Part four of my Camino blog covers the last 250km section of the Camino Francés into Santiago. I head back into the mountains, over the highest points on the Camino then into Galicia for the final 100 miles. The scenery changes dramatically and there are some unexpected surprises along The Way!
Day 20: Santa Catalina to Ponferrada (40km)
“”Sometimes the boring, mundane is needed. How different is walking the Camino to doing a job? Every day we get up and do the same thing. Some days are good, some bad. We meet people we like, and people we dislike but we have to learn to live together and tolerate our different views and reasons for being here” (Journal Entry)
Finally, the boring Meseta is behind me and today I’m heading back into the mountains and over the highest point on the Camino Francés. I’m in high spirits leaving the albergue and walk without seeing another person while the sun rises to Rabanal where the climb starts. With every step West the scenery and climate changes, clouds form over the snow-capped mountains and the temperature drops as the Camino slowly gains altitude.
Rabanal looks like a fantastic little village and I stop at the shop for breakfast and to pick up some supplies for the day. Opposite the cafe there’s a little hippy garden with hammocks, tents and various chairs setup where I sit to eat breakfast. There’s loads of empty wine bottles and beer cans in the rubbish bin – I bet it’s a great place to hang out in the evenings. Unfortunately for me, it’s 09:00 and I have many more miles to cover today.
As I leave Rabanal, I reach into a little pocket in my backpack and pull out a small stone and am suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion, it’s very unexpected and I’ve never felt anything like it before! I picked up this stone from The Gower in Wales a few weeks ago on a run and have carried it with me since leaving Cardiff 3 weeks ago. At the top of this climb is a place called Cruz de Ferro, (Cross of Iron) the highest point on the Camino Francés. At the base of the cross is a pile of stones… Pilgrims traditionally carry a stone from the start of their Camino to this point and leave their stone at the base of Cruz de Ferro. It’s symbolic and means different things to different people, I like the idea that the stone symbolises something you want to “leave behind” at Cruz de Ferro. It’s a weight you’ve carried with you all this way, and you “let it go” here.
So, I hold my stone and make my way up the steady climb towards the Iron Cross quietly thinking about all the stuff I’ve seen and done, it’s a very, very powerful concept and I really didn’t think it would affect me like it does. A couple of km before the summit there’s another little Pilgrim village and suddenly I’m swamped by Americans making the trip up to Cruz de Ferro which completely breaks the spell, but it was there, it happened and I still remember the feeling and what it meant to me.
Coming out of the village I notice a nice pair of Black Diamond walking poles by the side of the trail. I wonder if I should pick them up as someone must have forgotten about them and no doubt they’ll be in front, but decide against it. About 2 minutes later I see an American ahead, (distinctive Osprey backpack) stop, throw her hands in the air, turn around and start running towards me. I shout “POLES?” at her – yes, it’s obvious the poles are hers. I jog back to the poles, pick them up and take them to her. I’m right – she’s American and very grateful, calling me her “Camino angel” – so that’s my good deed for the day done.
It’s now a short climb up to Cruz de Ferro and when it finally pops into view it’s swamped by pilgrims, cyclists and tourists who’ve taken a bus up here. It might have been nice to be on my own, but that’s unlikely to happen on one of the most famous places on the Camino Francés. I quietly walk up to the cross, drop my stone and quietly walk away, back down the other side of the mountain. After all the frivolity of the past 3 weeks, this is what the Camino is really about and leaving Cruz de Ferro, I really feel that I’m moving into the third and final act of my Camino.
It’s time for another coffee after all that, but first there’s a few more hilly lumps to get through. I pass through Manjarin – home to Tomas, the last of the Knights Templar. His albergue is apparently pretty wacky but there seems to be nobody around when I get there so I press on to the next town of Acebo a few km down the mountain to the first coffee shop I see. After getting a coffee I sit outside and am quickly joined by a large group of noisy American pilgrims, after being in the quiet mountains all day it’s an assault on the senses and I need to move on quickly. I also realise that this is exactly how our group behaved back in the first week on the Camino Francés, loud and with little consideration for others around us, interesting.
