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Climbing Out of Villafranca – 21 September



Villafranca to Las Herrerias

I am sitting, typing this, on a balcony overlooking the Rio Valcarce, green meadows with cows wandering through them, and the steep mountains behind. I have just watched the sun set over O Cebrereiro, the mountain pass where we will climb tomorrow. The only sounds, most of the time, are from the wind in the leaves of the trees, the water flowing in the river, and the cow bells, like wind chimes. Occasionally, one of the cows will give voice. It is quite beautiful – it is all too easy to overuse the word “idyllic” – but it seems appropriate in this case: idyllic. And healing. So I’m going to sit and absorb this glorious evening.

Earlier, I walked down to the village, and watched a man tending his vegetable patch, and it reminded me of coming home from work when we lived in Ontario and tending my own vegetables. There is a wonderful combination of work and faith in growing things, because no matter how good the planning, or how diligent the work, there is always an element of uncertainty or risk involved, with regard to weather, or pests, or marauding raccoons who steal the sweet corn and then go for a comfortable snooze in the adjacent tree, not knowing the shame of the thief, apparently!

I decided to dedicate today’s walk, in thought and prayer, to the clergy of my deanery in New Westminster, who are amongst those left behind for this sabbatical time to happen.

We left Villafranca rather late: we were comfortable, and slept well, and needed the rest after the previous night (and afternoon). We had decided not to follow the guide’s suggestion of walking 30 km, culminating in a climb of 600 m over about 9 km to O Cebreiro, but to stop after about 21 km, and tackle the climb in the morning, when we are fresh, not in the late afternoon, when we are tired and our feet become sore. Kate’s leg can still become stiff and uncomfortable, and I still don’t have quite my usual energy or appetite after Ponferrada.

There are three ways to travel from Villafranca: one is through rather remote hills, involves a lot of strenuous climbing and descending, the latter being often more challenging than the former, as we have learned. It is also described as being poorly marked in places. We decided not to take this route.

There is a route that climbs gently alongside the main road out of Villafranca all the way to where we are staying. Since we don’t really enjoy walking by the road, with traffic noise and fumes, we skipped this. Instead, we took a route that took us away from the road for about 11 km, over a 935 m hill, with rather steep ascent and descent. We were glad that we did this. It was quite demanding at the beginning (but good practice for tomorrow!) but gave us wonderful views over the country beyond Villafranca, of the valley below and of the mountains across the valley (the ones we decided not to traverse). We came down through some extensive chestnut forests, which provided shade. On the way up, I caught a glimpse of a fox. At first, I though it was a cat, but the ears and tail were quite distinctive. I thought about how little wildlife we have seen in the past three weeks. We have seen and heard many birds, and quite a lot of livestock. There have been lizards running across the trail in the rocky, dusty parts. I have mentioned butterflies, and there is plenty of other insect life, including the ever-present flies. But apart from today’s fox, the only wild mammals we have seen are some deer along the Roman road into Mansilla. And some dead field mice, but they don’t really count.

We stopped for lunch, and to revive our feet, in Trabadelo, where our alternative route joins the one along the valley floor, by the road. Kate had a sandwich and I only felt like ice cream again. We met a Danish couple, who have been walking as far as we have. We did have to walk by the main road for a while, but then, unmentioned in the guide, we had a pleasant surprise when the Camino left the main N-VI road, and continued along a country road, with the river and the rustling trees next to us. Although walking on asphalt is harder on the feet than the gravel trail (or earth), it was a lot more pleasant than we expected. Oh – and the Bubble Car people (see 19 September!) were observed walking along the road while we had lunch – and then we met them going back the other way when we were walking! They are a mystery (and will probably remain so).

We had an unexpected delight: stopping for a moment to adjust our packs, we realised that we were by a tiny church. It was a pleasant, refreshing place, and our brief stop there revived us for the last part of our walk. It was a reminder that there are many ways to find refreshment along the Camino.

Tomorrow we will leave the Province of León, through which we have been travelling ever since we walked into Sahagun. One of my enduring memories of this province will be the irrigation canals, aqueducts and channels that are used to bring life to otherwise arid areas. The speed at which water flows through the canals is quite fast: a lot of water moves along them. I was wondering where it all comes from, a question partially answered when we passed through Hospital del Órbigo, which has a vast bridge covering a rather unimpressive river. The river used to be bigger: it has been dammed to provide water for irrigation.


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