Rabanal del Camino – Riego de Ambro
Today we pass the highest point on the Camino (the La Cruz de Ferro lies 1504m above sea level)
Pam at the very start of our journey deliberately lied to me stating the highest point was between St John Pied de Port and Roncesvalles (1455m above sea level) which we passed walking on clouds on the second day of our Camino.
She has since told me that she committed this fraud to prevent me from being discouraged early in the trip. I would like to blame her, however a minimum of preparation on my part would have set me straight.
Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread and Pam had me well and truly fooled.
Of course those who know me, know this is not that hard to do.
We wake prior to dawn and walk from our room to the main Albergue with the sun still beneath the Eastern horizon, the children from the church last night have slept at and are having breakfast at the same Albergue. We had seen many mattresses laid on the floor yesterday and wondered what they were for.
The children are happy and animated. Youth is so infectious, it is hard to remain curmudgeonly even at such an early hour.
We have a light breakfast awash with the sound of laughter and set off up the road.
A few hundred meters up the road I realise that we are not on the official Way, I can see pilgrims above us on the hillside. Pam is concerned we will be lost however I am convinced the Way and the bitumen road we are walking will meet again soon.
A few hundred meters on my prediction turns out to be accurate, the Way crosses the bitumen road, walkers turn left onto the narrow gravel path, cyclists continue up the bitumen road (at least I hope they will, I am becoming bitter about cyclists).
Onwards and upwards again. After the flatness of the Meseta we are both perversely happy to see real hills and mountains ahead of us. We both feel energized walking as the cool mountain air spills downwards into our lungs.
‘Onwards and ever upwards’ I sing my battle hymn again as the inclines steepen. Even with my bung knee I am much fitter and stronger than the early Camino days and we surge onwards stopping only for photos rather than breath.
Foncebadon is a tumbledown village, other pilgrims stop to rest however Pam and I keep on keeping on.
Many villages we have passed through have buildings falling into disrepair. The process always seems to begin with the roof. Plants begin to grow on the roof tiles and push tiles apart with their roots. Water then enters allowing plants and moss to attack the walls. Walls made of stone and concrete are more resilient than the walls commonly made from stone and mud however given time enough Nature grinds all of man’s work back unto the dust from whence it came.
Personally this process fills me with hope each time I see it, for I find belief in the ‘permanence’ of our society perverse in the extreme.
Each to their own. The last verse of my poem Parrish Sky runs through my head.
For I stand under a Parrish Sky
Each breath drawn sweeter than the last
I know; faced with infinity
Triumph turns to dust
I know; intimately
My fate is to cease
I shall be into
Violet violence released.
Onward and ever upwards we tread, sweet cool mountain air charging our lungs and lifting our souls. Our path winds through scenery fit for postcard wonderlands with the meagre capabilities of the iphone doing it’s best to keep up.
Surprisingly soon we have arrived at La Cruz de Ferro which is the site of a large iron cross atop a tall wooden pole held erect by the stone cairn beneath.
La Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) is a Camino icon and pilgrims throughout the ages have deposited stones picked up locally or transported from their homes at it’s base. Over time this deposition has grown very high and is apparently removed periodically for safety. The wooden pole bearing the cross is festooned with personal mementos like children’s shoes, scraps of clothing, paper covered in personal messages and other items such as photographs.
We pause for some time here, I take a photo of Pam by the cross standing atop the stone cairn.
There is a large sundial to the side of the cross enabling pilgrims to stand at its centre and tell time from the shadow cast by their body.
Further away from the cross is a small church with pilgrims walking around it.
The sky is blue above and the sun blazing down, we take a short rest in a shelter that lies just down from the La Cruz de Ferro.
As we sit down I notice a Spanish man, who has been a Wacky Races contestant since Astorga, climb the stone cairn to place some personal memento on the wooden pole of the La Cruz de Ferro. He stands with one hand on the pole and bows his head in prayer.
There is a young man with beautiful small white dog sitting in the shelter as we arrive. Pam asks if she ‘can pat the dog’ and on obtaining permission calls ‘here boy’. The young man reprimands her ‘she is a lady dog’ as Pam pats her.
We have seen a couple of people with dogs on the Camino in the last few days, one on a bicycle outfitted with a small trailer that had a hutch for the dog to rest in and another walking in the opposite direction to us. We stopped to chat to the pilgrim walking the reverse Way who tells us the dog was a stray that he has ‘inherited’ in Lisbon. They have walked the Lisbon Camino together and now they are walking from Santiago to St Jean Pied de Port.
Pam says ‘she wishes that we had our dog Ivan with us’ and he tells us it is hard traveling with a dog as you cannot sleep in Albergues or hotels and this essentially means you have to camp.
Looks like you are staying with Lexi Ivan.
It turns out our new friend is from the Czech Republic and his dog is four years old and is his constant companion on the Camino. He is camping at night and carries his tent. We chat for a while, he advises us to go to the Czech Republic starting with Prague and chat to locals regarding good places to go from there. He also mentions that he has done the Tour du Mont Blanc in France and advises us to do the same. Pam’s eyes light up like a pinball machine at the thought of more walking tours.
Our day one companion Anita had also walked the Tour du Mont Blanc and had advised us to do the same. After two recommendations I can see the gears grinding in Pam’s mind about how to convince me that we will also be doing this 170km mountainous walk. My knees wail at the thought.
