DAY 26: Cacabelos to Vega de Valvarce

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The Camino is generally well-marked with yellow arrows painted on the road or walls or signposts, along with a multitude of signs. However, it’s obvious the markings were posted during daylight hours. When we leave in the dark, as we do every morning, everything looks different and it can be difficult to find an arrow or sign hidden on the side of the road with just the light of a headlamp. We had some trouble finding our way this morning. We struggled along, sometimes just making good guesses as to the correct way. Whenever we did that, when we found an arrow/sign farther down the road, we breathed a sigh of relief. At one point, we reached a town with a conch-shell sign, but no arrow, so we weren’t sure on which street the sign meant us to turn. We kept straight and found no further signs. Luckily, a man came out of a house (it was early, all the other houses were dark) and Enrique could ask for directions. We would have found it eventually, but we were definitely off-course at that point.
Signs of the Camino:
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The best scenery was probably going by us when we walked in the dark. We were going through farms and vineyards and rolling hills. By the time the sun came up, we were on a concrete trail that went along a river on one side and the road on the other. We followed that to our destination, Vega de Valvarce.
Last night’s albergue was almost perfect. It had everything on my list except one thing I forgot to put on the list…a steady stream of water in the shower. A lot of showers here have a button which must be pushed continually to keep the water coming. Tonight we are at Pension Fernandez. It’s also a very nice albergue, but we’re back in a communal room. So far there are 8 people in the room, but it’s not full and people keep straggling in. It’s next to a little running river in a picturesque town.
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One woman here is from Japan. She took a bus here from Madrid yesterday, intending to start the Camino here today, but then decided to rest today because she got her period. Now she has a little cough and might take tomorrow off, too. I hope she can make it. She’s starting in a very difficult place. Tomorrow’s walk is uphill the whole way.
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DAY 25: Molinaseca to Cacabelos

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We walked for an hour and a half in the dark this morning to a city called Ponferrada. Its claim to fame, I suppose, is this castle built in the 12th century for the Knights of Templar:
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From there we walked another four and a half hours mostly on pavement through many towns. Pavement is tough on the legs, so I was glad when we finally got on a dirt farm road that went through vineyards. We saw people harvesting the grapes by hand, and right after that came upon this man making wine. He offered us a taste. Muy rico.
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By the time we got to Cacabelos, we were ready to stop. The municipal albergue is located in an old stone church at the far end of town. It’s like a motel with doors to each room on the outside. Each room has only two beds, two lockers for backpacks, a table and one wall of stone. Very unique. Right off the rooms there is a courtyard with laundry sinks, clotheslines and tables and chairs. And something else that no other albergue has had…children. There are 3 from Alaska, 6, 8 and 12 years old, hiking the Camino with their parents.
Our albergue:
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When we check into albergues, we present our American passports to register. Then Enrique starts talking Spanish, which really confuses people. (One person commented that his Spanish was really good.) So then they start speaking Spanish and looking at me, thinking that I understand what they’re saying, until Enrique turns to me to translate. Then they’re not sure what language to use. As someone asked me at dinner the other night,”How did you meet a Spaniard in Reno?”😊

DAY 24: Foncebadon to Molinaseca

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Since we added a few miles yesterday, we only had about a mile walk to the summit of the mountain this morning. At the top, there was a tall pole with a cross on top called Cruz de Ferro. Pilgrims supposedly bring a stone from home to leave here, which I had read about before starting the trek, but I didn’t want to carry a stone the whole way! There was a huge pile of stones at the base of the pole, but it was still dark so we didn’t have a great look at it.
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Once we hit the summit, it was all downhill. Ten miles of steep, rocky descent. With my history, I took it very slowly and we didn’t arrive in Molinaseca until noon. We had planned on continuing to the next town, but it was another five miles (2 hours), so we decided to stop here for the night, even though we had only done 12 miles. I was feeling great today…no pain anywhere, which was a surprise after the day I had yesterday. How does the body do that?!?
Steep descent:
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We found an albergue, Albergue Compostela, and were the first to check-in, so we got a room with just one bunk bed. We were able to shower and do laundry before anyone else arrived. As I texted Enrique ‘s nephew, Miguel, it feels like a 4.5 star hotel! (See below for what makes a good albergue ).
We had another lovely lunch on a patio right next to a Roman bridge as the Camino enters town. As we ate, we watched pilgrims limping across the bridge. (I said it was a steep descent!)
Roman bridge in Molinaseca:
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So, what makes a good albergue? Here’s my list:
1. Open when you arrive.
2. Clean
3. Remodeled
4. Beds that are positioned for a sense of privacy or fewer beds in individual rooms.
5. Single beds ( instead of bunks)
6. Good mattress and pillow
7. Sheets on the beds. Some albergues sell disposable sheets for a euro, and a very few gave us disposable sheets for free. We finally learned to save those and use them when necessary, but real sheets are still the best.
8. A night table
9. A spot for the backpack
10. Outlet next to bed to charge phones (very important! A lot of albergues have one or two outlets at the end of the room to be shared with everyone.)
11. Individual light next to bed ( we only had this in one albergue, but it was so nice, I wanted to add it to this list).
12. Windows
Bathroom:
13. Enough showers to avoid waiting.
14. Good water pressure
15. Hot water
16. Somewhere to hang the hand-held shower head that is traditional here in Europe.
17. A small dressing area with the shower so you have room to dress.
18. Hooks to hang everything.
19. Good drainage so when you dry your feet after your shower, they stay dry as you walk through the bathroom.
20. Clean
21. Breakfast provided at 6:00AM.
22. Communal dinner by 7:00PM
23. Quiet (no snorers!)
24. Along the Camino so we don’t have to walk out of our way.

