Villafranca del Bierzo

thinking back, it’s kind of impressive how much stuff got crammed into day 26 on our Camino — the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, TAL episode #465, tasting at Cuatro Pasos, taking a potentially risky shortcut to shave off a couple of kilometers at the end of the day, Brent Spiner on the Nerdist, and the second-craziest shower I experienced while in Spain. I suppose it should come as no surprise then just how relieved we were to stumble into our boutique hotel in Villafranca del Bierzo, Hotel Las Doñas del Portazgo. (if you ever find yourself in Villafranca del Bierzo, I recommend it).

the earliest settlements around Villafranca date from the neolithic age and there’s evidence to suggest it served as an important hub for communication during the Roman period, sitting as it does at the confluence of two rivers (the Burbia and Valcarce) at the western edge of the Bierzo basin and at the foot of the narrow pass that ascends to O Cebriero and Galicia beyond. in the 11th century, the sister of Alfonso VI granted a church to Cluny for establishing a monastery that began cultivating wine. this, along with the explosion of peregrinos during the 12th century, gave rise to a sizable foreign population including many French who aided developing wines. by the middle of the century more than half the town’s inhabitants were foreign.

the city flourished for several centuries because of the Camino and in 1486 the Catholic Monarchs established the Marquesado in the town; the second man to hold the title, Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, built a castle though the one that overlooks the valley and town dates from the 1490s and was recently restored to clean up the damage done when the French burned it in 1812. following the second Marques’ death, the city endured its first of many significant hardships that concluded with the burning of the castle by the French. the plague decimated the town’s population in 1589; a flood washed out much along the river in 1715; during the Peninsular War the town served as headquarters for the Galician army and was sacked three times by the English until finally, after the municipal archives were burned, churches robbed, and castle wrecked in 1810 Spain regained control of the area. sort of — the French briefly occupied the town following the expulsion of the English. twelve years later el Bierzo was declared an independent province with Villafranca as its capitol; that lasted two years.

much of the late medieval and Renaissance character remains in Villafranca (as much of the modern industrial revolution passed the city over) including several well-preserved churches. subsequent to its construction in 1186, the Iglesia de Santiago offered ailing peregrinos an alternative to crossing the remaining 187 kilometers of the Camino; if you were too ill or too injured to continue on to Santiago you could pass through the northern entrance — the Puerta del Perdon — and receive a pardon for your sins as you would at the cathedral in Santiago if only you were physically capable of continuing onward. along the narrow streets are facades you might imagine lining prosperous towns of the middle ages — sturdy construction with impressive stonework — though care for these buildings varies widely.

our hotel stood at the end of one such street; it used to serve as the gatehouse for the bridge over the rio Burbia and has been attentively restored and updated; while the entire place exudes comfort, during the update process they left elements of the original building exposed to give a sense of what the place might have felt and looked like a century ago. while the hotel at the end of the road was lovingly restored, there were many other buildings along the way that hadn’t received the same attention. from the refurbished window balcony of one updated home you could look directly into the dilapidated and burned-out husk of another once-magnificent home that hadn’t received the same attentions. Villafranca del Bierzo was clearly thriving, but it didn’t take much to see signs of the common challenges afflicting the rest of Spain.

coming down the hill to Molinaseca

one of the more memorable things about the day coming the Cruz de Ferro after leaving Rabanal was how many more peregrinos there seemed to be than in previous days. the number had been growing, to be sure, since we’d gone through Astorga, but the number struck me on day 25 — perhaps because there were so many new faces, not all of which were welcome additions to the rotation of walking companions.

this last leg quickly became a test of patience when it came to new faces who had yet to grow accustomed to the hardships posed by the Camino (i.e. blisters). one woman we encountered on the descent did.not.stop.talking. the entire climb down to Molinaseca. after following along behind her for about 30 minutes as she regaled her companion with all manner of stories about her children, life, work, anything, I discovered (in having to sit at an adjoining table at the only cafe in town where we stopped for a mid-morning snack) that she’d only know said companion for a matter of hours! the majority of which, presumably, she’d been pouring out her life story heedless of her companions attention or interest (but what do I know, perhaps that “unsuspecting companion” was approaching all manner of peregrinos soliciting life stories and this Canadian woman was happy to oblige [yes, I know she was Canadian. I couldn’t help learning that she was Canadian]).

