The Knights Templar were one of the great protagonists of the medieval period in Europe. From 1118 to 1312 they evolved from a group of nine knights into a military and religious organization with immense power. It was precisely this accumulated influence that led them to disappear due to a conspiracy organized by King Philip IV of France. However, their legacy is immense and there is no lack of examples throughout the country. Castles, churches or hermitages that the Poor Fellows of Christ and the Temple of Solomon built during their struggle against the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula. This Templar route through the north of Spain includes some of the most striking or important in the northern part of the peninsula.
Although there are many places associated with the Knights of the Order of the Temple, their presence in the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias is only based on myths or traditions. The absence of conflicts in these areas meant that they did not build fortresses; nor were there many important remains in this respect. For this reason, most of the places on this four-day route run a little further down; through Catalan, Aragonese, Castilian and Leonese lands. In Galicia the knights also had domains, so if you have one more day it is a good idea to travel to Temple and Cambre. Be that as it may, it is time to go to Tarragona to begin with.
The province of Tarragona is known for the influence that the Templars had on several of its towns. For example, in Tortosa you can find the castle of La Zuda. This was one of the most prosperous sites in the Kingdom of Aragon, along with Miravet. It is precisely here that the Templar route through the north of Spain begins. From there it continues through Lleida, in Castell de Gardeny, and Huesca, in Chalamera and Monzón.
The origin of the place, as in the case of Tortosa, goes back to shortly after the arrival of the knights to the place; in the middle of the 12th century. When the Almoravid stronghold of Miravet fell in 1153, after a year of siege in which the soldiers of the Master Pere de Rovira helped the troops of Ramon Berenger IV in a significant way, the fortress was left in the hands of the Templars. On the Arab fort it was decided to create a castle to defend the lower course of the Ebro. The model would follow the style that the order had shown in the Holy Land and many other places in Christendom. Straight, simple and compact, the mass was the focus since the Poor Fellows of Christ and the Temple of Solomon prospered.
A century and a half later, royal Aragonese troops laid siege to the place. The reason was the suspension of the Knights Templar. After resisting, they had to surrender. The tower of Sangre is where they surrendered, an indispensable point in the visit. Although the legend that gives it its name states that the knights were executed, they survived as prisoners.
Before or after seeing the different rooms of the Miravet castle, you can visit the old village; which developed around the fortress. It is also worth paying attention to the old church, initially developed by the heirs of the Templars, the Knights of the Hospitaller Order. The time you spend there depends on whether you want to stop at Castell de Gardeny or Chalamera. If you go directly to Monzón, it is possible to dedicate half a day.
The remains of this castle are located in Lleida city, on the hill of the same name. The stop allows to review the history of the order in the province of Lleida. Already in Roman times, the high place where the fortress is located was used, as in the battles that Julius Caesar led against his enemies from Pompeii.
Centuries later the Templars would raise the Castell de Gardeny, which survived its disappearance. Well musealized, it shows the adaptations it suffered during the Modern Age. Moreover, as it is halfway to Monzón, Lleida is a great option for stopping to have lunch.
On the way to the most famous Templar landmark in the territory of Huesca, it is worth stopping briefly to see the surroundings of Chalamera. There awaits a 12th-century hermitage raised by the order itself. It is a great example of Romanesque architecture. In the past, both in this town and in the neighbouring town of Belver de Cinca, there were two castles in Huesca, which were destroyed when the knights disappeared. In the chalamerino they resisted the last Aragonese members of the temple; after having yielded Monzón to the inquisitorial siege propitiated by Philip IV of France.
The magnificent castle of Monzón did survive. On a mountain, dominating the town, it remains impassive. At first it was an Arab fortress, but it ended up in the hands of the Templars after being reconquered by the Aragonese. The defences of the complex were much improved during the stay of the order. The prestige acquired served for Master Guillem de Montodrón to educate the future Jaume I the Conqueror there.
In spite of the fact that it was adapted to the irruption of the heavy artillery and to have participated in the great conflicts of Spanish history, its Templar essence remains clear. The visit includes the chapter house, the stables, the tower of James I and the church of San Nicolás. Before resting, it is worth visiting the hermitage of Nuestra Señora de la Alegría or the cathedral of Santa María del Robledal, where several courts of the Crown of Aragon were held.
Although there is a long way from Monzón, the two small churches to visit are worth it. Both share characteristics, such as being in Navarre, the relationship with the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago and the octagonal plan, which in the case of Torres del Río goes back especially to the church of the Santo Sepulcro in Jerusalem. They are also good examples of the tradition that assigns this type of construction to the Knights Templar; as various investigations indicate that it was these knights who raised them.
We have to cross more than 200 kilometres to the Romanesque church of Santa María de Eunate. As both it and the church of El Santo Sepulcro in Torres del Río are quick to see, if you get up early you can stop on the way in Huesca or Olite. Already in the municipality of Muruzabal you can see this small but beautiful temple from the 12th century. It is located next to Puente La Reina, another tourist option to extend the day’s visits. The Aragonese and French-Navarrese routes are connected nearby, so it is very likely that pilgrims will come across it. Thus, caution should be taken in common road areas.