Next stop is Ponferrada – another big city on the Camino and I’ve started booking hostal rooms in advance, I’ve decided my dormitory bunk bed days are over. I’ll do it if I have to – but if I can find a cheap room, then that’s the way forward. No more rustling, snoring, farting or 05:00 Korean alarm calls thank you very much.
The hostal is in an urban part of Ponferrada, a couple of km outside the centre on the other side of town. There’s not much around aside from a supermarket so, after sitting outside for a while I buy some food and retreat to my room and listen to music for the rest of the evening.
Day 21: Ponferrada to Las Herrerias (48km)
It’s a long, noisy road walk to get out of Ponferrada in the morning and I’m increasingly irritated and annoyed by the road and traffic. However, after a few kms the Camino moves away from the road and back into the countryside and my mood lifts. The first town is Villafranca which is a really nice, scenic place. I don’t really fancy a coffee so find a supermarket and buy some picnic food before moving through the town to a point where I have a route choice to make.
There’s 3 possible routes out of Villafranca with difficulties varying from easy, (flat and boring) to hard, (mountainous and badly marked). My guide book recommends the middle option which it says is scenic and very beautiful. Just outside Villafranca I find the right turn for this option and decide to go for it. Ten minutes later, with sweat dripping off me I think that maybe I should have gone for the easy option – and I’m regretting buying all the picnic food that I’m carrying in a plastic bag up this monster hill! It’s a flipping steep climb for the first couple of km, but eventually the climb gets a bit shallower and I can catch my breath and look behind me. Yep – it’s pretty nice… Way down below I can see the “easy option” snaking beside the road with tiny ants that must be pilgrims walking. I only see one other pilgrim on this section – a German, (deuter backpack) who I meet just as we crest over the summit. I stop for a while and have my picnic – it’s times like these that make all the monotony worth it.
After 8km-or-so the alternative route rejoins the boring option that follows the road and I decide to treat myself to a glass of wine at the next bar. The next 10km is along the road which is sometimes like walking down the hard shoulder of a motorway with big trucks hurtling past at high speed, it’s pretty scary at times and I wonder why there isn’t a safer option, especially considering the volume of pilgrims. People get killed on this section by the traffic all the time and I’m not surprised.
My hostal is really nice, with a balcony overlooking the lovely little village of Las Herrerias. I head down to the bar after showering and my Vibram Fivefingers once again provide the conversation starter with an couple of elderly women from California. One of the women is an avid hiker and knows all about the Arizona Trail, she’s really interested to know about my experiences on the AZT so we chat a while and share a bottle of wine and some patatas bravas, (spicy potatoes). Her companion can’t seem to understand me and is obviously a bit deaf. She keeps turning and screeching at her friend “WHAAAAAT – III CAAAAN’T UNDERSTAAAND HIIIM”, if she had an ear trumpet the scene would be perfect. They’ve also decided to stop slumming-it in the dormitories, and taking the room option from here, there’s a lot of it going around it seems!
After a while I retreat to my balcony to ponder the next day, there’s a big climb up to O’Cebreiro which many people fear, about 600m over 7-8km which – even by fell running standards is a pretty decent effort. I overhear a Swede, German and Dutch pilgrim talking below my balcony later in the evening, the Dutch man is heading to La Faba tonight to get a head start on the climb before tomorrow. I decide to get an early night and leave before dawn so I can see the sunrise in the mountains.
Day 22: Las Herrias to Sarria (46km)
As planned, I’m up and away well before dawn – the American women from last night are also on their way as I leave the hostal by torchlight. There’s a couple of villages on the climb, with about 200m of ascent between each one. It’s a pretty steady gradient though and passes fairly quickly – I’m treated to an awesome sunrise over the mountains, the sky is all sorts of different colours just before the sun appears – it was worth the early start to see. I’ve loved the sunrises on the Camino – probably my favourite part of the day.
Just before I get to the top and O’Cebribo I enter Galicia – the final province in Spain that I’ll pass through. Galicia is an autonomous community with Celtic origins, it’s very different from the rest of Spain and has it’s own language and culture. It’s a fantastic place and a real treat after hundreds of miles of traditional Spanish villages and terrain. From here there are stone obelisk marker posts marking the Camino every few hundred metres with the distance to Santiago marked in km, the first one I see says 160km – that’s almost exactly 100 miles, I later think that this final 100 miles would make an absolutely amazing race! Maybe one day I will return to run it in a single go?
