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On and Off the Camino -- Ponferrada, Palencia, and Burgos

Click here to read the previous Trip Report in this series

Having started in Santiago de Compostela, we found ourselves heading down one of the most famous "Caminos" -- The Camino Frances -- in reverse. Well, I suppose all those medieval pilgrims had to walk home too, so we were still following in their footsteps, even if it was backwards! The train route from Santiago to Ponferrada had some construction, and required us to take a Renfe-arranged "bus bridge" for about an hour of the journey. At first we grumbled at the inconvenience, but the ride gave us a different view of the countryside, which remained stunning. As noted in my last trip report, the sheer beauty of "Green Spain" has been a bit of a surprise. This particular leg was laced with bucolic rivers -- the Rio Mino and Rio Sil -- along with rolling hills fresh with rain and Spring. We would seriously consider a return to this region for its pristine beauty.

Ponferrada contains one of Spain's most impressive castles, which is saying something in country that boasts so many. The Castillo de los Templarios has the benefit of added layers of Knights Templar history, which I find endlessly fascinating, probably due to pop culture (Dan Brown, Indiana Jones)! Trashy fiction aside, the history of the Knights Templar is truly exciting, dramatic stuff, including the fact they were charged with overseeing the safety of those on pilgrimage. Ponferrada's Castillo takes a more hands off approach to the history lessons, but it does have a nice gallery of costumes and interpretation, as well as a display of all the world's most famous medieval manuscripts in facsimile form. But mostly it is the wonder of seeing the Knights' multiple layers of defense and fearsome structures with your own eyes.

There was one other stop that was a must-visit for us, for very niche reasons. If you have any interest in vintage radios, the city's Museo de la Radio has an outstanding collection. We've never seen a larger or more pristine collection of circa 1920s and 1930 radios. Stunning. There were two food/drink establishments in Ponferrada that got our attention and Euros. La Bodega de Godivah is directly across from the Castillo. Normally any bar sitting atop a major tourist attraction earns our skepticism, but this one was packed with locals and turned out to be a quirky hoot inside. Chock full of vintage toys, games, Christmas lights, and bric-a-brac, it is worth a stop before or after the castle. Slightly further afield was O’Xantar, a "gastrotienda" that offered delicious food and a wide selection of local beers and wines.

Trip report continued in comments...

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The next obvious stop on the Camino would have been Leon; however, we'd visited this city on another trip (the "Lantern of God" Cathedral is gorgeous, btw), so we pushed ahead to Palencia, which drops below the Frances Route. Palencia was a bit of an accident for us. When we were booking our train tickets we couldn't get an option to keep going to Burgos on a Sunday. But on our day of travel, it turns out the train did continue on to Burgos with a stop. Oh well...the die had already been cast and the hotel booked! But do drill down if you are traveling on this stretch of Renfe and want to explore the options. FYI, this was the Sunday/Monday that formed the basis of the my Forum question Favorite "Chillout" Activities? As it turned out, I didn't need to worry -- Palencia was filled with terrific sites and experiences, but my question highlights Palencia's main problem -- no one knows what a great place it is. Even the Cathedral has the official nickname of "the undiscovered beauty," even though it is the third-largest cathedral in the country. It is like Palencia is the Rodney Dangerfield of Spain -- not getting any respect! But it should, starting with the cathedral. It has been thoroughly scrubbed to a gleaming gem in the Spanish sunlight, and is filled with wonderful art and architecture. Beyond that, the central corridor, or Calle Mayor, is a testament to Palencia's wealth at the height of the 1890s Belle Epoche, mostly driven by coal, railroads, and other industry. The city's food hall is one of the best examples of this golden age, although plenty of other Art Nouveau buildings vie for attention as well. There's gothic churches and Roman bridges; cool pubs (El Gato Negro) and fine dining (La Traserilla, across the street). In other words, Palencia has a lot to offer and we were thrilled to spend 24 hours discovering that surprise.

The next day it was on to Burgos. BIG WARNING -- the situation with Burgos train station and public transport is ... what's the word?? ... crappy! The train station is miles outside of town, and is a sterile husk with no amenities or services. The buses are infrequent and crowded, and crawl through miles of traffic and pedestrian crosswalks to get to Burgos' central core. Not a great introduction to one of the most important cities of The Camino Frances. Still, our apartment was an architect's dream and the day was sunny and warm. Bygones.

