11. Ponferrada to Vega de Valcarce 40.80 km

Cycle up the hill along the castle walls heading for the old town area. The Radio Museum is on your left. (It is worth mentioning that every year in Ponferrada the prize-giving ceremony “Golden Microphone” takes place. Awards are given for outstanding performance in the fields of journalism, arts and sport. The Spanish Federation of TV and Radio organize a gala.) Go past the castle and museum.

The Camino in Ponferrada Copyright OpenStreetMap Contributors

The church by the square with cafes and restaurants is Basilica de la Encina. Cycle through the gate with the clock tower –The Baroque city hall is in the large square. When you get to this square turn immediately left as the arrow on the kiosk indicates. Cycle down the hill and turn left onto the main road called Calle General Vives. When you reach the roundabout with a fountain, turn onto the first street on your right. Avenida de America will lead you out of Ponferrada. When you get to the roundabout at the outskirts of the city, head for the bridge. Cross the river and immediately turn right in the direction of Columbrianos. Where the road forks cycle straight ahead on an avenue lined with plane trees. Pass the Red Cross point on the left, then cycle through estates as the arrows indicate. The Camino is well marked by pillars with arrows and will lead you through small side streets to

Columbrianos (553m; 4.60 km2.70 km to Fuentesnuevas), a town that from the very beginning was part of the Camino de Santiago. The route is perfectly marked so just follow the pillars. In the town centre go past the Chapel of San Blaise.

Albergue San Blas, 17 beds, open all year round, a heating, 10 Euros

Now you are cycling on a comfortable tarmac street, but the surroundings are rather dull –rows of unremarkable houses from the 70s and farmlands. Looking around you might find it hard to believe that soon you will be cycling along a lane in beautiful vineyards. Welcome to El Bierzo!

El Bierzo is a rising star in the Spanish winemaking regions. Vine grapes were growing on its steep slopes as early as the days of the Empire. 216The Romans gladly imported wines and grapevines from El Bierzo. In the Middle Ages monks, especially from the Cistercian Order, were pretty successful in producing wine in this region. Viticulture thrived on until the end of the 19th century when phylloxera, brought to Europe from North America by a keen English botanist, completely destroyed vineyards on the Continent. Wine growing was revived in the 20th century and in 1989 the El Bierzo Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin) was officially recognized. Nowadays there are 70 vineyards in the area. The region’s main grape variety is Mencia, grown only in North-western Spain. Unlike many other Spanish wines, Mencia doesn’t need to be blended with other grape varieties to make interesting wine. El Bierzo also produces whites with grape varieties Dona Blanca and Godello. Recently thanks to talented winemakers, wines from El Bierzo start to enjoy a good reputation and have become recognised in the other European countries. On your way to Santiago you will pass next to two wineries – Vinas del Bierzo in Camponaraya and Descendientes de J. Palacios in Villafranca del Bierzo.

2.70 km from Columbrianos you will reach Fuentesnuevas (517m; 7.30 km2.20 to Camponaraya).

In the centre of the town stands Eremita Santo Christo, originally from the 17th century and recently rebuilt. Fuentesnuevas is a town that riotously celebrates Corpus Christi in July (beef snacks are served), then the Assumption of Mary that accompanies the Festival of Sardines on the 15th of August and Magostos on All Saints’ Day (1st of November). The latter is a festival typical of Galicia and Catalonia that recently became really popular. Roasted chestnuts and other dishes with chestnuts are eaten on that day and young local wine is drunk. There is albergue here, close to the Hospital del Birzo:

Albergue Turístico El Camino, 16 beds, opens from 1st March to 1st November, heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros

Just as before you will cycle along the local tarmac road passing houses and farmlands. Follow the pillars with Camino arrows and 2.20 km from Fuentesnuevas you reach Camponaraya (506m; 9.50 km5 km to Cacabelos), a town that vaunts a flag and coat of arms decorated with St James shells. It had two pilgrim hospices in the Middle Ages. Today Camponaraya is a small, but busy town with all services within walking distance.

