For some time now, we had been slowly climbing, having left the Mesita behind. However, this morning we found the terrain much steeper, and we made a slow pace until we reached Rabanal de Camino. We had to stop here because the albergue has direct links with the Confraternity of St James back in the UK, from whom we had bought our Pilgrims’ Passports. As we hadn’t ridden far, and it was still quite early, we could not have stayed that evening. But we wanted to get the Pilgrim Passports stamped here and were lucky enough to find that the albergue had not yet shut for the day. We were met by a lovely lady and we had a long chat about the route we were taking, and how we were managing. She was very happy to stamp our Passports.
Once back on the bikes, we began to climb yet again, and I found the pace heavy going and the distance between John and me began to widen. As I reached a sharp steep bend I got off the bike before noticing a lone cow meandering across the embankment towards me. I reached quickly for my camera to take a picture, which got her attention. She paused, looked straight at me then began to advance, at quite some speed considering her bulk. Adrenalin overtook as I shoved the camera back into my front handlebar carrier, and proceeded to run up the hill. There hadn’t been time to get back on the bike, specially as I was on a slope, so all I could do was push it while fear spurred me on.
Eventually, I glanced back to find she’d lost interest. And as I turned another corner, I noticed John waiting by a small café attached to a large albergue. I never breathed a word about being almost trampled by a cow! We sat at a table in the front of the building and John went in for two coffees. A lovely valley view from this vantage point helped my all too beating heart to calm down once again. The café proved to be very popular, and, no doubt everybody who passed this way would feel the necessity to stop and have a breather here. I went in to pay for the coffees, and noticed the variety of postcards on the surrounding walls.
We could have spent the rest of the day simply sitting here soaking in the atmosphere, but we knew that we didn’t have very far to go to reach Cruz de Ferro – where we could legitimately leave the stones. Back on the bikes, we hadn’t dispensed with the climbing yet, but both revived by the coffee break, we plodded on. We were very high now and this was confirmed by a row of red and white poles placed in strategic positions along the roadside. When I pointed them out to John he said that they were for marking the depth of the snow in winter.
Finally, the huge mound made up entirely or stones and small rocks left behind by passing pilgrims came into sight – Cruz de Ferro. There were quite a few pilgrims gathered around and we had to wait our turn before we, too, could climb to the top of the mound to deposit our small collection of stones from home.
The trip had been quite emotional for both of us and at this point John confirmed that he, too, felt that it had been worthwhile as it was significant that we could leave the stones from so many family members together in such an auspicious place. Shortly after leaving Cruz de Ferro, we came across a delightful little smallholding with several flags from all over the world. This was Manjarin.
Only one person lives here year round, joined occasionally by friends and pilgrims. His name is Tómas, and he claims to be the last of the Knights Templar.
Here, there were numerous signs showing the mileages for various destinations. One said that we were 222 kilometers (138 miles) from Santiago at this point. While we were there, a young woman who I thought might be of American–Indian origin walked passed and stopped for a second to give me a hug and my shoulders a quick massage. Slightly bemused, I was, nonetheless, delighted by this spontaneous gesture, which did help to relax me. Perhaps she did it because she realized that I had no idea of what was to come! As we left we still climbed a bit before encountering what was to turn into a very long, steep descent.
A sign warned us of strong winds and to be careful as the incline would drop sharply. John rides downhill (and, indeed, uphill) much faster than I do although he occasionally stopped to wait for me to catch up. Another reason why I sometimes find it hard to keep up with him is that I always get the urge to stop and take yet more photos, particularly when at the top of hills where the panoramic view can be so stunning. Now I found myself simply trying to keep upright on the bike as the road twisted and turned at an alarming rate. It was all I could do to keep my hands firmly on the brakes, although John had reminded me not to keep the brakes on continuously. Bike tyres have a nasty habit of bursting under the constant friction of brake to tyre in such high temperatures as we were experiencing on that day, and we were soon to both witness this in action.
While I was concentrating on taking it easy, especially on the tight corners, I heard a massive bang in the distance – unmistakably the sound of a rubber tyre bursting. I prayed that nobody had been hurt. Eventually, as I cautiously turned another bend, I caught up with John and three very lucky young men who were in the process of fixing a burst tyre. After checking that they were all ok and didn’t need any assistance, we set off towards El Acebo.
This tiny village (if you could even call it that) has a rustic charm, with narrow streets, stone houses and slate roofs. But all I could do was flop into a chair while John went in search of some cool drinks. Just about everybody who sauntered in, whether walking or on bikes, looked as though they had stretched themselves to the limit. We must have all looked a sorry sight to the casual onlooker. John and I were to spend a long time here, if only to recover from the heat and horror of the steep descent. A small plaque nailed to a wall tells of the death of a Germany cyclist who had over-compensated on one of the bends near here and crashed.
A very welcome rest which recharged both of us, and we reluctantly remounted the bikes to make our way into Ponferrada, where we decided to spend the night. Temperatures had been climbing all day, reaching 38°C by 4.00 o’clock. After a short stop in the centre of Ponferrada, where we bought some earplugs in the hope they might drown out any loud snoring during the next dormitory stay, we came across a lone hotel. A bit upmarket, but there did not appear to be anything else in the immediate vicinity. Our trusty little booklet boasted that it had good rates for pilgrims. At 40 euros this was a bit more than the usual private albergue room would cost.
I was surprised that this hotel advertised itself as a haven for pilgrims as many of us would, inevitably, turn up pretty bedraggled and untidy. Whereas its other clients certainly appeared to be much more “upper-class”. Indeed, there was a group of Spanish people dressed up to go out for the night – I would hazard a guess at a wedding – and we felt quite out of place next to them. Although we had been using cash most of the time, at this hotel I wanted to pay with the card because our resources were diminishing at a pace. The card was refused (twice) and that had me worried that we’d run out of cash, have a useless card, and be stranded for the rest of our lives. Was it possible that the manager simply didn’t want to take the chance of us using our card? Did we really look that shady? Hadn’t the sign outside given us the impression that pilgrims were welcome? I reluctantly handed over cash.
However, the room all but made up for this mishap as it was light, airy and very cosy. We sat on the edge of the large double bed and spent much of the evening looking out the window where there was a lot of activity going on. We were woken up at around 1.30 the following morning as a crowd of overly noisy and drunk patrons made their entrance, and none too quietly.