León to Ponferrada


Thursday-Friday, 20-22 September, 2012

My return trip to León was uneventful; a flight from London (Stansted), a bus to Oveido, and another bus through the mountains to León.  I spent the next day wandering around the old city, sitting in the warm sun, watching people, and sipping cold beer and chilled rioja.

With two or three good books, I could have easily passed a month or more like that.

Basilica de San Isidoro, containing the relics of San Isidoro, and the graves of eleven kings

León to Villadangos del Páramo (20km)

Saturday, 22 September, 2012

I set out just after sunrise and soon arrived at the Hostal de San Marcos.  It was originally built during the twelfth century as a convent, to provide a hospital and shelter to pilgrims.  Over the centuries the building was enlarged and enhanced and today it serves as a Parador – a government-run luxurious hotel.

But it has not always been a place for pilgrims or paying guests.  Between 1936 and 1940, it was used to hold over 7,000 republican and political prisoners at any one time, during the Spanish Civil War, a black era in the history of León.

Convento de San Marcos

For the next two hours I walked along pavements beside busy traffic, eventually wondering if the city would ever end. And then I was suddenly in the countryside, on a stony path, a little removed from a busy road. But the noise of traffic never ceased all day.

On the way I passed two older people. By their dress and accent in Spanish, I think they may have been English.  They were in terrible shape. The old woman was very heavy and seemed to have very bad blisters. The man was emaciated and walked ahead, but was struggling to get one foot past the other. It was only the second time in 26 days that I have ever passed anyone.

And yet I would bet that those two decrepit oldies made it to Santiago; their determination and faith was written all over their faces. They positively glowed.

And tonight in the only hostel in the village, the pilgrim’s menu and my favourite food: garbanzos, cordero and natilla.


Villadangos del Páramo to Astorga (29km)

Sunday, 23 September, 2012

It was a day of varied weather. When I set off it was cool, but pleasant. Then the wind struck, dark clouds surged overhead and the rain started. There was nowhere to shelter and for more than an hour I was buffeted and drenched in a downpour.

But then the sun came out and I quickly dried out in the gale force winds. And all day the surface underfoot consisted of loose stones. It was not easy walking for me.

At about halfway the path crossed the river Órbigo on a stone bridge of many arches, the origins of which date back to Roman times. And on the river banks a jousting field that Cervantes mentioned in Don Quixote.

Roman bridge with multiple arches, leading into Hospital de Órbigo

Eventually I trudged up the hill into Astorga and found a very comfortable room on the main plaza.

Asotorga, with the snow-covered mountains in the background

Once showered, I went to a nearby bar for a beer and there came across a sobering sight that I shall never forget as long as I live. A clean dressed but very laid-back bearded guy wheeled a pram into the bar. In the pram lay a clean-shaven well-dressed man with no legs and only one very deformed arm. The barman knew them and gave the bearded guy a bottle of beer, which he patiently held for his friend, while he sipped on it. They talked, they laughed and despite his awful handicap, the man seemed to be enjoying the moment. When I left, I smiled at him and he smiled back.

Later in the evening I went back to the same bar to talk to the barman about the strange couple. I found him having a break. He told me that the two men were not family, but friends and lived nearby. He said they came to the bar nearly every day. He did not know their history, but they were both locals.

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways.

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino (21kms)

Monday, 24 September, 2012

When I went to bed that previous night, I expected to wake up in the morning to sore feet and an aching knee; I was not disappointed.

I also expected a dark and wet greeting, but was pleasantly surprised to see the sun and blue sky. So with a light heart and an aching leg, I slowly set off past the very impressive church, and the Gaudi-designed palace, to the next village, where I planned to have breakfast.

El Cathedral de Astorga
Episcopal Palace of Astorga, designed by Gaudí

And there I ate the best tortilla I had ever had, and I drank a coffee that Italians would die for. If not quite recovered in body, my spirit was soaring. And the countryside was beautiful. It felt so good to be alive.

After a long but pleasant walk, I eventually arrived in Rabanal del Camino, on a hill, as are so many of the villages.

I found a room in a charming and well-preserved hostel, that reminded me very much of the inn in Paolo Coehlo’s novel, ‘The Devil and Miss Prym’. Every time a man entered the bar, I expected it to be Him.


And the dinner was an honest and filling country meal. I felt that I would sleep well that night. I had a room with a skylight and I had already seen the clouds swishing by. Later I hoped that I would see the stars from my bed.

There was very little light pollution in that village.

Rabanal del Camino to El Acebo (16km)

Tuesday, 25 September, 2012

I awoke to the sound of raindrops plopping ominously on the skylight. After a short time they stopped, but I felt uneasy. With an ascent to over 1500 m and me travelling light, with no heavy waterproof clothing, bad weather was the last thing I wished for.

