Leaving Villafranca del Bierzo
On the advice of our friend Lucas we left the palace and headed down to the river valley route to O Cebriero. We passed a pilgrim statue on the road across the bridge out of Villafranca del Bierzo.
On the other side of the river, ancient houses clung to the side of the hill in defiance of time and weather.
We passed a picturesque bridge and began climbing.
Looking back we could see the ancient castle that almost glowed in the dawn mist.
We passed a couple of pilgrims going the opposite way – they had decided to take the high road. We passed under an overpass and began our own climb. An extraordinary sight greeted us – blue painted trees – and clouds hung just above us in the valley as we made a steady roadside climb towards Pereje. I wondered if this was an environmental installation by a local artist – perhaps to raise awareness about global deforestation. Or perhaps the smurfs had been busy…
Trabadelo is memorable as it rained horse chestnuts on us – one left a bruise on my arm, the next one cut a small gash in my hand. You would definitely need personal protective equipment to harvest these nuts!
There must be a sawmill nearby as there are stacks of fresh lumber stickered for drying next to the road.
Over coffee, we admired the amazing carving on the bar.
The tortilla patata was filling and sustaining. We had a long climb ahead through Vega de Valcarce and Ruitelan.
O Cebriero stands 1300m up a mountain – the second highest since the Pyrenees. It is a seriously long slog.
But it is a fascinating place. The pre-romanesque church was founded in 836AD – nearly 400 years before St Francis of Assisi made his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1210. Inside is amazingly spacious for a building of this age – and it’s partly due to the floor being sunk into the hill.
We were amazed to find the original stone baptismal font still in place. But the place is known for something far more recent.
Where yellow arrows come from
On a rainy foggy day in 1982, the local priest from O Cebriero found a pilgrim, wandering and unsure of the route. The priest provided food and shelter and realised the problem. With no modern guides and only a few official markers, other pilgrims may not be so fortunate as the one he saved. So he went to some local road-menders who were marking the road with yellow lines, and asked for some paint and a brush. They weren’t about to refuse a priest, so, armed with his brush, the priest set out in his little Fiat car and painted yellow arrows from town to town across Galicia. And so the yellow arrows were born. That priest was Don Elias Valiña Sampedro. To him, we owe the ease with which we can navigate the Camino. We found his grave and memorial.
The Miracle of O Cebriero
And of course, there is the story of a local miracle. According to Rick Steves:
In the chapel to the right of the main altar is a much-revered 12th-century golden chalice and reliquary, which holds items relating to a local miracle: A peasant from a nearby village braved a fierce winter snowstorm to come to this church for the Eucharist. The priest scoffed at his devotion, only to find that the host and wine had physically turned into the body and blood of Christ, staining the linens beneath them — which are now in the silver box.
O Cebriero lies on the mountain pass into Galicia. We were told to expect an immediate change in the weather as this was the final mountain range before the coast. And as if to confirm our location, it rained. The town is built from local stone in a traditional style that possibly goes back to the Iron Age. Some of the buildings resembled traditional celtic round houses, but perhaps this was more about directing the strong winds away from the stress points on the buildings.
According to the C12th Codex Calixtinus:
It is difficult to get wheat-bread and wine. However with plenty of rye bread and cider, livestock and work-horses, milk and honey and enormous seafish, there is little lacking. And there is gold and silver, fabrics and furs from the forests and other riches, as well as Saracen treasure.
The Galicians are more like us French people than other Spanish savages, but nevertheless they can be hot-tempered and litigious.
Today we had no problem getting wheat-bread and wine, and the local Galician food was delicious! As for the Galicians, we found them welcoming and warm in direct contrast with the weather.
We found lodging at the bar – they had just turned away a couple of young Americans. We addressed them in my rudimentary Spanish and the proprietors quickly found us a room across the road. Dinner was hearty and filling, and the tino refreshing.
We are in the presence of a unique heritage. And we gave thanks to our Camino angel who recommended that we not miss this extraordinary place!
We walked the length of the town. In the distance, we could see the massive freeway viaducts like a tiny ant trail way down in the valley below.
After a hearty dinner and warmed by the log fire with a glass or three of the local red wine we were content and at length went across the street to our lodging.
Once we reached the outer suburbs of Ponferrada we were soon walking past market gardens. We stopped at Columbrianos for coffee, enroute to Villafranca del Bierzo. Then on to Fuentes Nueva (New Fountain) where there was an amazing small church with frescoes painted in the dome and a wonderful altarpiece.
Back in the countryside, we passed a woman harvesting corn with a scythe in a way that probably hadn’t changed for 300 years.
