In just three days the atmosphere of the Camino has dramatically changed, and in our opinion, not for the better. We especially noticed it this morning when we walked out of Portomarin at 8:45.
Literally hoards of people of all ages, neatly dressed in new, unblemished shoes, brand new, unstained small daypacks and particularly, women adorned with designer blouses and slacks, earrings, heavy makeup and not a wrinkled garment in sight.
We counted over 50 “pilgrims” in front of us walking down the hill from Portomarin and an endless stream behind them unloading from tour busses. For the first 400 miles of the Camino we might have walked for two days without seeing 50 pilgrims.
As we began the steep climb out of Portomarin passing a few older folks but having most pilgrims pass us, we didn’t hear one unsolicited “buen Camino” from a passing pilgrim. Our “buen Camino’s” were mostly not responded to in wonderment while others looked blankly at us or just smiled.
At one point along the way on a narrow section of path, a group of four well dressed middle aged Spanish adult “pilgrims” stopped and began chatting as one member of the group placed their pack in the path and decided to remove a jacket. They completely blocked the path until a couple “holas” from this particular pilgrim caused them to slowly make way for us and other pilgrims to pass, the four seemingly unaware that they were not the only people on the Camino this morning.
We’re sure that many of these pilgrims are here for a meaningful experience either spiritual, religious, educational or otherwise. It’s obviously not appropriate to judge other people’s motives or actions, especially with little or no facts about their life or situation. It is, nonetheless, troubling to see such a change in atmosphere for what has been a truly sobering, meditative, energizing, tranquil and otherwise wonderful experience. Maybe these last few miles to Santiago will be the ultimate challenge to not allow the external environment to diminish the personally satisfying and enriching life experience that is the Camino Frances.
We are staying in Gonzar (pop.43) at Casa García (35€) with nice accommodations, tasty food and a good environment for a restful afternoon and evening.
The most significant part of today’s walk was not the terrain or walking surfaces, which were very tame,
but instead the number of pilgrims. For the first day since we began the Camino 2017 there were always one or more pilgrims visibly in front or behind us. Further, the demographics also shifted to much younger and more Spanish pilgrims.
We expected an increase in the number of pilgrims after passing Sarria, but today when ever we reached a bar along the way there were typically 20-30 pilgrims present. Waiting in line to use the bathroom or to order breakfast or a drink was common. And when we reached the 100 km to Santiago marker,
100 km (62 miles) to Santiago
halfway through our 10 mile walk, a dozen or so pilgrims were lined up to have their photo taken.
We stopped several times today to rest, pacing ourselves for the longer than average walking distance,
including stopping for both breakfast and lunch breaks and didn’t reach Portomarin (pop. 1737) our destination until 1:30. But the cool morning air, late rising fog and shady walking areas made the walk quite pleasant.
Portomarín has been around for a while with a bridge from at least the late 10th century, but the current city is a relocation of the historic city including buildings transferred stone by stone.
This was all due to a dam constructed in 1956, which flooded the former city that was located on both sides of the river. Today the water is normally low enough to see the remnants of the former city including the Roman bridge. Many bridges have spanned the river at this strategic point. Al-Mansur destroyed an early bridge in his campaign of devastation in 997. After being rebuilt, the bridge was taken out again by the 1112 war between Queen Urraca and her husband. Later, Urraca had the bridge rebuilt along with a pilgrim hospital. The strategic town needed to be protected, and this role fell first to the Order of Santiago, then to the Order of San Juan de Jerusalén. ￼The town became an important pilgrim stopping point, including for royal pilgrims such as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Domenico Laffi described it as, “an excellent place that has plenty of everything.” The city declined in the 19th century as the nearby city of Lugo rose to prominence.
The only difficult part of the walk today was the last mile going into Portomarin which was a long, steep stretch of downhill pavement resulting in an atypical blister for Jim.
We checked in to Pencion El Caminante when we arrived (45€) and tended to our chores.
Then, we struggled with wifi both in our room, the hotel common areas and nearby bars and restaurants. The hotel had a weak signal, but elsewhere was due to the high number of users as tonight this town with a huge number of places to stay was completely booked (or “completo”).
We had a delicious margarita pizza for dinner overlooking the picturesque town square and then retired to our room for the day.
