From Astorga to Triacastela you’ll haul yourself over a couple of misty mountain passes, walking through the land of the Maragatos, Spain’s ancient muleteers, and passing into Galicia. Sandwiched between these passes is the fertile El Bierzo valley, home to delicious wine, a Templar castle at Ponferrada and the most enchanting albergue of the camino at Villafranca del Bierzo.
The Cordillera Cantábrica curl down from Asturias in the shape of a ram’s horn, their slate, schist, quartzite and sandstone foothills jutting into the camino’s way. High winds batter the mountains whatever the season and inhibit the growth of all but the hardiest of life, while the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean means that heavy rain or even snowstorms can move in without warning at almost any time of the year.
In contrast to the mountains, the El Bierzo valley is an oasis of calm and warmth, a sunny microclimate protected by the mountains from wind and rain. It can be as much as 15 degrees Celsius warmer at the bottom of the valley than at the top of the mountains. The climate is warm enough to grow grapes, and El Bierzo is a respected wine region.
Narrow tarmac roads make up the majority of the route. The climb up and over O Cebreiro is on an old stony path, heavily used by local cattle traffic, and the piles of dung they leave behind can make it slippery when wet. From Villafranca del Bierzo onwards, you’ll begin to see adverts for taxis to carry you or your belongings, while you walk unencumbered. Pilgrims are firmly divided on whether this is a sensible way to lighten your load or immoral cheating unworthy of pilgrims.
When to go
It can rain at any time of year in the mountains. Summers are sunniest but the camino becomes very crowded as you get closer to Santiago, and albergues can be a bit of a squash from May to September. In winter, it’s not uncommon for snow to cover some sections of the camino, and the lack of heating in albergues can make things a bit chilly.
Flora & Fauna
The mountain moorland consists of hardy, low-growing plants such as heather, broom and wild thyme. Out of the wind and lower down the mountains, silver birch, sweet chestnut and oak grow in protected pockets.
The wolf is at the apex of the food chain here and, despite years of persecution by hunters, there are thought to be a couple of thousand animals left in Iberia. Wolves need open space to roam, as they can cover anything from 20 to 40km in a single day, smell prey or a potential mate up to 2km away and, incredibly, hear sounds from up to 10km away. While the wolf feeds mainly on wild boar and roe deer, the smaller beech marten, which looks like a large, stocky weasel, patrols mature woodlands looking for voles, shrews and mice.
In good weather, birds of prey can be seen soaring above. The pale-breasted short-toed eagle likes to ride thermals and is often spotted hovering with its legs dangling down ready to swoop, and the golden eagle is able to crush a rabbit in its powerful feet. The sparrowhawk, which also hunts in these mountains, is often seen perched on a stump, holding its prey down with one foot and tearing at the flesh with its beak. At the edge of forests the honey buzzard hunts for wasps, its main prey.
Less violent birds are also commonly spotted. The black woodpecker’s characteristic dipping flight is seen in woodland areas, whereas lower down, the less elegant grey partridge is more likely to waddle away than fly off when surprised. The songs of whinchats, stonechats and wheatears often serenade pilgrims in the mountains, and the splendid capercaille makes its home in the woodlands of the western Cordillera Cantábrica.
People & Culture
The Cordillera Cantábrica have provided refuge to people for thousands of years, and although in recent times people have been leaving the mountains, the rebirth of the camino is drawing people back to remote areas. Villages such as O Cebreiro, Rabanal,and Foncebadón have sprung back to life as camino tourism takes over from agriculture as a major source of income.
One of the most mysterious groups of people found along the camino is the Maragatos, who live in the mountains west of Astorga. Their origins are shrouded in debate. Some historians believe they are related to the North African Berbers, while others point to archaeological excavations in the village of Santo Colomba de Samoza, where an ancient necropolis showed cultural links with the Phoenicians. Still others say they were slaves brought by the Romans to dig for gold in the local mountains.
Wherever the Maragatos came from, they survived to become the muleteers of mediaeval Spain, humping produce and other goods from the northern ports to the rest of the country. If you’re lucky, you may catch a Maragato wedding outside the town hall in Astorga, where the wedding party, dressed in traditional costume, listens to Maragato musicians and cheers as the bride runs the length of the town square towards her wedding cake. The best example of traditional Maragato architecture is in the recently restored village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, just west of Astorga.
The mountains of O Cebreiro mark the beginning of the land of the Galicians and your entrance into Celtic Spain. It’s not uncommon to sit in a bar in O Cebreiro and be serenaded by bagpipes, and you’ll also see hórreos (granaries) and pallozas (straw-roofed stone houses), Galicia’s traditional architecture. There’s more about Galicia in the next chapter.
Food & Drink
Cocido Maragato is a vast lunchtime meal and a Maragato tradition dating back thousands of years. The topsy-turvy courses are eaten in a very strange order. The lunch starts with a platter of meat: ham, chicken, pork, chorizo, venison ear, pork fat (those cubes aren’t potato!) and many other things with hair and skin still attached, fill a large platter on the table. This orgy of flesh is followed by a second course of vegetables, usually chickpeas and Gallego cabbage, then a third course of soup. Dessert, more conventionally, ends the meal. Don’t plan on doing anything else for at least four hours after eating, as you’ll need all your energy for digestion!
A glass or two of red wine is sure to help slice into the richness of cocido. As in much of the country, the Romans can be thanked for introducing wine to El Bierzo. A Denominación de Origen region since 1989, the best wines are made from Mencía grapes, although Prieto Picudo and Garnacha varieties are also added. Things have certainly changed since Künig von Vach wrote, “when you get there, drink wine sparingly as it burns like a candle and can scorch your very soul.”
Queimada is a fiery potion made with orujo (Galicia’s favourite spirit, which we describe in the Galicia section), caster sugar, lemon peel, a few coffee beans and a good dose of magic. The mixture is set on fire, then shared amongst friends. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a dark room while a true Galician chants spells and incantations. Jesús Jato, the hospitalero at Ave Fénix in Villafranca del Bierzo (page 130) often treats pilgrims to a queimada ritual.
