Thursday 27 December 2007

The Santiago Road: The Ninth Day

Saturday, June 1, 2002
Rabanal del Camino to O Cebreiro
94.92 km, total for trip 778.76 km

After the previous night’s pouring rain, I was relieved to see that the skies had cleared and I was greeted by bright blue skies and cold morning mountain air. After another modest breakfast, I continued my trip northwestwards, still going along the quiet LE 142. The road, which had originally been built by the Romans, was in good condition and climbed very gently. On either side were markers for snowplows, indicative of the kind of weather that this mountain region gets in winter. After 6 kms or so I came to the ruined 2000 year-old village of Foncebadón, where there are only some piles of local slate to indicate where the houses once were.

A short distance beyond a more serious climb began and I passed a surprising number of pilgrims walking towards the summit. The Marinoni and I were in synch and rolled swiftly up to the top of the pass of Foncebadón, crossing the top of Monte Irago at 1504 m. The summit was marked with a large iron cross, the Cruz de Fierro, and a huge pile of rocks. This is, I think, the highest point on the Camino de Santiago. The Celts had marked passes with stone cairns (in fact, the word cairn is itself Celtic), and the Romans had also carried on this custom. Modern pilgrims leave stones at the top of the rock pile but I had not brought one with me, considering that I already had enough stuff to schlep across Spain, but from the summit I had a fine, if daunting, view of the mountains of Galicia ahead.

I began the descent, passing through more villages. El Acebo was not much more than a single street and a church, although there is a monument on the edge of the settlement to a German cyclist, Heinrich Krause, who died here of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 70. Historically, a lot of pilgrims had never come back from the trip but it was strange to think of it happening so recently. And ironic that somebody would die of a heart attack on the descent...

The road was now in rather poor condition, with potholes everywhere. Luckily there was no traffic so I was able to pick my way through the least rough sections. However, the road became quite steep and I was forced to break heavily to prevent the bike from getting away on the rough road since my speed would instantly jump to 50 km/h if I relented. At one point I stopped to take a photograph and let the aluminum rims cool down as I did not want to run the risk of a flat caused by excessive heat!

The next village of note was Molinaseca which I passed at high speed, tearing down the superb empty road, with its excellent curves, at 60 km/h. The village sits across a gorge cut by the Río Meruelo and two ancient bridges remain. It was another important pilgrim waystop but not as important my next stop, the large market town of Ponferrada.

Originally owing its wealth the major mineral deposits, Ponferrada was already ancient when the Romans added it to their empire. The Visigoths destroyed it around 456 and the Moors did it again in the 9th Century but it was soon after reconquered and, in 1178, at the height of the pilgrimage, was entrused to the Knights Templar as a base to protect the pilgrim roads. Subsequently it became an important market town, with a well-integrated Jewish community, resisting segregation until an agent was sent by Queen Isabel in 1884 to enforce conformity with royal decrees.

The city became something of a backwater, although the railroad reached it in 1882, but boomed with the development of local collieries in the 1940s. These were pretty well abandoned by the 1980s and the town, which has a population of 65,000, survives today primarily on agriculture and tourism connected to the Camino. In fact, there are ancient Roman gold mines nearby that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

What is most notable about the town today, besides the very attractive Municipal Square and not much else, is the Templar castle, which was constructed very rapidly (between 1218 and 1282) over the ruins of a pre-Roman fortress. It was the seat of the Grand Master of Castile (now there’s a title for you!). Unfortunately, the Knights Templar were disbanded as a result of various scandals and political machinations in 1312 and the castle was fought over by several local noble families embroiled in dynastic wars. It was finally confiscated for the Crown in 1507, and then eventually sold to the Marqués de Villafranca in 1558. It actually was attacked during the 19th Century Peninsular War. Afterwards, with no military function any longer, it was used as a quarry for other buildings in the town. It has been undergoing restoration and it is very impressive in its dimensions, covering some 16,000 square meters. However, it appears to me to be suffering severely from over-restoration, looking more Disney than Templar. After a few decades of aging this will probably improve its appearance. Jousting tournaments are held at the castle and the banners flying on the parapets were wonderful to see under the cloudless Spanish skies.

My route took me alongside the Río Valcarce to Villafranca del Bierzo, which is situated at the west end of the fertile Bierzo basin. The name is interesting as it translates out to "Foreigners’ Town", owing its growth to the increase in pilgrimage traffic in the early 12th Century. But nothing lasts forever and the place was decimated by plague in 1589. The river flooded in the 18th Century and wrecked a good deal of the place, and then the English made a mess of the place in 1808. However, much of Villafranca’s Medieval and Renaissance character has been preserved and cycling into town was quite dramatic as one rises up from the river on a series of terraced inclines. There are three impressive churches in the main square.

But I was eager for the road ahead and soon the way began to go up again. I stopped for something to drink at a store and hotel near Terabadelo. A cute German girl was working there and she seemed very happy to have someone chat to her for a while. But pilgrims have itineraries to meet. However, if I had known what was coming I might have dallied a while longer...

The road began to pitch up pretty seriously now, and a highway ran parallel to my little road, sometimes crossing it, and not doing much for the atmosphere. I was getting hot and tired and the road showed no sign of relenting. Annoying flies began to buzz around my face as I ground my way slowly onwards. I was hurting on what was the hardest stretch of road on the trip so far and it was no surprise that in pilgrimage times the area had been infested with bandits. Although still part of León the architecture and culture are Galician. I had excellent views of the mountains ahead, which I would have enjoyed–the countryside is open and brushy, with heather and occasional stands of scrub oak--if I was not in such pain from the climb and if I was not also concerned about the weather. I thought of Herr Krause and his heart attack with some sympathy. The temperature had dropped and the sky had become dark, suggesting that we were going to be hit with another massive rainstorm. I was really at the limit when I finally crested the last ridge and came into the village of O Cebreiro, at 1293 m.

My inn in O Cebreiro
It was pretty cold here on top and the place, all dark slate, looked dreary. Interestingly, a number of the buildings were circular and had straw roofs. It was clear that the place was surviving because of the pilgrim traffic and I was very worried that I would not be able to find a place to stay but the second place I came to, a tavern, had rooms available and I checked in, exhausted. Shortly afterwards it began to rain heavily.

I had to go outside and in through another day to get something to eat and by the time I left to go back to my room the rain was coming down so hard I was soaked in the short time I needed to just go around the building. Soon the rain was joined by thunder and lightning so violent it seemed to coming from just outside my window.

My day had been a good one, for the most part. I had seen a great deal, ridden just under 100 km and not gotten lost. On the other hand, I was completely exhausted. I had expected that the Roncesvalles Pass would be the hardest section of the Camino but I had been very mistaken.

1 comment:

Will said...


Reading this just adds another
trip to my "wish" list.

I love OLD castles, but yeah that does look a little Disney.

So many places to cycle ... so littlet time.