Looking Back – Camino Frances 2012 #3

Day three. Rabanal del Camino.

Another early morning. I grabbed my things and headed out in the direction of the Leon hills. The sun was yet to rise but the forecast said that the day had great potential. I happened to leave at the same time as Sabine, a German girl, who was alone. We tagged along for a bit as we were walking at the same pace. Our first challenge was the ascent to Foncebadon. We managed that in just over an hour. My love for ascents hasn’t changed through the years. On arriving at Foncebadon, I was surprised at how derelict the town was. It was crumbling, apart from a few hostels. There couldn’t be people living here. We stopped off at the nearest refugio for breakfast.After a half hour, we moved on. Next stop was the Cruz de Ferro. I wasn’t sure what to expect on reaching this landmark. There was so much written about it that maybe I was letting the occasion get to me. I had my stone and I was going to spend a little time here. The sky was blue. It was a perfect day. We arrived at the Cruz but I was surprised at how many people were there. Many were taking pictures and reading messages left by the Cruz. I dropped my stone and moved on. Sabine stuck around for a little bit longer. Her basic English was enough for us to communicate, as I had zero German. She could had walked ahead if she wanted to, so it meant something to me for her to stay.

That phrase “What goes up, must come down!” couldn’t be more true for this day. Walking from the Cruz, the highest point on the Camino Frances, down to our stay for the night, Molinaseca, was tough. The views were stunning but it took me great patience to determine where to put each foot as I was walking. The ground was made of loose rock and shale and I was lucky that it wasn’t raining. But..no…I wasn’t complaining! There was a lot of stopping, a few cerverzas were had and on reaching Molinaseca at the base of the mountain, I took off my shoes and rested. The albergue had an amazing communal meal. We talked about the next day and where we would walk to, but I was quite happy being where I was.

More from the throwback series can be found here.

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Looking Back – Camino Frances 2012 #2

Day two. Astorga.

I remember being woken suddenly by super-eager peregrinos in the albergue in Astorga. It was as if a fire had started and they needed to leave. Gah! The sun hadn’t even risen yet. I suppose it’s par of the course in albergue life however..sigh! After gathering my things together, I made my way out of the albergue and walked westwards. It was just after 7am. After a number of hours, I met Louisa from Spain. We got talking until we hit Santa Catalina de la Somoza. I stopped here for a second breakfast. The sun was out now and it was getting warm. After 2o minutes or so, I walked on. I reached El Ganso and it’s one-bar-town. The Cowboy Bar really intrigued me.

The walking wasn’t difficult and the scenery wasn’t anything to write home about. However, it wasn’t flat like it was the previous day. I enjoyed walking solo, just me and my music. Another few hours passed and I reached the climb to Rabanal del Camino. It was tough going, I suppose I could have done with a pole. The decorations on the fence walking up made it all more worthwhile. Rabanal del Camino was in the distance. I had walked 21 kms in 5 hours. Just a little too fast I suppose. Time for a rest. The heat had got to me and I was out of water. I checked in at Albergue NS Pilar and had a choice of bunks. I showered and rested in the sun with a cerveza. Rabanal was a fantastic little town.

The following day was the Cruz de Ferro and the Leon Hills. I was a little apprehensive and unsure if I was going to manage it. Maybe it was just my mind. I went to vespers in the Benadictine church which was an amazing experience. I’m not particularly religious but this music and harmony blew me away. Afterwards, I met a guy from Denmark and we had dinner in El Refugio. Nice place. I had an early night and got ready for a steep climb the next morning.

More from the throwback series can be found here.

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Towns Along The Way – “R” – Part 2

Today I will finish talking about towns beginning with R. There are a few left and you will meet the first town after nearly 550 kms from St Jean.

Rabanal del Camino (map)

4663201770_db72abf84d21 kms from Astorga, you will arrive at Rabanal del Camino, the last stop before the up and over of the Leon hills. Many choose to stay here for the night as a result (thanks Brierley!) In the Middle Ages, the knights templar built several hospitals and churches here for passing pilgrims before the journey over the hills. For such a small town, it has a real relaxed vibe about it and I have stayed here myself a number of times. Albergue Gaucelmo is run by the CSJ and the Albergue NS de Pilar is a popular. Today, all economic activity of the village revolves around services for pilgrims, with up to four good albergues and hotels. It would be wrong of me not to mention the Benedictine Monastery, “San Salvador del Monte Irago“, set up in 2001, which is popular among pilgrims. Sleep well, as the next day can be tough on the legs as you climb to the Cruz de Ferro and descend to Molinaseca.

