León – Villavante (by walkers’ Route ) – Hospital de Órbigo – Villares de Órbigo – Astorga – Rabanal del Camino – Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – O Cebreiro
Dear Amigos, the three most important pieces of advice I’d give to anyone thinking about walking the Camino are:
- Travel light
- Go slowly
- Learn some Spanish
Do this and wonderful things can happen.
I am writing this to you from O Cebreiro on day 26 of this pilgrimage. We’ve walked just over 150 kms since I last wrote but,if you’ve seen the little video, you’ll know we’ve been busy.
The farther along the Camino Francés we’ve come, the more people we’ve met, the more I’ve sauntered and had roadside conversations, the more I’ve wanted to linger in interesting places.
These stages we’ve just walked are packed with beautiful scenery and charming little villages and towns but I have to say that it is the people we meet along the Way which makes the pilgrimage to Santiago special. I’d like to tell you about some encounters.
León is a beautiful city and I very much enjoyed being back there. However the walk out the following morning seems to go on forever. Two options are waymarked – the route by road or the “Walkers’ Route”, which is four kms longer. We chose the longer and within a few minutes of branching away from the road were in the countryside. Stephen magically produced an apple to feed to a tethered horse, whilst I tried to persuade it to give me a lift. It point blank refused.
A little farther along this stage we saw a bright red shape in the distance. Growing closer we saw what we thought was a worker cutting the grass around a way mark with garden scissors. Nearer still, and we saw it was a young woman with a bicycle and trailer adorned in an unmissable scarlet uniform. This was Leticia “I’m here to assist pilgrims”. She had been employed by the local authority to cycle around, chat to the pilgrims and offer assistance, as well as carry out minor maintenance. The upside of our Camino is that there have been few other pilgrims. The downside for Leticia is that she’s had no pilgrims to assist, or talk to. In the blink of an eye we were captured. In a gush Leticia explained the history of the Camino, the way it passes through her region, what accommodation is available etc etc. She snatched a breath and was about to proceed to describe the historic churches in the area when I spotted another pilgrim approaching. We rudely interrupted her and pointed to the other potential victim. She almost jumped with glee. The lad answered her first barrage of questions and we learned he was Spanish, and had started his Camino that morning in León. This was almost too much for Leticia. She drew a deep breath and at the mention of the words “Codex Calixtinus” we departed.
She hardly noticed. The road was clear ahead and after five minutes we looked back. Still talking. After 10 minutes, still talking. Soon we were out of sight. We never saw either of them again.
Merche, Maxi and their beautifully restored mill
I had heard about a very beautiful country hostal in a converted former mill and I wanted to see it. The owner had been reluctant to take the booking, because this has been such a strange year, but all seemed well when we arrived. The reports I’d heard were true. The place was stunning. The old mill had been purchased 15 years before by Merche and her husband Maxi. They wanted to move from Madrid back to the area because both of their parents lived nearby. As they lovingly restored the mill and built the hostal business they also looked after their parents. As the years passed so did their parents and they decided to sell to go back to Madrid where their children, now with grandchildren, awaited. An American couple walking the Camino came to stay, fell in love with the place and the purchase was agreed. They also agreed to have a “handover season” this summer, so the new owners could learn the ropes and the language. “Because of the virus, life is on hold” said Merche, “the Americans can’t come, we can’t go and there are no pilgrims. But”, she said, “here we are in paradise.”
Paco’ing his tomatoes into Stephen’s rucksack
Next morning Merche made us a hearty cooked breakfast and we bade them farewell. It was cool but already the sun was rising. All around the corn grew tall. As we followed the path round a bend the corn parted and a small man with a weather beaten face and steel grey hair appeared on the road. Had we been in Ireland he could have been a leprechaun. “Hola pilgrims,” he said, “would you like some tomatoes?” We answered, “no thanks” but when he looked crestfallen we said, “well, maybe a few, please.” Delighted he disappeared through the corn and returned a few minutes later with a bucket. In a jiffy Stephen had a rucksack full of tomatoes! We asked if we could take his picture and he proudly agreed, standing to attention. He said his name was Paco, “aged 82”. When we asked how life was in the village, he said, “usually after a couple of hours in the field I go to the bar for coffee and to play cards for a few hours, but since the virus the bar has closed.” I tried to persuade him to come walking with us to Santiago and he laughed out loud. “Buen Camino” he said and he and his bucket promptly disappeared again.
Walking on we realised the importance of what he had said. The bar is the centre of village life in most places, and without it there is no meeting place, no heart of the local community.
