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.
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.
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.
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.
Villafranca 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.