Tuesday 14 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 3

Galician Fields – Villafranca del Bierzo to Sarria

Day 6 - Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro: 30.67k / Ascent 1534m / Descent 740m

It was a bit overcast as we set off, but the cloud was high and breaking up as we began the climb out of town. In essence today was a walk of 3 sections: a mountainside walk, a stretch along the road, then a climb along green lanes into Galicia and on to O Cebreiro. Like the walk of two days ago, though, the distance and ascent/descent combined to add a bit more challenge to the hike.

Of the three options, the more straightforward one followed the valley road, whilst the toughest one traversed the mountains on the south side of the valley clocking up much more ascent and descent over its 38k.

In hindsight, I think we could have managed the tougher option, but we opted for the middle version which took a high-level route for part of the way then dropped into the valley for a stretch before a final climb to our destination.

Looking back to Villafranca del Bierzo

By Camino standards, the first bit was quite a stiff climb. However, the views opened up quite quickly as we rose, and eventually the path levelled out to contour around the mountainside some 500m above the valley. We walked with Chris and Colin for a while (who we had first met two days ago on the way up to Foncebadon) chatting about this and that as we passed the time.

View across the valley to the hills the "tough" route crosses

It was beautiful – pretty much one of the best parts of the walk, especially once the sun had broken through. We followed the more-or-less level path along the hillside, over open moorland, through chestnut woods and across heathland, bumping into Anthony and Orla from Ireland on the way. A steep descent deposited us in Trabadelos where we stopped for coffee and cokes, some 12k of walking already under our belts. 

The next stretch followed roads for around 9k, a mix of quiet lane and medium sized road through the Valcares valley. High overhead, the new motorway carried commuters effortlessly by, in blissful ignorance of the effort being expended by the stream of rucksack-toting pedestrians beneath them.

Fast lane above, slow lane below

We stopped for lunch in Ambasmestas - beer/coke, crisps and a shared chorizo and cheese sandwich. After a lengthy morning, the chance to refuel was very welcome. It was also slightly embarrassing as I almost forgot to pay! A quick reminder sorted things out without any problem, but I doubt even a sun-ruddied complexion could completely hide my blushes!

Moving on, we passed through more villages before arriving at Las Herrerias mid-afternoon. Another quick stop for drinks and rest ensued - beer glasses in the ice cream freezer proved too tempting on both fronts, and both beers and ice creams were consumed!

I mean, yeah - obviously!

Then began the long pull up to O Cebreiro, a beautiful route on woodland tracks which threaded through tiny villages of gorgeous stone houses, gaining some 620m of ascent over 8k of walking.

On the climb towards O Cebreiro

Sun-dappled lanes

We stopped for spring water in La Faba (where we met Spanish family whose daughter wanted to practice her English on us) and Laguna de Castilla, before crossing the border into Galicia on the final pull up to O Cebreiro. 

View back from near the top of the climb

Entering Galicia

Having been quite sunny at lower levels, here, at 1300m, a thick mist obscured the views, and it was definitely cool. Photographing the compact little village was tricky, especially given the combination of narrow streets, tired legs and sore feet, cold weather and thick mist.

The Casa Rural Venta Celta where we stayed

However, O Cebreiro was clearly a place to savour, so hopefully the morning will be kinder with warmer weather and the views in evidence. It’s a tiny hill-top village of Celtic origin showcasing the unusual thatched, round palloza houses, and is a National Monument. It originated with the pilgrimage route, and is the gateway to Galicia as far as pilgrims are concerned. There is a church, a museum, accommodation and shops selling everything from food to souvenirs and, on a clear night (unlike tonight) you can apparently see the Milky Way as there is little light pollution of any kind.

Our hotel was a humble affair, with smallish bedrooms but a huge, rustic wooden bar and country cooking on the menu. Dinner was good: a great vegetable soup (Caldo Galego), fried egg and chips, flan/cheese and honey and some wine to wash it all down – a lovely way to end a really good day’s walking.

Still life with Caldo Galego

Caldo Galego (Galician broth) is a traditional soup of the region. There are various alternatives (some versions contain ham hock or chorizo, fatty pork, chickpeas and/or chestnuts) but all seem based around the same basic starting point of cabbage (or other green leaves), beans and potato, and it is traditionally served in an earthenware bowl.

