Day 32 – O’Cebreiro to Triacastela

It was great to see the sun when I got out of bed in O’Cebreiro this morning! Was finally able to get some great pictures of this ancient village and surrounding landscape.

As of yesterday, I am now officially in the Galacia region which has has some distinct Celtic influences. My walk to Triacastela was fairly easy today. I had a little bit of climbing but the trek was mostly downhill.

On the way down from the heights of O’Cebreiro, I passed by the Monumento do Peregrino (pilgrim monument) on a peak with a nice vista. As I continued walking, I was reminded of a point I made on Day 2 regarding the Camino as an easement. Pilgrims encountered cows at several points on the trail today as farmers were driving small herds between paddocks. At one point, a group of us was compelled to yield the right-of-way to a tractor heading in the opposite direction on the trail.

I am now the small village of Triacastela and tomorrow I head to Sarria which is a popular starting point for pilgrims seeking earn the “Compostela” certificate with the shortest possible to Santiago.

Day 31 – Villafranca to O’Cebreiro

What an amazing day on the Camino!

I knew today would be tough since the hike called for 12 miles of relatively flat trekking followed by a 6 mile climb to one of the highest peaks on the Camino to the village of O’Cebreiro. The challenging hike was complicated by 5-6 rain showers throughout the day with a large cloud actually enveloping O’Cebreiro by late afternoon adding an eerie quality to this ancient village.

I had the good fortune to connect with a pilgrim early in the walk which made the day go very quickly. Nate is a recent graduate from a Big East college who I learned is entering the Dominican order as a “novice” in August.  The unbelievable coincidence is that he will be doing his first year in a parish about 3 miles from where I live in Cincinnati! We ended up walking together all day and having dinner in O’Cebreiro. Happened to run into Cory and Felix who I have not seen since Leon which was extra special. One final note – I have to give Nate bonus pilgrim points for walking the ~19 miles today in sandals; quite a feat given the steep trail and persistent presence of horse manure on the trail over the last 6 miles! :-s

I had another first on the Camino today. I met a young couple from the US walking the Camino with their baby son! The baby appears to be about a year old and is a chunky little guy. His father is carrying him, while his mother carries a pack with their collective belongings. Wow!

Also was able to attend the pilgrim mass at the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real — one of oldest churches on the Camino tracing its construction to the 9th century. Readings were done by pilgrims in multiple languages and the young priest even had his homily reading in English! At the end of mass, the priest had about 50 pilgrims surround the alter where he gave us blessing/hug and nice Camino keepsake – very touching and memorable.

My only disappointment from the day is that I have reached my third significant peak on the Camino under foggy conditions. Perhaps tomorrow will provide an opportunity for better pictures on my way to Triacastela.

Day 29 & 30 – Ponferrada to Villafranca

I fell a bit behind on my blog so I am consolidating days 29 and 30  with today’s entry.

Day 29’s walk was uneventful and mostly a pleasant hike through orchards of cherries and other fruit. I am also seeing a number of vineyards likely planted with the bierzo grape that does well in this micro-climate. There is definitely a more alpine feel over the past day. The weather continues to be unpredictable but generally cool and overcast. I asked a local when he expected summer weather to arrive in this part of Spain. Without thinking he said, “next week”. Seems like a stock answer given by people weary of getting the same question over and over from migrant pilgrims!

Villafranca is a beautiful old town with a couple of rivers running through it, several old churches and a nice park off the main square (Plaza Mayor). The surrounding mountains rise directly from its outskirts on all sides protecting the town, and this evening shrouded with low clouds.

Day 30 was my last day off until I reach Santiago de Compostela. Instead of lounging around, I decided to go back to Ponferrada to see the Castillo de Los Templarios (Knights Templar Castle) – very glad I did.

A brief history on the Knights Templar. In the early 1100’s, a small group of monks banded together to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Lands. This ragtag group grew in size and strength rapidly, and within 25 years was a legitimate fighting force that had the explicit support of the Pope. Over a period of 200 years the Templars acquired/built castles throughout Europe and the Holy Lands which allowed them to protect pilgrims, including those bound for Santiago de Compostela, and even developed a basic system of banking. However, the Templar’s power, secrecy, and rumors of unsavory practices caused a fall even more rapid than their rise. On a Friday 13th (note the link to modern day superstitions) in 1312, as many as 2,500 Templar Knights were rounded up, accused of heresy, and eventually executed ending their 200 year reign.

The castle I visited in Ponferrada was acquired by the Templars in 1178 AD. They made substantial reinforcements in keeping with the mission of protecting pilgrims headed to Santiago. After the Templars were disbanded, powerful dukes in the region expanded the castle still further until it was eventually made obsolete by gunpowder-based weapons.

