Camino Francés 2012

Astorga – Sarria

My return to Spain had been in my mind since October of 2011. I was slowly won over after reading about the history of the Camino. I wanted to get “the real deal”. I walked from Astorga to Sarria from the last week of May 2012, some 250km and six days later. It was the first time I was formally introduced to the León hills and how tough it was!! But boy!!..there were some amazing views.

Day One – 24th May 2012 – Getting there
Dublin to Leon via Madrid

My flight to Madrid from Dublin was at 1.50 pm and I was eager to get going. My bags had been packed for over a week and the sooner I was in the airport the better. After 8 months of planning, the day has arrived. The plan was to get to Madrid, take two metros to Chamartin Station, a high-speed Avila train to Leon and then arrive at the Hotel Posada Regia. This was a long day and one I would cherish. The transport in Ireland is pretty poor compared to that in Spain.

I stepped off the flight after 4 pm and gathered my bags. After a twenty-minute walk to the metro station in Terminal 1, I found the metro station and took a deep breath before getting on one metro to Nuevos Ministerios. I get off and jump on a 2nd train to Chamartin Station. 30 minutes is all it takes, and for €4.50! I did struggle with the Spanish language, it is tough going and my best attempt at putting a sentence together comes out stumbling and I resort to English, saying each word slowly so the person can understand me. My question of choice now was ‘Hablas Ingles?’ to which I get a response of Non 😉. didn’t have to wait long before I got on the 8.20 Avila train to Leon. A high-speed train!..one that travels at 150km per hour! Epic! It was fun. A meal and wine included..I was spoilt rotten! I forgot to ask if this is normal practice on Spanish trains. If so, I will be back.

I arrive at the Hotel Posada Regia just before midnight, settle down, and try to get my head ready for the next day.

Day Two – 25th May 2012 – Right into the middle of nowhere
Leon – Hospital de Orbigo – Astorga

The next morning I woke up sometime after 6 am and while I want to get started, I decided to hold on for some breakfast at 8 am. It was a good decision. There was a decent breakfast on offer and I took advantage of it. I get chatting to two women from New Zealand who were starting their Camino the day after. They have been traveling for nearly two days and they thought I was very lucky living so close to the Camino. Well, close compared to where they live. After saying goodbye, I head off to the Estacion de Autobuses in Leon, which is a brisk 15 mins walk away from the hotel. I didn’t get to see the Cathedral, unfortunately, as I needed to get the next bus. Maybe next time.

I got to the bus station and after finding the right bus, I jumped on and travelled out to Hospital de Orbigo. I had my eyes on the road as I just knew I would miss the stop and end up in Ponferrada without anyone telling me. While on the bus, I saw many people walking along the Camino, easily over 100. It won’t be long before I would join them.

Eventually, I get off..and at the right stop too. Ponferrada will have to wait for another day. I walked up a side road and before long I was on the Camino. Blue signs with yellow arrows littered the road so it was very hard to get lost..even if you tried. I saw the Puente de Orbigo which was amazing and just as it looks in the guides. It looked extra clean and it was only when I got home that I discovered the town’s festival started on the 3rd of June.

Once I walked through Hospital de Orbigo, the scenery changed. I was surrounded by green fields, haystacks, and croaking insects which I assume were frogs. It was surreal and the fact that I was the only one on the road made the experience better. I later discovered I was alone as I started to walk so late. 11 am is close to finishing time for most people. Not for me though. I decided not to walk far this day, to Astorga maybe, as it was my first day. Who knows, if I felt like it I would walk on.

I walked through Villares de Orbigo and Santibanez saying hi to various people along the way. Most of these people I would bump into later on in the week and it did become a habit. I stopped off in Santibanez for a sit-down and a coffee break. It also gave me a chance to fill up with more water in the many fuentes that I passed along the Camino. I got talking to Ingrid from Finland who had little English but when I pointed where I was from, her eyes lit up. The words Wexford, Arklow, and Cliffs of Moher were mentioned so she had been to Ireland before. Good times! I didn’t stay long and said goodbye to Ingrid. She looked very tired so I assume she had been walking since the morning.

I walked on and met a girl called Rosa and her father, both from Italy. Both had walked from St Jean Pied de Port and had been 25 days on the road. I often think about walking the full way but I am not prepared to do it, maybe later on in life. Walking in stages would be fine for the time being. Rosa had great English and finally, I met someone who I could converse with. Her father however had next to none and it was funny at times when I asked Rosa a question and she would translate this for her father. His response was translated from Italian to English by Rosa. It was time-consuming, to say the least, but enjoyable. We talked about the Camino, how I looked fresh, and Rome. I decided to move on however as my pace was much quicker than theirs. This is due to my starting that day! This pace would change considerably over the next few days. I wished them a Buen Camino and moved on. I would later meet both in Villafranca del Bierzo, four days from then.

