Villafranca del Bierzo

The walk to Villafranca del Bierzo is one of the most beautiful on the Camino from León to Santiago. Vineyards that extend for miles around and gentle rolling hills on mostly dirt or gravel paths allow for some blister recovery.

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You will emerge from a long walk through the vineyards into Cacabelos, a town that begs you to forgo the rest of the walk to Villafranca and call it quits for the day. The recommendation I feel most strongly about along this walk is to stop at a restaurant called Moncloa in Cacabelos. The ambiance is nothing short of incredible, and the best way I can describe it is as the closest thing to Rivendell I’ve ever experienced. Light streams through a canopy of leaves and calming instrumental music plays. Every time you walk into the gift shop (I walked in twice) they hand you a full glass of wine and a small sandwich. This taste of what they serve, however, is not nearly enough. A bottle (or two) of wine country wine is necessary, as well as some Caldo de Gallego and warm goat cheese with a variety of jams. To make my own experience even more surreal, a baby bird found its way into the gift shop as we browsed their merchandise, and as most people freaked out, Sarah said quietly, “I know how to help.” So we grabbed their attention, and like a Disney princess, she gently caught the bird and held it in her hands, then tossed it into the air so it was able to flutter away.

The people in Cacabelos are another aspect of its charm. From a talkative and picturesque group of elderly people sharing a long bench in the shade to the woman on the side of the road who insisted on giving us an entire basket of cherries she had just picked off of the tree and would not accept our money, they made this walk even more special. Another piece of advice: buy cherries on this walk; they are phenomenal.

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Villafranca del Bierzo itself is a beautiful place with a rich history. The first human settlements date to the last part of the Stone Age. Villafranca del Bierzo was the headquarters for an army of more than 40,000 men during the Spanish War for Independence. The Spanish War for Independence overlaps with the Peninsular War and the Napoleonic Wars in the beginning of the 19th century. The war started with the uprising on the 2nd of May in 1808 and ended in 1814. The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s famous paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies. Both are now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

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The Captain General of Galicia Antonio Filangieri established Villafranca as his headquarters, but later resigned from office in Villafranca due to illness. However, there is speculation that he was dismissed by Galician authorities. Right after leaving office, he was killed by undisciplined soldiers. Whether the motive was to avenge past grievances or if the murder was part of a larger plot related to his suspicious resignation is unknown.

IMG_4881Villafranca del Bierzo is a historically important stop on the Camino. Since the 9th century, pilgrims have been stopping at Villafranca for the night as a natural break before the steep climb to O Cebreiro. In 1070, a Cluniac monastery was founded in Villafranca to cultivate wine, and a borough of French pilgrims rose around it, from which the town’s name, “French town”, stems. Hospitals and hotels for pilgrims later sprung up in the town.

Villafranca is called “Little Compostela” or “La Pequeña Compostela” because La Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol is the only temple along the Camino other than the one in Santiago where pilgrims could and still can receive plenary indulgences. The requirements are walking the necessary distance, attending mass and saying prayers, and being able to prove that you cannot go on to Santiago due to illness or physical weakness. Because of this, the door of the Church is called La Puerta del Perdón.

-Delaney Coveno

 

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Rabanal del Camino

For this walk, the Fordham pelegrinos trekked from the urban sprawl of Astorga to a sleepy little Maragoto village named Rabanal del Camino. The walk itself had its challenges, given that the first few kilometers were spent exiting the outskirts of Astorga via rocky pathways alongside the highway. Once this section of the Camino was completed, however, we found ourselves in a charming little town where most students stopped to grab a pincho de tortilla, refill their water bottles, and prepare themselves–and their mochilas–for the impending rainfall. Luckily for us, the rain didn’t appear until the very last few kilometers, after students had already had the opportunity to take in some truly breathtaking patches of land, drink cervezas at the now infamous “cowboy” bar, and chat with a Camino-pro-turned-falconer on the side of the trail.

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Given Rabanal’s small size, we knew that this isolated village would be very limited, especially in comparison to Astorga’s urban amenities. Camino traffic, after all, is one of the core lifelines of this dusty little town. We were all thrilled to see, therefore, that our albergue for the night–el Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar–came equipped with a fully stocked restaurant and bar, decent showers, and some of the most charming social spaces we have yet to see on the Camino. In fact, Nuestra Señora del Pilar’s open concept and canopy layout made the entire establishment feel like a hidden treehouse, tucked safely away from the weary Camino trail. After a night of laughs, vino tintos, and good food, Nuestra Señora del Pilar became a fan favorite among Fordham’s peregrinos.

Before our nightly festivities could begin, however, we made our way to la Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción, a Romanesque church that is presently operated by the Benedictine monks of San Salvador del Monte Irago. These German monks restored the church in 2001, after the Benedictines of St. Ottilien saw an opportunity to create a transient spiritual community out of the incoming/outgoing foot traffic. The monks also maintain a small albergue across the street from the church, where pilgrims can stay for a period of 3-10 days and pray alongside the monks. It’s a truly spectacular group of monks, one that certainly gives back to its surrounding community in spades. It came as a great surprise to us, then, that these monks were banished from the town in August of 2001 by a mob of local townspeople, after the Benedictines had requested and subsequently received a loan of one million euros from Castilla-León to restore their church. This recent event proved to be an interesting point of discussion for us, as it demonstrates the oftentimes vexing relationship that peregrinos share with the communities that house them. On the one hand, villages like Rabanal undoubtedly depend on Camino travelers to survive; that does not mean, however, that these poor communities do not have needs of their own that could be foreseeable remedied by loans from their parent regions.