We started our first full day with a visit to the famous Arco de Santa María, one of the original gates to the medieval city. What many may not realize is that the gate contains an exhibition space. During our visit they had staged a particularly interesting one on Burgos and the spice trade, including the impact of Columbus' and Magellan's voyages. (Fun Fact: Columbus met his royal patrons in Burgos after his second voyage). If what we saw is indicative of the caliber of exhibits, I'd suggest checking out what they've done when you arrive in town. Next was a somewhat unusual collection. The Church of San Esteban is a gothic-era structure that has been converted into a museum of religious art. Most notably, they have pulled together nearly 20 alterpieces from around the region, tracing the evolution of religious art across several centuries. Even if the topic is not your cup of tea, the impressive totality of the alterpiece collection is worth a visit, simply because they are so massive and eclectic. By the time we were done, the light streaming into Burgos Cathedral was at its peak, including through its 1200s rose window. We easily spent an hour walking through the Cathedral and adjoining museum. Certainly one highlight (among many) was the 1490s alterpiece (more alterpieces!) depicting the "Tree of Jesse." Really stunning.

Continued in comments

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Eventually it was time to head to lunch. We had made a reservation at one of Burgos' classic dining spots -- Casa Ojeda -- a local favorite since 1912. We were there for one reason and one reason only: the Castilian specialty of suckling lamb or Lechazo. I feel fairly confident that this is a once-in-a-lifetime meal -- delicious, unique, historic, amazing AND something to enjoy once. Just once. Rich and decadent, I can't image eating this way every day or even every week or month. But on has our wholehearted endorsement.

When the next day promised one of those perfect, cool spring mornings we plotted out a walk/hike along the Río Arlanzón to the medieval monastery of Cartuja de Miraflores. The almost entirely flat 2.5-mile (each way) route (just a bit uphill at the end) was pleasant to share with locals who were walking, exercising, biking, and playing with their dogs. Once we made it to our destination, we were pleasantly surprised that the exceptional space is free, with a donation box on the way out. Having seen Burgos Cathedral the day before, Cartuja de Miraflores made much more sense. We were starting to realize how important late 1400s Burgos had become as a trading center of Europe, in part because of its position on the Camino Frances. Merchants from Burgos were both buying and trading imported luxuries from Northern Europe like tapestries, paintings, and sculpture. As a result, Burgos in the late fifteenth century had become entirely enamored with Flamboyant Gothic, also known as Isabelline Gothic, a nod to Queen Isabella. The building boom and religious exuberance unleashed by Ferdinand and Isabella fueled architects in Burgos, many of whom were immigrants with ties to Flanders -- the "it" trendsetters of the era. Cartuja de Miraflores represents a peak, if not THE peak, of this Hispano-Flemish style. The slogan could be "more is more, and still not enough!" The alterpiece and royal tombs are both riots of details, and recent restorations have brought them back to their full glory. Well worth the 5-mile hike to visit, although there is bus service too. Just past the monastery on the way back was a typical roadside restaurant serving up grilled fare in a pleasant space surrounded by trees. La Fragua de Fueneprior isn't gourmet cuisine, but it provided good fuel for the return walk.

For our final day we visited the Burgos Museum. This stop gave light to the region's Roman and Visigoth heritage, including a huge 300s Roman mosaic with a hunting theme. It was interesting to see earlier eras than the dominant high gothic of previous days. Our other big endeavor of the day was food-oriented. The Michelin Guide lists three restaurants in Burgos, two of which are owned by local celebrity chef Miguel Cobo. But a good hack to dining in his empire without breaking the bank is to make a reservation at his Lia-T, a casual outpost within his more expensive restaurant that serves Euro 31 tasting menus for lunch, including three courses and a glass of wine. It was elevated and delicious, and the perfect endnote for Burgos.

Click here for the next leg of the journey -- Basque Country

Posted by
5104 posts

Thanks for sharing your Camino trip!

I’ve read all you reports, starting in Madrid, and have truly enjoyed your writing style and all the details about all of these amazing gems you’re finding along the way.

What guidebooks/ websites did you refer to when planning this trip?

It’s amazing that you visited 10 sites during your day trip to Toledo.
My mom and I spent 5 nights there and while we visited many of the sites there are still more to be seen!

I have a few questions for you:

  • How did you know which bus to take at the Ourense train station?

    • What bus did you take to Pontevedra?
    • Do you mind sharing the name of the hotel in Palencia?
    • You warned us about the infrequent buses at the Burgos train station. Were there taxis available?

Thanks in advance!

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315 posts

Yay! I'm so happy someone is reading and enjoying the trip reports. It is my first time posting reports to the RS Forum. I hope they remain useful. Here are some answers to your questions (and keep 'em coming if you have more!)

What guidebooks/ websites did you refer to when planning this trip?

