Day 24 Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada – 32.7km
This is a longer day’s walk than usual, however, the first part is interesting and wild, and the second half is easy going and the last third into Ponferrada is fairly dull road and hard gravel paths.
Unlike many places you will be able to have breakfast in Rabanal, two albergues serve food and it is worth eating, however, there are places to eat at Foncebadon, El Acebo and Molinaseca. There are fountains during the day to refill with drinking water.
At all times of the year an early start will be chilly, so it worth having your fleece out as you start walking. The panorama views in the mountains are beautiful. The first village you will walk through is Foncebadon which was abandoned for many years, however due to the Camino there are now a few residents and four pilgrim hostels, there was only one the first time I passed through.
Today is a day that many pilgrims hope to be lighter, both physically and spiritually. The Cruz del Ferro is an iron cross on top of a 5 metre wooden pole. Many pilgrims bring a stone from home to leave with the many thousands of stones already there. Leaving a stone is the sign of leaving behind a burden, or letting go of something in your life. However, it is best not to be here from 11am onwards when tourist buses start to arrive as this detracts from the atmosphere. Though, even with only pilgrims, there can be a queue for the obligatorily photo beside the cross. Near the cross is the Hermitage de Santiago, it was built for a holy year and normally remain closed and locked. The cross is at 1,500m and just after is the high point of the day at 1,520m and the highest point of the whole Camino Frances.
The next village was also abandoned and ruined until the Camino started to become popular again. There is now an albergue here. It is one of the strangest albergues along the Camino and therefore it is worth stopping to have a tea or coffee. It is normally open all day to welcome pilgrims.
El Acebo is the start of civilization once again. It is a picturesque little one street village that caters to the many pilgrims that pass through and it is a great place to either stop for the day or to have lunch.
Continuing downhill and following the arrows the next stopping place is Molinaseca. The town has an outstanding Romanesque bridge that leads across the river into the town and the main street. At the end of the bridge on the left is a great little cafe where you can hang out for a while with a view of the bridge and say hello to fellow pilgrims.
Make sure you have water when leaving Molinaseca as there are no fountains before the hostel in Ponferrada, which is nearly another 8km. This last 8km is semi-urban and much of the walking is beside the road with little tree coverage.
The main hostel in Ponferrada is relatively new and there is a smallish supermarket nearby for food , so I did not walk into Ponferrada till the next morning and I just used the internet and soaked my feet in the fountain out front.
Foncebadon 5.6km, water, bar, cafe,
Albergue De Monte Irago, Foncebadón, private, K, W, D, V, M, B, Bike, Tel: 695 452 950, open all year.
Albergue Domus Dei de Foncebadon, Calle Real, parochial, donation, 18 beds, W, K, @, M, B, Tel: none, Web: https://www.facebook.com/alberguefoncebadon, open Apr to Oct inc.
Albergue Convento de Foncebadon, private, €7, 30 beds, M, V, B, @, Tel: 658 974 818,
Albergue La Cruz de Fierro, Calle Real, private, €7, 40 beds, W, D, V, K, Tel: 987 691 093, 665 258 169,
Albergue Roger de Lauria, @, Bike, Tel: 625 313 425, open Feb to Nov inc.
Albergue La Posada del Druida, €7, 20 beds, W, D, K, Tel: 696 820 136, https://www.facebook.com/LaPosadadelDruida, open Mar to Oct inc.
Foncebadon has reawakened due to the popularity of the Camino, the first time I walked through the villages most of the houses were only crumbling walls. Today there is a thriving cafe and four albergues; Gaucelmo, the hermit, would be proud; he built the second hospice here in the 12th century, the Hospital of San Juan, which was 300 meters beyond the village.
In 1103 the Church of San Salvador de Irago was built here. By the 1980’s the church was a ruin. However, it has been partially renovated and has an albergue built into the side of it.
Cruz de Ferro 2.1km
The Iron Cross stands at 1,504 metres above sea and is surrounded by stones and tokens that many pilgrims leave here as a sign of love, leaving something behind, or of contrition. It is a simple five meter wooden pole topped with an iron cross. The cross is a replica of the original which is now housed in the Museum of the Ways in Astorga.
It is believed that the pile of stones pre-dates Christianity as the Celts where in the habit of marking high mountain tops that were used as tracks with stone, the Gaelic word is still in use today – Cairns. This tradition could have continued with the Romans who also marked high passes to honour the god Mercury who was then the patron saint of travellers.
It is believed that Gaucelmo Christianised what was a pagan monument as he Christianised the surrounding area.
The small chapel built to the side of the Cruz de Ferro was constructed in 1982 and is normally closed.
Manjarin 2km, water, tea, sometimes snacks
Refuge, beside road, donation, 35 beds, K, open all year.
Manjarin is an abandon 12th century village that is mostly in ruins, there was a pilgrims hospice here in 1180 and there are records of its existence until the 16th century. Its official population is 1; that is Thomas who runs an unusual albergue with places for 35 pilgrims in tents and wooden shacks. It is worthwhile stopping for a coffee and enjoying the atmosphere.
El Acebo 6.8km, water, cafe, shop
Albergue Apostol Santiago, Plaza de la Iglesia, par, donation, 23 beds, W, K, M, B, Bike, Tel: none, open Apr to Oct inc.
Mesón El Acebo, 16 Calle Real, private, €5, 23 beds, W, D, V, Bike, Tel: 987 695 074, Web: http://www.mesonelacebo.com/, open 20th Jan to 22nd Dec
Albergue La Taberna de Jose, private, €5, 7 beds, overflow for above.