This morning was foggy when we left and stayed that way all the way through Sarria, a major starting point for those wishing to do the minimum 100km to receive a Compostela.
The Camino experience can change dramatically here as groups enter the Camino who may be less familiar with pilgrim etiquette. While Sarria is a convenient and well-equipped pilgrim town, many guidebooks suggest to continue on to Barbadelo, the next hamlet for a more rural and relaxed setting.
We hurried through Sarria as suggested as it is not an attractive town, doesn’t project a very cordial Camino atmosphere and we had a reservation in Rente, a village about 3 miles beyond.
The most difficult part of our walk today was the 300 ft hill we had to climb between Sarria and Barbadelo. 300 ft doesn’t seem like that much, but we did it in less than a 0.2 mile stretch. Otherwise the ups and downs were not significant.
We stopped at an albergue in Barbadelo to rest and to order bocadillas for lunch to take with us. Our home for the afternoon and evening, Casa Nova (31€) only provides an evening meal and breakfast.
We arrived at Casa Nova in Rente just before noon and were given a nice room in a lovely B&B which is a converted farmhouse and is run by a family who still works the farm and lives onsite.
We spent the afternoon resting and Jim caught up on blogging as our wifi was fast and we had a good signal in common areas as well as our room.
Our dinner (10€) was a typical pilgrim offering of farmhouse soup (collards, potatoes, white beans and broth), delicious marinated and roasted lamp shanks over vegetables and Santiago cake for dessert, red local wine included.
We ate with two French ladies that have been hopscotching with us the past several days and followed Jim’s recommendation staying at Casa Nova (we stayed here in 2015) and they and we were not disappointed.
Our hostess fed us a desayuno (breakfast) at Casa da Veiga and then drove us along with two other pilgrims to where we stopped yesterday in Triacastela. We thanked her for her hospitality and were on our way to San Xil, the main Camino route toward Sarria. There is an alternate route from Triacastela which goes through Samos and adds 6.5 km to the walk, which we wanted no part of, so we were careful not to miss the turn.
We walked for a while with a nice young man from Switzerland who had started a very successful business in the event planning field, which created an instant basis for continued conversation. He was walking 15 miles/day versus our 7.5 miles/day rate, so after a mile or so he had to pick up his pace.
After a short distance on a small country paved road, we took a path up the side of the mountain for about 1.5 miles climbing about 900 feet, walked another mile or so on a relatively level paved road (probably the same one we started on) and then, in typical Camino fashion, proceeded to walk down 900 feet in elevation on a very steep dirt path to compensate for the earlier climb!
As the path/pavement leveled out again, we chatted and walked with a father (now 68 and a Georgia Tech ’72 grad) and son from Monterey, Mexico. They both spoke impeccable English. The son was in the process of making a job change and moving to Boston.
The remaining walk was much more humane through farms and rolling hills but with no stopping places so when we strolled into Pintin and checked in to pension Casa Cines (40€) we were pooped.
We stayed in Casa Cines on our first Camino in 2015, so we feel right at home. Some upgrades to the bar and restaurant have been made recently and it is a popular rest stop about half way between Triacastela and Sarria. We farmed out washing and drying our clothes to the staff and rested most of the afternoon.
There is not much else to see in Pintin so we had lunch and dinner at Casa Cines.
We had dinner tonight with Mike from Toronto, a recently retired school teacher. Our meal was enriched with shared Camino experiences and we retired for the evening after another great Camino day.
The old saying “What goes up must come down” could never have been truer than today.
This morning at 8:00 we left Casa Lucas with clear blue skies and 49F with a little wind to add to the chill. Two days ago we climbed 2000 feet in altitude and then continued walking at or near the 4200 ft level yesterday. Today we walked back down over 2000 ft in elevation!
Fortunately for us, the weather was clear, dry and perfect for walking. The path was quite steep over half of the way but the walking surface provided good traction, well spaced level spaces to give our bodies a momentary break and there were very few sections that were rocky or covered with loose stones.
Though challenging, what made this another wonderful day on the Camino were the constantly changing, breathtaking views.
The first 1.5 miles we dropped only 300 feet in elevation, stopping for breakfast at Biduedo (pop.31) and upon leaving the village passed a small stone church that is reportedly the smallest on the entire Camino.
The next two miles we dropped 700 feet and took a breather at the hamlet of Fillobal and savored a nice glass of fresh squeezed OJ.
