The route from Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega del Valcarce has been one of the most frequently described in the books I’ve read about the Camino, and most characterizations have ranged from “harrowing” to “terrible.” But much must have changed in the years between those accounts and today’s trip, which was the pleasantest day to date on the Camino. The weather cooperated — always essential — with overcast in the morning, and sunny, but often shaded and breezy in the afternoon. The road cooperated – for the first time, our entire route was paved, and was mostly a gradual uphill climb. Best, though — it was along rivers most of the way. The rio Pereje and then the rio Valcarce sang their way downhill as we climbed up, mostly through chestnut and birch and alder/aspen forests. The birds accompanied them, and the breezes in the trees added their whispers.
How to reconcile such a beautiful 12 1/2 miles with the horror stories I’d previously read? In the past, the road along the river was one of the main highways through this section of northern Spain with lots of cars and trucks. Recently (post-2005?) the traffic has been displaced to a freeway that runs parallel to the old smaller road. And subsequently, the road was improved for peregrinos by setting a concrete barrier along the shoulder, giving a several-foot wide paved area for walking, and a full two-lane road for local traffic. So there weren’t many cars, we had a safe, paved walking path, and the river and woods to freshen the day. For once, I didn’t get to the hotel room and have to spend the first half hour cleaning shoes, pants, feet and all else dusted from the day’s trails.
Regina and Anthea took an alternate route, a path that went up a little mountain and down again, with gorgeous views of valleys and peaks. They saw a deer, and felt that they’d made a good choice. We met them in the town of Trabadelo for lunch, and then walked the rest of the way to Herrerias together.
From Trabadelo, the road snaked through several small medieval towns along the rivers. We stopped at the first, La Portela de Valcarce, to experience a Spanish truck stop favored by the drivers on the freeway. We ordered our Cokes (in Spain, these always come in a can or bottle, are poured into a glass, and served with ice and a slice of lemon or lime), and watched as an older Japanese woman, a peregrino, tried to buy cigarettes from a machine. The cashier behind the bar/counter must use a remote control to allow the machine to dispense cigarettes, and the system wasn’t working well. After some frustrated miscommunications all around, the woman finally got her cigarettes, collected her beer, and went out to sit on the terrace to enjoy her break from climbing up O’Cebrerio. We finished our Cokes, got our credencials stamped with the official truck stop peregrino stamp, and went our way on up the mountain.
It was a leisurely walk and we didn’t arrive at our hotel until about 5:00 p.m. After cleaning up, doing a bit of laundry, getting some rest and nursing various blisters, aches and pains, making arrangements for tomorrow, and catching up a bit on email, we headed out for a late dinner. Herrerias appeared remarkably quiet — most of the peregrinos we saw during the day appeared to have stayed elsewhere.
On our way through town to find someplace open, I said, “Look, mint,” and grabbed a plant to pull a leaf from to demonstrate. Unfortunately, I got the stinging nettles instead of the mint, and am paying the price — it’s been a long time since I encountered nettles, and hope that it is a long time until I forget what they look like and grab them again.
We passed a field of cows (limited only by a small ditch and a single electric wire), a long stone bench with a dozen old women and men bundled up against the mountain evening chill and chattering, and not another living thing aside from the indow box petunias. Finally we found a restaurant, and went in to see if they were serving dinner, and whether they had vegetarian food. After negotiations, we agreed on vegetable soup, pasta with tomato sauce (and no tuna — tuna is considered a vegetable here, perhaps because it comes in a can?), and Cuban rice (rice with red sauce and a fried egg on top), plus a salad for Anthea, and the local Bierzo red wine — very nice, with a sweetness that captured mountain sunshine. We were the only people, probably for the entire evening, so good service — nice people. The gentleman said that it would only take us two hours to get to the top of O’Cebrerio tomorrow. We appreciated his faith in us.
Walking back we looked for the Milky Way, which tradition says is the Camino. It was faint, but present, with a satellite spinning through it and a multitude of other stars competing for our attention.
As we walk, we come up with variations on songs, to suit the Camino. Today’s, from Anthea, goes to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas:” — “Oh, the yellow shell of St. James is the only shell for me,/ I wear it on my backpack,/ I see it on a tree./ I followed where it pointed,/ A field of stars to see –/ The yellow shell of St. James is the only shell for me.”
We’ve also come up with, “You’ve got to walk that long Camino,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself/ Oh, nobody else can walk it for you,/ You got to walk it by yourself.” There have been others, but not written down, and too late to reconstruct them — all the people who could help are good pereginos and long since asleep.
A few photos tonight; the Internet is slow to upload them so that they can go into the email.
Camino graffiti on a sign.
A street cleaner’s broom, in Villafranca.
The road sign for Pereje. We think that the replacement of the “J” with an “X” is a statement by the Basque separatists. Earlier in the trip (in and closer to Basque country) we saw much more graffiti urging Basque independence.
A view down to the rio Pereje from the Camino. Fishing is allowed in parts of the rivers – some areas specify catch and release; one spot wanted only artificial flies.
The old highway, now little used, and with concrete barriers walling off the shoulder for the Camino users. The terrain on the left, with the river and the lush green reminded us of Western Washington, while across the road the rock faces and scrub lands going up the mountainsides more resembled eastern Washington.
We go under the new freeway, the N-VI.
A large garden and an isolated house by the rio Pereje — very unusual to see a house out in the country by itself.
A cat, uninterested in portraiture.