Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – Las Herrerías – Alto de Poio

I left Ponferrada on Thursday morning feeling broadly positive about the day. It was hot, but I’m kind of getting used to that now. Even my whiter than white Irish skin is getting a bit harder to burn than it was. 

I stopped in a cafe after a while and had a cold drink and did some work online. It’s really difficult to balance work with the Camino. When I mention to other pilgrims that I am doing some online work, they’re appalled. It’s very hard to get into the work headspace sometimes. I was trying to diplomatically explain to a student that grounded theory wasn’t what she thought it was, but all that was going through my mind was how many kilometres I could do and how my ankles were coping and where I would stay that night. 

As I was walking later that afternoon, a Korean man greeted me, telling me we’d shared a room in the hostel in Logroño. I don’t remember anyone from that hostel. I was too busy trying to deal with the first real breakout of my ankle pain that night. However, I was delighted that someone who was in Logroño four weeks ago was only at the same place as me now. It makes me feel like I’m doing an OK pace. 

I’m having more conversations on the road. Now that I’m covering greater distances, I tend to see the same people every day. Some are more friendly than others. Some know my name. I have to admit that the only person whose name I know is the French-Canadian girl who I have met every day now for about a week. They might recognise me and I recognise some of them, but more than once someone has greeted me as Connor and I’ve been perfectly friendly but I’ve just shrugged internally because I don’t know this skinny person from all the other skinny people I see every day here. 

I keep meeting a “Camino couple” on the road – an American guy and a Finnish girl. They’re really chatty. I told the Finnish girl about how obsessed I got with Finland when I was 21 and I decided I was going to work there and so I qualified as an English teacher and went to Helsinki to look for a job. I got really enthusiastic about Finland and I think I scared the girl. I think she thought I was coming on to her. She pulled back from me as I got more excited about Finland. I wanted to say “It’s OK. I’m a great big homosexual gay. I’m not coming on to you at all at all. I just really like Finland.” But I didn’t. 

I have found myself in knots about greeting women on the Camino. I know from the feminism episode of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” that men sometimes only greet other men and don’t acknowledge women in group situations. When two or three pilgrims pass me together and say “Buen Camino!” I’ll say “Buen Camino!” in return. If everyone in the group is a man, I only say it once. If the person nearest me as they overtake me is a woman, I’ll only say it once and make sure to make eye contact with the woman as I do so. If the person nearest to me is a man, I’ll say “Buen Camino!” to the group in general and then crane my neck out and make eye contact with the woman and say another “Buen Camino!” to her especially. Just in case. 

You see a lot of hippies on the road. Generally I enjoy them. I like the whole weirdo/free love/colourful/alternative vibe. However, there’s one woman who I just can’t take. I’ve seen her about 10 times on the road. Sometimes she skips while she walks. Sometimes she throws her arms out as if she’s going to be crucified and runs into a breeze. Sometimes she twirls. I’ve seen her excitedly picking blades of grass and eating them. She’s often chanting to herself as she walks, or sometimes singing out loud. I’ve also heard her talking to herself. I think I quite like all of these things individually, but the fact that she does them all just scares me. 

I got to Villafranca at 9:30 pm. I found somewhere to stay. For the first time ever, I was stopping, not from exhaustion, but because I was worried there wouldn’t be anywhere to stay after 10:00 in the next village. For the first time on the Camino, I was going to bed with energy to spare. 

I woke up suddenly at 4:00 am and checked my phone. The UK had voted to exit the EU and Twitter was going bananas. My political-nerd-guardian-angel obviously knew I’d need to witness this and that’s why I woke up at exactly the time it was becoming clear what the result was. 

The whole Brexit drama meant I didn’t leave Villafranca until late that morning. Throughout the day, pilgrims, waiters and receptionists were eager to tell me that Britain had left the EU, especially when they heard I was Irish, as most of them seemed to think that Ireland is in the UK. Sometimes I corrected them. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes it’s ok that a waiter in a bar in a little Spanish mountain village thinks that Ireland is part of the UK. 

It was an OK day of walking. There were lots of villages and places to stop along the way. However, my left ankle was playing up terribly. I’m proud of the fact that since I stared the Camino my fitness has improved and that I can feel new muscles developing. However, I do worry that I might have done long-term damage to my ankles. Some things that shouldn’t be hard have got harder since I started the Camino. For instance, I now find it more difficult to walk downstairs than I did before because of the impact on my heels. Hopefully this is just temporary. I switched the support bandages I had for my ankles around, so the tighter one, that I usually wear on my right ankle, was now on my left one. That helped a lot. Fingers crossed my ankles can make it through the final week. 

