Villafranca del Bierzo holds fond memories. It’s a quaint town, and I spent four weeks here in 2002. While I awaited the arrival of a friend to walk the last section with me, I worked on a new extension for Jato, the owner. I’m not staying this time, keen to keep my memories as they are.
I dip into the town, eat, and drink some water before climbing steeply. The two route options leaving Villafranca entail either a six-mile road walk or a seven-mile alternative that climbs up to glorious views. I pick the latter, peering down at a line of pilgrims weaving along the road. Asking myself why they have taken this route when they could be in the cooler air, away from the traffic and walking through chestnut woods. I find no answers.
I fall down to Trabadelo and follow a quieter road to Las Herrerias, La Portela de Valcarce, and finally arrive in Ambasmestas. Angel, the owner of the Das Animas Albergue, shows me the dormitory, empty save a Spanish cyclist.
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Tired, I go to bed early at 9pm, needing my strength for tomorrow as the climb up to O Cebreiro beckons and another long day is ahead of me.
At 6.30am the following morning the village is dark and quiet. Keen for an early start to get up and over O Cebreiro I pull my jacket collar up around my neck, stuff my hands deep into my pockets and scout for an open cafe. I have an hour of darkness left and quick glances behind me reveal the horizon glowing orange.
Passing through a succession of small hamlets – Vega de Valcarce, Ruitelan, Las Herrerias and La Fabe – the way rises. Hills either side cup me in, and the River Mazaco foams and gushes as the mountains funnel me upwards. Sunlight gradually clears the tops and drifts down to meet me, and I’m grateful for the warmth on my face as a mist slowly evaporates, creating vapours that snake upwards. The dew winks back at me from sodden grass.