Archive for the ‘P. TO AND THROUGH EL BIERZO’ Category

That got your attention.

More about Nadal later.

We head out of Villafranca over a generously engineered bridge where millions of pilgrims have trod and stopped to gape at the torrent of the Valcarce below.

As we approach the mountains, we find a land of torrents big and small. The western side of the Bierzo gurgles and brims and splashes.

Chestnuts are a major product. Whole mountainsides of chestnuts, and avenues of chestnuts. Hope you like chestnuts.

I’d intended to spend the night in Vega de Valcarce, which has numerous albergues and pensións. Every single one was closed for the season or day of the week, as I spent several hours learning. (When people say full or closed, often it means they don’t want to run heating, which is very expensive in Spain.) When advised to pass on to the tiny hamlet of Ruitelán, some three kilometres away, I really thought that would be a mistake, with dark closing in.

As many pilgrims have learned, stopping at the albergue at Ruitelán is not a mistake. The two men who manage and cook there are model hospitaleros, with a fondness for bits of local produce and special music for waking pilgrims in the morning. That albergue is a treasure of the Way.

And there’s more. I found myself lodged in a room with two pilgrims, Juan and Rafael.

You could not have found three people more unalike. Rafael was an older pilgrim whose legs were about to give out. He was also an artist, and I don’t approve of  bloody artists. Juan was a lean, bearded Catalan, a vegetarian, a meditator…the type who works in a natural foods shop or at one of those urban rock climbing walls. I certainly don’t approve of any of that!

And I’m this messy redneck type. (What? You’d noticed?)

Okay, here we go with the familiar Camino message about tolerance, friendship and so on. The three of us ate dinner together, talked about nothing much…and the bond was so strong we didn’t want to go to bed.

In the morning, even Juan, a disciplined madrugador who’d walked all the way from Montserrat, kept lingering over breakfast and didn’t get away till after nine. Though he was a big-stage walker and Rafael was going to have to stop because of long term leg problems, we just did not want to part. When we did, it was bloody hard.

I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s him. You know…James.


Rafael Nadal? Well, Rafael’s surname was Nadal. So the headline for the post is strictly accurate. And obviously too good to pass up.


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Or the Spanish Conques?

Nicknames with a smidgin of substance. Villafranca del Bierzo does have a special status, not shared with other towns along the Camino. Here pilgrims, suffering disease or injury, could be granted jubileo, an absolution from their pilgrim vows and entitlement to all benefits of a completed pilgrimage. This was done after passing through the door of Perdón in the Church of Santiago, on the approach to the town. I suppose quite a few cheats, fibbers and loafers sullied this threshold. (Why are you all looking at me like that?)

The church was founded by papal bull in the twelfth century mainly for that very purpose of granting jubileo to bona fide invalids. It was a humane solution to a very real problem as thousands of people poured through the region in an era when medicine and transport weren’t so fancy, a vow was a vow, and dawdling tourist-types like me were the exception.

So, yes…little Compostela.

One could think of Villafranca as a Spanish Conques, without taking the comparison too far. Conques is a perfectly preserved medieval abbey-village which is the single best example of French marketing and presentation I can think of, which is saying an awful lot. Villafranca has its abbey and French origins, and even had a separate French local authority for a while. Like Conques, it is set in a small, deep valley, which confers an intimate glamour, and even makes the air smell different.

To explain the French influence, which brought a successful wine industry to the region, one should point first to the Cluniac movement, something strange to us, but perhaps one of the West’s great forward strides. Like the Templars, the Cluniac monasteries, with headquarters in France, were powerful, wealthy and cosmopolitan. Also like the Templars, they had full legitimacy and a prestige that could give a little extra twang when that legitimacy was stretched too far.

I’m not sure how much my reflections on Camino history entertain or bore (or annoy), so I’ll say just this. In times of virtual or actual serfdom, a local authority could often do what it liked with you. A royal authority in Castile or León might be some kind of resort. A powerful bishop in Astorga might also be a counter-balance, as might a local parish priest.

But a powerful Cluniac monastery, if you’ll excuse some vulgarity, was nobody’s bitch.

That’s the monastery in Villafranca now, rebuilt in the sixteenth century after Cluny’s influence dissipated; yet it retains some Romanesque shape and still exudes Cluniac power. If I had to live in the countryside in medieval times, I’d like to live where I could knock on that monastery door if necessary.

The internationalist Cluniacs, with many reformist and swingin’ ideas to annoy conservatives like me, were also scholars, intellectuals and artistic pioneers. All that Romanesque and Gothic we lap up along the trail to Santiago wasn’t conceived by village masons.

