Camino de Santiago (Villafranca to Portomarin)

Getting There

From Pamplona we caught a train that crossed the landscapes of northern Spain to Ponferrada, with its huge Templars' Castle. With our time limitations, we were cutting out a large slice of the camino, much of which passed through a relatively featureless and flat landscape alongside roads. Beggars may not be able to choosers, but the modern pilgrim can be.

All the way across, the hills were lined with the silhouettes of wind turbines turning. There must be thousands of these modern windmills in Spain - what would poor old Don Quixote make of his country today? Perhaps he would have just thought that the dragons had grown bigger and charged on regardless. We did likewise, not stopping in Ponferrada, but taking a local bus for a late arrival in Villafranca del Bierzo, an important pilgrim stopover for almost a thousand years. We wandered down the dimly lit narrow streets of the old town to enjoy an evening meal in the plaza and play spot the pilgrim amongst the mix of locals and foreigners enjoying the warm outdoors.

Tomorrow, we would rejoin these pilgrims for the last 200km of our camino walk. It was hard to believe that we had already reached this point.

A thoroughly modern St James

The narrow streets of Villafranca

The 17th century Iglesia San Nicolas

Day 1 - Villafranca del Bierzo to Las Herrerias (31 km - 1280m ascent - 1140m descent)

There are three ways that a pilgrim can walk from Villafranca to Las Herrerias - the Ruta Carratera, a quick trip straight up the valley and along the sealed road, the Ruta Pradela, with a 400m climb over a hill to give superb views before rejoining the valley track, and the road least travelled, the Camino de los Franceses, which avoided the road completely, at the price of three big hill climbs and poor sign-posting. It passed through the most beautiful country and promised a tranquil journey, so with the early morning sun shining over the valley, the choice was not hard.

We left Villafranca a bit before 8am, crossing the bridge over Rio Valcarce to leave town and begin our first big climb, up a quiet sealed road that wound its way up to the village of Dragonte. As we gained height the views opened out over the misty valley below to the distant Mountains of Leon beyond. The road was lined with purple heath, wild lavender and a compendium of Australia's worst pasture weeds (St Johns wort, echium, thistles, broom), all looking perfectly respectable in their native range. We passed small groves of chestnuts, and tiny vineyards clinging to the steep hillsides, while on the far side of the valley, the hills gradually changed to a brown and green tapestry of heath.

View back over the Valcarce Valley to the Mountains of Leon


Heath covered hills on the way up to Dragonte
- (below) assorted "weeds" with bumblebee


The climb did not stop at Dragonte and we trudged up the runnelled concrete street past the village houses. A strange place, Dragonte - we were blessed by an old man on entering and chased out the other end of the village by a pack of barking dogs.

View over Dragonte to the valley beyond

The distant Mountains of Leon with chestnut

The hill-top hamlet of Dragonte

A gravel road now led us past a slate quarry and, shortly after, we left it to follow the overgrown walking path of the GR11 across a broom and bramble covered saddle. Our first climb of 600m was over, celebrated by the sighting of a large roe deer not far above us - we watched each other for a few minutes before it bounded away magnificently through the brush.

Eyes open! - track marker to the right

Heading off into the heathlands

Roe deer watching us watching it

Deep amongst the broom scrub

The GR11 now descended into the next valley to reach a narrow sealed road, which we followed to its end at the village of Moral de Valcarce and its welcoming committee of barking dogs. Here the concrete road took us steeply down through the village, before morphing into a gravel track that continued the steep descent.

The hamlet of Moral de Valcarce

Broom-covered hillsides above Moral de Valcarce

The track wound its way down through a woodland of massive ancient chestnuts to a stream at the base of this narrow valley. What advice would a centuries old chestnut have for the modern pilgrim? Crossing the stream, our second climb began. The path wound steadily upwards through more ancient chestnuts to reach the ruins of San Fructuosus, an old pilgrim hostel and monastery.

Old chestnut - trunk with 12m circumference!

In the valley below Moral de Valcarce

Admiration for an ancient chestnut

The ruins of San Fructuosus

Old stone archway - San Fructuosus

We stopped for a rest, taking in the views of the valleys beyond, before continuing the steep climb up to the village of Vilar de Corrales and the now familiar pattern of steeply gridded concrete street and barking dogs making sure that we left (what is that the hill village perros have against pereginos?).