But that was exactly what I got. It was dark when I started out and I had gone no further than 400 m up the path, when it started. Light at first, it steadily became heavier, and the wind grew in force. The path was rocky and steep in parts and slowly but surely the rain and cold started to penetrate my meagre defences. And the path went from being wet and slippery to being a rapidly moving stream on the slopes and small lakes in the hollows; my boots and socks soon became saturated and my feet became quite cold.

And the heavy rain and gale-force wind continued, without relenting, for the rest of the day.

I passed over the col and its famed cross, with only a brief stop to read the history dating back to Roman times, and to take a quick photo from under a sheltering tree; I was starting to get quite uncomfortable, and decided to stop at the next village, and abandon my previous ambitious objective for the day.

La Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on El Camino Francés

But my bad leg just would not do as I wished and seemed to have a mind of its own; I could only navigate the rocky steep descent to El Acebo, in the river of mud, with great care.

The village of El Acebo

But in the village the only apparent accommodation had already been taken.  Luckily I was able to find a room in a little Rural Hostal, in a side street.  There were only three rooms and I was fortunate to get the last one.

After a hot shower and a nap, I felt completely revived. And a delicious vegetarian dinner, cooked by the delightfully hospitable host, capped off a challenging day.

During the dinner I learned that a lot of people had suffered much more that day than I; some had arrived verging on hypothermia.

I slept like baby that night.

El Acebo to Ponferrada (17km)

Wednesday, 26 September, 2012

I awoke in the dark to the sound of much barking. At breakfast I learned that the owner had four dogs; they slept outside in all weathers and kept the wild pigs at bay, otherwise the vegetable gardens and orchards would be destroyed.

When I left after breakfast, two of the dogs came up to me and gently licked my hand and wagged their tails; they did not seem vicious enough to attack an aggressive hungry wild pig.

For four hours, I slowly descended from the mountain, until I crossed the river into the beautiful village of Molinaseca.

The bridge into Molinaseca
Entering Molinseca with the yellow arrow indication the way

From Molinaseca the remainder of the walk was on asphalt.

During the Roman period, Ponferrada was the centre of the largest mining centre in the Empire, producing gold and other minerals.  In latter days, coal and tungsten were extracted, but in the 1980s the mining industry collapsed, and today the town survives on agriculture and tourism.

In the centre of the town stands the Castillo de los Templarios, the restored Templar castle, originally built during the 12th century. The Templar knights provided protection for the pilgrims, and escorted them through the region.

The Templar Castle in Ponferrada

Just after I passed the castle, it started to rain once more, but luckily I soon found a very comfortable and not expensive room, in a hostel beside the market.

And then went for lunch in the bar next door.


Burgos to León

Burgos to Homillos del Camino (19km)

Monday, 9 April, 2012

I knew it was not going to be a good day, when I got out of bed a little too enthusiastically, and felt a sharp pain in the inside of my good knee.  I struggled on the flights of steps that led up to the street behind the cathedral.

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For some time, I limped along very slowly and when I finally arrived at the edge of the city, I sat down on a bench opposite a hospital, feeling quite sorry for myself. I hesitated to continue, not wanting to do any more damage to my knee.  But I eventually decided to persist with the walk, and when an hour or so later the first village came into sight, I realised that the pain had stopped, without my being aware.  I took it very carefully for the rest of the day.

The weather was glorious; blue sky, mild, with a soft breeze. The hills were long, but gentle. It was a perfect day for walking.

And before I knew it my objective for the day lay below: Homillos del Campo.


It was a really small village; there was one street, a church that was locked, a tiny bar and a Casa Rural, at which I was the only guest. I had the beautiful house all to myself.

I had some drinks and dinner at the bar, where I had the most delicious bowl of lentejas and an animated conversation with the owner, who was barman, chef and waiter.

And it was followed by a solid night’s sleep, to be woken in the dawn light by a wonderful chorus of bird song.

Leaving the window open at night can bring such dividends in the morning.


Homillos del Camino to Castrojeris (20km)

Tuesday, 10 April, 2012

So this morning I set off in high spirits, with no apparent repetition of yesterday’s knee pain. But the spring in my step soon disappeared when I emerged from the shelter of the village, into the teeth of a strong headwind.


And as I climbed out of the valley the wind increased in force and for the next six hours I was buffeted and jerked around like a demented puppet.

And there was absolutely no shelter whatsoever.

It was with much relief when I finally hobbled into Castrojeris, where I found a room with no problem.


And the local food and wine were excellent.