As I was walking, I got a phonecall from an Indian number. Even though I would have to pay roaming charges, I answered it. Of course I did. It’s not every day I get a phonecall from India! It was a man from a marketing firm. He wanted to know if I wanted to promote my business internationally. My business? What business? I was getting very excited. Maybe I had inherited a company from a grand-uncle I’d never met. The man explained that I was the owner of the domain name projectconnor.com and would I like to promote that. LOL. I might love my blog, but I don’t have an international marketing budget for it. 

My late start meant that I didn’t make as much progress yesterday as I’d wanted to. I walked until the last minute possible, checking into a hostel at 9:50, with lights out at 10:00. As I was walking in the dusk, Spaniards looked at me in shock and called out that I really needed to stop walking soon. 

Today, I was up early and ready for a challenging day. Today is a famous day on the Camino. The walk up to O’Cebreiro is legendary as the longest and steepest uphill stretch of the whole walk and I was dreading it. Lots of people send their rucksacks ahead to O’Cebreiro in taxis. There’s a service offering horse rides up the hill and a lot of people opt for that. As I was setting off up the hill, I saw lots of people in taxis, getting driven up the hill. I also passed a group on horseback. One of the pilgrims was clearly terrified of horses and she screamed every time her horse went towards the valley side of the road, as if he was about to jump off the edge. The horse owner was getting annoyed with her, telling her that screaming would scare the horse. I was glad I was walking. I could only imagine myself on the back of a kamikaze horse trying desperately not to shriek. 

The walk uphill was definitely hard. For about seven km I was pretty much constantly out of breath. I stopped for a Coke in a bar in a village on the way up and the bar staff were driven half mad by panting pilgrims coming in and asking “Is this O’Cebreiro?” only to be told they had another two kilometres to go up the mountain. Some of them looked very upset by this. 

I didn’t enjoy the climb, but I didn’t find it as hard as I had expected to. I got to the top and I felt victorious. Here were all these skinny people who had come on horses or in taxis, who had sent their bags ahead and here was me, all 28 stone of me with my backpack on my back and I’d made it comfortably. I have spent weeks dreading this mountain. Weeks. And it was fine. Not only that, but I still had fuel in my tank. It was only 3:00 pm and I was going to walk on. 

I kept going. The farmland around here has changed now that I’ve crossed into Galicia (the province that Santiago is in). All along, I got used to vineyards and wheat fields. Hereabouts, it’s all cattle farming. Cows here wear bells around their necks and three times today I’ve shared the road with cows. I’m not great with animals. I’ve coped with the many, many barking dogs you come across on the Camino. But cows are a different story. Every time I’ve had cows walking in my path today, I’ve frozen completely and let them pass. My heart rate elevated with fear every time. My logical brain was telling me that cows are domesticated, that they are herbivores and won’t want to eat me, that I know lots of people from the country and none of them have ever died at the hooves of a cow. But they’re still terrifying creatures. Spanish cows keep their horns, which makes them more scary. If a cow were to attack me, I wouldn’t stand a chance. I could be crushed in seconds. 

The villages in this area so far aren’t particularly pretty. They all seem to be sandwiched between cattle farms and every village so far has had rivers of cow shit running down the middle of the main street. 

That said, I’m glad that I’m finally in Galicia. I have 5 days to go about 140 kms. I should manage it. Probably. 

After O’Cebreiro, I came part of the way down the mountain and then back up another one. Tonight I’m staying at the top of that mountain in a hotel that appears not to have been done up since Franco was in power. Even though there seem to be only about three people staying here, the owner was entirely displeased to see me, welcoming me like Basil Fawlty would welcome a German guest. He showed me to my room and then rushed ahead of me into it, flushing the toilet before I got in. I don’t want to know why that was necessary. Dinner here was a bizarre pasta dish with a cheap-tasting sweet tomato sauce (possibly ketchup), some chopped up sausages mixed in and two hard-boiled eggs on top. 
I think I might go somewhere else for breakfast. 

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One Response to Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – Las Herrerías – Alto de Poio

  1. Teresa says:

    I’m Spanish and I also walked the same villages you are walking now. I am following you during your way, I’m not a new follower, I have ben reading your always amazing posts for more than two years now, but this way of telling your experience during the “camino” is special, I’m always looking forward to the next. BUEN CAMINO. Connor and congratulations for both, the posts and the challenge. You are great!!

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