May 25: Ponferrada to Villafranca de Bierzo
We had been just a bit alarmed by the signs in the dormitory advising that not only only did quiet time start at 9:30 but that check-out time was 7:30 am. 7:30 for heaven's sake!!! But as it turned out, that was an easy deadline to meet. We woke up when everybody else did, at around 6 am, when the keeners began packing up. The room was pitch black so their flashlight beams crisscrossed the room; it is like trying to sleep while your partner watches a TV action movie. Anyway, it was no problem to convince ourselves that we might as well get up too. We packed up and headed out.
Our first real day of Camino! We struggled a bit to find our way out of town. Ponferrada is large enough to have MANY streets and they are not laid out on a grid. We looked for the yellow arrows or scallop shells pointing the way but they didn't seem obvious. We headed off over a bridge and had gone almost a kilometer before it occurred to us that there were no other pilgrims ahead or behind so we turned around and found where we'd missed our turn.
Once on the right path out of town, we started to appreciate the richness of Camino life. There are so many different kinds of people travelling! I could identify conversations in Spanish, French, German, and English but there were other languages I couldn't recognize. Most people are between the ages of 25 and 75 (a wide enough range) but there are a few outside both ends of that spectrum. We saw a young couple pushing a baby in a dinky stroller and we met a woman carrying a little dog in a shoulder bag. Some people were limping even at the start of the day.
The Camino passes through all kinds of environs. We walked along small country roads, gravelly shortcuts, muddy forest paths, and even along the highway for a while. The Way threaded us through forests and little villages, past bakeries, coffee shops, through fields of wild red poppies and indigenous yellow broom, between vineyards and pastures. It was about as lovely as a walk could be, in spite of the rain that irritated us (raincoat on, raincoat off).
After 25 km (the last 5 were HARD) we arrived at Villafranca, a small town with a river running through it and hills all around. The aubergue is old and rough but interesting: it is right next to the ancient hospital in which sick pilgrims were treated. If they were deemed too unwell to continue, they could receive the redemption of pilgrimage at this point and bow out (one way or another) gracefully.
But after refreshing with a shower and enjoying some cold beer, we did not feel unwell at all. We found the supermercado and bought bread and cheese and wine and some fruit for the next day.