For a more healthy option, try the delicious reineta del bierzo apple. Short-stalked, squat and chunky, this apple has dull green or yellow-brown skin with rusty speckles.
Astorga and Ponferrada are easy to reach by bus or train from major centres in Spain. To get up and over the mountains you’ll need to hire a taxi.
Albergues are plentiful, and this stretch has some of the weirdest and best on the camino. Ponferrada’s modern albergue has comfortable, four-person dormitories, and you’ll be pampered and entertained at Ave Fénix in Villafranca del Bierzo. If you’re hankering for a mediaeval experience, head for the albergue at Manjarín, where you’ll get back to basics and meet a healer.
Events & Festivals
Along with much of the rest of Spain, Astorga celebrates Carnaval and Semana Santa (Easter week) with parades and feasts. The Fiestas de Santa María in the last week of August honour the city’s patron saint with a huge market, games and, of course, a massive cocido Maragato lunch.
Ponferrada’s Fiesta de la Virgen de la Encina takes place at the beginning of September, closely followed by El Santísimo Cristo de la Esperanza, a festival held in Villafranca del Bierzo.
Rest Days & Detours
At Las Médulas, a unesco world heritage site 20km southwest of Ponferrada, flame-red mountains hide the remains of Roman gold mines. More than 300km of canals were built to channel water from the Río Cabrera, almost 30km away. Archaeologists guess that about 60,000 slaves worked as miners, hauling the ore out through tunnels and then washing it in huge sluices. Today, you can visit some of the tunnels on a guided tour and find out more in an interesting summer-only museum.
Farther east, the gorgeous, isolated Valle del Silencio lies below the Monte Aquiana, a ghostly pale mountain revered by the ancient Celts. At the head of the valley, you can visit Peñalba de Santiago, which has a wonderful, tenth-century Mozarabic church. For a description of an alternative route between El Acebo and Ponferrada that passes through the Valle del Silencio, see our web site at www.pilipalapress.com.
At Astorga, the camino francés meets up with the vía de la plata, an alternative camino that snakes up from Sevilla. The town’s strategic location near the foothills of the Cordillera Cantábrica has long made it an important centre, and it once had more than 20 pilgrim hospitals, more than any place apart from Burgos. Once the ancient capital of the Astur tribe, it developed into Asturica Augusta, an important Roman and Christian centre that left murals, walls and other tangible remains. The gradual decline of the region in the eighteenth century has preserved much of Astorga’s ancient feel and, unlike many other places of its size along the camino, it remains unblighted by industrial development.
You can easily while away an afternoon visiting Astorga’s sights. The well laid-out Museo Romano is built over the Ergástula cave, which may have been the entrance to the old Roman forum. The intimidating city walls still stand in places and, throughout Astorga, you can peer into ongoing excavations and try to figure out the layout of this Roman frontier town. The turismo has a leaflet of Roman walking tours.
The town is also the capital of the Maragatos, a mysterious, isolated race of muleteers who preserved their culture for centuries but are now sadly losing their unique identity. Head to the Plaza de España on the hour to see traditionally dressed mechanical Maragatos banging on the ayuntamiento (town hall) bell. The figurines have been at it since 1748 and portray Pero Mato, the Maragato folk hero who fought at the battle of Clavijo alongside Santiago.
The jewel in Astorga’s crown is undoubtedly Gaudí’s Palacio Episcopal. Construction of a palace for the bishop began in 1889, but once it was finished he refused to live in it, afraid of the scandals surrounding the extravagant cost and the fantastical, whimsical architecture. Gaudí resigned in disgust before the building was finished, vowing “I wouldn’t cross Astorga even in a hot-air balloon.” The palace stood empty for years, briefly serving as the headquarters of Franco’s Falange during the civil war. It finally found a more permanent tenant in the late 1960s, when the Museo de los Caminos, a collection of disparate images of St James and some mediocre art, was established.
The nearby cathedral took even longer to settle in: begun in 1471, it wasn’t completed for more than three centuries. Although it’s somewhat overpowered by its ostentatious neighbour, there are a few gems inside. The main retablo is by Gaspar Becerra, a follower of Michelangelo and Raphael, and the sweeping movement of the characters shows that he was sitting in the front row of his art class. Fill up your credencial with a sello from the ticket office at the Museo Diocesano next door, worth a peek for its varied exhibits.
If all this culture is making your blood sugar plummet, head for a fix at the Museo del Chocolate, a museum that celebrates Astorga’s chocolate industry, which thrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the back of the Maragatos’ mule trains. Healthier folks can find supplies at the Tuesday market.
Accommodation & Information
Sierras de MaríaPlaza San Francisco 3 (156 beds open all year)
San Javier Calle Portería 6, near the cathedral (120 beds open all year)
Follow the yellow arrows out of town, passing the modern Iglesia de San Pedro, which is decorated with a mosaic of the camino. Cross the NVI road to walk on the quiet Calle de los Mártires, named after the Confraternity of the Martyrs who ran a pilgrim hospice here. The road leads into Valdeviejas, where you can visit the recently restored Ermita del Ecce Homme. Soon afterwards, the camino splits and you have two ways to reach Santa Catalina de Somoza.
The first option is to follow the signs that direct you left to cross the highway and walk on a path parallel to the road into the village of Murias de Rechivaldo ( ), where you can stay at the albergue municipal ( 20 beds open all year) or Las Aguedas ( 40 beds open all year). Murias’ eighteenth-century Iglesia de San Esteban has a carving of the Virgen del Pilar above the door, and the belltower stairs are exposed to the elements, a common local feature. At the end of the village, the camino follows a wide track and takes you to Santa Catalina de Somoza.
Your second option is to ignore the yellow arrows that direct you left and keep straight on along a gravel road. In a couple of kilometres, arrive in Castrillo de los Polvazares ( ), a carefully and attractively restored village, preserving the typical stone-walled, slate-roofed houses. You can stay at the Hostería Cuca la Vaina ( $$$,) or Casa Coscolo ( $$$. Follow the main cobbled street to the end of the village where the arrows reappear, turn left to leave the village then right to leave the road on the left of two tracks, then walk uphill and meet up with the route from Murias de Rechivaldo, just before Santa Catalina de Somoza.