Albergue Naraya, 26 beds, opens from Aprtil to November, heating, 9 Euros

Albergue La Medina, 20 beds, open all year round, heating, 10 Euros

When you get to the main road turn left and go straight ahead as the arrows indicate. At the roundabout keep going straight until you see the winery on your left. Leave the tarmac road there and switch to the Camino dirt track. The winery is at the very end of the town and I highly recommend stopping there.

Vinas del Bierzo is a 50-year-old winery and one of the first to make wines with the El Bierzo Designation of Origin label. IMG_0538Their most famous brand called Gran Bierzo is made from 100% Mencia grapes. It is produced in three versions. Gran Bierzo Origen is the basic one, while two more sophisticated varieties are aged in oak barrels for 8 and 12 months. The latter one, Gran Bierzo 12 months, was rewarded numerous times in the past and is worth trying. The winery is a Camino stop and you can obtain your stamp and eat your picnic on their outdoor terrace. You can also do a wine tasting there.

Although I have yet to give it a chance, wines made from the Mencia grape variety are said to have great ageing potential.

About 20 meters from the winery is a pleasant picnic area. The scenery around you will soon change dramatically. Follow the Camino way-markings and cross the bridge over the highway. A field track will lead you among lovely vineyards. There is a lot of going downhill and then a short section on the tarmac before arrival in Cacabelos. The town is built on one of the main streets that the Camino follows.

At the beginning of the town on your left, there is a charming place to have a drink. It is a hotel/restaurant called Moncloa de San Lazaro. On a sunny day, you can sit down in their courtyard or on a cold autumn afternoon, upstairs by the open fire. They also have a small shop with regional products from the El Bierzo area.

Moncloa de San Lazaro, stylish restaurant-cafe built in place of an ancient hospital, Cacabelos Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Cacabelos (506m; 14.50 km2.80 km to Pieros) is mentioned for the first time in a document from the 10th century in which the King of Leon, Bermundo II gives the town to the nearby monastery in Carracedo of which he was a founder. In the 11th century, the town became the personal property of the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. This caused some conflict with the Bishop of Astorga to whose diocese Cacabelos belonged. In the end, the town remained the possession of the Archbishop of Santiago and interestingly enough it was part of the diocese of Compostela until 1890. The Archbishop ordered the building of the church Santa Maria de la Plaza. The town flourished during the Middle Ages thanks to the movement of pilgrims and trade. Cacabelos had 5 hospitals for pilgrims and hosted an annual fair. Today Cacabelos is a small but busy town whose economy is largely based on wine production.

The Camino runs through the most important street in Cacabelos since the Middle Ages. All the monuments and houses of local noble families sit along this street. The first on your left is the Chapel of Saint Roque built at the end of the 16th century and rebuilt in the 18th century. Inside there are two sculptures taken from the Monastery of Carracedo. The second monument has been mentioned before, the Church of Santa Maria de la Plaza containing the Romanesque apse built with the money of the Archbishop of Santiago and a Neo-Romanesque tower from the beginning of 20th century.

Australian cyclist. We met at down by the board “Welcome to Castile and Leon”. He was thrown out of the room for snores for snoring and I spent a sleepless night in albergue with thieves. El Bierzo Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

A stone image of the Virgin Mary on the front façade is from the 13th century and was probably taken from some other church in the area. As you cross the bridge you will see the Baroque Santuario de las Angustias (Our Lady of Sorrows) with a rather interesting, unheard of in iconography deception of Saint Anthony of Padua playing cards with Baby Jesus. Next to this church is a very nice albergue with double rooms:

Albergue de Cacabelos, 74 beds, opens from the beginning of April to the 31st October, 5 Euros

Albergue La Gallega, 19 beds, open all year round except in February, heating, 10 Euros

Go past the church near the albergue and cycle straight on. Pass yet another winery called Godelia on your right and 2.80 km from Cacabelos you reach Pieros (560m; 17.30 km6 km to Villafranca del Bierzo), a small village with the Church of Saint Martin de Tours founded in the 11th century by Bishop Osmondo, the same Bishop who ordered the building of the iron bridge in Ponferrada.