it was a warm day and the downhill grade was a different, if not entirely welcome, challenge after crossing the mesetas. we passed through two small villages, both hosting albergues and other lodging , though clearly struggling or abandoned outside the immediate radius of those establishments. the buildings were older and wood timbered; the two-story stone buildings lining the through-road in the first village had overhanging second floors, sticking out slightly over the narrow, cobbled road. the second village was much the same; it was an interesting approach and exit — not unlike walking through someones back yard or along the edge of someones property to get into town, which felt different in comparison to all the times we approached via the road into town that has been the road into town since Roman times.

as a counterpoint to Rabanal, Molinaseca also served as an important point along the trail of Roman gold. the town sits at the base of a gorge created by the rio Meruelo. as we crossed over the river on one of the two remaining medieval bridges, we saw a pair of women — obviously peregrinos, probably much newer to the Camino than us — wading in the water. previously we’d heard cautions against wading in water with which you weren’t familiar; with all the potential infection sites peregrinos might develop on their feet, seemed like sound advice no matter how refreshing a wade in a cool mountain-fed stream might sound.

by the 13th century, the town had transferred from the control of one monastery to another, and the latter granted a charter that provided favorable business terms for Frankish businessmen who catered in large part to the peregrinos heading into the last leg of their Camino. a number of structures dating from this period remain today, and the main street (down which we walked, from the river to the outskirts of town where our more modern hotel stood) was lined by two-story buildings in various states of restoration or disrepair. some rented out rooms, some contained narrow, packed shops, and a couple housed the first wine caves we encountered in the Bierzo region. not your typical tourist-friendly rooms like those you’d see in Napa, the Hunter Valley, or anywhere else known for its wine tasting …

in all, Molinaseca was a nice place to rest, rather than pushing on; true, spending the night in Ponferrada might have granted us an opportunity to visit the Castillo de los Templarios, but Molinaseca provided us with wonderfully comfortable beds, a chat with the Australian couple we’d met back in San Martin, “dinner” with a blue-eyed gray cat, and the opportunity to exercise a civic duty …

a peregrino’s dream at the Parador

although the film “The Way” inspired us to book a room at the Parador San Marcos (for two nights!), we opted against the palatial suites seen in the film. after traveling on a budget for so long I, for one, couldn’t quite imagine splashing out more than 300 euros a night on a room (or more than 600 euros on a suite) — a spectacular room with views of the plaza, I’m sure, but what an expensive view…

even without the period furniture and amenities of a suite or plaza-facing room, our digs were pretty great. the Parador in Santo Domingo offered some of the period touches — square windows covered by thick wooden shutters, sturdy wooden furniture with decorative draperies, tapestries on the wall — and the one in León still had our most desired features: comfortable beds and a nice big bathtub that filled with steaming hot water. it also had a private-enough balcony overlooking a tiny courtyard and a governmental building — after walking for 20 days straight and covering more than 336 kilometers all we needed or wanted was someplace comfortable to rest and recover from our aches. and to sleep in as late as we wanted. that was fabulous, too.

highly satisfying and relaxing, our experience at the Parador was also interesting; they book rooms for plenty of peregrinos, to be sure (and even once offered free dinners to the first 10 peregrinos to arrive every day which, eventually, they had to relegate to a separate dining room because of “offensive odors”), ready for a little luxury after (perhaps) 20 nights in albergues with varying degrees of comfort or amenities, but it’s also without question an upscale (5-star) hotel aimed at wealthy travelers and business people. valet parking, pricey meals, concierge service, guests lounging in reception wearing designer labels of the understated, old-money school.

I don’t know why it struck me, but standing behind us as we checked in was a young-ish couple who clearly looked like they lived a roving rock-n-roll (in the I-play-in-the-band-on-tour vein) lifestyle who seemed very much of the old-money line. perhaps it was the parents who joined them, ready to pay for four nights’ accommodation, as we headed off to our room that exuded that vibe. like I said, quite the change from where we’d stayed the preceding nights — at a family-run guesthouse, in the last room to be had in town, at one of the only albergues in town. these non-peregrinos with whom we shared the hotel were having a monumentally different experience of Spain than us. in conversation, we learned that rock-n-roll couple was headed on to Santiago that same day — picking up their rented, valeted car and driving to the city that we were still nearly two weeks from reaching. it’s actually rather hard to convey how, at the time, such a means of reaching Santiago boggled my mind. “You’re just going to drive?! Who does that?!”