The West has been built not so much on abstract notions of human rights, but on providing what Fallen Man really needs to defend himself against Fallen Man. Abuse and corruption are perennial, but when you need to appeal and find an alternative, the alternative needs to be serious, needs to be fat and powerful. Nobody’s bitch.

That’s what Fallen Western Man got right.


Much that’s interesting in the town dates from after the medieval period. Saint Francis is said to have stopped here on pilgimage. This church, a mix of Romanesque and Late Gothic, with maybe a touch of Moorish design, carries the name and statue of the saint.

San Nicolas, a Jesuit church of the seventeenth century, is very beautiful in its two-dimensional way.

When the area became a marquisate in the fifteenth century, this Castillo was more of a palace for the marquis, than any kind of fort.

I would not be surprised to find these fussily topiarised gardens in a medium sized town in France. In Spain, it does surprise. Maybe Villafranca, after all these centuries, is still aware of its frogginess?

I’d been thinking of stopping at that much touted albergue described in so many pamphlets distributed on the trail, when a freezing drizzle set in. I walked toward the river and found the Hostal Burbia. Once again, it was a family of courteous, enthusiastic bercianos, who could not do enough for my comfort.

I also had the good fortune to meet another pilgrim, something that was getting to be a rarity. An Austrian, he introduced me to his pilgrim staff, to which he sometimes spoke. The name was Wilson…the staff, not the Austrian. This gentleman was feeling a little guilty about doing it easy in a nice individual room. I was able to counsel him…the Austrian, not the staff.

The view from my room.

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I spent some days muddling and loafing in cheap but nice accommodation in Ponferrada and then in Cacabelos, not far distant. There’s a guy who patrols the track after Ponferrada giving out pamphlets for an albergue in Villafranca, which he says is just the best, the others stink, and if you don’t believe him, see for yourself etc etc. When he met me a second time three days later, still waddling along short of Villafranca, his salesmanship deserted him for a moment:

“But…but…you’re the same guy I saw…what?…”

A triumph for dawdling!


Not much to tell of the trail to Villafranca, which is, of course, one of the most interesting stops on the Camino, and deserves a post of its own.

If you look back at Ponferrada from the north, the geography shows itself; the mountains really loom.

Leaving the city, the suburbs you pass through are calm, almost posh. A chat with an elderly local lady who chose to stroll along with me confirmed my impression of bercianos. They’re a confident, open lot.

The smaller towns before Cacabelos have quite a high population compared to those of the meseta, perhaps due to the presence of some substantial industries here. But I won’t shock purists with any industrial snapshots. Instead, some postcards: a scrumptious bell-tower, and rolling wine country.

Cacabelos is near the ancient site of Bergidum Flavium, a Celtic then Roman capital which originated at Castro Ventosa, now an archaeological dig, and was transferred closer to the present town. It was a prime target of Muslim forces, and was finally wrecked. A pillar in Cacabelos stands as a monument to Bergidum.

If you stop in Cacabelos, chat to the locals. You’ll find them especially courteous. It’s not bursting with architectural and historical interest – that’s mostly out of town – but Cacabelos rewards a stroll.

At times there is a very welcoming pilgrim office running out of this little ermita. If you see some old guys hanging about there, definitely say g’day.

Approaching Cacabelos, you’ll see a number of hoardings promoting a three star hotel at very good pilgrim prices. What’s the catch?

There’s no catch. Margarita and staff are charming bercianos, full of pride in their region, and, though they have to keep things tight at the price, you could add an extra star for the Hotel Villa de Cacabelos.


Leaving Cacabelos, we pass an albergue integrated with an impressive eighteenth century church.

Now this is cute.

The Cabernet Franc grape is said to have been brought here by a French pilgrim, and to have evolved into the increasingly popular Mencía strain. The name Villafranca means “Town of Franks” and there’s no doubt that French or Frankish immigrants came to the region. I see their point.

And it’s to deep-folded Villafranca that we now come.

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Not much happened here before medieval times, as far as is known. Then there were lots of pilgrims, and a tricky river crossing near the village of Compostilla. In the eleventh century, pilgrimage suited everyone, so the powerful bishop of Astorga ordered a better bridge to be constructed over the Sil River at a different point. That bridge brought into existence a town whose name probably means “iron-reinforced bridge”, though there are the usual quibbles over etymology.

Ponferrada, crumbly in a graceful way, easy with some urban buzz,  is now capital of the Bierzo.