Albergue El Serbal y la Luna, 18 beds, opens from mid-March to November, heating, 5 Euros

Pieros to Villafranca del Bierzo, Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Leave the village cycling on the same road as before and minutes later turn right onto a small tarmac road as the Camino arrows indicate. Then turn onto a lane as the signs direct you. For the next 6 km, you will cycle among the beautiful vineyards of El Bierzo. The views are amazing and so is the track. Cycling is a bit of a challenge because the vineyards are on small but steep hills.

El Bierzo vineyards, Pieros to Villafranca del Bierzo, Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Personally, I always find this short part of the Camino mentally exhausting. On your way to Villafranca, you will pass the small village of Valtuille de Aruba. 6 km from Pieros you will stand in front of the famous Puerta del Perdon (The Portal of Forgiveness) of the Iglesia de Santiago (Church of Saint James) in Villafranca del Bierzo.

Famous Puerta del Perdon, (The Portal of Forgiveness) of the Iglesia de Santiago (Church of Saint James), 12th century, Below: Iglesia de Santiago, Villafranca del Bierzo

Puerta del Perdon (the church portal, not the main one but the side one and the first one you see on arrival in Villafranca) was founded in the 12th century. This modest portal, at least from the artistic point of view, is one of the major stops on the Camino. According to tradition, if a pilgrim too ill to continue his pilgrimage to Santiago passes through this door and goes to confession and receives communion, his pilgrimage will be regarded as complete, as if he had walked to Santiago. The Pope at the beginning of the 12th century gave this privilege to Villafranca. The Puerta del Perdon is in Villafranca for a good reason – the last stage of the Camino is truly exhausting and, in the past, after walking for so many kilometres many pilgrims were just unable to continue their journey. On my walking pilgrimage to Santiago, I was a witness of great sacrifice and obstinacy of a fellow Austrian pilgrim who tried to continue her pilgrimage in spite of serious health problems. And I can imagine how heartbreaking the decision to discontinue must be – regardless of whether it was made today or centuries ago. So, I always stop in front of the Door of Forgiveness or should I say Mercy and think about those who passed through it throughout the ages. The door normally closed is open again for the modern pilgrim during Jacobean Holy Years.

217Iglesia de Santiago is just like its famous North portal, a humble example of Romanesque architecture. Its interior is empty except for the 14th-century crucifix above the main altar. There are always pilgrims sitting inside in silence. That place is undoubtedly exceptional and if you have time to visit only one place in Villafranca make it this one.

Villafranca del Bierzo (510 m; 23.30 km5.70 km to Pereje) is the historical capital of the El Bierzo region and one of the jewels on the Camino. It is situated at the entrance to a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains and vineyards. It gained significance in the 12th century thanks to the influx of pilgrims. Villafranca quickly became a cosmopolitan place, as half of its inhabitants were foreigners. The town provided care for the pilgrims in its seven hospitals. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Villafranca was the commercial and spiritual centre of El Bierzo. Artisans accounted for fifty percent of the population; markets and annual fairs were crowded and famous throughout the neighbourhood. It had five churches and an army of nuns, monks, and canons. Throughout the ages, this pristine town suffered from all possible scourges – plague, floods, French and English rampages. Miraculously Villafranca survived all of these in just about one piece and even today makes an impression on visitors. You can see its sights or just cycle its narrow and picturesque streets (the most representative street is Calle del Aqua with a row of houses belonging to the local noble families).

The Castle, Villafranca del Bierzo Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Marques de Villafranca built the Castle at the end of the 15th century but at the beginning of the 19th century, it fell victim to English troops. Since then it has been restored and today is privately owned so it is not open to visitors. Its structure is partly late Medieval and partly Renaissance. The castle is rather big with four towers and courtyard.

