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Day 11: Astorga - Villafranca del Bierzo


Follow here my journey and stories around the World. 


Day 11: Astorga - Villafranca del Bierzo

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

With day 11 on the agenda and almost touching my home region Galicia with my fingertips, off we went the 7 of us direction Santiago de Compostela (if you missed the growth of our "Ondiñas" team, please check back on day 9 and day 10).

The "Ondiñas" team

As usual for us bikers, we were the last ones to leave the Albergue and right after went to indulge our early morning breakfast ritual. We rode mostly together, until at some point I lost the "Ondiñas" team by adventuring into a rough path, which on a given moment narrowed to a human size passage only, but a very fun one.

On the way I met Klaudia, a Spanish girl from Malaga who was doing the Camino to find herself and her own path. Strangely, she pointed out that I was one of the first Spanish she met and that most people only talked English, which she doesn't. It actually is true, most of the people I've met were from all over the World, so if you're going to do your Camino to learn some Spanish, you might consider the other paths like the "Camino del Norte" or the "Via de la Plata".

Camino Tech Station

When amidst bushes that were almost covering the whole track, my GoPro and camera run out of memory, so I simply pulled out a Pop Up Camino Tech Station, check out the pic. Cards emptied, off I went again through the treacherous narrow paths where I suddenly got reunited with one of our newer companions, the unstoppable pedaller, Andrew.

Cruz de Hierro - Iron Cross

Achieving together the heights of "Cruz de Hierro", what initially seemed to be a hard ride up, ended being a very pleasant one. The "Cruz de Hierro" is actually the highest point on the whole French Way, 1600 m of altitude. On top of it stands a 5m high pole with a cross (replica of the original) that gives this place its name (check here for more information; in Spanish only). 

Suddenly to our surprise, we found there a cinema crew too, they were filming some scenes of the film adaptation of the besteller book from the German Comedian Hape Hakeling: "Ich bin dan mal weg" (=I'm off for a while, then). In it, he covers his Camino de Santiago done a few years ago, narrating all the stories and people he encountered. It is not any kind of movie, it is one of the big German film productions with renowned actors like Devid Striesow, mainly known for his role in the Downfall and the Counterfeiters. Funny coincidence thou, that I started my own Way and travel blog precisely mentioning this book and story on day -1 while sipping a coffee in Bordeaux. 

When we were leaving the scene of this German "Hollywood", the crew were putting up some fake Camino stones and props. It was remarkable too, how fresh and energized the Camino "extras" were, their jeans, yes, jeans for an 800km "pilgrimage"... and their bags were immaculately clean. But you know, cinema is cinema! Meanwhile, dirty us, we hit the road to continue our dust gathering.

Nevertheless, don't mind too much my ironic account of events, remember that a story might not always be 100% real, but if its purpose is a pure and passionate one, it will still reflect the vision and emotions of a true story.

The amazing Andrew overlooking the amazing Bierzo region

Once back on the road, in total contrast with the previous days' monotonous rides, we were about to start one of my preferred actions on a bike: riding downhills! With a magnificent scenery as a background, our first descents took us through wild stone paths where our breaks had to be pulled constantly. Letting me finally convince by Andrew and to avoid breaking his beloved "wife", we chose a smoother path; consider that if a bicycle stands the fact of crossing from Canada to Argentina (yup, the fricking whole north to south ride), you might as well call her your wife. That's what Mr. Amazing Andrew did among many other great rides. If you're looking for your "wife/husband" too, consider this:

Twelfth recommendation of the Camino: if you plan to ride cross-country and on rough paths, consider a suspension mountain bike. But, if you're more into long distances on mainly flat but also off track trails, you might look at a touring bike; durable and fitted to carry all kinds of racks (that's Andrew's wife! Check here to know more about bicycle types).

Molinaseca village

Once on tarmac, we rode some of the best 20 to 30 min downhills I've ever done on a bicycle, the striking landscape and the serpentine roads made it a glorious descent. It all ended in a cobble stoned little town with a lovely river, a bridge and full of pilgrims. We went on however to the nearby Ponferrada, where by accident, we stumbled into the World Cycling Competition with teams and bikes from all over the World (Andrew has one amusing story with competing cyclists... but, I won't reveal it until the next Camino day).

Passing through this big World competition, we came across a couple of journalists, who actually were from the National Italian tv RAI uno (similar to Germany's RTL or England's BBC). We were bikers of an 800 kms journey, in a now cycling capital, one American long distance rider, a Spanish polyglot and a camera... well, the natural course of events was that an Interview was mandatory. So it was, that I pulled out my Italian side and answered to a few questions to Italy's biggest and main TV channel: my 15 minutes of fame! Yyyhaaa, I can check that one out of my bucket list! (mail me if you wish some signed portraits of mine ;) )


Ponferrada's Castle area


Trying to avoid the crowded Ponferrada, we ended the journey in Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the prettiest small mountain villages of the region. To our surprise, the girls and Felix were still behind us, their lunch pause got us ahead so it was our turn for the usual mass booking in the town's albergue. While we waited for them, I practised some German with 3 pilgrims and also met the first Danish pilgrim on the Camino, Fee, a young actress walking her first Camino. Don't forget me when you become a Hollywood star ;)

Villafranca del Bierzo's sunlights

Being ahead of time, I decided to grab my laptop (yes, I took my 13incher across hills, rocks, punctures and storms with me) and try to work on my blog. "Try" a peculiar word it is, since it may give you enough ambiguity that a task might not get fulfilled at all. And yes, that's exactly what happened to me. While I was looking for a quite and nice bar to settle down, I saw one with my favorite beer and as soon as I stopped, one of the most common things on the Camino happened, fellow pilgrims that were sipping some beers started talking with me, and I obviously joined them. That's when I met Brian, Emma, Ondrej and Brandon by pure coincidence (a mix of Aussies, Irish and Czech). I also did some arm weights exercises by carrying uselessly my laptop around Villafranca. We had some interesting conversations and it was a pure pilgrims moment, after a journey of effort you gather to meet people and stories in a family kind of atmosphere.

Delicious Botillo

However, part of the family was missing, so I called up the other "Ondiñas" members and as soon as they arrived, thanks to Álvaro a study friend from Ponferrada, I remembered that they produce here a regional dish called "Botillo". At first it might look more like a big chunk of badly shaped chorizo, and it somehow does, but it's made of several pork parts stuffed into a spiced big ball of meat. Best of all, we accidentally ended up in the best Botillo place of the town, we could never have found it if I hadn't asked some locals where to get it. The Don Nacho is on a really narrow road of Villafranca and far off from the bustling city centre; a real local's secret tip. But be warned, this dish isn't for the softies among you. Check out more here.

Pilgrim Family dinner at Don Nacho

So it was that eleven people that didn't even know each other a week before, were now sharing a big dinner in the most local place possible, we were: the Camino family!

Follow me on the blog and my social media networs for more stories and Camino dinners of my first ever Santiago pilgrimage!