Although all the towns and villages you passed through beyond Ponferrada are Galician speaking it doesn’t automatically mean that you are prepared for the Galicia experience.
You are still in Castile and Leon, which means that everything is well organized; at the entrance of every village and town there are Camino boards detailing distances and services; there are plenty of bars and restaurants, a large range of albergues and yellow arrows. Presumably, you assume that things are going to stay like this until Santiago. They won’t. I mentioned before the shabby board hanging on a rusty nail with “Welcome to Galicia” written on it. Now it’s gone, which is a shame, as it gave you a foretaste of what’s to come.
The 15.70 km stage between Vega de Valcarce and O’Cebreiro is long, tiring and of course uphill, so it should be done first thing in the morning. However, as you will see the views are fabulous.
The Camino for the walking pilgrims goes through small settlements – Hospital Ingles, La Faba and La Laguna de Castilla. However, the Camino for walkers is impossible to cycle; there are some narrow, local tarmac roads, but I wouldn’t bother with these either because they are secluded, very steep and quite possibly unmarked. I was in the past in all three villages mentioned and have no recollection of it, which is another good argument for staying on the N-VI.
From now on it will get steeper but is virtually traffic free as the highway above you takes it all. It is uphill all the way and the views are amazing. Around 500 meters before Pedrafita you say goodbye to Castilla y Leon. You are officially in Galicia. Nothing is going to be the same again.
Pedrafita do Cebreiro is a small, but busy town. The panaderia on the corner sells tasty Galician products, highly recommended. Get some rest and then follow the signposts for O’Cebreiro. Now you are cycling on the LU-633 in the direction of Tricastella and Samos. It is only 4 km to O’Cebreiro but it is constantly uphill and pretty exhausting. Again the views are stunning and there are many beauty spots on the way. The signpost to Santiago de Compostela brings some solace. You will meet all the other cyclists gathered around a board that says “Alto do Cebreiro 1300 m”.
O’Cebreiro is a picturesque village surrounded by mountains. It is small, pristine (European definition of pristine, not Swiss) and looks almost like an open-air ethnographic museum. The views are superb, streets are cobbled, and the houses are of stone. It is one of the places on the Camino that is hard to forget.
Iglesia Santa Maria la Real is a contemporary reconstruction of an early medieval structure. In this church a famous Eucharistic miracle took place. In Anno Domini 1300 on a cold and windy winter morning, a Benedictine priest was celebrating mass. The weather was really awful, so he had presumed that no one would show up for the mass. But he was wrong – there was one person, a farmer called Juan Santín from Barxamaior who, despite the weather, decided to come for the Mass.
The priest was not impressed: he couldn’t see the point. In his heart, he despised this farmer for coming to the Eucharist, especially since he priest didn’t believe in the Transfiguration of bread and wine into the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. Yet that’s exactly what happened – as the priest uttered the words of Consecration the bread became flesh and the wine became blood and stained the flesh. For more than 180 years the bread that turned to Flesh was left on the paten, untouched, until Queen Isabel I of Castile visited O’Cebreiro and was told about the miracle. She founded a crystal reliquary in which the paten and chalice were placed.
A year later in 1487, the Pope certified the truth of the miracle. The crystal reliquary is still exposed today in a side chapel. On the prie-dieus in front of the reliquary, Bibles in all languages are laid out.
The first time I went to Santiago de Compostela I stopped in a village very close to O’Cebreiro and in the evening I went to the church. The priest looked at me and said that he was not going to celebrate Mass for one person. Fuming inside with anger I went to the first bar and shouted out loud “Does anyone want to go to church?” An Irishman quickly finished off his beer, stood up and said, “I will”. The priest celebrated the Mass and it turned out to be an unforgettable experience for my Irish friend and me. Two years later I passed through the same village on my bike and with a spiteful feeling inside I thought “oh let’s see if the priest changed his views about celebrating Mass for one person only”. I went inside the church; there were other pilgrims and the priest too. I looked at him and I knew straight away that he had gone through a deep process of transformation. The frustration was gone, replaced with a profound peace and feeling of sense. I was very moved by this miracle of the metamorphosis of human life. Surely not as spectacular as the one in O’Cebreiro, but one that happened in front of my very own eyes.
