I've entered the final mountain stages. For the last 3 weeks, I’ve been walking like a sleepy mule, but now I need to be alert like a mountain goat. The muddy path is filled with loose stones. That same material is used to make beautiful houses in picturesque mountain villages. Today the Camino gradually climbs to over 1500 meters, higher than the Pyrenees. Yet, it doesn’t feel that hard. The slope is a picnic compared to the Col de Lepoeder.
The weather is playing games. The trick is to stay warm without getting wet from the sweat. An endless choreography of zipping and unzipping unravels. I'm an expert by now. After Rabanal del Camino, we climb the final 400 meters to Foncebadon, a rather miserable mountain village. Sad hostels, overpriced mini-markets and collapsed buildings are crying along a dirt road. But there’s hope, workmen are restoring the village church.
After 2 miles, I pass the famous Cruz de Ferro standing on a pile of stones left by pilgrims. How many souls must have come here before me? Hundreds, thousands, millions, each leaving a stone, picture or object from home. The cross marks the highest point of the Camino Frances, but it’s more than that. Here, we literally throw the weight of the past off our shoulders. I see many fellow pilgrims in deep meditation. Marco, one of the strong Italians is cracking. I let him have a moment to himself, we’ll catch up later. I leave my stone next to the pole. It's a compelling moment, a moment of reflection, but mostly of thanks. I’m grateful for the safe journey. I've walked 600 km, rebirth in Santiago is only 1 week away.
But we're not there yet. I’m running low on water. I was hoping to resupply in Manjarin, but I only find a bric-a-brac refuge. A collage of recycled wood, religious statues and signs posts create a post-apocalyptic scenery. Luckily, inside a good soul has left coffee and water for the pilgrims. God bless him. Without this gesture, I would have gotten into serious trouble.
The Camino nosedives into the valley. The decent to El Acebo is long and dangerous. Remember, most accidents happen on the way down, when fatigue sets in. For the first time, I regret not bringing my hiking stick. Eh gringo, tranquilo! It would be a shame to get injured, this far into the race. Slow and steady. I can already see the lovely mountain village of El Acebo. The Casa del Peregrino is on the other side of town. A superb place, on the edge of the valley. It even has a swimming pool. Hallelujah! This rebirth idea really seems to work.
Murias de Rechivaldo to El Acebo is 34 km through the mountains. It’s one of the legendary stages. The climbing ain’t that bad. Going down is the hard part. Be careful.
The Cruz de Ferro is an iconic Camino moment. Don’t forget to bring a stone from home.
Beware. There’s a mistake in the free Camino app. The outstanding Albergue La Casa del Peregrino is situated in El Acebo, NOT Riego de Ambros (the village right after, as indicated on the app) - +34 987 05 77 93 - open all year 11 am to midnight. 96 beds, 10 euro. 8 beds per room with all the fancy smancy gadgets: reading lights and plugs. Superb facilities. An amazing terrace overlooks the valley. Giant cocktails are served. Breakfast comes with a breathtaking sunrise. Fair pilgrim’s meal in upscale restaurant. Leather salons. Even has a swimming pool. I guess we all deserve a little luxury, right, Saint James?
Next Episode: ‘Day 21 to Villafranca del Bierzo - Meeting Jesus’