Villafranca, with a population of just over 5,300, has all you expect of a modern town. There are many restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels; along with gift shops and a Tourist Office located just beyond the main square, opposite a park, at Avenue Diez Ovelar.
Villafranca is another town that developed as the result of its position on the Camino Frances.
Alfonso VI created a settlement here for Francos traders and brought Cluniac monks to Spain and settled them at strategic points along the Camino including Villafranca. By the mid 12th century half the inhabitants were foreigners, hence the name Villafranca – “Foreigners Town”.
The Osorio family owned and ruled Villafranca until the Catholic Monarchs installed the first Marquis in 1486, the second Marquis built the castle. However, the development of Villafranca suffered its first setback when the plague ravaged the town in 1589.
Floods destroyed much of the town in 1715, and in 1808 it was sacked by the French who were pushed out by the English who then went on to wreck the castle and in their fury they despoiled the churches and municipal building; this was eventually stopped only by the General having the leaders of the destruction shot.
In 1822 Villafranca became part of an independent Bierzo region separate from Leon, this only lasted two years. Today it is a pleasant peaceful town with picturesque streets and squares that is an ideal place to stop for a rest day.
The Church of Santiago Villafranca was built on the instruction of the Bishop of Astorga in 1186. The Northern doorway is called the “door of forgiveness”.
Those pilgrims unable to continue their way, due to illness, to Compostela are granted the same indulgences as if they had reached their destination in Santiago de Compostela, if they enter by this door, take communion, and are pardoned for their sins.
The north portal capitals focus on the three wise men, along with the Crucifixion and fantasy animals. The church is now used as an exhibition area.
Legend holds that Saint Francis founded the Church of San Francisco in 1214 during his pilgrimage to Santiago. The church has little of its Romanesque 13th-century origins due to a Gothic reconstruction in the 15th century.
Internally there are Gothic sepulchres of the Marques family. However, the most stunning artistic area is the Mudejar ceiling, one of the largest in Northern Spain. The 16th-century retablo de la Inmaculada is considered the best Renaissance retablo in the region.
The best piece in the 12th century Collegiate Church of Santa Maria de Cluniaco is the 16th-century Plateresque retablo de la Trinidad. The centre depicts a smiling God holding his crucified Son.
Gabriel Robles, a local who made his fortune mining in Peru, founded The Church of Saint Nicholas in 1638. The facade is an imitation of the Gesu at Rome and denotes its status as a Jesuit College later founded by the Marquis.
The Convent of the Annunciation was built on the site of the Hospital of Saint Roque. The convent was built as the result of the daughter of the Marquis refusing an arranged marriage and escaping from the castle and taking her vows.
The words “If you must be a nun, you will be the founder” are attributed to the Marquis. Interestingly, the Italian painter Jusepe Serena was hired to paint portraits of male hermits in the convent.
The 16th century Castle of the Marquesses of Villafranca is now owned by the Alvarez de Toledo family.
Today’s Walk: 30.3 km (18.8 mi)
Today we leave the province of Leon and enter Galicia. About 1 km (0.6 mi) after the village of Laguna de Castilla you will see the stones marking the boundary and the distance left to Santiago – 152 km (94 mi).
Where some guidebooks show three options today, in reality, there are only two well-marked routes.
You can leave Villafranca and stay on the main road and walk in the valley, the road is not very busy since a motorway has been opened nearby.
The second path involves a 400-meter (1310 ft) climb and descent to finish at the same place. The second route is certainly more scenic, but much more strenuous.
The first 20 km (12 mi) on Route one above is gently uphill and fairly easy; however the last 8 km (5 mi) is hard going with an ascent from 700 meters to 1,330 meters (2,300 to 4,360 ft), a hard afternoon.
Many pilgrims walk only the first 20 km (12 mi) today. Adding the km together from today and tomorrow comes to about 66 km (41 mi). Therefore many split what would be two hard days walking into three much easier days; there are enough hostels to do this.
Effectively pilgrims often walk from Villafranca to Vega de Valcarce, then from there to Fonfria, then to Sarria. Otherwise, you have one very hard day of 27.8 km (17.2 mi) and then another hard day of 38.5 km (24 mi).
Today there are many places for water but have breakfast before you leave Villafranca as there is nowhere to eat for 11.5 km (7 mi), until Trabadelo. After this, there are enough places for food and water for the rest of the day.
Be warned O Cebreiro is a tourist stop for buses and car drivers. It is strange walking into this little hamlet on top of the hills hearing what sounds like Scottish or Irish music, but it is local Celtic music.
It can be cold here in the middle of summer and I found myself stopping to don my fleece, in winter the area is often covered with snow.
4.5 km (2.8 mi), water – alternative route only
11.5 km (7.1 mi), water, cafe, bar, shop, pharmacy
Trabadelo is typical of the villages we will pass through during the next two days; one street villages seemingly isolated from the modern world.
For pilgrims of the past this was a dangerous area where local lords supported themselves by taxing pilgrims, violence was not uncommon, though Alfonso VI tried to put a stop to the practice.
The parish Church of San Nicolas contains a Romanesque Virgin.
La Portela de Valcarce
3.7 km (2.3 mi), water, bar
Tiny hamlet with only a handful of houses. The name of the town derives from Galician for narrow pass.
1 km (0.6 mi), water, bar
Another tiny hamlet with a small local church dedicated to San Pedro. The village name derives from a place where currents of water meet; this is where the river Balboa joins the river Valcarce.
Vega de Valcarce
2.3 km (1.4 mi), water, shop, bar, pharmacy, ATM last one till Triacastela, (2 days)
Vega stands at the top of the Valcarce valley. It is a small prosperous town with 670 inhabitants.
The small local church of Santa Magdalena holds little interest architecturally or interiorly.
Over the valley on a hill to the south was the castle of Sarracin founded in the 9th century. The Lords of Sarracin owned thirty-five towns in the area.
You can walk to the castle, it will take about 45 minutes round trip – however, this day is difficult enough for most of us already.
2.3 km (1.4 mi), water, bar, shop
Another hamlet with a population of 31 inhabitants.
The 15th century Parish church of San Juan Bautista has a small chapel dedicated to San Froilan who became the Bishop of Leon after founding a hermitage in this area.
Interestingly this left the church as a part of the Leon diocese rather than Astorga.
Las Herrerias de Valcarce
1.2 km (0.75 mi), water, bar, shop
Las Herrerias de Valcarce was known to medieval pilgrims as a place where excavated iron ore and brought to the village for smelting. It again is a tiny hamlet but useful for modern-day pilgrims as a stopping point for food and water.
3.2 km (2 mi), water, bar, shop
Another tiny village with only 25 inhabitants. The small 16th century Church of Saint Andrew was rebuilt during the 18th century.
La Laguna de Castilla
2.5 km (1.5 mi), water
La Laguna is the last town in Leon, however it looks and feels Galician. The stones houses, (pallozas), with thatched roofs are typically Galician and you will see many between here on Santiago.
There is a large horreo, corn storage, in the village; you will see hundreds of these for the next few days, however this is perhaps the best-preserved one between here and Santiago.
It is a 2.6-km (1.6 mi) walk from La Laguna to O Cebreiro, where you will find water, a bar, and a shop.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.