The friendly village of Santa Catalina de Somoza ( ) is less perfectly preserved than Castrillo de los Polvazares, but lovely nonetheless. The modern church of Santa María is said to contain a relic of San Blas, who looked after pilgrims’ welfare. Modern-day pilgrims have three accommodation options: albergue municipal ( 34 beds open all year), El Caminante ( 24 beds open all year, also $$ ) and San Blas ( 20 beds open all year, also $$ ).
Walk through land once farmed but now overgrown with pine and brambles. In spring and summer this area is a favourite habitat of the red-backed shrike, a rusty-coloured bird with a distinctive black eye strip and the gruesome habit of impaling its captured prey on thorns.
After another 4km on the gravel track, you come to the village of El Ganso ( ). A few houses in the village boast ancient thatched roofs made from the broom that grows all over this region, but such roofs are being replaced by easier-to-build ones made of metal or slate. In 1142, a church and hospice ministered to pilgrims; modern-day travellers along the camino can make use of the modern Iglesia de Santiago and two albergues. The village’s albergue municipal ( 16 a) has beds but no running water or bathrooms; a better bet is Albergue Gabino ( 25 a open all year).
It’s another 7km to Rabanal del Camino, alongside a narrow paved road. Pass El Roble del Peregrino, an oak that pilgrims have rested under for centuries, then enter Rabanal on Calle Mayor.
Rabanal del Camino
(246km, 1150m, pop 50)
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Rabanal del Camino is slowly becoming a pilgrim bottleneck. Everyone seems to stay here, resting in one of the village’s four albergues before tackling the mountains. Traditionally the ninth stop in the Codex Calixtinus, this beautiful village is springing back to life as the modern camino revival continues. The houses are enclosed by high walls and have big courtyards in classic Maragato style.
The Iglesia de Santa María has Romanesque templar origins hidden under centuries of serious renovations. Legend has it that one of Charlemagne’s knights married a Saracen bride here, although it’s unlikely he even made it this far west.
Accommodation & Information
on main square (20 beds may–sep)
Gaucelmo just off Calle Mayor, converted from the old parish house, where Aymeric Picaud stayed
(40 beds mar - oct)
Nuestra Señora del Pilar on main square (72 beds open all year)
El Tesin near village entrance (34 beds apr - oct)
The camino follows a narrow paved road and tracks uphill to the Fuente del Peregrino, where you can replenish your water supply. Some 5km from Rabanal you’ll reach Foncebadón ( ), an eerie and affecting place that features heavily in the camino accounts of Shirley MacLaine and Paulo Coelho. The houses are built from local slate, with thick walls to block the wind and steeply angled roofs to deflect snow. Many of the roofs are thatched with local broom, and wooden beams were often hammered into place with primitive wooden pegs rather than nails. It’s often cloudy here, snow is common in winter, and when it’s too warm for snow, the mountains are drenched with rain or obscured by fog.
Foncebadón is undergoing something of a revival as romantically minded former pilgrims decide to settle here. If you decide to settle too, you can stay at one of three albergues: Domus Dei ( 18 a easter–oct.), Monte Irago ( 33 beds open all year.), which also has a shop selling organic products, and Hostal Foncebadón ( 12 beds feb–nov, also $$ ).
As you leave Foncebadón, the ruins to your left are those of a pilgrims’ hospice and church built by Gaucelmo, the twelfth-century hermit who gave his name to the albergue in Rabanal.
In a couple of kilometres, the camino reaches the Cruz de Ferro. This massive, conical pile of stones marks the pass over Monte Irago and the border between La Maragatería and El Bierzo. Across Europe, Celts traditionally laid stones at peaks and passes like this one to calm the mountain gods and ask for safe passage through the mountains. Romans in the area continued the tradition, calling the stones murias after Mercury, their god of travellers.
Adding a stone to the pile at the Cruz de Ferro is an important camino ritual; many pilgrims bring stones from home to place here, and others pick one up along the way. If you climb to the top of the pile, you’ll see scribbled messages to friends, family and spiritual beings, and pebbles painted with names and hometowns from all over the world. The iron cross on the top is a later addition, placed here to make this pagan tradition more palatable to the Catholic church. More recent additions are a giant sundial, where your body makes the shadow that tells the time of day, and a fountain in the woods behind the picnic area.
In a couple of kilometres you’ll reach Manjarín ( ), a remote hamlet home to Tomás the hospitalero, and his unique albergue ( 20 beds open all year .) is a throwback to what albergues must have been like in earlier times. What the albergue lacks in basic amenities, privacy and cleanliness, it more than makes up for in character and personality: Tomás will feed you, heal your injuries and charm you with camino stories. As you leave in the morning, he rings the large bell at the door to let Santiago know that you’re on your way.
From Manjarín, you’ll walk on a narrow path, hemmed in on either side by tall, gorgeous heather. Keep an eye out for alpine choughs — black, acrobatic, crow-sized birds with a vivid yellow bill and a piercing call. To your left, there are fabulous views of the Meruelo valley.
Within a couple of kilometres and shortly after passing the military station which innocuously marks the highest point of the camino at 1517m, you’ll start to head downhill towards El Acebo. The views open up ahead as the road descends to the wide and fertile El Bierzo valley. The Sierra de Gristredo and the Cordillera Cantábrica, which have shadowed the camino since Navarra, tower above the outline of Ponferrada while, to the west, you can see the summits of O Courel and Los Ancares.
El Acebo’s ( ) importance as the gateway to the mountains was recognized in mediaeval times, when it was excused from paying tax for as long as the villagers maintained the hundreds of foul-weather poles that guide pilgrims on this remote alpine section. Today, El Acebo is a pretty collection of slate-roofed stone houses typical of the El Bierzo region, with overhanging wooden balconies reached by external stone staircases.
