Stairs in Villafranca, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Finding a Place to Stay

The mountain scenery has been magnificent the last few days. It was a steep uphill to the highest point of the el Camino and then a long descent with the valleys of El Bierza below. Today I walked along a narrow path lined with tall heather that sometimes helped to protect me from the wind. I descended to the ancient mountain village of El Acebo, with the stone homes and their slate roofs. I walked down the narrow main street, looking up to the overhanging balconies with exterior stairs to the second floor. There is so much history in these little Spanish villages and along the entire el Camino.

Not long after leaving the mountain hamlet of El Acebo, I walked along a path lined with horse chestnut trees and stone walls. I continued down from the mountains to Molinaseca, and crossed the Rio Maruelo running through the middle of town. This 11th century town was once a vibrant community of royalty and wealthy patrons.

On the outskirts of town I found a private albergue and stayed the night. Every day I had been walking long distances, so I was always glad to find a place at the end of the day.

The pilgrims who come from all over the world, who hike each day, are so friendly, helpful, and generous, but as I was doing my laundry at this private albergue, two American tourists came in to stay the night. As soon as one came in, she asked where their bags were. The manager said their bags were not here. They were upset. The manager tried to calm them down. She asked if they had filled out the money envelope with the carrier service. It turned out that although they had labeled their luggage with their names and destination, they had not paid to have it delivered. The abuse the poor Spanish manager had to take—for two thoughtless American tourists—and then the manager went out of her way to find the bags and have them delivered. This was so unlike the pilgrims on the el Camino. I silently wished for the two women to go back where they came from before they did more damage.

The next morning I headed on to Ponferrado, in good weather. It gets light about 7:45 a.m. now in mid September (2014). Ponferrada was an ancient Celtic village, a Roman city, and one of the richest mining regions in the world at that time. It was destroyed twice: first by the Visigoths in the 5th century, and then by the Muslims in the 9th century. Quite recently, it was a coal mining area. There is Castillo de los Templarios, a 13th century castle, which is grand in design, with three-tiered ramparts. I walked around and found a Templar cross engraved into the great stone walls. Imagine—a knight had left his mark. This castle was built over the remains of a Celtic Castro, a Roman fort, and a Visigothic fort. A stop at the pharmacy, the castle and a water stop in town were my only stops all day.

Vineyards along the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

Vineyards along the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

I walked through wine country today. The grapes were being picked by hand, then transported by farm trucks to the local wineries. I walked by a field manager; he offered me a chug of wine from his leather wine pouch, and wished me “Buen Camino” as I thanked him and went on. I walked 30. 5 kilometers today.

I walked with Baringer, my young friend from Paris. He is fun, uplifting, and totally motivating: because of him, I felt inspired to keep on going, instead of stopping at Cacabels. He practices his English with me. He wants to hike the Appalachian Trail, and I can encourage him in this endeavor, since I was a solo through-hiker several years ago. Now that I moved on from Cacabels and persevered, I am glad. I walked like my life depended upon it. No food or water along this long stretch, but I walk on with tired feet and an aching back.

I passed a mother and son from Sydney, Australia, and they were walking at a fast pace. I cheered them on. Sometimes we are so into our thoughts that we have little to say; later, we catch up in the albergue or at a cafe. We had first met way back in the Pyrenees Mountains. I passed two other pilgrim friends: the Philipino woman and the younger Japanese woman. They were tired like the rest of us, but supportive. They greeted me with hugs and we all cheered each other onward. We all were on a mission to find a place to stay.

But in Villafranca del Bierzo, the first albergue, there were several people standing outside, and they said this was not a good place to stay. I walked on at a good clip, and the next albergue was full too. This was not a good feeling. By now I was in the middle of Villafranca, and I met up with Jorgen (my friend from Denmark) and Greg (a Korean from Texas), and the three of us set out to find the next albergue. The Philippino woman and the Japanese woman I had met earlier were also hunting with us for a place. I had passed the mother and son from Sydney, Australia, and I knew they were going to be here soon, too.

As tired as we all were, we hurried through the main street of the old town, up hills, across a bridge, and even up public stairs, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. We stopped at several small hostels and hotels that were full. We kept hurrying until we came to Albergue Leo on the far end of town. It reminded me of “The Amazing Race” television show, hurrying to win, but for us, it was hurrying for a place to stay.

This was the first time I was really concerned that we might not have a place to stay. There was a line; I was hot and could hardly stand still until it was my turn, but finally I sat down, in the only chair in front of the desk, and signed in. I was so relieved not to be turned away! Now I could finally relax.

Jorgen, Greg, and I shared a room. Later, one younger man joined us. Greg was too tired to go out for dinner, but Jorgen was so happy to have a place to stay that he joined me for dinner. He said this was the best meal he had had at a restaurant since he started in St. Jean Pied de Port. As I get closer to Santiago, more people are on the last 100 kilometers, and now finding a place to stay is a serious concern.

(posted April 28, 2015)