in a way, then, maybe it was better we got a view of the Junta de Castilla y León from a simple cement balcony with wrought-iron furniture, stepping out of a nice, comfortable, well-appointed but not overwhelmingly upscale hotel room. if we’d gotten one of those snazzier, rock star rooms that Martin Sheen books for himself and his traveling companions I wager I’d have felt out of place; a hostel-bunk-sleeping, backpack-wearing, own-food-making, modern-day rambler wholly out of place among those who have people to fetch cars and bags — not unlike how I felt staying at the resort in Key West where it seemed almost as if everyone was speaking a foreign language (one that came from one’s relationship with money).

San Anton outside Castrojeriz

just before arriving in Castrojeriz are ruins of an old monastery and hospital de peregrinos — San Antón de Castrojeriz. Alfonso VII helped underwrite the original hospital and church in 1146, though the remaining buildings date primarily from the 14th and 15th centuries. hospices run by the Order of San Antón (Saint Anthony), sprung up all over Europe — first in France and later in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere — were known for their success in alleviating or curing various ailments, though ergot poisoning was chief among them. (ergot poisoning stemmed from eating fungus-infected barley bread and improved by a change in diet — i.e. no more barley bread and an increase in wine consumption — and physical activity — i.e. Camino.) 

although the building is mostly ruins, it does still function as an albergue during milder months when Camino traffic is heavier. the most impressive remnant of the original monastery is the archway spanning the Camino. peregrinos arriving too late to gain access to the hospital shelter under the archway for the night and monks would leave food in the niches that line the walls. while residents no longer leave vittles in the alcoves, peregrinos often leave notes to one another, held down by stones or other weights. we saw notes left for people in quite a few places, but nowhere as many little scraps of paper as here.
my books reference the remarkable artistry of the carvings lining the opposite side of the archway — in archivolts (curved ornamental moldings along the underside of the arch), which must have been truly spectacularconsidering how impressive they remain in spite of centuries of deterioration. at the west end of the ruins plaques featuring the insignia of the Order of San Antón remain, near what remains of the rose window and coats of arms from French and German families.

Hornillos and its albergue

the town that followed Burgos was something of the polar opposite of the sprawling, urban, cosmopolitan metropolis. Hornillos has a population of approximately 70 (according to the 2004 census); we didn’t see much evidence of those inhabitants upon our noontime arrival under brilliantly blue, cloud-strewn skies. there were two lodging options: a small casa rural (that had a sign out front indicating it was booked solid for the night) and the albergue municipal. 
the next option for lodging was some seven or eight additional kilometers — a distance we had no interest in traversing in light of our various physical afflictions. a compact stone building immediately next to the church housed some 40 bunks for peregrinos. of course, most peregrinos opt not to continue on beyond Hornillos and 40-odd bunks and perhaps a half dozen private beds didn’t suffice for our not-quite-peak-season. when the bunks in the stone building filled up, overflow peregrinos are assigned mattresses on the floor of town hall and, once all that floor space is occupied, on the floor of the sports complex behind the albergue building. (see that white building beyond the laundry in the picture at the top — that’s the sports complex.) by the time we got to the showers in the albergue, the water was fully cold, so I suppose sleeping on a gym floor and using locker room showers wouldn’t be all that bad. what can you expect for 5 euros?
Hornillos was our first taste of truly limited options. in addition to one casa rural and one albergue, there was one bar/cafe and one corner shop. while the corner shop proved fairly well-stocked (with a disproportionate share of German snack foods), the bar/cafe only had about 8 tables to seat about 40 — half of the seats in the bar with a more a la carte-style menu (like sandwiches and plates of food) while if you sat in the cafe part (as we did), it was menu del peregrino or nothing as we and, much to their consternation, a group of 8 English-speakers found out because there were no seats in the bar area.
the town plaza and its one bar/cafe

despite the rather bland options (for a vegetarian in particular) on offer for the menu del peregrino, we did get seated with an older Spanish couple in a bid to maximize table capacity. through my limited Spanish we managed to converse a bit about our respective Caminos — the husband had done the walk before and offered some advice on the stretch beyond Astorga. that’s about all I remember about them, despite the fact that they slept in the bunks beneath ours in Hornillos and we saw them pretty much every day until we got to León. apart from eating our meal, stocking up for the following day, and trading between Kindle and paperback, there wasn’t much to do. despite dire predictions of Olympic-level snoring in our room full of middle-aged men, I slept pretty well — doesn’t hurt to fall asleep before everyone else while the sun is still setting — and we were up and on the road before it rose the next morning.

