Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles. Now you are cycling on a comfortable tarmac street, but the surroundings are rather dull –rows of unremarkable houses from the 70s and farmlands. Looking around you might find it hard to believe that soon you will be cycling along a lane in beautiful vineyards. Welcome to El Bierzo!
El Bierzo is a rising star in the Spanish winemaking regions. Vine grapes were growing on its steep slopes as early as the days of the Empire. The Romans gladly imported wines and grapevines from El Bierzo. In the Middle Ages monks, especially from the Cistercian Order, were pretty successful in producing wine in this region.
Viticulture thrived on until the end of the 19th century when phylloxera, brought to Europe from North America by a keen English botanist, completely destroyed vineyards on the Continent. Wine growing was revived in the 20th century and in 1989 the El Bierzo Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin) was officially recognized. Nowadays there are 70 vineyards in the area. The region’s main grape variety is Mencia, grown only in North-western Spain. Unlike many other Spanish wines, Mencia doesn’t need to be blended with other grape varieties to make interesting wine. El Bierzo also produces whites with grape varieties Dona Blanca and Godello.
Recently thanks to talented winemakers, wines from El Bierzo start to enjoy a good reputation and have become recognised in the other European countries. On your way to Santiago you will pass next to two wineries – Vinas del Bierzo in Camponaraya and Descendientes de J. Palacios in Villafranca del Bierzo.
Fuentesnuevas is a town that riotously celebrates Corpus Christi in July (beef snacks are served), then the Assumption of Mary that accompanies the Festival of Sardines on the 15th of August and Magostos on All Saints’ Day (1st of November). The latter is a festival typical of Galicia and Catalonia that recently became really popular. Roasted chestnuts and other dishes with chestnuts are eaten on that day and young local wine is drunk.
Cacabelos. It is a hotel/restaurant called Moncloa de San Lazaro. On a sunny day, you can sit down in their courtyard or on a cold autumn afternoon, upstairs by the open fire. They also have a small shop with regional products from the El Bierzo area. The shop is not very cheep I have to say.
The Camino runs through the most important street in Cacabelos since the Middle Ages. All the monuments and houses of local noble families sit along this street. As you cross the bridge you will see the Baroque Santuario de las Angustias (Our Lady of Sorrows) with a rather interesting, unheard of in iconography deception of Saint Anthony of Padua playing cards with Baby Jesus. Or so I read, sadly church is closed every time I am in Cacabelos, Next to this church is a very nice albergue with double rooms.
Leave Pieros cycling on the same road as before and minutes later turn right onto a small tarmac road as the Camino arrows indicate.
Then turn onto a lane as the signs direct you. For the next 6 km, you will cycle among the beautiful vineyards of El Bierzo. The views are amazing and so is the track. Cycling is a bit of a challenge because the vineyards are on small but steep hills.
Personally, I always find this short part of the Camino mentally exhausting. On your way to Villafranca, you will pass the small village of Valtuille de Aruba. 6 km from Pieros you will stand in front of the famous Puerta del Perdon (The Portal of Forgiveness) of the Iglesia de Santiago (Church of Saint James) in Villafranca del Bierzo.
Puerta del Perdon (the church portal, not the main one but the side one and the first one you see on arrival in Villafranca) was founded in the 12th century. This modest portal, at least from the artistic point of view, is one of the major stops on the Camino. According to tradition, if a pilgrim too ill to continue his pilgrimage to Santiago passes through this door and goes to confession and receives communion, his pilgrimage will be regarded as complete, as if he had walked to Santiago. The Pope at the beginning of the 12th century gave this privilege to Villafranca. The Puerta del Perdon is in Villafranca for a good reason – the last stage of the Camino is truly exhausting and, in the past, after walking for so many kilometres many pilgrims were just unable to continue their journey. On my walking pilgrimage to Santiago, I was a witness of great sacrifice and obstinacy of a fellow Austrian pilgrim who tried to continue her pilgrimage in spite of serious health problems. And I can imagine how heartbreaking the decision to discontinue must be – regardless of whether it was made today or centuries ago. So, I always stop in front of the Door of Forgiveness or should I say Mercy and think about those who passed through it throughout the ages. The door normally closed is open again for the modern pilgrim during Jacobean Holy Years.
