Camino Frances 2017 – Day 8 – León to Villavante

Camino 2017 – Day 8 – León to Villavante – September 12th
One last long day..and walking by myself again.

I had a good sleep in Hostal Madriguera. It’s somewhere I recommend if you want a good rest, and I did. The owner, Alba, who has walked the Camino, is very helpful and the hostel is situated pretty close to the main square. Give it a look-up. However, that said, I should have stopped by the albergue. The previous day would be the last time I would see the majority of those I had met. I would walk alone the next day. But that’s not a bad thing sometimes. I know most of whom I had met were aiming for Hospital de Orbigo, a 30+km day. If I could manage it, well and good – I would see my pilgrim buddies again. If not, so be it. There were plenty of pilgrims on the trail…even in mid-September.

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In 2015, I stayed in Albergue Santa Lucia in Villavante and fell in love with it. The hospitality, the owner going out of her way for you, but I need to mention Coco the parrot! She would put a smile on your face if she squawked while you washed your dirty clothes. I remember not being allowed to take photos so that was a little disappointing. So..I would aim for Orbigo but if all else fails, Villavante was there to welcome me. This means taking the less travelled alternative route on leaving León. You have two options: walk along the road passing through small towns en route to Orbigo, or walk on a meseta-type trail through two towns. This was my meseta-Camino, so I’d do what I could to draw it out. Not many walk the alternative route, but I encourage it. It’s quiet, there is a town to stop after 21km – Vilar de Mazarife with it’s 3 albergues and if you feel up to it, there is Villavante after 30km. I felt up to it today. Being alone, I wanted to record some video, and I did (below)

I left León after 5.30am. The darkness engulfed the city, just the way I like it. I stood in front of the cathedral saying my goodbyes knowing that it would be some time before I saw it again. I walked on..alone. It was cold this morning and predictions of rain abounded, but it was dry for the time being. I felt good but thoughts of an ending Camino weren’t too far away. It would be 2 further days before I arrived in Astorga, only hop-skip and jump down the road. I was going to stretch these two final days out – records will be broken. But first, one last long day.

There is nothing interesting to see as you leave León however you climb for a bit and reach a number of bodegas at Trobajo del Camino. Make sure you turn back here and watch the sun rise over the city behind you. I said my goodbyes and moved on into the new morning. The locals were waking up and going to work, I wished each a Buenos Días as I passed. There was no music today, just me and my thoughts. Thinking – it can be bad, but it can be good. Too much of it is a bad thing – I’d argue against that if you are on the Camino. Promises can be made and there were a few promises I made to myself since I left Burgos. I won’t go into them now. I reached Virgen del Camino and stopped for a breakfast coffee and tostado – a regular occurrence at this stage. The cafe was just opening and I chatted in broken Spanish to the owner. A few metres down the main road is the church – Santuario De La Virgen Del Camino. I spent a few minutes here to enjoy its design before I crossed the road and found the start of the alternative route.

It was still dark by 7am. My phone’s torch was brought to the rescue as I worked out where was where. Once I saw an arrow I was where I needed to be. I made my way across a main road and I was on meseta-like trail again. Perfect walking ground. I seemed to pass Chozas de Abajo and Oncina in no time. I arrived at Vilar de Mazarife at 9.30am. There was nothing open, as I expected. I didn’t seem to mind. I took off my pack and found a seat to lie back on. Fruit, a yoghurt and a drink – heaven! Simple pleasures. I had two choices – stay here for an hour or so until the albergue opened or walk 8km to Villavante. The answer was plain to me. Villavante it was.

The 8km walk was slow but not arduous. There was a deliberate lack of pace. I mean, I could aim for Orbigo, but what’s the point? It would make my next two days even more difficult 🙂 I kept looking behind me for pilgrims, but I didn’t see one. This is a great alternative to the busy road after Virgen del Camino. I enjoyed it. Many wouldn’t. I arrived at Villavante at 11am. I took a bottom bunk beside the window and waited for company. It wasn’t long before I was joined by Ian, from New Zealand. He was closely followed by two girls from the US and South Africa. We had dinner at 7pm and a drink after. The parrot got the last laugh however as my request for a photograph was again denied. Hmmph!