Villafranca Montes de Oca

the day we walked through Villafranca Montes de Oca we finally got chatting to a very social American couple from Virginia; it seemed they’d gotten the skinny on all the English-speaking peregrinos in our band and were, as we came to appreciate, very friendly conversationalists. they were also some of the first people we encountered who had their bags (containing the bulk of their luggage) transported from their starting point to their destination each day and only carried small daypacks with snacks, water, directions, whatever. whether their lighter packs or their general level of fitness, once we fell into conversation (and step) with them, we rather booked it to our half-way point for the day. maybe we would have made Villafranca by 11:00a.m. anyway, but the time certainly felt like it flew by.

founded by the Romans (and perhaps before by Iron Age settlers as early as 700 B.C.E.) the sizable town of Auca (home to bishops the first of whom was purportedly named by Santiago himself) was partially destroyed during the Muslim invasion of the 8th century. the town never recovered its former power and glory and now the busy N-120 bisects it, carrying all manner of lorries past at top speeds.

we stopped for food at the first cafe which our guidebook referred to as a “truck stop” where drivers fueled up before heading through the Puerto de la Pedraja. the hills divide two river watersheds — that of the Ebro (flowing into the Mediterranean) and the Duero (flowing into the Atlantic). the cafe where we rested contained, among other things, dried pork legs hanging from the ceiling, ready for slicing up for a bocadillo de jamon. once rested and noshed, we climbed up into the eponymous Montes de Oca — desolate and hilly scrub land covering the surrounding countryside.  the Camino is well marked now but, as there are few distinguishing landscape features, previous peregrinos routinely got turned around. they proved easy prey for bandits (and wild animals) that roamed the hills.

Alto de Perdon

we had lots of firsts on our hike from Pamplona to Puente la Reina, foremost being our first really sunny day. a good night’s sleep and wonderful breakfast at the Palacio Guendulain had us leaving a bit later than the previous two days, which made the day even more challenging.

leaving Pamplona we walked through the campus of the University of Navarra (you know, the one run by Opus Dei) into a valley where, apparently, the city used to hang felons convicted of theft. beyond the village of Cizur Menor are the ruins of the original Guendulain manor house dating from the 16th century. from here we started an increasingly steep climb up the mountainside, stopping briefly in Zariquiegui to catch our breaths and refill water sacks from the tap next to the church. it was on the ascent into Zariquiegui we saw our first rescue vehicle — a guarda civil followed shortly by some EMT-looking types — assisting someone who hadn’t prepared for the day’s climb or heat. just above the town there’s a fountain of legend — the story goes that the Devil appeared before an exhausted and thirsty peregrino and offered him water if he would renounce his faith; the peregrino refused and Santiago appeared and led him to the fountain that remains today where the Saint offered him a drink from a scallop shell.

a hermitage and basilica once stood at on the Puente de Perdón which ran a hospital for peregrinos that is documented to have functioned until at least 1816. the buildings no longer remain, replaced by a line of wind turbines along the ridge — a parque eólico — built in the region around Pamplona. in 1996, the association of friends of the Camino constructed an impressive and evocative monument to peregrinos in the gap of wind turbines along the ridge. both our guidebook and the cultural “handbook” I’m browsing now bemoan the change wrought by the turbines — adding their “pfoomp pfoomp” to “ruin” the peace of the Camino. I cannot agree on this count — the turbines are incredible feats of engineering to behold and this is by far the closest I’ve ever been to one. you see them frequently along the Camino and I found it a great reminder of how the Camino and peregrinos have changed over the centuries.

the puente of Puente la Reina

Puente la Reina lies at the meeting of two paths of the Camino – that from France and that from Aragon. not surprisingly, the king established the town in the early 12th century to serve and assist the flow of peregrinos.

