Having slept warm and well, I re-packed my dried out kit, noticed how much lighter my panniers had become and headed off on my descent out of Galicia. My objective for the morning was a steep downhill to Villafranca del Bierzo and then on to Ponferrada for lunch.
The official route would take me once more onto rocky muddy tracks that would be heavy on the brakes and I was unsure how well my pannier would hold up to the rattling and shaking of a 700m off-road descent.
I stopped off in Pedrafita do Cebreiro, where the A6 motorway from Madrid to A Coruña enters Galicia and hunted around for breakfast.
I found a fairly non-descript bar and ordered a standard spanish breakfast of coffee and toast. I sat and watched the Breakfast News as it blared from the TV. The King’s grandson, Froilán, had managed to shoot himself in the foot during a hunting party, echoing literally his grandfather’s recent metaphical misadventures elephant hunting in Botswana. The scene reminded me that today was a Monday morning, the bar was populated by the regulars going about their daily routine, whilst I was on my adventure, just passing through.
Turning out of Pedrafita I quickly left the snow-line behind me.
The Rio Valcarce valley has clearly been the main route through the Cantabrian mountain range for millennia. Whilst the official “Camino de Santiago” footpath leads up the western side of the valley to O Cebreiro, I chose to take the old road, the N-006a that hugs the contours of the valley wall and traces the route of what would once have been the main valley road and the link between Galicia and Madrid. This road connecting the old wood and stone built villages of the Valcarce valley was replaced in the 1960s by the N-VI trunk road, which was itself bypassed in 2002 with the completion of the A6 motorway that climbs its way up the valley on huge concrete stilts.
After the cold grinding work of yesterday I felt so liberated to be flowing down hill with a tailwind. I covered the 35 km to Villafranca del Bierzo in little more than an hour. The difference in that hour was palpable.
I had left O Cebreiro in freezing fog and snow still thick on the ground, by 11:00 AM I was sat in a spring-time square. planning my route on to Ponferrada for Lunch and then another 900m climb up the Montes de Leon to the Cruz del Ferro, at 1500m, highest point on the Camino Francés.
Before I could get carried away with myself, I needed to attend to some logistics. Villafranca was the first market town for days, so I searched for a cycle shop to look at replacing my pannier and investigate the state of my rear derailleur which had developed a worrying clicking sound. I found an old cycle workshop who could not help me with panniers (those that they had looked as cheap and flimsy as the ones I already had) but the old fella swapped out my derailleur in a matter of minutes and sent me on my way to Ponferrada.
Ponferrada was my first major city of the tour and felt strange after 5 days jumping from village to village. I enjoyed a leisurely Menu del Día and then headed out of town, eager to get back on the road, not even waiting for the cycle shops to open up and offer me their panniers. I tightened up the bungee / zip-tie solution that had served me well enough for three days and headed back onto the camino and to Molinaseca and then an 8km climb up 600m to find a bed for the night in the Albergue at Acebo.
The climb was fairly long and hard, but bearable. The weather was cool but sunny and so I was able to chart my progress with fine views both down from whence I had come and up to my objective.
I found my way to the parroquial Albergue and booked myself in for the night, and then looked back over my accomplishment for the day.
This would be my last night on the Camino Francés and yet my first “churchy” Albergue. I had previously stayed in private or independant albergues or the B&B in O Cebreiro. The private albergues typically charged €8 – €12 for a dormitory bed, and then offered a Menu del dia type evening meal for a similar €8 – €10. This one was different.
The Albergue is owned by a catholic brotherhood and is run by volunteers who travel from their homes and spend a week or two managing the albergue and helping the pilgrims on their way. The atmosphere is distinctly more religious with everyone mucking in together to produce cheap hearty food, that then gets prayed over before eating. I can understand the attraction of volunteering to work in the albergue for a couple of weeks, living in a quaint hill-side village, meeting a never ending stream of pilgrims, but I could not help feeling that given the misery that Spain was suffering in early 2012, church volunteers would be able to find people with more pressing need for the church’s beneficence than what seemed to me to be a varied selection of middle-class ramblers and semi-retired, semi-religious tourists.