October 12 – 14, Ponferrada to Sarria
Rolling Out of Ponferrada
The 5 euro Breakfast at the albergue that morning was well worth the money, with an all you could eat buffet of toast, pastry, yoghurt, and coffee. We’d need it for what would eventually turn out to be a long and hard, well let’s be honest, brutal day of riding the bikes to the summit at O Cebreiro.
Early Morning Images
It started benignly enough with 15 miles of flat riding to the town of Villafranca del Bierzo and then a gentle uphill climb of another 15 miles or so to La Faba. Road conditions were good as we followed a two lane highway with a wide shoulder and little traffic, making good time and kidding ourselves that the going would be manageable from there on.
The Quiet Before the Climbing
After a bocadillo break at La Faba to fuel the tanks, we’d gain almost 1,500 feet in a little under 3 miles. Yep, that translates into freaking steep. To add to our enjoyment the day had warmed up and soon sweat was pouring from any gland that could excrete it, as we alternated trying to ride (a reminder, we had triple chain ring mountain bikes and had shipped all unnecessary weight ahead) and finally just walking up what seemed to be an endlessly steep hill.
One of the Not So Steep Sections
To make things even more enjoyable was a series of fires that had broken out in the surrounding hillsides, flames in sight from the road, later, bits of charred wood on the pavement as we walked past, the pulsating sound of helicopters dumping water overhead. It was truly a day that tested us, one that made sure that we left the burden of guilt for riding we’d carried with us far behind at Cruz Ferro.
Those Pesky Fires
After what seemed like a hot sweaty exhausting eternity the slope lightened up and we walked/wheeled into the blip of a town called Laguna de Castilla where when we stopped to get a cold Coke to try and revive ourselves enough to climb the last 1.5 miles who should we encounter but Billy and his girlfriend outside a tavern about to tuck into a substantial meal (she a salad and meat plate, he a large order of two fried eggs, two grilled pieces of pork and potatoes).
Our Stop in Laguna del Castilla With the Local Cows Coming Through Town
This is the Camino, this random meeting up, the kindred spirits, the shared adventure. After our initial enthusiasm of the greeting, he dumped upsetting news on us; Liz had crashed head first coming into El Acebo the day before, suffering a serious head injury and had to be evacuated by helicopter to the hospital in Ponferrada. As of the moment, getting updates from her daughter Jasmine, Billy said she appeared to be out of danger but it cast a shroud over our mind set.
O Cebreiro on the Horizon
We finished our drinks and made the last push, Joanna by this time completely out of gas, walking more than riding. I finally summited and with O Cebreiro in sight stopped, then turned around to wait for her at a junction, wanting to make sure she didn’t make a wrong turn. As I slowly approached the spot where I would wait, I executed a sharp turn and much more fatigued than I’d realized, hit some loose gravel and dumped the bike.
The Damage Done
A lifetime of boyhood play and being generally clumsy have taught me how to react to this type of situation and so I rolled out of the impact, but did scape up my left leg on the road surface. Joanna arrived not long after and we both road into town. As St. Steves describes it, O Cebreiro is “an impossibly quaint hobbit hamlet perched on a ridge high above nothing.” A rustic village of just 2-3 blocks long, it appears to exist out of time and indeed probably wouldn’t except for the traffic the Camino brings it.
For the first time during the whole journey I hadn’t made a reservation as the pensions in O Cebreiro had all received universally bad reviews and we figured that the municipal albergue with 106 beds could easily accommodate us. Imagine my surprise and bone tired disappointment when the receptionist informed me that cyclists would have to wait until 8pm to check in to ensure that hikers would get a bed. It was 4pm at the time and I wasn’t going to wait four hours to see if I’d be sleeping in a bed that night or on a park bench at 3,600 feet in elevation in mid October.
While Joanna kept an eye on the bikes I walked back to the beginning of town and asked for a room at the first place and informed they were full, went down the street to the next, Meson Anton, where by all of the grace that St. James protects his pilgrims with, was told that they had one with a shared bath for 40 euros. Done. And thus would become one of the better days of the Camino for the both of us.
That Vaso of Vino
We locked up the bikes back at the municipal albergue and left them there, recovered our shipped bags from the hotel down the street and ordered that first beer and a really nice glass of local cider at our hotel. These days of great challenge, both physically and mentally, bring great contentment when all is done and you are safely through it. Later we’d go back downstairs to the bar area and order dinner, a large Insalata mista and veal steak the size of Texas with fries, grilled on a flat top with the seasoning broiled into the surface. Oh, and the 7 euro Vaso (pitcher) of house red that seemed like a gallon once we tried to consume it all. Possibly one of the most satisfying meals we’d enjoyed to date.
Fire Enriched Sunset
If you are thinking we slept well that night, you’d be correct. The next day, after a coffee and toast breakfast at the hotel one block away, a course that appeared technically easier and shorter at just 24 miles would actually involve some early morning undulating terrain that would only remind us of how tired our legs were from the preceding day before we finally hit a bit of downhill going into Triacastela (three castles).
Prior to the Descent from O Cebreiro
The shorter stage did offer us one treat though, a side trip to the small town of Samos and a visit to the monastery there. Founded in the 6th century and containing a still operating pilgrim hospital since the 11th century it suffered from two devastating fires, one in 1537 and more recently in 1951. Our tour in Spanish meant we missed a lot of the detail but visiting was still worth it, particularly a photo montage that portrayed the damage that occurred in the last fire, almost totally destroying all but the external walls.
The River and the Monastery
We continued on and finally rolled into Sarria early in the afternoon, again running into Billy and girlfriend before heading up a steep incline in town in search of our lodging for the night, Matias Rooms. We stopped in at Matias Laconda, thinking it was the right place only to discover there were three Matias pensions in town, ours just a block or so away. So we stayed anyway for a beer and to split a nice flatbread, then moved on to our Matias.
It was a three bedroom flat that we appeared to have all to ourselves, with a nice kitchen as a bonus. We showered and then walked down to a nearby market to pick up ingredients for dinner, what would turn out to be yet another camp food bean extravaganza, yet also giving us the chance to pick up stuff for breakfast the next morning.
Camp Food – Better than a Bug
We returned to the pension and as we were finishing our sumptuous feast, who should show up to be the only other occupant of the flat but Tim, our biking connection from Burgos. It was a joyful reunion as we caught up on our mutual adventures of the week or two in between our last meeting.
There is Always Inexpensive Red Wine to Cure Camp Food
Sarria has the distinction of being about 117 kilometers (73 miles) from Santiago de Compostela; as it requires hiking of the last 100K to get your certificate of completion, this is the place many pilgrims start, a town flooded with newbies so to speak. For many, it is a week long adventure, likely packaged by a tour company, hiking 10-12 miles a day, a great adventure and not in any way to be diminished by those of us who have done the whole distance. That is the lesson the Camino teaches, that it is each individuals journey, regardless of the length, distance traveled or mode of transport. In the end, we are all pilgrims.
Smoke Filled Skies Would Follow Us for a Few Days
Matias Rooms: http://www.matiasroomsarria.com/