When Romans arrived here, there was already a Celtic castro (settlement) on the exact spot on which the later medieval castle was built.
Ponferrada became central to the Romans for mining gold, silver, and tin in the area. Roman Ponferrada was destroyed by invading Visigoths and then again by invading North Africans.
The Camino built it up in the medieval times and pilgrims more easily crossed into town in the 11th century after the bishop Osmundo of Astorga commissioned an iron-reinforced bridge—pons ferrata—to cross the Sil and Boeza Rivers.
In the 12th century, Ponferrada came under the control and protection of the Templars.
An important part of Ponferrada’s sacred landscape, for both locals and for pilgrims, is the town’s patroness, Nuestra Señora de la Encina, Our Lady of the Oak, an important Black Madonna.
Encina is a particular kind of oak, the Holm oak, native to much of Spain and the native tree that you will find growing around churches and shrines throughout Spain.
(Have you noticed yet how many of the churches, chapels and shrines on the Camino you visited are surrounded by an oak grove? It’s no accident. A tree sacred to the Celts, including the Celtiberians who lived in this region, the oak has deep Druidic roots from the Iron Age and refashioned itself as a holy tree planted around churches in Christian Iberia.)
The legend of the Lady is that during the early years when the Templars were building their castle in Ponferrada, around CE 1200, they needed wood. A knight went out to the forest to chop down some oak for building.
As he was about to strike an oak’s trunk, it parted and a Byzantine carved image of Mary and Child appeared inside the trunk’s opening. The day the knight went out chopping wood is believed to have been September 8, the day Catholics celebrate Mary’s birth and feast day. Of course, he took the image back and had it installed in the church.
Nuestra Señora de la Encina’s image stands on the main altar in Ponferrada’s Iglesia de Santa María de la Encina. The sculpture on the altar dates to the 16th century and is not the original Oak Lady.
To both the Celts and the Christians in Iberia, oak represented strength and wisdom. In Christian lore it also defines longevity, enduring relationships, and unwavering faith in God. These are also central values in the Templar order.
Templar Knights define the other attraction of Ponferrada. Their famous castle, the Castillo de los Templarios, remains surprisingly whole for a defensive structure built in the 13th century. The Templar castle was built over other ruins: a Visigothic fort, a Roman fort, and prior to all these, a Celtic castro.
Centuries-old tradition dictates that pilgrims arriving in Ponferrada visit the castle on their way to pay homage to Mary of the Oak in the Iglesia de Santa María de la Encina.
She is also the patroness of the entire Bierzo region (and this region’s incredible wine made form the Mencía grape…be sure to try a glass), wherein you now traverse, much the way Nuestra Señora del Camino is for León.
The Camino continues to Villafranca del Bierzo.