Stories that take you on a journey

Camino Francés – back in the Mountains

I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.
― Charles de Lint

Day Twenty-seven – stage two:  Astorga – Rabanal del Camino (The Stone Boat Guesthouse)

Out here on the track, there is a saying “The Camino will provide.” These are the moments when as Carl Jung said, “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved” – in other words, synchronicity. I’m no stranger to moments of synchronicity, some of which, I have brushed off as good fortune or merely being in the right place. However, on this part of the journey, I was inexplicably connected, continually in the right place and the right time; living proof that the Camino does provide.

I had pre-booked accommodation at Rabanal del Camino.  Kim, the owner of The Stone Boat Cottage, has a profound connection to the Camino, which she calls the “Soulful Road.” Her accommodation, three guest rooms, in a stone cottage, surrounded by black poetry slates oozes a calm spiritual vibe—a perfect overnight stay on what many pilgrims term as the spiritual stage. As we had walked over fourteen kilometres to Astorga and Rabanal del Camino was another twenty-kilometre steady climb west of Astorga, with a sprained ankle, continuing on foot was not an option.

I farewelled Pam and Den outside the tourist office, walked into the cavernous stone building and asked for the bus timetable to Rabanal del Camino. “Oh, do you want to go today?” When I replied, yes, she said, “Let me check, what day the bus goes.” What day, echoed through my mind.  She returned and said you’re in luck the bus operates on a Tuesday. I was stunned and grateful that today actually was Tuesday. Not wanting to push my luck I purchased my ticket early. Once again I was thankful, as the bus turned out to be a mini-van, nearly every seat was taken by villagers who had ventured into Astorga for the market, leaving only two sets for myself and another injured pelegrino.

The laden bus headed out of Astorga, past the tawny coloured brick walls of Cementerio de Astorga, the city’s Cemetery. The traditional golden-hued stone buildings of the first two villages Murias de Rechivaldo and Santa Catalina de Somoza blended into the recently farrowed fields on the outlying countryside evidence that the Meseta stretched out beyond Astorga. The bus navigated the narrow street through El Ganso, its ancient brick buildings echo the grey pallet of the tussock grasses of the countryside up ahead. The smoky grey clouds, which obscured the sky, fell like a curtain across the horizon, as we continued to climb towards Rabanal del Camino.

Kim was an excellent host, found me a heater, offered to wash some clothes and made me feel like a long lost friend. A few hours later, I came downstairs and saw my Camino foodie friends Tony and Julie sitting at the café table outside. Kim was about to book a table at a nearby restaurant, they were happy to join me.

The Stone Boat Cottage

Day Twenty-eight:  Rabanal del Camino -El  Acebo (Albergue La Casa Del Peregrino)

The candle-lit dining room table was laden with breakfast food, including banana bread, Kim whipped up while her guests were still sleeping. It was a leisurely start for me, as Den and Pam wouldn’t arrive before 8:30 am. While my foot was healing, walking uphill was still painful. Today’s trek promised to be rocky and steep; as a precaution, I taped my left foot and right knee. Then I loaded some of my gear into my IKEA bag for porting.

Beginning the days walk in daylight on a dry winding track edged with bracken, trees dabbled by sun-rays was a lovely way to start the day. We were heading towards the highest point of the Camino Francés, Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross on Puerto Irago (1,505m).

Excited about the day ahead, I thought that the makeshift sign on a nearby tree, advertising local taxi services, was odd. The sunshine shone as we trekked up to the village of Foncebadón. Once it was overrun with wild dogs, pilgrims approached with fear and walking sticks. Now the restored buildings have revitalised the hamlet, making it an ideal place for a coffee break or overnight stay. A mist started to roll over the mountain, as we were finishing our second breakfast. We quickly gathered our packs and began the climb up Monte Irago, in the wake of pilgrims both past and present. Becoming surprised when we turned a corner, and in front of us stood Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross). This is a sacred place where pilgrims lay down their burdens, either by adding something personal like a rock and recite a blessing. Here many travellers reconnect with their personal reasons for undertaking this epic journey. We took it in turns to ascend the precarious pile of stones, pebbles and rocks, recite our personal blessing and soak up the atmosphere.

The energy of Cruz de Ferro, which initially left us feeling overwhelmed, quickly morphed into euphoria as we wended our way down to Manjarin.  Here we passed a rickety mountain Albergue, with multiple signposts to cities around the world. Then joined a tranquil, rocky track through woodlands that twisted around the mountain, dipping, turning and rising; demanding total concentration. I missed a beat, kicked my left foot on a boulder, pain ricocheted up through that leg, into my brain. Needing to continue, I stopped and took a painkiller. As we neared Alto Altar, traipsing behind a band of other pilgrims, we missed the Camino signs and ended up near a military zone. Below us, in a field of bracken, I spied a red shirt, realising the person was on track, I yelled out. It was a man who kindly waited for us all to cross the unstable terrain between him and us, to join the actual track. The pathway of exposed slate and granite, stretching all the way to El Acebo, challenged the body. Yesterday, crossing one of the river beds, Pam had rolled her foot on a rock and sprained her ankle; the downhill stretch aggravated her injury. To ease some of her pain, we made our way across to the road. Becoming uncomfortable with he hairpin bends and oncoming traffic, when we reached the spot where the Camino path crossed the road and followed the ridge to the edge of the El Acebo; we re-joined it. The descent into the village on sharp rocks sapped the last of my mental and physical strength.