In this way, the events at San Salvador del Monte Irago provides a lens through which we can better understand the Camino in a more contemporary, engaging sense. It’s certainly important to understand the historic importance of the pilgrimage; but it is critical that we understand the Camino as it exists in its modern landscape — a landscape that is certainly marked by its rich history, but also occasionally by frustration and contention.

-Katherine Burks

Palas de Rei

Palas de Rei, where we arrived on June 5, has been a stop on the Camino de Santiago since ancient times. According to tradition, the city is named for a Visigoth king, Witiza, who ruled the area in the early eighth century. The city has long been linked to Spanish military history and has a very well-preserved castle from the 14th century. The city seems to have really expanded as the popularity of the Camino has grown, leaving the city as an interesting mix between the medieval and the modern.

The walk to Palas de Rei was long but very enjoyable. We had excellent weather, which always makes the day’s walk better. The day started out with some nice fog which helped to cool off the Spanish Sun that Dr. Myers always warns us about! A tip for future peregrinos and peregrinas: the first place to stop for food isn’t for several kilometers outside of Portomarín, so if you walk better after having eaten some food, either eat something in Portomarín or bring some food to snack on along the way.

We split up for lunch, with some of us going to a Pulperia (home of the famous Galician octopus, or pulpo as it’s called here) and others getting some burgers at a local pub. Because it was a Sunday, a group went to the Church in town where one of our Camino friends, a bishop from Brazil, said Mass. We met this Bishop initially in Rabanal where he said Mass at the monastery there, and we’ve walked alongside the Bishop ever since. For dinner, we enjoyed a group meal at our albergue. Our albergue was very cool – we had the entire third floor to ourselves, which had some nice sitting areas in addition to the usual bunk beds. Several of us did experience some issues with the motion-detected lighting, which seems to be a common lighting trend along the Camino. Waving one’s hands in the air or opening doors tends to turn the lights back on (another tip for future Caministos and Caministas!).

In Palas de Rei, we also focused on domestic medieval architecture and city planning. Unfortunately, many homes of medieval peasants did not survive, so much of what we know about this topic comes from surviving wealthier houses or urban areas. Most medieval houses were built of wood, with the more expensive ones having stone, and had relatively small windows. In cities, some houses were built almost like townhouses, with houses adjoining and external staircases leading to higher floors. Medieval Spanish towns were typically enclosed by walls to protect against invaders, so builders had to look up instead of out. These towns were often planned block by block rather than in a coordinated gridiron system unless they were built on ruins. One of the most prominent features of the Spanish medieval town that remains a prominent focus in many cities, the Plaza Mayor, was actually inspired by Islamic architecture where a town had a central space in town for all of the major municipal buildings.

Written by: Kara Hurley

Sarria

On the walk from Triacastela to Sarria peregrinos have the choice between two routes. The most direct will involve a walk of about 18.7 kilometers. The other involves a detour that adds a little over 6 kilometers to the trip. This extra bit of walking is worth it, though, as it offers the opportunity to visit the Samos Monastery.

This monastery was founded in the 6th century by Benedictine monks. In the 11th century a pilgrims hospital was added, which is still in use today. The monastery features a Baroque facade that was added in the 18th century. If you decide you want to have a look inside, you can take advantage of a guided tour. We were able to go on a tour that was given in both English and Spanish. On the tour you will have the opportunity to see the cloisters, which feature some amazing gardens and one scandalous fountain, murals depicting famous visitors to the monastery, and a chapel filled with ornate Baroque elements.

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Perhaps even better than the tour is what can be found in the gift shop. Here you can purchase chocolate made by the monks. There are three different bars to choose from: milk chocolate, dark chocolate (which happens to be vegan), and a large bar for making chocolate a la taza, in case you want to create a breakfast of chocolate y churros at home.

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On the walk from Samos to Sarria, keep your eyes open for storks. The birds are rare in Galicia, but a few pairs usually nest in Sarria and this may be your last chance to see them. Once in Sarria, you will be in the last town where pilgrims can start walking and still cross the minimum distance required to receive a Compostela. Our guidebook recommended passing through Sarria in order to avoid hostels crowded with pilgrims just starting their journey, but I found Sarria to be a pleasant place to stay, especially after having some trouble with the walk earlier that morning. If your feet are feeling crammed in your boots, you can do what I did and stop by Peregrinoteca to pick up a pair of hiking sandals.

We spent the night at the Los Blasones albergue, which is conveniently on the Calle de Maior. Across the street is a restaurant called Casa Manuel, which offers a variety of tasty food, including salads, burgers, and sandwiches. Vegetarians will be happy to find several options that offer a reprieve from the usual eggs and potatoes. I enjoyed a vegan tempeh burger with caramelized onions, followed by a dessert of brownie con helado.

Sarria is home to several interesting sites, including the Romanesque Iglesia de San Salvador and the modern Iglesia de Santa Marina. We visited the Monastery of the Magdalena. This monastery was originally founded in the 12th century by Italian monks who wanted to set up a hospital for pilgrims. In the 13th century it became home to an order of Augustinians, and is now home to the Mercediarians, officially known as the Royal, Celestial and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of Captives. This order was founded in Barcelona in 1218 in order to free Christian captives who were taken during the wars between Christians and Muslims. In addition to the usual vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, these monks also take a vow to give up their lives for anyone in danger of loosing his or her faith.

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We happened to be in Sarria on the feast day of the Sacred Heart. This gave us the opportunity to hear some unexpected fireworks and to watch a religious procession. This feast day is in honor of a particular devotion that focuses on the love of God as embodied by the heart of Jesus. These kinds of processions were used in the middle ages to mark important feast days. Seeing this procession gave us the opportunity to see how Medieval traditions remain an important part of Spanish devotional practice today.

-Jennifer