San Justo de la Vega was a whole 7 km from where I was at this stage and with the sun shining down, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard going. My water ran out and I was glad to see a renovated barnyard ran by David. He has become a bit of a legend around those parts and offered refreshments of your choosing for a small donation. If you want a rest, there is a sofa made up. A real nice guy. I move on and after I pass San Justo de la Vega, I realise I was close to Astorga. I decide to stay here for the night. I walk alone into the town and after a long walk into the city, I stop off in Albergue San Javier which is located right beside the Cathedral. A nice town, a lot of scenery and a lot to do for a few hours. I find a bed and discover what life is like in an albergue for the first time. It was far from ideal with wooden floors that would wake the heaviest sleepers. It had all I needed but I just wanted to put my feet up before I did anything. 17km I had walked today in just over 4 hours. Not bad!

I rest up here for the night after checking out some sights and having some food in the Hotel Gaudi. I decide to wake up much earlier the next day so I get to Rabanal del Camino before midday.

Day Three – 25th May 2012 – El Ganso is really a town!
Astorga – Rabanal del Camino

(Feb 2013: As this is the most viewed webpage on my blog, I thought I should say hi if you are passing by. Why not follow my blog as I do plan on writing more Camino related articles before my return to Spain in May)

5.30 am. I hear footsteps, plastic bags, and rummaging. I wake up with the noise of creaking floorboards. It is futile trying to sleep again, so I get up and head out! I quickly learn that this is routine in the majority of albergues along the Camino.

I leave close to 7 am and said goodbye to the Cathedral standing tall beside the Albergue. The sun was rising and it looked great out there. The temperature was picking up so I wanted to finish up before it got too warm. I said goodbye to Astorga and moved on, pack on bag. My feet were fine so I was delighted with that. I had intended to walk alone for the day and take everything in and that happened at the start of the morning.

Once I left Astorga, I was walking mostly on side roads, gravel tracks with golden fields around me. The skies were blue for the whole day and it felt great. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I had walked 5km or so before I reached Murias de Rechivaldo, a small hamlet with not much happening here. After a quick pit stop, I moved on. There were plenty of people on the Camino this morning. I wondered to myself what it would be like in Sarria which is the favoured starting point. I was walking mostly on flat ground this day and the only thing that bothered me was the heat. For an Irishman, 35c is not something you get every day but I enjoyed it.

An hour or so on, I met a Spanish girl from Barcelona. Maura was her name and she was the first person I stopped to talk to that day. She was walking at the same pace as me so I asked if I could tag along. We talked about everything to do with the Camino, why we are doing it, where did we both start and where are we both finishing. She had great English too. We stopped off in Santa Cataline de Somoza for some “breakfast”. Another cafe con leche later, we moved on. Before I left, I met two guys from the States, who had stayed in the Albergue in Astorga. We said hi and gave out about the floorboards before I left them at the cafe. Santa Catalina is a small hamlet, it holds a church, a number of cafes and bars, and is fairly typical of the villages I would pass through. Very quiet and sleepy.

As the day went by, and after myself and Maura passed through El Ganso, we parted ways wishing each other a Buen Camino. I had not met anyone from the UK or Ireland at this stage although both Rosa and Maura met a few Irish guys early on in the trail. I thought it was strange but I’m sure I would meet me as I come closer to Sarria.

I walked alone from then on, listening to music and taking in the scenery around me. It was close to 10.30 at this stage and for the first time, it got very steep. The last 4 kms into Rabanal was all uphill and was the first test on my legs. Eventually, I arrived at Rabanal del Camino after 11.30 and decided to stay in Albergue NS de Pillar. It was impossible to find but I got there in the end. €5 for the night..cheap and cheerful and already much better than my stay in Astorga. Rabanal was probably the most picturesque village I had come across.

Small, and close-knit. I found a spot that serves a pilgrim meal, took a wander around, and planned for the next morning.

I get talking to John from Denmark who was on the Camino for his third time. A true gent. He had strong views on the EU but I was eager to change the subject. He had great tips on how to treat blisters too, rather than using Compeed. Would have been nice to see him later on in the week when I had a few. In Rabanal I had no blisters but sore muscles from the climb up. I wondered how I would feel the next day. The highlight of the day was listening to vespers in the church. Three monks wearing their habits, along with alot of the village sang for a good half hour. A good experience. Pity, it was in Latin they were singing.

