This settlement, between the rivers Burbia and Valcarce, was a popular location as far back as the Neolithic. It was also well settled by Iron Age Celts.
Romans next inhabited the spot. The first early medieval mention of Villafranca del Bierzo was in CE 791, two and a half decades before the hermit Pelayo discovered Saint James’ tomb some 187 kilometers to the west.
By the early 9th century, because of the Camino to visit Saint James’ tomb, Villafranca was an important rest stop for pilgrims and it became the most important stop for medieval pilgrims prior to arriving in Santiago de Compostela.
Here’s why. Upon reaching the outskirts of Villafranca del Bierzo, a pilgrim would arrive at the northern gate of the 12th and 13th century Romanesque church, the Iglesia de Santiago. There they approached its most important entrance, the Puerta del Perdón, deemed an important gate of forgiveness.
This was (and remains so for the devout) the one place on the Camino outside of Santiago de
Compostela itself where a pilgrim could receive reconciliation and pardon in case they were too sick to continue and complete the pilgrimage beyond Villafranca del Bierzo. If a pilgrim died here, his or her path to heaven was assured.
This was also a natural stopping place for weaker pilgrims, because the next leg of the journey, ascending to O Cebreiro, is the hardest trek along the entire Camino Francés since their passage over the Pyrenees.
Villafranca is a charming little town set deep in the mountains of León. The El Bierzo region produces a unique velvety, minerally, medium-bodied red wine from the Mencía grape, a varietal found only here in this region and that is a tradition that goes back to a Cluniac monastery established here in the 12th century that brought with it wine cultivation.
The Benedictines also encouraged French settlers to inhabit the town and we get Villafranca, “French Town,” from this period as well.