The dining room despite the roaring fire, crowed tables was a stark contrast to the party atmosphere of dinner at Posada De Gaspar, last night. I looked around the dinner-table – my fellow party friends, Anders and Jørgen like most of the pilgrims in the room, shattered.

Day Twenty-nine: El  Acebo – Columbrianos (Albergue San Blas)

The view from the dining room/guest lounge windows of Albergue La Casa Del Peregrino stretches across to Sierra de Gata, mountain range. I braved the crisp mountain air, to take some photos of La Casa Del Peregrino resort-like amenities and grounds; taking the sudden appearance of a perfect rainbow to be a good omen.

El Acebo lies halfway down the mountain track. Although the route to Molinaseca has spectacular views, I didn’t have the mental and physical resilience to face another day of traipsing down a shale pathway. Pam had also reached the same decision; Den, however, was looking forward to this part of the journey.

After breakfast, we booked a taxi. It was a long wait, Pam nervous and restless, as we were hoping to get her a consultation with an Orthopaedist at Ponferrada. The taxi driver, when he finally arrived, suggested going to Hospital de la Reina, because the hospital is church funded, and pilgrims upon presenting their passport and credencial, are treated from the waist down for free. We agreed.

The taxi driver took our packs, opened the doors, to cries of “Anthea, it’s you!” It was Hilary and Francoise, the Australian ladies I meet on Day 3; Hilary’s arm was in a sling. Hilary had fallen somewhere on the track; at Ponferrada hospital, they told her she had broken her arm but could still continue after a few days rest. The taxi dropped them and the other three passengers off at Molinaseca – I had been so busy talking to Hilary and Francoise, I hadn’t noticed the elderly lady in the row behind us. She was 93 year, doing the Camino with her mid-twenties family, arriving by taxi, walking a short way, taking in the atmosphere, then departing presumably in the same vehicle.

Den reached Ponferrada as the taxi pulled up outside Hospital del la Reina. After yesterdays, foot incident, I also decided to make an appointment with an orthopaedic doctor. With the help of Google Translator the Doctor told me that there was no sign of bone-joint instability, it was an ankle sprain which after rest (24/48 hours), required a course of anti-inflammatory drugs, and I was able to continue without a backpack. Pam required the same amount of rest, although her prescription was for a different anti-inflammatory. The relief of having a minor injury was palpable. We gathered our packs, made our way into the town centre, where we found a funky café to celebrate our good fortune.

Afterwards, we followed the yellow arrows and found a Farmacia. Den carried on the Way while Pam and I followed the directions to a nearby sports store. Although I was disappointed that the shop was closed for siesta, we were both happy to find ourselves on the circular city bus route. Thankfully, a local woman sat down beside us, she spoke Spanish, I didn’t, what transpired was osmosis. Somehow we understood each other, and after two bus rides, we arrived safely in Columbrianos.

With our washing on the clothesline, we sat down in the bar for afternoon drinks and discussed the next few days. Den phoned Victor Echevarria, owner of Al Paso stables to book three horses on Saturday 19th October; in addition to confirming the booking, Victor suggested accommodation for the day before and after our horse ride. With bookings secured, our plan was in place. Although I wondered if Pam and Dens horsey enthusiasm and Victors “no previous riding experience necessary” had overshadowed the fact that I was not a natural horse person.

Day Thirty:  Columbrianos – Trabadelo (Casa Susi)

Den walked through the outlining suburbs of Ponferrada, trekked up into the mountainous paths through Cacabelos, Pieros then into Villafranca del Bierzo, while we were enjoying a leisurely start to the day. It felt strange to be the last pilgrims leaving the Albergue. We were heading by taxi to Villafranca del Bierzo, to explore, buy a daypack and kill some time. The town is only 530m above sea level; however, the surrounding ranges, autumn coloured leaves both on and off the trees, and smoke wafting around the village roofs obscuring the view made me feel as though we were in a mountainous region.

The town was still asleep when we arrived. Damp mountain air settled on us, as we wandered around the empty central square. Despite a layer of thermals, we quickly lost our body heat and needed to warm up into the nearest café. We departed when the Farmacia opened its doors, as Pam wanted to buy some silicone blister pads; three pharmacy stores later, she abandoned her search. I went off to find a daypack, my search also wasn’t going as planned, then I saw a bike shop. Hoped that they would stock backpacks. They did! I found an Altus daypack, with a sling system which kept the bag off my torso. It also had a place for a water filtration system and a built-in rain cover; I was all set to resume walking in a few days.

