Camino Francés description : 28. Villafranca del Bierzo - O Cebreiro   

 

                      Camino de Santiago / French Way : 28. Villafranca del Bierzo - O Cebreiro

                                                                                     (30.5 km)

 

                    

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  In Villafranca del Bierzo, walk down Calle del Agua and at the far end turn left by the statue of the pilgrim and walk across the Río Burbía. Once across the bridge you have 3 choices of route which are all clearly way marked. One low level route which follows the road down the valley or a choice of two high level routes, the choice you make will be determined firstly by the weather. If the weather is foggy or raining heavily don't attempt the higher level routes. The other will be determined by your fitness and how good your knees are. We will give you details of all three routes below starting with the road route.

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  The road route.

 

  Once across the Rio Burbia walk past the convent and Iglesia de la Concepción and keep walking until you reach the exit of the road tunnel through the mountains. Cross over here and take a right turn and walk for another 3 kilometres when you will take a right down an older section of the NVI road just before you enter the village of Pereje. There is a single albergue here as well as a bar.

 

  Walk down the Calle Camino de Santiago to the end of the village where you rejoin the main road for about 2.5 kilometres and again you will take a section of the old road for about 1 kilometre and into the village of Trabadelo. There is a single albergue here and a hostal with a restaurant.

 

  Again walking down the Calle Camino de Santiago keep walking ahead until you reach the spot where the motorway crosses the NVI and you then turn right onto the main road. Follow this road until you reach the Hostal Valcarce where you will take a left down the old road to Portela where you can fill up your water bottle at the fountain or get something to eat at the bar/restaurant.

 

  At the end of the village turn left to rejoin the main road and at the junction take the route marked towards Ambasmestas and after about 4.5 kilometres you arrive in the village. Here are a couple of bars, one of which has a restaurant that offers a pilgrim's menu, a panaderia (bread shop) and an albergue.

 

  The route now takes you through Ambasmestas with the road viaduct above you and out towards the village of Vega de Valcarce.

  There are a couple of albergues in the village plus a number of the restaurants offer a pilgrim's menu. There are also a few shops, a bakery, a chemist to restock on your blister remedies and some banks. It's probably a good idea to stop here to get a good night's rest before you start the steep climb up the mountains to O Cebreiro.

  If you choose to stay here the night you might want to take a look at the Castillo del Sarracin up on the hill above the town. It had once belonged to the Marqueses de Villafranca but it is more or less a ruin now but you do get some great views over the valley. It is about a 1 hour round trip.

  In the village there is a great example of an horreo or grain store. As you enter Galicia you will see different styles, usually made of granite or wood but this is a good example for this area. There is however a rather unusual carving in front of it, a bit spooky I think.

 

  The Camino from this point onwards until you get to O Cebreiro climbs up through the mountains starting off gently but progressively getting steeper. Walk through Vega de Valcarce down the road for 2 kilometres until you reach the village of Ruitelán. There is an albergue here if you were unable to get a bed in Vega de Valcarce.

 

  In another kilometre you come to the village of Herrerias where all three routes converge.

  The village derives its name from the iron forge that used to be here. There are a couple of bars that offer food with one of the bars containing a restored iron forge if you would like to take a look. At the end of the village the houses used to belong to the Hospital Inglés a pilgrim hospital.

 

  Walk through the village and after about a kilometre you come to a track with 2 marker posts, one of the routes is for those doing the Camino by bicycle, the other is for those on foot. If the weather is bad follow the cyclist's route, if not follow the walker's route.

 

  The path climbs steeply through chestnut woods for about 3.5 kilometres before you walk down the Calle Santiago into La Faba.

  The village has a small shop and a café plus 2 albergues. One of them, the private Albergue Vegetariano is only open in the summer and only offers vegetarian meals.

  Close by here, during the winter of 1809 when General Sir john Moore's army was retreating over the mountains heading for La Coruña they were caught in a blizzard. It was so bad that several hundred of his men froze to death and the remaining men mutinied throwing a large chest of gold over the cliff in protest. The General managed to regain order but he ended up being killed by the French at the battle of La Coruña.

 

  Walk through the village and up a tree lined lane forking right when you come into the open and keep on walking uphill until you reach Laguna de Castilla in 2 kilometres. The albergue here is only open for a couple of months in the summer - July and August.

 

  As you walk out of the village you come to the first of many marker stones which from now until you reach Santiago will appear every 500 metres. They are usually marked with a scallop shell and the name of the town or village in which you are in as well as how many kilometres you have left to go until you reach Santiago.

Keep walking straight through the village and after 1 kilometre you finally leave León and enter Galicia. This point is marked with a large marker stone. After another kilometre you come to the town of O Cebreiro.

 

  Before I give you any more information on O Cebreiro I will give you details of the other 2 routes.

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  The second slightly longer route takes you via Pradela were there is a fountain but no other amenities and is clearly marked as are the other 2 routes. Unlike the road route this doesn't start off gently, this route is steep from the start.

  At the bridge in Villafranca del Bierzo take a right hand fork down Calle Pradra and walk along the steeply rising path for approximately 3 kilometres when the path continues to climb but not as steeply. After you have passed some television masts the road begins to descend. Turn left at the junction, Pradela is to your right if you want to stop for water. Follow the path and then across the road and down a steep gravel path into the village of Trabadelo where you meet up with the flatter road route. From here you now follow the road route as I have described above.