DAY 23: Astorga to Foncebadon

 

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It was really cold when we set out this morning. I was grateful for my Patagonia jacket and gloves. The terrain started changing, with a lot of low trees and brush. We were heading towards the Irago Mountains.
For over a week, we have been on the trail and in albergues with a father and two daughters from Romania. They always say hello, but I didn’t think they spoke English. Today they started talking in excellent English and I learned that they are sisters, Carmen and Anka, but the man, Constantine, is Carmen’s partner, not their father.  I was a little embarrassed because I asked about their father, but Carmen is 36, Anka is 30 and Constantine is 62, so it was an understandable mistake. He is Italian and Carmen lives in Milan, Italy. Anka still lives in the small village in Romania where she was born.
We also came upon an older couple on the trail. The woman was really struggling and she looked like she was about to fall over. We went over to try and help her, but her husband came and said he didn’t want her to sit down because she might not get up again. He seemed annoyed with our help, so we kept on going. A few hours after we arrived in town, as we sat in the sun on the terrace enjoying an egg sandwich and wine, I saw them arrive.
We weren’t sure how far to go today, but at the first possible stop, we decided to keep going, even though my backpack felt so heavy. The next town was four miles further, but as we left town one, we started climbing into the mountains. I prefer hiking uphill to flat, so I got a second wind and we made it to Foncebadon easily. It’s a tiny town, the main road isn’t even paved, but there were several albergues to choose from. We decided on the first one we came to, our usual choice. Why keep walking? It’s called Monte Irago, and our beds (not bunks!) are up a skinny flight of stairs in the attic. There are 14 of us in the room.
Albergue Monte Irago:
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At night, there was a communal pilgrim’s dinner of vegetarian paella, among other things. We sat with a woman from India named Pagnya, a man from Italy, Carlo and a couple from Taiwan (they didn’t speak much English). It was the most interesting conversation we’ve had with others on the Camino and started when Pagnya asked why we were doing the Camino. Our conversations to this point about Camino have mostly been where did you start, how far are you going, how long do you have, etc. I did ask a few people their reasons for doing this before and several answered that they were doing it for religious reasons. But tonight was different. We talked about the different stages of life we were all in and Carlo shared his story of being diagnosed with skin cancer and then finding a book about the Camino shortly after his diagnosis. Pagnya’s journey is based on a desire “to connect with herself.” She is doing the Camino alone. We discussed our different strategies for tackling Camino (Carlo walks 30+ kilometers a day with little planning, sometimes running out of food and water on the trail,  Pagnya gets up after everyone leaves in the morning and walks until she doesn’t feel like walking anymore, we are fairly well planned with options in mind depending on how we feel that day. Pagnya said that the dropout rate for through walkers was 75 percent and that most people drop out on the hot, dry, flat maseta area that we just left. That sounded like a very high number, so I googled it and read that only 25% of people who start in St. Jean Pied de Port finish in Santiago, but many had no intention of completing the entire journey at once, so I’m not sure they can be called dropouts.
Our dorm room in the albergue:
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DAY 22: San Martin del Camino to Astorga