Cacabelos, with a population of around 5,500, saw us walking through a light industrial suburb. The last thing we expected to encounter was music. Bagpipe music, coming from a shed that looked more like a small workshop than a music studio – the Castro Bérgidum was a school for traditional folk music from the region.
There was some striking street art – some of the best we have seen on the Camino.
Moving on past the town we headed up a hill, at the top of which we encountered a villa framed by trees.
And then as we turned the corner we saw massive heroic sculptures emerging over the hedgerows as though planted in the field like a crop grown from marble and granite. It was a rural sculpture studio, and we were reminded of images from 1930s Soviet Russia – heroic and blocky, yet with a barely restrained passion characteristic of Spain itself.
Villafranca del Bierzo
As we entered Villafranca, we passed the C12th Romanesque church of Santiago. We were told that the church housed a Puerte del Perdon – a door of pardon. The idea was that if a pilgrim was too frail or sick to make it all the way to Santiago de Compostela, they could pass through that door and receive the same plenary indulgence as if they had gone all the way to Santiago itself.
And then, as though to underscore our privileged position as visitors to a country hard hit by the Global Financial Crisis, we encountered a building, half demolished, where it was evident that whole families had just walked out, leaving all their belongings behind – the TV, the books in the bookcase – it was a poignant reminder of the anguish of people who perhaps had suffered a foreclosure on their home as the banks called in their loans. It was a story of despair. This was no orderly renovation, but rather an abandonment, as abrupt as a bushfire, yet likely caused by the stroke of a bureaucratic pen in complete disregard for the family catastrophe it caused.
Our Australian friend told us she would be staying in the Albergue Ave Fenix – a colourful and friendly Albergue at the top of the hill. We stopped to check it out, and received the friendliest of welcomes. But on a hunch, we decided to investigate the monastery at the bottom of the hill, next to the Town Hall. It had been recommended to us by Lucas, our Belgian Camino friend.
It turned out to be the Hospideria San Nicolas El Real. This was on the site of one of the original five medieval Pilgrim hostels. It was built in the C17th and had been a convent and a Jesuit-run school, and was now a hostel. About 20 monks still lived there as a working monastery, and it was little short of a palace. The view across the courtyard was pure High Renaissance. There was a well at the centre of the internal courtyard, and, noticing the profusion of windows in the upper floor across from us, I wondered if this had once served as a Scriptorium where manuscripts would have been copied and illuminated with fine imagery. It would be above the level of the shadow cast by the building and would let in far more light than the standard floors.
We paid for a double room €40 and it even had an en-suite! And as though to make us feel even more welcome, there was a painting of my namesake, St Jerome hanging in the hallway outside our room.
I took careful note (and photos) so we could locate our room again, as the corridor looked much the same in each direction.
Soon it was time to meet up with Lucas, our Camino angel. We joined him on a wine tasting of La Bierzo’s finest wines.
Lucas was on his 13th Camino, and had walked from Belgium. He was 78 and had walked every year since he had turned 65, when he had walked from Antwerp. He had volunteered several times as a hospitalero and he had walked practically every route. Was he walking for religious or spiritual reasons? ‘I used to be very religious’ he laughed, ‘but the more I have walked the Camino, the more of an atheist I have become.’ He still sings with the monks, he still attends Mass – these days for the companionship and cultural experience. I was intrigued. He was certainly a man after my own heart. And I had something to discuss with him. We had considered bypassing O Cebriero to catch up with others in our Camino family. Our reasoning was that at the end of the day, the people we had met were more important than the mechanics of the Camino. In a way, it was a turning point in how we viewed this journey. But then Lucas spoke in his quiet way. ‘O Cebriero’ he said, and smiled, ‘… is a beautiful place. If I make it up the hill and die in O Cebriero I will die happy.’ And he pointed out that some people rush on, and that simply provides an opportunity to meet the next wave coming up behind. He was, of course, right. And from his recommendation, we decided there and then that we would definitely include O Cebriero.
We sampled more of the vino tinto and discussed the merits of some of the other routes. At length, the conversation wound down. Then Lucas asked if he could introduce us to a real regional speciality – one that is never listed on the wine menu, nor is it offered to strangers. But clearly, he was no stranger to this place. ‘Have you ever tried agua argienta?‘ I thought for a moment – silver water – it has to be a liqueur of some description… ‘No, I’ve not tried that.’ I said. ‘Ah, well, you are in for a treat, as there are two types, so perhaps you should try both – a plain and a herb flavour’. And so they appeared, as though in a magic realist novel. It was like an Irish Potcheen, or perhaps a good vodka. And they were smooth, and strong, and delicious. We both thanked him for a wonderful evening and paid for the drinks. And with that, we walked back up the hill to our palatial accommodation. We slept well that night, buoyed by our encounter with our atheist Camino angel. I wondered if we would meet again sometime.
