Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo (23 km)
Thursday, 27 September, 2012
The Camino de Santiago is normally so well-marked with yellow arrows that it is almost impossible to get lost. But when one leaves the Camino to find accommodation, it is sometimes not so easy to find one’s way back, especially in winding streets and bad weather.
When I left the hostel that morning, I was quite disoriented.
Asking younger people or obvious immigrants the way to the Camino, is usually a waste of time; they normally never seem to know. It is the older people who are usually most helpful, and I soon found an old lady who pointed me to the Calle Camino de Santiago. I saw no yellow arrow markings, but in towns and cities they are often not so obvious. After ten minutes I checked directions with an old man, and he assured me that I going the right way to Villafranca.
But I still did not see any yellow arrows, and after half-an-hour I stopped in a bar to have a coffee and a croissant. Customers in the bar assured me that I was going in the right direction, but that I was not on the historic route, which followed a path in the countryside. They suggested that I should follow the road that I was on and that the two routes intersected in about another eight kilometres.
So I was destined to two more hours of heavy traffic through rather grotty industrial suburbs.
Not long after leaving the bar, I came across a young, very attractive pilgrim, looking quite lost and confused. She had made the same mistake like me, so I explained what we had to do to get back on the historic path.
It turned out that she was Italian, on a break from her university, and was walking from León to Santiago, like me. She spoke no English, or none that she would admit to, but she spoke some Spanish, and we chatted quite freely as we walked along.
But when she eventually pulled out a packet of cigarettes, the pretty girl attraction evaporated, and I made an excuse to stop for a while, and let her get well ahead. I never saw her again.
Once back in the countryside, the route undulated through seemingly endless vineyards. But they were vineyards unlike any I had previously come across. There were none of the tidy posts and wires that I was used to seeing. The method of cultivation seemed to let the vines grow wild as a bush, with little or no pruning. But they were heavy with huge bunches of purple grapes, so the method obviously works well.
And at the end of that day’s path, Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the most attractive little towns I had so far come across.
There was a settlement on the site since before the Romans arrived, but it was when the pilgrims started arriving in the Middle Ages, that it flourished. A Cluniac monastery was founded in the eleventh century and it was from the French pilgrims that settled there, that the town obtained its name – ‘French Town’.
And once checked into a room, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the warm sun, drinking beer, and watching old men playing ‘boules‘.
Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce (16 km)
Friday, 28 September, 2012
The weather forecast for Spain showed heavy rain almost everywhere, except for Galicia. Given the damp reputation of Galicia, it seemed almost too good to be true, but once the early cloud dispersed, the sun did indeed shine warmly.
The road from Villafranca led gradually up a narrow valley, winding through the hills, following the course of the Rio Valcarce. Gradually the valley became narrower and narrower, until there was barely room for the river, the footpath and the road. Where there was a village, it was limited to a row of houses on each side of the road. And all one could hear were an occasional passing car, the sound of rushing water and the chatter of birds.
The road ran alongside the river and occasionally it looped under the road and back again a hundred metres later. From one of the bridges I could see large dark trout, seemingly motionless in the current, except for an occasional movement of their tail.
At the village of Trabadelo, I stopped at the bar to have a coffee and a sandwich. The walls of the bar were made of blocks of stone and on every joint and anywhere the stone projected, there were coins, from floor to ceiling. I tried to leave one too, but I could not find a single uncovered spot.
In Vega de Valcarce I had difficulty finding a room. In the end I had to settle for a very basic room in a dilapidated house beside a bar that had seen better days. When I went in, the owner and one of the staff were smoking and playing cards. The ashtray in front of them was filled with cigarette butts.
But the room did not cost me very much.
Sometimes beggars have to take what they can get… 🙂