Villafranca del Bierzo was founded in the 11C by French monks who belonged to the order of Cluny, establishing a Monastery where they could care for pilgrims who were walking the Camino de Santiago. Judging by the grand palaces in the Calle del Agua the town was also very prosperous and significant at one point in history.
Villafranca is unique for two reasons: firstly it is the last resting place on the Camino before a steep climb up to Piedrafito O Cebreiro and the crossing into Galicia. And secondly, pilgrims who are too ill to continue can receive a Pardon here. Villafranca and Santiago are the only two places on the Camino de Santiago where the Pardon can be given and so Villafranca del Bierzo is a very special town.
The Camino enters Villafranca past the Church of Santiago which was built during the 12C and it is here that Pilgrims can receive a Pardon.
From here I have found two different routes for the Camino through the town – well, why not? Both routes pass the Castle and then separate. I am going to follow the route through the centre of the town first, which I suspect is the ‘modern’ route, winding down below the Church of San Francisco. This was originally a Grey Friars Monastery, dating from 1285, but was taken over by the State in the 1830s and now all that remains is the Church. I believe this has a wonderful Mudejar ceiling – how does one get into these closed buildings?
From here the route goes through the Plaza Mayor where we always found lots of Pilgrims, particularly in the early afternoon and towards the end of the day. Cafés and restaurants line the square and they were always busy
Walking on from the Plaza Mayor brings us to St Nicholas la Real which was built as a Jesuit College in the 17C but now is an Albergue for the pilgrims; I had thought it was an hotel and didn’t venture inside so didn’t see the interesting cloister, which is a shame.
The day we arrived there was a street market in this area, and it was here that I first saw octopus snack bars. The octopus are boiled in a large drum and then cut into pieces with a large pair of shears and served on small plates, turned in olive oil and paprika – absolutely delicious!
From here the camino passes alongside the Alameda Garden and a very grand building which I can’t identify, past the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria (once a Cluniac Monastery, and another post to come on this building), and over the River Burbia via the old stone bridge.
And so over the River Burbia via the old bridge from the Calle de Agua.
The second Camino route, which I suspect is the original route, passes down the hill from the Castle and then along the Calle del Agua to the old stone bridge. This is wonderfully atmospheric street, filled with palaces and mansions and impressive crests which again, sadly, I can’t identify.
And so over the River Burbia and onwards on the Camino de Santiago.
This is a wonderfully calm and atmospheric town, a must-visit for a few days if you are travelling in the area by car, and the Parador is an extremely comfortable and friendly hotel.