We left the pleasant town of Astorga yesterday in the early morning darkness and headed toward the mountains, climbing from 900 to 1100 metres along the way. We ended the day in the tiny and hospitable village of Rabanal whose population is listed as being 60.
A long climb
We spent much of the day walking on a dedicated pilgrim track parallel to an asphalt road. The villages that we passed through were semi-deserted and poor, containing abandoned buildings with crumbling stone walls. A rundown church in one of those villages had a huge bird’s nest in its belfry. The look and feel here is one of remoteness yet the highway is quite nearby even though we can neither see it nor hear the traffic.
The distance from Astorga to Rabanal is only 21 kilometres but it feels like more. The climb is long and gradual and having a straight path running parallel to the road provides an illusion of greater distance. Then there were the grey clouds threatening a rain which did not materialize, at least at that point.
Martha had painful back spasms again for the last seven or eight kilometres and frequently she had to stop walking until they passed. She has concluded that it in addition to all of the walking we did to train for the Camino, we should also have done exercises aimed at strengthening core muscles in the abdomen and back. Yesterday I found that the muscles on the outside of my right shin began to feel sore and I feared that I might be developing the dreaded tendonitis which can incapacitate hikers. But good fortune was ours. Walking into Rabanal, we saw a sign advertising massage.
We rented a private room in a house adjoining a lively albergue called Nuestra Senora de Pilar (that name again). We had just checked in and were lying down for a quick recuperative nap when the rain began to pelt down. We have lived a charmed weather life on this trip. The only real rain we have experienced has occurred in the afternoons or evenings when we have been safely under a dry roof.
There is a group of German Benedictine monks who have re-established a small monastery in Rabanal. They perform the Gregorian chant at Vespers each evening at 7:00 p.m., so we had an early dinner in a hotel on the village’s one main street and prepared to attend. When we arrived, however, we were told that the monks were having a silent retreat and would not be holding their public Vespers service.
A needed massage
We had discovered upon arrival in Rabanal that the massage therapist in town was actually working out of a small room at our albergue. Both of us booked appointments but he was so busy that he could not see us until after 9:00 p.m. As we waited our turn, we met several people who were in pain due to bad backs, pulled muscles or tendinitis.
Martha and I each had 40 minutes with the therapist and he was excellent. In addition to the massages, he provided both of us with exercises that we can do to ward off the symptoms that have begun to bother both us, particularly Martha.
High point on the Camino
After a good night’s sleep we left the Rabanal just before sunrise this morning and we are both feeling much fitter. Today we walk 26 kilometres, climbing 300 metres to the pass of Irago, the highest point on the entire Camino at 1500 metres. Then we have a long, steep and tiring descent into Molinaseca.
Despite that difficult walk down through rock strewn, shale gulleys, this is a wonderful day of hiking. It is cool in the early morning and we wear fleece liners and our rain jackets in layers to keep warm. Later it becomes beautifully sunny although the temperature never rises above 20 Celsius.
The slopes in the valley below us are grassy and green and on the distant horizon the mountains appear as hazy blue. There are cattle grazing on the steep hillsides below us and we can hear the soft tinkling of cowbells as the animals move. The mountains here, as elsewhere on this journey, are home to many wind turbines. I stop walking at one point and count 41 of them on the horizon.
La Cruz de Ferro
Near the day’s highest summit stands the Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross mounted on a wooden pole not unlike those that support power lines carrying electricity. At its base there is a pile of pebbles and small stones about the size of a small hill. People walking the Camino drop the pebbles there as a token of love and blessing.
Martha says she dropped off a pebble of regret for something. I could summon no regrets today but drop a pebble in the hope that someone who I care about deeply might be able to improve upon his life and unhappy situation
Once past the summit we descend about 700 metres over a distance of about 10 kilometres. Much of that walk is down steep rock-strewn gullies and it is jarring on our knees and pushes our toes against the front of our hiking shoes. We encounter people having great difficulty, including one older American woman who appeared to be semi-delirious and was practically being carried by her husband, who said that he did not need any help.
We arrive at our hotel destination by walking across a narrow river on a Roman bridge into Molinaseca, a pleasant village just a few kilometres outside of the city of Ponferrada, population 69,000. We have now walked about 500 kilometres and have about 200 remaining to Santiago. We should be there in nine days.