O’Cebribo is cold and very windy and I haven’t had breakfast yet so I find a cafe and sort myself out with coffee, orange juice and a pain-au-chocolat which hits the spot. It’s then a decent 20km walk to Tricastela with amazing scenery across the mountains. By the time I get to Tricastela I’m pretty hungry so find a supermarket, buy picnic food and find a nice spot to eat it with a beer and then leave town where there’s another route choice.
I go for the scenic San Xil route instead of the Samos option after tossing a coin as I really have no preference, Samos has a monastery but San Xil is more scenic… I’ve seen monasteries, and I’ve also “done” scenic! It’s a nice enough walk and I stop at a cafe later in the afternoon for a glass of wine. I’m liking this new routine, beer for lunch and wine in the afternoon – it’s working for me!
Sarria is another big city and the place where a lot of pilgrims start in order to receive their Compostela for walking at least 100km to Santiago. My hostal is right on the Camino and I meet a French man in the bar who I’ve met before – way back on the trail. He’s very surprised to see me as he’s been doing big 40km days and, like me hasn’t been passed by anyone else on the Camino so far. We chat for a bit, then a drunk local starts making a scene in the bar so we head off to our rooms. It’s getting quite late by the time I’ve sorted everything out so after grabbing a quick bit of food I’m in bed quite early.
Day 23: Sarria to Palas de Rei (47km)
I’m very tired this morning, which isn’t surprising really – having walked over 800km and putting in marathon+ efforts on a daily basis through the mountains! But it’s just over 100km to Santiago now and I have my sights firmly set on being there in 2 days which will be a Sunday – I think, to be honest, I don’t really have a clue what day or date it is. My watch is still at the bottom of my pack and I only really know the time by the position of the sun and the occasional clocktower or church bell!
Another amazing sunrise just outside Sarria lifts my spirits until, just outside the city I get my first real taste of the commercial side of the Camino in Barbadelo. I guess this is the first stop for people starting the Camino from Sarria and it’s full of shops selling Camino souvenirs and other tat. In order to gain a Compostela you need to have at least 2 sellos, (stamps) a day from Sarria and I’ve been collecting several each day recently – mainly to try and fill up the 56 spaces in my credencial by the time I’m finished, my aim is for the last stamp to be the one from Muxía – if I decide to go there after Santiago. I’m still undecided if I’ll continue after Santiago – at the moment, to be honest – I just want to stop walking and go home!
Anyway – in Barbadelo a shop keeper spots me and shouts “Sello” at me, I decide to humour him and go and get a stamp, obviously this is a ploy to get me into his shop. Once he’s stamped my credencial he goes on to try and sell me everything from Camino playing cards, to a scallop shell, t-shirt, mug, key ring, fridge magnet… Eventually I just say “No Necessito Nada” and walk away. If this is how the next 100km is going to be then my patience is really going to be tested! I may end this Camino in a worse state than when I began – oh dear…
It’s a decent walk to Portomarin where I buy picnic food and a couple of beers before heading out of town, I’ve spied a spot that looks good for lunch on the map so head off there, sit down, crack open a beer and have lunch. A few minutes later a girl comes along and says hello, she’s (I forget her name) a musician from Brighton who started in Sarria a couple of days ago and is heading to Santiago. She joins me for lunch and is eager to know about my adventures so far – being very impressed that I’ve walked 800km, and equally impressed that I’ve already walked from Sarria today! She also can’t believe how small my backpack is, and that I’ve survived for 3 weeks with so little – her backpack is huge! It’s a nice break from the monotony, and I’ve been on my own for a while so good to have some company. However, her pace is far too slow for me so we part company after lunch and I continue alone again.
