Today we begin our two-day ascent of the highest peak on the Camino Francés route. It starts gently. Today’s climb is a mere 200 metres stretched over the 21-kilometre path from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino.
Leaving Astorga we can see our eventual destination. The mountain range hovers on the distant horizon, warmly glowing in the early morning sun. As we progress on our leisurely walk, evidence of an ancient mountain lifestyle becomes apparent. This is the land of the Maragato people.
First comes the restored town of Castrillo de los Polvazares with its Maragato-style stone buildings. Made famous in 1913 by author Concha Espina, the town is now carving its new niche in the 21st Century as an arts and crafts centre. Further on, the reality of an isolated mountain life becomes more apparent. Many of those same stone buildings, once with thatched roofs, lay crumbling, clinging to life.
Isolation seems to attract quirkiness, like the colourful Cowboy Bar in El Ganso. It is a great place to stop and enjoy a bottle of the region’s distinctive sidra (cider). The Spanish-speaking bartender is quick to instruct us – with wild hand gestures – on the proper decanting of the cloudy and slightly sour brew. After a few shakes to stir up the sediment, the bottle is raised above your head and the cider poured, hopefully hitting the glass held at waist level. Only a small amount is poured, “two fingers” worth at a time, to retain the cider’s carbonated fizz.
It is was an entertaining interlude to the day’s walk. Fortunately, Rabanal del Camino is only a few kilometres further on!
The next day’s 27-kilometre walk draws us into the strange wildness of the mountains. We leave Rabanal in the dark but our wooded path soon hazily reveals itself through a dense shroud of fog. In time the muted forest colours give way to the forlorn stone ruins of Foncebadón. The tangle of stone-walled buildings slowly emerge through the fog as we make our way down the unpaved main street. Soon a cross appears, planted in the middle of our path, its looming arms engulfed in ethereal mist. A sign? A warning? Definitely mysterious.
By the time we finish coffee at the town’s La Taberna de Gaia, the fog has lifted. We continue our climb – although it barely amounts to 600 metres – first arriving at Puerto Irago and La Cruz de Ferro and then, after a slight descent, to the highest point, 1,515 metres, at Punto Alto.
True to its name, La Cruz de Ferro is an iron cross. It stands on a tall pole, set in a large pile of stones. The history of this historic Camino landmark is unclear, but pre-Roman Celts were known to leave cairns of stones at high passes and the Romans did much the same. In any event, the site was “de-paganized” in the 1100’s when the iron cross was erected by the hermit Gaucelmo.
Pilgrims traditionally leave a small stone as a blessing or tribute. Gail and I brought pebbles from Lake Winnipeg. Mine is left as a blessing for my mum who, back in Winnipeg, was having significant health problems. It is a quiet, lovely moment here, at the highest point of our journey. The sun breaks through the morning mist at this most appropriate time and place.
The descent, as is said, is far worse than the climb. The trail relentlessly drops over 900-metres on its way down to Molinaseca. We arrived intact but it is a punishing journey for ankles, legs…and bums, when feet slip from under you on loose stones. Nothing that a good Maragato-style stew and local wine can’t remedy!
This is the sixteenth of a number of planned posts to my on-going Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay. If you have any observations or your own Camino experiences to relate, feel free to use the Comments section below.
If you are interested in purchasing prints for any of the photographs in this series of Camino de Santiago blog posts, they can be ordered directly from my website at www.firmangallery.com/camino-frances