Day 38, October 17, Acebo to Ponferrada (17 km)
Yesterday’s climb through the pass of Irago to the highest point of our journey, Cruz de Ferro, was easy. The sun was shining, the temperature was just right, and the mountain views across the Turienzo valley towards Monte El Teleno were spectacular. Red heather and purple crocuses were blooming and little blackberries were still good enough to eat, unlike the shrivelled ones at lower altitudes.
It was the descent from the high point that was challenging and seemed to go on forever. Once again we had one of those afternoons when we kept asking ourselves “Are we there yet?” The most gruelling part of the trail was the last four kilometers coming down into Acebo. It was steep, rugged, and there was the added risk of skidding on loose rocks.
The path runs parallel to the asphalt road, so taking the road instead of the trail was tempting, even though our Camino guidebook says the road is dangerous because of blind spots. Dave did take the road part of the way. Someone going the “right way” laughed and called Dave a “smart-ass” and then took to the road too!
We finally arrived at Acebo, exhausted. Acebo is a typical mountain village with one main street running down the middle and an open surface drain for channeling rain. We wandered down a short side street and discovered La Trucha Casa Rural. “Trucha” means trout and “casa rural” is the Spanish version of a B&B. The owner of La Trucha, Jaime, just happened to come out of his doorway as we were admiring his little garden embellished with prayer flags. Jaime invited us in to see the room he had available. It was perfect! It had a mountain view, a private bathroom, and a warm and friendly host.
Jamie came from Barcelona to walk the Camino de Santiago many years ago. He was impressed with the quiet little mountain village of Acebo and decided to move here in 1990. He opened up the casa rural where he rents out two upstairs bedrooms. He loves the Camino and says it makes us realize how much we can do without. We actually don’t need all the things we think we need to be perfectly contented. His home is simple, warm, and comfortable. We feel fortunate that he shared it with us.
The breakfast he served us this morning was simple but good, with freshly squeezed orange juice, little packaged muffins and toast with a variety of jams and oil on a lazy susan. Butter and margarine aren’t very common here in Spain, and we’ve learned to like oil on our bread instead. Jaime kept the cafe con leche flowing – always a good thing. We chatted with a young couple from Pennsylvania who also stayed at La Trucha last night, so we didn’t get away from Acebo until close to 9 o’clock.
The descent from the high point of our journey continued today, but was easier than yesterday. It was not at all cold, so it wasn’t long before we removed several layers of clothing and were down to our short sleeved shirts. We continued down through the little mountain village of Riego de Ambros to Molinaseca, an attractive, historical village with a medieval bridge. It was a good place to stop for cafe con leche and a croissant.
After Molinaseca there was 7.5 km of road walking through the suburbs to the medieval city of Ponferrada, with a population of 62,000. The Romans established an important mining center here almost 2,000 years ago. The city has been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt on various occasions, first by the Visigoths in the 5th century, later by the Muslims in the 9th century, then by King Alfonso III the Great in the 11th century. In 1178, the city was placed under the protection of the Knights Templar, charged with the protection of pilgrims travelling to St. James´ tomb. It is their legend, mixed with quite a bit of fanciful nonsense, that attracts pilgrims and tourists to Ponferrada and the ruins of the castle which once served as their base of operations along the Camino de Santiago.
The enormous medieval castle is a formidable defensive structure. Its main gate was defended by a moat, an iron grille, two towers on either side of the gate and a second defensive gate inside the outer walls. On the west and the north, it is defended by cliffs which fall sharply to the river below. Its eastern side, facing the city, is an enormous wall. On the castle’s central tower is the Templars´ Latin motto that translates into English as: “Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
We settled ourselves into a hole-in-the-stone-wall hotel room (literally, we do have stone walls!) in La Virgen de la Encina that faces across a laneway at a wall with shuttered windows and a lonely pigeon roosting in one of the window casings. As soon as the castle reopened at 4 o’clock after siesta time, we went over to the castle to pay our respects to Ivanhoe and Sir Lancelot.