The fields and mountains of the Camino de los Franceses

Lavender lining the trackside

Leaving the village, the climb continued up to the rounded shoulder of a hill-top where it ended.

Here, due to a lack of signage, misreading of somewhat ambiguous guidebook directions and a slight case of pigheadedness that needs to be dealt with on this pilgrimage, we wandered off, first to the left and then to the right, before stopping for lunch to reassess. Finally, we found the correct central track and started our descent of the heath covered hills.

Now, you're quite sure that this is the track?

Walking through San Fiz

Wild country between Vilar de Corrales and San Fiz

The gravel track led slowly down along a ridge to a point high above a slate quarry where we took a very faint and overgrown footpath directly down through the dense broom and heath scrub of the slope. Reaching another gravel road, we followed it as it circled down through the impressively massive face of the quarry to cross the river on the valley floor.

The path through the quarry (at least the one we took)

Our third and last climb now began in the heat of a sunny afternoon - following the sealed road up to the somewhat delapidated village of San Fiz de Seo - and a rest in the cool shade near its fountain. The track now followed a contour around the hill behind San Fiz, passing some beehives before gently descending to yet another shallow stream crossing.

Houses of Vilasinde

From here we followed the road gently up the valley of a side stream, with the slope gradually increasing to finally climb steeply up beneath a shaded forest to the hilltop village of Vilasinde. The climb continued beyond the village, up beyond the trees to a ridge with two radio masts. As we stopped to take our bearings, a local farmer tried to convince us that there was no path ahead to Las Herrerias and that we would have to double back and take the sealed road to the valley floor (a distance of 12km instead of 4!) - we waited until he left and pushed on, wondering if we might pass a rather unconventional cash crop on the way. The views down to the valley floor and the impressive autoroute viaduct were superb.

Looking back over the rock ribs to where we came from

Radio mast near Vilasinde

View westward over the valley and distant autoroute

Overgrown track leading down to Las Herrerias

Contrary to local advice, the track here appeared to have been recently well-signed and the footpath descending from the ridgeline down through the scrubby heath was wide, if occasionally uneven, muddy and overgrown. At times, we shared it with spring-fed streams that seemed to seep out from all over the slope.

At last - after 10 hours, Las Herrerias




Ten hours after setting out, we emerged from the woodlands at the base of the slope into the village of Las Herrerias. It had been a very hard day, with almost 1300m of climbing and over 30km of walking (including our unintended detours), but the rewards were magnificent mountain scenery and walking a path that few pilgrims tread. In the end, it was the day which gave us the greatest sense of achievement of our camino experience.

Day 2 - Las Herrerias to Biduedo (22 km - 860m ascent - 340m descent)

The forecast for the end of good weather was looking correct as we woke to grey skies and a track damp from overnight showers. The air was heavy with moisture as we set off down the single street of Las Herrerias to start the big climb of the day - over 600m up to O Cebreiro. The track first wound its way up through the forest to the hamlet of La Faba where we stopped for a morning sugar kick of hot chocolate.

A damp climb through the forest to La Faba

Rich green landscape near Las Herrerias

After La Faba, the trees soon thinned out and we found ourselves climbing steadily up a gravel road lined with broom and wildflowers, listening to the twittering of small birds and gazing out over the heath covered hills beyond. A fellow Irish pilgrim commented "this is just like Ireland!".

Some of the small birds that sang in the heath and hedges

Heath covered hills on the climb up to O Cebreiro

A group of locals wandering through Laguna de Castilla

Passing through the hamlet of Laguna de Castilla, we were joined briefly on the track by a herd of local cattle, before pushing on ever higher. The gap in the mountains hiding O Cebreiro was now visible, as was the cloud spilling out over it into the valley. Passing the bright border marker, we left Castilla y Leon and entered Galicia, that most celtic region of Spain, and a little later walked in to the stone walled, slate-roofed village of O Cebreiro.

Provincial border marker - welcome to Galicia

Nearing the foggy tops of the mountain

The road into O Cebreiro

We stopped briefly to admire the simple beauty of the the 9th century church of Santa Maria Real, the oldest building associated with the camino, and the thatched-roof rounded stone houses of the celts. As further proof the celtic origins, Galician bagpipe music wafted out of the artesanal shops filled with jewellery of runic design.

