Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierz
We wake early and pack ready for the day. There is a 23km walk ahead of us today and we still don’t know how to get out of town.
We seek guidance from the desk clerk as we leave the Hotel Temple and she indicates we cross the bridge near the hotel and then turn left at the museum on the other side. Looking back at maps this direct route would have had us rejoin the Way at the town of Camponaraya however Pam and I are not confident we are going in the right direction without seeing relatively constant scallop shell markers or yellow arrows.
We eat a quick breakfast of fruit and painkillers (for me) in the park across the road and then set out as directed.
We are not confident in the desk clerk’s directions as we can not see any Camino markers.
We seek guidance from some locals in the early morning, never a good move. They seem to point us in random directions and we are none the wiser about which way to go. We spot two young pilgrim girls who are wandering lost as well, they seek information from a newsstand and wave for us to follow them.
We walk for a couple of kilometers back through the streets of Ponferrada until we finally come to a large roundabout with a stream of pilgrims circling its outer edge.
The lonely pilgrim is a lost pilgrim and we are back with the flock. Safety in numbers.
From the roundabout looking back to the city we see fog gathering in the valley where the town sits.
As we join the roundabout Jo, Amr and Rosie greet us from behind, they have also walked some distance to get out of town.
From the roundabout the Way follows a tree lined street and then does a quick right left and then goes under an archway in a building and past a small church. From there for a short distance the Way passes along roads with very affluent looking homes on large blocks.
Edges and sections of Spanish towns are very clearly defined, it is like walking through an imaginary pane of glass that happens to be mirrored on both sides.
We cross a little bare gully and suddenly there are units everywhere, we pass a derelict hotel and walk through a highway underpass, suddenly there are small farms all about us.
We press on, just as we come into Fuentes Nuevas we run into Susan and Chris who we had met in Reigo de Ambros. Susan is having trouble with her hip and is limping however she is keeping on keeping on and seems determined to keep on walking.
They are resting beside a Camino icon, the church Iglesia San Blas, where a mural devoted to pilgrims is painted on an outer wall. Above this church on a utility pole is an enormous stork nest. Susan and Chris decide to stop for a while in a cafe and we press on towards Camponaraya.
Just on the outskirts of Fuentes Nuevas we decide to stop and rest for a drink. The cafe we stop at is very busy and we are joined at our table by a woman from Canada named Sue.
It turns out Sue is lovely (as are so many other Canadians we have met on the Way), retired, well travelled and walking the Camino alone. We also see a lady called Diana (who we have been playing Wacky Races with for many days) now has a huge bruise over her right eye. Apparently she had fallen badly landing on her face but luckily had not broken any bones.
We leave Sue and continue walking towards Camponaraya as mist begins to settle around us and we soon are ploughing through heavy fog that swirls in our wake.
Sue also turns out to be a fast walker who passes us again and leaves us behind in the mist soon after we leave.
We walk in the fog past farms and orchards, we see evidence of abandoned sub-division where house blocks are surrounded by walls of stone with no buildings within the walls.
The Way is low and flat and the fog thickens as we continue walking towards Camponaraya along the quiet country bitumen road.
Camponaraya is a largish town spread on both sides of the major road. We pass through without stopping and the Way diverts from the bitumen soon after passing the major highway via an overpass and then winding through hills covered in grape vines.
It is a Sunday as we walk, all the shops are closed however the vineyards are busy. It is harvest time in the grape fields and we see pickers walking the vine rows in groups everywhere as tractors pulling trailers full of dark grapes continually pass us in the fog.
We walk over a series of hills full of activity. In the last valley we come across a vendor who has a stand selling handmade leather goods such as pouches for pilgrims. He looks to be doing a reasonable trade however Pam and I are not interested in anything that would make our packs heavier and move on without pause.
As we walk towards the hill in the distance the fog begins to lift and by the time we crest this rise seeing the large village Cacabelos in the valley below the sun is beating down on our heads.
We don our stylish headgear and walk on down the slope towards Cacabelos.
Suddenly in addition to the tractors pulling trailers of grapes we begin to be passed by cyclist after cyclist who are obviously participating in some race.
This is the most activity we have ever seen in the normally sleepy Spanish countryside and we are a little nonplussed as we continue.
We descend towards Cacabelos with the last twisting part of the road quite steep and walk the long street through the centre of town. We stop at a tiny church which is offering to stamp credentials and have lunch at a cafe soon after.
Walking through the middle of town we come across the centre of activity. There is a race on in the area this Sunday. Cyclists, runners and walkers all participating around a large course. There are two inflatable jumping castles full of kids at the start/finish line and the town is busy with the influx of people.
We are in our own slow race, the race to reach Santiago relatively unscathed. There are no prizes or ribbons (at least not in the kingdom of man) other than the knowledge you have completed.
We cross the Rio Cua where the local police are directing traffic, racers and pilgrims and walk uphill towards Las Angustias and then Pieros. We pass a pilgrim fountain at Pieros and pause to pour water over our head and neck to counter the now considerable heat.
Blue sky, hot sun and minimal cloud is now the order of the day.
The stretch between Pieros and Villafranca del Bierzo is long with no rest points between. Half of this stretch is on the shoulder of the bitumen road as it rolls over the hills before we turn right and head up a gravel road that passes what we assume is a sculptors studio in an open shed.
Large white statues line each side of the short drive from the locked gate to the studio which lies at the base of a hill topped by a square bright white house standing between two large trees.
The contrast of the greens, white and blue sky is magnificent and I do my best to capture the moment digitally.
I really prefer my eyesight and memory however these are much harder to share.
The sculptors studio lies at the base of a steep long uphill and Pam is starting to fade by the top. The combination of heat, slope and fatigue is really slowing her down and she begins to become annoyed by my attempts to buoy her spirits.
‘Nearly there babe’ is only effective for the first few hills and ‘it’s just around the next corner’ she has already played to me many times.
Despite all this we are glad the fog has lifted for the countryside around us is beautiful even though I am becoming nervous by the series of mountains folding their ridgy arms around us as we walk on.
Finally we have reached the last crest and walk down towards Villafranca del Beirzo. We pass a rest stop that is simply a soft drink/beer dispenser in front of a building and continue to wind down the road.
Villafranca del Beirzo lies in the valley of the Rio Burbia and the street into town is steep, cobblestone and leads directly to the Palacio de los Marqueses de Villafrance which is a large castle with dark tile covered spires at each corner.
We head into the main part of town down the steep cobblestone street past a bronze bust and stop at a bar to rest and regroup.
The barman gives us directions to our hotel and we walk back up the steep street and follow the bitumen main road to a roundabout where we turn left and walk the distance to our hotel.
We do our quick dry minimum washing in the shower, rest and head back into town. We find a shortcut between the hotel that takes us straight past the huge castle and walk back up to the church Iglesia de Santiago which lies on the Camino entry to Villafranca. This church is known for the Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness). In medieval times pilgrims too ill to continue on to Santiago de Compostela could walk through the doorway and gain the same indulgences as a pilgrim who had completed the full journey.
Pam is dismissive of my claim that ‘now I don’t have to walk any further’ and tells me I will walk there on bloody stumps if needs be.
She is a harsh task mistress.
We head back into the main part of town for dinner at one of the many restaurants in the main square then wander back to our hotel under the clear night sky.
Mountain ranges tower in front of us, waiting ominously in the dark.
Pam and Mick