The Iglesia de San Miguel has a large-headed statue of Santiago Peregrino. El Acebo has a few albergues and casas rurales. Ápostol Santiago is next to the church ( 23 beds easter–oct). The owner of Mesón El Acebo ( 24 beds open all year) also has keys to De la Junta Vecinal for overflow ( 10 beds). You can also stay at La Trucha ( $ ) and La Casa de Monte Irago ( $$ ).
Valle del Silencio Detour off Main Camino
From El Acebo to Ponferrada via the Valle de Silencio (Peñalba de Santiago) is more than 40km. It's a quiet alternative from the main route, through a beautiful valley. If you stay in El Acebo and start off early in the morning you can arrive in Ponferrada late in the day. You may also be able to stay in Compludo (4km after El Acebo) or Espinoso de Compludo (9 km after El Acebo) but you need to book ahead. A good place to stop for the day is Peñalba de Santiago; again, you should book ahead. See the text below for phone numbers of places to stay. Josefina who runs the store (Casa Josefina) in El Acebo is very knowledgeable about the route by foot to the Valle de Silencio. From the park just past her store, you can look west across the valley and see Espinoso de Compludo, one of the towns you will pass through on your way to Peñalba de Santiago.
El Acebo to Ponferrada (42km)
El Acebo to Compludo (4km - café, restaurant, rooms)
Compludo to Espinoso de Compludo (5km - restaurant, rooms)
Espinoso de Compludo - San Cristobal (5km - café)
San Cristobal – Peñalba de Santiago (9km - café, restaurant, rooms)
Peñalba de Santiago – San Esteban de Valdueza (13km - café, restaurant)
San Esteban de Valdueza – Ponferrada (6km)
Leave El Acebo on the road/camino and at the end of town just after the Hermita and the statue to a fallen cyclist, turn left to walk down the paved minor road that is signed Compludo. Continue all the way down to the valley bottom ignoring the left-hand road to Carascedo de Compludo. Pass Herrerias and 1km later enter the village of Compludo (café, restaurant, rooms).
Casa Rural La Herreria phone 649 390 550 or 660 215 701
Casa del Ermitaño phone 987 695 511
Turn right at the church to walk up the main street passing the first of 2 fountains, the bar, the meson and the casa rural. At the top of town, at the second fountain, take the track to the right which is signed Espinoso de Compludo. This gravel road takes you up and out of the valley to a ridge and a tv/electrical tower. Once at the top you can see Espinoso de Compludo in the distance. Continue on the track and enter Espinoso de Compludo (restaurant, rooms) at a fountain with non-potable water. At the church turn left down the paved road signed Ponferrada.
Posada del Amanecer phone 987 695 439; double 60 euros Los Cuatro Estaciones phone 987 970 092; double 65 euros, single 50 euros; bed & breakfast
Before heading down the road, look across to the west and to the town that is on the ridge two valleys over. This is San Cristobal and it is where you are heading. Walk 200m on the road signed Ponferrada. At the first bend in this road, take the dirt track that goes up to the left between the car park and the road. You are now entering the least well-marked 5km of the route. Stay to the right at a "Y" when a smaller track veers off to the left. You are walking with cherry trees on your right and the highway is down below you. Stay on this track, crawling under animal fences if need be. The track veers left and down to the valley below. From the valley bottom climb up the hill on the obvious but narrow trail. You are walking around a hill by first going to the right and then to left. Then head back down into the next valley. These two valleys are not huge but you do go up, down, up and down again before you arrive on the plateau and see San Cristobal. Walk for 2km alongside of the ridge passing huertas (small gardens) and fruit trees. Enter San Cristobal de Valdueza (café, rooms) and at the main street turn left. (A right turn on this road takes you down to Ponferrada, 14km away).
Casa de Abril phone 619 284 550; complete 4 bed house, 80 euros
Walk up the main street passing two bars and a fountain before you leave town on the main road. (This road heads to Bouzas and on to the local ski hill, El Morredero.) On the mountain ahead you can see the cuts made by two roads. You will be taking the lower one. Pass a picnic area and 400m after the last house in town, turn right onto a well-maintained smooth surfaced but unpaved road walking under the power lines to do so. Look for the yellow arrow and the words "2hr" written on one of the power line support poles. Follow this road for about 5.5 km heading west and then south and then east along the edge of the mountain. You will finally see the valley that heads up to Peñalba de Santiago and you will see the town of San Pedro de Montes far below you. After a few more bends in this road you will see Peñalba de Santiago far below. Continue on this road another 2 km heading down until you reach the Peñalba-Ponferrada road. Turn left onto this road and walk into Peñalba de Santiago (café, restaurant, rooms).
Bar/Meson La Cantina phone 987 695 370, has rooms. Paco and Charo may be able to help you with a place to stay if they don’t have a room
CR Turpesa phone 987 425 566 or 615 454 589; 3 bedroom house
Casa Elba phone 988 322 037; 3 bedroom house
If you want to visit Cuerva de San Genadio, a cave that was once home to a tenth-century monk who founded the monastery at Peñalba dedicated to St James, it is another 2km up the valley from Peñalba. There is a map posted in the village and the path to the cave is signed.
Leave Peñalba on the road that you entered on. Pass the car park and keep walking down the narrow road that goes to Ponferrada. After about 1km, follow the sign to the right indicating the trail to Herreria de Montes (PR LE-14). This is a narrow trail that travels down the valley above and parallel to the road. After 5km or so, walk steeply down to join the road at Herreria de Montes (no actual town) which you reach at a lock/dam on the river. Cross the river on the lower of the two steel bridges and push open the big gate to the right to walk up to the road.
(If you want to visit Montes de Valdueza there is a marked trail from Peñalba, the Sendero Circular de la Tebaida Bercian PR LE-14.This trail takes you to the cave and hermitage of San Genadio and then up to the Chano Collado mountain (1305m) and then back down to Montes de Valdueza (bar) where there are the ruins of the Benedictine Monastery of San Pedro de Montes. From Montes de Valdueza the trail continues on the far side of the town down to Herreria de Montes. There is no place to stay in Montes de Valdueza).
