Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Bierzo is a Welcome Respite for Weary Pilgrims

Relaxing in Molinaseca following the long walk down
from Cruce de Ferro.
After unburdening our souls and our packs of sin-laden rocks at Cruce de Ferro we headed down the long incline to the little town of Molinaseca, a welcome reward after a two-day mountain hike. Here an ancient Roman bridge crosses the Meruelo River and following a Tall Cool One and an ice cream bar many of our group splashed our feet in the cold, shallow water. The river revived our energy and prepared us for yet another menu del peregrino at one of Molinaseca's several tiny pilgrim restaurants.

As we came down the mountain it was clear we'd entered another region of Spain. Although we are still in the semi-autonomous province of Castille y León we had entered the Bierzo Comarca (county). The most obvious difference we noticed is that roofs are now made of black slate, rather than the red tile of much of northern Spain. The other difference is the preponderance of vineyards, something we hadn't seen since the La Rioja province a few weeks ago. 
Ponferrada's Knight's Templar castle,
scene of the RAM ceremony in
Coelho's The Pilgrimage

Molinaseca has two Main Streets, one for cars and the other for pilgrims. So we enjoyed the tranquility of our car-free pilgrim alley and imagined what life might have been like for pilgrims who walked the narrow streets of this town many centuries ago. Soon it was off to Ponferrada where we scrambled over a 12th century castle built by the Knights Templar as their regional headquarters and restored just a few years ago into its original crenellated splendor.

We tore ourselves away from the treasures of Ponferrada with the goal of Villafranca del Bierzo by nightfall. This little town at the end of a valley filled with vineyards is where your humble pilgrimage guide heard the news in 2008 that his mother was having heart trouble. He left the Camino here and headed back to Seattle to be with her for her treatment, then returned to the exact spot with wife, Gail, to pick up the trail once again. 

We overnighted at the Albergue Ave Fenix, a jumble of aged stone buildings joined by a grass courtyard with laundry flapping on clotheslines in the breeze. We walked past the medieval fortress and down into the heart of the city to find the many restaurants clustered on the main square and enjoyed a glass of local Bierzo wine as we watched our pilgrim friends dribble into town, ready to relax with a cool drink and perhaps a slice of pizza in the afternoon sun. That night we fell asleep under the rough rafters of Ave Felix with the familiar sound of pilgrim snores and the family albergue smells of boots and shampoo. The next morning would bring our ascent of the mountain up to O Cebreiro, our final climbing challenge of our Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

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