Many pilgrims hold the view that this is the most beautiful day on the Camino. It’s also my view, especially as I have a weak spot for both Astorga and Ponferrada. The cycling is challenging, but highly rewarding. Add to it the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding nature and you have the recipe for a perfect day.
Facing the cathedral, take the next left turn – the street is called Calle Porteria, pass albergue San Xavier on the right and Convento de Sancti Spiritus on the left. Then turn right and go straight ahead, and at the church turn left as the arrow indicates. When you reach the small intersection, go straight on. A tarmac road will lead you to Murias de Rechivaldo. Just before crossing the bridge over the highway you will go past the small Chapel of ‘Ecce Homo” where you can obtain your stamp. There is an albergue close to the chapel:
Albergue Ecce Homo, 10 beds, opens from March to 1st November, 5 Euros
The road is comfortable to cycle but at times is full of lorries and prone to accidents. Additionally, the rising sun can blind drivers, so bear this in mind when cycling on it. As you enter Murias de Rechivaldo (882m; 3.90 km→4.50 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza) pull off the road and take the Camino instead.
The region you have entered is called Maragateria and is inhabited by the Maragatos, an ethnic minority of uncertain origin. Although Astorga is the main city of their region, the best places to taste the traditional Maragatos architecture are the small villages you are now going through. The Maragatos settled permanently in this region in the 8th century and throughout the ages, they preserved a strong sense of identity. Until recently they married only within their community. Traditionally they worked as muleteers and the wealth of the region was built on this profitable business. Together with the change in means of transport, especially after the railway was built in the second half of the 19th century, the region fell into decline – many young people moved to the cities seeking a better future and the villages emptied. Today this ethnic minority counts around four thousand people who still try to safeguard their traditions. Their beautiful folk costumes are a tourist attraction and decorate most of Astorga’s traditional products.
The Maragatos villages you pass through on your way to Compostela are well preserved, although seem rather deserted. Murias de Rechivaldo has examples of typical Maragateria architecture. The village is built along cobbled streets and doesn’t have a market square. Houses are made of stones and are non-plastered; originally thatched, nowadays roofed with tiles. Murias de Rechivaldo with its stylized street lamps and tree-lined streets is a truly pristine village. It is worth cycling around.
There is a small café that serves tasty breakfasts and two albergues (the third albergue – Albergue Casa Flor may be closed as it also serves as a hotel):
Albergue Murias de Rechivaldo, 14 beds, opens from March until the end of October, no designated space for bicycles, 5 Euros
Albergue Casa Las Águedas, 40 beds, opens from March to November, heating, 12 Euros
Behind albergue Casa Las Aguedas the cobbled street turns into a gravelled path and the landscape around you changes dramatically. You are cycling on a plateau and can clearly see the mountain range in front of you. The landscape is mountainous without traces of human presence. If you wish to see a tourist attraction, Castrillo de los Polvazares – the most beautiful village in the Maragateria region, when you reach the tarmac road, the LE-142, turn right towards Astorga. The village is 1.40 km away (come back the same way) and is the most impressive. The village provides some pilgrim accommodation:
Albergue municipal, 8 beds, opens from April to the end of October, a kitchen, 5 Euros
If not, continue cycling and 4.50 km from Murias de Rechivaldo you reach another Maragatos village Santa Catalina de Somoza (984m; 8.40 km→3.90 km to El Ganso), a positive place that seems to be always packed with pilgrims. The two albergues are highly rated. This village, like the others in the area, is built along the main street. The Parish church possesses a reliquary of Saint Blaise, who provides patronage to the village and one of its albergues with a bar:
Albergue San Blas, 24 beds, open all year round, heating, 5 Euros
Albergue El Caminante, 20 beds, open all year round, heating, 5 Euros
The local tarmac road between Santa Catalina de Samoza and El Ganso is rather flat and easy to cycle although the surface should have been changed around 10 years ago. After cycling your last, flat as a pancake 3.90 km part today, you will reach another classic Maragatos village – El Ganso (1.016m; 12.30 km→6.70 to Rabanal del Camino), definitely less impressive, but possibly more authentic. Back in the Middle Ages, there was a monastery and hospital for pilgrims here. Nowadays there are two bars and one albergue:
Albergue Gabino, 30 beds, opens from Holy Week to the beginning of November, heating, a kitchen, 8 Euros,
The tarmac road between El Ganso and Rabanal del Camino climbs gently for 6.70 km.