For more information on the Sendero Circular de la Tebaida Berciana, see
For more information on La Senda de los Monjes from Montes de Valdueza to Ponferrada, see www.revistaiberica.com/rutas_y_destinos/cl/penalba/sendadelosmonjes.htm.)
From Herreria de Montes walk carefully down the narrow road to San Clemente de Valdueza, (Alternatively, after the sign to Manzanedo and before crossing the river on the road bridge, take the track to the left to follow the south side of the Rio Oza and walk into San Clemente de Valdueza). After San Clemente continue on the road walking through Valdefrancos (café), and finally meet up with highway LE 1584 just before entering San Esteban de Valdueza.
Turn right to walk along this highway the 6km to Ponferrada or continue across the highway and walk into San Esteban de Valdueza (café, restaurant). From San Esteban it is possible to walk along the Senda de los Monjes and avoid walking on the LE 1584 highway. Walk through San Esteban and head to the church. Walk past the main door of the church and take the track that veers up to the right 50m later. This track takes you up and out of the valley heading towards the highway and Ponferrada. You are on the PR LE-14 but signage is hard to see as it is signed in the opposite direction. Reach the highway (LE 1584), walk 50m on it and then take the gravel road to the left. This takes you up to the Alto de Valdecañada with views down to Ponferrada and the town of San Lorenzo in the foreground. Again, you could stay on the highway and walk down to San Lorenzo. From San Lorenzo there is a bus to Ponferrada as well as a sidewalk along the highway all the way to the junction with the camino from Campo.
Walk through fields, vineyards and scrub. Before heading down to Ponferrada, enter Otero. Take the first left as you enter the village then take the second right to head to the Romanesque Iglesia de Santa Maria de Vizbayo. You will join up with the camino route that passes through Campo just before crossing the bridge over the Rio Boeza and entering Ponferrada. If you are going to the albergue in Ponferrada keep straight on to cross over the railway tracks on the road bridge. At the intersection with a cross in the centre, turn right and walk to the albergue, a large building with a giant pilgrim image on it. If you are heading into Ponferrada or continuing on the camino, turn left after the bridge over the Rio Boeza following the camino signs.
There are great views on the lovely descent through hamlets and river valleys to Molinaseca. In little more than 3km, you arrive at Riego de Ambrós ( ) via a landscape of broom and wild lavender. The slate roofs and rural craftsmanship make walking through this village a delight. The sixteenth-century Iglesia de Santa María on the edge of the village has an interesting Baroque retablo. Riego’s albergue ( 50 beds open all year 6) is along the camino, and there are also rooms at the Ruta de Santiago ( $ ) and the Riego de Ambrós ( $ ).
Head downhill out of Riego, then follow a path of broad slate rocks. This is one of the loveliest stretches of the whole camino, where horse chestnut trees line the route, providing shelter for songbirds like the crested tit. Cross a road and take a track to the right, still heading downhill, soon seeing the slate roofs of Molinaseca up ahead and the main road far below.
Join the road just outside Molinaseca and turn right. Pass the Capilla de la Virgen de las Angustias on the right as you enter town, where Galician migrant workers once left their sickles on their way from the harvest in Castilla y León. You can peer through the iron grille to see the beautiful statue of the Virgin inside. Soon afterwards, cross the Puente del Peregrino into Molinaseca.
(219km, 600m, pop 780)
Latitude: , Longitude:
Molinaseca is a mellow town that lies prettily alongside the wide Río Maruelo. The gorgeous location attracted the wealthy and the titled, who left behind houses that still bear elaborate coats of arms. It’s said that Doña Urraca, an eleventh-century Queen of Castilla y León and Galicia lived here, as did the aristocratic Balboa family. Historically, the town’s importance came from its strategic location on the first flat, open land this side of the mountain pass, and ancient bridges helped make it a control point along the Roman gold road. Molinaseca was a significant town in mediaeval times, too, and once boasted four pilgrim hospitals.
Today’s attractions include the Iglesia de San Nicolás, which contains an image of San Roque Peregrino, and a weekly street market. In summer, it’s a lovely overnight stop, as the dammed Río Maruelo becomes a focal point of the village.
Leave Molinaseca on the main road, heading gradually uphill. At the top of the rise, you can keep straight on to walk along the busy main road into Ponferrada. However, it’s much more pleasant to turn left to follow a minor road through the hamlet of Campo ( ), which in mediaeval times was Ponferrada’s Jewish district. Beautifully restored slate and stone houses line the route, and there’s an elaborate coat of arms on one such house.
Follow narrow roads through fields and Ponferrada’s suburbs. After a few kilometres, cross the Río Boeza over a narrow stone bridge. From here, turn left to continue the camino, pass under the railway tracks and soon reach Ponferrada’s magnificent castle. Alternatively, keep straight on for the albergue, crossing the railway tracks over a long bridge and turning right soon afterwards.
(211km, 540m, pop 63,000)
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Once an ancient Celtic village, Ponferrada grew steadily under the Romans to become Interamnium Flavium, a large city in the middle of one of the Roman Empire’s richest mining districts. Destroyed twice over the next 500 years, first by Visigoths in the fifth century and then by Muslims in the ninth, Ponferrada got its modern name from the long-gone iron bridge built by the bishop of Astorga in 1082. The arrival of the railway in the nineteenth century spurred Ponferrada’s development, and coal mining fuelled a modern boom a few decades later. Today, the city’s pretty old quarter contrasts with a mass of ugly tower blocks.
On the south bank of Río Sil is the magnificent Castillo de los Templarios, a must-see sight that’s worth a visit even if you’re not spending the night in Ponferrada. Erected by the Templars in the thirteenth century to help protect pilgrims from bandits, it’s a grand, triple-ramparted, fairy-tale castle. As you crawl around the castle, up stairs and over walls, try to spot Templar crosses carved into the stone.