According to tradition Saint Francis founded Iglesia de San Francisco (by Plaza Major, but somehow hidden; when you get to the main square immediately turn right and left again onto a steep cobbled street) in the 13th century on his way to Compostela. The church has a riveting Mudejar style ceiling with floral decoration inscribed within geometric figures. Looking at this magnificent ceiling remember that its faded colours were originally vivid. The church of Saint Francis is the one you see looking at Villafranca from Iglesia de Santiago.IMG_1323

The Colegiata de Santa Maria de Cluniaco was founded as a monastery church belonging to the Benedictines of Cluny. The monks took care of the pilgrims in the hospice attached to the church. The decline in the number of pilgrims in the 14th century caused the monastery to head for collapse. However, fortune smiled on the priory again in the 16th century when the then Marques de Villafranca took up the rebuilding of the church. The Benedictine monastery became a collegiate and in place of the monks sat canons. Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon acknowledged as the best Spanish architect of the 16th century, and creator of Palace de los Guzmanes you saw in Leon designed the church. The collegiate was his first individual work and was not finished until the 18th century. Sadly, Hontanon’s project was never fully carried out and as a consequence, the church is out of proportion.

The Descendientes de J. Palacios is a winery that has its seat in Villafranca del Bierzo. It is the brainchild of Alvaro Palacios acknowledged as a visionary winemaker. Alvaro is one of the reasons for the international success of Priorat in the 90s. Together with his nephew, he makes outstanding wines from the Mencia grape variety. The entry-level wine is Pétalos del Bierzo, then comes Bierzo Corullón and finally five single-vineyard exceptional wines (Fontelas, Las Lamas, La Faraona, Moncerbal and San Martin) that satisfy even the picky wine connoisseurs. Sadly, as usual, the price reflects the quality of the wine.

The first two albergues are next to Iglesia de Santiago:

Albergue Municipal Villafranca del Bierzo, 62 beds, opens from Holy Week to November, heating, a kitchen, 6 Euros

Albergue Ave Fénix de Familia Jato, 80 beds, open all year round, heating, 5 Euros

By the castle:

Albergue El Castillo, 22 beds, opens from March to November, heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros

Close to the main square:

Albergue Hospedería San Nicolás El Real, 103 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5-8 Euros depends on the room size

On Calle Aqua:

Albergue Leo, 24 beds, opens from mid-March to November, heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros

On the Camino, at the exit to the city:

Albergue de la Piedra, 28 beds, opens from March to November, heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros

Villafranca del Bierzo
The Camino in Villafranca del Bierzo Copyright OpenStreetMap Contributors

Villafranca del Bierzo is small and easy to cycle around. Go past Iglesia de Santiago, get to the castle then turn right and at the roundabout with a shell, go straight on and minutes later you get to the main square with rows of cafes and restaurants. Pass Plaza Major and the church on your right (Iglesia de San Nicolas), and at the end of the street turn left at yet another church (Collegiate de Santa Maria de Cluniaco). Cross the bridge, ignore the other bridge and go straight on. On leaving Villafranca the river Valcarce should be on your left (there are two alternative routes from Villafranca, but only the main one using the road is suitable for cycling). When the local road joins the N-VI, turn right and cycle on the pilgrim’s lane instead of the road. It might be busy in the morning or early afternoon but later on is usually empty and really comfortable to cycle. And so on for the next 15 km.

Villafranca del Bierzo to Pereje
Villafranca del Bierzo to Pereje Copyright OpenStreetMap Contributors

Even though you are cycling next to the road this is an amazing part of the Camino. The highway above you takes most of the traffic so you can just enjoy cycling in the quietness. The Valley Valcarce is green, high and narrow; the river Valcarce, that won the approval our unequalled author of the 12th-century guidebook as

a river good for the horses

swooshes by on your left and you are cycling on the flat bottom of the valley. It is simply brilliant.

