Camino 6 – 25 September 2014 Pt 1
By Parson Thru
Riego de Ambros (via Molinaseca) - Ponferrada
We slept pretty well in the wooden cubicles of the albergue. But at some point in the middle of the night I was awakened by bumping and scraping and loud nose-blowing. Like someone was blowing a frigging bugle in the darkness – over and over.
In the end, it was just impossible to sleep anymore. I could tell from the nose-blowing that it was the Austrian. He flushed the toilet and noisily packed his bag then went down the stairs to the kitchen. The kitchen light lit up the sleeping area, then came the sound of a cold tap being run and general clattering as he prepared his breakfast seemingly oblivious to other people needing to sleep.
When I checked my watch it was 4.45. He’d been at it for a good half hour, maybe longer. I’d read reports that some people left the albergues very early, but this was something else. He dragged the heavy wooden door open, scraping it against the floor. Thank God, he was leaving. Then more scraping and knocking from the kitchen. More nose-blowing. I couldn’t believe it. The door again. What the hell was he doing? I laid for a while, eyes open and watering with frustration.
Pretty soon, more people began to stir. N moved in the bunk above me. I gave up and dragged myself off to the toilet. N was already dressed when I got back. Every other cubicle door I passed was open. People dressed quietly in the shadows. We packed our stuff and walked wearily down the steps to the boot-rack.
The last cubicle closed was the one opposite ours. It slid open and a woman peered over the balcony. She launched into a stream of angry Slav over the heads of the Italian group – the Austrian was long-gone. I later learned the angry woman and her husband were Hungarian. We sorted ourselves out and laced-up boots. Apart from the Hungarians, we were the last to leave.
As we’d stopped short of Molinaseca, there was distance to make up. I had to stop and put on my head-torch. It was the first time I’d needed it outside. The time was probably somewhere before six. Above us, the sky was starlit and black. We turned left and began walking, passing the stone plinth where my legs had given up the previous afternoon. At the far end of the village a yellow arrow pointed us down a narrow track. We checked the guide-book and it seemed to be the right direction.
There was practically no light under the trees. We followed the beam of our torches, N in front. Pretty soon, we were treading with care down a steep rocky ravine. Thankfully, the weather was dry – apparently the rock can be slippery. My torch went out. I’d fitted new batteries before we left home and somehow hadn’t reassembled it right. The strap around my head was loose and the torch kept slipping down. In my tired state, nothing was straightforward. We stopped several times for me to fix it.
The route was by no means clear and, unusually, there was nobody within sight in front or behind. We stopped at forks in the path and occasionally had to backtrack where a stream made the way impassable. We tried not to stumble in the dark. The dense woodland enclosed us like a grotto was enchanting but seemed to soak up what natural light there was.
Eventually, we emerged onto a grass trail running along the side of a gorge. I walked along thinking of Huw Thomas’ book “The Spanish Civil War” and imagining columns of soldiers making their way along here with heavy equipment. My imagination was influenced by memories of similar treks during my time as a reservist. Gradually, the sky lightened behind us and we were able to turn off our torches.
After a couple of hours walking we swung around off the hillside and onto a road where cyclists hummed past on mountain-bikes. Ahead was a river and the first buildings of a small town. The place was just coming to life – a group of men dragged equipment onto the road, preparing to start repairs. We crossed the river on an old wooden bridge leading into an unmistakably Jacobean street with timber overhangs. To our right was a pension and bar with cyclists standing talking in the car park among various support vans. We’d arrived at Molinaseca.
We walked into the bar in need of breakfast. The atmosphere was friendly and a waiter waved us to a table. Rucksacks and sticks filled the spaces between seats. We ordered bocadillos de bacon, coffee and orange juice. At the next table sat a group of American cyclists and their guide discussing the day. The bocadillos, when they came, were good.
Molinaseca had been our intended overnight stop, but my exhaustion at Riego de Ambros and the need to find an albergue had meant we were adding an extra six kilometres on the walk to Villafranca, already 30 kilometres. Even with the greatest optimism we both knew this was asking too much.
We finished our breakfast and each watched rucksacks while the other used the toilet – stories abounded of gear being stolen.
Outside, bicycles were being made ready. Support vans were loading up luggage for those who’d paid for the privilege of travelling light on the Camino. We headed off through the overhanging street, taking things gently on stiffened legs.
Soon, we were out of the old town and onto a wide, modern road with chequered pink and white pavements on either side. On the outskirts we passed the municipal albergue where we’d originally planned to stay. Now, the large room was being aired and prepared for the next wave of peregrinos. This road would take us into the region of el Bierzo, a place much frequented by tourists and known for its grapes.