After another 2 miles, we had descended an additional 900 feet as we entered the hamlet of Ramil and were amazed at the large numbers of chestnut trees.
We continued on the final half mile or so into Triacastela dropping the final 100 feet, totaling a 2000 feet descent for the morning.
We stopped at a nearby bar and called Casa da Veiga (32€) to send a driver to pick us up and take us to our place for the day, some 2 miles off the Camino.
Our room is in a building that has about a dozen rooms, living areas and meeting rooms. It is a former rectory for the nearby church. It appears to be an ideal place for events or corporate meetings and is adjacent to a nice home of the absentee owner, who lives in Barcelona. The surrounding property is very isolated with a small, old, inactive church a cemetery and a farm with cows and horses, owned by our hostess and property caretaker, her mother and grandmother.
The facility provides only breakfast, so the caretaker shuttles guests into Triacastela for lunch and dinner as needed… which makes it a suitable housing option for pilgrims like us.
Today we walked over 7 miles with ups and downs but we stayed within the 4000-4300 ft elevation, therefore not coming down from the top of the mountain range but just hanging around on top.
The views were still incredible with the addition today of white cotton-like clouds filling the valleys and slowing exposing the mountains as the sun in a clear blue sky, slowly warmed the chilly morning air.
Our breakfast stop occurred in Linares after just under two miles of walking from O Cebreiro along a very nice gravel and sand pathway that ran parallel to the road with only minor ups and downs along the way.
After Linares, we alternated between pavement, parallel paths and an occasional short walk through woods or an unpaved farm road.
Next, as we reached the pilgrim statue at Alto de San Rogue (4167ft), it was surrounded by a film crew of sorts and a actress performing dance and acrobatic routines for some type of Camino promotion or documentary. We watched for a few minutes, took a few of our own photos and moved on.
Another couple of miles later we walked through a small hamlet and then climbed a very steep hill, probably a couple hundred feet high which topped out at Alto de Poio (4386ft) where we stopped at a conveniently located bar with deliciously fresh squeezed orange juice.
From there we walked just over two miles, gradually dropping a couple hundred feet in altitude before arriving at Casa Lucas (37€) in Fonfria (pop.41).
Completely offsetting our negative experience yesterday in O Cebreiro, our Casa Lucas hostess was warm and helpful.
A surge of pilgrims arrived at the Casa Lucas bar when we did and had overwhelmed the owner with drink and food orders. Jim told her we had a reservation but we were in no hurry and could check in when she worked through the deluge.
Later as she was about to check us in, Jim mentioned that we wanted to stay tomorrow night near Tricastella, but had been unable to find a place. (Booking.com claimed all rooms were “completo” and several calls to non-Booking properties yielded no vacancies.) Our hostess, acknowledged our concern and even before we had checked in, she made a call to another property just 2km outside Tricastella that had a place for us and they even offered to come get us once we arrived in Tricastella so we wouldn’t have the walk the extra distance. It was also priced at 32€.
We were welcomed by the owner’s assistant another nice young lady (perhaps her daughter?) who showed us to our room in this recently remodeled albergue. Our room is spacious, clean, new and has a wonderful view.
We also had a nice lunch and dinner at Casa Lucas. At dinner we ate and had interesting conversation with two ladies from France who owned a B&B on the French Camino from Le Puy to SJPDP and were walking from León to Santiago.
It didn’t rain today as forecasted, but was a chilly 50F, clear with high clouds giving great visibility, mostly blocking the sun and creating near ideal photo conditions. And there was a constant flow of some pilgrims and lots of tourists.
Our walk today was a real challenge even though we covered less than 6 miles. Our reward for the challenging climb was increasingly spectacular scenery with the increasing altitude.
The 1 mile walk from Ruitelán to Herrerías,
started at an elevation of 2200 ft and was pretty level, perhaps a slight incline toward the end of town.
We stopped for a quick breakfast, not knowing how long before our next stop.
The two mile walk from Herrerías to La Faba started out with a short section of road which began to climb the mountain as the gap between the mountainsides was only wide enough for the shrinking stream at the bottom.
We then left the road onto a nice path through the woods which without warning made a sharp turn and became a steep, rocky path with switchbacks taking us up at least 800 ft to 3000 ft elevation.
