12.11.16 – 13.11.16 Foncebadon to Molinaseca 19.5km; Molinaseca to Pieros 21.1km
It was a cloudy start from Foncebadon this happy Saturday.
‘Daytime never starts with an act of will: it arises in unworried certainty. To walk in the early morning is to understand the strength of natural beginnings.’ (p.98).
I relished in the green lushness after the rain, which highlighted the autumn reds and orange.
Cruz de Ferro (Hierro) is an important cross marking the highest point of the Camino Frances at 1517m, with its little chapel and enormous pile of meaningful stones, placed by pilgrims over the years. There are no public toilets along the path, and long gaps between bars (where you must buy something in order to use the facilities), so, sadly, there is always white paper behind these charming buildings.
It was to be a smaller number of kilometers that day, but a steep ascent to Manjarin, with quite a surprising welcome when we arrived. In fact, quite one of the most unusual situations I have ever been in.
An (almost) abandoned village, Manjarin has one inhabitant, and his abode is decorated with insignia from all over the world, prayer flags, and messages in many languages. He welcomes walkers in to his warm ‘cave’. Leaving the light and moving into the dark, it’s initially impossible to see and there’s a musty scent. Then the passage opens out into a wide room, like something out of Robin Hood, with a rustic, bright fire and circular, wooden table, around which sit two men dressed as Knights with the red Templar cross on their tunics.
We are offered, and I drink, for the first time in perhaps 25 years, a (caffeinated) coffee. There are snacks and as our eyes get accustomed to the dimness, there is plenty to see around the walls. We listen to their chatter as they incongruously show each other photos on their mobile phones.
On the way out, we are invited to join a ceremony at the altar containing a statue of the Virgin and lots of Camino shells, and I am given a flag to hold, while one man reads a moving prayer (in Spanish) for peace and harmony amongst all peoples.
We descend almost 500m that afternoon, mist swirling around, with breath-taking views, through the mountain village of El Acebo de San Miguel (means, Saint Michael’s holly) in upper El Bierzo, and down to Molinaseca. I can smell the damp, decaying landscape, and feel the droplets on my face as I tramp. There’s the dry shush of copper leaves as I keep to the softer edges to avoid the tarmac. My feet have become so sensitised that I fancy I can feel each stone through my soles, but at least after all this time my feet have hardened and are blister-free. Most of the trees have lost their leaves at this altitude, although withered blackberries remain on the brambles.
There were trees with silver lichen and scarlet, rotund seed heads; and dry, beige grasses reminiscent of the Scottish hills. Village streets wound round stone dwellings with sturdy wooden balconies, seemingly deserted except for, here and there, washing hanging out to dry in the grey day. Even without the sun, the wooded slopes of the valleys were spectacular as the clouds hung among them.
Molinaseca has a comparatively large population of 800, surprising after the day’s rural walk, with it’s handsome church and bridge, and where we stayed at the municipal dormitory as usual, with its bunks, wooden floor and steel beams.
The sky cleared as we slept, revealing a blue morning.
And an hour later we entered Ponferada, on the river Sil, with its imposing monastery, castellated and turreted. It’s the official end of the Camino Frances and the start of the Camino Santiago, but you would not know that as you walked through.
The road continued through yellow glades, over ancient stone bridges, and past single storey, white stone, one-room buildings with dark grey slate rooves. There were more cranes nests on top of council-erected poles, and ‘authentic’ murals showing monks and pilgrims striding out. The path widened and flattened, and the mountains were once again in the distance. We passed through Cacabelos without stopping, the end of the day’s trek now nearby, and up another very steep incline, to Pieros.
This tiny hostel Casa Sol y Luna was an alternative to the norm, with it’s meditation room upstairs and cosy dining room down. The hospitalier was most attentive, drying my knickers in front of the stove, and accompanying me to see the massive harvest moon I had seen heralded on Facebook (but impossible to photograph with a mere phone camera)!
The walls of the small dorm were like outdoors indoors, where you can see the grouting between the stones. We spent time gossiping over which enthusiastic youths lived here, who was sleeping with whom (was she creeping off in the middle of the night to avoid the snoring, or for a tryst with the lascivious gentleman?), and I translated the gushing messages in the visitor’s book for the owner (all about stars and angels – it was that kind of place). We had a delicious vegan meal with wine in situ as it was a Sunday (no shops open), and there was much warmth, song and laughter at the table that night.
All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
Thanks to Alain for taking beautiful photos.
A fellow walker’s blog http://www.caminosantiagodecompostela.com/camino-de-santiago-frances/part-3-leon-santiago/24-astorga-molinaseca/