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  The third and final route takes you via Dragonete and is not a route for the faint hearted, it is considerably longer and pretty arduous. You need to be pretty fit to embark on this route and you need to make sure you have plenty of food and water with you as the villages you pass through do not have any amenities. Leave Villafranca del Bierzo over the bridge as mentioned previously but this time cross another bridge over the Rio Valcarce and walk down the Calle Salvador crossing the NVI at the road tunnel. Take a right hand fork up a tarmacked track at the signpost saying Dragonete 4.3. Keep following this track to the village of Dragonete. There is a fountain here if you need to replenish your water.

 

  Walk through the village continuing along the tarmacked track and after about 2 kilometres you will come to a sign marked Camino de los Frances GR11, take this track and at the minor road take a left and continue descending into Moral de Valcarce where again there is a fountain.

 

  Once through the village take a left fork at the lavadero (where Spanish women used to do their washing in the days before washing machines) and follow the track through the chestnut woods to the bottom of the valley. You will pass by an old watermill and through more chestnut woods until you reach the Iglesia de San Fructuoso, which used to be part of a monastery administering to sick pilgrims at the entrance of the village of Vilar de Corrales. Here too is a fountain.

 

  The path continues to wind its way up the mountain passing a farm and another fountain. Keep following the markers through an old quarry and at the road take the path signposted Camino de los Frances into the village of San Fiz do Seo. The path continues to climb for about another 2 kilometres and then descends slightly down a left hand fork in the path. A right hand fork will then take you through some chestnut woods and then down into the village of Villasinde were there’s a bar and fountain. As you enter the village take a right turn and fork right by the cemetery down a descending track then across the Puente Viejo into Vega de Valcarce. From here follow the road route to O Cebreiro.

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  O Cebreiro owes much of its existence to the Camino de Santiago as well as to the many roman roads that passed this way. It is the first town you reach on the Camino Frances as you enter Galicia.

  The first pilgrim hospital to appear in the town was built in the mid 9th century and was run from the late 11th century by the monks of Saint Gérard d’Aurillac, a French order. Also in the 9th century the monastery of el Santuario de O Cebreiro was built, not much remains other than the Iglesia Santa Maria la Real, considered to be the oldest intact church along the whole Camino. The church was founded by Benedictine monks but came under the control of the French monks in the 11th century after the monastery was given to the French order by King Alfonso VI. It was to remain in their control until the monastery was handed back to the Benedictines by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The monastery was abandoned in the 19th century following the Mendizabal disentailment in 1853, a similar act to that of the dissolution of the monasteries which occurred in the United Kingdom in the mid 16th century. The church underwent a major renovation in the 1960’s and 70’s initiated by Don Elias Valiña Sampedro, the parish priest. A little bit more on this remarkable man later.

 

  Various books tell that "the Holy Grail" was believed to have been hidden in this church during the Middle Ages but what they are actually referring to is a miracle that is believed to have occurred here during the 14th century.

  The story tells of a single parishioner from a nearby village called Barxamaior who climbed up to the church through heavy snow and a blizzard in order to hear mass. As the priest was performing the Eucharist he had a momentary lapse of faith and whilst he was consecrating the bread and wine he thought to himself, whilst looking at the parishioner sat in front of him “what is this man doing here in this cold weather, just to see a piece of bread and a little wine?”. It was at this point that the miracle occurred, the bread turned to flesh and the wine became blood. This became known locally as el Santo Grial Gallego or the Galician Holy Grail. The relics are kept in the church in a reliquary given to the church by the Catholic Monarchs whilst they were undertaking the Camino to Santiago in 1486, along with the chalice and paten used in that mass. In the church you will also find the tombs of the priest and the parishioner who were involved in this miracle along with that of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro.

 

  Just outside the church is a bust of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro who was the parish priest at Santa Maria Real from 1959 until his death in 1989 who took it upon himself to restore the church and the ancient hospital (now the Hostal San Giraldo de Aurillac). During his studies at la Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca he wrote a thesis on the Camino’s history. He promoted this thesis at various universities across Europe and promoting the Camino de Santiago. Even more remarkable it what he did next.

  If you were wondering how the signs and markers that point your way on the Camino de Santiago came about then look no further than Don Elias Valiña Sampedro. This amazing man decided to undertake the Camino but found that many of the original paths had virtually disappeared, on his trip he decided to write a book and his Camino guide book was published in 1982. It was then in 1984, along with his nephews, that he started to mark the entire Camino with the big yellow arrows you see today with yellow paint he managed to commandeer from the Spanish department of transport. In 1985 he became a member of the Comisario del Camino de Santiago who were tasked with promoting the Camino and getting others involved and from this came the association known as Amigos del Camino de Santiago (Friends of the Camino). To give you an idea of just how important this man was you just have to look at the numbers who now undertake the Camino. In the early 70’s less than 10 Compostelanas were issued, in 1989 when Pope John Paul II visits Santiago over 5,700 Compostelanas were given out and it is estimated that in the holy year of 2010 over 300,000 pilgrims will have received one of these hard earned certificates.

 

  Whilst you are here in O Cebreiro you may want to take a look at the Pallozas, the traditional round stone houses with thatched roofs that the people of this area used as their homes. Some have recently been turned into holiday homes and one of them is a small ethnographic museum.

 

  Accommodation can be found at the albergue and 3 hostals including the Hostal San Giraldo de Aurillac, which was lovingly restored by Don Elias. There are also a number of shops, bars and restaurants.

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                                                           delhommeb at wanadoo.fr -  07/01/2014