Walking through the Galician fields, many are given over to growing potatoes or leafy greens. So we have a question: was the soup devised because of the available crops, or have the crops been planted to make the soup?

Soft cheese and honey

We also had a traditional pudding of soft cheese and local honey – slightly odd-sounding, perhaps, but the mild cheese and sweet honey worked together in the way that cheese-and-sweet often do (for example cheesecake, apple and cheese or cheese and fruit cake).

Day 7 - O Cebreiro to Triacastela: 21.99k (13.75m) / Ascent 480m / Descent 1078m

A much easier day was in prospect today, with an undulating ridge walk followed by a lengthy descent into Triacastela on the agenda. It was a cool, clear morning, and we were treated to a stunning cloud inversion – there was plenty of chance for impressive photos before we set off.

Cloud inversion from O Cebreiro

Our day’s walk began along a shaded mud track, and we were pretty much all on our own for the first few kilometers into Linares, where the little church waylaid us with the promise of a stamp for our Pilgrim Passports. These stamps are important if you want a Compostela (certificate) on reaching Santiago – at least one per day en route, and two per day from Sarria onwards.

Church, Linares

A short while later, we stopped at the Alto de San Roque and took photos of the pilgrim statue – a large and very heroic-looking work that looked even more valiant given the setting. The Spanish family we had met yesterday was also there, and we swapped photo-taking duties. This would be the last time we would see them – they were taking a route via the monastery at Samos, and we would get out of sync.  

Pilgrims at the Alto de San Roque

Heroic deeds will be done

We arrived at Hospital da Condessa in search of coffee, and spent a nice time chatting with Kathy and Alan (who we had dubbed Nigel Slater for his resemblance to the TV chef of that name). We’d seen them a few times before, not least on the way into Ponferrada. They lived in Calgary and spent their weekends walking and cycling in and around Banff in the Canadian Rockies (you can go off people, you know!).

For the next stretch, we fell in with Anthony and Orla, and walked with them until the steep climb up to the Alto do Poio robbed us of our breath. We parted ways at the top: they to grab a drink at the shrewdly-placed bar, us to carry on towards Fonfria where we planned a break.

On the way, we got scammed by a couple of girls purporting to be raising funds for a deaf-dumb enterprise. Now I don’t mind feeling foolish for having been conned (although I’d rather not be), and I don’t even mind being €20 out of pocket, but it’s a shame that some people feel the need to prey on the kindness and goodwill of others in this way, especially those who may already be finding pilgrimage an emotional experience. Fortunately, pilgrimage is also about meeting – and overcoming – adversity.  

We had drinks at the Albergue in Fonfria, and chatted to an Aussie couple from Melbourne. As we set off again, intent on finding somewhere to eat our lunch, we were brought to a halt by the Pancake Lady.

Pancake lady and Missy G

Missy G's mum had remembered her from their trip back in 2007: an elderly lady who makes pancakes and offers them out to passing pilgrims for a few cents. We chatted briefly: she asked if we were married and we said we were celebrating 25 years this year. Pointing to her own wedding band, she drew the number “60” on Missy G’s hand.  

On the descent to Triacastela

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in descent, through Viduedo and a sprinkling of hamlets into Triacastela, where we stopped for another drink break before finding our digs.

Dinner was in the nearby restaurant part of the Complexo Xacobeo in which we were staying. We had a very nice but slow meal: mixed salad with tuna, macaroni with tomato and tuna, grilled salmon and stewed beef tongue - unusual, but nice, and worth a try!

Then to bed, as the strains of Juve vs Barca in the Champion's League final drifted through the night.

Day 8 - Triacastela to Sarria: 18.92k / Ascent 512m / Descent 726m

We had another short day in store today, the shortest of our trip, in fact, at around 19k (11.75 miles).

We began with a quick breakfast at Complexo Xacobeo and liberated some sandwich-making ingredients for later on. It was another cool, bright morning as we set off along the main street and out into the countryside.

On the road out of Triacastela

There were two possible routes to Sarria today – one via the monastery at Samos, the other more direct – and we opted for the shortest: not through any slackness, but because it reckoned to be the most scenic.

