Monday, 13 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 2

Hills and Ills – Astorga to Villafranca del Bierzo

Day 3 - Astorga to Rabanal: 20.61k / Ascent 378m / Descent 90m

After yesterday’s lengthy stint, we had a shorter day to look forward to today. A bright morning greeted us, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast chatting to Kevin from Ireland.

Modern church on the way out of Astorga

It didn’t take long to leave Astorga behind us, and soon we were out in the countryside, following a quiet road through pleasant surroundings and heading into the isolated Maragateria region.

Despite being situated in a river valley and feeling quite low, Astorga lies at an altitude of about 870m. Tonight, however, we would be sleeping around 300m higher as we began our climb into the Montes de Leon.

Entering Murias de Rechivaldo
Passing through the village of Murias de Rechivaldo, we continued on to Santa Catalina de Somoza (some 10k into the day) where we stopped for coffee and juice. A few faces were now becoming familiar and we exchanged a few pleasantries as we enjoyed a rest in the shade – necessary despite the altitude and cool start.  

Santa Catalina de Somoza

Moving on, we passed the 1000m altitude mark, negotiated the village of El Ganso and stopped for lunch soon afterwards at a shady picnic spot – bread and cheese, cherries and dried apricots forming the basis of our repast.  

No doubt about the way ......

On the climb towards Rabanal

Crosses woven into the fencing

The route steepened as we neared Rabanal de Camino, and by the time we arrived in the early afternoon it was getting pretty warm. Although temperatures never soared to the formidable heights of last time, it was still hitting 25-30 degrees Centigrade in the shade, somewhat in excess of those experienced in the UK so far this year. So we stopped for a beer at a handy bar and enjoyed the general hubbub of pilgrims coming and going.

Camino clouds in Scallop formation

It’s a beautiful village that showcases the typical architecture of the area, lying in idyllic surroundings at about 1150m, and on this glorious afternoon buzzing with walkers from all corners of the globe. Hard to believe, then, that out of season the permanent population totals fewer than three dozen residents, illustrating just how influential the Camino has become on the local economy, and hinting at just how Spartan life might be in the surrounding off-route villages.

Main Street, Rabanal del Camino

After checking in at the hotel, we went out for a stroll along the steep main street and attended Vespers (sung in Gregorian chant) at the Iglesia de Santa Maria: it was standing room only – I reckon there were nearly 100 people in attendance.

Distant mountains in evening light, Rabanal

After dinner, we took a last gentle stroll round the village as the sun went down, and prepared ourselves for another big day tomorrow. As has become the custom, I have acquired sore feet and a number of blisters during the walk. I don’t know why this happens on the Camino when I don’t get the same problem any other time – perhaps it’s the added warmth and constant hard surfaces underfoot that do it – but the application of copious amounts of tape and wadding usually make things manageable.   

Day 4 - Rabanal to Ponferrada: 33.33k / Ascent 788m / Descent 1401m

Leaving La Posada de Gaspar

A tough day began quite early with the steady climb towards Foncebadon. At 1495m, Foncebadon is one of the highest villages in Spain, and until fairly recently claimed just two permanent inhabitants. Now, thanks to the Camino and an entrepreneurial spirit, the village is experiencing a new lease of life. 

Woodland path above Rabanal

It was cool enough to begin with, but bright, with clear skies and rising temperatures giving a hint as to what was to come – given the altitude, probably the warmest day so far. As we climbed away from Rabanal, cutting across the hairpin bends of the road, we met up with Chris & Colin for the first time (she from NZ, he from Scotland, both now living in the USA).

Entering Foncebadon

Beyond Foncebadon, the track levelled out a little, undulating around the 1500m mark for a couple of kilometers as far as the Cruz de Ferro. The Cruz de Ferro is considered a place of special spiritual significance, somewhere to reflect about one’s life, one’s family and friends, the condition of one’s spiritual wellbeing, and the journey, both literally and metaphorically, it has taken to get here.  

Cruz de Ferro with mountains behind

Approaching the Cruz de Ferro

We set down our stones and rested for a while. But it was very busy and not an especially private moment, which detracted somewhat from the experience. I don’t know why I expected anything different given the volume of pilgrims on The Way in June, but the quiet needed for such ruminations was simply missing.

