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Cultural info/ The Órbigo Bridge (Hospital de Órbigo, León)

The Órbigo Bridge (Hospital de Órbigo, León)

The Órbigo BridgeA pilgrim´s hospital, or hospice, that existed here in the Middle Ages gives the town its name; nevertheless, there has been a settlement here on the banks of the Órbigo River since Roman times. A strategic point on the Roman route connecting the Roman city of Astorga and the silver mines of the Bierzo region with France, the town has witnessed many battles in its long history. The Suevi and the Visigoths met in battle here in the fifth century, and four centuries later Alfonso III defeated the Moors and recaptured the city for the kingdom of León.

However, it was not any of these military engagements that made the town´s name famous for all time, but a contest of a more romantic nature that took place in the mid-15th century. That was when a Leonese knight named Suero de Quiñones issued a challenge to the best lances in all of Europe, vowing to meet them in battle for 30 days on the stone bridge that spans the river in order to prove his devotion for an unnamed noble lady who had rejected his declaration of love. Some 300 jousts and one month later, having proved his love for his lady and considering himself released from what he regarded as his "prison of love", the victorious knight removed the iron collar he had worn around his neck as a symbol of his enslavement of love and took to the Camino de Santiago as a pilgrim. Upon arrival at the cathedral, he deposited a jewel-encrusted golden bracelet as a symbol of his release from the prison in which love had kept him prisoner. The bracelet can still be seen around the neck of a bust of St. James the Lesser in the cathedral museum in Santiago.

The bridge itself is a Gothic structure, one of the best examples of such bridges in the whole of Spain, though it has been rebuilt on several occasions following the damage inflicted by floods which collapsed some of its arches. It also suffered damage in the 19th century when two of its arches were blown up at the hands of the retreating English army, allied with Spain, as they fled Napoleon´s army. Fortunately for contemporary pilgrims, all of the restorations carried out on the bridge have preserved rather than altered its medieval appearance, so the bridge we see today looks just as it would have to the eyes of the noble revellers gathered on the banks of the Órbigo River for Suero de Quiñones legendary jousts.

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