That night I got to sleep early. I wanted to get to Cruz de Ferro before sunrise. I set my alarm on my phone but I just knew I would be woken before it went off.

Day Four – 26th May 2012 – Wir Schaffen Das!!
Rabanal de Camino – Molinaseca

I had been looking forward to this for a while now.
It was one of the longer and tougher stages from what I read about but reading through guides didn’t prepare me for what was in store.

I woke shortly after 5 this time around and while I was eager to get up and out, I was hoping for another hour of rest.. I barely could see as I got up. The same Germans who stayed in the albergue in Astorga made the first moves and I had no need for my alarm after all.

My eyes were shut while I was putting my sleeping bag away; I can barely remember making coffee and even where my shoes were kept. I managed in the end and eventually a smile broke out in my face as I left the albergue. My legs and back were at me after the climb into Rabanal the day before but I wasn’t going to let that bother me.

While I left, I bumped into a German woman called Sabine who stayed in the same room as me. She kept to herself the evening beforehand and was asleep first. She was up the first this time. I hadn’t planned on walking with anyone today but that changed. Sabine was very upbeat and loved to talk. That wasn’t a bad thing though. She had little English but amazing Spanish and at times she would speak in Spanish and English in the same sentence. I still understood her. I had no idea of German at all so asked her to speak in Spanish if she was unsure of something. Mad!

There was a tough climb leaving Rabanal but once we made it to Foncebadon, 5km later, we were on a roll. I never thought I would walk with Sabine right into Sarria, where I stopped but I guess we were happy with each others’ company.

Once we get to the top of the hill, we reach Foncebadon. It is a run-down village with not much life however there was work underway in restoring them while we passed. We stopped off at the first refugio for cafe con leche and a small breakfast. Some of the pilgrims were leaving when we arrived, some of whom Sabine knew. It was good fun there and we were re-energised afterward as we walked to Cruz de Ferro.

Myself and Sabine had different reasons for coming here. She had started in St Jean Pied to Port and was walking for spiritual reasons. I, on the other hand, just wanted to get away from it all and bring some order to this life of mine. Different reasons but we were both happy to get to Cruz de Ferro. It looked great with the sun rising and I’d encourage anyone to go there at this time. I left a keyring that I bought in Santiago last year. Leaving a stone or a picture is the norm but I thought the keyring served me well. I hope it is there when I return. Not much was said here and we took some photos before we continued on.

I was hoping for an end to the climb but there was more before we started to walk down the mountain. As we reached the highest point on the Camino, it was only a matter of time before the descent started.

Before that, we reached Manjarin, an eerie place. I wouldn’t quite call it a village and it was deserted until the early 90s when one man made up one of the crumbling houses to an albergue. Officially Manjarin has a population of 1; Tomas who runs the albergue. Just outside, there are directions to various places around the world. None pointed the way to Dublin unfortunately.

Moving on, I quickly discovered that descending a mountain is worse than going up. It is all downhill from here to Molinaseca and while I thought leaving Rabanal that it would be fine, it was a different story now. My legs started to hurt and while my feet were fine, every stop I took made things better for a moment. We were walking down slate and shale rock and I wondered what it would be like if it was raining! We also met many cyclists passing by and they seemed to enjoy the descent. I can’t understand why!

We passed El Acebo and Reigo de Ambros, two villages with many old dwellings, with wooden balconies that hadn’t been lived in for quite a while. There were signs of life however and stopped off for a bite to eat and a cafe con leche in both villages. My shoes…and back needed the rest.

One of the disappointing things about this day is not taking enough pictures or movies as in previous days. I was more worried about my feet and not slipping than the amazing sights around me. It was great just stopping and looking around from this great height.

We arrived in Molinaseca just before 1 pm, and I was delighted to see the bridge and…well..a sign of life. I had an idea where I wanted to stay for the night..Albergue Santa Maria..on the outskirts of town. It took us a while to find it but it was great to put the bag down and rest for a while.

I met Erica, from Australia and Jean from Canada. They were walking together and started in Pamplona however were in no hurry due to knee and foot problems. They were great fun and I was considering walking with them the next day. My heart sank however when I saw the same German group walk into the Albergue. I knew I would not get a good night’s sleep now.

It has to be said it is a fine place to stay and it is better to stay here and avoid the hustle and bustle of Ponferrada, the next stop. For the evening, we ate, told stories, and had a few drinks in very broken English.