The 9th century church of Santa Maria Real

Interior of the romanesque church

Typical thatch-roofed Celtic hut of Galicia

Looking down into the valley from O Cebreiro

Statue of St James surveying the marvellous views (as if!)

Now that we had crested the range, a cold wind cut through the air and we put on our fleeces before pushing on, up into the misty pine forest before gradually descending through the thickening fog to Linares. The moisture was starting to settle out of the cloud, so we dropped into the local bar for an early lunch.

In the mist-filled pine forest above O Cebreiro

A foggy field of wildflowers

By the time we left, the scotch mist had turned into a gentle, but steady, rain, obliging us to put on full wet weather gear. The increasingly muddy track here parallelled the road, undulating westward through the rain and fog, which occasionally lifted to give glimpses of lush green valleys below. By the time we reached Hospital de la Condesa, site of a medieval pilgrim hostel, the fog decided to clear, though the rain still fell steadily as we strode on in automaton mode.

A short steep climb brought us to the heights of Alto de Poio and its welcome bar - time for a slow hot coffee in the dry. Our climbing was now over and the track began a long gentle descent along a roadside path lined with the fresh green shoots of new bracken. However, our admiration for the many wildflowers dotting its sides was dampened by the increasingly heavy rain and gusty wind.

12th century church at Hospital de la Condesa

Mist lifting above the daisy fields

Matching pilgrim fashion rainwear (we preferred blue)

Just after Alto de Poio, we were joined by a Spanish pilgrim who lived in France and for the next few kilometres chatted with him in French, which helped the wet time go more quickly, passing through Fontfria and on to Biduedo, where we parted company. He was continuing on to the next big town, we were stopping at Meson Betularia, with its grove of birch trees, our accommodation for the night.

Here we had a room to ourselves with a heater, space to spread out our wet gear to dry, and our own hot shower - a crowded dormitory full of everyone's dripping wet weather gear did not really appeal. Not a charitable pilgrim thought, perhaps, but shedding our damp gear and standing under that steaming hot water was a highlight of the day.

Day 3 - Biduedo to Samos (17 km - 30m ascent - 690m descent)

It rained all night. Next morning it was still raining - welcome to Galicia! We ate breakfast, put on our freshly dried wet-weather gear and waited. The rain changed to a drizzle and we set off into the saturated countryside. Within five minutes, the rain had returned and fell steadily as we made the gradual descent from the hilltops into the valley below along a narrow muddy track, worn down deeply between fern covered stone fences, past the hamlets of Viloval, As Pasantes and Ramil and into the town of Triacastela.


Don't laugh - at least I'm dry!

A rare break in the weather

Capilla de San Pedro at Biduedo

Walking along the deeply worn track to Triacastela

Drizzly weather near Triacastela

Small weir at San Cristobo

As its name suggests, Triacastela once had three castles but now it has none. It does have several warm dry bars, however, and we stopped at one of these for a long hot coffee. As we drank our coffees, for the first time in 24 hours the rain stopped.

We quickly headed off, following a newly resealed road out of town and alongside the tree-lined Rio Oribio through a narrow low gorge. It was our least liked section of camino, as we often found ourselves on the wrong side of the metal road barrier facing a stream of heavy trucks heading for the local quarry (thankfully they were used to oncoming pilgrims). Half an hour later the rain started again, as a frustratingly intermittent drizzle.

Our least preferred section of camino

River bank track near San Martiño

The price though was worth paying, as we soon left the road to follow a muddy track that wound peacefully along the banks of the river beneath moss covered trees, overgrown with ivy, low slate walls overhung with dripping vegetation and lit by the rose-pink bells of digitalis. Like a long green-vaulted roof, the trees provided shelter from the drizzle. Five times we crossed the river, as the track meandered from bank to bank, passing still reaches formed by low diagonal weirs, and wandering through the slate-housed hamlets of San Cristobo, San Martiño and Renche. From the balconies of the houses, the sweet-scent of cascading roses wafted down, from the street below the not-so-sweet scent of wet fresh cow dung wafted up - rural Spain is strange olfactory melange.

