The refuge in Astorga was in a 16thC stone and wood building so everything creaked! When someone walked on the upstairs floors it sounded as though there were workmen up there and even the wooden beds creaked whenever someone turned over. We left the refuge at 6h45 and used my head-waist flashlight to see the way to the next town. Sunrise is closer to 8am now and we walk under brilliant stars for about an hour. After having a cafe at the next village we walked on to Santa Catlina where we had planned to spend the night but it was quite early so we decided to walk on to the next village. Santa Catalina had about 4 different cafe-bars to choose from and a pretty main street starting at one end and exiting the other. As we were leaving we saw the albergue sign and decided to have a look. It was up a short alley and as we entered the garden I had another deja-vu moment. Clare and Georgette will remember the strange little town we arrived at where we sat on the pavement waiting for the refuge to open. There was nobody about and even the only bar in town couldn't tell us when the refuge would open. Eventually a kid on a bike arrived and opened the albergue. The yard was in a real mess so we and a couple of other pilgrims picked up all the garbage and tidied up a bit. There was no food to be had in the village so we sat under a little overhang and boiled water for our packet soup. What a change in 5 years - the growth in popularity of the camino has resulted in the regeneration of many villages along the way.
From Santa Catlina we walked on to El Ganso where we were expecting to sleep on the floor in a very primitive albergue but a new refuge has opened this year and we were the first three pilgrims to arrive on her doorstep. We had a three-bed room to ourselves with an en suit shower and toilet. What a pleasure! El Ganso has the most photographed bar on the whole camino - it is called the Cowboy Bar and even plays country and western music.
We only had 17kms to walk so we left a little later than usual. Our first stop was at Rabanal - a well-known and popular place for pilgrims to stay. Then we walked on to Foncebadon, the abandoned village which in 2002 looked like something from a Western movie set with dilapidated houses falling down, the wind moaning through broken rafters and tumbleweed rolling through the dust. It now sports two albergues a cafe bar and a restaurant! I couldn't believe it and was horrified by all the electricity poles with wires hanging everywhere.
Two kms further on was the Cruz de Ferro - a very tall iron cross with an enormous pile of stones at its base which is said to have started in the middle ages as a pagan stake with a stone pile to show travellers the way. In 2002 we left stones there for Hansie Cronje who had died in the planes crash the day before. This time we climbed the huge pile and I left my stone, brought from the Durban beachfront.
We then walked on to Manjarin, another abandoned village occupied about 20 years by Tomas Martinez le Paz who was visited in a dream by the angel Michael, left his job and home and founded a pilgrim refuge in a broken down building on the side of the road. There were storm clouds brewing on our way there and when we arrived, two adult men were having a violent fisty-cuff in the outside courtyard. We were a bit taken aback and sat quietly waiting for the hospitalero to attend to us. We learned that Tomas's aunt had died and he was away attending the funeral. A young man showed us where we would sleep - in a disused barn with mattresses on the floor - two people to a mattress. There were cats, dogs, turkeys gobbling, chickens crowing and even a cow penned across the road. There is no running water, no WC and no electricity so it was the closest thing one could get to a medieval pilgrim refuge. Tomas arrived back in the afternoon and we helped carry things inside as the rain came down. I gave him the painting and the photo album and he was really chuffed with both. The young people there cooked our dinner and we all sat at a long table - about 10 of us - eating in lamplight. I helped wash up and then we found our way to bed.
We had a good sleep in Tomas's barn last night and we were on the road by 7h15 this morning. The scenery was spectacular - the best on the whole camino says the guidebook. We reached the highest point of the camino at 1500m and stood singing the 'Hills are alive with the sound of music' while I took a short video of the scenery. The hills are covered in Heather and Erica and lots of broom and other fynbos type plants. From the highest point we started coming down on a very rough shale path all the way to el Acebo, a village tucked into the lee of the mountain. There is a bicycle fixed to a pedestal outside El Acebo, which is in honour of a woman who died there in 2005.
From El Acebo we walked on to Molinaseca and had a lovely hot chocolate at a cafe bar. On the way out we peeped into the albergue where Georgette, Clare and I slept on mattresses in the kitchen in 2002!
We arrived in Ponferrada at about 2:30pm and booked into the albergue here. It is a huge albergue and sleeps almost 200 people. The whole place is run on a donation basis. A Swedish religious group sponsors it. Marion and I walked into town to have a look at the castle (Joy-belle, you will remember the castle from 2004) and also to buy food for supper, which we made in the refuge kitchen. It had started to rain again but we were able to have our washing dried in a tumble dryer for 3 euro, which is a great help.
Tomorrow we will walk to Villafranca del Bierzo where I want us to stay at Ave Fenix, another rather basic refuge with Jesus Jato and his family. We just hope that it doesn't rain as our plastic ponchos are already coming apart at the seams.
Only three more days walking till Finn arrives and then we will stretch the last week out as much as possible.
Love to all,
S A M