in the early 11th century, peregrinos had to rely on ferry operators up and down the banks of the Arga to get them across to continue their Camino. not surprisingly, there were some unscrupulous characters operating these ferries doing their best to hoodwink, misdirect, or just plain rob unsuspecting peregrinos. (obviously an age-old problem: who’s going to complain about terrible service when they’re never going to be in that position ever again? and how would you communicate that information anyway? fortunately, we didn’t have much of that on our Camino.) to eliminate this problem, a Queen of Navarra (usually thought to be Doña Mayor, wife of Sancho III of Pamplona, or Doña Estefanía, wife of García III of Nájera) ordered the construction of a bridge over the Agra.

the bridge has six arches, the most easterly of which is now underground. When it was built it also had three defensive towers, one of which featured carvings of the Virgin of Puy (which means bird) and which, according to legend, a bird came to wipe away cobwebs and wash the statue’s face with water from the river.

the town flourished for several centuries; the Templars were present for a period; several churches were constructed; citizens participated to varying degrees in wars, rebellions and the Carlist wars. besides the bridge, there’s a Templar-built church with a unique Y-shaped crucifix said to have been carried by German peregrinos from their homeland.

the Cathedral of Santiago and the origins of the Camino

I’ll start with a picture from our destination. 

after departing well before sunrise, using a headlamp to make our way through eucalyptus forest, getting lost for the first time on the entire journey, dodging ubiquitous city traffic, and getting stuck behind slow-moving, German day-trippers, we came through an archway, serenaded by a gaita (Galician bagpipes) and emerged into the Praza Obradoiro. the hulking Ayuntamiento de Santiago (government building) filled one side of the plaza and facing it stood the expansive Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, backlit by the bright mid-morning sunshine. though the architecture of Burgos might seem more impressive from the outside or the stained glass of Leon more impressive inside, neither could compare in the elation that arose while standing in the middle of the plaza looking up at the place we’d traveled 500 miles on foot to reach.

in a few words, the Catholic dimension of the Camino stems from the belief that the remains of the Apostle Saint James lie in the sepulcher under the cathedral. legend holds that, after his beheading in Jerusalem, his remains were brought to Spain in a stone boat by way of Finisterre and buried; his tomb was lost in the 3rd century but re-discovered in 814 when the hermit Pelayo saw strange lights the night sky. the bishop recognized the discovery as a miracle and the king, Alfonso II, ordered the construction of a chapel on the site to which, legend holds, he was the first peregrino. (more on the cathedral itself at a later date.)

parts of the Camino certainly pre-date Christianity — Romans followed the light of the Milky Way along the route to the ocean; even after it became a Church-sanctioned pilgrimage to receive plenary indulgence, various routes (such as the Via de la Plata and the Camino Frances) served as major trading roads. the first recorded peregrinos from beyond the Pyrenees arrived in the 10th century and flow increased in the 12th century when Calixtus II started Compostelan Holy Years and had a guide published (the Codex Calixtinus which remains the foundation for many of the existing routes). infrastructure improved and the flow of peregrinos increased steadily until the Black Plague and political unrest throughout Europe in the 16th century cut down numbers. in 1985, fewer than 700 people arrived in Santiago as peregrinos but, following the Camino’s designation as both a European Cultural Route and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, numbers have increased steadily and exponentially. during the most recent Holy Year (2010) nearly of 280,000 peregrinos received Compostelas (the certificate of completion bestowed by the Church upon those who have walked the last 100km or biked the last 200km).

to be certain — only a fraction of those travel along the route for the distance we trekked. we certainly met many people who did (several fond examples come to mind). on a given day we’d encounter between 20 and 50 other peregrinos, but not all of those intended to complete the whole route in one go. it’s fairly common for Europeans to do the route in three or more stages, breaking the trip up into more manageable chunks that still allow them to receive the Compostela upon conclusion. somewhat surprisingly, though, we also met more than a few people who’d hiked the Camino — from Roncesvalles or St. Jean — more than once. in light of the Camino’s popularity (and thanks, in part, I’m sure to Emilio Estevez’s “The Way”), numbers will surly grow as time progresses.

a note on language

as I write about my time in Spain, I’m going to stick with the language I used while I was there — mostly Spanish, with a little French and Galego thrown in for good measure. two words I’ll use a lot:

peregrino: pilgrim
albergue/aulberge: pilgrim hostel. just like your average tourist hostel but reserved for use by peregrinos only

more to come soon!