|Camino: Pedaling to Earth’s End|
Villafranca del Bierzo
September 21, 2004
The ride up to Cruz del Ferro (altitude 1504 m) was quite gentle, in the end. There was a bit of a peregrino traffic jam at the top, everyone posing for the standard photograph, or wanting to deposit their pebble on the mound (my own pebble from Deep Cove is shown above).
From Cruz del Ferro there is a delicious descent with beautiful views: the road winding through scrub-covered hillsides, and passing through picturesque villages like El Acebo (where you’ll find a sobering memorial to a German pilgrim killed while cycling to Santiago) and Molinaseca, which you enter via a lovely old Romanesque stone bridge. At the bottom of the descent is the large (and largely unappealing) town of Ponferrada (“iron bridge”), surrounded by what you might call industrial slums (the guidebook notes laconically that “the exit from Ponferrada is both ugly and tedious”).
From a topological perspective this section of the Camino is particularly cruel. You recall with some relief that Cruz del Ferro has been billed as “the highest point on the Camino”, and for a brief, uninformed moment you picture the rest of the journey as being a gentle downhill coast all the way to Santiago. This is emphatically not the case.
The descent to Ponferrada is followed by another prolonged ascent towards the second-highest point on the Camino: O Cebreiro (altitude 1300 m), in the Spanish province of Galicia. If you are like me, and riding the Camino in more-or-less real time, not looking too much beyond each day’s ride, you become aware of this cruel twist as soon as you bottom out in Ponferrada, and begin to climb again.
Villafranca del Bierzo is as good a place as anywhere to break the climb. At this point the bulk of the climb to O Cebriero still lies ahead, but at least you’re not starting out the day at the absolute lowest point. The municipal albergue in Villafranca was full when I arrived, which left just one option: the so-called “private refuge” named the Ave Fenix. To put it directly: the Ave Fenix is a dive. The courtyard contains scattered building supplies, with a forest of plastic racks holding damp peregrino laundry up to the sun to dry. A bike rack (full) sits squarely amidst this chaos. The balcony outside my dormitory was stacked with mattresses and chairs, with a tangle of blankets (clean? dirty? impossible to be certain) occupying one of the bunks.
The bathroom sports three showers and two toilets. As is not-uncommon on the camino the toilets were devoid of toilet paper. The Ave Fenix, though, features a new and hitherto-unseen variation in the plumbing arts: the hot water in all three showers is fed in series from a single pipe. The result is that, if you’re the first in the showers and chose the the end stall (as I did), your hot water supply will be abruptly cut the moment someone in another (upstream) stall begins their own ablutions. And you will be forced to stand there in an icy trickle until they’re done.
Later, while standing behind the dorms in the blazing sun, bending over a cracked cement laundry tub to do my daily cold water and bar soap handwash of socks, underwear and shirt, I have a sudden glimpse into the future. As I attempt to wring the final soapy drops from my stretched-out-of-shape T-shirt, I sense that I may have wrung all the pleasure that I can from this particular form of accommodation.
I realize that, when this adventure comes to its natural end at Finisterre, my hostelling days will (I think it is safe to say) be done.
The 3 Ps: Preliminaries, Preparations and Packing
Departure! (and contact info)
Beginning to begin
El Burgo Ranero
Villadangos del Paramo
Rabanal del Camino
Interlude: A New Philosophy
Villafranca del Bierzo
Santiago de Compostella
The end of the earth