This post should be in the middle of the account of our Camino — and if I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll put it in it’s rightful place. Until then, it will stay here. It was one of my favorite days despite the difficult trail.
Foncebadon — This was the town about two hours (nearly four miles) walk uphill from Rabanal. We met Regina and Anthea there for coffee and croissants. I was anxious to see Foncebadon, described in the guidebook as a semi-abandoned mountain hamlet. In books about the Camino written in the 1980s and 1990s that I’ve read, authors move quickly through Foncebadon’s “haunted” streets, populated mainly by large, fierce semi-wild dogs. Today’s sun shone on a strikingly picturesque village with a bar, four albergues, cars, and a few small cute dogs, one of which Anthea and Regina promptly made friends with (see photo). Some of the old stone buildings are ruins; some of the slate roofs crumbling, but the bar served excellent coffee, and the people seemed friendly.
Cruz de Ferro — If you saw the Martin Sheen movie, “The Way,” you remember a tall iron cross with a huge pile of stones at the base, standing atop Mount Irago. Both the Celts and then the Romans were in the habit of leaving piles of stones at the tops of mountains; a medieval monk, Gaucelmo, who took care of pilgrims in Foncebadon, apparently added the cross. The current tradition suggests that you leave a stone on the pile, to symbolize any number of things: the weight of your sins or some part of your past, an intention, a “token of love and blessing,” etc. I left a fossilized clam shell (sort of similar to the scallop shell that symbolizes the Camino) that came from the fossil cliffs on Kodiak Island. Anthea left a stone that she’d found in Pamplona; I don’t know about Regina and Jim. It did mark an important point in our journey, like climbing Alto del Perdon (the hill of pardon) at the very beginning of our Camino.Now we need to climb O Cebrerio, meet my sister Peg and her husband Tom in Sarria, and get to Santiago by about September 27.
In Foncebadon, a tour bus pulled up, just as we were strapping on our backpacks and hefting our walking sticks. It discharged about 40 people, mostly women, mostly looking retired, who walked (ahead of us) up to Cruz de Ferro, about 2 kilometers. This was not the first tour group that we’d seen, but most of them have shown up at the actual sight, rather than providing a chance for their guidees to walk. I was impressed that some of them could do it; it’s not technically difficult, but it’s dusty, somewhat rocky, and narrow, with an elevation gain of around 800 feet, and they didn’t look like seasoned mountaineers. When we arrived, the group was milling about their guide listening to a lecture, and soon thereafter got on their tour bus and buzzed on to their next Camino adventure. We expect that we will see more of such groups over the next couple of weeks.
The Romans mined gold and iron in these mountains. It must have been a lot of work to get their treasures back to Rome..
The walk — First we went up the hill, an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet, and a distance of nearly four miles. Then we went down a bit and up another smaller hill. Finally we began the fun part, the steep, 1,000 foot descent over the space of about 1 1/2 miles into El Acebo. For much of the way uphill, we walked through pine and oak forests. The trees were noticeably shorter as we neared the top of Mount Irago (where the cross is), at about 4,900 feet. Downhill, we went through more forest, but also purple heather, and yellow-flowered broom. It was a long afternoon, nearly four hours to get from Crux de Ferro to El Acebo, and I kept thinking that an opportunity for lunch would show up. But it never did, so a bit of chocolate and a handful of almonds constituted lunch. This is all from the perspective of someone who’s climbed up and down the first two-thirds of Bird Ridge a dozen times in the mid-1990s, and does not do downhill well at all. Many people passed us, some tripping merrily along without even a walking stick to help them keep their balance on the loose and slidey rocks. Next hike for me? Maybe Holland — flat, flat, flat.
One bright spot — we saw a flower growing in the middle of one of the rocky ruts, a small resurrection lily (aka, autumn crocus; there were photos of these earlier. They send up their leaves in the spring; the leaves die back; the flower comes up by itself in the fall). It had managed to escape all of the tromping pilgrim feet, and all of the cyclists going down the mountain. Three French ladies showed up at about the same time, and we were trying to get across its name. Finally, one said, “Oh, for after Easter,” and the three of them immediately began to sing a little lilting verse in French. Then we all said, “Buen Camino,” and continued on.