Rabanal del Camino (1124m; 19 km→5.80 km to Foncebadon) lies at the foot of the crossing of the Montes de Leon, a mountain range whose highest peak Teleno, is 2,188 metres high. Because of its strategic location, at least from the Camino de Santiago point of view, Rabanal was an important town as early as the 12th century. Our invaluable author of the 12th-century guidebook advises staying here before going any further and it is good advice indeed. The Knights Templars were stationed in Rabanal helping the pilgrims to get safely to Ponferrada. A hospital for pilgrims was established here as well as the parish Church of Assumption of Mary dating back to that time. Gradually the buzzing town fell into decline but got a second chance at the beginning of the 90s when London’s Confraternity of Saint James decided to open an albergue. A hostel for pilgrims was built in the converted parish building and took the name of Gaucelmo, a 12th-century monk who lived in Montes de Leon. For a few years, the awarded albergue was the only pilgrim accommodation between Astorga and Ponferrada. Then ten years later the Benedictines established the cloister. The town was given a new lease of life. Today Rabanal del Camino with its four albergues as well as the Gregorian chants in the local church buzzes again:
Albergue Gaucelmo (next to the church and cloister; run by London Confraternity of Saint James), 40 beds, opens from April until the end of October, a kitchen, donation
Albergue municipal Rabanal del Camino, 32 beds, opens from April to October, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar, 72 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
Albergue La Senda, 34 beds, opens from April to the end of October, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros depending on the room size
Four monks who had done the Camino themselves and then decided to serve pilgrims on the road to Saint James originally established the Benedictine Monastery of San Salvador del Monte Irago (next to the albergue Gaucelmo and the church). The community is small, but still thriving. The Monks’ Gregorian chants resound in the church three times a day (7.30 am, 7 pm, 9 pm, they last from 20 to 30 min) gathering crowds of pilgrims. The Benedictines also offer pilgrim accommodation to those who would like to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle. A minimum two-day stay is required, and the price includes both food and accommodation. If you decide to come back here after completing your journey to Santiago, the monks advise to send an e-mail beforehand or call them from Santiago de Compostela (http://en.monteirago.org/).
From Rabanal del Camino onwards is uphill all the way. This stage of the Camino should be done first thing in the morning (setting off from no further than Astorga) and only if the weather is good. If it is not – the mountain pass might be very dangerous because the road is exposed in many places plus the descent is long and extremely steep. If it starts raining or the temperature suddenly drops stay in Rabanal as even if you could manage the ascent, you won’t be able to descend and may get trapped. In the past pilgrims received help to cross Montes de Leon and not without reason.
The LE-142 rises gradually for about 1.5 km. Then the road starts to meander, and the ascent becomes steep. Brake before going into the turns because car drivers can’t see you from behind the hairpin bends. 5.80 km after Rabanal you reach Foncebadon, the last human habitation for 10 km or so.
Looking at this ghost village you would never imagine that for centuries Foncebadon (1420m; 24.80 km→2.30 Cruz de Ferro) was a thriving place. In the 10th century Ramiro II, the King of Leon convoked a church council here, and the building of the church and pilgrims’ hostel soon followed. In the 12th century, the hermit Gaucelmo built yet another hospice for those going to Santiago. Additionally, the king exempted Foncebadon from taxation on condition that its inhabitants helped the pilgrims to cross Montes de Leon. The village became depopulated at the end of the last century and unexpectedly hit the headlines of local newspapers again when the last inhabitants of the village – an old woman with her son- fought a battle to keep the church bells, against a group of men who intended to take them to a museum. The church bells stayed, and life very slowly came back to Foncebadon. Today there are two bars and four albergues for pilgrims. All, but La Cruz de Ferro have rather mixed reviews:
Albergue La Cruz de Ferro, 20 beds, opens from March to November, a heating, 9.50 Euros (breakfast included)
Albergue parroquial Domus Dei (in the church’s building), opens from May to the end of October, 18 beds, heating, a kitchen, shared breakfast/dinner, donation
Albergue Monte Irago, 34 beds, open all year round, heating, 9 Euros
Albergue La Posada del Druida, 20 beds, opens from March to the end of October, heating, 10 Euros (breakfast included)
From now on you won’t see anybody other than pilgrims as the mountains are uninhabited. The ascent to the Cross is steep at first and then gentler. It is short but not easy. After 2.30 km of climbing you reach Cruz de Ferro (1496m; 27.10 km→2.40 km to Manjardin).