Pilgrim on bike chatting with the locals

The miller bags some flour

Tree-lined path to the tunnel before Samos

At one river crossing, we stopped in the shelter of an old stone watermill. As we ate our lunch, one of the local villagers pulled up in a tractor towing a trailer loaded with bags of wheat. It was one of those moments of good fortune, as we were given a demonstration of the water-powered milling of flour as it has been done for centuries past.

Calm stretch of Rio Oribio

The benedictine Monastery of San Xulian at Samos

A short steep climb through the trees on the far bank, a quick passage through a tunnel beneath the main road and we were on the track down into Samos. From the heights above, we could look down onto the superb setting of Monasterio de San Xulian, one of the oldest and largest monasteries in the western world, founded by the Benedictines in the 6th century.

A walled path on the way into Samos

Old stone bridge and cypress

Rio Oribio flowing past the monastery

Samos on a rainy day

Soon after we arrived in Samos to wander through the grey wet streets of the town and alongside the starkly beautiful monastery walls, cross the Rio Oribio one last time and finish our walk for the day.

The dome of the basilica

Cloisters of San Xulian

The mural-painted corridors of the monastery

The choice for the night was a 90-bed dormitory in the monastery or private accommodation. The thought of sharing sleeping quarters with the dripping wet gear of a host of other pilgrims was a bit too much, so we chose to be on our own again in a cosy place for two - a good choice as half an hour after we checked in, the skies opened and we experienced a Galician deluge for the next couple of hours. After it let up, we took a tour of the Monastery (in Spanish and German?!?) to marvel at its architecture and scratch our heads at its over-the-top murals of the life of St Benedict. Then we bought ourselves some food and local Spanish wine and cooked up a steaming bowl of pasta in the kitchen of our little apartment - just what was needed on a cold and rainy day in Galicia.

Day 4 - Samos to Barbadelo (16.5 km - 240m ascent - 260m descent)

The cold and rainy day became a cold and rainy night. We woke at 7am to a cold and rainy morning, feeling snug in our tiny apartment. Down at the monastery, the pilgrims were being sent on their way already, out into the unrelenting Galician rain. Sadly, we could not delay all day ourselves, and a bit before 9am, headed off down the road that led out of Samos beside the now rushing Rio Oribio. The neon sign over the chemist shop said 10°C. We walked to the tune of a steady patter of raindrops on our ponchos and hats, and after a while, left the road to climb up via sealed road, gravel track and muddy laneway to the hamlet of Teixos. The rain was such that it didn't take long to find the gaps and force its way through the plastic of our overpants and ponchos, while the green canopy overhead changed from the friendly shield of yesterday to a sombre leaky tunnel of dripping leaves. Today, the camino was challenging our morale.

Last look at the Monasterio de San Xulian
on leaving Samos
The 9th century Capilla de Salvador
next to a 1000-year old cypress

Rio Oribio in full flow

A muddy path on the way to Sarria

Samll rural church near Samos

The church of Santa Mariña at Sarria

Its just water under the bridge

On such days the mind switches to auto-pilot, as you march on through the soaking rain, thinking only of the next step and the beads of water forming on the rim of your hat - which one will drip next? A long, undulating distance followed, as the yellow arrows of the camino led us along the swollen Rio Oribio through forest, farmland and hamlet. The time passed in silence, as we pushed on for over two hours without a break to reach the village of Aguiada and its tiny bar. The relentless rain also focused the other senses, and a chocolate-coated donut and steaming hot cup of coffee never tasted so good.

A bleak day in rural Galicia

By the time, we left, the rain had eased - our footsteps were lighter heading down the track alongside the road to Sarria, the largest town before Santiago. Following the shell-patterned tiles on the footpath, we wandered through town, crossed the river and climbed up the steps of the Rua Maior to the old quarter and church. A quick lunch in a smoky, steaming bar and we were on the road again. You cannot stop for too long when the rain has seeped through your clothes - the wet chill starts to penetrate your bones.

There are many ways to Santiago - we still preferred the track

The rain returned in earnest yet again as we climbed out of Sarria, descending to cross the Rio Celeiro and follow a slickly muddy track along the railway line and beneath an impressive road viaduct - anyone heading to Santiago? Climbing up through another woodland of old chestnuts, we crossed rain-saturated fields near the hamlet of Vilei and finally reached Barbadelo, where our restored 17th century farmhouse and albergue for the night lay.

