The Road to Santiago.

November 7, 2002

Villafranca del Bierzo.
Villafranca del Bierzo

Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

The next morning, as I went to check out of the hotel, I received a shock-sticker shock. The phone bill for the first day was 12 euros, which was comparable to other hotels from which I have transmitted. But the phone bill for yesterday was 84 euros!!! This was highway robbery because my Internet connection is gratis (free) because the dial-up number is the Spanish version of an 800 number. So there are no toll charges and therefore it should have been just the cost of a local call for those occasions when a connection finally was made.  I was very upset and the clerk knew the price was unfair. After a series of phone calls to his superiors, he came back to me and told me the best that he could do was to cut it down to 42 euros. I still wasn't happy but I knew that he had no authority to change it further. So, I decided to pay it now and protest later. I handed him my credit card only to be shocked for the second time. The card was rejected because of "bank failure." It had to be bank failure! I had just checked the balance the previous day and there was more than enough to cover the bill.

Now the air of righteousness shifted. Embarrassed, I told the clerk that I would be right back. Quickly I ran around the corner to a caja automatico  (ATM) of El Banco de España (Bank of Spain) where I stuck in my card only to receive the message "bank failure."  Maybe there was something wrong with the account after all. So, I tried my other account only to get the same message. Now I was getting paranoid. This had to be some plot against me. Desperately I left the bank only to spot a different one across the street. This time, everything worked perfectly. When I went back to the hotel, I asked the clerk if they used the Bank of Spain to process their credit card transactions, he answered, "¡Si!"

It was a bright sunny day and I was glad to be back on el camino, which wound up and out of the city. There, I walked through a suburb that looked like it was from an American suburb of the seventies — spruce trees lined the roads and the houses had pitched roofs covered with slate. But even more strange for Spain was that it had mowed lawns. Most Spanish houses don't have lawns. They may be either a big square building with an open courtyard in the middle, or a smaller house but with a wall around the property which prevents one from looking inside.

Since Ponferrada was a fairly large city with nearby suburbs, I was confident that I could walk for an hour or two before finding breakfast. So, about 10:30 I started looking for a bar or café. I was in the town of Columbrianos but only one place seemed to be open. I went in and asked for a café con leche. After serving me, the proprietress went back to reading her paper and seemed quite annoyed when I asked her for a glass of water. The condition of the joint made me decide that I could wait another hour or two for something to eat.

The next town I came to was Fuentes Nuevas and I entered the first bar I found. What a dump! It made the previous joint look good. Needing a graceful way to retreat, I asked if I were in Fuentes Nuevas. They said yes. I thanked them and beat a quick retreat.

Just as I was about to give up in despair, I came across a beautiful restaurant in a big old stone house that had been recently restored. It was too early for a meal so I entered the bar. It was beautiful with wooden trim, a fireplace, and a friendly (not to mention attractive) camarera (bar tender/waitress). In addition, there were two large trays of empanadas (calzone-like meat pie) cut into small pieces for complementary tapas. They were delicious and I had quite a few. I decided that this would be my breakfast and my lunch and calculated the appropriate insulin dosage. When I paid for my coffee, I tried to pay for food since I had eaten so much. The camarera wouldn't accept it. My faith in Spanish hospitality was restored!

Fountain Maiden.
Fountain Maiden

Later, in a small village, I came across something interesting — well, for me it was interesting. A modern fountain with a surrealistic female torso in the center. Since el camino traverses villages that are centuries old (in some cases millennia), a 21st Century work of art is a welcome sight. I took a photo to email my artist stepdaughter.

Country Studio.
Country Studio

As I left the village, I passed through a series of vineyards, the leaves of which made the landscape appear to be a giant quilt of red, gold, and brown. At one point I came across a weird sight. On the edge of the road and among the vineyards was a fenced-off area about 100 ft square. In the fondo (back) of this pen I could see two giant horse heads about 10 feet high. What a strange paddock! Then I saw something even stranger, a headless, armless, and legless naked female body. Now, I realize that I've been on the road for six weeks and my mind could be playing tricks on me, but somehow she was familiar to me. Then I realized that she was the maiden in the fountain earlier. This must have been at an artist's studio. A small ceramic plaque at the gate confirmed my brilliant deduction.

Just beyond the studio, I saw an empty car with a small animal trailer attached to it. Inside the trailer was a pair of hounds. That could mean only one thing — hunters! A loud shotgun report echoed from the top of the hill. As I climbed the hill, the shots told me that the hunters were working their way down the hill toward me. I crossed my fingers in hopes that some desperate rabbit would not run in my direction. Even though it was an uphill grade, I quickly put some distance between the hunters and myself.