Lee in the Albergue Villares de Órbigo
Next in Villares de Órbigo we called in at the albergue owned by our friend Lee Tolman. She’s a lovely person and her new albergue is equally lovely. Lee is a Vegan so we happily left our cargo of tomatoes with her. Lee achieved her dream when she completed the purchase of the albergue. However, just after completing the contract, the State of Emergency was declared and the Camino closed. This year Lee has very few pilgrims staying. Like all of us she’s waiting for better times.
We spent a grand evening in Astorga where we met Internet acquaintances Ron and Anne. Ron walked out a few kilometres next morning to show us the work being done to the Pilgrims Memorial Garden near the Ecce Homo Chapel. Here plaques will be hung commemorating the life of pilgrims who died on the Camino. It’s beautiful and fitting and we remembered our friend and colleague, Fr Gerard, who died three years ago.
We had a lovely walk to Rabanal del Camino where the Confraternity of Saint James has operated an albergue for over thirty years. Next to the albergue there is a Benedictine monastery where we had a meeting arranged with the Prior, Fr Javier, about a possible project. Its turns our Father Javier has a secret, and so does the monastery. It has a grand piano. A seriously good grand piano. It turns out Prior Javier is a concert standard pianist and this was the piano he studied on as a young man. As we discovered he also likes a stiff gin and tonic. Musicians are such a disreputable lot.
Those of you who know Rabanal del Camino will know it’s a wee Camino village. Really just one street. At breakfast in the local hotel Andrés the helpful waiter said, “have you seen our grand piano?” This was almost too much. Two grand pianos in one little village. It was Andrés’s turn to be surprised when the pilgrim sat and played. Not to be outdone he said, “that piano accompanied Frank Sinatra in Madrid.” Gin drinking Priors, two grand pianos and Frank Sinatra. What next?
Next morning we set off to do our duty at the Cruz de Ferro and then onwards on this most beautiful of etapas over the mountain to Ponferrada. It is not to be taken lightly. On the way the route passes famous Camino places such as Foncebadón, El Acebo and Molinaseca and, of course, the very well known albergue at Manjarín run by Tomás Martínez de Paz. Tomás styles himself as a Knight Templar and is utterly genuine in his desire to provide a welcome and basic shelter for pilgrims. Over years he’s put together a ramshackle albergue with no running water or electricity and the beds are mattresses on the floor. Many, many pilgrims have found the experience of staying there memorable. For others it’s just too basic.
Sauntering down the road a while before Manjarín I spotted a figure in the adjacent field. “Tomás?” I shouted. It was the man himself. Having been very ill last year, he’s now restored to full health, but when I asked how things were he raged and ranted. “The virus has closed the albergue and they are bringing the full panoply of powers against me to keep me closed. The Planning people from the town hall are sent by the devil himself.”
As I walked passed the place I could understand why the growing number of neighbours and the Planning Department might be concerned. Is it time up for Tomás and his albergue? Not if he has anything to do with it!
We met up with lovely friends in Ponferrada who presented me with a hip flask full of malt whisky. Just to make sure I made it to Santiago! The last time I walked from this town to Santiago was in the last week of December 2009. It was certainly warmer this time, and the following day we made our way to Villafranca de Bierzo. Turning a corner we were greeted by a shout, “Goodbye Johnnie Walker,” this was Raj from Delhi and María from Madrid. Our paths have crossed several times, and we will meet in Santiago.
I think Villafranca del Bierzo is a lovely place with a lively and attractive square. It is known as “the little Compostela” because the church of Santiago has a Holy Door which opens in the year when the Feast of Saint James falls on a Sunday. It was here that pilgrims in the middle ages who were too sick to complete the journey to Santiago could receive the Plenary Indulgence. This time for me the place took on a special significance when by chance we met a lady with two very lively children who spoke to us in perfect English, despite being obviously Spanish. The story emerged that they were two of six children left through tragedy to be adopted. The six, however, are being kept in touch with each other, still a family, ‘though separate. The goodness of the adoptive parents was very striking.
These stages of the route have a very rural character. We passed a working cheese maker and cows being taken for milking, marshalled by a dog at the front and a man on a mule at the back.
The last time we two intrepid pilgrims ascended to O Cebreiro we were knee deep and thigh deep in snow in places. We could see nothing. In Herrerías we passed the Christmas tree I’d photographed 10 years earlier. Now like us, bigger and stouter! This time instead of mist and snow the beauty of the scenery was revealed in all of its magnificence.
Whereas much of our time on this Camino has been spent alone, because there were no other pilgrims, the ascent to O Cebreiro was like walking on a busy road. Pilgrim after pilgrim passed me as I went slowly up. Then came the horses carrying pilgrims to the top. In the church there was an intimate Pilgrim Mass followed by dinner with a friend who had driven to see us. Then to bed. All is well.
We are now in Galicia. We’ll arrive in Santiago in only 7 days. The end is near… But not too near. There are more adventures ahead.