Much of what is interesting in the area lies beyond the city. That suits me, because the Bierzo is like another small region on the Camino, the Béarn, to which I’d like to return as a rambler rather than as a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is about following a long, ever varying line, and provides one experience. However, as you progress, you’ll find pockets where the landscape or people exert an extra attraction. I felt that the people of this little valley culture had a certain desirable pride not blunted by centuries of the pilgrim conveyor belt. They are gregarious Celts to a degree, but distinguished by an alertness, an almost Germanic thoroughness. They were the least off-handed people I encountered in Spain, while remaining thoroughly Spanish.

Or am I imagining this? Please comment.


Many things to check out in the town proper. A lush tower on the basilica, though in two styles, due to lightning damage of the first renaissance structure. So it’s baroque just on the top!

Wines, pears, chestnuts, botillo sausage…the Bierzo has a proud and crowded gastronomy for its size, and all is on display in Ponferrada.

Yet my happiest memory is of hot chocolate and churros in a little churrería adjacent to the covered market. It was a freezing evening, and the enormous churros were all prepared fresh to order, emerging with a hiss from their vat of oil. Sometimes the starchy hot chocolate of Spain disappoints, but this cup did not. I was a touch bloated by the end, but no winter pilgrim leaves a fresh churro to get cold.


About those Templars, and those Crusades…

Few celebrities or leaders, over a lavish dinner, could now say something like: “Actually, I don’t give a bugger about the entropy and carbon involved in producing my Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Please pass the Maldon Salt…”. One can choke on jet-delivered caviar, but not whisper the slightest environmental impiety.

Similarly, in later medieval times, in spite of centuries of frustration, you were still all for saving that Holy Land or nobody would pass you the salt. As a person of money and power, you were almost certainly thinking of a way to dodge or delay that next Crusade, but you didn’t blurt out: “Too hard, too far, too bloody expensive!” By the turn of the fourteenth century – after maybe nine official crusades and those loopy shepherds’ and childrens’ crusades – everyone was thinking just that, yet still no-one was saying it. The boom was over, but an automatic piety made it hard to acknowledge the reality.

There was a genuine defensive and even practical element in the Crusades, which it suits many too-clever moderns to ignore. Yet defense and practicality won’t account for such an enormous and unrewarded exertion over so long. Military prowess and religious fervour were the great public preoccupations; joined, they gave rise to a fashionable activism we may have trouble understanding unless we compare it to our own.

Some would compare the crusading urge to the West’s current military involvement in the Middle East. Yet supporters of such interventions are mostly too tentative, too wait-and-see.

But picture a comfortable inner-Sydney professional who is feeling “utterly passionate” about saving a “living river” or “pristine forest” in remote Tasmania as he pushes his air-conditioned Audi toward his air-conditioned office. He is feeling rage against people he has never met, in a place he has never been. Perhaps it’s an informed reaction, or it may have been stimulated just by some television footage, backed up by mournful classical music, showing a stranded fish or a fallen tree.

He has found a belief which involves his senses as much as his intellect; not a dogma or a policy, but a moral certainty that transports him from the everyday, its exoticism and sentiment made plausible by at least a little science. He feels more human, more engaged, more sexed.

He is a Crusader.

Collective belief, personal escapism and what may be best described as “sacramental frustration” can generate spiritual furies unique to each era. Those of the past seem odd and even ludicrous; yet few of us are steady against the mass moral, or moralistic, surges of our own time.

The Crusades sent much of the activism offshore, where it so often goes, and this suited many in power, until the ongoing costs and failures made it all too hard. The Fourth Crusade, so tragic and absurd, was really the beginning of the long-delayed end. The sacking of Christian Constantinople was too much even for the daffiest idealist.

Yet for a while it looked good, and felt great.

So who were the international stars, the Greenpeace, of this activism? More than anyone, a religious and military order that began in Jerusalem as a dinky little outfit after the First Crusade, the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. After a couple of centuries, their Ponferrada branch looked like this.

In a much earlier post I talked about a competing organisation, The Knights of St. John. What was said about them goes double for the Templars, but the Templars had a much shorter history. To paraphrase a line from “Casablanca”, they were like all great organisations, only more so. Much of their enormous prestige was, indeed, deserved. Their unique mix of valour and piety had amazed the world for two centuries; their confidence was unshakeable. So when times changed…

Honey, they forgot to duck.

In the twelfth century, Ponferrada had been given over to the Templars by the Crown of León. Their main function was the service and protection of pilgrims, so large a business by then was this Camino de Santiago. Yet their splendid fortress, built much later, was theirs for only a couple of decades. This abrupt loss had nothing to do with anything they did in Ponferrada.

The Templars had become a great multinational power divorced from their original crusading roots. Unfortunately for them, the 1300’s were a new era of more powerful nation states. Philip the Fair of France would soon have no trouble telling a pope to move shop to Avignon. His son, Philip V, would have no trouble manhandling cardinals till they elected the Holy Father he wanted.