Puerta del PerdónPuerta del PerdónPuerta del Perdón.
Puerta del Perdón

Soon I found that I had reached the last hill before Villafranca and began the descent to my day's destination. As I came down the path from the hillside, I went by the 12th century Romanesque church, Iglesia de Santiago, which was very important for the pilgrims of the past. The side entrance was a giant wooden door known as the Puerta del Perdón (Portal of Pardon). Those who were dying or too weak to ascend the steep mountain to O Cebreiro, could pass through the door into the church where they would receive their indulgence and therefore be able to die in a state of grace. For the past three weeks, I have been dreading climbing that mountain. If that door were open, I think I would have stepped over the threshold and thrown in the towel.
The albergue was 50 meters down the hill toward the valley and I arrived there around 4:00 p.m.. I checked in and went upstairs to find a bed. The dormitory consisted of five separate rooms, each with four double-tiered bunk beds. The room I chose had only two people in it. One was a drunk, who was loudly snoring, sleeping off a bender — the smell of alcohol was obviously present. I couldn't imagine how someone could walk any distance in such a state. I figured that in no way would this man be upset by my snoring!

During the day I had planned to use this stop as a chance to wash my clothes and prepare myself for the last week of walking. Unfortunately there was a line of people in the kitchen waiting for the washer and dryer. I could think of better things to do than stand around watching laundry machines. So, I decided to walk down the valley and up the other side to look around the town of Villafranca.

Villafranca means the village of the French. The name, as implied, is because it was settled by a lot of French people. Whether it was because many pilgrims, the majority of whom were French (after all, this is the camino frances) gave up before O Cebreiro or, perhaps, medieval French entrepreneurs settled here to take advantage of the pilgrim trade. Supposedly, the French influence can be seen in the local architecture but I couldn't see any major difference from other Spanish towns. Perhaps it's because I haven't seen any French medieval towns and would not notice any difference if it were there.

One building that I was interested in locating was the palace of Torquemada. Many of you might not recognize the name. If not, ask your Jewish and Protestant friends for they surely would. Torquemada was the odious chap who once was in charge of the Spanish Inquisition, which was instituted to ferret out and destroy heretics — specifically converted Jews and Protestants. The favorite method of cleansing the soul, after torture produced a confession, was the auto de fe (the act of faith) — an unusual description for being burned at the stake. And the favorite place for such an event was the local plaza mayor (major place). The place that saw the most such acts was the Plaza Mayor of Madrid.

After some wandering around, I found it but it was too late to visit it. And the light was too dark to take a decent photo. I wouldn't necessarily call it a palace, but a rather large house with a big courtyard and several balconies. Considering the houses on either side were much smaller, I can see how the term came to be. After Torky's place, I went to Villafranca's Plaza Mayor where I knew there was a restaurant that served dinner early for pilgrims. While waiting for my food, I contemplated the most important of philosophical and metaphysical questions: how to get to O Cebreiro?

The guidebooks say that there are two choices. The first is the 9.5 K along the carretera (highway) which coincides with the traditional route. The problem is that this highway has a lot of traffic and, according to one German guidebook, is "not unsafe."  I'm not sure why the Germans used a double negative but whatever the reason, it translated as "dangerous" to me. The other choice was up and over a mountain. The steep path up 400 meters was followed by an even steeper path back down 400 meters. Either way, that was just the beginning. The last 6 K to O Cebreiro went from an altitude of 650 meters to one of 1300 meters and is considered the hardest stretch of el camino. This trek was the reason that the hospitalero back in Navarrete thought that a heart patient shouldn't try to climb to O Cebreiro.

Well, I have always been taught to think outside the box, so I came up with Plan C — take a bus! For the past three weeks, I had been fretting about what I would do when I got to Villafranca. On some days, I might feel confident and be ready to tackle the mountain. But, after a particularly rough day, I would visualize myself clutching my chest in agony. Then I would remind myself that I was trying to promote walking, not mountain climbing. Usually I would put it out of my mind and vow to worry about it "later." Well, later was now and I had to make a choice. Another consideration was that I wanted to make Santiago by November 14th, World Diabetes Day. The choice was obvious — take the bus.

As I walked back down the valley and up the other side to the albergue, I couldn't help but be amazed that a simple footpath would be lined with electric lampposts. It was another example of how municipalities helped pilgrims.

I set my alarm clock for 6:45 a.m. and crawled into my bunk at 9:00 p.m. (I hadn't been to bed that early since my adolescence!) As I lay there I thought that by this time next week I would be in a comfortable hotel room in Santiago — if everything went all right!

Previous Journal Entry. Next Journal Entry.