El Camino Frances

The Traditional Route from France

El Bierzo

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Ponferrada to Villafranca then on to Vega de Valcarce

4 June 1993 and 23/24 June 2002 Ponferrada

Ponferrada is a medium sized industrial city but efforts have been made to divert walkers away from the commercial centre. Immediately after crossing the river the Camino diverts to the right to pass through a park and sports fields. Unfortunately there is then a stretch through slag heaps and mainly derelict iron works before reaching a quiet residential area.

leaving Ponferrada

Once clear of the suburbs of Ponferrada there is a very pleasant stage through the valley of El Bierzo. The countryside is largely given up to market gardening and wine production. On both my trips through here the fields and vineyards were being worked by farmers who, in the main, were very friendly to passing pilgrims. On other parts of the Camino field workers were few and far between and the cereal fields of the meseta were mostly worked mechanically.

1993. The rest of my gang did their usual morning sprint but I set off at a more leisurely pace knowing that I would catch them before long. I wound my way through the fields and vineyards until the village of Cacabelos which seems to be the agricultural centre for the region. In the main street near the entrance to the village is the headquarters of Prada a Tope, one of the largest food and wine producers in El Bierzo. There was a sign directing pilgrims into the courtyard where, as well as the factory and a hotel/restaurant, was a retail shop displaying their produce. The lovely shop assistant stamped my credencial and then gave me a glass of wine and a slice of savoury pie. I had my refreshments in the shade of the courtyard, watched over by the guard dog which turned out to be a huge and friendly puppy.

Prada a Tope

This complex of buildings was once the Hospital of Saint Lazarus which in olden times looked after sick pilgrims on route to Santiago.

After I had rested I found the rest of the gang leaving a bar at the far end of the village so we walked together towards Villafranca. Although El Bierzo is in the province of León the people and customs were more like Galicia.

We were now quite close to Oscar’s hometown of Lugo and his father had recommended a restaurant on the outskirts of Villafranca called La Charola which was renowned for the quality and size of its food. The restaurant was busy but they still made a fuss of a dozen or so scruffy pilgrims and pushed tables together to accommodate us all. (Some late comers were added onto the ends and we soon took up about half the room.) Oscar had been instructed to ask for the “Special Menu” which is not one you can choose from. Everything was brought to our long table until it was groaning under the weight. We were given five starters, four main courses with lots of vegetables then three sweets, all in huge amounts. Wine, beer and bread of course then we finished with café con orujo. For this blow out, which lasted from 1pm until about 4pm (I stopped counting), we were charged 1500Ptas per head (very reasonable).

There was a thunderstorm brewing when we left La Charola and I was thinking about staying in the refugio in Villafranca. However the others persuaded me to walk on with them to the next refugio. After a three hour walk through heavy rain along a main road we arrived at Vega de Valcarce to find that the refugio was full and we had lay out mattresses in an upstairs room. We dried out as much as we could then retired to the bar opposite the refugio which serves excellent cider (sidra).

2002. After our mid-morning coffee stop in Ponferrada we made our way through the industrial area and slag heaps then out into the countryside. The route seemed to have changed since 1993 and appeared to be longer. The last few kilometres towards Cacabelos were though vineyards then we called in at Prada a Tope for the traditional stamp, wine and a snack. Since we intended staying in the village I bought a decent bottle of wine for later.

Cacabelos refugio

The refugio is at the far end of the village, just over the river. It is in the courtyard of a disused church and the very small twin bedded rooms are arranged in an arc along the perimeter wall. A few of our group were already there and Lindsey was in great demand to give foot massages. I don’t know where she obtained the large bottle of lotion but there were plenty of volunteers to carry it on to the next day’s stop. We then got a multinational group of nine or ten up to go back into town for a pleasant meal at Meson de Saul.

Villafranca

Next morning we set off just before 8am to amble along towards Villafranca. Here we stopped for coffee at the old refugio of Ave Fenix then on to the main square to look for better coffee. Jann turned up here and, as well as her other problems, she now has a stress fracture in her foot. She would stay the night here then bus ahead to avoid the steep climb into Galicia.

Castillo Sarracín

There is a choice of route from here to Vega de Valcarce, a high route and a low one following the old main road. I accompanied Judy and Lindsey along the lower route and found that most of the traffic had now been diverted onto the new motorway. There were stalls selling freshly picked cherries by the roadside so we pigged ourselves on these as we walked along.

The road into Vega de Valcarce is dominated by the ruins of the Castillo de Sarracín which stand on a hilltop above the town. This castle was supposedly the haunt of robbers in the past.

There was a new refugio just before Vega so we booked in here and also ordered our evening meal. Then we strolled into the village for the supermarket and the bar for cider (just as good as I remembered it). After the communal dinner Angelika, who is a nurse, had to treat Tony’s blisters which had grown large. Next day he would have to climb the hill in sandals because it was too painful for him to wear boots.