After 5.40 km the Camino turns left onto the local road and after about 300 meters you will reach Pereje (549m; 29 km4.20 km to Trabadelo), a humble village that was in the past an object of a fierce dispute for ownership between O’Cebrairo and Villafranca del Bierzo. The Bishops of Astorga, Lugo, and Santiago intervened. In the end, the case went to the Pope who passed sentence in favour of O’Cebrairo. The village provided pilgrims with accommodation for 700 years and still today is a good place to stay for the night:

Albergue de Pereje, 50 beds, open all year round, a kitchen, 5 Euros

Get back to the N-VI and your comfortable pilgrim’s lane. About one kilometre before Trabadelo, the Camino turns left onto the local road through the forest (in the evening just stay on the N-VI). 4.20 km from Pereje you get to Trabadelo (572m; 33.20 km4.60 km to La Portela de Valcarce), former property of Santiago de Compostela, a village that is built along one street exactly like Pereje. It has a picnic area, space by the river for sunbathing, a bar and nice albergues for pilgrims:

Albergue de Trabadelo, 36 beds, opens from April to the end of October, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros

Albergue Parroquial de Trabadelo, 22 beds, opens from 15 February until 15 November, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros

Albergue Crispeta, 20 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 6-8 Euros

Albergue Camino y Leyenda, 16 beds, opens from the 1st April to the end of October, heating, a kitchen, 9 -14 Euros

Albergue Casa Susi, 12 beds, opens from 1st April until the end of October, 5 Euros

For about two kilometres the Camino runs on local tarmac road (again in the evening just stay on the N-VI) to join the N-VI later on. Everything is the same as before – the river Valcarce hums to your left, the highway hums above your head, the cycle path is comfortable, life is good.

4.60 kilometers from Trabadelo you reach La Portela de Valcarce (601m; 37.80 km0.80 km to Abesmestas), a village that greets pilgrims with a statue of Saint James:

Albergue El Peregrino, 28 beds, opens from March to early November, heating, 9 Euros

Leave the village by the N-VI and minutes later turn right in the direction of Ambasmestas and Vega de Valcarce. Abasmestas (614m; 38.60 km2.20 to Vega de Valcarce) is 800 meters from La Portela de Valcarce. It is the place where the river Balboa flows into the river Valcarce and name of the village probably derives from this.

There is a bar and two albergues:

Albergue Das Animas, 18 beds, opens from the beginning of April to the end of October, heating, microwave, 6 -9 Euros

Albergue Caminos, 10 beds, opens from April to December, heating, 10 Euros

Albergue Casa del Pescador, 28 beds, opens from mid-March until mid-November, 10 – 15 Euros

Albergue El Rincón del Apóstol, 12 beds, opens from 1st April until the end of October, heating, 5 Euros

2.20 km further on you get to Vega de Valcarce (644m; 40.80 km2 km to Ruitelan). In contrast to all the other villages you passed through recently, Vega is much bigger, or should I say longer. It is mentioned in the 12th-century guidebook although the author doesn’t use the name of the village but refers to the castle, Sarracin that overlooks it.

Sarracin Castle is built on a steep slope and was founded probably in the 9th century by count Gaton. The medieval history of the castle is unknown and undocumented, although it is alleged that it might have been the property of the Templars, protecting pilgrims in the then dangerous Valcarce valley. Personally, I concur with this theory – The Order had its headquarters in nearby Ponferrada plus Vega has this positive vibe that all the former Templars’ places on the Camino have. Regardless of whether it is true or not -what is left of the castle is not from the Knights’ times – the ruins as you see them today are a 14th and 15th century in origin.

Vega de Valcarce Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Vega de Valcarce is the main village in the Valcarce valley. There are bars, well-stocked shops, and albergues. It is green and pleasant. Personally, I always stay in Vega and always choose the humble albergue municipal that has an open kitchen on the first floor with a magnificent view of Sarracin castle. A bottle of Mencia drunk here tastes better than anywhere else in the El Bierzo region:

Albergue de Vega de Valcarce (a house on a hill, close to the church), 92 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros

Albergue El Roble, 17 beds, open all year round (although may be closed in January-February), heating, 7 -10 Euros

Albergue Sarracin, 20 beds, opens from the end of January to the end of November, heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros

Albergue Santa María Magdalena, 15 beds, opens from March to November, heating, a kitchen, 9 – 14 Euros

Albergue El Paso, 28 beds, open all year round (in the winter you have to book in advance), heating, a kitchen, 10 Euros