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The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 3

The Way To Santiago Compostela - My Pilgrimage (Part 3)


See also...
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 1
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 2
The Way To Santiago Compostela - Part 4

In the month of May this year my wife Wendy and I went on a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, walking 810kms from the village of St Jean Pied de Port (France) to the city of Santiago Compostela (Spain) - the legendary final resting place of St James. The following is a series of emails sent to our families during the course of our 32 day walk. It is accompanied by images taken on the Camino - which translates as "the way". - Alastair Thompson (Scoop co-editor)

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Hi,

The last couple of days have involved walking over a mountain range between Astorga and Ponferrada. The distance, 56 kms, is probably a bit like walking to Greytown and the height of the hill not that different than walking over the Rimutakas. We are now in Ponferrada and are treating ourselves to a night in a hotel.

Day 23

We left Astorga fairly early. As we did the wwallows were doing an amazing display of aerobatics over the city as seen out of the fourth story window of our dormitory.


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Caption: Rainclouds ahead as we climb into the mountains

The weather was forboding as we headed into the hills behind the city quickly starting a slow ascent towards our goal of Foncebadon at 1400metres. We were starting at 850 meters so it was not as bad as it sounds.

The road was thick with Pilgrims many of whom we recognised plus lots which we didn´t. At the 15km mark we passed through a village called El Ganso and it was pretty apparent that higher up the mountain we would soon run into rain. Changing into our shorts and coats and sticking the covers on our packs we made the 7km climb up to the pretty mountain village of Rabanal.

We passed through a forest of stunted alpine trees and it reminded us lots of the mountains back home which raised our spirits even though we were getting wet. The trees were deciduous and it is surprising how fresh the new leaves - what leaves there were - were on them.


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Caption: The author in the rain beside a fence which has been decorated by passing pilgrims

Most of our fellow pilgrims were stopping at Rabanal, 1100 meters, for the night but we planned to head on higher up to Foncebadon near the top of the pass partly because it is the site of a climactic scene from a book we had both just read about the Camino by Paul Coehlo called The Pilgrimage. In the book he has a huge fight with a dog which is possessed by a demon but you really need to read the book to make sense of it.


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Caption: Panorama from the path up to Foncebadon


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Caption: Storm clouds over Foncebadon

As we arrived it was all very spooky with huge black thunder clouds coming in over the top of the range and cracks of thunder and craggy leafless trees not to mention huge mountain sheep dogs.

We stayed in a delightful refuge with seemingly a full cohort of Germans and fortunately some friendly Irish and Bretons with whom we drunk a little too much wine over the paella dinner.


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Caption: New friends Podrig and Ngarita at dinner in Foncebadon

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Day 24

After the rucksack rustlers left the building at 6am the rest of us got up and had a lovely breakfast of cornflakes and toast with butter. Butter seems to be something of a novelty here in Spain and it was something of a celebration for me to finally have some to put on my toast.

The mountains and the village were encased in fog at dawn and were only just beginning to clear as we left the village at around 8am and headed for the pass above us.


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Caption: The Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross)

As we climbed the clouds lifted and we could see all the way back down to Astorga before we rounded a bend and sighted the Cruz de Ferro - Iron Cross - which marks the top of the saddle.

Around the cross pilgrims leave rocks with messages on them and an assortment of other odds and ends. Piles of odds and ends in fact are something of a tradition on the Camino.


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Caption: The house of Tomas - the last Templar Knight

The path to Ponferrada travels along a ridge at the top for about 4 kms before it starts to descend and passes through an almost abandoned hamlet home to a chap called Tomas who is possibly the last Templar Knight. He has a small refuge and gives coffee to passing pilgrims as well as selling them souvenirs. We ran into our Northern Irish friends in the shop which was kinda neat.

A couple of kms on and the cloud had nearly completely lifted and we could see all the way down into the valley in which Ponferrada is sited - 900 meters below us.

The path down was loose underfoot, stony and treacherous and the path was full of pilgrims. I would be very very surprised if no-one was seriously injured on the way down. Wendy and I both slipped a couple of times not seriously but Wendy was very pleased to have put her leg brace on.


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Caption: We begin our descent towards Ponferrada

Eventually we reached Moulinesca at the bottom of the hill a very prosperous looking place which confirmed our suspicions that all the rich people in Spain seem to live in the mountains.

After lunch of a big steak sandwich - literally a big piece of meat and two slices of bread. No salt. No pepper. No lettuce, sauce or tomato. That's how sandwiches are here - we headed off for Ponferrado where we are now. It is the home of a huge castle built by the Templar Knights just 30 years before they were wiped out by jealous European kings and frightened clergy.

We are staying in a hotel called Los Templarios but there is no obvious connection that I can see.

Wendy may be coming down with a bug. Hopefully not. Shortly after we arrived it started raining again which it has now everyday for 2 weeks.

Tomorrow we head back towards another range of mountains which will probably take us around 4 days to clear before we are on the home run down to Compostela Santiago and completion of our pilgrimage.

More later....

Alastair

************

Hi,

Having crossed the second set of mountains we are now just 112kms from our goal and expect to finish on Friday God willing.

Day 25

We very nearly considered not going anywhere on Saturday morning. It was raining and Wendy was feeling fairly bad on Friday night with a head cold coming on. She had a mild temperature and a headache and what with the rain...