Riego de Ambrós (map)

Less than 4 kms after El Acebo, you will arrive at another small village – Riego de Ambrós. I have passed this 35235025town on 2 occasions and because my mind was so fixed on where my feet were, I didn’t take in where I was. Here the village lies on a curvy and steep descent, between El Acebo and Molinaseca. You have two albergues to choose from also, but if you are interested in breaking up the descent into 2 days, my advice is to stay in El Acebo beforehand as there are more facilities and more albergues. You may also prefer to finish the descent entirely and walk to Molinaseca (my favourite) or Ponferrada (where all the history is!) 

Ruitelán (map)

ruitelanAnother blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village, Ruitelán is situated in the El Bierzo valley between Villafranca del Bierzo and O Cebreiro. Many choose to walk from Villafranca to O Cebreiro over a day which is close to 30 kms. That’s pretty tough going. However, some like to stop just before the ascent kicks in (Ruitelán, Las Herrarias or La Faba) and leave it until the next day to move on. Could be a wise choice! Ruitelán has a recommended albergue that offers a communal meal – Albergue Pequeño Potala. I might try it out!

Rivadiso (map)

You have climbed O Cebreiro, you have entered Galicia, passed Sarria and are on the home 118390056stretch. On your 3rd or 4th last day before Santiago, you will pass Ribadiso (or Rivadiso to the Galicians).  It is not so much a town but rather a hamlet, and is home to the Rio Iso, a medieval bridge built over it and 2 albergues. All invite pilgrims to take a break. The old Xunta albergue, just past the bridge, used to be an old hospital restored from the fifteenth century. Ribadiso is 3 kms from Arzua and many a pilgrim has been tempted by the river to stay at these albergues rhan move on into the larger town.

Turning 40…

Since my last post, I moved from the world of the thirty-something to the realm of the 4os. I feel like I’ve turned a new leaf, however people were quick to dismiss age as nothing but a number. I agree with their sentiments. It has been a good few days. I took some leave from work on Tuesday and Wednesday and while I was unable to get out walking (rain put paid to that), I was able to get the last few pieces ready for the Christmas period. The jigsaw is complete.

On the subject of birthdays, I’ve noticed a change in the type of presents I have been receiving over the years. In my twenties, the fashionable gifts were cassette tapes or VHS videos…maybe a voucher for pair of denim jeans. In my thirties, CDs were all the rage, before quickly being taken over by vouchers for online shopping. Towards the end of my thirties, I became more and more interested in outdoor gear, especially when I discovered the Camino. I have received a number of vouchers for a store in Dublin (which will remain nameless!), and already have a number of ideas for my next purchase when I visit town during the sales. I have been thinking of hiking poles, but the jury is out on them.

However, my favourite gift that I have received is not the obvious one. It is a dvd, entitled “The Monks of Glenstal Abbey”. Why? Well, I have a keen interest in the Benedictine monks ever since I stayed in Rabanal del Camino in 2012 and witnessed vespers being sung by the monks. It was only in 2013 after my 3rd Camino and after I met C and J that I learned that there is a Benedictine monastery in Ireland, in Limerick to be precise.

And when I was invited to visit Glenstal Abbey, I decided to go and listen to their vespers, which is usually sung at 9pm. Now, I am not a religious person, I’m not even a Sunday Catholic. But you don’t need to be to appreciate this music. I can’t wait to make the trip to Glenstal again, but this dvd will fill the gap in the meantime. I made a trip to the church in Rabanal this May and did the same as back in 2012.

I will write again before Christmas Eve.

Weekend Watch #12 – The Colours on the Leon Hills

One of my favourite sections on the Camino Frances is the walk between Astorga to Rabanal del Camino. The Leon hills are covered in green, and bruised with purple and yellow heather. It is almost dream-like. I discovered the below video over on Journey Taker. I can’t wait to go back and take in those sights again.

