Day 25 is Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo and it an easy 23.3km.
Today is a fairly easy day walking as far as the Camino goes. Most of the day is through vineyards and along easy tracks underfoot. The maximum change in elevation over the day is about 70 meters.
If you have stayed overnight in the main hostel in Ponferrada now is a good time to see a little of Ponferrada, walk by the Templar’s Castle, and visit a bank machine to have enough money for the next three days as ATM’s will be patchy. There are water fountains well spaced throughout the day.
Ponferrada is a good place to have breakfast; however there are several small towns along the way today to stop for food. You can eat at Fuentes Nuevas, after 7.8km, Camponaraya is another 1.7km, then Cacabelos is another 5.8km. During the last 8km from Cacabelos to Villafranca it is fairly easy going, with only one small hill after the town, but there is no place to stop for water or food.
Compostilla is essentially a suburb of Ponferrada which became a coal mining company town during the 1960’s. However you will pass a new small church which has been built on the site of a medieval hermitage; the Nuestra Senora del Refugio is painted with pilgrim iconography that of course includes Santiago as a pilgrim.
Columbrianos 2.3km, water, bar
Columbrianos is a modern town with a ancient heart in the centre being one of the oldest towns in the Bierzo. There are two hermitages dedicated to St John and St Blase, and the Parish Church of San Esteban.
On the two rounded hills to the north sit two pre-Roman castros.
Fuentes Nuevas 2.8km, water, cafe
It will take little more than two minutes to walk through Fuentes Nuevas. There is a cafe for refreshments and the Camino passes the door of the Parish Church of Santa Maria and the Hermitage del Campo del Divino Cristo.
Camponaraya 1.7km, water, bar, shop
Albergue Nayara, Avenida de Galicia, 506, private, €8, 26 beds, M, B, @, Bike, Tel: 987 459 159, Web: www.alberguenaraya.es, Mar to Oct 31st.
Albergue Turistica El Camino, 500 meters off Camino marked, €10, 16 beds, K, @, Bike, open Mar to Nov Mon to Fri only
Camponaraya, the name and town was formed from two villages that joined together in the 15th century, each had developed on separate sides of the river.
The modern parish church is dedicated to San Ildefono, who was the Bishop of Toledo.
Cacabelos 5.8km, all services
Albergue Municipal, Plaza del Santuario, €5, 70 beds, W, D, V, @, Bike, Tel: 987 547 167, http://www.cacabelos.org, open May to Oct inc.
Albergue la Gallega, private, €10, 30 beds, W, D, V, M, B, @, Bike, Tel: 680 917 109, http://www.hostalgallega.com/, open all year.
Cacabelos is a sizable town with over five thousand inhabitants, and has strong links to the Camino evidenced by the five medieval pilgrim hospices that once existed here. It has been in existence since the 10th century, however the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 12th century and rebuilt by Bishop Diego who owned the town. Today the town is a centre for wine production.
The Archaeological Museum has displays from Celtic, Roman, and the Medieval period.
Within the Church of Santa Maria de la Plaza there is a beautiful 13th century statue of the Virgin carved in stone. Although the church was first built in the 12th century little remains from that period as it was reconstructed in the 16th century.
On the way out of the town, over the river Cua, stands the 18th century Sanctuario de la Quinta Angustia built on the site of a former hermitage. Inside the altarpiece is remarkable as it shows the Baby Jesus playing cards with Saint Anthony of Padua, well worth seeing.
Pieros 3.5, water, cafe
Albergue El Serbal y la Luna, private, €5, 18 beds, W, K, @, Bike, Tel: 639 888 924, open Mar to Oct inc.
Pieros has a population of only 35 inhabitants and the one albergue. There is a cafe which is part of the albergue and may not be open outside of the albergue opening times.
There is a path just beyond Pieros that leads up the Carro de la Ventosa, the large circular hill to the south. If you walk up this path it rejoins the pilgrim route further along. The top of the hill has been excavated and you can see the old Celtiberian defensive wall. This hill is an illustration of the castro culture, mostly Celtic, that inhabited the area from about 800B.C.E. until the Romans conquered Northern Spain. The villages appear to be the first permanent villages of clans that had been hunter gathers. Flat hilltops near rivers were chosen for the natural defence they offered.
Valtuille de Arriba 1.3km, water, cafe
The Camino Frances briefly passes through the south part of the village. There is a cafe and water if you walk further into the town.
Villafranca del Bierzo 3.2km, all services
Albergue Municipal, beside St James church, €6, 62 beds, W, D, K, V, @, Bike, Tel: 987 542 680, Web: http://www.villafrancadelbierzo.org/albergue/, open Easter to Nov inc.
Albergue Ave Fenix de Familia Jato, c/ Santiago, 10, private, €6, 80 beds, W, D, V, M, B, Cred, Bike, Tel: 987 542 655, Web: http://www.albergueavefenix.com/, open all year.
Albergue de la Piedra, c/ Espíritu Santo, 14, private, €8, 32 beds, W, D, K, V, @, Bike, Tel: 987 540 260, Web: http://www.alberguedelapiedra.com/, open Mar to Nov inc.
Albergue Hospederia San Nicolas El Real, private, €8, 150 beds, W, D, K, @, M, Bike, Tel: 696 978 653, Web: http://www.sannicolaselreal.com/, open all year.
Albergue Leo, private, €10, 32 beds, W, D, K, M, Bike, Tel: 987 542 658, Web: http://www.albergueleo.com/, open Mar to Nov inc.
Villafranca with a population of just over 5,300 has all you expect of a modern town, (website – http://www.villafrancadelbierzo.org). 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 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 “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 Crucifiction 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 sepulchers 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 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. Interesting 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.