Every pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago between Burgos and León knows Frómista, a small town famous for the romanesque church of St. Martin de Tours. They are also familiar with the canal along which the path runs before arriving to the town. Said canal, known as the “Canal de Castilla”, has a long and storied past that reflects the history of Spain during the last three centuries.
The Canal de Castilla was first planned in the XVIII century, during the Enlightment. The Marquess of Ensenada, one of king Ferdinand VI’s ministers in charge of modernizing the country, had the idea as a way to improve communications between the central regions of the Spain and the coast. (Let’s remember that before railroads, land transport of cargo was extremely difficult, and even more so in a mountainous country as Spain). His project, which started construction in 1753, had initiall four canals, which would link Segovia with Reinosa, near Santander. This way, Castilla’s wheat production (specially in the region of Tierra de Campos in Palencia) would be exported abroad through the Santander harbour.
As we can see, it was an incredibly ambitious project for its time, and it’s not surprising that the construction was interrupted several times. Neverthless, in 1791 a part of the Northern Branch was finished, connecting Alar del Rey and Calahorra de Ribas. This branch is the one we can see when passing through Frómista.
The War of Independence in 1808 interrupted the construction again, and afterwards, the state of the country’s finances forced king Ferdinand VII to grant the work to a private company. The Carlist Wars in the 1830s hampered the construction again, and the canal wasn’t finished until 1849, almost a century after its start. By then, railroads had already made it obsolete, and parts of the initial project (the Southern Branch to Segovia and the parts of the Northern Branch that reached Santander) were never built.
Despite all that, the canal was en economic boon to the regions that it crossed, thanks to the irrigation it provided as well as the infraestructure (mills, paper factories…) built taking advantage of hydraulic power.
The Canal today
Nowadays, the Canal de Castilla still provides water to nearby cities and irrigation to farmers, but it has also been turned into a recreation and tourism destination. Its facilities (locks, mills, docks…) are of great historic value, and the canal as a whole was declared “Bien de Interés Cultural” (spanish heritage site) in 1991. Besides, the surroundings of the waterways have turned into wetlands of great ecological value, with birds such as the bittern or the aquatic warbler finding habitats in them.
Some sections of the canal are open to navigation, and we can take organized boat trips on them, as well as practice kayaking and canoeing.
The Canal de Castilla and the Camino
The best known meeting point between the canal and the Camino de Santiago is, as mentioned above, on the Camino Francés, in the stage between Boadilla del Camino and Frómista. (There is also another point in Herrera de Pisuerga, a town through which the Camino del Norte passes).
Our first sight of the Canal will take place shortly after leaving Boadilla, after walking for around 1.7 km. From there we’ll have the canal to our right all the way until reaching Frómista. Shortly before arriving to this town, we will find the old lock operator’s house, turned now into the tourism office. In order to reach Frómista itself we have to cross a small iron bridge, and from it we can enjoy the unique sight of the famous four-level lock located there, the biggest level change in the entire canal. We are sure that pretty much every pilgrim has taken at least a picture from this place.
Boat trips along the Canal
Another attraction that we can enjoy in the canal are the touristic boat trips. Close to the tourism office mentioned above, we can embark on the “Juan de Hómar” boat, which makes round trips from Frómista and Boadilla del Camino. This initiative was started in the autumn of 2018, and it kept operating right until the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
Regarding the current 2021-2022 Jacobean year, we have been in touch with the boat operators, and they say that they plan to start operating as soon as the Camino season starts, although with the expected health-related capacity restrictions. Its planned scheduled is:
- From march to summer: departures from Frómista every day except Tuesday, at 11:00, 12:30, 16:30 and 18:00.
- During the summer: same as above, except that the afternoon trips start at 17:00 and 18:30.
For further information, we advise following the Palencia Turismo Facebook page, or calling the phone number (34) 673 368 486.