Camino 2015 – Day 13 – Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca….and home

May 18th 2015 – Day 13
Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca – 25km

I had already walked 260km over 12 days but this day was my last day. I dislike last days on any trip. I had already thought about going back to work and that brings stresses in itself. However, starting out, I had a choice. Take it handy and walk 25km to Molinaseca, or walk to Ponferrada, which is approximately 30km walk. It all depended on how I felt on reaching Molinaseca. .. I was going to soak up the atmosphere and meet some more people. I may even meet Tom and the guys before I finish up.

It was just after 6am when I departed Rabanal del Camino and it was still dark. The albergue was serving breakfast at 7am but I didn’t avail of it choosing to wait until my arrival at the next town, Foncebadon. I remember my time here in 2012, I left with a German, Sabine however I walked out alone this time. It didn’t bother me however. The climb up to Foncebadon is tough, and starts as soon as you leave the hamet. You venture off road and you walk up, up, and further up until you reach a main road. I meet the two Irish women whom I last saw in El Burgo Ranero and chat to them for a while while I catch my breath. From there, there is another steep climb before you see the cross at the entrance of Foncebadon.

The popularity of the Camino seems to have given life to this little part of Spain since I last visited in 2012. Instantly, I could see two new albergues and one other hostal. I stopped at one of the new places “Albergue Roger de Lauria” which serves breakfast. It was bustling even at this time..7am. I suppose a lot of people choose this village as their stop point. John Brierley doesn’t recommend it as an end stage, but a lot of people chose to stay here so they can witness daybreak from the highest point. I ordered my usual breakfast and sat down. The climb took a bit out of me but I had quite a bit more to go yet.

I started to think about the Cruz de Ferro, which was another 2 kms or so from here. On reaching the Cruz, most pilgrims bring along a stone as a symbol of a weight that is on their shoulders. They place the stone by the cross so the weight is no longer with them. Instead of a stone, I brought a small metal shell that was given to me by my friend Anna who I met on my last Camino. I spent twenty minutes or so here and took in the atmosphere. The sun was out and it was beginning to warm up. The arrival of a tourist bus was good reason for me to move on also. From Rabanal, I had climbed 400 metres to the highest point on the Camino so it was all downhill from now. The trail is along a road but the traffic is so quiet that I find myself walking on the road itself.

Another 2 kms or so further on I reach Manjarin, with a population of just one..Tomas. I didn’t stop this time around but took a photo of the many destination signs at the front of his house. I wondered if many stayed in his albergue the previous night. I must try it sometime. From now until the next town, El Acebo which is roughly 7 kms, it is all descent. At first. the Camino stays on the main road but it takes you off road for a while before reaching El Acebo. It is quite tough at times, especially as I don’t like descents. I stop at every opportunity I can. There was one guy selling freshly squeezed orange juice and I jumped at the chance to take a rest. I reach El Acebo at about 11am. The climb down took alot from me and I was ready for a cafe con leche and something to eat with it. Just as I entered the first cafe in the village, I see Tom and the gang. I was delighted to see them. It now meant I had someone to walk with on my final day. I took it easy for a while we gathered our things and set off. I learnt that they had stayed in Orbigo and in the albergue further on in Astorga. They chose to stay in Foncebadon also, which explained how I had missed them for so long.

Once we left, we discussed where we would stay for the night. I told them that I had been to Molinaseca in 2012 and it is beside a river. I think they had been thinking of staying in Ponferrada but the mentioning of a river sort of changed their minds. It is a beautiful town and wins over Ponferrada on all counts. Plus the albergue in Ponferrada is too large. The albergue in Molinaseca is run by Alfredo who is another legend of the Camino. We checked in and decided that rather than have dinner there, we would take a visit to the tienda, buy some food and wine and take a trip down to the river. We had a great time and it was a perfect final day..even though my leg took a battering. I was back hobbling again but I did my best to shake it off. I saw Michael from Cork again who would be flying home the next day, but from Madrid.

Saying goodbyes are hard but saying goodbyes on the Camino are harder. I should be used to it at this stage.

