Camino 7 - 26 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Villafranca del Bierzo to O’ Cebreiro
N’s alarm woke us from a deep sleep. It was still dark. It was the first decent rest for almost a week and we could have slept on for hours, but we needed an early start to make Cebreiro. We declined breakfast, planning to follow our habit of stopping after an hour or so for a bocadillo de bacon.
Down in reception, we met the German ladies who’d been in the next room. They hadn’t slept well. The talkative one introduced herself as Kirsten, from Berlin. She spoke in a quiet, serious way – almost conspiratorial. There was something innately friendly and warm about her and I could see we might get on.
There was some discussion about what route to take, there being three offered by the guide-book. The first simply followed the road, which was now largely by-passed by a new autopista and so was quiet. The second took in a steep hill called Alto Pradela before joining the road after twelve kilometres. The third took in a much larger hill, Alto Dragonte, then two further hills before joining the road nearly twenty-five kilometres out at Herrerias.
My legs were not feeling strong, plus I was carrying a heavy cold I’d had for weeks. From Herrerias, the Camino appeared to climb steeply to the end of the day’s walk at O’ Cebreiro, high on a hill.
The road route also had more places to stop and rest or eat. N and I decided we'd follow the road.
We walked through the town back the way we’d entered, over the river, in darkness. A yellow arrow pointed up a steep lane towards the Alto Pradela route. We passed it and carried straight on along another that opened into a wooded ravine. The air was chilly. I stopped to take the waterproof jacket from my bag.
We chatted intermittently about anything that came to mind, just glad to be so far from the deadening influence of the work and sleep routine – which ought not to be confused with the simple but uplifting routine of walking the Camino.
After ten or fifteen minutes, I suddenly remembered to turn round and look back. Daylight was just appearing and down in the valley behind us nestled the lights of Villafranca. It was a sight of sheer tranquillity. We snapped away with phones and cameras, but you can’t capture that feeling.
Soon we came to the main road, where the junction was formed by a crescent of wood-faced Jacobean buildings in an advanced state of collapse. We crossed to walk behind a heavy concrete barrier that looked like it was there to protect pilgrims. Below and to our left a small river gurgled and splashed among the trees. In front of us and behind were people strung along the road, the tapping of walking sticks always there. Voices could be heard in conversation. It was some time before the first car came past. It was the man from the panaderia taking his bread out to the villages.
The road continued to climb steadily into the hills. Clouds dragged through the trees. At every turn, the elevated deck of the new autopista burst between hilltops tens of metres above. The tyres of cars and lorries could be heard howling above and the percussion of rubber on road joints echoed constantly through the gorge.
Occasionally, we reached a junction where a ramp circled down from the deck. Very rarely did anything travel up or down the ramp. Seen from below, the road is a feat of civil engineering lost on anyone actually driving along it.
Gradually the landscape opened up to villages and isolated farms. The hills were covered with rugged woods of oak and birch. We continued walking into the morning, drinking from water bottles and feeding on the dried fruit and nuts we bought in Villafranca. We decided to skip breakfast and try to press on until lunchtime to make Cebreiro in good time.
I had an almost mystical idea of Cebriero in my mind. Reading Arrondo’s guide and that of Brierly, it appeared to be a place steeped in history and spiritualism. I was almost excited about reaching it – and I’m not one for getting excited.
From time to time we paused. We were being passed by small groups and individuals, pilgrims from all over the world. An account of the Camino had been recently published in Korea and had become a best-seller, bringing many to see the Way of St James for themselves.
All manner of rucksacks and a whole spectrum of waterproofs, rucksack covers and hats were strung along the road to Cebreiro and no doubt the same on Camino routes across northern Spain. With the small exception of the Reverse Camino people (apparently following a blue arrow instead of our yellow one) all strode on in the direction of Santiago.
After nearly five hours’ walking, we saw the first houses of the village of Herreria. A lane led from the road and down into to village. We paused for a while to work out whether there might be somewhere to stop that didn’t mean coming off the hill. Losing height is a dismaying proposition when you know you’ll have to regain it. By now we were hungry. We had to go down to the village.
We walked half a kilometre along the lane, passing buildings to our right, when we saw a bar with tables in the garden. Pilgrims were already sitting in the sun eating and drinking beer or coke. My legs were tired. We’d reached the point where the higher Dragonte route over the hills joined ours, meaning we’d walked over twenty kilometres.
We turned through the gate and sat ourselves at a table, dropping our packs on the floor beside us. I saw the chef busying himself in the window of the kitchen. We ordered cokes, a bocadilla de bacon and a burger. When they came, they were enormous. Apparently the place builds its reputation on the size and quality of its meals.
By the time we'd finished, we were ready to lie down on the floor and sleep it off. The blood deserted my brain and legs, rushing to my stomach to deal with the emergency. Instead of lying down, we shouldered our packs and headed back on the trail, aware that we still had seven kilometres and six hundred metres to climb to reach Cebreiro before the albergue filled up.