A stroll in the Spanish rain

The main street of old Sarria

Crossing a small stream before Vilei

Once more beneath the aged chestnut

The only bit of yellow seen all day

No not a tardis - just a drink dispenser in the middle of a field!

It was still not the weather for a dormitory experience, and we settled into our room, soon steaming as our wet weather gear began to dry off. Morale is a funny thing, driven down one moment, the smallest thing can make it rebound - such was the effect of a simple heater in our room and the knowledge that tomorrow we would set out in dry clothes and boots. We declared the day the second wettest day that we had ever walked in! We also learnt the meaning of 'intermitente" in a Spanish meteorological sense - it means the rain stops for 5 minutes every 3-4 hours!

Day 5 - Barbadelo to Portomarin (20 km - 280m ascent - 370m descent)

It had been a pleasant evening - genial hosts, hot Galego soup, roast pork and vegetables, home-made cheese cake and a bottomless bottle of Mencia (all for 10 euros per person), entertained by a group of jovial singing Spanish pilgrims. Even the morning brought a ray of sunshine (not literally) as the rain had stopped. A look at the sky told us that we should still gear up for wet weather, so we did and set out, heading ever westward across the Galician countryside.

The camino took us along quiet country roads and laneways lined with mossy rock walls, plants growing in every crack, beneath oak and chestnut or alongside fields and crops. The rain with occasional showers had been replaced by drizzle with occasional fine patches and the difference in emotion from between being saturated and being just damp is a quantum one.

Track or stream (or both)?

The well-graffitied 100km milestone

Looking back toward Barbadelo

Well-formed track in an oak grove

We pushed on past a series of hamlets, with their old stone houses and fruity aromas of organic farming intensified by the rain. A milestone was reached (literally) when we passed the stone marker indicating 100km to Santiago. Sadly, judging by the ugly cluster of graffiti on it, many others passing by had forgotten what the pilgrimage was about.

An old stone cross amongst the digitalis

Moss covered stone wall along the track

Reaching Morgade and its welcome bar, we joined a group of damp pilgrims for a break and hot coffee, before pushing on into a now persistent drizzle. Soon after, a detour in the track due to roadworks took us through our first section of genuine quagmire (a section of track that would make a New Zealand tramper proud), continuing on past the pretty little romanesque church of Santa Maria de Ferreiros.

A bit of a quagmire on the track

Santa Maria de Ferreiros (12th century)

Climbing up the narrow muddy laneways to Mercadoiro, a sign indicating a plate of paella and beer for 4 euros grabbed our attention and reminded us that it was lunchtime. While enjoying the lunch and the dry of the bar, the rain outside had intensified and we set off on the long descent into Portomarin, once again in the type of rain that makes a mockery of the word "waterproof".

Stone dove cote

Rainy day in Galicia

A muddy section of the track

Steps leading down to old Portomarin

Stork nest on the church tower

The closer we got to the town, the more pilgrims seemed to be attracted to our cluster until we finally reached the long bridge over the former Rio Miño, now flooded along with the old town by the Belesar Reservoir, in a group of 30 or more. It was a curious sight, soaked ponchos humped dankly over backpacks like Quasimodo and his family out for a stroll in the teeming rain.

Los caballeros españoles modernos con perro

Bridge over the Belesar Reservoir

Climbing up into town, we checked in to our place for the night, seeking out the room to spread out our wet gear yet again. From the second story window, showered and warm, we could look out through the rain across the rooves to the lake beyond and to the towers of the rectangular church in the plaza.

The main street of new Portomarin

Old food store

12th century romanesque Church of St Nicolas

Better one leg than two

Rain over the Belesar Reservoir

Fascination with storks - the flying lesson

The church was impressive, not only for its architecture, but for the fact that it was moved and rebuilt stone by stone from its original site, now flooded by the reservoir. Equally impressive was that icon of Spain, a family of storks on their massive stick nest adorning one of the four corner towers, standing forlornly beneath the cold Galician rain. Whoever said that the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain was definitely neither a meteorologist nor a pilgrim.