I had no idea what I would do the following day. Orbigo maybe? 5km? Records will again be broken.

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 7 – Arcahueja to Leon

Camino 2017 – Day 7 – Arcahueja to Leon – September 11th
A short stroll to Leon

The shortest day I have walked on any Camino. Barely 8 km was walked before we reached the walls of Leon. But I wasn’t alone. Aga and the Australian women strolled along with me, and boy! did we take our time.

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We left Albergue La Torre just before 7am. The sun was rising behind us as we sauntered into the city. We started to climb for a kilometre or two before it was all descent into Leon. We reached a large bridge and on crossing, you can see the cathedral in the city. We kind of knew that it wasn’t long before we reached the town.

The main albergue wasn’t due to open until 10.30am however I had arranged to stay in La Madriguera hostel about 5 minutes from the Cathedral. We had plenty of time on our hands so we decided on having some breakfast before parting ways. The Australian women were so much fun. I had met them initially in Boadilla del Camino but had bumped into them on and off until the previous night. I got to know them a little bit better over the evening beforehand. Aga, I had met in Boadilla also and it wouldn’t be the last I would see of her.

On reaching Leon, it was 10am, and the church bells were ringing from the Cathedral. We took in the atmosphere and aimed for Cafe Valor. I ordered Churros and Chocolate and it was delicious. Along came June also, who received my message that we had arrived. She was staying in the municipal albergue and was allowed to stay for one more night. We also met Robert and Rosa from the previous night in Arcahueja and a number of others who had met along the way. It was a great morning and plenty of hugs were exchanged.

11am came and some decided to make way to the Albergue. It is a popular albergue and fills up quick. I had received an email that my bed would not be ready until midday so I stuck around with Robert and Rosa who had decided to walk to La Virgen del Camino, the next town. June stayed also. I wanted to buy a few bits and pieces for lunch back in the hostel and went to shop across from Cafe Valor.

12am came and I decided to walk across to the hostal. I realised that I wouldn’t see many again, but I didn’t say goodbye. I simply said “See you on the trail”. I would email June later in the day to see if she would like to walk the following day.

La Madriguera is a fine hostel and I was greeted by Alba who has previously walked the Camino Frances to Finistere. Proof is hanging on the wall upstairs. She has the interests of pilgrims at heart so I would recommend this hostel if you would like a private room.

The rest of the day was spent sleeping and debating where I would stop the following day. I didn’t have alot of kms to walk before Astorga however I had a good few days.

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Camino Frances 2017 – Day 6 – El Burgo Ranero to Arcahueja

Camino 2017 – Day 6 – El Burgo Ranero to Arcahueja – September 10th
A long straight walk, another goodbye and a meeting of new friends…

Another day on the meseta, although we were nearing the end. Many of our fellow pilgrims were talking of walking a big walk today to reach Leon. Many whom I had met had walked longer days previously. From then on in, the terrain gets a little more varied. For me however, I was coming to the end of my Camino for this year and wanted to make the most of my time until I reached Astorga, my end point.

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It was an early morning and before leaving the albergue in El Burgo Ranero, June had made some lunch to keep us going for the day ahead. You genuinely meet good people on the Camino. June was one of them. To start the day, we had a 12 km walk to the next town, Reliegos, but we were in good spirits and we talked about what we would do on reaching Leon. That said, I didn’t think I would make it that far but chose to keep that to myself. 39km is a little too much for one day and I was in no rush. June on the other hand was eager to reach Santiago in 10 days. We were different in some ways. The walk out of El Burgo is long and straight and there is no much to inspire you. We chose to walk on the road rather than on the uneven senda, however the odd car would pass at speed. We were careful however deciding to use our torches on our phones to make the drivers aware of our existence. Within 2 and a half hours we had reached Reliegos, a small town close to Leon. I had stayed here in 2015 but there is not much to write home about, however Bar Elvis is still here. It was closed as we passed, choosing to stop for a few moments to take a photo. I told June about his quirkiness and his liking of Elvis music. A quirky man for a quirky town. A lot of pilgrims tend to walk on by here and aim for the much larger Mansilla de las Mulas. And we did too.