Gaucelmo, a humble hermit, builder of the pilgrim’s hospice in Foncebadon and patron of the modern albergue belonging to London’s Confraternity of Saint James in Rabanal put up the first cross at Cruz de Ferro. The monk topped an existing pile of stones, likely of pagan origin, with the cross. Then a new tradition was born. Pilgrims started to leave stones here, carried from the place where they set off on their journey – as a symbol of penance, problems they are wrestling with or other intentions. This old tradition is strictly followed even today. A small stone chapel next to the cross is dedicated to Saint James.
For some reason, I always have the impression that from Cruz de Ferro it will be downhill all the way. It won’t. The LE-142 climbs and drops until you reach Manjarin (1451m; 29.50 km→7.30 km to El Acebo de San Miguel) a spot that might look like a garbage dump at first glance but is rather an original pilgrim albergue. The now deserted village of Manjarin has been receiving pilgrims since the 12th century. Today the village’s only existing house belongs to Tomas, a man who decided years ago to settle in these mountains and dedicate his life to pilgrims. The house doesn’t have running water; there is no toilet, but an earth closet with a few holes in the floor. Tomas considers himself a Templar and quite possibly you will see him in the Order’s outfit:
Refugio de Manjarin, 35 beds, open all year round, a kitchen, donation
The road starts to climb steeply for another 3 kilometres as you are on the verge of reaching the highest point of the Camino (1505 m). When you pass the transmitting aerial on your right, the road becomes flat(-ish) and soon will make a dramatic descent. The landscape is breath-taking as the road is really high, exposed and nothing obliterates the view. I really like the point where the road descends steeply, giving the illusion that it ends.
You are already acquainted with the LE-142 and know that this road has a predilection for bends particularly hairpin bends. So, bear this in mind when making the descent. Don’t release the brakes even if it looks flat – it’s not and you might have trouble stopping. 7.30 km from Manjardin you reach El Acebo. When you get to the village, dismount from the bike as the street is cobbled, steep and very slippery.
El Acebo de San Miguel (1181m; 36.80 km→2.80 km to Riego de Ambros) with its stone houses and disproportionately large wooden balconies is a charming village. Just like Foncebadon the village was freed from paying taxes in exchange for the care of pilgrims. According to oral tradition, the El Acebo inhabitants had to mark out the route for pilgrims with 800 poles. It is a nice place to stay for a drink or for the night:
Albergue parroquial Apostol Santiago, 23 beds, opens from April until the end of October, a kitchen, heating, donation
Albergue – Mesón El Acebo, 23 beds, open all year round except in wintertime, heating, 7 Euros
Albergue La Casa del Pelegrino, 103 beds, opens from 9 January until 21 December, heating, 10 Euros
On leaving El Acebo the LE-142 might look flat but it is just an illusion so again don’t release the brakes. 2.80 km of going downhill and you reach Riego de Ambros (988m; 39.60 km→6 km to Molinaseca), another mountain village with a grey stone church and houses that are brooding over the cliff. Riego de Ambros is the second village in the beautiful El Bierzo region that will be described in greater detail in the next chapter:
Albergue de Riego de Ambros, 30 beds, opens from March to November, heating, a kitchen, 6 Euros
The 6 km section between Riego de Ambros and Molinaseca is the crème de la crème of the LE-142, meaning hairpin bend after hairpin bend, steep drops, attractive chasms, amazing landscape and certain death if you release your brakes even for a moment or stop concentrating. The road descends, and you will now see the mountains from a different perspective and at some point, you might feel like you are in South America.
On arrival in Molinaseca, leave the road and cross the river by the Medieval stone pedestrian bridge.
Molinaseca (625m; 45.60 km→6.80 km to Ponferrada’s Templar Castle) is a quaint village at the foot of the Montes de Leon.