When we reached La Faba we stopped at the first bar for a tasty concoction of orange and beet juice. And a much needed break. We also met a nice couple who lived in Calgary and he had attended WVa University. They are walking to Santiago (from SJPDP also) but when they finish, plan to return a week or so later to Sarria and walk the 100 km Camino with friends.
We continued on for another 1.5 miles to Laguna climbing another 800 ft to an altitude of 3800 ft. We stopped there for another break and chocolate cake and a drink.
The next 1.5 miles to O Cebreiro, we climbed another 400 ft to an altitude of around 4200 ft. and our destination for the day and the beginning of the Camino into the region of Galacia.
For us, today’s climb was similar in elevation to the Pyrenees but tougher in our judgement because of the more difficult walking surfaces.
O Cebreiro is the Camino’s first official Galician town, a welcoming mountaintop village that retains its historic character. The albergue here is the first of many run by the Xunta, the governing body of Galicia. They are mostly purpose-built modern buildings or renovated schoolhouses with good facilities but a somewhat sterile atmosphere.
O Cebreiro bears evidence of occupation since ancient times, including a Roman way station that guarded the road to the Galician mines. The town grew to greater prominence with the pilgrim road.
Iglesia de Santa María la Real is a reconstruction of the medieval church that was destroyed in the early 19th century. In the reconstruction, traces of a pre-Romanesque church were found. The baptismal font, virgin and chalice reliquary are from the medieval church.
Local tradition says that the Holy Grail (the chalice from which Jesus drank wine at the Last Supper) was hidden away in O Cebreiro. In the year 1300, a faithful parishioner trudged through a snowstorm to receive communion at the O Cebreiro church. The priest mocked the man for going to such trouble for just a bit of bread and wine. At that moment, the elements miraculously transformed into real flesh and blood. The virgin, still on display in the church, was said to have moved her head to have a better look. The event was later declared an official miracle by Pope Innocent VIII. When Queen Isabel passed through 200 years later she donated an ornate reliquary for the remains. The Galician coat of arms incorporates the chalice and host as central symbols.
O Cebreiro is interesting but crowded with pilgrims and tourists and souvenir shops & vendors. It seemed to be missing some of the more tempered Camino ambiance and spirit we have experienced up to now.
We stayed at the Casa VentaCelta (45€) which was ok, but we were disappointed in the cold, curt and not-helpful attitude of the bar and hotel staff, very uncharacteristic for our experiences of the previous 53 days of our Camino 2017.
We didn’t leave our casa until around 8:30 to give the sun some time to remove the chill from the 50F air. The first 3 miles were similar to yesterday, mostly walking along the highway with the autovia crossing us periodically.
We crossed the Rio Valcarce, which probably formed this gap between the mountains millions of years ago, no less than 9 times in the space of a mile. Just before Portela de Valcarce, we stopped at a huge truck stop and had breakfast.
The remaining three miles of our walk was delightful. The Camino found a narrower road, the concrete barriers disappeared and the traffic became minimal. An occasional waterfall was heard in the river below, adding to the serenity of the pleasant, gradual climb up through the valley, getting ever closer to our ascent for tomorrow. We passed through the villages of Portela de Valcarce(pop.27), Ambasmesta (pop.46), Vega de Valcarce (pop.703) and finally stopped at our albergue in Ruitelán (pop.23).
Each village looked a little different but each had the kind of charm that made you want to stop and visit for a while.
We’ve noticed the pilgrim traffic increasing today as it has since leaving Ponferrada. This may be the expected wave of pilgrims who began in early September. Also, the average age has probably increased from the mid 20’s to 50’s or more, also suggesting a group not limited to walking during summer vacations.
We checked into Albergue San Froilan (38€), which we discovered has only been open for 3 months. It’s very nice and Yolanda has been very helpful and friendly to help us get settled in. There is also a very nice bar/cafe “Omega” a few steps away with good food and very competitive prices.
We did some light washing to take advantage of the clear, dry sunny afternoon, as the forecast for tomorrow is rain.
We took a brief walk to the end of the village to see what to expect tomorrow then returned to the albergue for blogging, napping and reading until pilgrim dinner at 7:30.
Dinner was prepared by our hostess, Yolanda and was shared with two fellow Peregrinos from Argentina. She was a semi-retired attorney and he a physical therapist, who were starting their Camino from here, having just arrived from Argentina this afternoon. We had a delicious dinner including more local Bierzo (Mencía grapes) wine and wonderful conversation as the attorney spoke excellent English.