It was getting brighter and I felt good. The sun had made its daily appearance and I felt it on my head, having lost my cap a few days ago. I also lost my buff the previous day. I still had my wooden pole however, but I had lost the metal tip at the base of the pole. I grew to like its company over the days, no matter how battered it was. It is the small things that give you joy on the Camino. Another 6 km to Mansilla de las Mulas and you could sense that you were leaving the meseta…a motorway, more junctions, cars, industrial estates, it was busier. We stopped off at the first albergue in Mansilla for some breakfast..”El Jardin”. June wanted to buy me cafe. We had our sandwiches that she had made and just took in the morning. Mansilla was quiet. The albergue were opening up and we were met by many cyclists taking a pitstop.

The statue of the weary pilgrims is across the street before you enter the town of Mansilla. It is well known to those who have walked the Camino and depicts three tired pilgrims having clearly walked more than they can manage. We rested for a while and took a few photos. Walking through a lane brings you into the town. It is large and there were many locals wearing t shirts with the town’s name across it. There were also streamers hanging from buildings as if there was a fiesta due. I later learned that that evening there was a fiesta that continued to the early hours of the next day! Leaving the town, you can see signs of Mansilla’s Roman history. It was a walled town and the majority of the wall is still there. Keep an eye out for it as you pass through.

I told June that I wouldn’t be able to walk to Leon and would stay in either of the next two towns – Villarente or Arcahueja. Both are tiny, blink-and-you-will-miss-them, towns. June was determined to reach Leon and I knew she would make it, she is such a strong walker. My memory didn’t serve me well as I knew little about these two towns, but from my 2015 Camino, I passed an albergue in Arcahueja, a tiny town 8 kms from Leon. I decided to aim for here. I had no idea now good / bad / indifferent it was – I didn’t care. But we had another 5 kms to go before arriving there. Villarente was busy. I told June of the unfortunate death on the main road and the decision to re-route the Camino around the town as a result. The Camino enters a wood for a km or so before you are brought back on the main road. We stopped at Albergue Delfin for a cold drink and a rest before veering off the main road and aiming for Arcahueja. I arrived at Albergue La Torre at 1pm. I had walked 30km and I needed to rest. The sun had made it a harder day than usual.

It would be the last day that I walked with June. I chose not to say goodbye to her as she would be taking a rest day in Leon. We promised to meet up the following day and I wished her well for her remaining 8 km. Albergue La Torre didn’t look eye-catching and usually I would walk by a town like this. Arriving outside, the owners were busy serving lunch and said the rooms are being cleaned. I had no problem waiting. I had another drink and at 2pm, I was invited in. It’s a smashing little albergue and I was pleasantly surprised and how I was treated. Dinner was at 7pm so I had some lunch and before long I was greeted by Aga from Poland and the 2 Australian women. I had company. I also met Robert from Germany and Rosa from Mexico. Robert was suffering in a bad way with tendonitis and wasn’t walking a great deal each day. Slow and steady wins the race however. We all had a few drinks outside in the terrace sharing stories under the sun and waited for dinner.

It was a great night and we looked forward to the 8km walk into Leon the following morning.

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Looking Back – Camino Frances 2012 #1

June 2011. I had arrived back in Dublin and had a sneaking suspicion that I would see Spanish soil again. I had no idea when. I made sure to write down our guide’s email address before I left and I was glad as he gave me the kick to return. He also gave me some sweet recommendations of albergues in where to stay. First thing I needed to do was buy a guidebook and a backpack; Amazon for Brierley and Aldi for the backpack. Oh wow..looking back, it was a dingy thing that practically fell apart when I returned home. I sourced a list of what to bring and what not to bring from an online forum.