Excavations show that the castle was built over the remains of a Celtic castro, a Roman fort and a later Visigothic fort. While the Templars were clearing forest to build their castle, legend says that they discovered a statue of the Virgen de la Encina in a holm oak. The statue can now be seen inside the Basílica de Santa María de la Encina, and the Virgin was declared Patroness of El Bierzo in 1958. The massive Templar cross on the outside of the church boldly declares the church’s origins.
The Museo del Bierzo is fascinating, with lots of exhibits packed into the walls of the former jail. The display of weaving tools and old looms is accompanied by a video showing local women using traditional weaving methods, and the finds from local castros make this museum well worth a visit. Wednesday and Saturday are market days, and the vendors set up across the bridge past the castle.
Accommodation & Information
Calle de la Loma, below old town (185 beds open all year)
To leave Ponferrada, walk down the steps from the cathedral plaza, then cross the Río Sil at the Plaza de las Nievas. From here, you have two options.
The conventional camino follows roads to Compostilla and is marked with stylized shells in the sidewalk. For this option, turn right at the Plaza San Pedro. Take the first left up Calle Río Urdiales, then turn right on to Avenida Huertas de Sacramento. On your way out of town, there’s an attractive sculpture of four traditionally dressed women cooking peppers. Turn right at Avenida Libertad on the edge of town, then turn left past a burnt-out electrical power plant. This is the bizarre suburb of Compostilla, a North American–style company town, with evenly spaced blocks, numbered streets and large houses with immaculate front lawns.
A more attractive option is to follow a walking path alongside the Río Sil. After crossing the river, go through the Pasaje Telefónica, a small alley on the right past the first building, then walk down some stairs to follow the west side of the river. Walk under two road bridges, then 100m after the second bridge, just past the electrical power plant, turn left to walk up to the road to join the camino.
Whichever route you choose, pass through an arch in a building, and a modern, neo-Romanesque church with a statue of the Virgin and Child sitting on a rock in front. You’ll soon pass a cruceiro placed here during the 1993 Holy Year and a camino mural on the new ermita next to it. Walk through some new houses, under the highway, past the Iglesia de Santa María and into the village of Columbrianos ( ). In front of you are the beautiful mountains of Galicia; the two flat hills to the north contain the remains of Asturi hillforts.
It’s just under 3km through farmland to Fuentes Nuevas ( ) and another 2km to Camponaraya ( ). The second village is a strange mix of dreary modern houses interlaced with lovely old buildings that offer just a taste of the Camponaraya’s original architecture. The village’s endless exit is made easier by the Co-operativa Viñas del Bierzo, which sells wine by the glass, poured from a huge tap. You can buy wine by the bottle to spirit you towards Villafranca del Bierzo, or be more sensible and drink water from the fountain in the nearby park.
From here, you’ll pass, appropriately enough, through vineyards. Most of the vines are still grown old-school style with the branches draped along the ground, but modern wire-supported vines, common in La Rioja and Navarra, are starting to surface here. El Bierzo’s wine industry is developing fast: there’s another wine co-operative in a couple of kilometres, and just before Cacabelos is the new Centro Para Promoción del Vino.
The camino passes through Cacabelos along Calle de los Peregrinos, then crosses the Río Cua to reach the albergue.
(193.5km, 490m, pop 3300)
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Well known for its wines, Cacabelos is a pretty little town founded by Alfonso IX in the tenth century and rebuilt after a twelfth-century earthquake. The town’s archaeological museum has some interesting finds from local excavations and is worth visiting.
At the far end of town, next to the bridge over the Río Cua, there’s an old mill that’s been beautifully converted into a house, and an antique wooden olive press in front of an excellent panadería. On the opposite bank, the eighteenth-century Santuario de la Quinta Angustia is on the site of a former pilgrim hospital; it’s notable for a bizarre altar showing the baby Jesus playing cards with San António de Padua. Near the bridge in January 1809, Thomas Plunkett, one of General Sir John Moore’s riflemen, shot the commander of Napoleon’s pressuring French forces through the head. This accurate display of marksmanship saved the British army from being overrun as it attempted a shambolic winter retreat over the mountains to the safety of its navy on the coast at A Coruña.
Climb out of Cacabelos on the road, passing the village of Pierros in 2km. At the top of the hill the views across the valley to the mountains are superb. Just to the south is the Cerro de la Ventosa, a large circular hill where the Asturian city of Castrum Berigidum once stood. This Celtic metropolis was conquered by the Romans and has given its name to the El Bierzo region. The western side of the defensive wall has been excavated and it’s worth climbing the hill for a closer look. From here, there are two ways to Villafranca.
Most people stick to the road, turning right onto a farm track in a few kilometres, but unless you have a thing for tarmac it’s far nicer to turn right just after Pierros, following the signs for Camino Viejo. This second route leads you along farm tracks through Valtuille de Arriba (O), a gorgeous village with old-fashioned houses, precarious wooden balconies and two seasonal bars. Follow farm tracks scented with honeysuckle in late spring, then meet up with the other route about 2km later. Just as you enter Villafranca, head down and right for the municipal albergue or keep straight on to reach Albergue Ave Fénix.
Villafranca del Bierzo
(185.5km, 525m, pop 3700)
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As a logical rest stop on the camino before the pass over O Cebreiro, Villafranca del Bierzo marked the end of the tenth stage of the Codex Calixtinus. Villafranca once had eight monasteries and six pilgrim hospitals. As its name suggests, it was settled by the Franks, who came here on the orders of King Alfonso VI to guard this strategic trading place on the banks of the Río Burbia and the Río Valcarce.
Life hasn’t always been easy here. Plague killed most of the residents in 1589, and floods destroyed the buildings nearest the river in 1715. Less than a century later, the invading French army ransacked the town during the Peninsula War but was driven out by the British. The townspeople probably wished that the French had stayed, when the British hooligans went on a drunken rampage as they fled from the French army in the winter of 1809. In their search for loot, the British wrecked the castle, robbed the churches and burned priceless archives. General Sir John Moore eventually stopped the rampage by taking the drastic measure of shooting the ringleaders. More damage was done the following year as the French wrenched back control of the town.