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Caption: The author holds his stick in the style of a Templar Knight beside their castle in Ponferrada

However by 9.30am she was feeling hungry which was a good sign and so we decided to press on and stop if the weather turned nasty. We had breakfast, took a look at the short lived castle of the Templars, visited their Church and then headed for the outskirts of town.

We passed a rather odd abandoned building with an accompanying church which was celebrating a visitation of Mary to Compostilla. Painted on the church was a mural of the four gospel writers but only Matthew was human, Luke was an ox, John an eagle and Mark a lion. Odd and new to us in terms of theological symbology.

We passed through some very fertile looking garden lands past a few small villages. Everything was looking over the top verdant. We then crossed the motorway and the weather looked like it was about to close in. We were by now in some rolling country with vineyards and fruit trees. Fortunately a break in the rain appeared above us and we walked on to Cacabelos in the sunshine.


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Caption: Near Cacabelos we pass a peach tree which has grown a cross

Dodging a few more rainclouds we then walked further towards some biggish looking hills which we were to begin to ascend the following day.

We had decided in the morning to spend another night in a hotel owing to Wendy´s illness and the need for another good nights sleep. By the time we arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo the refuge was well and truly full anyway.

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Day 26

A good night's sleep was had by all and owing to the luxury of being in a hotel we left fairly late. Wendy was still not 100% and we decided not make an unnecessary but recommended detour up a nearby 480 metre high hill.

Instead the trail led up a narrow valley accompanied by 2 roads, a regular highway - like the ones we get in NZ - and a super four lane job with huge bridges and viaducts.


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Caption: In the valley we find lots of "doer uppers" - just waiting for a brave English couple to come refurbish. This one appeared to have previously been a travellers inn.

A relatively short day ended at around 3pm in the town of Villa de Carze where we found a relatively empty refuge and cooked ourselves some mushroom soup.

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Day 27

We were now in the mountains again at around 800meters altitude and it was a cold night. I was somewhat paranoid I was going to freeze and grabbed an extra mattress pillow and blankets. In the end I didn't much to our delight. Wendy was better by now thankfully after a night of mountain air and a third good night's sleep.


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Caption: As we climb we meet some of the local fauna

This day included a climb up to 1300 meters and passing through three mountain passes. It also involved leaving Castillo de Leon and entering Galicia so named because it is home of the Celts the original Gallic people. The vegetation in these mountains was quite different from anything we had seen before. The hills were very green, the trees oaks, ash and birch and the pastures extraordinarily lush looking surrounded with little stone fences.

From the look of things all of Galicia is like this. We climbed steeply to the villages of Le Fada and Laguna eventually reaching the top and the celebrated village of O Cerebrio where a miracle of the sacrament is said to have occurred and where a reliquary holding the transformed body and blood is venerated.


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Caption: Panorama - the view from O Cerebrio


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Caption: The reliquary for the miracle of O Cerebrio

Nearby is a cross where the author Paul Coehlo says in his book he met a lamb which led him to the church where he received a sword from his Magi master (you need to read the book). Anyway we decided to climb up to the cross and as we arrived it started to hail. We wandered back down into the village and had a lovely lunch of Caldo Gallegos - the specialty dish of Galicia which seems to be potato and cabbage broth - and then set out in the rain along the ridge.

There was something of a misunderstanding about whose idea it was to set out in spite of the pouring rain but that was sorted out after it fortunately stopped 2kms later and we started to dry out.

We then walked another 8kms along the top of the mountains through 2 more high passes to the town of Fonfria occasionally resting under trees from showers. It was fairly cold and when we arrived in Fonfria and found a lovely new warm refuge with laundry facilities we were very thankful.

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Day 28

A big dormitory though warm but full of snorers was not completely conducive to sleep and we awoke fairly early. The mountains were shrouded in clouds which looked fairly serious about raining although it was not actually raining as we left for the descent to Triacastela.

Halfway down it started to rain fairly consistently and so we arrived fairly wet at the bottom at around 10.30am. We had met a nice group of Finns the previous night and they had some coffee with us before departing on an alternative route to the one we were taking for the rest of the day.


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Caption: An old gnarled tree on the outskirts of Triacastela

We set off back up a hill to around 900m through oak forests and through villages seemingly stuck in another time. Here the cows still live under the people and the paths are used to take stock and people to pastures dotted through the forest. It all seemed very magical and we shared the path for a while with a group of teenagers who seemed much like teenagers everywhere else.

We seemed to have the path to ourselves as we weaved our way over the hills for 12kms towards our goal of Saria some 20kms away.


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Caption: Churches in Galicia are considerably more modest

Again the rain came and went but the sights and sounds kept us entertained and we were passed by a group of pilgrims on horseback. We caught them up in a bar in the village of Pintin where we again had Caldo Gallegos for lunch.

From there it was a fairly straightforward 7kms downhill to the town of Saria where we are now. Saria is significant in the Camino as the departure point for the last 100kms of the trip which are according to the Church the only bit that you have to walk in order to receive your certificate and the time off purgatory it promises. The town is brimming with pilgrims and has lots of new refuges including a brand new one that we are staying in with nice hot showers.


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Caption: A typical Galician corriedor - pathway between rural villages - (above), and some of our fellow travelers (below)


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Anyway time to head to sleep. We have hopefully four days yet to go and will then rest a while in Santiago before deciding how to get to Biarritz and pick up our hire car.

God bless and lots of love

Alastair and Wendy

(continuing...)

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