over the river Sil that, at the end of the 11th century, threatened ruin, thus seeking to ensure the transit of pilgrims towards Santiago, by Priaranza del Bierzo (León), located on the Winter Road, which, starting from Ponferrada, followed the natural channel of the Sil River until reaching Galicia, in order to save, during the winter season, the dreaded snows of the summits of the upper O Cebreiro, by Monforte de Lemos (Lugo), the main stage of this Winter Road as it passes through the famous Galician Ribeira Sacra, by Nogueira de Ramuín (Orense), an enclave near the one known as Camino Mozárabe or Camino from the Southeast, which would connect Santiago with Andalusia and Extremadura following the ancient Roman route of the Vía de la Plata, by A Estrada (Pontevedra), stage on the Road called as da Geira e dos Arrieiros, in reference to the Vía Nova or Geira, ancient Roman road that connected Bracara Augusta (Braga) and Asturica Augusta (Astorga), and to the muleteers or former carriers that carried the Ribeiro wine to the north, finally, as the final destination of the pilgrim and our route, in the city of Santiago de Compostela (La Coruña), sepulcher of the Apostle and apostolic headquarters since 1095, where it can be seen, next to the Romanesque cathedral built throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Hospital de los Reyes Catholics, promoted at the end of the 15th century by Isabel and Fernando in order to serve the pilgrims.

Where does the route take place?

  • Castillo de los Templarios. Ponferrada. León.
  • Castillo de Cornatel. Priaranza del Bierzo.  León.
  • Torre del Homenaje de Monforte de Lemos. Lugo.
  • Palacio de los Condes de Lemos. Parador de Monforte de Lemos. Lugo.
  • Palacio de Oca
  • Hospital Real de los Reyes Católicos. Parador de Santiago de Compostela. A Coruña.

This route links with

The Camino de Santiago, a path of stars to the tomb of the Apostle (I): from Jaca to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

By David Nogales Rincón, professor of Medieval History at the Autonomous University of Madrid[...]

Know castles and palaces in this route

While being amazed by the Templar Castle is very easy, getting to know it is not that simple. With its 8,000 m2 of surface, it is considered one of the most important castles in the northwest of Spain and it is the main emblematic feature of the city of Ponferrada.

Its military architecture answers to centuries of history, where different inhabitants have left their imprint through subsequent constructions, reforms, abandonments and restorations. Having being declared National Monument in 1924 and Cultural Heritage Site (BIC, for its Spanish initials), it is not until the end of the 20th century when a great effort is made to restore the walls and rooms of the Castle.

The result is a multipurpose monument, where different exhibitions, musicals and recreational, didactic and religious activities take place. It has always had a privileged location in every respect. Geographically, it is an obligatory stopping point between the Plateau and Galicia, and a must for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

Tactically, its location on a hill on the banks of the Sil River has allowed the protection and defence of its territory and of the Way of Saint James. Locally, it is a reference landmark in the old town. Around it, we find important monumental buildings: the church of San Andrés, “las Cuadras” (Tourist Information Office), “Casa de los Escudos” (Coats of Arms House) (Radio Museum), the Basilica of Our Lady of the Encina, the convent of la Purísima Concepción, the old prison (Museum of El Bierzo), the Tower clock and street, the Town Hall and the old main square of las Eras.

The Templar Castle, the Way of Saint James and the city of Ponferrada have a closely linked past and future, since their stories are intertwined and it is not possible to get to know one without explaining the relationship with the others.

The Castle of Cornatel stands on a hillock of the Aquilanos Mountains, about 800 meters above sea level, in Villavieja, in the municipality of Priaranza del Bierzo, province of León.
It is a construction of a single wall covered by a walk (adarve) of defensive round, totally crenellated to the one that was acceded by means of ladders flown of slate. The abrupt rock in which it rises forced its builders to adapt the different buildings, raised at different heights, to such special circumstances, configuring an enclosure with a triangular plan.
Two of its flanks are walled, while the third, on the northeast slope, is especially impregnable naturally, since it is located vertically on a ravine at an approximate height of 180 meters on the stream of the Indrina, which runs at his feet. 
Several authors have referred to this castle since the end of the 19th century, almost always describing the remains visible on the surface or recording some historical data. Apart from these works, the building has been the object of several legends in relation to its possible connection, at a certain moment, to the order of the Templars, who were about one hundred years, from 1213 to 1312.
In this line the most well-known work is the novel of the Berciano romantic author Enrique Gil y Carrasco, entitled The Lord of Bembibre.