One of the great highlights of the Camino is the ancient city of Ponferrada, which takes its name from a bridge over the rio Sil – the Pons Ferrada. I’d read that a large mediaeval castle attributed to the Knights Templar watches over the old approaches. The route from Molinaseca follows a busy road for around five kilometres, passing farms and scrubland where vines grow wild beside the path like brambles.
The buildings of Ponferrada began to present themselves at viewpoints along the way. We avoided the track through the village of Campo, sticking to the main road as far as we could. By the time we crossed a high gorge over the rio Boeza, we’d arrived at the edge of town – an industrial and commercial suburb. We checked the map in the guidebook and left the road at a track to our left leading around the back of the industrial estate and over a railway line.
I’d had in my imagination a hill somewhere on the approaches to the city from which the Templar Castle looked impressively down. I thought we might even have missed it by not taking an earlier recommended track off the main road. The neighbourhood we passed through didn’t do much to evoke acts of chivalry. It was run down and pretty deserted apart from groups of youths and the odd battered truck clattering by. There was a general air of hardship.
Eventually, we crossed a narrow railway bridge. A barrier closed half the road off, making it one-way traffic. Across a junction was a long stone wall, maybe twelve feet high. In its centre was a kind of portico with a rusting iron gate onto empty scrubland. Behind the wall was a church. Nothing seemed particularly inviting. The streets angling away from here ran between modern but depressing apartment blocks with shops at ground-level. Yellow arrows painted on the path guided us on.
Around a corner we came across a municipal car park. It was closed off and filled with motorhomes surrounded by drying laundry, bicycles and a startling mix of national flags. It reminded me of Glastonbury for some reason. Some of the vehicles were organised into small corrals. Racing bicycles were propped up or clamped onto cars and vans. Here and there, people tinkered with bikes.
We pressed on, following a stone Camino sign along a narrow street. which opened onto a wide road, closed off with barriers. Knots of people stood expectantly, waiting.
Suddenly a quartet of cyclists came into view. These were serious competitors, rather than the usual mountain-bike peregrinos. Other groups followed. The German cyclists and the Austrians we’d spotted the day before suddenly weren’t such a mystery. Each group was cheered on by the people at the barriers. We stood and watched a while.
Following the barrier, we found a crossing point and continued on our course, wandering up to a small group of pilgrims. They told us that Ponferrada was hosting the World Road Cycling Championships. What we’d been seeing up in the hills was just the outer edge of what had been going on here for days. It explained why the hotels, pensions and albergues were so full.
We stood and watched a few more go through, cheering them on with gusto. There were no British cyclists, but we cheered on Italians, Norwegians, Canadians, Russians and of course the Spaniards, who elicited the biggest shouts. Some powered through, others seemed almost casual, chatting to each other like they were taking a Sunday ride to the pub. We took a few photos and ambled on.
Turning a corner, we spotted something very familiar from the guide book. High, dramatically castellated turrets stood in the sunshine just yards away from us. We picked up the pace a little and crossed over. Race competitors were freewheeling along to take a look, some stopping and pulling out cameras.
We walked up towards the gatehouse. Ponferrada castle is huge and well preserved, although Arrondo – writing in 1988 – described it as “nowadays almost disintegrating”. There’s obviously been major renovation since his visit.
Learning our lesson from Leon cathedral, where we missed wonders for the sake of five euros, we decided to pay the entrance fee and go in. The cashier suggested we leave our rucksacks behind her cabin, but I couldn’t face the idea of coming back to find them gone, so we trudged up the flights of stone steps with them on our backs.
There was a cool breeze up on the ramparts, but we wandered around, entering turrets to view illuminated displays and feeling grubby beside locals and conventional tourists – we were taking on the Camino patina.
I was struck by the scale of the place and its commanding position. It must have been an imposing sight in its heyday – a powerhouse. It isn’t hard to see why the Church saw the Templars as a threat. After satisfying ourselves, we headed back to the gate and out to the road.
There’s something about visiting places like the Templar Castle. I’d been carrying an idealised vision of the moment with me for months – same with the Cruz de Ferro. In my mind they are lost up in mountain wastes, hidden by cloud and frozen in history. Standing beside the castle in the centre of modern Ponferrada, the mystique was absent.
I find these sites are reduced to no more than tourist tick-boxes simply by seeing them in front of me. Same for The Kremlin and Empire State Building. I fear that the Pyramids and Machu Picchu would be no different. Maybe it's just me. Whatever turns me on about travel has to be more than just bricks and mortar.