Casa Susi owned and operated by an Australia lady, Susi and her Spanish husband Fermin; has a backyard that runs down to the river, and a sizeable abundant vegetable garden. The produce from the garden forms part of the nightly communal dinner.

Pam and I were amongst the first to arrive. She spied the cubby hole on the landing with a single bed and suggested that I take it. They had the two beds below, allowing us to hang clothing over the low room divider at the foot of my bed. The thick stone walls of Casa Susi wasn’t capturing much heat from the afternoon sun, and the new Albergue heating system non-operable. Thankfully, we still had our thermals on. It was almost as cold inside as it was outside. I was grateful that I had my sleeping bag. The warmth of Susi and Fermin counteracted the chilly interior, her homemade chicken soup and vegetarian noodle dish heartening and delicious; it was a fabulous evening.

Casa Susi Trabedelo

Day Thirty-one:  Trabadelo – Linares (Linar Do Rei)

Our daily morning routine disrupted, we gathered around the communal kitchen table with the other early risers and ate the breakfast, Susi and Fermin, laid out last night. Riding horses from Las Herrerías to O Cebrerio also changed daily routine. Our backpacks needed to be ported from Casa Susi to the Albergue at Linares. We could though take a few things in a daypack. Once we were sorted Den headed off to traverse the Valcarce Valley, 10.5 km of winding pathways through hamlets then finally dropping down into the serene valley and village of Las Herrerías. Pam and I had a taxi booked for 8:00am as we were due to saddle up at 8:30 am.

The Taxi dropped us off outside Al Paso stables – they were deserted – a rain squall started to swoop across the valley, we walked back to the village entrance and La Pandela, a Hotel with a cafe. We were joined by an American lady, like us excited to be going up the mountain by horse.  Later a Spanish cowboy, Driza-Bone coat swirling behind him, sauntered into the café and introduced himself. Victor perhaps used to fair-weather pilgrims was mildly surprised that the rain hadn’t deterred us from getting on a horse. He informed us that had it been windy, the ride would have been cancelled. We waited another thirty minutes for the rain to ease.

Victor was not phased by my hip replacement or lack of horsey skills and assigned me a narrow horse, Carlotta.

Promising that he would walk behind me, we set off along the paved roads of Las Herrerías. A few kilometres on the path drops down briefly, then rises steeply. The track narrows, and traverses up on a rocky slate-like trail.  It began to rain again. The way; rocks glistening and rivulets running down the crevices, looked treacherous. Carlotta took it in her stride, even though the path was becoming progressively steeper as we climbed up to the hamlet of La Faba. Victor told me to let Carlotta do all the work. As she continual steered towards the cliff-edge side of the track, I felt the spirit of my great-uncle Wal behind me. He was a natural horseman and had taught my son to ride. At Laguna de Castilla Victor steered us to the village Fuente to rest and water the horses. The path, now hard earth continued through gorse and scrubland, Carlotta continual doing a rush and grab on anything looking green.

I would have loved to have taken a photo as we rode past Galicia Frontera, the stone maker, that farewells the region of Castilla y León and welcomes us to Galacia however, remaining upright was my total focus. Den, who was riding behind me, told me later that I had perfect balance.

Galicia shares a lot of its culture with other Celtic regions, one of which I’m not a fan is the bagpipes. The thick hot soups and the pulpo (octopus) on the other hand, were delicious, and much needed after the two-hour horse ride. My feet, clad in sodden walking shoes and socks, had begun to lose feeling by the time we reached O Cebreiro. Any concern about a possible frost-bite second to worries about getting off the horse. Victor had tied all the horses up to a tree, without a stool, I wasn’t sure how I would get off. I was instructed to put my right leg over Carlotta’s head, Victor, in a movie moment, swooped me off the horse and placed me gently down, feet first on the ground. Then said, “let’s go to the pub!” Which we did.

Some hours later, braving the foul weather, I left the others in the pub and went off to explore and takes some photos. When I initially googled O Cebreiro I came across a photograph – smoke swirling up from the Greystone buildings, wafting into the clouds, a few black poncho-clad pilgrims with wooden staffs in their right hands – created a mystical scene. And I understood why Paulo Coelho would want his ashes released here, so close to the sky, on the Camino de Santiago; instigator of his spiritual awakening.

I wandered passed the pilgrim memorabilia, the rack of mountain bikes for hire, wet pilgrims in colourful ponchos, seeking my own mystical scene, and found a serene female pilgrim resting on a stone wall.

While we waited for a taxi, Pam and I explored Iglesia de Santa Maria Real, a 9th-century church, home to miraculous events and oozing spiritual knowledge. I’m not a big church goer but the international evening Pilgrims’ Mass, I felt would have been memorable. Having just experienced my own extraordinary day, I was happy to get into the taxi and set up home for the night at Linar do Rei.


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