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The Cebreiro Pass into Galicia on the Camino De Santiago
Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro
We had all laughed at Dougie at Madrid airport. He’d unzipped his shoulder bag to show us its contents: a massive stash of Tracker bars. These oats, nuts and caramel confections were admittedly moreish, but he had over a hundred of them. They’d been marked down at his local supermarket and he’d snapped up an entire boxful.
I wasn’t laughing anymore. “Gimme a Tracker bar, Dougie”, I said for the fourth time that afternoon, as my legs wobbled and demanded another sugar rush to manage the relentless ascent of this spur of the Cordillera Cantabrica.
The six of us were on one of Europe’s oldest long-distance trails, the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago De Compostela, that begins in the foothills of the Pyrenees and wends 500 miles across the verdant vineyards, murky forests and history-rich lands of northern Spain until it arrives at the Cathedral of St James in the invariably rain-lashed city of Santiago. The path has been trod by millions of penitents looking to atone for their sins, usually after being told by their parish priest to take a hike or face sterner punishment.
To everyone on it (and it’s a mixed crowd, ranging from devout and troubled souls to Canadian beatniks chasing “spiritual solace”) it’s simply the Camino , and we were tackling what is famously the most arduous stretch.
We’d headed out of Villafranca Del Bierzo, the last town in Castilla-Leon, for the 20 mile stage to O Cebreiro, high on the ancient pass into Galicia. That "O" was the giveaway, the gallego language version of the Spanish "El", an indication that you were entering a wilder country with its own rules.
Looking at the charts that morning, the figures, as ever, were deceptive. A 20 mile hike, climbing 2,500 feet, sounded strenuous but hardly a killer. We puzzled slightly over the information that thousands of medieval pilgrims had dropped dead of exhaustion before making the pass. Maybe they just hadn’t packed enough Tracker bars.
With the sun beating down, and the incline gentle, complacency set in around lunchtime, as we passed through the village of Vega de Valcarce, and drew each other’s attention to the pilgrim menu for 8 euros (about $11). is many things, but is rarely an ascetic experience. Sure, the sun means you occasionally have to rig up your rehydration system, but more often than not, a hike is handily punctuated at 10 mile intervals by cute villages with a choice of bars knocking out tempting 3-course meals, including wine, at bargain prices. Hiking in Spain
It’s that “including wine” bit that got us. All of us being from northern Europe, when we are offered wine, we tend to drink it. The 6 of us sitting down to lunch polished off a bottle in, well, 10 minutes actually, at which point the waiter brought another, all included in the set price. In this part of the country, red wine is made from the Mencia grape, originally planted by the Romans. Mencia is rarely seen outside Spain and not often outside the north-west, so when we started on the third bottle it was in the interests of cultural and historical research.
We emerged, a little lighter-headed, into a darker world. The sun had gone off to scorch the plains of the meseta , and we were feeling the first gusts from the Atlantic. The sky was dimmer, the path a little steeper, and, as the country lanes raised their incline from one in eight to one in six, I started appreciating Tracker bars.
The last 4-mile approach to O Cebreiro is topography’s way of asking pilgrims if they are really sure about this. The wooded glades make it deceptively idyllic, before you emerge to see the path follow a curving ridge ahead, a sitting target for those vicious winds from the west.
As the sky wondered whether to go for the dark gray or the indigo look, an old woman emerged from, well where exactly. I couldn’t tell, but she seemed to need to tell us something. “Tormenta, tormenta,” she hissed at us like something out of a low budget production of Macbeth that could only run to one crone. The rest of the party looked at me, the official linguist. “She says there’s a storm coming, and we need to go and shelter in her barn.” We looked down at the structure, a century or so older than its owner, and realised the origin of the pungent smell of vintage cow manure.
“Nah,” we said as one, “we’ll push on.” Maybe she cackled when she retreated, or maybe it was the first crack of lightning, but within a minute of our reaching the ridge path, the rain swept in, clouds dropping the great gouts of Maryland moisture they had Fed-Exed over the Atlantic with our name on them.
Those who had packed the waterproof pants would have been snug and smug, were it not for the fact that by the time they had broken into their rucksacks to retrieve them, their thighs were thoroughly drenched. As the lightning flickered to the west, we realised that we had timed our hike to be on pretty much the most exposed ridge in Western Europe at the height of the storm.
There was a ruined shepherd’s hut about a mile out of O Cebreiro, where we regrouped. Brian had slid on the trail, and was coated in the first mud of Galicia. The rest of us limped in too-new boots, shook slightly in a sugar comedown, parched by Mencia-induced dehydration, soaked to the bones. “Maybe that old lady had a point,” someone mumbled.
O Cebreiro was worth it all. More than 4000 feet above sea level, bathed in mist, washed by the storm, its thatched pallozas, ancient shepherd’s dwellings, were clustered around the Iglesia de Santa María Real, the mountain-top church which dates back to the 9th century. They say the Holy Grail resides there, but they say that about a lot of places.
Comfortable beds under the eaves awaited in a rustic boarding house, with copies of the Voz De Galicia to stuff in our boots, and a hearty pilgrim’s menu to wolf by the log fire. Wine included.
We gathered for the next day’s start at the indolent hiker’s dawn (10 am), in time to see a troupe of colourful horseback pilgrims, all bright cloaks and scallop-shell staffs, clip-clop over the muddy cobbles. They greeted us with cheery grins and Castilian accents that would win them no friends in the determinedly separatist land of Galicia. Which, as the clouds cleared, stretched far below us in wet pastures, rocky crags and undulating slopes, all the way to Santiago.
The traditional medieval pilgrimage trail stretches from the French town of St Jean Pied Du Port to Santiago De Compostela, a distance of 497 miles, if you stay on the main path. In many areas there are alternative routes, avoiding high ground or skirting busy roads.
Along the trail, there are numerous pilgrim hostels or albergues where you can stay the night for a token sum or donation (less than 10 euros, often free). You will need to show the pilgrim card or credencial which can be obtained from a local pilgrim association or at the start of the route in Roncesvalles. Check www.caminosantiagocompostela.com for details of the albergues.
It is possible to do stretches of the Camino by making use of Spanish public transport. If you fly into Madrid for example, trains will take you to Leon, Burgos, Pamplona or Astorga, all on the trail. Visit www.renfe.com for details and timetables of Spanish trains.
The website at www.americanpilgrims.com is invaluable for information on the Camino, including everything from history to route guides.