El Camino Frances

The Traditional Route from France

El Bierzo

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Rabanal to Ponferrada

3 June 1993 and 22/23 June 2002

This stage of the Camino crosses the pass of Foncebadón, the highest point on the Camino Francés, and then it drops down into the valley of El Bierzo. The ascent is not too bad but the initial descent to the village of El Acebo is very steep and can be slippery in wet weather (very frequent). Cyclists are advised to stay on the road and walkers may also be better off doing this if there is pouring rain. From Acebo the way is easier through the village of Riego down to Molinaseca then fairly flat into Ponferrada.

Rabanal

1993. The hospitalero made breakfast of tea and jam and bread so we were able to set off soon after 7am to cross the mountain pass. It was a warm morning considering the height we were at and once more Patrick was my walking companion. When the path coincided with the road Susan pedalled slowly beside us.

Foncebadón

Foncebadón is about 4km up the hill and has gained a reputation for fierce dogs. This is because at that time the only occupants were a widow and her son, and their large black dog would bark at passing walkers. I had no problems here and the dog came out to greet me and show off his collar studded with spikes.

The next landmark is the Cruz de Hierro which is an iron cross mounted on a tall pole surrounded by a cairn of stones. It is traditional to add to this cairn so we threw pebbles onto it before continuing. Manjarín is just before the summit but there were no signs of my friends at the primitive refugio.

Manjarin

The summit is 1517m high then the steep descent begins. You may hear in the distance the dull thud of a drop forge hammer from an ancient iron works that has been renovated as a museum. This is too far off the Camino to make a convenient visit on foot.

We passed the cyclists having a picnic by the side of the road and then stopped in the shade outside a bar in Riego to watch other pilgrims passing by. The way then became flatter and easier for walking but the temperature was rising making the road very hot.

The signed route into Ponferrada this year took us past the municipal rubbish dump which was smelly and full of scavenging storks. We also had an interesting time helping a shepherd guide his sheep into a lorry using our staffs. We presumed that they were his sheep.

Patrick had arranged to meet his brother in town but I was so hot I fell into the first bar for a beer and sat trying to figure out the rules of the domino matches that were being played. They seemed just as complicated as Spanish card games.

Ponferrada

I found most of our group in the old town waiting outside the pilgrim’s office which opened at 4.30. We were then able to register and were escorted as a group to that year’s refugio which was in a sports centre. Half of the gymnasium floor was allocated to us and we had a pile of mattresses to spread out for sleeping on. The other half of the floor was in still use and a girls’ gymnastics class was taking place as we divided up our section between the various parties of walkers who arrived during the evening.

My sightseeing for the evening was restricted to the old town on the eastern side of the river. The Templar’s castle was closed but still looked very interesting from the outside and the older buildings of the town were mostly on this side of the river.

Foncebadón

2002. After breakfast in Refugio Gaucelmo we set off in ones and twos to walk over the hill. Some of the old buildings in Foncebadón had been renovated but it was too early for the hotel or bar to be open. Large dogs are still about and one brought her puppy out to see us and share our biscuits. Lindsey and Angelika passed us here but we arranged to meet later.

Cruz de Hierro

We did the standard posing and laying stones at the Cruz de Hierro then stopped for coffee at the refugio in Manjarín. Tomas runs this very basic refuge despite opposition from various authorities and he sometimes dresses up as a Knight Templar and waves a large sword about.

Acebo

The descent into Acebo seemed steeper than I remembered it and we stopped at the first bar (Meson el Acebo) for cider and a snack of empanadilla, a savoury pastry. Meera went to examine the new private refugio in the back garden of the bar and reported that it was good so a few of us decided on a lazy day and moved in. We were tired after our silly exertions the previous day so after a slow walk around the village we caught up on laundry and repairs and stayed chatting in the garden. After dinner we watched the sun go down over the mountains then the lightning flashes as a storm rolled in.

The next morning we had to make up for some lost time but the bar was serving coffee and so it was 7.15am before we left. Passing through Riego we noticed what seems to be a decent refugio then there was a nice spot under some chestnut trees just below the village. Coffee and cakes were taken in Molinaseca then we walked along the road past the refugio. This is large and has some tents in the garden. Some beds were laid out under a large porch but this was alongside a main road and we heard later that pilgrims were kept awake by motorists hooting their horns late at night.

Another coffee break was taken in Ponferrada. We were just too late for Sunday mass so, after a quick look at the castle (only the outside once again) we continued on to stay the night in Cacabelos.