Catrojeris to Frómista (26km)

Wednesday, 11 April, 2012

I had another challenging day. Once on the open plain, one met the full force of the wind. And thirty minutes later there was a steep climb diagonally up the side of an impressive ridge. The climb was not difficult, just steep and long and led to a wide table top, before another steep descent to a landscape, flat as far as one could see.


And the wind did not relent. It roared and howled in one’s ears, like an angry Irish housewife. There was no escape; nowhere to shelter, except for two small villages en route.

And then the threatened rain started, not long after an old farmer working in his field assured me that there would be no rain that day, but the next day for sure.

For the next two hours I plodded along, accompanied by both wind and rain, until I finally arrived in Frómista, very wet and tired.

San Martín de Tours, built in Romanesque style in the early 11th century, and restored in the late 1800s

But with a comfortable room and after an excellent meal, I felt quite revived.

The wine was included with the meal


Frómista to Carrión de los Condes (22km)

Thursday, 12 April, 2012

So the farmer of the previous day really got his weather forecast quite wrong. According to him it should have rained, instead of turning out to be a beautiful spring day. If he ever tires of farming, he would have a job waiting for him at the BBC weather desk.

Today the path was unrelenting; straight and gently undulating for all of its 22km. It ran alongside the local road, separated from it by a ditch. The path was formed of stones sunk into sun-baked clay. Unfortunately, the stones protruded and after an hour my bad foot ached and throbbed with each step, and my good foot started to whinge in sympathy. At times El Camino can be a real test of perseverance.

From the crest of some of the slopes, one could see for two or three kilometres in either direction. That day for the first time, I noticed that the bounce had gone from the step of many pilgrims. They did not pass me cheerfully. Many limped or had their heads down, moving painfully, struggling with blisters, knees, shin splints, hips; the romance and adventure had receded and the personal struggle to keep going had taken front stage. Some will give up, perhaps returning one day in the future, with fresh enthusiasm and healthier bodies, to resume where they left off. Most will continue with their struggle all the way to Santiago de Compostella.

For those who persist, the reward will be theirs.


Carrion de los Condes to Calcidilla de la Cueza (17km)

Friday, 13 April, 2012

When I awoke the next morning and looked out the window, the sky was clear and turning blue. And when I left the village the sun was shining and there was not a cloud to be seen. It was another perfect day for walking.  And the birds were singing their heads off, oblivious of my presence. I could have almost touched some of them, as they clung to solitary branches by the path. They seemed to have no fear of pilgrims.

But the wind had slept in that morning, and when aroused felt quite guilty, and started rushing hither and thither, bumping into everything it encountered. And the nosey clouds rushed over from the horizon to see what was happening. So what had promised to be a gentle stroll, became another head down leaning forward sort of day.

It was with some relief that the tiny village of Calcidilla de la Cueza finally came into view.



Calcidilla de la Cueza to Sahagún de Campos (23km)

Saturday, 14 April, 2012

Walking against the never ceasing wind across the seemingly vast plain was almost hypnotic. One could walk for hours, but seem to be remaining on the spot; a feature on the horizon remains what it was when the day started; a feature on the horizon.

And yet one knew that there were villages between here and there, but where were they? By then one of them should have been in sight. And on one plodded until suddenly, with no prior warning, there it was, a little village nestling below in a hollow in the plain.

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As one descended, the wind continued its frenetic rush above, as if it had more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere; to the mighty wind an insignificant little village was not worth the expending of time and energy to descend. And I made my way down to the welcome shelter of the village bar and a coffee and a slice of tortilla, with a chunk of bread. And so once revived, I ascended once more to the fray.

And when mid-afternoon arrived, I stopped at the first village with accommodation; by then I will usually have reached my limit for the day.

And so for day after day the routine repeats, the wind continues to buffet everything in its path.  Occasionally it rains.

And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I have been moving across the map of Spain.


Sahagún to El Burgo Ranero (18km)

Sunday, 15 April, 2012

Sahagún reached it greatest splendour during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1047-1109), as evidenced by a plethora of ancient buildings.  In the 14th century, it housed a university.

Church of San Tirso

On the way out of Sahagún, one crosses a Roman bridge over the river Cea.



El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas (19km)

Monday, 16 April, 2012

I always like to leave the curtains open when I go to bed, so that I can awaken to first light, but it is not often that I can lie in bed and watch the rising sun. I remember once witnessing the rising of a huge orange sun as I crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early morning,when I had set out on one of my crazy marathon walks.  In El Burgo Ranero I woke to the rising sun and I did not have to move a muscle to see it, apart from my eye lids.

And I felt incredibly at peace, totally relaxed, a feeling that I only once before recall experiencing, and that was when I was having a stroke. It apparently happens when the logical side of the brain switches off and the sensual side becomes dominant.