The other main tourist attraction in O’Cebreiro is the pallozas, traditional thatched oval dwellings of Celtic origin.
O’Cebreiro has its hero – Father Elías Valiña Sampedro, parish priest, scholar and author of books about the Camino of Santiago. He dedicated his life to the recreation of the Camino, personally marking out the route with yellow arrows, which today are commonly used for the whole length of the route.
There is one general remark I have to make. As you are in Galicia the albergues’ furnishings might be, or shall I say will be, more modest than in Castile, Navarra or La Rioja. From now on information that there is a kitchen doesn’t mean that there will be pots, plates or even a single fork with broken tines, just as the fact that there is a toilet doesn’t automatically mean that there is toilet paper. It will be like this throughout Galicia. Starting in O’Cebreiro. WELCOME.
Go back to the LU-633, make the descent and 3.30 km further on you reach Linares, a tiny settlement with a shop, restaurant and small hotel that looks like it has more rooms than Linares has inhabitants, no matter how the official statistics contradict this.
Now you have to climb for about 700 meters until you reach Alto San Roque (1270m) marked with what logically should be a statue of San Roque, but apparently is just a figure of a pilgrim facing the strong Galician wind. The wind is winning the confrontation with the pilgrim on the verge of losing his hat.
Make a pleasant descent from Alto San Roque and then climb for a few minutes to Hospital. On leaving Hospital you will have to climb another mountain. 2.70 km later you will reach Alto de Poio (1335 m). As soon as you pass Alto de Poio there is a truly rewarding decent to Tricastela. The views are fabulous. From Fonfria the descent is even more impressive. The road bends and drops steeply in places. Make sure that you have your hands on the brakes all the time and enjoy the ride for 10.80 kilometres until you reach Triacastela.
Triacastela’s name derives from the three castles, which existed in this area in the 10th century and today decorate the municipality’s seal. The town itself was founded in the 9th century and from the very beginning was closely linked to the pilgrimage road to Santiago. Aymeric wrote about Triacastela, “at the foot of this mountain in Galicia” and mentions an old tradition according to which “pilgrims pick up a stone and carry it to Castaneda to make lime for the building of the Apostol’s church” in Santiago de Compostela. The local stony church of St James has a Romanesque apse.
In Triacastela the Camino forks – one way goes through Calvor and the other through Samos. When I walked the Camino for the first time I decided on the Calvor path and took a wrong turn of course. I and fellow pilgrims realized that we are on the way to Samos, 5 kilometres further so we kept on going and never looked back.
Samos (48km from Samos). The monastery in Samos is vast. It has two cloisters, which are rather modest in conformity with Benedictine Order rules. The cloister of the Nereids was built in the 16th century in transitional Gothic-Renaissance style after the original Romanesque one was burned in 1536. On the keystones, there are depictions of the venerated by Benedictine saints. Not all of them are so pious, on one you will find for example an inscription that says, “What are you looking at, fool?”. In the centre there is a failed 18th century fountain with Nereids, which as we remember are beautiful sea nymphs. These ones surely won’t charm you with their beauty which makes me wonder if either the sculptor was not very skilled or if he just didn’t want the Nereids to lead the monks into temptation. If the latter perhaps he should have chosen a different theme for instance, the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Next to the cloister is the refectory and library that suffered in another great fire in 1951. When visiting the monastery, you will also be shown modern murals, pretty dreadful to be honest.
The sacristy and the church are a completely different matter. Both represent first-class Baroque and are not modest by any means. The interior of the church is well thought out, coherent and very elegant. When inside take a look at the church’s two domes. The 18th century façade has a double staircase inspired by the one in the Cathedral of Santiago.
The albergue in Samos belongs to the Benedictines and is very modest, but for some reason is on my list of favourites. The tap water might not be massively hot, there is no kitchen, and there is a small petrol station next to the albergue that always makes me wonder what will happen if a pilgrim smoking outside throws a cigarette butt too close to the petrol pump (regardless of the fact that placing a petrol station next to a monastery that burned down twice in the past is playing with fire). But there is such calm in the place and the town itself that whenever I can I stay here. Samos, hidden in the mountains is for me the last enclave of peace and quiet on the Camino.