The greatest curiosity of Santa María de Eunate, apart from its curious plant, is the external gallery that surrounds it. It also has a remarkable archway that creates an enchanting ensemble thanks to the isolation of the temple. It is worth mentioning that several of its medieval tombs have been found with shells, which associates it directly with the Jacobean route. A route in which the Knights Templar were very involved, protecting the pilgrims.
Some 60 kilometres further on, past Puente La Reina and Estella, Torres del Río might seem like just another town. However, it has an architectural gem: the church of El Santo Sepulcro. It dates from the same century as Santa María de Eunate. The Romanesque style of the temple also has Mudejar features. Later a lantern was installed at the top of the building to guide the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Once seen, a good alternative is to continue a little further on and spend the night in Logroño or Viana.
Once again, the Templar route through the north of Spain corresponds approximately to the French Way to Santiago. Thanks to this, it is possible to stop in Burgos before reaching Castrojeriz. The Templar church of San Juan is located in this town. Meanwhile, at the next milestone, Villalcázar de Sirga was the only temple commission in Palencia.
In a couple of hours you can get from Torres del Río to Castrojeriz, something less if you spent the night in Logroño. Before reaching the town and its Templar church of San Juan it is a good idea to stop the car at the ruins of the monastery of San Anton. It belonged to another order, that of San Antonio. This was in charge of treating the ergotism or fire of San Antón, produced by a rye fungus. Its symbol was a T-shaped cross, or Tau. It was very important and served as the headquarters of the Antonians in the Iberian Peninsula.
Following the centre of Castrojeriz, its layout around the Way to Santiago is worth mentioning. Among its many and important churches, such as Santa María del Manzano, the aforementioned church of San Juan stands out. Although the pressure of war was more to the south; the Templars maintained their influence in the area thanks to constructions such as this one. Thanks to a reform of the 16th century, carried out by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, its old appearance was hidden. However, its defensive tower shows the military character it had. The cloister, with clear Cistercian influence, is also original.
Villalcázar de Sirga’s status as a Templar settlement has been confirmed at least since 1307. Nearby towns, such as Terradillo de los Templarios, were associated with it. Before this it was already closely related to the Knights Templar. For example, the first hospital for pilgrims that the town of Palencia had was developed by these knights. At the time, the main church of the place is also Templar. Known as Santa Maria la Blanca, it was also a real stronghold.
Of the building, the 13th century façade stands out; which anticipated the Gothic style that would dominate the religious architecture shortly afterwards. This is reflected in the elements of the interior. The complex was also a sanctuary related to the Virgin Mary. In this way, it inspired Castilian kings. For example, Alfonso X the Wise composed one of his cantigas based on the temple.
The end of this long route visit could not be other than Ponferrada. The current capital of El Bierzo puts an end to this great Templar route through the north of Spain. If there is any other day available it is possible to make an epilogue in Zamora or Galicia. Before the mountains that separate the region of El Bierzo from León; it is possible to stop in Rabanal del Camino. Its small church belonged to the order, dependent on the knights of Ponferrada. Its mission was to protect the ascent of Mount Irago, an area of Jacobean passage. Today, at the top, Tomás awaits, a hospitaler who declares himself to be the last Templar.
Perhaps the most spectacular setting on this journey is the Templar castle of Ponferrada. This immense stone mass was developed after the Templars were given control of the city by the Leonese crown almost in the 13th century.
Arguments between the kingdom of Leon and Castile led to its loss to the Hospitaller Order for a few years. The town had grown up around a fortified bridge so that pilgrims could pass to Santiago and the church of San Pedro. The impact of the temple was very deep. For example, the discovery of the patron saint of El Bierzo, the black virgin of La Encina, was assigned to them. They would have found her by cutting down wood to enlarge their headquarters or during the abandonment of the church after falling into disgrace.
The fortress was developed during decades, increasing its size considerably. The walls were reinforced and the necessary facilities were built for the warrior monks to develop their peculiar lifestyle. Hardly any remains have survived. The betrayal by the King of France that led to the disappearance of the military order resulted in the surrender of the city to the crown. The agreement was closed between the infante Don Felipe together with María de Molina and the master Rodrigo Yáñez. Enlargements in the 15th and 16th centuries further increased the fortress. However, the War of Independence brought enormous damage thanks to the action of the French when they withdrew. Now rebuilt, it has a huge exhibition on the Templars and the medieval era.
The capital of El Bierzo, in addition to the Templar castle, has notable attractions. Basilica of La Virgen de la Encina is a good example. The local gastronomy is also excellent and not far from there are villages with a long past like the isolated town of Peñalba de Santiago and its Mozarabic church. Following in the footsteps of the Templars, the fortress of Cornatel is also a must.
If you still want to continue a little further on this Templar route through the north of Spain there are two options. On the one hand, cross the Ancares to Galicia and go through it to Temple and Cambre. The whole area was controlled by the order from which it inherited its name. On the other hand, you can go down to the Aliste region. There, the remains of the Alba and Alcañices Castle await, very close to the border with Portugal.
Total distance: 944 kilometres
Days: Four (no round trip)
Partial distances: Day 1, 180 km | Day 2, 304 km | Day 3, 249 km | Day 4, 211 km