Boom! I had a plan. The goal was to walk from Leon to Sarria. This was all new ground. Carrying all I owned for 7 or so days, I left Dublin on the 24th of May 2012. The next day I jumped on a bus to Hospital de Orbigo and walked to Astorga. I was so nervous. I instantly wanted to meet some one and say the obligatory “Buen Camino” but it was quiet. I got used to my own company, my shoes and my backpack. The blue sky and the orange fields were my company today. I walked 17km until Astorga and got acquainted with my first albergue. Albergue San Javier – a sparse affair. Nothing to write home about, but I wasn’t on holiday. I was happy to take everything as it came. I got some food in Hotel Gaudi next door and took in the main plaza. Stunning. Day 2 tomorrow.

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2016 becomes 2017

Now that the Christmas festivities are over, it is time to bid farewell to 2016 and look forward to 2017. While I did enjoy my short jaunt on the Camino Fisterra in September, 2016 in general will not be missed. Also while I am writing this post, I hear that Carrie Fisher has just passed away. Sigh, may she rest in peace, along with the many other people who have been taken far too early. How and ever, closer to home, my broken wrist should shortly be healed fully and I hope to move into my new humble abode in the first quarter of the year. I say all this with two fingers crossed behind my back, while keeping hold of my collection of 4-leaf clovers!

But one thing that I’ve been quietly planning since September was a return to Spain and the Camino Frances. I can’t seem to pull myself away from it. My destination has been unclear however. One time, I wanted to walk the meseta, the next I wanted to try the Camino Ingles, and another I had wanted to try the Camino Portuguese from Porto. This is the downfall of only having two weeks to work with. I was really unsure of a starting point until November. But I’ve made up my scattered mind now and have decided to walk from the beautiful city Leon to Santiago de Compostela, 300 km over a period of roughly 14 days. I have chosen April 25th as my start date and have my flights and accommodation in Leon arranged. While I have walked from Leon a number of times, I haven’t walked beyond Sarria since 2011. I have chosen Leon as a starting point as I really enjoy the hills from Astorga to Molinaseca, especially on a warm day. I am also going to see if I can avoid the end stages in Brierley’s guidebook. The towns of Hospital de Orbigo, El Acebo, Cacabelos and Las Herrerías may be small but they are fab places to stay. Other times, I have passed them not giving them a thought.

So now is a great time to create the #caminodesantiago2017 hashtag and write how I’m getting on until April. Kit-wise, I have little to change which is a saving grace! I was also given a little action camera over Christmas which I fully intend to use. I have ordered a little clip that will attach it to my backpack strap so I can take plenty of random videos and photos.

And just to finish this post, I want to wish you all a happy New Year! Feliz Ano Nuevo!

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Towns Along The Way – León

I wanted to give this city a full post. Giving this post a paragraph or two would be criminal considering how important it is for peregrinos and also for myself. I have passed through León on three occasions; 2012, 2013 and finally in 2015. I started a camino here, ended one and used the final time to see more of the city. And yet, I look forward to going back. It’s funny though…while reading up a little more on León, I learned that it is twinned with Dublin. Now that is something I didn’t know.

León (map)

León is the capital of the province of the same name and one of the most important cities on the Camino. It is situated between Sahagun, to the east, and Ponferrada, to the east. It is also the place where the Camino del Salvador starts. Over 131,680 people call this city home. It was originally founded as a Roman city, and their walls still stand to this day (below). I passed through in 2013 and witnessed a celebration of this Roman heritage. Actors celebrated the past by role-playing combat, just outside the large Cathedral de Santa Maria.

 

León’s historical and architectural heritage make it a destination of both domestic and international tourism. Some of the city’s most prominent historical buildings are the Cathedral (below), the finest example of French-style classic Gothic architecture in Spain, the Basilica de San Isidoro, one of the most important Romanesque churches in Spain and the Hostal de San Marcos.