It certainly was beautiful, with shady, wooded lanes and great views over the mountains. We took a winding route through a series of tiny villages – real working communities, with chickens wandering the streets and a constant tang of cow dung in the air.

Sun-dappled lane on the way to San Xil

After a short stint on the road, we picked up a sun dappled green lane rising through the woods. As a good number of pilgrims had chosen the alternative route via Samos monastery, it was quite a bit quieter than usual on the trail. The only constant sound was birdsong and, not for the first time, we heard Cuckoos calling away in the distance.

Recreating works of art on walks:
#1 - The Birth of Venus

In San Xil, we took a slight detour to examine the tiny church, and drew the attention of an inquisitive neighbour. To be honest, in villages such as these, off-route pilgrims might be the most newsworthy event of the day.

At the Alto de Riocabo, we again left the quiet road for a gravel track through trees. Away to our left, low cloud swirled around like a repeat of yesterday’s cloud inversion. The skies gradually cleared, though, as temperature rose and the cloud dissolved, and a beautiful day ensued.

The villages and hamlets were so small and frequent that few were signed even if they were named, so exactly where we stopped for coffee is a bit of a mystery - Fontearcuda is our best guess. However, it was small and quiet like everything else, but nice too - especially the cake!

River crossing the easy way

We hiked a few more kilometers, and passed through a few more unidentified villages. Approaching noon, we stopped in Pintin for drinks and a break. A couple of (probably) German women arrived by van to set up a huge picnic - the support group, we think, for a large tour party travelling the Camino – commandeering all of the tables and chairs. I suppose it was good for business in one sense, but what happens to other passers-by who need a rest?

The descent towards Sarria began in earnest from here, passing through more villages as it did so - Calvor, Hospital, San Mamede, San Pedro, Carballal and Vigo de Sarria, to name a few. In general it was steady going, though steep enough in places.

Eventually the path levelled out, and we reached town. It was only about 2.00pm, but we were happy enough with a shorter day as longer days would follow soon enough. The Hotel Alfonso IX was quite a smart affair and perhaps a bit too nice for fragrant pilgrims. So we quickly vacated the lobby and popped up to our room for a wash and brush up and a rest.

Tonight we were again free to choose our own meal, so we had a wander along the main street looking for places to eat. It was perhaps a bit too early, as few places seemed to be open and few of our regular chums seemed to be in evidence. No matter, we found a bar and shared macaroni and a mixed salad.

Dinner in Sarria

Most places offer a pilgrim’s menu, which is normally inexpensive and filling – a choice of three or four large starters, a main course, pudding, bread and wine/water are usually included in the staple offering for around €10. Many long distance walkers find their appetite increases after a few days walking, but we find the opposite, so after a few days of large evening meals it was nice to choose something smaller.

Back in the lower town, we popped into a small supermarket and bought provisions for the next day’s lunch, then retired to the hotel bar for a couple of drinks before heading to bed.

Since leaving Villafranca del Bierzo, we had really enjoyed the scenery and the relative quiet of the trail, especially that arising from the “Samos split”. Those who only walk from Leon (or Sarria) get a very different perspective on the route to those who have walked all the way from St Jean Pied de Port – northwest Spain is much wetter, greener and hillier than the hot, dry flat countryside of Navarra, La Rioja and Castille y Leon – and it is probably true to say that this section is more outwardly beautiful than much that has gone before. However, we still think back very fondly to those hot, dusty days crossing the meseta, and to us they are just as beautiful but in a different way.  

From tomorrow, we expect the route to get busier still as the “last hundred” walkers join the fray. We have also added extra challenge in the way of two consecutive longer days, which will certainly test us, but we are looking forward to that challenge immensely.

Quite how much difference it will make, I’m not sure, but we have made plans to try to get the best of both worlds – sometimes busy, sometimes quiet. The camaraderie that accompanied our previous trip is not so in evidence this time round, although there is plenty of friendly contact this time, too. I guess last time was just a rather fortuitous coming-together of like–minded and compatible individuals. However, we are getting as much out of our quiet moments as our social interactions, so finding the right balance will be a help. 

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