Today, these historic scars are mostly invisible, and Villafranca is one of the loveliest towns in all of Spain, picturesquely set on a river and surrounded by mountains. The industrial revolution passed the town by, so it’s not tainted by rampant construction, and the centre of town is a maze of narrow streets and open plazas. The Calle de Agua is lined with splendid mansions, one of which was home to the nineteenth-century novelist Enrique Gil y Carrasco. In spring, there’s a poetry festival in the municipal gardens.
On the way into town, next to Albergue Ave Fénix, you pass the beautiful Romanesque Iglesia de Santiago, which has a Puerta del Perdón. Just as at other churches along the camino, if you are unable to continue the pilgrimage you can walk through these finely carved doors and receive the same spiritual benefits as if you had made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Try and visit the Iglesia de San Francisco, which has a lovely Mudéjar-style ceiling. This church was reputedly founded by St Francis as he made his pilgrimage, and it was heavily damaged when used as barracks in the Napoleonic wars.
At the top of town, the dramatic sixteenth-century Castillo de los Marqueses de Villafranca is now the fortified private residence of the Álvarez de Toledo family.
Accommodation & Information
Calle Campo de la Gallina (62 beds easter–oct )
Ave Fénix Calle de Santiago (84 beds open all year). Run by Jesús Jato, a dedicated eccentric whose first albergue burnt down in 1996. No getting up before 7am, and a separate room for the over-50s. Sometimes Jesús leads pilgrims in a queimada ritual Ave Fénix Calle de Santiago (84 beds open all year ). Run by Jesús Jato, a dedicated eccentric whose first albergue burnt down in 1996. No getting up before 7am, and a separate room for the over-50s. Sometimes Jesús leads pilgrims in a queimada ritual
Walk downhill through Villafranca, following the yellow arrows to the bridge over the Río Burbia. At the end of the bridge, you have two options.
The duller, shorter route follows the old NVI road, no longer as busy or as dangerous as it once was now that the new motorway has taken away most of the traffic, but still a far from pleasant walk. At Pereje ( ), 4km along the road, there’s an albergue ( 30 beds open all year 6), and in another 5km you’ll reach Trabadelo.
A beautiful but much more strenuous walk takes you over the hill to the right of the road: it’s a stunning, heather-lined route with spectacular views. For this option, bear right up Calle Pradela, climbing steeply. The track, lined with heather and intense clusters of white broom, reaches the top of the ridge in a few kilometres. From here, the incredible views make it feel as though you’re walking along the roof of the world.
Soon, Pradela ( ) and its vivid green meadows come into view ahead: you’ll need to leave the camino to visit the village. The camino descends a little and wanders through chestnut trees, home to red-backed shrikes, goldcrests, bullfinches and cirl buntings. Although you’re still nominally in modern Castilla y León, it’s clear that you’ve already crossed culturally into rural, other-worldly Galicia. The track snakes steeply downhill, and after an eerie stretch shaded by high-sided mossy walls, you enter the village of Trabadelo ( ).
There are no remains of the castle that once guarded the route here, but you can stay at the lovely albergue ( 30 beds open all year 6 r) or the soulless Hostal Nova Ruta ( $$ ). In a few kilometres, pass the Hostal Valcarce ( $$$ ) then bear left at the sign for La Portela ( ), which marks the start of the narrow and attractive Valcarce valley. The valley’s enclosed feel led to its Spanish name (valley of the prison). El Peregrino ( 40 beds open all year, also $$ ).
In little more than a kilometre, you’ll reach Ambasmestas ( ), named after the merging of the waters of the Valcarce and Valboa rivers. You can stay at Albergue das Animas ( 20 beds may–oct) or the Residencial Los Sauces ( $$$ ). After less than a kilometre pass the Albergue do Brasil, walk under an impressive, sky-high motorway bridge, and arrive in Vega de Valcarce.
Vega de Valcarce
(169.5km, 640m, pop 850)
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Vega de Valcarce’s brief moment in the spotlight came when Carlos V stayed the night in 1520 on his way to Santiago. The church here is dedicated to María Magdalena, and the town makes a good stop before tackling the climb up to O Cebreiro.
On the hills above the village are the remains of two ruined castles. It takes about an hour to climb up to Sarracín, on the left hilltop, which was once controlled by the Marqués de Villafranca. Its defensive position offers fantastic views of the entire valley and it’s clear why the castle’s ninth-century founders would build a fortress here. On the right-hand hilltop, Castro de Vega is little more than a pile of rubble.
Leave town on the main road, and you’ll soon reach Ruitelán ( ), where there are picnic tables and the Albergue Pequeña Potala ( 34 beds open all year .). A cave in the hillside above was said to be the home of San Froilán of Lugo, who became bishop of León in the ninth century.
In another 1km, veer left into Las Herrerías ( ), passing the Hotel Paraiso del Bierzo ( $$$ ) then crossing a fifteenth-century bridge. Las Herrerías was famous in the seventeenth century for its iron forge, which was described admiringly by Domenico Laffi, the Italian camino chronicler. Today, it’s a beautiful little village with the odd bar-café strung out along the camino; one of these contains a restored forge. The original fountain was said to honour Don Suero de Quiñones of the famous jousting tournament in Hospital de Órbigo. There is a small albergue ( 20 beds easter–oct .). Las Herrerías merges into Hospital ( ), where there are no visible remains of the former pilgrims’ hospice.
Climb uphill out of Las Herrerías, catching occasional glimpses of La Faba high above. In 1km, turn left down a grassy stone track, following a camino sign that directs walkers this way; cyclists should keep to the minor road. The path leads down to the Río Valcarce, then heads steeply uphill towards the hamlet of La Faba.