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One of my greatest memories of León is from 2013. I had finished my Camino for that year and was due to travel back home to Ireland the following day. I had said my goodbyes to my fellow peregrinos who were staying in the main albergue. I was downbeat. I decided to visit the Cathedral. While inside, I spent a good 30 minutes listening to a choir sing. They lifted my spirits. I later learned that they were also pilgrims who were travelling on to Santiago. That memory will stick with me.

On reaching León, you will have over 300km to walk before arriving at Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims use León as a starting point to Santiago and gain their compostela. Here you can find plenty of albergues and hostales, as with all major cities (Gronze). In 2012 and 2013, I stayed in the very comforable Posada Regia and last year, I rested my weary head and feet in Leon Hostel, which is very central.

If you have a few hours to spare after your walk into León, talk a walk around the small streets and plazas and soak up the atmosphere. This video shows you some of this fine city.

 

Towns Along The Way – “A”

Did you know that there are 158 towns along the Camino de Santiago? Probably not. Anyway, the aim of this series is to talk briefly about these towns you will pass through while making your way along the Camino Frances. Many are so small you will not think twice about their history but some are significant. I am going to talk about them alphabetically rather than geographically, so if you are only interested in Zubiri you may wish to check back in a few weeks 🙂

El Acebo (map)
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El Acebo (or to give it it’s full name, El Acebo de San Miguel) is a small mountain village in the province of Leon. It has a population of roughly 40, and depends solely on the Camino. You will encounter it after reaching the Cruz de Ferro and is a blessing in disguise as the descent from the Leon hills can be tough. It’s English translation is “The Holly”. In terms of the Camino de Santiago, the previous town is Manjarin (with a population of just 1) and the next is Riego de Ambros, some 3.5km further down the hills. A lot of pilgrims choose to stay here and there is a wealth of accommodation (www.gronze.com). However, in 2012 and 2015, I chose to keep walking, preferring to stay in Molinaseca at the foothills of  the mountain. However, it serves as a great pit-stop for weary pilgrims. The sun chairs at “La Casa del Peregrino” are amazing!

Agés (map)

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From the foothills of the Leon mountains, we travel to the outskirts of Burgos metropolis, in fact 22km from Burgos. Agés is a small town in the province of Burgos. With a population of approximately 60, it is also dependent on the Camino. Like El Acebo, there are plenty of restaurantes, casa rurales and albergues (www.gronze.com). I have always chosen to walk the 3km extra to the next town of Atapuerca, which leaves me with a short days walk into Burgos the following day. Agés is a popular town however, and it is not unusual to find it’s albergues booked up a week in advance.

Ambasmestas (map)

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I have yet to meet anyone or read any blogs by people who have stayed in this little town. The reason could be that it is so close to the major Camino towns of Villafranca el Bierzo and O Cebreiro. Ambasmestas is a village in the Valcarce region and in the Leon province. It has a population of roughly 60 people and you pass through it as you make your way to O Cebreiro. My only memory of this town is from 2012. I took the low road route from Villafranca el Bierzo and Ambasmestas offers a nice reprieve from noise of the busy N6 motorway. On leaving the town, you make your way to Vega del Valcarce and begin to climb in Ruitelan. Ambasmestas does offer albergues and casa rurales for pilgrims also (www.gronze.com).

Arcahueja (map)

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Another town you may not have heard about. It lies 8km from the hustle and bustle of Leon. Most pilgrims, including myself, would not think twice about stopping to look at this town, instead pushing on to Leon. Funnily enough, Arcahueja has an albergue and a casa rural (www.gronze.com) and a playground which gave me a little bit of light relief during my 2015 Camino 🙂 The town, with a population of 200 people, lives beside the main road into Leon and is the last little bit of civilization until you reach Leon (you will also pass through a tiny village called Valdelafuente).