The way now became laborious. Gradually the open ground gave way to narrow twisting lanes up through the woods. I was down to a tee-shirt and sweating heavily. Other peregrinos were stopping to sit and catch their breath or lean on sticks for a while. My stops became more frequent and longer. I took more and more from my water bottles, beginning to disregard the need to eke it out. The sun beat down through the leaf canopy and my eyes were focused on the rocks in the dried mud as I picked my way through the steepening, winding trail.
I came to doubt the wisdom of consuming such a large meal. I'd convinced myself I needed the fuel to make the climb but, now, with the giant burger and bun occasionally regurgitating, it seemed to be my undoing.
After a number of stops in quick succession and with blood pounding in my ears, we came to a sign for refreshments and an albergue. A small path led up away from the route and into a small settlement. After this place, there was still one more village and five more kilometres uphill to reach Cebreiro. N looked at me and I knew I had to stop.
We came off the track and walked by farm buildings into the village. There was a drinking fountain and a small shop that was closed. Heading back parallel to the way we’d come was what looked like an albergue. N thought there was another, closer, in the middle of the scattering of buildings. I sat by the fountain while she walked off to look.
As I sat and waited, a procession of pilgrims came and looked at what was there. Some stopped for water and a rest then moved on. A group of four young Italians, who I originally thought were Air Force because of roundels on their packs, came and threw themselves at the fountain, falling exhausted on their backs in the grass. They turned out to be students. We had been passing each other all day coming up from Villafranca. N returned and reported that there was no albergue and the six of us chatted for a while. Eventually, they pressed on for Cebreiro.
N asked if I’d be able to carry on. I doubted it. We elected to go back a little and try to find the other albergue. It was only early afternoon, meaning that it might not be full.
The lane opened out into a yard surrounding an old church. The buildings alongside gave the place the appearance of a monastic dwelling, except parked in one corner was a battered old VW Transporter, hand-painted – a full-on hippie bus.
We found the entrance and, inside, a short queue to register. There were two dorms and by the time we showed our pass and had it stamped, the first was nearly full. The warden – driver of the VW – showed us to the far dorm and we picked out single beds under the eaves and collapsed gratefully. I didn’t even know the name of the village. I didn’t care. I later learned it was called La Faba.
The floor was a mezzanine with sinks, washing machines and dryers runnng immediately below. They tend to be in use quite late. We were so tired it was never going to be a problem and the first thing we did was pull out our sleeping-bags and crash.
When we woke, the dorm was filling up quickly. Two American girls were talking in a bunk behind me and a young Spanish man was emptying his rucksack to my left. Over by the far wall stood a tall thin man with short silver hair and beard. He was standing only in a T-shirt and a pair of red briefs. In full view, his hand was pushed down the front of his underwear sorting himself out and pulling his briefs away in an absent-mindedly revealing way. It isn’t unusual to see people dressing and undressing in an albergue.
N and I showered and washed shirts, underwear and socks in the hope that they might dry before morning, then headed out to look for food.
The small shop by the village drinking fountain had opened and we bought pastries and biscuits for the next day. A little way further along was a tiny building with a fly-screen in the doorway. Four or five tables were scattered by the wall opposite, where a man sat writing his journal, a brandy glass in front of him. We went inside.
Sitting at a table was Chloe, who we first met at Rabanal. She was eating a small meal that turned out to be from the pilgrim menu and she'd been given a bottle of wine from which to help herself. A small, cheerful lady busied herself among the tables then came over to the bar to take our order.
Chloe cleared some space for us and we sat and chatted about the last couple of days walking. It turned out that Chloe had the bunk beneath me at the Gaucelmo albergue in Rabanal. The conversation turned to spirituality, almost inevitably, and Chloe told us how she’d turned to the Catholic Church quite late in life. She never told us why.
The conversation became increasingly sensitive as we shared our own views on Church and dogma. In another life I was once friendly with a Methodist minister called Tim. I’d been reading a book back then called “The Changing Faces of Jesus” by Geza Vermes. Vermes was trying to get at the historical Jesus and separate that from the dogma that came after. Tim had read the book and was happy to debate it, but his faith was both his life and his job.
N and I have some kind of spirituality, but are a long way from any religious orthodoxy. Maybe even what the monotheistic religions brand as pagan. I’d say it's respect for nature. Chloe seemed to have a convert’s zeal and blind faith. Unlike with Tim, it wasn't really up for debate. Gradually, I gained an impression that my view of things wasn’t going down well. I took my drink and wandered outside. Besides, the early evening sun was enticing me through the fly-screen.
I spent the next half-hour basking in the warmth using my passport as a tapa to keep the flies out of my drink. Sometimes, sunshine and a full glass are all a person needs.
We arrived back at the albergue just in time to sit on the boundary wall and enjoy the last of the sun. The garden area was busy with relaxing peregrinos. We found ourselves chatting with two friendly Germans, who introduced themselves at Ursula and Jurgen. They turned out to be great fun.
The warden was sitting on the wall beside us, rolling-up a smoke. I told him I liked the VW bus. He nodded and smiled in a quietly satisfied way. He ran his tongue along the length of the cigarette and sealed it, picking up his lighter. Seconds later he was being called over to try to fit latecomers into the dorm. Such is the life of a warden.