A great finish for another wonderful day on the Camino.
Our entire walk today was on the road. Fortunately, we had a nice concrete barrier between us and the vehicles, mostly local cars, as we were also weaving through a gap in the mountains with the autovia crossing above us periodically. Also, fortunately, the road was flat with a very gradual upward slope.
We were dwarfed by steep mountains on both sides of us as we worked our way through the gap and we’re thankful that they were “up there” and we were “down here”. We’ll have plenty of mountain to climb in a couple of days.
We had a slight glitch in plans today. When we arrived in Trabadelo (pop.456) at our intended destination, the owner had never heard of us. Jim had listed the albergue in our itinerary as reserved through Booking.com.
But we couldn’t find the confirming email, etc from Booking. We’re guessing that we made the reservation on line but perhaps lost wifi during the transaction and we failed to verify that we had received the confirming email. Anyway, the place was “completo” but the owner sent us across the street to another “complete” hotel who also managed a nearby casa rural, which, lucky for us, was available.
We were grateful for the help as there is no way we or anyone else would have found the place we are staying in on our own. Which is probably why it was still available.
Our place for the day is a nice casa rural Rosalie(42€) with full kitchen, living area and nice outdoor patio. Another couple from northern Spain on vacation arrived around 8pm and occupies the other bedroom. We both have our own bathroom.
There isn’t much in this small village but we found a market a few doors up the street and got the fixin’s for lunch and dinner. So we shopped, cooked, napped, cooked, made reservations a few more days ahead and vegged the rest of day away.
The weather was threatening this morning so we retaliated with our pack covers, successfully.
We walked for almost a mile to get out of Cacabelos, stopping for breakfast on the way.
The path continued along the road for several miles. We ran into some pilgrims that we had seen a few days ago, one a young lady from Greenville. We walked with her until her other two companions took an alternate route that was longer and supposedly more scenic, also more difficult. She took a photo of us and joined her companions. We chose to stick with the traditional path along the road.
For the last few miles, the path took a turn through the vineyards and countryside,
weaving left, right, and up and down as we worked our way into Villafranca del Bierzo.
Villafranca del Bierzo is one of the most beautiful towns on the Camino, retaining much of its medieval and Renaissance character in spite of an increase of modern hotels and buildings. Several Roman castrum have been found in the area, with the strategic location at the confluence of the rivers Burbio and Valcarce and just below the mountain pass. This location later drew merchants from all over, giving the city its names (literally “city of the Franks” but more accurately, of the “foreigners.”) Villafranca marks the end of the 10th stage in the Codex Calixtinus and was home to numerous pilgrim hospitals.
Life wasn’t all that easy for the people of Villafranca, who suffered an outbreak of plague in 1589 and destruction by flood in 1715. In the Peninsular Wars of the early 19th century, French soldiers overtook the city only to be driven back by British soldiers who ravaged Villafranca, destroying the castle and stealing from churches.
On the way into town, we passed the ￼ Iglesia de Santiago with its Puerta del Perdón, a doorway for pilgrims who were too sick to continue to Santiago. They could walk through the door in lieu of completing the pilgrimage and receive the same indulgences. ￼
Iglesia de San Francisco, according to legend, was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi himself on his pilgrimage to Santiago.
Finding our hotel was difficult. We walked around, asking directions for about 30 minutes. It was right in front of us, a convent, which we thought was a church, no signs!
By now it was 11:30, and the hotel didn’t open until 12:00 so we returned to a restaurant we had seen on our unplanned tour of the town, that looked like it had good pizza. Pizza also wasn’t available until after noon, so we sipped more cafe con leche and churros and then had a nice lunch while we waited for our room.
We checked into the hotel, Hotel San Nicolas del Real (50€), at about 1:00. It is a real convent with all the rooms around a courtyard. It has wide hallways, and wide stone stairs. Our room has a view of the old town and surrounding mountains.
Jim has been fighting early cold symptoms, so we didn’t do much site seeing, spending the afternoon resting while our clothes were being washed and dried (8€).
We had a very nice pilgrim dinner (just the two of us) in the cloisters of the 17th century Convent and Iglesia and then retired for the evening.