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We came down from the Cruz de Ferro. Manjarin – associated since the C12th with the Knights Templar – came slowly into view. We had Ponferrada in mind.
I must confess that at first I thought it was a vagrant’s camp with random tattered flags and half-ruined rubble piles with tarps dragged over them and junk lying all around. And the dog.
Then it dawned on me, that this was the donativo albergue with no electricity (for that authentic rural experience) run by the self-styled last Templar, Tomas. No doubt he believes that and his heart is as good as any, but even with sore feet we were not tempted to stop. Tomas brings the permanent resident population to one. Amid the tattered flags and scattered tarps there was a multitude of wooden signs pointing to several places around the world, but the key one said: ‘Santiago 222kms’.
We were in the mountains, and supposedly it is now downhill to Ponferrada. But our destination was closer – as our feet were getting sore while the view was getting better. Whoever said that Spain was flat?!!. And we were heading for Galicia.
The rough path took us along the edge of a cliff
before descending towards a maple tree that shone like a beacon to guide us to a shady and somewhat cooler spot. The place was Santa Colomba de Samoza.
We watched mesmerised as we saw something spinning in the breeze – it was a rosary hanging from a thin branch on a tree in the clearing.
The views continued to be spectacular, although daunting to contemplate crossing on foot.
Then on to El Acebo, an attractive mountain village in the region of El Bierzo.
According to Wikipedia:
St. Fructuosus wrote of the founding of its first monastery in the 7th century and the place has given rise to the Saints Justo and Pasor. One can also see the site of the Medieval blacksmith of Compludo from the view of the monastery. A legend states that a sword was forged here, that Pelagius of Asturias had used in the Battle of Covadonga.
The village has certainly seen a revival due to the resurgence of modern pilgrimage. But, unlike Paolo Coelho, we were not looking for a sword. Instead, we were entering the Bierzo region – Spain’s other great wine growing district. And the tinto was exceptional.
We stayed in a friendly Pension to save our feet for Ponferrada, and dined across the street before retiring for the night.
Up at dawn, we breakfasted and made for Ponferrada.
It was long.
It was winding.
It was steadily downhill
And many people felt broken at the bottom.
Molinaseca is a town of around 800 inhabitants and it has been around since Roman times. Indeed so has the bridge across the Meruelo river. We continued on after coffee at a cafe by the bridge, and headed on to Ponferrada.
Ponferrada is a decent sized city dominated by a genuine Templar castle which was truly amazing. The Castillo de los Templaros stands out as a major landmark in the city of nearly 70,000 people. Why here? It seems that the Templars were given the town in 1178 by Ferdinand II of Leon, in order to protect the pilgrims on the Way of St James as they passed through the La Bierza region en route to Santiago de Compostela. The castle was built around 1290, and housed the Grand Master of the Templars of Castille. As the order was dissolved in 1311 – on the notorious Friday 13th of October – the castle was never taken by force, so it remains today, much as it was when the Templars inhabited it.
We met Australian Camino friends Bernadette and her friend Alan, and after some lunch, we visited inside the castle.
The castle is largely intact and in the afternoon when it opened we toured inside. It was easy to see the layered defence system and how it all related together to form a coherent whole.
Although only in use by the Templars for 20 years before they were disbanded, you could see how this place functioned as a sanctuary and as a deterrent to those who would seek to attack, and as a visible symbol of power as if to say ‘you don’t mess with the Templars’.
The castle also held a small library with some of what remains of the Templar archive. The illuminated manuscripts were well worth seeing. As they were behind glass, the circular polariser took care of the reflections for the camera. Without it, the reflections would have washed out large sections of the image.
The Basilica de la Encina is also worth a visit. The church was built in the Renaissance style in 1573. Its baroque tower dates from 1614. The altar piece is quite striking.
Ponferrada also has a radio museum – with an outstanding collection of old and historical radio receivers and associated equipment. Outside of the museum, we found an ancient wisteria vine supported on tasteful steel tendrils that blended into the plant itself.
This is definitely a place to come back to, there is a lot here we didn’t get to see, but will certainly return to explore further on our next Camino 🙂 And of course it remains a major stage on the Camino Frances.
We returned to our Pension for a good night’s rest.
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