Today the castle, restored in the early 1900’s, is a double-walled fortress covering a couple of acres. You can readily see the ingenious defensive systems put in place over the years that made the castle virtually impregnable back in the day. There is also a restored palace inside the walls that now houses an incredible library of hundreds of documents from the Middle Ages – some religious and some focused on science, etc. The visit to the castle was a great way to spend my day off!

Heading to O’Cebreiro tomorrow. It will involve a lot of uphill hiking but my reward is that I will lodge at the 1,300 meter “alto”.

 

Day 28 – Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada

This was one the toughest walking days so far! Started from Rabanal under cloudy skies but the weather deteriorated getting foggy, rainy and cold as I climbed to the “alto” at over 1,500 meters.

At the first peak, I found the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) in a thick fog bank. The cross stands on a large pile of stones left by pilgrims past each one representing a blessing, prayer, or remembrance for lost loved one.

Beyond this point there was one more peak before navigating a steep descent over 6 miles down to the pleasant village of Molinaseca. Met Dennis from Atlanta on the way down. He is a fellow about my age who had an interesting career that included nursing and bioterrorism consulting! He mentioned that he had been offered a gig to play Santa for the month of December (he could pass for St. Nick), but he is really a dead ringer for Jerry Garcia. 🙂

Once at the bottom, the air cleared and warmed up. I ran into Rosemarie – our paths have been crossing since Day 12 in San Juan – and we walked together to Ponferrada which made those last tough miles go quickly.

All told my Fitbit recorded over 24 miles with lots of up and down. BY day’s end, I only had the energy to walk across the street for dinner. That turned out to be a fortunate move; I was pleasantly surprised with an incredible dinner including some of the region’s botillo sausage and Bierzo white wine!

Day 27 – Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

My walk today to Rabanal del Camino took place under sun, light rain, sun, and heavy rain. Thankfully the overall distance was a relatively short 13 miles.

I am now heading into the foot hills of another mountain range that will involve more elevation and lower temperatures over the coming days.  The land has a mixture of pines, heather, and lavender that produce some stunning visuals.

Rabanal del Camino is a delightful small, old village that seems almost entirely focused on serving pilgrims on Camino. I have a nice room in a hostel that also has a great pub/restaurant that has a decidedly Celtic feel to it. A small, cave-like church is right across the street run by a Bavarian order of monks. I attended the daily Vespers  service this evening in which the monks chant psalms in Latin – very beautiful and peaceful as well.

I have a very long walk tomorrow that will bring me to a high point early in the day dominated by a large cross around which pilgrims have placed a massive mound of stones…more on that tomorrow.

 

Day 26 – Vilar de Mazarife to Astorga

What a beautiful day for walking the Camino! I began at 7AM today because I knew the hike today was going to be a long one. I continue to walk through the paramo scrub land with its rolling hills and dry rocky trails winding through a number of small villages.

The highlight of the day was passing through the town of Hospital de Orbigo around 11AM. It’s a well-preserved Medieval village with an incredibly long bridge that spans a river and massive flood plain. It was my good fortune to be passing through during the town’s week-end long festival celebrating its Medieval roots with jousting, street food, crafts, and even a marching band with bag pipes and drums! I lingered as long as I could – I was not yet halfway to my destination – and then moved on. Sadly, the roasting pig was not quite ready to eat. ;-(

I finally arrive in Astorga after over 7 hours of walking and 21 miles according to my Fitbit which I believe is a record for my Camino to date. No energy to explore this town originally founded by the Romans. It’s Sunday so many thing are closed in any case.

 

 

Day 25 – Leon to Vilar de Mazarife

Before I leave the topic of Leon, I want to say a few words about the custom of siesta in Spain. Whether large town or small hamlet, Spain basically shuts down for a period of time in late afternoon. Cafes are still open, but almost everything else…shops, public buildings, and services…close down for at least a couple of hours. I noticed that even the impressive fountain in Leon’s Plaza de San Domingo shut down for siesta! Things come back to life in late afternoon with dinner served very late in the day.

The weather was beautiful for today’s walk with warm sun but fairly cool temperatures. The flat meseta is now behind me and I am walking through wide open scrub land called “paramo” with some rolling hills and dotted with occasional small villages. My destination, Vilar de Mazarife, is a very small town, but I am fortunate to have a very nice room in a lodging that is part albergue and part hostel.

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Enjoyed a nice surprise in Vilar de Mazarife. The town held an all out fiesta for the feast of Corpus Christi. The event started with some nice traditional Spanish dancing and lots of families with children attending. Later in the evening, a stage band took over with popular music for the younger set. I heard the music on and off all through the night from my hostel several blocks away, and saw the remnants of the hard core partiers this morning when I walked out of town at 7AM! I’ve included several pictures below.

Off to Astorga on Sunday for what is billed as an 18+ mile walk.