Day 20: Ponferrada to La Faba

We left Ponferrada in time to arrive in Villafranco de Bierzo by mid morning. After a quick tortilla de patata and coffee, we hit the streets for an abridged walking tour conducted by an overly caffeinated Mikey for the benefit of a shivering Frank.   It’s a little hard to lose the Camino in this town! 

This is the imposing Castle/Palace of the Marquis which dates to the 15th century. 

The 11th century romanesque Iglesia de Santiago is known for its Puerta de Perdon (Door of Forgiveness). Medieval pilgrims who could not continue to Santiago received absolution by passing through this church’s doors. We tried the door, but it was locked. Guess it’s on to Santiago, then. 

 This convent was at one time a pilgrim hospital. 

 The Iglesia Colegiata is a 16th century church built on the ruins ofa 12th century monastery.   

Frank really is happy to pose with a fellow pilgrim – he’s just freezing this morning! (Notice his gloves.)

 Yup, Villafranco has a pretty neat bridge, too.  

Only 200km to go?! This is probably the happiest we’ve seen Frank in a while.  

Today’s path through the mountains was very beautiful. Although we walked alongside the highway for quite some time, between the infrequent Sunday morning drivers, we were serenaded by a nearby river, various birds, and other peaceful nature sounds.  

Still, upon entering a town we sometimes had the sneaky suspicion that we were being watched! 

Away from the highway, we were often able to walk down the middle of smaller roads. 

  We even got to try out our first “Automat” cafeteria. It works much like a school lunchroom – one picks a 1st and 2nd plate then gets a drink, bread, and dessert.   

This style of dining is often found at Spanish truckstops. In fact, we stumbled upon this one at said stop while walking down the highway. 

But, here’s the crazy part: it was Mother’s Day in Spain and the place was packed. We wondered how American mothers would react to dinner at a truckstop on this special day!

Probably with this kind of look. Still, Mikey wished this mom a happy Mother’s Day. (And yes, according to Frank’s brief talk on animal husbandry, this cow qualifies.) 

  After a very long day, we arrived in the small hamlet of La Faba. Frank posed with a fellow pilgrim outside of an albergue run by a German Confraternity. As Helmut the hospitaller explained, volunteers like himself comit to a two week stint working in albergues along the Camino. They have normally walked at least some of the Camino and/or are involved with a religous order that supports the act of pilgrimage.  

We’d better wrap this up for now as the Germans will most likely lock the albergue doors PROMPTLY at 10pm. Buenas noches. 

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Day 19: Molinaseca to Ponferrada 

With laundry done, we settled in for the night in a very comfy room (note that, at this point, “comfy” is anything with a private bedroom and bathroom!) Aparently, American reality TV shows are pretty popular in Spain as the majority of the English language programs were reruns of Deadliest Catch and House Hunters. Pretty dull. Sleep came early and we got up to try what was billed as “the best breakfast on the Camino.” 

Breakfast was pretty good, but the beans were definitely from a can (thereby disqualifying it from any “best of Camino” award. 

This was one of the more beautiful days en route. We spent most of the morning walking through pastures with amazing vistas like this. 

We reached the medieval city of Ponferrada shortly before noon. Yeah, this 12th century bridge was an appropriatly flashy entrance for Frank and Mikey. 

 Frank standing in front of the 12th century Templar castle. Although most of it was rebuilt during the 14-16th centuries, it was still an impressive sight.  Too bad the moat was dry – it would’ve been a perfect day for a swim!

This is part of the original structure. We climbed to the top of the tower via a really sketchy circular stone staircase.  

17th century Iglesia San Andres.  

16th century Basilica de la Encina.  

In honor of Mother’s Day (May 1st), the basilica held a procession the night before featuring a “passo” of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Kinda rad and unexpected by us! 

The castle looked amazing at night.  

This was the best find in the whole city – a meat vending machine! That’s right, no longer will siesta or early store closings stop our cured meat cravings. Starting at only 2€, this vending machine can satiate ones most primal desires at any hour. Only in Spain!

Ponferrada was an unexpected stopover, so we’ll be zooming through a lot tomorrow. Still, it was well worth it and we did enjoy a rest from the backpacks if only for a little while. Hasta pronto. 

Day 18: Foncebadon to Molinaseca

Last night’s sleeping arrangements could probably have been better. Frank is still not sure whether it was our French or German bunk mates who flavored the room so pungently. Still, we awoke rather early for mountain village time, and gathered our things. 

Our host from the previous evening greeted us and asked if we were hungry. Looking around at other pilgrims’ coffees and plates of toast, Mikey was a bit hesitant. After all, one can only consume so many carbs in a day! But our host understood our quandary and instructed Mikey to sit down and wait for breakfast. 
Needless to say, all the other pilgrims were jealous of our “American Breakfast” of eggs, bacon, and (of course) bread. 

