Stage 28 – Villafranca del Bierzo – Vega de Valcarce
Total Distance – 16.0 km
Adjusted for Climb – 16.5 km (accrued ascent 80 m = 0.5 km)
High Point: Vega de Valcarce at 630 m (2,067 feet)
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I remember thinking that this town would make an ideal fortress when Sue and I climbed up and into Villafranca del Bierzo. As I studied the terrain (couldn’t help doing so since I was walking it) and saw the placement of the fortress-like churches situated very close to the Castillo Palacio de Los Marqueses I thought that my Army JROTC past and my reading of military history is always lurking somewhere inside of me. The other churches and monasteries did nothing to dissuade me of the notion that an invading army would have had a tough time if it wanted to invade this town.
Invasions Villafranca has seen much of, principally because of its location. The town sits at the confluence of the Burbia and Valcarce ríos and being at the west end of the fertile Bierzo basin it has always in the past been an attraction for armies and merchants alike. Being at the foot of the narrow valley leading up to the El Cebreiro pass it has also served as a gateway for armies and peregrinos into Galicia. A document from 943 already called this town a “Foreigners’ Town”. The town has seen it all; plague, floods, a looting and destructive rampage by British troops in 1809 but it still survives with much of its medieval and Renaissance character intact.
Luckily for Villafranca the only invaders they had to face that day were Sue and I, hardly an imposing army! We soon found our way to the Plaza Major and gratefully settled ourselves in the Hotel Posada Plaza Major. The hotel was completely modern on the inside while on the outside it looked like a charming townhouse with planters full of Bougainvillea adorning the outside of every window. From there we could see the Ayuntamiento on the left side of the plaza and restaurants with outdoor tables and large umbrellas to protect customers from the sun. After showering and resting we enjoyed a pleasant meal at one of these restaurants. From there we could see the top of the mountain where I knew the mountain pass that we would traverse the next day awaited us. But we could relax then, that was to be for the next day.
The next morning as we walked out of Villafranca my thoughts were of the mountains. I knew we were about to enter the Valcarce valley and we had decided to split in half what was to have been one of the steepest stages (according to Brierley) of the entire Camino. That meant that instead of walking 26.6 kilometers with the last 10 kilometers being a climb from 600 meters to 1,300 meters, we would instead walk a flat 16 kilometers and leave the heavy climbing for the next day. Since there were three routes, two of which involved steep climbs, we could have started climbing immediately after leaving Villafranca but decided instead to take the flat route that followed the N-IV road along the narrow valley floor.
A couple of kilometers after crossing the bridge that spanned the río Burbia we were in for a surprise, or rather Sue was in for a surprise, that brought back memories of her stay in Roncesvalles. As we walked a young and very fit man passed us. Sue immediately called out, “Manuel!!” and he stopped. Manuel was a farmer from Malta that was on a very tight schedule in order to make it to Santiago. For about 5 minutes we had a wonderful chat while walking with him before he took of with a long stride that we could not hope to match. The people you meet with on the Camino and how you can run into them in the most unlikely places never cease to amaze me!
Our route was a very peaceful one along the mainly shaded valley floor paralleling a burbling río all the way to our destination at Vega de Valcarce. Before we got there we would meet some familiar peregrinos and see some beautiful sights.
I have to say that this was some of the most enjoyable walking I did on the Camino. It was mainly in the shade, not too steep and accompanied by the sounds of birds and a burbling river below us.
The villages along this route were very small and hugged the road. I suspected that the timber industry and we peregrinos were the only things that kept people living here.
While walking this peaceful route we were reunited with my Spanish girlfriends from Madrid and a French couple (we had seen them 2 days prior to this!) that we were constantly coming into contact with either from catching up to them or their catching up to us while walking. Every encounter was an opportunity for conversation and laughter!
Very soon we were nearing the lovely trio of villages of La Portela de Valcarce, Ambasmestas and our destination, Vega de Valcarce (Pop. 865). It was at these villages where you could hear some of the Galician language begin to be spoken. The buildings also began to take on a different look and character.
After stopping for an opportunity to see the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista in La Portela our next unexpected stop was to be the in the next adjoining village of Ambasmestas. It was a quaint little village named in Galician (although we were in Leòn and not in Galicia yet!) for the joining of two rivers, the ríos Valcarce and Balboa. Interestingly as Sue and I neared Galicia we saw many signs that named towns in Castilian with the names crossed out by spray paint and replaced with the Galician names!!
Sue and I made an expected stop to see the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen and found it to be almost identical to the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista in La Portela. After this we looked for a place to have a snack and found that we hit the jackpot, for Sue! We were in a very attractive Bar when Sue reflexively ordered tea. She expected to get your regular run of the mill tea bag but instead got real tea leaves brewed traditionally. Let me tell you that she was in Heaven! I believe that this was the first and only time she had real tea on the Camino and, judging from her expression of sheer bliss, I don’t think anyone enjoyed a cup of tea on the Camino more than her on that day!
From Ambasmestas it was a short walk to Vega de Valcarce and the casa rural where we were staying for the night. I found Vega de Valcarce to be a lovely village with many signs of agriculture. Sue and I had a good dinner with an Australian peregrino at the Bar-Restaurante Alfredo . Actually the owner, Mary a formidible woman who was quite a character, was as entertaining as the company at dinner! Good thing that we were well fed, happy and relaxed because we expected a tough climb the next day.