The current castle, built entirely of slate masonry, is dated, practically in its totality, on the end of the XV century, at the time of the first count of Lemos, lord of it. However, its historical origins could be traced back to much earlier dates that link it with the castle of the early medieval of Ulver, abundantly quoted in the documentation of the time, a theory accepted by most of the authors who have written about this fortification. However, some of them, among which we can mention Fernando Cobos, architect in charge of the Cornatel Master Plan, pointed out the existence in the surroundings of the castle of several depopulated with remains of structures that could have corresponded with Ulver.

The homage tower in Monforte de Lemos is part of the historical-artistic-monumental complex of San Vicente del Pino together with the Benedictine Monastery of San Vicente del Pino and the Condal Palace. This monumental complex is located on the top of San Vicente`s hill, located in the center of the village of Monforte.

This castle dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and is the highlest medieval tower in Galicia with just over 30 meters. It is characterized by having an almost square plant and having walls that can reach up to 3,5 meters thick in some points.

Inside the tower you can see all Kinds of furniture such as chests, cabinets, tables and chairs with the coat of arms of the old families of Lemos. The castle has four floors. The upper floor is finished by a set of successful machicolations and battlements. The basement was a storage place for food and water, as well as an emergency exit in the event of a siege.

The construction history of the building comprises two phases. The oldest, from the XII-XIV centuries, comprises the East face, a part of the South and a North corner. The other part, built between 1470 and 1485 after being destroyed between 1467 and 1469 because of the Great Irmandiña War, covers the West face and a part of the South and the North.

To conclude, note that Monforte´s Homage Tower had three functions in antiquity. The first and most important was to serve as a defense, the second to serve as residence for the Counts of Lemos and the third to honor and pay homage to the Counts themselves.

The historic site of San Vicente do Pino is located in the uppermost part of the town of Monforte de Lemos. It is made up of the keep, San Vicente do Pino Monastery and the palace of the counts of Lemos, which houses the Parador de Monforte. The monastery dates back to the 9th century, although the current structure was built in the 17th century in the neoclassical style. The building has a neoclassical central cloister with exceptionally well carved stonework. It is the ideal space for events, or simply to enjoy a stroll amid the silence and beauty of the stone.

You won't want to miss a visit to the Colegio de Los Escolapios (Piarist School), a majestic building more than 100 meters in length. Construction of the structure was begun in 1593 and completed in 1913, after more than three centuries of work. Its grandeur evokes El Escorial Monastery and its walls bear the coats of arms of the counts of Lemos, the House of Alba and the Piarist Fathers, who were responsible for completing the work. The school's museum, previously the sacristy, houses paintings by El Greco and Andrea del Sarto, among others.

Monforte de Lemos is also an exceptional location for exploring the Ribera Sacraregion, with its rivers, vineyards, Romanesque churches, gastronomy and festivals. In the area around the town you will discover indescribably beautiful landscapes, including the Sil River Canyon and the magical Sierra de O Caurel mountains.

While surrounded by the history embedded in this 9th Century palace you may exercise in the facilities of the Wellness Area including a gym and a jacuzzi or rest in the outdoor swimming pool accompanied by the silence and beauty emanating from the stone of this Neoclassical building. The perfect balance between fitness training and relaxation.



A short distance from Santiago de Compostela, on the Pontevedra border of the Ulla river valley, is Galicia’s most visited manor house, the palacio de Oca, also widely known as "The Generalife of the North" or the "Galician Versailles”. Comparing the stone and plant architecture of this monument with that of those abovementioned, widely known, allows us to highlight the uniqueness and importance of the most stately and best preserved of the Galician pazos (stately homes). Although built far from the Court, this comparison (despite been hyperbolic) reminds us aptly that its design evokes that of the Barroco court gardens. 

According to the words used in 1945 by historian and academic Javier Sánchez Cantón in an effort to protect these gardens, the most outstanding aspect of this ensemble is the inextricable link between water, stone and vegetation which make this monument a masterpiece of architecture, engineering and gardening. 