El Acebo — I make our reservations for the next night each afternoon when we pull into the town where we’ll spend the night. I have to call the backpack transport service, JacoTrans, by about 9:00 p.m. to let them know that they should pick up the bag. I chose La Rosa del Agua (described in the guidebook as a Casa Rural — sort of bed and breakfast) by virtue of the fact that they answered the phone (after several other possibilities didn’t) and offered a reasonable rate for a room for four with private bath. I chose well. It was the first place we came to, so we didn’t have to walk any further downhill into town. We have the attic suite, on the third floor of the house — very large, with a living area that has two beds tucked away against the walls, a bath, and a separate bedroom for Jim and me, all for a very reasonable price. I sat and looked out the window as the afternoon sun and mountain breezes filled the room and wondered whether there was really a good reason to ever leave.
Dinner with the Italians — We arrived at La Rosa del Agua to find that the three Italians we had last seen a couple of weeks ago in Ciruena (at Casa Victoria, with hosts Francisco and Maria who served us all dinner) were on the floor below us. We went to dinner with them down in the village and had a very pleasant couple of hours conversing in Italian, Spanish and English. There was relatively little overlap — they knew bits of Spanish and English and our Italian has been pretty much limited to “Ciao!” But with charades, pen and journal, a Spanish dictionary, and a few stick figures, we managed to have a lively conversation, and to learn a bit of Italian. Tonino is a cheesemaker in Tuscany, and Tiziana is his wife. Pasquale, one of the jolliest people possible, is a retired airplane mechanic. They expect to arrive at Santiago at about the same time we do, so perhaps we’ll come across them again.
And now, it is well past my bedtime, even without considering the 8:00 a.m. start time for our hike down to Ponferrada. Everyone has done their evening laundry, caught up (sort of) on email, and laid out clothing for tomorrow. The western sky shows a planet and some stars (very little light pollution here, compared to Anchorage, and last night Regina and I admired the Milky Way and decided that it was time for a visit to the American Southwest desert to see more night sky).
Today’s factoid — Yesterday, September 14, 1,217 people got their certificate for completing the Camino at the pilgrim office in Santiago. Not everyone who does the Camino gets a certificate (for a variety of reasons) — so that means around 18,000 people already in September. Last year, the total for the month was 26,000 (down from about 40,000/month in the summer) — looks like this year may come close to the summer numbers, but in September.
The tour group walking from Foncebadon to Crzu de Ferro ahead of us. They did have the advantage of no backpacks.
Cruz de Ferro (means Cross of Iron).
Anthea, Jim, and Regina (white hat) at Cruz de Ferro.
Offerings at Cruz de Ferro — various stones, some painted or inscribed; a chestnut (just below the blue stone).
Cows in a pasture, west of Cruz de Ferro, framed by the small native oak trees in the forest that we were walking through. We saw a few cows pasturing in Foncebadon too, the first we have seen in fields on our walk.
Wind turbines and cows near Cruz de Ferro. We saw lots of turbines today, and have seen quite a few in earlier days.
A small stone shed built into the hillside (not far from the cows). The roof is slabs of slate; note the rock that’s weighting down one of the front pieces.
A view of the path downhill, that really doesn’t capture how steep it was most of the way. It does show that it was made of ruts, exposed rock, pebbles and loose stones, and dust (with the occasional gnarly tree root for variety). Jim is closest, in the photo, patiently waiting for me to take yet another picture. The three peregrinos ahead of us will beat us to El Acebo (you can see the rooftops) by a good half hour because I am so very slow.
A pilgrim memorial along the way. We see these several times a day, some small and simple with brass plaques; others more noticeable; some with photos or a little description of the person honored..
Tomrrow’s destination, Ponferrada, from above El Acebo. Note the nuclear power plant — the squat steaming cooling tower to the left of the city. These photos look hazy, but the sky was clear, cloudless deep blue; the sun hot — mid-80s.
Regina in El Acebo with Perrita (little female dog), who followed people (including us) up to Cruz de Ferro, and then followed other people all of the way to El Acebo — twelve kilometres or about six miles. Perrita arrived in El Acebo just about the same time Jim and I did, a couple of hours after Regina and Anthea. They were delighted to see her, but concerned — they found food and water for her, and then got our hotel owner to call the bar in Foncebadon where we met her. The owners eventually drove over to El Acebo to pick her up — this may not have been her first excursion out of Foncebadon along the Camino.
The view from one of our bedroom windows at La Rosa del Agua in El Acebo.
Dinner with the Italians — Jim, Pasquale, Regina, Tiziana, Tonino, Anthea, Teri.