We get ready to keep moving over today’s mountain, as we leave the shelter the Spanish pilgrim is still deep in prayer.
We set off down the slope from the La Cruz de Ferro, ahead of us I see a TV broadcast antenna on top of a crest even higher than the one we have just climbed and I make a bet with Pam that we will find ourselves walking there soon. She is adamant that we have passed the highest point for the day and Camino already and we agree on the terms of the bet.
The downhill continues curving to the right, away from the TV antenna. Our Czech friend passes us chatting to a young woman. His little dog bounces ahead, turning back to make sure he is keeping up ever few seconds. Pam cracks wise that it is another instant ‘Camino Romance’ judging from the body language.
We continue heading down until the tiny hamlet Manjarin where we stop at a colourful pilgrim’s rest stop for food and drink.
The outside of the establishment is swirling with dogs and cats winding their way through our legs. The facility is busy inside so we decide to make do with water and press on. Our Czech friend stays behind chatting to the girl.
From Manjarin the Way swings back to the left and soon we are heading straight back towards the TV tower and climbing steeply again along the narrow path. Soon I will be collecting on our bet.
We pass the ridge with the TV antenna and surrounding buildings wired off, ahead I see an even higher crest with a small stone cairn at its top and I ask Pam if she would like to go double or nothing.
She is is wise to the fact that I can see the path ahead over the bushes blocking her view and she declines.
In fact the Way does not cross this highest peak but circles around it to the left. When we come to the base of this last rise we see a steep rough gravel path to the top. Despite the pain in my knee I am keen to climb to the top as a I can see no higher points on the mountain ridge where we are walking.
We scramble to the top, this last slope is genuinely steep and we are puffing by the time we get to the top.
There is an older couple sitting on rocks in the shade beneath the small stone cairn that has been constructed by pilgrims on the very highest point of the crest.
We chat for a little while, they are from Ireland however they now live in England. They know Brisbane as they have a good friend they have visited who lives on Stradbroke Island. They advise us that the rocks on which the stone cairn has been raised is in fact the very highest point on the Camino Way.
They bid us goodbye and set off downhill with the parting words ‘enjoy the silence’.
Wise words indeed, for the view is spectacular. We can see the city Ponferrada, where we plan to walk tomorrow, spread out in the distance below us. Small villages lie underneath us to the left and right. We are level with the clouds spilling over even higher mountain ridges than the one the Camino travels and can see far in all directions.
No one else has followed us up the steep last incline to the top and the Way is also below us. We take pictures of each other holding up the sky standing on the rocky ridge next to the stone cairn.
We enjoy the silence.
From the highest point the only way is down, so down we go.
Down eroded rocky ankle turning rough paths full of loose stones and scree.
As we cross the bitumen road that winds its way over the mountain our Czech friend passes us, his little white companion bouncing along about four meters in front of him, turning back adoringly often. He says ‘she is the perfect pacemaker’ as he strides by us loping ahead on youthful knees.
My knees are feeling anything but youthful and Pam and I make our way down, down, down much more carefully.
We finally stop at El Acebo for a rest and some food. Our Czech friend is chatting to another girl with his canine companion asleep on his lap. That little white dog is a chick magnet.
While we sit eating in El Acebo a couple of buses pass through the town. The street is so narrow and winding the buses must creep forward slowly with the drivers looking in all directions to make sure the top of the bus does not knock off balconies jutting from walls.
We still have another three kilometers of steep downhill torture lying between El Acebo and our days destination Riego de Ambros so as soon as we have finished eating we set off again.
The decline intensifies and I take many photos, none of which give a true sense of how steep and rough the path is.
Finally we arrive, our limbs still intact. Riego de Ambros is a small village we have seen from far above earlier in the day. It is a tidy prosperous village full of neat black slate tile roofed buildings and we make our way down the concrete street through the centre of town and then follow the signs up to the pension where we are staying tonight.
We are met at the door by an older Spanish lady who checks us into our room which is spacious and clean and has a balcony from where the entire town can be seen below.
The pension has a washing machine and clothes line for which we are grateful as we did not do any washing the previous day. We have two sets of marching clothes and have to do washing at least every second day.
The proprietor shows me how to use the washing machine and we have a conversation of gestures accompanied by rudimentary English and Spanish from which I work out that she has a daughter who was married in and lives in Melbourne, that she loves Australia and has been there to visit her daughter.
She is a complete sweetheart and takes me up to where she lives in the building and shows me photos of her family and of her daughter on her wedding day in Melbourne.
I return to our room and once we have judged the washing machine would have finished we go to hang out the clothes only to find the proprietor has already nearly finished doing so.
We are all smiles and ‘gracias’ and show her a picture of Lexi on the iphone.
Our washing completed we head to the only bar/restaurant in town where we meet two American ladies Susan and Chris who are also staying at the pension.
We drink and chat and laugh at the bartender having to run out and chase sheep who have wandered down from the hillside out of the grounds until it starts to rain.
Pam runs off to take in the washing. I am running nowhere by this time in the day.
When Pam returns we have a pilgrims meal at the same establishment. After dinner is finished a fellow Aussie named John, who ate alone, comes over and sits with us sharing the last of his Vino. John lives in WA and we spend an enjoyable evening remainder talking, laughing and swapping tales of our homeland.
Rain is still falling lightly as we stagger hand in hand back to the pension.
I forecast steep slopes full of slippery rocks in our near future.
Mick & Pam