Stage 7 - Leon to Vilafranca del Bierzo

13-17 September

Leon Cathedral Leon is a very attractive city, and rather friendlier than Burgos, at least in my experience. The cathedral, pictured here is not quite as architecturally spectacular, but it is run as a cathedral rather then a museum and boasts some fabulous stained glass which rivals Notre Dame in Paris. When I arrived at the hostel I was ready to give up the pilgrimage, but one of the wardens came to my rescue. She fed me dry toast and camomile tea, and later a bowl of plain rice. I stayed an extra day, and instead of going home I decided to catch up a couple of days by bus and continue on my way.

San Isidore
I also managed to meet up with a couple of German friends from further back and as they too were staying an extra day for sightseeing purposes my convalescence was rendered very pleasant. There are a number of interesting buildings in Leon. This picture shows the cloisters of San Isidoro. The second day I decided to wash my trousers, which meant I had to go around in my shorts. Unfortunately the weather turned quite cold, which meant my trousers did not dry very quickly and I got rather chilly! It was only the following morning that I realised just how cold it was. I set off for the buss station with my fleece on but felt cold. I wondered if I was still not recovered from my illness, but then I walked past several signs telling me the tempeture - it was 5 degrees centigrade. Encouraged by the knowledge that I was quite justified in feeling cold I continued by journey and got the bus to Astorga.

Astorga Cathedral Astorga cathedral is another soaring Gothic construction, as this slightly quirky picture illustrates. The 50 kilometer bus ride to Astorga was pleasant, and as one possibility for the Camino runs quite close to the road I had the experience of watching pilgrims as I passed them. Mind you, I was not the only pilgrim on the bus! But as I had already booked my flight home, and I had had more then my fare share of problems, I did not feel guilty. I got my Credencial stamped at the cathedral and headed west out of the city.

Pilgrim prayer On the way out of Astorga there is a rather modern church of St James, and to the left of the facade there is this pilgrims prayer. This is one of many such prayers found at various points, and sometimes also used in pilgrim blessings after Mass. My Spanish is rather poor, but my understanding is that it invites the pilgrim to consider the pilgrimage as an encounter with the landscape and the people, and ultimately with God.

Rabanal hostel My destination for the day was Rabanal del Camino, Only about 22 kilometers from Astorga but also a climb of about 300m. Enough for a convalescent! One of the hostels at Rabanal (pictured here) is jointly run by the English Confraternity of St James. As well as another picture of me, you can also see the sophisticated laundry facilities typical of the Camino.

It was here I met my Belgian companion once again, and also another German lady walking with her with whom I would spend quite a lot of the remainder of the journey.

As the hostel at Rabanal is run in part by the English I managed to get myself afternoon tea at 4pm. Sadly being a member of the English confraternity did not entitle me to any special treatment. Indeed it was one of the few places that I was forced to have a cold shower, as they were having a problem with their hot water system. I hope it is fixed now.

Next to the hostel is a small Benedictine monastery, and it is customary for the hostel residents to join the community for night prayer.

View at Foncebadon

The following day would see us reach the highest point on the Camino Frances at 1517m, though the climb is not all that dramatic as Rabanal is already at about 1150m. Foncebadon, from where the picture here is taken, is just short of the final height at 1495m. The route, of course, does not pass over peaks, but goes though gaps. The peaks of the nearby mountains are around 2000m

Cruz de Ferro The most significant landmark (though not quite the highest point) on this part of the path is Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross on top of a wooden pole, which is itself on to of a huge cairn. Originally simply a waymark, the cairn has gained its own significance. It is now a custom to bring a stone from your home to place on the cairn - though I forgot to bring a stone myself. Anyway from here it is all downhill - or so I thought!

Home of the Last Templar!
A few kilometers further on there is the almost deserted village of Manjarin in which is located one of the more unusual hostels. Very basic, it is run by a gentleman who styles himself as the last of the Templars. A night there is apparently a memorable experience - mostly for the right reasons. It is pictured here with my Belgian and German companions in the foreground. Unfortunately it was just 10km from Rabanal so staying here was not a serious option.

We continued on down the other side of the mountain range to stay overnight at Molinasecca. It was about here that I met up again with one of the few English guys on the Camino, and we would meet quite frequently from there on, though we rarely walked together.

The castle at Ponferada The next day too us through the last major town on the route - Ponferada. The city is located in a valley between several mountain ranges, ad approaching i in the morning was attractive even if the town itself looks rather soulless and modern when approached from the East. Fortunately the recommended route swings round to the south through a couple of attractive villages before turning north into the old city which is to the west. Here one of the first major buildings to be encountered is the rather impressive 13th century Templar castle pictured here. The Cathedral is also worth a visit.

The rest of the days journey took us to Villafranca del Bierzo, and the famous 'Phoenix' hostel, with the prospect of the last major climb on the Camino the following day