The proud Templars – who has ever been prouder? – would not do as they were told and merge with the Knights of St. John. They would not do as they were told generally. And when they had lent Philip the Fair more money than he could ever repay, Philip decided that all those dark rumours about Templars were true.

And, very suddenly, there was a large vacant possession, here on the banks of the Sil River.

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Downhill walking can be hazardous if your shoes are tight in the toes, or your socks are humid. But I’d made good footwear choices on this hike, so the descent into the valley went well. The weather had threatened…

But the morning was radiant, and gave me a soft downhill glide.

Molinaseca, on the Meruelo River, was a stop on an important Roman Road connecting Portugal with Astorga. Then a stop on the Camino de Santiago. Always a stop!

Its bridge is Roman, though I can’t tell how much of the structure is original.

There are whole towns on the Camino where the inhabitants seem to share a mood. Here the mood was good. The guy with the bar, the guy with the supermarket…no-one could do enough. Mind you, I struck a lot of pride and courtesy throughout the Bierzo. I’m going back there.

Here I caught up with dining companions from the night before, a Kiwi-German team. (And, no, I did not pass them.)

They’d already been to the bar and the supermarket and shared my opinion of the town. It was medieval in its quaintness, modern in its cleanliness.

Enhorabuena, Molinaseca! Next time I’ll stay the night.

Soon I was in the folds of the lower valley. The mountains were always in view…

Always in view!

We’re in the outskirts of the Bierzo’s capital, Ponferrada. We cross this superb single span bridge…

And then…

and then…

Is that real?

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Today we ascend to the Camino’s highest point between the middle of France and the Atlantic Ocean. But don’t get excited. The meseta, while offering no perspective, is at over eight hundred metres; the country after Astorga, between nine hundred and a thousand.

So the climb from Rabanal to Iron Cross is only about five hundred metres, and it’s gradual.

While there is a sense of being in a mountainous region, it’s not nearly as dramatic as when one is crossing the Pyrenees or, later on, the Cebreiro.

Close to the top, the village of Foncébadon is reached.

The Bierzo was the richest mining region in the Roman world, and was exploited heavily for minerals long before Romans. Yet, by the Middle Ages, towns like Foncébadon owed their existence to the Camino alone. These stone huts, with the characteristic slate roofs, give a sense of the abandon and decay of the late twentieth century.

In the last decades, the revival of the Camino has brought life to the village, and some new heritage-style buildings. Choose thatch or slate.

Soon the pilgrim arrives at the well-known focal point of Iron Cross, Cruz de Ferro. It’s a pole with a crucifix on top, stuck in a big mound of rocks. The story is that these rocks have been added one at a time, by visitors and pilgrims.

Like much that has to do with old races and traditions, the habit of making piles of stones is of uncertain origin. We think it’s a pilgrim thing to do, possibly because there are so many piles along the Camino. In fact, the piling of stones – for boundaries, waymarking, religion or fun – has always gone on where stones are plentiful and nothing else is.

Perhaps a pillar stabilised in a stone pile would have been helpful to wayfarers, especially in snow, even before pilgrimage. Whatever the origins, the Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, is now a big part of pilgrim ritual. You chuck a rock over your shoulder – preferably one from your home – to add to the pile. I just used a rock from near the base, because I’m such a passionate recycler. (Like I’m going to carry rocks from Oz!)

After this point, we are in the Bierzo, and things get pretty indeed. Postcards.


The last snap shows what most of the Bierzo is: a deep dish between mountains. Though it feels mountainous, because the peaks are seldom out of sight, the base is considerably lower than the meseta and even much of the country before Burgos. The area’s high “feel” results from perspective, not altitude.

Of course, there’s a berciano identity, separatist movement, dialect, boiled dinner and so on. It’s CyL, Castile and Leon, for its administration, yet heavily influenced by Galicia to its west, and has its own Celtic roots. It was very briefly a separate province in the nineteenth century. That language is a mix of Asturian and Galician, though Leonese is an influence in the eastern parts. Yet if local languages are spoken here, I was not aware of it. It’s not like Galicia, where you quickly discover that everyone is speaking the local tongue, and interchanging with Spanish when required.

As one pushes into north western Spain, it’s worth mentioning that its pre-Roman culture was busy and highly developed. It was heavily Celtic, and as I progressed west I saw many people who looked just like Sydney Irish Catholics from around Randwick. Yet the word Celtic is a convenience, of course, since any culture where trade, sea, and mountains come into the mix is bound to be racially complex, and complex in most other ways.