Arzúa (map)

Picture164You know your Camino is coming to an end when you reach the municipal of Arzúa. It is around 40km from Santiago which is a day or so walk. I have come across people who have walked the 40km in one day, while others have split it into two. Arzúa is in the province of La Coruna and has a population of over 6,000 people. It is a major Camino town and has a wealth of albergues, hotels and pensions (www.gronze.com). I passed through this large town in 2011 and stayed in Pension O Retiro. Should you wish to avoid the hustle and bustle of this particular town, you could finish your day in Ribadixo da Baixo some 3km beforehand, or in Salceda 5km ahead. There are plenty of pulperias in Arzúa (well, you are in Galicia) and should you wish to drink some Queimada, here is the perfect place to taste some. Although I didn’t particularly like it, it was good to try it. Your time in Arzúa will be spent reminiscing over your last few weeks and trying to stretch out the little time left. Plans will also be hatched to return 🙂

Astorga (map)

2015-05-16 14.07.50Moving eastward some 250km and the next town in the A category, we come to the large university town of Astorga. Personally, I love Astorga as it is vibrant and comes to life after the siesta. Restaurants and cafes line up in the main plaza and there is a great buzz about the place. It lies in the province of Leon and holds a population of over 12,000. It is most well known for the Catedral de Santa María de Astorga, the Palacio Episcopal, designed by Antoni Gaudí, the Town Hall and it’s bells, it’s Roman archaeological remains, and last but not least, the Chocolate museum!! :). Unfortunately, I have not seen the chocolate museum yet as it was closed when I arrived into the town after a long day’s walking. As with all large towns, there are plenty of options for accommodation (www.gronze.com). I have stayed in both albergues but prefer the Albergue de peregrinos Siervas de María at the entrance of the town, even though it is a little bit out of main plaza. Also, if you are starting your Camino here, you can’t go wrong with Hotel Gaudi.

Atapuerca (map)

2015-05-06 12.03.40Moving further eastward by another 200km, we arrive back to the province of Burgos and Atapuerca. This part of Spain is steeped in history. Not far from this town is the Sierra de Atapuerca, an archaeological site. It contains several caves where fossils and stone tools of the earliest known humans in western Europe have been found. Naturally, it’s visitor centre is very busy. All of this is away from the Camino however. The town of Atapuerca is quiet and has a population of just over 150. It doesn’t seem to have reaped the rewards of the excavation site as visitors come to and from Burgos. Atapuerca is only 19km from Burgos itself and I have stayed here twice before. I have never had a problem with accomodation myself as most people choose on staying in either San Juan de Ortega or Ages.There are two albergues and two casa rurales (www.gronze.com). Also, I would recommend that you eat in Restaurante Como Sapiens (see what they did with the name!!), it is fab!!.

Ayegui (map)

0004743Ayegui is a town in Navarra and is deeply rooted in the Basque tradition, It is some 45km to the west of Pamplona. You may not have heard of the town itself as it is so close to Estella. Some people actually mistake it for being part of Estella. It has a population of roughly 2,000 people and this is increasing as it is a suburb of Estella. I have stayed here in 2014 staying in it’s only albergue (Albergue de peregrinos San Cipriano). The town is very close to the Bodegas Irache..the fountain of wine. If you are looking to eat out, you may as well walk back into Estella as there is very little to offer here. Oh..on a side note, the footballer Javi Martinez was born here. He plays for Bayern Munich. I suppose that’s the town’s claim to fame!

Azofra (map)

2013-05-27 07.07.45Azofra has all the hallmarks of a Camino town. I wonder what effect a diversion of the route would have on this town of 200 people. Azofra is based 8km from Najera and the Camino passes straight through the town. It has a number of shops, cafes and bars. The municipal albergue, which was build recently, is outstanding. It is highly recommended but there are also two pensions in the town (www.gronze.com). I passed through the town in 2013 while it was raining torrentially. I don’t have many fond memories of that day as a result. However, I stayed in the municipal albergue in 2014. My time there was quite the opposite to the previous year. The sun shone and the owner of the town’s shop opened up for me during siesta. I had no food otherwise. The town is also situated in La Rioja, wine country..so there is no shortage of wine!

The next instalment will feature towns beginning with B including favourites of mine Belorado and Boadilla de Real Camino. If you have stayed in or have any comments about the above towns, please comment below.