October 15th (Tues) – 10:01 pm
Hostal Siglo XIX (Rm 303), Cacabelos
Today’s Walk: Ponferrada to Cacabelos
Drinking a glass (or a copa as I ordered it in Spanish) of Naraya Tinto Mencia. So nice be enjoying this excellent local red wine in the Bierzo region where it’s produced. And how about our cozy and funky room at Hostal Siglo XIX? It’s got a slanted roof, an old stone wall, odd angles everywhere, and the shower is separate from the bathroom and directly faces the bed…with a see-through glass door! That’s a bit weird, but I love this place. And at 52 euros for a private room that is spotless and recently renovated, a bargain.
J’Nell and I also had an excellent dinner at the restaurant downstairs that was three courses and only 18 euros for both of us. Not only did I have the best steak I’ve eaten in Spain, but maybe the best anywhere all year; it was thick, perfectly cooked with just a bit of sea salt and so tasty! And the staff were all extremely friendly.
Today’s walk was on the shorter side, about 15 kilometers, but still challenging after the tough one yesterday down the mountain. We didn’t start until afternoon and it was almost all on paved roads, which can exacerbate pain in the feet and joints. It’s crazy, but my feet hurt more today than yesterday.
We get a late start after savoring our comfy bed and taking advantage of my employee discount at the AC Marriott breakfast for only $5.50 euros. We then stay in town and visit Castillo de Los Templarios. I had marked the Templar Castle on the map long before we set out as it plays a big part in Paulo Coehlo’s Camino book (which I highly recommend).
Though part of the castle is closed for renovation, there is plenty to see and it’s a special place. The Templars are an intriguing subject, and I love so many towns along the Way pay homage to them. In Medieval times the Knights protected the pilgrims while they walked the Camino, and it’s very cool to experience their historic castle with excellent views of the town and the (very recently) snow-capped mountains.
Ponferrada is a medium-sized urban center of 70,000 people, but it lacks the charm of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, or Leon. The sprawling newness of the surrounding city does not harmonize well with the historic, but small city center. However, the Templar Castle is worth a visit and the AC Marriott is an outstanding place to stay.
Getting out of town seemed to last an eon. It was more than an hour through mostly industrial areas until we reached Ermita Santa Maria de Compostela, which is just outside Ponferrada. Built in the 1960s, the church looks Romanesque and has nice frescoes painted on the side the Camino passes. It is worth your time to stop and admire it.
Another 2 kilometers away is Columbianos, which has a nice church on the hill and bunch of historic buildings that are in the process of being renovated. If I ever come back, it will be cool to see the town once everything is completed. Though in the here and now, you have to navigate the construction areas, and we briefly lose the yellow arrows before asking a nice local who says we’re going the right direction.
The next part of the walk has orchards and vineyards, as well as mountains off in the distance under ominous clouds. Stunning views, but it’s almost ruined because we are on the asphalt and sharing the too narrow road with cars. And although there are not a lot of them, the vehicles travelling it are all speeding.
Fuentes Nuevas is only about 2.5 kilometers down the road, and it’s another crumbling town with lots of character. We had read that there was a place open for wine tastings there called Bodegas Don Pedrones, and are excited to visit. But when we make the 5 minute detour off the Camino, it is unfortunately closed.
So instead J’Nell and I go to the next bar we pass for a glass of local red wine that only costs one euro. But truly the stop is more to warm up by the fireplace, use the aseo, (a term some places use for bathroom), and get off our feet. Later on in the afternoon we get a chance for a proper tasting at Vinas del Bierzo, a local wine cooperative in Camponaraya. I also buy a bottle there and stick it in the side of my pack for us to drink later.
We still have about 7 kilometers to walk, but it is the best scenery of the day. After going up the hill past tall trees on either side, J’Nell and I cross a pedestrian bridge over the freeway with great vistas of the mountains. Next we continue along a people-only path through vineyards that are turning colors like New England fall foliage with rolling hills and those gorgeous mountains off in the distance.
Getting closer to Cacabellos, we meet the 30ish Ari from Montreal. He had passed us a bit earlier, but we catch up to him when it begins sprinkling and he dons his backpack cover. He is very nice and easy to talk to, and shares with us he had lost over a 100 pounds in training for the Camino.
We also see another woman pass us, and are surprised there are two other pilgrims on the Camino so late in the day when its usually just us. It is 6:30 PM when we finally check-in, and after resting a bit, we dump all our clothes at the laundromat right across the hotel, have a beer a cool locals place on the square, and have that excellent dinner (which included a very tasty mushroom soup).
October 16th – 9:15 pm
Casa Rural El Recanto
Today’s Walk: Cacabelos to Vega Valcarce
We leave town at 9:15 AM to overcast skies in cool temperatures, passing an 18th century wine press and then Bodegas Luna Beberide, the winery that made the outstanding bottle we had at dinner last night. We are along the highway the whole time to begin the day, and finally turn off it after the 200 kilometer marker. Soon we are treated to a wonderful hike through rolling hills of vineyards of the Bierzo region.
I believe you could have stayed on the highway for a more direct route, but you would have missed a terrific couple of hours of stunning scenery. We briefly chat with a guy from Germany who’s done the Camino many times, and he says this is his favorite part. There are mountains in the distance, perfect green rolling hills surrounding us, and vineyards turning autumnal in every direction. We also have dramatic clouds overhead with the sun coming through in god-like rays. All the way to Villafranca we see few people, and it is blissfully idyllic.
Around 11:30 AM we reach Iglesia de Santiago, and get to take in its famous Puerta del Pardon. It was here in medieval times you could get full blessing and pardon of your sins if, due to health reasons, you could not continue your pilgrimage to Santiago. The church isn’t open, but I climb up to the door and touch it.
Strange to think you could go back in time 900 years to this very spot and recreate this experience. Things like this connect you to historical Camino, and I love that. Afterwards J’Nell and I continue down into Villafranca’s main square and have lunch on the patio. Warmer than its been for some time, though maybe still somewhat too cool to be outside; I guess we are missing our Al fresco dining.
Next is a tour of the 11th century Colegiata de Santa Maria church, which features a beautiful Gothic interior and excellent stained glass windows. Most people end their day’s stage here and stay in Villafranca, and I can see why. However, since we had gone off the book and did a shorter day into Cacabelos yesterday, we continue onward and see scant people the rest of the day.
The remaining steps of today’s walk mostly follow the highway, but the road is not busy and we traverse the pretty valley along the Valcarce River. Sometimes you can hear the streaming water, other times it’s in your sight through the trees, but you always feel its presence. Thankfully there’s also a concrete barrier separating you from any oncoming vehicles nearly the whole time. Though there aren’t a lot of them because a new freeway is the preferred route, there are a lot of twists and turns in the road, and having the barrier adds a level of comfort.
J’Nell and I leave the path along the highway at various points to detour through Pereje, Trabadelo, Ambasmetas, and Portela de Valcarce. In that last town we go inside the tiny, simple church called Iglesia de San Juan Bautista and it’s beautiful. We also see a gaggle of geese, and one stuck his neck through the fence gate seeing if I would feed him (video below). We then spy horses as we amble past to our stopping point of the day at Vega de Valcarce.
We reserved at a casa rural (a private, country house with multiple rooms for rent) called El Recanto, and we had to check-in and get our key at the delightfully scented bakery next door. After showering we get a drink at a bar down the street, purchase wine at the little market, and have our Pilgrim’s meal at El Refugio Del Cazador (which includes our first taste of the local Santiago Cake). It’s a very sleepy town, and we go back to our room to enjoy the local vinto tinto and write in our journals.