Our stones - one shaped like a foot, the other like Spain

Though the act of placing the memento happens here, perhaps the real time for inner contemplation occurs during those more peaceful, meditative moments out on the Camino.

Missy G placing her stone

Me placing my stone

We carried on along an undulating path following the line of the ridge, with great views over the surrounding peaks and valleys. At over 1500m, this section is the highest of the entire Camino Frances – higher, even, that the Col de Lepoeder in the Pyrenees on the first day out from St Jean Pied de Port.

The much-photographed sign, Manjarin

A little way past Manjarin, there was an impromptu bar at the side of the path. Over cold cokes, we chatted to Cameron & James, a father-and-son Irish pair we had been seeing most nights (who were stopping over in Ponferrada for a rest day, so we would get out of sync with them) and a German woman who was only going as far as the next village. Still, we are seeing a lot more familiar faces now, and that feeling of being part of the “Camino family” was developing once again.

Our next objective was the village of El Acebo, some 5k further on. The path started off on the level before a steep descent on loose, stony paths took us into the village some 300m below. Care was needed on the uneven, slippery surface, as one chap found out the hard way (we later saw an ambulance heading uphill if further warning were needed to “go steady”). Although not unfamiliar underfoot conditions for regular hill walkers, it still required plenty of care and concentration to negotiate safely, and did nothing to improve the comfort of my sore feet.

Mountain views from near El Acebo

Having safely made the village, we had a good half hour break in El Acebo, shared a chorizo bocadillo and drank a couple of beers in the shade. It’s a beautiful village, as are many along this stretch - almost anywhere between Astorga and Molinaseca would be worthy of an overnight stop – and walkers and cyclists were rolling in by the dozen. This would be the end of the day for some, and it would be hard to imagine a more delightful place to stop for the night.

We, however, still had another 16k to go. The rest and food had definitely helped, and we set off towards Riego de Ambros, another 200m lower down, with renewed vigour. Almost immediately, the number of pilgrims on the trail was reduced, and it was much quieter – so much so, we saw a deer run across the path just ahead of us! The scenery since Rabanal had been beautiful – mountain ridges with views to neighbouring peaks – and we enjoyed both the peace and the surroundings as we went.

Keith from Birmingham entering Riego de Ambros

We also met Keith from Birmingham, and chatted briefly as we walked - primarily about the lack of Brits on the trail (which was true for the whole two weeks): there were plenty of native English speakers about – Irish, American, Canadian, Australian – but hardly any British. Quite why this was the case, I’m not sure – perhaps we are just a more heathen lot in the UK.

It's all downhill from here

Keith soon zoomed off into the distance (illustrating the added fitness of through-walkers versus those who have only just started) whilst we pottered on towards Molinaseca. By now, it was quite warm. We were hot and tired, and the paths loose and stony: by Camino standards, this was a longish day with more than the average amount of ascent and descent. As we neared the village, we became part of a small group helping a woman who had slipped over, cut her hand and bumped her head.

Crossing the Rio Meruelo into Molinaseca

At Molinaseca, we stopped again - this time for ice creams and cokes - and had another half hour rest in the shade. It was about 4.30pm when we left, and we still had 9k to go. Now at lower altitude (we had dropped almost 1000m since Cruz de Ferro) it was much hotter. With the heat radiating back from the pale road surface, we were beginning to feel the effects.

This last section was a bit of a slog. Whether tackled at the end of one day or the beginning of the next, it still needed doing, and a mix of pavement, tarmac and gravel track carried us ever nearer. By the time we passed through Campo we were flagging slightly, so we stopped for more drinks in the outskirts of town.

After a brief chat to Alan & Kathy, we sat in the shade with our drinks. It was a timely stop, as heat and tiredness had left Missy G feeling a bit dyspeptic, a situation that soon resolved itself in predictable manner. It proved something of a tonic, though, and we trudged the last kilometer to our hotel in much better fettle.

Walled city of Ponferrada (borrowed image)
Ponferrada is a town of two halves: an unattractive new part and an historic old centre. The walled centre, complete with 13th Century castle built by the Knight's Templar, is attractive and interesting, and had we been feeling better, we might have explored a little. As it was, we were tired and ready to stop, so we pottered through the streets with barely a second look at the antiquities. The way the Camino enters the town seems to avoid the best bits and follows a rather unlovely route up a steep hill beside some run-down railway architecture, and was so uninspiring I didn't even take any photos (hence the borrowed picture!). 