I wondered if I will feel so peaceful when I have another stroke. My sight was fine and all I had to do was to raise both my arms to be reassured. But I felt no panic whatsoever and lay without moving, enjoying the sensations. Eventually the logical side woke up. I raised my arms and another day began.

I walked relaxed all day, past a huge wading bird, past yet another wayside memorial for a pilgrimage fatality – I have lost count as to how many memorials I have seen.

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Another helping of tortilla and a beer served by an attractive girl in pink top and tight pants saw me through to the ancient village of Mansilla de las Mulas.


Mansilla de las Mulas to Léon (19km)

Tuesday, 17 April, 2012

The first view of Léon was rather deceiving.  It looked as if I was almost there.


But there remained much more than an hour of suburbs and city streets before arriving at the central plaza, with its magnificent cathedral.

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The Way of Saint James

Bayonne, September 2011

James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and together with his brother John, was one of the first disciples of Jesus. Legend states that after the crucifixion of Jesus, he went to Spain to preach and convert. Later he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and subsequently he returned to Judea.  He died there in 44AD, decapitated under the orders of Herod Agrippa, the then King of the Jews.  After his death, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where he was buried at a place somewhere inland.

The legend claims that in 813 his tomb was discovered in the town of Iria Flavia – today known as Padrón. Bishop Theodomira of Iria was informed, and after he told King Alfonso II of the discovery, the remains were moved to Compostela, for ostensibly political and religious reasons.  A basilica was built over the tomb, and over the centuries this building evolved to the current cathedral.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

By the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela had become an important destination for Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins. It ranks equal with the other two important Christian pilgrimage destinations – Jerusalem and Rome.

In the early days of the pilgrimages to Santiago, much of Spain and Portugal was still under the control of the Muslim Moors, who were not finally defeated until 1492.  In that era, the majority of the pilgrims were French.

For pilgrims, their route started from their door.  They would make their way to the nearest town or city and join other pilgrims, for there was safety in numbers.  One of the major staging posts was Paris and the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie, close to Nôtre-Dame, on the north side of the Seine.  Today only the church tower remains.  And Le Puy-en-Velay was the main gathering point for pilgrims from the south and east.

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The principal European pilgrim routes

As trickles form a stream, before joining to a tributary, and finally flowing into the main river, the pilgrims converged on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for what was the most convenient crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. From there they went on to Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and finally to Santiago de Compostela.  And along the route hospitals and hostels sprang up, many of which still exist today.

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The main towns on the Camino Francés

With the exception of recent years, undertaking the pilgrimage was not without risk.  Not only were pilgrims liable to be attacked and robbed by bandits, but disease was rife, and many died on the way.  Indeed, even today, though the route is quite safe and secure, there are still casualties, mainly due to physical exertion or from exhaustion in the prevalent heat of the summer months.  One can observe many crosses and memorials by the path.

And one must not forget that in all but modern times, the pilgrimage was only half completed upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela; there were no buses, trains and planes to take one home, and the arduous outward journey had to be repeated in reverse.

During periods of war or plague, the number of pilgrims would have been greatly reduced, although some would have persisted, by taking the more challenging northern route that follows the coast.

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Formerly the pilgrimage was undertaken for purely religious reasons, but for most people today, it has evolved to being a leisure activity.  Modern pilgrims may be participating for the physical challenge, for the exercise, the fresh air, the experience, the opportunity for solitude, to meet other like-minded people, or for a host of other reasons.  Some may complete the journey from end to end in one go, while others, who may have limited time or resources, progress in sections over a period of years.

Although most people complete the pilgrimage on foot, there is an increasing number of cyclists, and I even saw some people running from village to village.  There were several accompanied by a dog and I was even passed by a couple on horseback.

Not everyone carries their possessions on their back.  There are many who contract a specialist tourist agency to reserve accommodation along the route, and arrange for their bags to be transported from place to place. And at the other end of the scale there are the low-cost options of the albergues, with dormitories and the local restaurants with their ‘cheap and cheerful’ three-course pilgrim menu. As one Spanish family told me – ‘It can be a quite inexpensive holiday’.

Are many participating for purely religious reasons?  I suspect that these days they are very much in the minority. And perhaps this is reflected in the fact that, apart from being open during their occasional mass, most churches and chapels in the villages are shuttered and locked.

Does the crypt under the cathedral in Santiago actually contain the remains of Saint James?  Until the tomb is opened or x-rayed to reveal a decapitated skeleton, and I suspect that the Church will remain reluctant to ever give permission, it will have to remain a matter of individual faith.

But does the veracity of the legend really matter?  Every year thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and all nationalities walk for weeks for hundreds of miles across a beautiful landscape in all weathers.  That is surely no bad thing.

And if some of them benefit spiritually, that’s their bonus.