It’s been six weeks, six provinces, two mountain ranges with heat, cold and snow. I arrived in the old city of Astorga which has been a major crossroads since Roman times. It is also where the Via de la Plata connects with the Camino Frances. The six weeks on the VDLP proved to be a very solitary route. I could go a few days without seeing another pilgrim. I am now on the Camino Frances where I could see a hundred or more people every day. I enjoy solitude however I also enjoy a good chat.
I needed to replenish my supplies before my ascent into the mountains again. It is critical to replenish and restore my mental and physical health. I checked into a nice hotel spa for two days of good food, massages and hot showers. I needed to prepare myself to cross over the montes de León (the León mountains).
Astorga is a beautiful city with an array of historic buildings and cathedral all tightly packed within its medieval walls. Astorga is a busy market town with a wide range of shops and general facilities for me to prepare for the Camino Frances and the challenge ahead of me.
A few days west of Astorga I walked to Rabanal. After centuries Rabanal del Camino continues to care for pilgrims. In the early 12th century The Knights Templar settled here and in the larger town of Ponferrada on the other side of the mountain to ensure the safe passage of pilgrims over this remote mountain trail.
I would spend the night in Rabanal to be rested for the steep climb up Mount Irago to the Cruz de Ferro which is also known as the Cross of Iron. This is the highest point of the Camino Frances. This iron cross sits a top of a 16 foot wooden pole. Most people believe it was built for a very practical purpose — marking the way for pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances during the winter when everything is covered in snow.
Some historians believe that it was a place used by the Celts in pre-Christian times and that it was a part of an unknown ritual, while others believe that the ancient Romans used it to mark a border between two territories. The most popular belief is that the cross was put there by Apostle James himself. As the tale goes, St. James was passing through the land on one of his evangelical missions, when he encountered pagan priests who were performing a ritual that involved human sacrifice. Full of righteous anger, he grabbed a stone from his pocket and threw it at the pagan altar. Guided by the Lord, the stone shattered the altar into a thousand tiny pieces, and St. James erected a large cross in its place to mark the power of the Almighty. It’s a part of the history of the Camino and is shrouded in some interesting mysteries.
In Rabanal is the parish Church of Santa María said to be built by the Knights Templar. Now an order of Benedictine missionary monks reside. Every night a resounding sound of a Gregorian chant with vespers are sung by the monks. A benediction for pilgrims is held afterward. Early the next morning with a forecast of high wind and cold rain I started my trek up the mountain fortified with the thought of the sacred place I had visited four years ago to honor my mother and father.
For this visit I had photos of friends Cindy Payton Cyr and Dave Coffman who I have dedicated this Camino and pilgrimage. I also had photos of my parents along with chips from their grave stone at the Camden Point cemetery, to place at the cross. Towards the half way mark, the weather turned from dark clouds and a light rain to high winds and sleet which reminded me of the same weather in the mountains of southern Spain where I had walked 9 days in cold rain and snow.
As I approached the top of Mount Irago the wind and sleet seemed to slow. I could see in the distance the Cruz de Ferro. I felt good to be here after four years and to honor my friends and family. I placed all the laminated photos at the bottom of the pole so they would last a long time, said prayers, good byes and started the long walk down the mountain.
The mountains all around me were covered with the most beautiful yellow, white, and lavender bushes. The flowers and bushes created vibrant colors as far as the eye can see and the most amazing fragrant scent. I would pass through small medieval villages imagining the pilgrims walking centuries ago going down the mountain.
As of this writing I’ve been on the Camino for 44 days. After 600 miles it still feels like I’m walking through the middles ages as I travel along old romain roads. In the villages there are roman bridges and smaller roman bridges in the country. Throughout the villages the houses, buildings, parish churches, streets, bridges are all over hundreds of years old. In the villages and towns I’m also still walking through UNESCO World Heritage sites which are landmarks or areas selected as having cultural or historic significance.
Next up was another mountain to cross as well as more history, two different languages, fabulouse cuisine, cold and rainy weather and more mountains. I had entered the autonomous community of Galicia. I would be enjoying the Galician people, their language and especially the Galician cuisine for days. Even the weather was different. I started by walking into the Valcarce valley to the village of Las Herrerías where I would stay for two days to hike and ride horse before walking up to O’Cebreiro between the mountain ranges of O’Courel and Os Ancares.
On my second day there I rode a horse with Victor, owner & guide, along with a few other pilgrims to the tiny mountain village of O’Cebreiro and back down. I left the village that morning and rode all day in the mountains until late in the day.
O’Cebreiro is a quaint little village where the people lived very close to nature, in stone igloos with thatched roofs, over 1600 years ago. The special thing about O’Cebreiro is the village church founded in the year 836. The Santa María la Real (Royal St. Mary’s) is the oldest church on the entire French Road of the Camino de Santiago. The church is spacious, but very simple. The building is embedded into the ground, with sunken floors that add protection against winter storms. There is a desk in the church where a clerk stamps pilgrims’ credentials. O’Cebreiro marks the final stretch for pilgrims on their pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela.
I’ve taken part with enthusiasm to the hearty Galician cuisine local specialty is caldo galego, a traditional soup that originally came from the leftover stock used to prepare an elaborate Sunday feast consisting of cabbage or grelos, potatoes, and so on. I’m still meeting people each day with great stories.
In my journey thus far I am satisfied and very pleased over the great experience and camaraderie of the people. The scenery has been breathtaking and I have met so many new friends. I’m looking forward to the upcoming final stages including returning to Santiago and on to Finisterre.
John Larimer is a Camden Point resident who is trekking through Europe. He shares his journey with The Citizen.