Dinner was optional tonight, so we opted instead to eat up our rations - tired cheese sandwiches, dried apricots and fresh cherries proved surprisingly satisfying under the circumstances!

Day 5 - Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo: 25.56k / Ascent 445m / Descent 446m

After our early night last night, we were up in good time and raring to go. Because of the meagre dinner we’d had last night, we rather fell on the plentiful breakfast. Suitably fortified, we set out about 8.30am, making our way through the outskirts of Ponferrada on wet streets beneath gloomy skies.

Looking back towards the walled centre on a gloomy morning

There was a real mix of housing – grubby apartment blocks, leafy suburbs, tenement buildings with a run-down feel – but all in all it was an experience rather less grim than the guidebook would have us believe (it describing the walk here as "both ugly and tedious").

Graffiti in tunnel beneath flats, Ponferrada

One of the many types of signage encountered

Eventually, though, we reached the countryside once more, passed through the village of Columbianos and headed onwards to the village of Fuentenuevas where we stopped for coffee and juice. Quite a few pilgrims loitered. It was a largely different bunch to those we had been with yesterday, although we did see the woman who had fallen yesterday who seemed to be alright.

Camponaraya is a long, straggling town whose surrounding earth yields contrasting raw materials: grapes for the Bierzo region’s highly-regarded wines, and ore from which tungsten is extracted and processed. We trekked the length of the long main street and topped up our money at the bank. Leaving the town, we passed a number of wineries - bodegas and control points servicing the many vineyards which surround the area.

The mountains of El Bierzo up ahead

Our next goal - Cacabelos - was a further 5k away. To mitigate the relative heat of the afternoon, we found a shady bar, shared a hot chorizo and cheese sandwich (best so far) and practically drooled at the prospect of an ICED beer!

The next section began with a lengthy uphill plod through Pierros. Almost by stealth, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and thunder was rumbling regularly away to our left. Tell-tale curtains of rain were visible just a few fields away - we were going to get wet!

Rain approaching

Ranked mountains as seen through the rain

We donned waterproofs. Northwest Spain is notorious for being rainy, and it was inevitable we would encounter a downpour sooner or later. In truth, though, this afternoon’s heavy shower was not an unpleasant experience – quite refreshing, in fact, and with the added benefit of nullifying the increasingly humid atmosphere.

Hill-top house amongst the vineyards

Despite the rain, we still opted for the longer route through the vineyards, eventually reaching Villafranca del Bierzo at about 3.30pm. Situated at the confluence of the Burbia and Valcarce rivers and nestling in the foothills of the El Bierzo mountains, Villafranca is an historic stopping point on the Camino, with several large churches and a strong Galician influence. First impressions were a little unfavourable – the wet streets were deserted and the waymarking erratic and confusing, and all we wanted to do was find our digs and get into the dry.

Having negotiated the jumble of streets, we holed up in a bar for half an hour, watching the world go by. Then we checked in and got ready for dinner.

Local Wolfram beer

Dinner was good. The chap at the bar had worked in Birmingham for five months a little while back, so we got chatting. Normally, the standard beer offering is the regular lager beer – San Miguel or Mahou or Estrella – which are OK and refreshing enough on a hot day. But here they also had a selection of bottled Spanish artisan beers! We had a wheat beer made in someone's home, and a dark black beer (not unlike a mild) from Camponaraya called Wolfram in recognition of the large Tungsten works there!

Pilgrim statue by bridge over River Burbia

Later, the weather having improved, we went for a slow paddle along the street to get our bearings for the morning. A long day beckoned, and there were three possible routes to choose from, so weighing up our options and learning where to head for in the morning was time well spent.

Sun setting over Villafranca del Bierzo #1

Sun setting over Villafranca del Bierzo #2

Looking back over the previous few days, we have definitely settled into a comfortable routine. We’d crossed the first real mountains encountered since the Pyrenees, way back on the first day of the Camino, passed the highest point of the entire route, and really enjoyed our passage through the remote region of the Maragateria. Alternating shorter and longer days had been very enjoyable too, and despite sore feet and touches of heatstroke we were feeling good about the forthcoming crossing of the Bierzo and Galician hills.

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