Day 11 – Cacabelos to Ruitelán (29.9 km)
This morning I walked the alternative route which leads through Valtuille de Arriba, past vineyards and up and down a decidedly undulating countryside, with the mountains I had previously crossed behind me and further mountains looming ahead for the next day.
When the sky brightened I looked back to see the sun just rising above the contours of a peak where the rays were deflected by a tiny white church which was framed by three huge trees, similar to Norfolk Pines, which formed a sharp and dark silhouette against the sun’s brightness. It was a beautiful picture in a quiet landscape: if it had been a painting, I would probably have regarded it as kitsch, but nature is nature – real, no kitsch about it. It was a wonderful beginning of a new day.
The path was winding through this undulating scenery, hugging the mountains rather than traversing them. At times a steep embankment rose up on one side with a corresponding drop on the other. The only settlement on this stretch was Valtuille de Arriba, a tiny village with a bar which I reached too early to have my coffee. Not so for Francine and Miguel, a mature couple from France. We had crossed paths many times on the way; they walked slower but more steadily than I did and so we saw each other frequently. The previous morning, when we both tried to find the path to the castle in Ponferrada, was the last time we saw each other. In days to come we embraced whenever we crossed paths but unfortunately, due to the language barrier, we could not converse meaningfully
Earlier on I had passed some trees that had dropped their fruit – pears, apples and the like – and the sweet smell of fruity decay was in the air. It reminded me of my youth in Germany when I would take time to lie on the grass under similar large trees. I used to gaze into the branches above me and watch the sun’s rays darting through the gaps and openings in the canopy, which was etched against the bright sky, appearing black in contrast. Pears were then also rotting, and the smell is vivid in my memory, as is the buzzing of the bees around my ears. They were foraging on the overripe fruits, and ants were crawling over my arms and neck; grass and sticks were piercing and tickling my back and birds were chirruping in the background, rather a romantic picture. I wondered how many youngsters nowadays have experiences like this. They probably see light flashes on a computer screen rather than observing sunrays through a tree canopy.
On the way this morning all was quiet except for the rhythmic, slurping, scraping noise of my steps on the gravel path. When a young pilgrim overtook me, I first heard his faint footsteps from afar, they came nearer and nearer, sounding like squesh-squash-squesh-squash and eventually I stopped to greet and let him pass.
Villafranca del Bierzo, a clean, friendly and lively town in comparison to many places which appeared deserted, spans a gorge and slopes down to the River Valcarce which joins here with the río Burbia. The town straddles two ridges with a deep and wooded valley in between. All the churches were closed again, which was a great pity, so I did not linger. There were two large churches dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The older of the two had a Puerta de Perdón – an ‘entrance of forgiveness’. By entering the church through this gate, sick or injured pilgrims could earn the same indulgence as if they had walked to Santiago. Indulgences were awarded by the Catholic Church as a remission of sins, predominantly earned by prayer and/or by completing a pilgrimage. The crusaders travelling to the Middle East were promised indulgences and in the later Middle Ages forgiveness was even offered through a donation of money. There were other churches with a Puerta de Perdón along the route that offered these arrangements,
I bought some cheese, baguette and bananas and was on my way to conquer the mountain Alto Pradela, which is 930m high and required climbing around 350 m in a four kilometre stretch.