Camino 6 – 25 September 2014 Pt 2
By Parson Thru
Ponferrada - Villafranca del Bierzo
We walked up into the plaza mayor, with the Basilica de la Encina in one corner, and out through a short street and portico to emerge into modern, functional Ponferrada. We were looking for an ATM and a supermercado to buy some snacks and water.
I left N drawing cash while I crossed the street to buy food. When I came back out, she was chatting to a couple. I walked up and saw that it was Will and Terri with whom we’d eaten in Riego de Ambro the night before.
We chatted and bantered for a while in the sun and I pointed out the supermercado. Shaking hands, we parted, sure that we’d meet again en route.
By now, we’d spent some time in Ponferrada indulging ourselves at the castle. It was early afternoon and still around a twenty kilometre walk to Villafranca. We sat in the plaza to work things through.
We’d known all along that with only eleven days walking time we wouldn’t get to Finisterre without taking a short-cut somewhere – by that I mean a bus. Our plan had to be flexible.
The map showed the bus station to be around a twenty minute walk across town. We finished off our snack and picked up the rucksacks, heading down a steep lane from the plaza under the rotting eaves of beautiful historic buildings. The walls of Ponferrada are crumbling around its citizens.
The district struck me as being on hard times generally. A man who I asked directions from seemed ok, but there was definitely something not so friendly.
We made the bridge where we stopped to look back at the castle standing above the broad gorge. It’s easy to see what a strategic influence it must have had. The force that built it must have possessed enormous wealth in its day.
Beyond the rio Sil, we crossed a wide junction and made a slight turn up Avenida de Asturias. Urban hikes like this always seem further than you think. Support vehicles from the cycle tour seemed to be leaving town – moving on. The bus station appeared off on our left, reached over empty land.
Inside the concourse, we looked at bus times. There was a service direct to Santiago! We could cut out the whole walk and be there that very day. The map suddenly compressed for a moment.
We queued at a window and bought tickets for Villafranca del Bierzo, about a forty minute ride. There wasn’t much to do – we’d already eaten – so we just parked ourselves on metal seats and settled down to people-watch for an hour. As we surveyed the comings and goings, we spotted the unmistakable form of Moysin about to board a bus with his wife Delmar. I shouted and he came over wearing his big smile.
They were taking the Santiago bus so they could take a look at the Camino Finisterre and Camino Ingles up by the coast. Their flight home to Brazil was looming and they wanted to get in as much as possible. Who could blame them?
Moysin wandered back out again as people started boarding. At the last minute, I jumped up and ran out to shake his hand again and say goodbye to Delmar, who’d always been more reserved. We shook and hugged and I wished them both well as they climbed aboard.
N suggested that I ring ahead to book a pension for the night – the cycling tour really put the squeeze on accommodation for miles around. I looked up hotels and pensions on my phone. None of the receptionists spoke English. I tried my classroom Spanish, or what I could remember. The first two were fully booked. I tried a third. It was hard trying to understand her and she wasn’t really getting me. Somehow, by the end of the call, it seemed I’d booked us a room. It was the Hotel San Francisco just off Plaza Mayor.
The bus was a kind of “midi” bus. Not quite a minibus but not full sized. We squeezed on with local commuters and students, together with two or three more pilgrims. The rucksacks, scallop shells and weariness marked them out. The bus seemed to lack suspension and every bump was bone-jarring. I tried to doze and almost had my neck broken as my head lolled back against the rail at just the wrong time.
We passed a steady stream of pilgrims walking beside the road. It felt like cheating, but we could never have made Villafranca in time on foot. If we’d stayed the night in or around Ponferrada we couldn’t have made up the time to reach Santiago. We’d already worked out during the recalculation that our contingency to reach Finisterre was blown.
The bus pulled into a stop beside the road on a wide bend. Through the front window was a sign for Villafranca. We saw the others grab their bags and stand up and followed them. The town is a good walk from the main highway and we tagged along with the others, crossing first a small river then a much larger one on an impressive bridge. I recognised the names of the hotels I’d rung as we passed them.
Soon we were walking beside ornate gardens and what looked like a cathedral as we entered the plaza mayor. The Hotel San Frncisco was in the far corner, beyond cafes and shops. The reception was tight and jammed with peregrinos and their baggage. A German was asking whether she and another woman could share a room. It was the last one available. She came to an arrangement with the receptionist. We eventually checked-in and made our way upstairs to a room right in the back of the hotel. It was ok. Beggars can’t be choosers and it had what we needed. We showered and washed out socks, shirts and underwear in the sink, hanging them anywhere we could.
Later, after crashing on the bed for an hour, we were walking back out along the corridor when I bumped right into one of the Germans. At the bottom of the stairs she told us that her room was far too small for two, but it was one of the last available in the town. It must have been the cheaper room that the receptionist offered on the phone. N and I walked out for a wander.
Villafranca de Bierzo is a beautiful town. It stands in a hollow among mountains and is known for its wine. It has incredible churches and its streets are classic examples of the Jacobean style, reminding me of The Shambles in York. I looked to find a road called Calle de Agua, shown in Arrondo’s guide book, but couldn’t. It didn’t matter.
The people of Villafranca are extremely friendly, and it seems genuine. We walked until we found a Carrefour supermarket for water and nibbles and the staff were so open and smiling. We walked through the gardens and sat under the trees in the shade. The promenading of the locals reminded me of the promenade and pier at Limassol. Through the open doors of the ancient streets, commerce, renovations and general town life thrived. A trailer filled with large buckets of grapes was drawn up outside one building and two men carried the grapes inside.
We ate a standard Peregrino Menu meal in the square, watching the man in the bookshop opposite working late and, in turn, being watched by another man from his balcony. Around us were a wide range of nationalities, some involved in the cycle tour, some pilgrims, others just taking in the sights.
The air cooled quickly as the sun set. The bookshop opposite was closed up for the night. We finished our drinks and walked the few yards to the hotel. Despite the bus ride, my legs were stiff and the soles of my feet were sore. We smiled and passed a few words with the receptionist, who was handing over to the night porter, then walked up the stairs to our room. It wasn’t long before we were sleeping. It wouldn’t have been much after nine.