Oh, and you can totally tell whether bacon is fresh based off of the skin. This porker was definitely a local resident. 

 Ok, no relation to our breakfast – we just thought that the horses in a pasture with snow capped mountains in the background were worth posting. The morning was completely beautiful with only a few wispy clouds. This was perhaps the most picturesque start to a day yet.

The Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) is one of the most iconic places on the Camino Frances. It has a great camio in the movie The Way and is written about in all Camino guides. So, what’s it all about?

Well, the Cruz de Ferro (Mikey begins as he puts on his professor hat) stands 1,505 meters atop a mountain along the way. A tradition dating back to the late medieval period exists wherein pilgrims deposit a stone carried with them from their point of origin. Ergo, there’s a big pile of rocks at the cross’s base. But wait, there’s more!

The mountain was originally a holy place of worship for the Roman god Mercury until it was “christianized” during the middle ages by placing an iron cross at its summit. And while we are splitting hairs, the mountain is actually 1,500 meters high, but the pile of rocks measures 5 additional meters raising the summit to 1,505m in total. 

 Just off from the Cruz de Ferro stands a quiet hermitage which is a bit more modern.  

ALSO standing nearby is a heifer who don’t play! She tried to charge Mikey 3€ for this picture. Talk about primadonna!

This was our amazing view for a large part of the day. Mikey thinks the mountains looked good, too.  

What goes up, must eventually come down – including Frank. The hardest part of today was descending the peaks we had climbed over the past few days. This picture does not accurately portray how treacherous our hike was. Frank is walking at a 35% grade over loose shale rocks. Hang ten, Papa!

Speaking of shale, we noticed that something was missing from this picture: terracotta roofs! As we saw in the picture above, this region abounds with shale rock. Thus, no one wastes time baking clay shingles when they can layer thin shale rock over their heads. 

Something else was missing: food in our stomachs. So Frank and Mikey took a break and grabbed some healthy grub. 

This is the standard Spanish salad. It consists of lettuce, tomato, onion, tuna, carrots, and corn. The last two ingredients are optional, but the first four are mandatory. This is served with olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. (Fun fact: a salad with tuna is considered to be vegetarian!)

 Speaking of healthy grub, Mikey got his first taste of Galician cider! Unlike that in the Basque Country, this cider is sweet and carbonated. Yum!

This is a typical sight entering many of the villages in this area. Again, notice the shale roof. 
Just a picturesque reminder of where we’re headed. 

After many miles and steep descents, we caught sight of our destination, Molinaseca. Prominent in the skyline is the 17th century Church of Saint Nicholas. 

Pilgrims enter the city via the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge). While this is actually a medieval bridge, it is built atop the ruins of an original Roman structure. 

Mikey likes it!
Just a front-facing view of the Iglesia de San Nicolas. 

We stayed at a really amazing hotel called the Palacio Hostal. Oh, and the manager did like ALL of our laundry for 7€! Total score, plus we had a balcony overlooking one of the main streets. The trees out front were kinda wacko, though. 

  Speaking of wacko, this was a most original way of promoting a grocery store. Take note, hipster DJ wannabes working that sales job! 
 
Still, we decided to go out for cooked food at a restaurant along the river. Oh, boy!

  In honor of the Camino and its scallop theme, we feasted on some grilled shellfish. The ones on the left are grilled with a delicious crême sauce while those to the right are more traditional olive oil and garlic based. In case you were wondering, neither Frank nor Mikey could decide which was better. 

For the main course, we both opted for fried local river trout. Having passed SO many streams and rivers, we mutually concluded that there must be something tasty in the water. Yep, Mikey and Frank called this one spot-on. 

Unlike American-style fried fish, the Spanish do not batter their catch. Instead, they clean said delicacy and drop it into a shallow pan of sizzling olive oil with garlic. A pinch of salt and pepper finishes off the dish perfectly. That is to say, “fall-off-the-bone perfection!” 

Well, that’s about all for this leg of our journey. Tomorrow will be a short walk TO a city and a LONG walk through all it offers. Stay tuned for Ponferrada! Buenas noches, vos. 

Day 17: Astorga to Foncebadon

Good morning! We awoke in the albergue  this morning to anything “butt.” That is to say, such close quarters can really be trying. As Mikey puts it, “Good morning!” is simply an antiquated Europeanism that should have ended with the plague. It celebrates Gunter’s making it through the night or Olaf not being carried away by wolves. Yes, those were good mornings. 

Conversely, waking up to a geriatric Frenchman parading around in bicycle shorts or the inharmonious calliope of communal morning flatulence is anything but good. Let’s just do away with the niceties and put on pants!

The above aside, we did have reason to celebrate this morning as we left the Meseta! Well…kind of. Astorga marks the geographical end of the Spanish high plains. While we have officially left them behind, we will not reach the geographically and politically distinct region of Galicia for a few more days. Still, green grass and hills are a welcomed sight after the monotony we have endured.  