The early fort home was built by order of Álvaro de Oca in the middle of the 15th century and was lost shortly afterwards to the Miter of Compostela in the fights between the Galician nobility and the archbishop of Santiago. In 1564, it passed to King Felipe II who sold it to María de Neyra and thus it was passed down from generation to generation until the XVIII Duchess of Medinaceli who in 1978 donated it to the Casa Ducal de Medinaceli Foundation after its formation

One of the most luxurious and beautiful hotels in the Paradores chain is located in Santiago de Compostela. In this city, the destination of millions of pilgrims, rays of sunlight illuminate the building façades in summer and the rain creates a magical ambiance that overtakes the cobbled streets in winter. The Parador de Santiago, known as the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, is a blend of history, art and tradition, the dream of pilgrims and emblem of Santiago. It is located on Obradoiro Square near the cathedral, creating an area of spectacular beauty in one of the most visited provincial capitals in the world. A stay at this Parador means a visit to a truly unique and exclusive location.

The hotel was built as a royal hospital in 1499 to accommodate pilgrims traveling to Santiago. Today, it continues to invite visitors to enjoy a city that is as universal as it is fascinating. Inside this Parador Museum, considered the oldest hotel in the world, you will discover four beautiful cloisters, elegant rooms, spectacular guest rooms and a luxurious dining room that offers fish and meat prepared in the Galician style, along with classic apple filloas (a type of crêpe) and crème brûlée.

Santiago is a magical city of almost indescribable beauty, where you will not only look, but you will also feel. In addition to the cathedral and the spectacular Obradoiro and Quintana squares, other sights include Santa María A Real do Sar Collegiate Church. Together with the cathedral, this is the church that has preserved the largest part of its original Romanesque stonework and it has an interior with lovely proportions. There is also the Renaissance Colegio de Fonseca (Fonseca School) and the magnificent San Martiño Pinario Monastery. These are just some of the places well worth visiting in the city's fine historic district.

The charm and the hustle and bustle of Abastos Market in the morning; the beautifully maintained Alameda Park, which boasts spectacular views of the old quarter; the church, convent and park of San Domingos de Bonaval, home to the Pantheon of Illustrious Galicians; and the green spaces around the capital, extending all the way to the sea, just half an hour away, will guide you through this city brimming with history and beauty. It marks the end of the Camino (Way of St. James) and the start of a one-of-a-kind experience we invite you to enjoy in exceptional accommodations, the Parador de Santiago.

Live the History

The Royal Hospital of Santiago was a project of Fernando and Isabel in order to alleviate the thousands of pilgrims who arrived at Compostela. Centuries later, the pilgrims have been replaced by travellers as, since 1954, it has been a magnifi cent hotel which, year after year, renews its long commitment to hospitality.

The fi rst building was the work of the Royal Architect,  Enrique Egas who, brought the Renaissance to Galicia with its design. Although its basic structure was fi nished about 1509 and it began to function, the decorative part was not fi nished until 1527. In this second stage, the French Masters, Martin de Blas and Guillén Colás were responsible for the main doorway which was resolved as a magnifi cent
Plateresque façade-tableau with a candelieri decoration, small sculptures under inset and grotto like canopies. The decoration of the hospital chapel was also concluded, but its transept tends towards the Gothic with its starred vault. This fi rst hospital of the XVI century was rather smaller than the current structure as it was composed of a church, only two cloisters and two di erentiated areas for men and women. 

The extension arrived in the XVIII century. A partial demolition and a greater need for space led to the construction of the two rear patios in stone and the Baroque stairway of Ferro Caaveiro, which connected the left patio to the fi rst floor. In this epoch, Fray Tomás Alonso reformed the Renaissance
façade adding two large balconies supported by brackets, together with three new windows. In this way, the Royal Hospital was confi gured with its present day Greek cross design with four interior patios which receive the names of the Four Evangelists. The patio of San Lucas is outstanding due to its original octagonal design. In July 1954, coinciding with the Year of Compostela, it was inaugurated as a hotel of the State.

The Royal Hospital of Santiago was a project of Fernando and Isabel in order to alleviate the thousands of pilgrims who arrived at Compostela. Centuries later, the pilgrims have been replaced by travellers as, since 1954, it has been a magnifi cent hotel which, year after year, renews its long commitment to hospitality.

“Both the rich and poor pilgrims must be charitably received and venerated by all the people when they go to or come from Santiago. Whoever welcomes them and accommodates them diligently will not only have Santiago as a guest, but will also have Our Lord … “
                                                                                                                                    Codex Calixtinus


The pilgrimage of the Monarchs

After the pilgrimage of Fernando and Isabel in 1488 and, as they themselves witnessed, the pilgrim hospital was old and insufcient, they ordered the building of a new one “capable of providing due and decorous service to all the devotees, ill persons and healthy persons who might arrive in the city...” Once Granada was taken, Fernando and Isabel stipulated that a part of the “revenue of war” be assigned to paying for the construction of the new hospital.