At a Glance:
Day 23: Rabanal to Ponferrada (32.7 km, via original route into Ponferrada)
Day 24: Ponferrada to Trabadelo (34.9 km, via alternate high route out of Villafranca)
Day 25: Trabadelo to Fonfría (30.6 km)
Day 26: Fonfría to Barbadelo (31.1 km, via San Xil route)
Day 23: We left our beautiful albergue in Rabanal early this morning to head up the hill toward Cruz de Ferro (a cross up the hill). This is one of the bigger climbs on the Camino and we started walking while it was still dark. We could see the sun rising behind the town and the lights of Astorga in the distance as we climbed up. As the sun came out, we could also see the surrounding mountains. Much of the flat part of Spain that we have just passed through is pretty, but I needed my mountains, and this was my fix.
Many people look forward to reaching Cruz de Ferro because of the tradition of bringing a rock from home to be left at the cross. The act of leaving the rock is supposed to symbolize leaving behind a burden on the Camino. We reached the cross and took pictures in the gray morning, watching as others left rocks, photos, and other trinkets. We both forgot to bring a rock from home to leave at the cross, so we made do with admiring the scenery and watching others (some of whom were very emotional).
We then made our way down the mountain — a mountain similar to many of the coastal hills in California, except much higher and steeper. At the bottom we reached the cute town of Molinaseca, where we put our feet in the cold river for a few minutes before continuing to Ponferrada. Today was the first time on the Camino that we were able to relax on a river bank with our feet in the water (something we did multiple times a day on the JMT to combat swelling feet) and it felt great! It helped prepare our feet for what ended up being a hot road walk as we continued another 7km or so into Ponferrada.
On her first Camino, Elizabeth missed the open hours for the Ponferrada castle, so this was a priority. It was worth it — a Templar castle that has been restored and had interesting exhibits on display. We finished our day with wine on the square and dinner in a somewhat hip restaurant with Rosie the Riveter as the mascot on the sign outside. For Elizabeth, the morning spent in the mountains made today was one of her favorite days on the Camino thus far.
Day 24: According to our guidebook, hiking from Ponferrada to Villafranca is supposed to be a nice, solid walking day. So today we hiked the suggested day, and then added 10 km with about 400 meters ascent and decent at the end.
The first half of the hike was in and out of small towns. At 9:00 a.m. we arrived at Vinos de Bierzo, where they offer wine and tapas in the winery. We decided that it was 5:00 p.m. somewhere, so we had a glass of wine each. Our hike continued from wine tasting to vineyards, up and down several hills on the way to Villafranca. For the last few kilometers into Villafranca, we were treated to free entertainment in the form of a puppy out for a walk with way too much energy — it darted up and down the trail so much it likely traveled twice as far as we did.
We arrived in Villafranca just after noon. We were feeling good so we decided to hike an additional 10 km. This decision was largely due to the fact that we wanted to be “off Brierley” so that we would stay in smaller towns that were not recommended end-points in the Brierley guidebook in hopes that finding available beds would be easier. Before moving on though, we decided to have lunch first. We had a garlic shrimp pizza — it was a tasty meal and was filling for the afternoon hike, but it took about an hour from when we ordered to when the pizza arrived on our table. Lesson learned.
The final segment was an optional path — the official route follows along the road and stays much lower — but we wanted the challenge and Elizabeth had heard on her first Camino that the optional route was beautiful. The hike up was steep and hot, but the views were amazing. The “top” was elusive — twice we thought we reached the top but we then turned a corner around a hill and saw we had more climbing to do. The way down had more shade, but was very steep.
Once we arrived in the small town of Trabadelo we relaxed and found an interesting spot for dinner. Elizabeth had Korean kimchi with rice and noodle soup, and I had a burrito (actually quite good) with chips and salsa. We suspect that the restaurant was run by hippies, and we were thankful for it.
Day 25: Yesterday’s extra segment paid off today. We got our usual early start and, with Trabadelo in the bottom of a deep valley, we walked in the shade for a few hours. After a few towns and a stop for toast, we started our 900 meter climb to O’Cebreiro. The first segment was lush and green, almost like Hawaii. Then we passed a couple towns above the forest, and had great views of the mountains. It reminded me of the Cuesta Grade on the central coast of California.
Near the top of the mountain is the town of O’Cebriero, a pretty town of gray stone buildings. On her first Camino, Elizabeth arrived here and the Albergue had no rooms left. We arrived before 11:30, so we had planned to go on (to avoid what happened to Elizabeth last time), but we did stop for lunch and cider. Several peregrinos were already waiting for the albergue to open an hour later as we headed out of town.
We continued on another 12 km, with spectacular views of the hills of Galicia. We finished in the small town of Fonfría — a town with one albergue, a small inn, no shops, and several cows (that walked right past the albergue while I was doing our daily clothes washing).
Dinner was family style with everyone in one large room — a round stone building with a pointed roof (no photo of this building, but I promise a picture of a similar building later). After dinner, a group of peregrinos were (self) appointed to finish the bottles of wine that were left on the table. We may have been part of that group 😉
Day 26: As we packed our bags in Fonfría this morning, we heard the sound of raindrops. While it wasn’t much today, it was a warning that Galicia has more rain than anywhere else in Spain. In the light rain we made our way down the mountain to Triacastela, a city named for three castles, none of which exist today. So we got some toast with butter and jam instead, and moved on.
The hills here are lush and green, the “towns” often have gray stone buildings, and there are stone walls separating pastures that look as if they have been there for centuries (some of them probably have). Elizabeth crossed paths with some cows and their farmer — one of the cows decided to lick her hiking pole to find out if it was edible (it was not), and a tap from the farmer told the cow to move along.
We made our way to Sarria, which is the starting point for most of the shorter distance hikers. To earn a “Compatella” (the certificate of completion) a pilgrim must walk at least 100 kilometers. Sarria is the last city before the 100 km marker, so the last group of people to join the walk join here — or so we thought.
After a brief stop at a cafe, we continued to Barbadelo. It’s not much of a town (small collection of buildings?), but one of the albergues has a swimming pool. Of course, when we arrived they were already full. But then they gave us a flyer for a different albergue, and offered that we could return to order dinner and use the pool. So we did (it was HOT).
The pool was great. It was cold enough to feel good, but not so cold to make you get out. We even put our feet back in after we dried off. After chatting with a fellow pilgrim from Manhattan, we had dinner on the patio overlooking the Camino (a country road at this point) and the pastures. Then we saw taxis arrive, ferrying pilgrims who wanted to walk the minimum 100 km but get a start past Sarria (since Barbadelo is technically outside of 100 km, I guess it counts). They rolled their suitcases up the path — clearly they have booked luggage service (where they transport your luggage for you to the next town so that you just carry a small daypack). So if you think you can’t do the Camino, think again!