I woke up the next day after 7am and the last of the stragglers were moving out. I, on the other hand, didn’t need to go. I packed up and wandered down to the taxi rank in Molinaseca town. After a badly improvised phone call in Spanish to a taxi company, I was picked up and brought to Ponferrada bus station. The next four hours were spent looking out the window at passing cars and pilgrims as they make their way to Santiago. In typical Galician style, the heavens opened on arriving in Santiago. After another taxi ride to the aeropuerto, I waited for my flight home. While waiting, I met a friend who was also walking another portion of the Camino and was coming home.

So that’s my 2015 Camino over..I suffered, to the extent of damaging some ligaments in my leg. But was it worth it? Oh yes! Here’s to 2016.

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Camino 2015 – Day 12 – Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

May 17th 2015 – Day 12
Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, 24km

This would be my penultimate day and I was unsure where I would finish up. I’d let the feet decide again. Two days from now I was due to catch a bus from Ponferrada to Santiago and fly home to Dublin afterwards. There was much internal debating whether I should travel to Santiago this year but as long as I avoided the main town I would be happy enough. Today, however, I was aiming for either Rabanal del Camino or Foncebadon. I had walked this route in 2012 and was familiar with it. On leaving Astorga, the trail starts to rise gently and there is a nice climb into Rabanal however, there is nothing to get overly concerned about.

I left Astorga in the dark once again..not a cloud in the sky. It was a great advertisement for walking early as the stars were still visible. It doesn’t take too long to leave Astorga, maybe half an hour, and I was eager to stop for my first breakfast of the day. Santa Catalina wasn’t too far away. I walked alone from Astorga but I did notice a lot of groups leaving the town. It had been over 6 weeks since Denise Thiem, a pilgrim from the US, went missing. This had always been in the back of my mind and especially today I thought of her family and friends. It seemed as though pilgrims were taking extra care by doubling up just to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I decided to hang back from one group until I reached Santa Catalina. There was also a visible police presence which I had not seen before on my 5 times on the Camino. My one wish is that people don’t decide that the Camino is not for them based on this one event.

I arrived into Santa Catalina looking forward to breakfast and ordered my usual. My leg was paining me again so I took some more paracetemol. I spent quite a bit of time here, watching the news,  trying to understand it with my limited Spanish. This albergue “El Caminante” is fab..and I hope to stay here in the future. In fact, there are plenty of options in Santa Catalina. I move on and after an hour of gradual ascent, I reach the curious town of El Ganso. There are many towns and “celebrities” of the French Way, and the Cowboy boy here is one of them. I stop off here and soak in the randomness. I love it. There is an albergue here also. I stopped for a cerveza to cool off. I meet Des and Josephine who weren’t far behind me. That would be the last I would see of them unfortunately.

The next 2 hours I walked along the side of a road, with the sun getting hotter. I was quite happy with my own company but I did stop and talk to some people that I had met in Villavante a few days earlier. I love this part of the Camino. The higher you climb, the more colours you see..plenty of greens, purples, yellows, reds. It was perfect. The final ascent into Rabanal del Camino is much greater and is pretty demanding. Hundreds of coloured crosses littered the side of the trail as I climbed up to the little town. A half an hour later I arrived in Rabanal sweating and racing for a cool cerveza! With great joy I see Andreas from Germany, whom I hadn’t seen since outside Mansilla. I was also met by Roy from Canada who was hoping to stay here. After that climb and that heat, I decided to stay put and chill out in the sun until I worked out which albergue to stay in! In 2012, I stayed in the fab “Albergue NS de Pilar” which is brilliant but I wanted to try somewhere else. Albergue Guacelmo was getting good feedback so I headed in that direction. It opened just as I placed my bag down. Happy days! Albergue Guacelmo is run by the CSJ in London and every two week or so, new volunteers come over to look after pilgrims. It is donotivo as well. It is well recommended to stay there however, there is a condition that you carry your backpack to be given a bunk. If not, you will need to look elsewhere.

Later on that evening, I had a meal in the hotel across the road after Vespers in the local church. I would encourage you all to go to vespers there. What an experience. I went in 2012 and loved it. I had an early night afterwards and started to wonder how my final day would go. Would I see my buddies again? Or even still, would this be the last time on the Camino? I had no idea.

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