Our 31 kilometre journey to Villafranca del Bierzo takes us through the lush vineyards of the Bierzo region.
Before imbibing we must pass through the bustling city of Ponferrada. Established by the Romans as the centre of a lucrative mining district, the city has had its ups and downs. First destroyed by the Visigoths and then by the Muslims it was finally rebuilt by the Catholics. By 1082, it acquired both its new purpose as a Camino centre and its current name, Pons Ferrada, after the iron bridge constructed that year to transport pilgrims across the Sils and Boeza Rivers. By 1178, the city became a base camp for the Knights Templar, defenders of the Camino path and protectorate of all pilgrims. Today, the city is dominated by the forbidding stone castle built by the Knights in 1218-82 over the ruins of the Roman castro and Visigoth castle.
We march on, surrounded by lush vineyards tempting us with their fat purple fruit, ready for harvest. In Cacabelos we are able to sample the fruits of the Bierzo terroir. As we wind our way through the village, a tasting room beckons through the doors of a handsome stone building. It is the Bodega Cuatro Pasos and inside are an array of Bierzo reds and roses waiting for us to try.
The main grape variety in the Bierzo area is the Mencia. Its wines are full of fruit and you can taste the minerality of its low-mountain vineyards. One can imagine it is those same minerals that drew the Romans here ages ago. The Bierzo wines are an astounding find on our Camino journey, wines unknown to most North Americans and still hard to find in our back-home wine shops.
Fortunately, we are three-quarters of the way down our day’s path. In the quiet town of Villafranca del Bierzo, we settle in for our multi-course dinner, a suitable foil for a bottle of Bierzo red.
It’s a new day. Gone are bacchanalian thoughts of food and wine. Today we climb 1,200 metres to the mountain village of O’Cebreiro. It is the steepest climb on the Camino Francés. But walking has become our daily occupation. It is what we have done everyday for the past 26 days. Today’s climb is more adventure than ordeal. It is to be enjoyed and the picturesque mountain landscape savoured, like a fine Bierzo wine.
In 30 kilometres, at a height of 1,300 metres, we arrive at O’Cebreiro. It is a quaint village perched on the mountaintop, its rugged stone buildings scattered in a picturesquely random fashion. It all screams tourism-potential and that is what this farming village has become.
Along its brow lie some unique vernacular structures. The palloza has ancient Celtic origins with similar versions to be found in Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, even Morocco. Its low stone walls outline an oval plan. Inside are two rooms, one for the family, the other for the farm animals. Overhead, a low-slung thatched roof rises to a single peak. The sleek profile of the palloza hugs the earth, a defense against the strong winds sweeping across the mountains.
We settle in to a meal at one of this small community’s many restaurants. It’s a cozy stone interior with a blazing fire. Trains of garlic hang from the rough-hewn log beams above. We share our table and tales of the trail with a women from Canada and an irrepressible Irish fellow who has woven in and out of our Camino journey.
You can feel at home, here, on this remote mountaintop in Galicia.
This is the seventeenth 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