“Oh dear Camino marker, lead us on to Santiago. Wait a second, we forgot what hills feel like!”

 The town of Santa Catalina first introduced us to rock wall ruins. It (and many other towns) had fallen to near oblivion in the later part of the 20th century only to be revived by the Camino. While the remains of many abandoned houses and small farms abound, there are many thriving, albeit small, communities of inhabitants along the way. 

As an aside, we also met up with a trail mate (Mike) whom we had not seen since Day 3! 
 The advantage of walking at a faster pace is getting to select the rest stops. Please know that Frank was not in the lead today when we arrived in El Ganso!

 As the day warmed up a bit, many of the clouds began to break up. We can tell that Spring is finally coming by wildflowers blooming along the path. 

 Even Pilgrim Mikey was feeling a bit lighter today.  

We finally reached our goal of Foncebadon. It is a mountain hamlet that has also experienced rebirth due entirely to the Camino. 

In 1900, the village had a population of some 250. By 1990, it had become abandoned. Thus, we walked through some rather eerie ruins of homes and shops before arriving at our albergue an only restaurant in town. Oh, and by “town,” we mean the one street that runs through the hamlet! 

Still, it was a nice getaway from the more populated pilgrim stopovers and we had a great dinner. Time to pile into the bunk room and get an early start in the morning. Adios. 

Day 16: San Martín del Camino to Astorga 

After the early-onset food comas due to copious amounts of paella at dinner last night, Frank and Mikey got some much needed sleep and an early start this morning. Still, the going was rough due to monotonous terrain. Sure, we had a wooded walk at times, but the majority of our first 6km was alongside the highway. No bueno.


Yes, it looks nice, but the dew wet our boots (luckily waterproof) and Mikey cleared the trail of spider webs with his face. Enough complaining, though – we are on an epic journey! Let’s allow Mikey to share another Camino tale which took place some time ago:

Once upon a time, there was a knight who fell in love with a young maiden. After publicly professing his love and formally requesting her hand in marriage, it came as quite a blow to his ego and honor when she declined his matrimonial offer.

Our spurned knight could no longer appear at court much less ask for another maiden’s hand in marriage. Thus, he quit his town and rode off in search of adventure and an opportunity to reinstate his honor.

One day, he happened upon an unguarded Templar bridge at the entrance to a city. Positioning himself midway across, under the guise of guaranteeing the safe passage of pilgrims and townspeople alike, he began challenging any passing knights to a duel.

This continued for quite a while and after breaking some 300 lances on (and thereby defeating) his opponents, it was decided that his honor was no longer in question and he could leave the bridge. While it must have been a relief for the township to now have its bridge cleared of said “knight errant,” our penitent and clearly oblivious friend rode on to Santiago de Compestella to give thanks for his restored honor.

 Mikey kept his trekking poles holstered, but at the ready, as he made his way across the Puente del Rio Orbigo.
Actually, the worst part of crossing the bridge was lack of an open breakfast spot on the other side! Hence, sirs Frank and Mikey tarried for 2 more kilometers on empty stomachs.

 

At long last, their hunger was satiated with a ham and egg scramble, toast, oj, and coffee. Trust us, this is a feast in Spain!

 Still, all good things must come to an end and we found ourselves back in the Meseta in no time.

 Weather in the high plains is very unpredictable. We walked on dry, cracked  ground for quite some time only to come across a muddy pond and bogged down roads within a kilometer.

 Oh to be a farm animal!

 Speaking of which, Frank started sweet-talking some heifers on a farm through which we walked.

Meanwhile, Mikey made friends with this little calf. She was quite spirited, so he named her Elvis!


We trudged on for many miles before reaching this cross marker on a hilltop overlooking Astorga.

 Mikey and a fellow pilgrim celebrated with a swig of Brita-filtered Spanish H2O!

 Frank crossing a bridge into the city.

And, BAM! There’s your medieval cathedral. We were quite interested in the variety of stone used in the facade.

 The altar was much simpler than other examples we have seen from this period. Still, the sheer mass of stone and open space was fascinating.

These stained glass windows were from a later period when light and airy colors were more appreciated.


Ok, that’s kinda creepy!

The world-renowned architect Antoni Gaudi is famous for his Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) and many other buildings in Cataluña, Spain. In fact, there exist only two of his major constructions outside of that region. The Bishop’s Palace in Astorga is one of the two. It was completed in the first quarter of the 20th century.

 Some of the rooms seem very Oxfordesque or maybe even akin to Hogwarts.

 This is inside the bishops’ private chapel.

 A collection of Santiago-themed art is currently housed at the (renamed) Gaudi Museum. This is a 17th century statue of Santiago.

