Day 21: Villafranca del Bierzo – O’Cebreiro: 18 miles
Friday, September 30, 2016: Departed: 7:30am, Arrived 3:00pm
We crossed the tall bridge over the Rio Burbia along with a steady stream of pilgrims in the pre-dawn darkness, all of our minds set on the long uphill stage ahead. Most of today’s stage stayed along a local highway flanking the Rio Pereje, heading gradually uphill, but we knew that the latter third of the stage, departed the highway for more local roads, often dirt, that climbed more steeply toward high ridgeline pass. So we stopped several times for two breakfasts and a lunch in some of the villages to fortify ourselves for the final climb. The scenery along the way often looked very similar to Western North Carolina – mountain valleys covered with hardwood forests and split by clear tumbling streams.
When we reached the “difficult” ups, it wasn’t actually too bad since the steepness and openness of the higher elevation afforded increasingly spectacular views. We hammered it out, officially crossing the border into the region of Galicia, and were rewarded with our overnight destination when we reached the pass: O’Cebreiro. It is a beautiful town of natural hard stones, and it straddles a high mountain pass such that you can look for miles over valleys in both directions: Where we came from and where we are headed. While the town is one of the more scenic we’ve stayed in, it has more of a manicured tourist feel. All of the buildings are either lodging, restaurants, or gift shops – often a mix of all of the above. I have to wonder who the locals actually are, if any. Many of the towns we pass through have pilgrim themed tourist shops, but this is the first one where I actually felt like I was in Camino Disneyland.
Still, the town was genuinely beautiful, and our large municipal albergue sits just at the edge of town with a picnic hill above. We arrived early enough and secured beds, that after a shower, we had time to just chill, so I walked up to the hill above to enjoy the views and take a nap in the grass. The albergue sleeps over a 100 people, so it’s more of the type that we like to call “pilgrim factory” where everything is more professional and efficient, but less communal. Despite the big impersonal tendency of such large albergues, there was a kind of camaraderie among the pilgrims since they had all come up from below on a long stage. On the way up, we encountered many of the friends we’ve made along the way, and the town being so small, we found each other and agreed to go get the pilgrim’s menu together at one of the restaurants. So we were able to create our own “community vibe” over a very fun dinner. Joining Kim and I were, Magnus & Roxanna, Eric the Dutchman, and ? the chatty Canadian. I hope we continue to cross paths. When we left the restaurant for the short walk back to the albergue, we got an amazing sunset through the rain clouds to the west. There are rumors of rain tomorrow. We’ve been so fortunate with weather thus far, after a few drizzly days the first week, we’ve not had a lick of rain the last two weeks, and the days and nights have been a moderate balance. I suppose we’re due for some rain, considering we’ve hiked into a much greener part of the country.