Albergue La Casa del Peregrino, Carretera de Compludo, s/n, €10, 103 beds, private, W, D, V, @, Bike, Tel: 987 057 875, Web: http://www.alberguelacasadelperegrino.es/, open 10th Jan to 20th Dec.
El Acebo is another mountain village that was nearly abandoned, but has had life breathed back into it due to the Camino Frances. It is said the villagers of Acebo enjoyed a tax free life in return for marking the pilgrims route with 800 stakes over the pass from Foncebadon. This is a good place to stop for lunch as there are several options.
The 15th century parish Church of San Miguel contains a statue that could be either Santiago or San Juan Bauista. However, it is a beautiful statue with a tunic decorated with fleur de lys, which according to the Codex Calixtinus is one of the symbols of St James.
Riego de Ambros 3.9km, water, bar, cafe, shop
Albergue De Peregrinos, Avenida Fraga Iribarne, municipal, €5, 30 beds, W, D, K, V, Bike, Tel: 987 695 190, open Apr to Oct inc.
Riego de Ambros is a beautiful mountain village and worth staying in to avoid the busy city and albergue in Ponferrada. There was a pilgrim’s hostel here in the 12th century.
The 16th century Parish Church is dedicated to Mary Magdalena, its one interesting feature is the Baroque retablo.
Leaving Riego de Ambros we continue steeply downhill to Molinasca. Cyclists are warned to be careful on this section as one German pilgrim has already died on this section.
Molinaseca 4.6km, all services
Albergue Municipal San Roque, Avenida Fraga Iribarne, €5, 25 beds, W, D, V, Cred, Tel: 987 453 077, open all year.
Albergue Santa Marina, Avenida Fraga Iribarne, private, €7, 56 beds, W, D, M, B, Bike, Tel: 987 453 077, open mid Mar to Nov inc.
On the last downhill stretch into the town the on the right built into the cliff is the beautiful 18th century baroque chapel Capilla de la Virgen de las Angustias. Shortly you cross the river Meruelo on a Romanesque bridge into the town, the river is a good place to cool sore and hot feet.
Molinaseca prospered after being sold by the Monastery de Sandoval to the Monastery of Carracedo in the 13th century. After its sale, the town was granted a charter to encourage French traders to settle which aided the growth of a market town.
The Neoclassical church of San Nicholas de Bari replaced an earlier 12th century construction. Inside there is a figure of San Roque and a Churrigueresque retablo from 1674. (Churrigueresque is a particular Spanish Baroque style)
Ponferrada 7.7km, all services
Albergue San Nicolas de Flue, c/ de la Loma, par, donation, 174 beds, W, D, K, V, @, Cred, Bike, Tel: 987 413 381, open all year.
Albergue Alea, c/ Teleno, 33, private, €10, 18 beds, W, D, Tel: 987 404 133, http://alberguealea.com/ Open Mar to Nov inc.
Ponferrada became a city in 1908 with a population of only 3,000 at that time. Today the population has grown to over 67,000 making it the last large city before Santiago in about 8 to 10 days. The city sits in a strategic location, first as it overlooked the surrounding fertile valley and then as a rich mining district. It is believed the area was settled before the Romans invaded and first built a fort and started mining. The Roman fort was destroyed by the Visigoths around 456 and the Moors destroyed the town during their 9th century invasion. The city was reconquered by Alfonso III el Magno who started the reconstruction. The first documented evidence of building for pilgrims was the construction of a bridge for pilgrims in 1082. The bridge reinforced with iron bars gave the city its name: Pons Ferrata.
Ponferrada Castle: Late in the 12th century the city was entrusted to the Knight Templar who starting building the castle in 1218 and finished in 1282. However, they only got to enjoy the finished work for just over twenty years. The Templars had become powerful, wealthy, and political, therefore, they were feared which led to their downfall. Rumours abound that they did not believe in Christ, the Virgin and they worshipped demons. All this led first to their general arrest in France in 1307, Spain followed a year later; the Order was dissolved in 1312. During the next 300 years, the castle changed hands frequently between various Spanish nobility as they fought over land and rights. In 1507 the castle was taken by the crown and then later sold to the Marques de Villafranca which led to long settled period until the War of Independence in the 19th century. Daily tours are available and the castle can be visited between 10.00 and 14.00 and 16.30 and 20.30 between 1st April and 15th Oct. For times outside of these dates see their website. http://www.ponferrada.org/turismo/en/monuments/templar-castle
The Church of San Andres is mostly now of 17th century reconstruction. Inside there is a Christ known as the Cristo de las Maravillas which interesting is thought to be of Templar origin showing Christ in a skirt. There is also an interesting Baroque retablo.
The Church of Santa Maria de la Encina was originally built in the 12th century and has been replaced by the current church constructed between 1573 and 1660. In the centre of the main retablo is an image of the virgin which legend says was discovered by the Templars in an Oak tree while they were building the castle. Note the depiction of the Last Judgement, on the north aisle wall, of souls awaiting admittance to heaven, some in hell, and others in purgatory. On the way back out of the church you face three statutes of Christ with different expressions; these have been described as suffering, Godly, and as self absorbed.
The Museum del Bierzo has been installed in a former prison which was built in the 16th century. Separate rooms explain the different periods in the history of the area; the Castro culture, Roman mining, archaeology, and of course the Templars.
Read info on being a volunteer in the hostel in Rabanal del Camino