This steep stretch can be mucky and slippery due to heavy use by local cattle, and you’ll have to press tight against the high stone walls if a herd decides to amble past. If you manage to keep your footing, this is an enchanting section of the camino, zigzagging uphill between stone walls. As you climb, there are dramatic changes in landscape and architecture. It feels like a fast rewind through history, finally settling at some misty, magical period of conical, thatch-roofed pallozas, cobbled streets and a new language — Galega.
After a couple of kilometres, you’ll pass the first house in La Faba ( ); look behind you for great views of the Iglesia de San Andrés, rebuilt in the eighteenth century. There’s a fountain and a café-bar in La Faba, and an albergue ( 35 beds easter–oct 6).
The weather is often foggy here and can turn nasty at any time. During a blizzard on these mountains in the early years of the nineteenth century, Sir John Moore’s retreating British army mutinied after hundreds of soldiers froze to death, throwing a heavy military chest of gold down a cliff in protest. Sir John was having a hard time of it: his soldiers had already trashed Villafranca and drunk Ponferrada dry, and it was remarkable that he managed to regain order. He almost made it home to Britain, but the unlucky general was shot and killed by the French in A Coruña as he oversaw the embarkation of the British troops.
In 2km, enter Laguna de Castilla ( ), which has a small albergue ( 11 beds easter–oct). About 1km after Laguna, pass a stone sign marking your entrance into Galicia. From here, you’ll reach a road in less than a kilometre. Turn left, neatly avoiding a viewing area clogged with bus tours, then turn right to walk into O Cebreiro; the albergue is on the far side of the village.
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There are stunning pastoral views from O Cebreiro on the rare occasions that the mist clears enough to see more than three steps ahead. The weather can be truly awful here; summer snowstorms are not unheard of and dense fog is the norm year-round. Although it’s pretty in the sunshine, murky mist seems to suit O Cebreiro’s architecture perfectly.
The hamlet’s round, thatch-roofed pallozas are a distinctive form of rural architecture once found across Celtic lands from Africa to Scotland. Their round walls and conical, thatched roofs aerodynamically deflect the strong mountain winds. Chimneys would interfere with the tight weather defences, so smoke escapes through the thatch itself, curing the sausages and hams that hang from the ceiling as it does so. One of these buildings houses the village’s small ethnographic museum, which is well worth a look.
O Cebreiro has sheltered pilgrims from mountain storms for centuries, and there were hospitals here from 1072 to 1854. The focal point of the village is the modern Iglesia de Santa María, rebuilt in the 1960s on top of the ruins of a Romanesque church. It’s believed that the Holy Grail from which Christ drank at the Last Supper was hidden here for safe-keeping in the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, a local farmer braved a fierce snowstorm to attend Mass at the church. The priest told the man that it was silly to come all the way just for a bit of bread and wine in such terrible weather, at which point the bread turned into flesh and the wine in the Holy Grail became blood.
The church’s statue of the Virgin is said to have tilted her head to get a better look at the miracle, and she’s now known as La Virgen del Milagro. Although the grail is no longer here, the remains of the flesh and blood are held in a silver reliquary donated by Queen Isabel.
Outside the church, a bust of Elías Valiña has pride of place. Valiña was a local parish priest who wrote important books on the camino and was a driving force behind its revival during the 1960s and 1970s. He also did much to preserve O Cebreiro’s palloza architecture, and he’s buried in the church graveyard.
The route down from the mountain is exposed to the elements, but there are striking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys as you descend. The yellow arrows from O Cebreiro direct you to the road for 3km to Liñares. It’s far nicer to follow the track behind the albergue up into the woods. At a T-junction in 1km, turn right and follow a track for 2km into Liñares ( ), set in a windy saddle of the mountains. Liñares’ name comes from the local flax fields that supplied the linen for the looms in O Cebreiro’s pilgrim hospice. The tiny, lovely twelfth-century village church is dedicated to San Esteban. You can stay at Casa Rural Jaime ( $ ).
Climb up to the Alto de San Roque, where an isolated, dramatic statue of a wind-battered pilgrim marks the pass. Watch for harriers and short-toed eagles up high, and look down low for the pimpernel, wild garlic and blue lilies that grow on the local limestone. These wild mountains are also home to wolves: watch closely for their tracks on muddy stretches. Wolves were only part of mediaeval pilgrims’ concerns, as attacks by bandits were common along this stretch.
In a couple of kilometres, you come to Hospital da Condesa ( ). Follow the camino through the hamlet, passing the albergue ( 18 beds apr–oct 6) and O Tear ( $ ). The tiny, beautiful church dates from the twelfth century but was largely rebuilt in 1963.
In 2km, you’ll reach Padornelo ( ). From here, climb uphill to the Alto do Poio ( ), where a cosy bar has a log fire to warm soggy pilgrims in wet weather. The Hospitaleros de San Juan de Jerusalén once ran the Iglesia de Santa María at this windswept pass; nowadays you can stay above the village’s first bar at Puerto ( 18 beds open all year) or the Santa Maria do Poio ( $$ ).
Turn right at the café on to a track parallel to the main tarmac road, and follow it for 3km into Fonfría ( ). The village, whose name means cold spring, is a wonderful collection of farm buildings. In mediaeval times, the Hospital de Santa Catalina offered healthy pilgrims heat, salt, water and a bed with two blankets, while the sick received a bonus of a quarter pound of bread, eggs and butter. Such luxuries are long gone, but you can stay at A Reboleira ( 33 beds easter–nov, also $$ ).
From Fonfría, the views as you curve along the ridge are fantastic, and the picture-perfect lush fields and farms are only slightly spoilt by a slate quarry on the valley floor. Walk along a track lined with beech trees, watching out for sparrowhawks hunting for prey in the fields on either side of the camino.
In a couple of kilometres, the camino winds through the small hamlet of Biduedo ( ), where both Casa Quiroga ( $ ) or Casa Xato ( $ ) are good value.
From here, it’s downhill all the way into Triacastela, through Filloval and As Pasantes ( ), where you can stay at Casa Caloto ( $ ), and where there’s some great rural architecture. Near the bottom of the mountain, you enter Triacastela. The albergue municipal is in a field on your left as you enter town.