My afternoon wine stop is welcome and I meet a girl from Leicester shortly afterwards who I notice picking up litter and putting it into a Tesco bag, (she MUST be British!). As I pass I say “Great work” with reference to the litter. I’ve been trying to pick up a few bits every day – leaving the Camino in a better state than I found it, a bit of Camino Karma can’t hurt can it? The only thing I won’t touch is tissue paper which is all over the place – it’s really irritating, why do people do it? She’s quite a character, plastered white in suntan lotion but fun to talk to so I slow my pace down a bit to chat. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but she’s stopping at an albergue that we pass so I say goodbye to her there. The albergue hospitalerio tries to tempt me to stay but I have a reservation at a hostal a few km further ahead and it’s getting late.
It is late when I find my hostal and it’s been a long day, I think I’m the only person in the hostal and certainly the only person in the restaurant at dinner. My Spanish is definitely improving as I conduct the whole evening in Spanish – from checking-in to ordering drinks and my meal and seem to be understood. As there’s nobody around to chat to after dinner I return to my room and listen to music until it’s time for lights-out.
Day 24: Palas de Rei to Arzúa (29km)
Again I wake up tired and sore, it’s a short day at only 29km to Arzúa so I’m not in any hurry to leave the hostal. However, once on the Camino and after a breakfast stop everything works itself out again. I’m becoming more-and-more in love with Galicia, it’s crumbling little medieval villages and the ever-present hórreos – grain stores built in wood and stone on pillars to keep rodents away, it’s weird that they’re just here in Galicia – I wonder why other provinces haven’t adopted the practice? Surely if it’s a good idea here, it’s a good idea anywhere.
I’m sitting having coffee when I hear a flute/recorder which appears to be attempting to play “Mama Mia” by ABBA getting louder, it’s accompanied by what sounds like a drum track provided by the tapping of walking poles. It’s quite a racket… Soon enough a young-ish man and woman appear – he’s playing the flute and she’s accompanying him on poles! I’m not sure, but I’d say they are American and – judging by their attire would say they are eternal pilgrims, living on the Camino, (and there are a few of them – just drifting endlessly through Spain) I’m just about to finish my coffee and head off, but really don’t want to get caught up with this pied-piper so order a beer and some tapas to give them a head start! I’m sure they think they’re entertaining all the pilgrims on the Camino but, judging by the reactions I see from others I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t appreciate it.
Arzúa is yet another decent-sized town, I find a room in a decent hostal and head to the supermarket over the road where I’m filling my basket when all of a sudden the lights go off and the music stops! Ah – it must be 14:30, siesta time… Everything shuts down from 14:30 – 17:00 in Spain. Fortunately I don’t get locked-in and manage to pay for my stuff and escape before the staff lock-up and head to the local bar. I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town on a bit of a bar crawl but don’t find anyone to talk to, there don’t seem to be many pilgrims around which is a bit strange. It’s been a bit of a disappointing, boring day to be honest and I’m glad when it’s over, I’m heading to Santiago tomorrow and the end of the Camino Francés.
Day 25: Arzúa to Santiago (40km)
The good news is that it’s the final day on the Camino Francés with only 40km to go, the bad news is it’s a Sunday and I’m on the most popular, crowded section of the Camino. But hey, maybe it won’t be too bad? The last few days have actually been pretty quiet, maybe everyone got the Camino out of their system over Easter last weekend?
After breakfast I leave the hostal and walk straight into a group of about 50 Spanish teenagers heading down the Camino – D’Oh! They’re noisily clanking wooden poles, playing music from their phones and generally doing all the stuff that teenagers do! However – the Camino has taught me tolerance, I must remember that and besides, how many teenagers in the UK would spend all day walking 40km on a Sunday for “fun”? I pass through them quite quickly though and the endless stream of pilgrims thins out a bit… There’s loads of mountain bikers on the Camino, unsurprising really as the terrain is ideal for mountain bikes, it’s Sunday and I guess it’s a nice day out riding into Santiago along the Camino – only spoilt by all the bloody pilgrims clogging up the trail!
Today is all about Santiago, it’s a decent hike to get there at almost 40km, I’m expecting the final 20km to get really busy and am trying to mentally prepare for the madness of Santiago when I pass a pilgrim who looks familiar… It’s only KOOS, the Dutch man who I met way back in St Jean and walked with for a couple of days! I can’t believe it, he’s equally happy to see me and so we team-up for the final walk into Santiago.
