something we saw increasingly as we headed from León to Galicia were completely abandoned villages, or villages with two or even one permanent resident. this concept came up for the first time as we walked through the first town beyond Rabanal del Camino — Foncebadón. whereas Rabanal had not only several albergues, two hotels, casa rurales, a neighborhood store, and two cafes its closest neighbor only boasted three small, moderately-equipped albergues, one of which also served as the town’s only pub.
during the middle ages, however, the town flourished, nestled on a sheltered ridge just below the pass over the Irago Mountains on the Roman-built road that wends its way towards the gold mines of Bierzo in one direction and far distant Italy in the other. for a time, it was the preferred (and only safe) route and received approval and development support from a number of monarchs over the centuries. vivacity of the town dwindled steadily from about the 16th century as the stream of peregrinos slowed; wars and new roads kept people away or sent the few travelers along other paths over the mountains.
by the early 1970s not only were most of the peregrinos gone, but so were virtually all inhabitants. as one of my guidebooks put it, in 1974, the village was in its “death throes” with only 4 inhabitants tending a couple of cows and sheep; by 1990 it was only a mother and son. — “Our pilgrims were permitted to lay sleeping bags on straw in one of the two houses in the village still having a semblance of a roof.” it sounded as if the buildings of Foncebadón crumbled and collapsed with each successive group they shepherded along the Camino until virtually nothing structurally reliable remained. all of which is to explain why we opted for Rabanal instead of hiking the extra 6 kilometers to this near ghost town.
staying over would have probably proven a unique Camino experience; at least we wouldn’t have needed to sleep out in the elements… (which gets me thinking — where along the Camino did Martin Sheen and his companions have to sleep outdoors? perhaps reason enough to go back and watch it to determine if I can pinpoint the general vicinity.) we ran into the Australian couple from San Martin while noshing in Molinaseca (our destination this day) and they related their experience of staying overnight in Foncebadón. very quite and somewhat eerie are the terms that come to mind. as I said, there are some refurbished buildings to cater to peregrinos, but more remain abandoned. in the second picture above you can see the patchwork metal roof on the left barely keeping out the weather and, presumably, just keeping the building from giving up sooner rather than later.
as for the cross in the above image, I forget the origins — perhaps something to do with erecting crosses in order to get a tax exemption — but there were signs asking peregrinos not to leave rocks at the base of each. two kilometers beyond the village is the Cruz de Ferro (about which more shortly) where the growing mound is an important Camino milestone and where people are invited to leave behind pebbles. for the few villagers, however, it seems an undue additional burden to keep the non-Cruz-de-Ferro free of pebbles from over-eager peregrinos.