El Camino Frances

The Traditional Route from France

El Bierzo

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This section concerning the region of El Bierzo is rather disjointed because my two journeys (so far) were so different. I have also included the region west of Astorga which, although not in El Bierzo, bears little relationship to the plains of the meseta.

Astorga to Rabanal

2 June 1993 and 21 June 2002

The way is through an area peopled by Los Maragatos. This is one of the isolated communities that over many centuries have kept to themselves and retained old traditions and mode of dress. Their traditional employment was as mule train drivers (arrieros) and they gained a reputation for reliability and honesty throughout Spain. George Borrow (A Bible in Spain, 1843) writes that they are descended from Visigoths who took the side of the Moorish invaders in the 8th Century but modern DNA analysis suggests a prehistoric link to North Africa. They have their own style of cooking here and it is possible in many bars to get a hearty stew of meats and beans.

1993. This was the second part of a long day’s walk from Órbigo. Most of my companions had pressed on ahead but I did some sightseeing in Astorga then walked on with Patrick and, for a while on the road, with the English cyclists. The route we were on must have followed in the tracks of the Light Division of Sir John Moore’s army as it withdrew towards Vigo in the terrible winter of 1808/9. The conditions then were freezing rain and snow, a sharp contrast to this fine early summer’s day. The Light Division formed a flank guard to Sir John’s more famous retreat to Coruña, the route of which I would follow in two day’s time.

Farther up the hill, when we had regained the road, we stopped for a picnic under a large oak with Susan who had let the other cyclists go ahead. We did not linger for long because there were now many more walkers on the road and limited accommodation in Rabanal. A large party of walkers using a car to transport their rucksacks had been reported to the hospitalero in Refugio Gaucelmo and he barred them from the refuge.

Refugio Gaucelmo

Rabanal was reached about 3pm and, after booking into the Refugio Gaucelmo, I went down to Chonina’s bar on the main road to watch out for other pilgrims. Cristina and her parents soon arrived. I don’t know when I passed them since I had not seen them since Puente la Reina (day four) when they left me behind. They had formed their own group of six or seven walkers and were moving on to the next refuge near the top of the pass. I was given strict instructions to find them when I arrived in Santiago and stay in their summer home nearby.

Four of the cyclists had booked into the refugio and the others in the bar/hotel which was also the village shop. We had to search about for blankets for a couple who were not carrying sleeping bags. This became my only “English” night on the Camino and we reserved a table for ten in Chonina’s for dinner.

The two girls, Susan and Louise, who were staying in the refugio were a little concerned about the snoring they would encounter in a crowded bunk room. I told them that we sometimes stopped this by gently nudging the offender with a staff so they borrowed mine (I was out of their reach). About three in the morning there was a minor commotion when a Spanish lad stormed out with his sleeping bag to sleep on the balcony. Louise had been poking him every time he dropped off to sleep.

2002. A crazy day. I had good intentions of getting up the hill in good time but these weakened when I slept in. Good intentions were abandoned completely when we met Lindsey from Hawaii who was celebrating her 37th birthday so we found a bar where we could buy cakes for her birthday. In the group were a couple of Austrian lads who had crept around the refugio at night with a portable tape recorder to compare the accents of the worst snorers. They had kept up a running conversation in German on the tape and there was almost a fight when they played back the recording to the worst offender, a fat German.

There was an important World Cup match that day between England and Brazil (kick off 8.30am) so we went looking for a bar that would show it so early. Tony found us and sent us to the Astur Plaza hotel which had a fixed price buffet breakfast, my third that morning. They did not seem to mind a bunch of extremely scruffy pilgrims sitting in their posh dining room, watching television and eating as much as we could. The empty plates and coffee jugs on the buffet were constantly replenisheds for the next two hours and I finally left Astorga at 11am, the same time as nine years previously but feeling much heavier.

Cowboy Bar

We had a brief stop in Santa Catalina then on to El Ganso where the famous Bar Cowboy was showing the match between USA and Germany. Fruit juice and tapas were taken during the match and we bought fruit from the travelling grocer’s lorry which turned up outside the bar.

It was getting hotter when we tore ourselves away at 3.30pm and we got the last few places in Refugio Gaucelmo at 5pm. There was just time to shower and do some laundry before going to dinner. We searched the village for Jann but she had moved on to the refugio at Manjarín. Chonina’s restaurant is no more and the site has been converted to another large refugio, complete with bar so it still serves as a meeting place for pilgrims.

We were too tired to attend the Gregorian chant at Vespers performed by the small community of Benedictine monks but we managed to hear this ceremony a few days later in Samos.