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September 25, 2018

I spoke too soon yesterday. The albergue last night was so noisy with people snoring, coughing, talking in their sleep. One woman had a sleep apnea machine (I think that’s what it was)that wasn’t noisy, but kind of strange. The albergue did provide breakfast this morning, which was good and we were walking under a setting full moon by 6:30AM.
It was really cold this morning and I’m thinking I might need to start wearing a jacket in the mornings. The walk was much prettier today, through farmland and then a town, Hospital de Orbigo, that had a beautiful Roman bridge and an area that was used for jousting during the Middle Ages.
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Our destination, Astorga, is a  wonderful little city. Tuesday is market day, so we bought some fruit, cheese and bread for breakfast tomorrow. We walked through a Roman excavation site, and then on to the cathedral (there are probably ten churches in this town).Next to the cathedral is a home for a past bishop designed by Gaudi and built in the late 1800s. There are many Gaudi buildings throughout Spain and a park in Barcelona that I’ve seen and loved, so we went inside this one, too. It was massive and filled with stained glass windows. In the basement, there was a little museum with artifacts from Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages.
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We’re staying in the municipal albergue, Siervas de Maria. It’s an old convent and is huge with 250 beds. It’s like a maze, with hallways and stairways leading to the kitchen and gardens and rooms. We’re lucky to be in a room with only two bunk beds and a big window that lets in lots of light. Our “bunk mates” are a brother and sister from Valencia, Spain, who are doing about five stages of the Camino. The man had two knee replacements in the past few years, so he’s doing well to be able to do part of the trail.
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DAY 21: León to San Marti del Camino

September 24, 2018

Yesterday almost felt like a day off. We slept until 6:00AM, walked only 10 miles, walked around León like tourists and had a nice albergue for the night.
Today we were back to serious business, waking at 5:30, breakfast provided at the albergue (donation only), and then on the road again. We weren’t sure how far we would go today. Our guidebook had today as a short 12 mile segment, but we felt so good that we decided to continue a few more miles to the next town of San Martin del Camino. The route was very uninteresting today. Most of it was along the highway with a bunch of run-down towns. (It took well over an hour just to get out of León).
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We’re staying in the Municipal albergue, a bit run-down, but not bad. There’s absolutely nothing to this town, so we’ll eat a pilgrim (communal) dinner here tonight, even though it isn’t until 8:00, which is late for me.
All new faces at this albergue, except Bob and his son Andrew. We met them days ago and our paths keep crossing, as they do on the Camino. Bob and Andrew are from Vancouver, although Bob immigrated there from China as a college student. He is quite talkative, and his son (about 22 years old) never says a word. The only time I heard his voice was a few days ago when we had no wi-fi, and he was on his phone using data. I asked him if he had read any news that day and his eyes lit up as he told me he was obsessed with the news, and proceeded to fill me in with the day’s events. (Update: No wi-fi today, so Andrew just came over to tell me Rosenstein is out.)
I’m liking the municipal albergues better lately and today, I realized why. Many of the young, partying pilgrims that we had with us the first half are gone, either ahead of us or off the Camino. That helps to make these municipal albergues quieter. But then we’ve also lost a lot of familiar faces. Michelle and Gabby took a bus into León and started walking from there yesterday because they were short on time. Karol and Aina, the Polish couple, were with us in the matrimonial room last night, but were planning on hiking 20+miles today. The last we saw of them was this morning, as they headed off holding hands, telling us they would see us down the trail when they stopped for coffee. But we never did see them. (Carol just texted Enrique saying they were 10 kilometers ahead of us). From here to Santiago, there are lots of different places to stop, so we’ll really be spread our. Twelve more days. We just realized we should finish by October 6th. All along we’ve been thinking it would be the 7th!
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DAY 20: Mansillas de las Mulas to Leon

 

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September 23, 2018

Last night was the worst sleep night I’ve had so far. The albergue was hot and noisier than usual. Everyone was up early, but we decided to get a later start because they served breakfast in the albergue at 7:00, so I missed a lot of the walk in the dark. But now we’re in León, another huge milestone. During this whole journey, León seemed so far away. 

We decided to stay in the municipal albergue, Santa Maria de Carbajal, which is a parochial albergue. There was a long line when we arrived and check-in was slow. This is the first albergue that separates men and women in different dorms, but they have one small room, with five bunk beds for couples. They call it the matrimonial room. Enrique and I have a bunk here. Separate gender facilities, but living in sin is ok for the matrimonial room (they never asked if we were married). The bathrooms are also separate and unfortunately the women’s bathroom is downstairs and down a long hallway. They said I can use the men’s bathroom in the middle of the night, if I need it, as long as I lock the door. Still, I like this albergue, and I’m becoming a connoisseur of albergues. 

We ate a huge lunch. Enrique just kept ordering food, in Spanish, so each course was a surprise. Of course, we needed a siesta after that and then we went out to explore León. It’s a beautiful city, with narrow, cobblestone streets and old stone buildings, a huge plaza mayor and, of course, the cathedral. 

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Another reason I love Spain…when you ask for directions, people stop, take you by the arm and start leading you in the right direction, point, and give detailed descriptions of where to go. I haven’t seen one person brush us off and we’ve asked for a lot of directions.