  This 15th century oil on wooden panel depicts Santiago and Saint Peter. Oh, and Mikey totally wants that hat!


This is the city hall building. It was erected at the end of the 17th century and has some pretty rad bell-ringer figures.
After all that walking, we had some local dishes for dinner:


Local Cod with garbanzo beans and rice in a tomato sauce.  
Steak in a mushroom sauce with white rice.  Oven-roasted chicken quarter with red peppers and potatoes.
Astorga was fun, but we filled almost every free moment with touristy things. While this was a very informative and culturally enlightening stopover, we hope that a quieter evening tomorrow will offer more rest. Buenas noches.

Day 15: Leon to San Martín del Camino

After much rest (well, rest from carrying our packs) in Leon, we got back onto the trail this morning. In what seems to be an ever recurring theme, Frank and Mikey exited the city via a bridge (Puente rio Bernesga). Still, we had some 7km of suburbs to cover before officially leaving Leon.

Mikey’s theory is that the larger the city, the longer it takes to enter and exit. Too bad😔

At least the water levels in Leon have receded. Having been plagued by extreme rains and unseasonably cold weather, we were happy to see some reprieve in this.

 The Iglesia de San Froulan sports modern bronze statues of the 12 apostles and the virgin floating above them. Apparently many miracles have been performed here since the 16th century.

 Talk about creepy lawn ornaments! We came across this treasure and were a little freaked out. Let’s just say that Mikey crossed the road with a quickness.


At least this Camino Gnome was patriotic.

 We often pass by abandoned churches in equally abandoned towns. But today in the hamlet of San Miguel del Camino, Frank noticed that this church was very much inhabited by a small parish of cranes.

 Back on the Meseta, the theme is utter desolation. Frank laughed at Mikey for taking this picture, but it captured perfectly the vast emptiness we endured for hours today. Thankfully, we will be leaving the Meseta soon!

Mikey has entitled this picture, “Missed Opportunity.”

This gem, however, was not lost on either of us! True, the French bread was a bit hard to manage and neither Mikey nor Frank could actually eat their burgers without the aid of fork and knife, but it was a gastronomical adventure. Yay for Spanish N-120 truck stop diners!

“Back to reality…” Walking after a meal is often nice, but Frank charged on with two direct goals: to find a bed and shower.

We checked into a very nice private albergue called Santa Ana de San Martín del Camino. Frank and Mikey decided to spring for a private room as the large dormitories of snoring pilgrims can often be unbearable. As such, we each kept a shoe nearby to launch at one another in the event of similar disturbance.

The highlight of this albergue was the paella. The hospitaleros (a husband and wife team) were most accommodating hosts. Considering the ease of checking in, laundry service, sommelier guide, and one being the best paella chef in the north of Spain, these two rock! A word about paella: Frank has had a hankering for it since crossing the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, this is a typically southern-Spanish dish hailing from Seville and various parts south of Madrid. Yes, one can find it in the north, but it is much less authentic.

Tonight broke all rules. Our host made the batch you see above. It took several hours, but that pan fed 10 people with many (Frank included) having second helpings. BTW, there was still a lot left after all had eaten.

Unlike many southern paellas, this one was made with heaps of fresh vegetables from our hosts’ garden. Sure, it had pork for protein, but the highlight was the plethora of organically grown veggies. In a country that believes solely in meat, bread, and potatoes, this was off the charts rad!

Oh, and Mikey got to try an amazing 2011 Rioja Reserve. That was his highlight, but he claims he can write it off as a business expense. If all could be as lucky!

We must leave you now and return to the mundanity of folding laundry. Our goal is to leave early and arrive in the town of Astorga by lunchtime. Lots of pictures to follow on that one! Adios.

Day 14: Reliegos to Leon

Frank and Mikey woke early to begin the 25km march to Leon. The morning began with a beautiful sunrise before totally drenching us later in the day. Oh, well. Due to weather, Mikey was conservative with the camera. Still, we have a rest day in Leon, so maybe a few more pictures next time. 

The morning sky leaving Reliegos. 

 Frank in front of the city walls in Mansilla de las Mulas.  

For whatever reason, this emergency call box sign REALLY disturbed Mikey.  

Impromptu markers like this are common on the Camino. Either someone died or retired their boots here some time ago. Frank and Mikey kept going. 

  We kept going, that is, until reaching a footbridge with most detailed instructions for passage. Frank’s still not sure if we executed our crossing correctly and Mikey has since vowed to swim across rivers when at all possible. 

A little confused, we stopped halfway across to snap a picture of our efforts. 

 After miles of rainy weather, we were happy to see this overwhelmed bridge at the entrance to Leon.  
    
We dried out a bit before going to the cathedral square for a late night dinner and a few pictures. The cathedral was closed for Saint George’s Day, but we will tour it tomorrow and will have some shots from the interior. G’ nite!