As we walk we tell stories of our journey since parting company, it turns out Koos walked with my American friends Molly and Kendra for a few days and is still in contact with them, I’m sure Kendra said “she’d heard of me” when we met – now it makes sense! It also turns out that Koos was the Dutch man I overheard from my balcony in Las Herrerias who was heading off to La Raba to get a headstart on the long climb the following day. We’d been missing each other by minutes each day for weeks, staying in slightly different places but now, 20km from Santiago we’re back together, how cool is that? We started the Camino Francés together, and we’ll finish together.
The afternoon passes quickly as we walk into Santiago and the km markers rapidly countdown the remaining distance, the final couple of km feel really weird – it’s like a calm suddenly descends over me. Actually arriving in the golden square in front of the Cathedral is a bit of an anti-climax for me. The Cathedral is cloaked in scaffolding and blue mesh netting, and is apparently going to be that way for the foreseeable future. Koos and I obviously do the photos in front of the Cathedral and then head round the corner for a couple of overpriced celebratory beers.
I have a hostal booked nearby and Koos decided he is going to treat himself to a room there as well. I’m booked in for 2 nights as am planning to have a rest day before deciding what to do next. We sort everything out then head back into Santiago for drinks and dinner.
Over dinner I tell Koos how I just don’t know what I’m going to do next, I don’t know if I am going to carry on, or stop here and go home. I’ve had enough of walking, the Camino has worked it’s magic on me and I’m not sure if I need any more. Koos knows exactly what he is going to do, he’s going to Finisterre tomorrow, he tells me that if I don’t go I’ll regret it and I know he is right. But I still don’t know so say I’ll sleep on it and decide tomorrow. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the morning and then go and get our Compostela certificates from the Pilgrims Office.
Day 26: Santiago (Rest Day)
Koos and I have breakfast then head to the Pilgrims Office to get our Compostela. It’s all very efficient and I’m done in minutes, Koos is nervous because he hasn’t been collecting 2 sellos a day for the last 100km from Sarria, I tell him he’ll have to go back and do it again, the Pilgrim Police won’t give him a certificate! But it’s all OK and he gets his Compostela without issue.
The Pilgrims Office has a little room upstairs that volunteers from different nationalities take turns staffing, it’s there so people from that nationality can go and chat to people from their own country about their experience on the Camino. As it happens, today the Dutch volunteers have taken over, so Koos and I head up for a chat with the Dutch volunteers. They’re very gracious, speaking English for my benefit and make us tea and coffee, Koos wants to know about Finisterre so they show us some guides and tell us we can get maps and a special Credencial at the tourist information office.
On the way to the tourist information office I pass a bookshop, I’ve now made a deal with myself that if I can find the Brieley guide to Finisterre then I will go. I pop in and ask the assistant if they have it, they do… Without thinking, I pick it up, pay for it and that’s that – my Camino isn’t over yet. There’s another 115km to walk to Finisterre and then onto Muxía.
Koos isn’t hanging around – he’s off today and, if I hadn’t already booked tonight in the hostal I’d be very tempted to join him. But actually, I think I need a day off to rest, recover and sort some future plans out. It’s been a long, long journey so far and I need a break. We say our goodbyes back at the hostal and I get onto the internet and work out a timetable for the next week. I book a ferry back from Santander to Portsmouth for a week from today. That gives me plenty of time to get to Muxía and then back to Santander.
After sorting out travel plans, I find a launderette and wash everything while chatting to a couple from New Zealand and a chap from the USA who have just finished the Camino Portugese and Ingles respectively. Then I wander around Santiago for a while, it’s a pretty impressive city. The buildings and monuments are awe-inspiring, but there’s also a lot of commercialism aimed at tourists and pilgrims which sours it all a bit. It’s very busy and noisy so I’m looking forward to getting back out onto the Camino tomorrow. People say that the pilgrimage to Finisterre and Muxía is an “antidote” to the noise and commercialisation of Santiago – and I think I need that right now.
In the evening I get chatting to the owner of the hostal for a while, she’s Spanish but has lived in Hemel Hempstead for a few years. Eventually I head back to my room and repack my rucksack – my Camino adventure isn’t over yet – tomorrow I’m heading towards the end of the world at Finisterre and then onto Muxía, ULTREYA!