Iglesia de Santiago is just like its famous North portal, a humble example of Romanesque architecture. Its interior is empty except for the 14th-century crucifix above the main altar. There are always pilgrims sitting inside in silence. That place is undoubtedly exceptional and if you have time to visit only one place in Villafranca make it this one.
Villafranca del Bierzo is the historical capital of the El Bierzo region and one of the jewels on the Camino. It is situated at the entrance to a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains and vineyards. Throughout the ages, this pristine town suffered from all possible scourges – plague, floods, French and English rampages. Miraculously Villafranca survived all of these in just about one piece and even today makes an impression on visitors. You can see its sights or just cycle its narrow and picturesque streets. The most representative street is Calle del Aqua with a row of houses belonging to the local noble families.
According to tradition Saint Francis founded Iglesia de San Francisco (by Plaza Major, but somehow hidden; when you get to the main square immediately turn right and left again onto a steep cobbled street) in the 13th century on his way to Compostela. The church has a riveting Mudejar style ceiling with floral decoration inscribed within geometric figures. Looking at this magnificent ceiling remember that its faded colours were originally vivid. The church of Saint Francis is the one you see looking at from Iglesia de Santiago.
When the local road joins the N-VI, turn right and cycle on the pilgrim’s lane instead of the road. It might be busy in the morning or early afternoon but later on is usually empty and really comfortable to cycle. And so on for the next 15 km.
Even though you are cycling next to the road this is an amazing part of the Camino. The highway above you takes most of the traffic so you can just enjoy cycling in the quietness. The Valley Valcarce is green, high and narrow; the river Valcarce swooshes by on your left and you are cycling on the flat bottom of the valley. It is simply brilliant.
After 5.40 km the Camino turns left onto the local road and after about 300 meters you will reach Pereje, a humble village that was in the past an object of a fierce dispute for ownership between O’Cebrairo and Villafranca del Bierzo. The Bishops of Astorga, Lugo, and Santiago intervened. In the end, the case went to the Pope who passed sentence in favour of O’Cebrairo.
Trabadelo former property of Santiago de Compostela, a village that is built along one street exactly like Pereje. It has a picnic area, space by the river for sunbathing, a bar and nice albergues for pilgrims.
For about two kilometres the Camino runs on local tarmac road to join the N-VI later on. Everything is the same as before – the river Valcarce hums to your left, the highway hums above your head, the cycle path is comfortable, life is good.
Vega de Valcarce. In contrast to all the other villages you passed through recently, Vega is much bigger, or should I say longer. It is mentioned in the 12th-century guidebook although the author doesn’t use the name of the village but refers to the castle, Sarracin that overlooks it.
Sarracin Castle is built on a steep slope and was founded probably in the 9th century by count Gaton. The medieval history of the castle is unknown and undocumented, although it is alleged that it might have been the property of the Templars, protecting pilgrims in the then dangerous Valcarce valley. Personally, I concur with this theory – The Order had its headquarters in nearby Ponferrada plus Vega has this positive vibe that all the former Templars’ places on the Camino have. Regardless of whether it is true or not -what is left of the castle is not from the Knights’ times – the ruins as you see them today are a 14th and 15th century in origin.
Vega de Valcarce is the main village in the Valcarce valley. There are bars, well-stocked shops, and albergues. It is green and pleasant. Personally, I always stay in Vega and always choose the humble albergue municipal that has an open kitchen on the first floor with a magnificent view of Sarracin castle. A bottle of Mencia drunk here tastes better than anywhere else in the El Bierzo region.
PS. 3 Euros bottle of white from the shop next door tastes there amazing as well. Must be the terrace.