The river Meruelo is banked up, forming a natural swimming pool. The village has a history of taking care of pilgrims – in the past, it had 4 pilgrim hospices. In the 13th century, the village flourished thanks to trade and pilgrims. Traces of past wealth are still visible in the existing Medieval houses. Molinaseca has a feel-good atmosphere:
Albergue Compostela, 31beds, opens from 15 March until the end of November, a heating, 9 – 11 Euros
Albergue Santa Marina, 56 beds, opens from March to November, heating, 7 Euros
Albergue de peregrinos de Molinaseca, 44 beds, open all year round, a kitchen, no designated space for bicycles, 5 euros
The narrow streets of Molinaseca will lead you to the statue of St James and the LE-142. The road ascends gradually to descent slightly later. 6, 50 km out of Molinaseca you get to Ponferrada.
Go straight on, pass an albergue on your left (next to the big car park and the second roundabout, easily visible, but for some reason I always go past this albergue, if the same happens to you just come back from the castle) and the wooden shed with Camino information on your right; minutes later you will find yourself in front of the Templar Castle.
Welcome to Ponferrada (540m; 52.40 km→4.60 km to Columbrianos).
The name of the city, the last major stop before you reach your final destination, Santiago de Compostela derives from a bridge reinforced with iron bars (from Latin: pons ferrata – iron bridge). The actual bridge was founded especially for pilgrim use by the bishop of Astorga in the fourth quarter of the 11th century. Nevertheless, Ponferrada was an important settlement long before that. After Augustus had conquered the region in the year 19 BC, the Romans started to mine gold here. The site called Las Medulas is today a tourist attraction listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romans used a technique called ruina montium (from Latin –the collapse of the mountains) consisting of excavating long and narrow tunnels throughout the mountains and then running water under vast pressure to tear the rock into pieces. Pliny the Elder describes the technique in greater detail. According to him, gold excavated by this method “does not require to be melted but is pure gold at once”. Gold in Las Medulas was mined from the second half of the 1st to the beginning of the 3rd century. This complicated Roman system of canals, dams and tunnels measures over 100 km.
As Las Medulas was a major Roman gold mine nearby Ponferrada soon became an important town in this part of the Roman Empire. Later again it gained significance as a stop on the way to Santiago, especially when The Knights Templar took over the castle and made it their base. The Catholic Monarchs declared Ponferrada as the property of the Crown in the fourth quarter of the 15th century. The town experienced many booms and collapses over the centuries but somehow emerged from everything unscathed. Today its economy is stable, based on tourism and wine production. The city’s major church is the Basilica de la Encina built between the 16th and 17th centuries, with a famous image of the Virgen de La Encina that was venerated in the El Bierzo region since the time of the Templars. The image kept nowadays in the basilica dates from the 16th century and if you happen to be in the city on the 8th of September you will take part in a fiesta in her honour.
The Templar Castle is the pride and joy of Ponferrada. As a matter of fact, only small parts date from Templar times, but for a real fan of The Knights like myself, one tile would be enough of a reason to visit the site. (The other trace of the Templars presence in Ponferrada is the humble crucifix in the nearby church of Saint Andrew. The crucifix of Romanesque origin is called Cristo de los Templarios). The Knights Templar received the ruins of the Roman and Visigoth fort in 1178. The vast castle was completed by 1282 but sadly the Order was dissolved in 1312 with last Templars leaving Ponferrada in 1308, the year when an edict was issued against them. Lord Pedro Fernandez de Casto became the new owner who built a castle in 1343 that is now referred to as the “old castle”. The next owner, the Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez de Osorio erected a luxurious palace in 1480 today called the “new castle”. The building soon became a bone of contention between the next Count of Lemos and the Catholic Monarchs, with Rodrigo Osorio losing and regaining the castle three times. The Count of Lemos finally lost his property but in retrospect, he won, as today’s visitor sees the castle in the shape given by his family in the 15th century. The castle is worth visiting and should also be examined from the other bank of the river.
There are many restaurants in Ponferrada, especially in the old town area. A good, non-touristic place to sit down for a snack, breakfast or cake, is the café opposite the main entrance of the castle.
Albergue San Nicolás de Flüe (so big but so easy to miss) open all year round, 174 beds, heating, a kitchen, donation
Albergue Alea, (at the very entrance of Ponferrada, when you see the board with the town’s name, turn first right, then almost immediately left onto Calle San Fructuoso and a minute later left again onto Calle Teleno. The albergue is at number 33), 18 beds, opens from mid-March to the end of November, heating, 10 Euros
Albergue Guiana, (by the wooden shed with Camino information), 90 beds, from March to November, a heating, microwave, bicycle workshop, 12 Euros