I tend to cast a pretty wide net, but a few websites I usually start with are the "must see" lists from The Crazy Tourist and The Culture Trip, as well as Atlas Obscura. I also typically take note when TImeout has a guide to a city, as well as Lonely Planet. And the RS Forum (of course!) Beyond that, it is a lot of custom searching like "Romanesque architecture in Burgos" or "medieval frescoes Spain." There's a certain AI bot that we're not supposed to talk too much about that actually provided some good suggestions too.

How did you know which bus to take at the Ourense train station? / What bus did you take to Pontevedra?

So, that trip was entirely train-based, not buses. It flowed like this: Santiago to Ourense -- 8:34 a.m. departure / 9:11 a.m. arrival ; Ourense to Pontevedra -- 2:01 p.m. departure / 3:20 p.m. arrival ; Pontevedra to Santiago -- 6:30 p.m. departure / 7:05 p.m. arrival.

Do you mind sharing the name of the hotel in Palencia?

Hotel Don Rodrigo. I didn't mention it because it was fine, but not exceptional. But good location and clean, if a bit cramped.

You warned us about the infrequent buses at the Burgos train station. Were there taxis available?

Haha...funny story. People were stampeding off the train and through the station, and we couldn't quite figure out why. Then we saw there were only about four or five taxis waiting at the taxi stand. Turns out that's pretty common, so it is survival of the fittest (or fastest). We did taxi out of Burgos and it was a much better experience and Euro 7.5, so I'd say hustle if you can!

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5104 posts

History Traveler,

I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions, thank you!

Perhaps I was not clear when I asked about which bus you took from the Ourense train station. I was referring to your comment here:

Do yourself a favor and take one of the many city buses outside the train station that whisk you up the city's steep hills

(Presumption here)
Do all the city buses departing the train station go up to the city center? If not, how did you know which one to take?

I hope you don’t mind all my transport questions. I prefer to travel via public transportation (during my travels) as I’d rather let someone else do the driving while I enjoy the scenery.

When the next day promised one of those perfect, cool spring mornings we plotted out a walk/hike along the Río Arlanzón to the medieval monastery of Cartuja de Miraflores. The almost entirely flat 2.5-mile (each way) route (just a bit uphill at the end) was pleasant to share with locals who were walking, exercising, biking, and playing with their dogs.

This sounds like a nice walk with many locals around. Do you think it would be safe for a solo woman to do this walk/hike?
Did you take this walk on a weekday or weekend?

I’m wondering, have you been to Portugal?
Since you’re a history buff, you’d definitely check out Portugal as it’s full of historical sites.
I think you’d enjoy visiting the Convent of Christ in Tomar, the University of Coimbra (highly recommend taking the guided tour offered by the university), and so many other amazing sites.

Looking forward to reading about your next destination!

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315 posts

'Doh...of course! I should have re-read my text. Sorry! Yes, out of the train station and across the street is the main bus stop, and every bus number we checked went up the hill and into Old Town. Parque De San Lázaro is where most of them landed and where we got off.

For our Burgos walk, it was Wednesday morning, and yes, it was perfectly safe. Actually, a lot of single women of all ages were talking their walks or jogs at that time.

Thanks for the future tip. Portugal is on the list!

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5104 posts

History Traveler,

Thanks again for answering my questions.

I’m glad to hear that you’re considering going to Portugal on a future trip.

Posted by
8497 posts

Nice to see a couple of cities mentioned here that most people don't think about visiting. Visiting the Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada was a treat, even though we were pretty tired from our Camino walk that day. Glad you got to see it and that you are recommending it for others.
Another vote for the beautiful cathedral in Palencia. Didn't have a lot of time to see the interior, but loved all the 100s of storks that seem to enjoy sitting on the roof in Oct. In fact, all of Palencia seemed to be a stork magnet. Every building seemed to have a stork pair sitting on the roof as I walked through the pedestrian zone. This was Oct. so imagine they were migrating down to Africa for the winter? Lots of wonderful architecture in this city.

Not sure how much time we will have in Burgos next month, but you gave some good ideas of places to visit besides the cathedral. The Roman mosaic sounds like a must.
Did you also go to Atapuerca, which is very near to Burgos?

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315 posts

We had a couple daytrips as possibilites, but decided just to stay in Burgos. This is a long trip and pacing ourselves is important! And YES, the many storks! We laughed because last trip we kept taking pictures of swans (because, Germany), and this time it was storks in Palencia!

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8497 posts

Last spring, while walking the Camino, we started rating the churches - a 3 stork, 5 stork, 2 stork church. They were everywhere!