One handy expression is Castro Culture. It describes the town/fortress civilisation that covered the region as it moved from bronze to iron and Celtic influence grew strong. Not long before the Romans arrived, some of these fort-towns covered up to fifty hectares. Trade with Carthage and the Mediterranean was constant, and local artisanry was of high standard.

Fair to speak of a civilisation of city-states? Certainly, baths, street-paving, guttering existed in the most developed settlements.

There is also talk of an interesting form of tourism and cultural exchange. Some say that Celts passed on foot from France, and even beyond, into Northern Spain, on a ritual journey to the Atlantic coast. Don’t know if the Milky Way was involved.


I spent the evening high on the rim of that great dish. The typically slate-roofed village of El Acebo is back in business thanks to the modern Camino. It doesn’t lack Camino ambiance.

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Remember, as a kid, lying in sun with eyes closed and watching bacteria float behind your lids? The interesting ones always seemed to be off the centre of  vision. So you’d roll your eyes toward them…and they’d roll out of sight.

Certain things brush consciousness but elude the steady stare of intellect. It applies to ethnography, the inquiry into race and culture. We try for something definite, and lose the lot. So I won’t be too definite about the sort-of race known as the Maragatos, whose little sort-of country we now tread, a moorland between the end of the meseta and the rise toward the Bierzo.


Some Maragato architecture along the track. I’m told the porch is typical.

We’re rising today, the mountains are closer.

February is almost gone. The first crocuses.

Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty. Socrates had those sophists. Caesar had Pompey. Those who aspire to extraordinary things must eventually face their Great Antagonist, without whom there can be no greatness.

Here I present you with documentary evidence of the existence of the Anti-Dawdler. This was posted on a wire fence along the track.

Never mind the terrifying details. It was written by Paco…the Anti-Dawdler! It describes his achievement of completing the Camino Frances in eleven days. At seventy kilometres per day.

I don’t criticise you, Paco. In fact, I respect you, o Great Antagonist.

Where will come our final conflict, the ultimate rendering of accounts?  Will it be at Zama, our forces massed, like Hannibal and Scipio? Or will it be just you and I, Holmes and Moriarty, and an obscure scuffle above the Reichenbach Falls?


Today’s destination is Rabanal del Campo, an old pilgrim village once guarded by Templars, presumably because mountains attract more outlaws and villains. Certainly, it would be hard to operate as a cut-throat along the meseta.

A couple of interesting ermitas lower down in the town. One was very elaborate, taking in account size and relative obscurity of its location.


As mentioned, the inhabitants of the area are called Maragatos. Some say they take their name from an early King of Asturias, Mauregato. Others talk of a combination of  “Moor” and “Goth”. Others see “Moorish speaking” as a likely etymology. There is speculation that they are descendants of the first wave of Muslim invaders, or that they are descendants of Christians who joined with the invaders in some way. Boffins have found some Afro DNA, opening up the possibility that they are descendants of much earlier North African immigration.

What appeals? I like the idea that, as a semi-nomadic and trading race, the Maragatos are connected with early Semitic or Phoenician traders. I always enjoy a Phoenician connection. The Maragatos have the shy elusiveness of Matthew Arnold’s “grave Tyrian trader”, who, displaced by Greek “intruders on his ancient home”, fled westward…

And snatched his rudder, and shook out more sail;
And day and night held on indignantly
O’er the blue Midland waters with the gale,
Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily,
To where the Atlantic raves
Outside the western straits; and unbent sails
There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;
And on the beach undid his corded bales.

Or were our Maragatos descended from those dark Iberians, already there ?

We know that they were traders, passing with mules between the Galician coast and inland centres. They ate, and still eat, their famous Maragato cocido in reverse, having the broth last. And when they emigrated to South America many became gauchos.

Maragatos. You work it out.


Special event, which occurs every evening in Rabanal. Here’s the local parish church, the enticing, crumbly interior of which I wasn’t able to photograph.

Every evening, Vespers are sung here by at least three German monks, who live in an adjacent monastery. They are trained specialists, and for the peak of the pilgrim season, an extra three come from Munich.

My hostess at the outstanding Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar has learned some Latin in order to participate nightly.

I was fortunate to have a long, lingery dawdler’s breakfast with this lady and her Maragato family. Here’s Isabel with mother Pilar.

Now I’m just wondering if these elaborate Vespers, which would normally grace a major cathedral, aren’t an arrangement between the mysterious Maragatos and some invisible but powerful Templars, still clinging to their old protectorate…

But, as you know, I’m not into Templar conspiracies and that sort of thing. Kid stuff, right?

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