You’ve heard of the Templar Knights, right?  As just a quick summary, they were the most powerful military organization for two centuries of the Middle Ages.  They were founded to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem after the First Crusade, and played a key part in many battles during those ill-advised conflicts.

Individual members were sworn to poverty and a life of servitude, but the order as a whole received shitloads of donations and they developed an early form of banking whereby people would give their money to the Templars and receive a note of credit, then travel to Jerusalem with empty pockets to tempt the bandits less, and redeem the note when they got there.  Of course many died, leaving all their money with the Templars.

According to one knowledgeable fellow I talked to, they Templars also had some different beliefs from the Church, primarily that Jesus got married and had kids, and that a woman can exist outside of that damn Virgin v Whore dynamic.  (Seriously, recasting Mary Magdalene as a whore was fucked up.)  They believed celibacy is a powerful tool for getting closer to God…if the brother chooses it.  Otherwise it does not work.  It is always nice to hear common sense.

Being rich and sort-of-banks, the Templars eventually loaned a bunch of money to King Philip IV of France, who was an asshole.  Instead of paying them back, he erased his rivals in 1307 by having them all arrested (on Friday the 13th no less) and tortured into confessing to idolatry, homosexuality, and spitting and trampling on the cross.  History records that the last Grand Master of the Templars was burned at the stake in Paris in 1314 for having recanted his earlier confession.

There is a popular legend that as he died he cursed the Pope and the King to join him in death, and both died within the year.

Sometime in the 1980s there was a heavy snowstorm in the mountains of western Castilla-Leon.  The people of the already semi-abandoned village of Manjarin were forced to take refuge in the lower lands, and when they returned it was to find that the snow had caved in most of their roofs, and looters had taken most of their possessions.  Harsh, no?  The town had been struggling to survive for some time already, and that was the final straw, they packed up what remained and left, leaving the town to fall into ruins like several other towns in the area.

A few years later a generous and hard-working man named Tomas opened an encomienda in the abandoned schoolhouse.  It is separate from the albergue system of the Camino de Santiago, and is located just before the highest point on the French Way of the Camino in an area characterized by bad weather.

Tomas is a Templar Knight.

I reached Manjarin coming down through the mist after passing the Cross of Iron, the pilgrim landmark and guide post with the unfortunate name (although the cross was there long before the Nazis hatched, although interestingly enough nowhere I could find in five minutes seemed to know when it actually dates from).  The building is small, stone, with a fireplace in the corner that provides all the warmth, diffusing through a basic chimney into the loft where up to a dozen lucky pilgrims sleep on mats.

There is no running water in the abandoned town, so the toilet is a dry one, with a pile of sawdust to dump in after you use it, and though I think there was a generator on site it is rarely used, with all the illumination coming from candles, and a propane tank providing the cooking.

An empty stone town, no street lights, low cloud ceiling,  a few serious men who have dedicated their lives to an ancient order or honor, and just to cap it off, they are generally playing Gregorian chant.  Shit, man, this was my favorite place on the Camino.

They alternate years on who stays during the winter, and the thought of that isolated mountain shrine, wrapped in snow, Gregorian chant (in particular that one, “non nobis, domine”) hanging in the stillness…that would be worth the cold climb.