Camino de Santiago Day 2: Astorga- Villafranca del Bierzo 81km

Day 2 was the make or break day in my mind. I knew if I was going to struggle as much as the previous day, I would seriously question my ability to complete this. Despite being in a sleeping bag, I slept like a baby, only to lose an hour with the clocks going forward and having to wake up at 6:30. What I did notice, was that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which gave me a lift, but it was cold, just 3 degrees. Armed with all the information I could find about the next day, I found a chart which I used with a lot of care. It enabled us to plan our stops a little bit better, so we fueled up on pasta and set off.

The Camino takes you through the heart of Astorga, and past a few clubs with people drunkenly wishing you a safe journey, cute. The start is actually very straightforward, as you descend from the old quarter, you follow a main road and the Camino goes alongside it helping us make more ground. You just have to be ready that the yellow arrows will eventually take you off into the next village, which in this case for us, was Murias de Rechivaldo some 4km from the centre of Astorga. Little did I know at the time, but if you stayed on the main road, you connect to the Camino just 3km later and you would have an opportunity to visit a village called Castrillo de los Polvazares, which was listed as a Pueblo Más Bonito de España in 2019. I missed that opportunity, but you don’t have to.

The Camino reconnected to the main road once again, and you don’t need very many navigational skills to work out which direction to go, as the road for the next hour or so was rather straight. We were also climbing, but it didn’t feel that bad, and the views were starting to get better. Two villages, Santa Catalina de Somoza and El Ganso are useful rest stops with Santa Catalina having more views of the landscape and a main street lined with slate houses, which is worth a look. Both have places for a bite if need be. Our first major stop was in the town after El Ganso, called Rabanal, some 22km from our starting point.

From El Ganso, you start entering more alpine woodlands along the route, with occasional views of the snow-capped mountains we had been heading towards for more than a day. The road by this point was still ok, but it was getting steeper and when we arrived at Rabanal del Camino, we took an extended break. It was pretty clear that this place was important for pilgrims as there were plenty of places to stay, and we came across a few unmanned stalls offering things for the journey in return for a donation, like shells and handmade necklaces. That is something you should expect to see when doing this, and Locals may offer things to you in person.

Rabanal was where we also got our first stamp of the day, and where we checked out our next part of the route. Ponferrada was to be our next major rest stop, 37km away, but this was where it started to get technically challenging for the bikes. When we left Rabanal, the climb started to get even steeper, and when we connected to the main road, Astorga was barely visible and notably lower down. The trees started to give way and expose us to more views of the mountains and we were almost on the same level as some snow patches. Progress was slow going, but we were getting there, and Rafael was showing his training by streaking ahead. the last village before the highest point of the road was Foncebadon, some 1400m up.

We didn’t check out Foncebadon itself, just followed the road, but for those attempting the Camino, there are plenty of places for the night, and has quite an amazing setting. My legs were on fire getting to the top of the mountain pass, (which is the also highest point of the entire Camino Frances I might add) and we ended up with some spectacular views of the mountains, and there was a shrine at the top, but we didn’t hang around to enjoy it, and headed downhill. I was a little nervous to see how good my brakes were, and what better to find out than a 900m descent.

With the weather as good as it was, it was hard to focus on staying on the road instead of admiring the views. Now its worth noticing at this point, that the Camino does take a few detours on the way down compared to the main road if you are walking, but you do pass two villages called El Acebo de San Miguel and Riegos de Ambrós. We literally passed straight through them as they were downhill, but for a walker, they were places with a few hostels, similar to Foncebadon. Once we passed those villages, Ponferrada was in sight, and it gave us more motivation, and this part of the journey was the highlight of the day. As a hiker, you probably would take most of the day to get to the bottom if you were starting your day in Foncebadon, for us, it took an hour.

Molinaseca was the village that awaited us at the bottom, and was the last notable village before Ponferrada. I would have liked to spend more time there than we did, but Rafael wanted to push on so we could rest. The village has a famous bridge known as the Puente de los Peregrinos, and left a picturesque scene with the church on the other side. Stop there if you can. It took us about 20 minutes or so to reach Ponferrada, and we took refuge in a hostel to have some more rations, and just in time too as we were caught by a shower. Once it cleared, we set off, and were caught by surprise how nice the city centre was, and the Camino zig-zagged through most of it.

Other than the city being rather deserted, given it was 16:30 on a Sunday, Ponferrada was the 2nd major spot on our journey that would provide everything. The old quarter is worth a visit, having sights such as the Castillo del Templario, Plaza de la Encinas, and Calle Reloj, and the best part is, the Camino passes through all of them. As you leave the city, you are greeted with almost 360 degree views of the mountains, most of which had snow on them. The next 10km of riding once you leave town, were probably the most pleasant of the whole day. You are on mostly tarmac and cars don’t normally pass this way, and it was the warmest time during the whole journey, around 21 degrees, perfect really. Camponaraya was the village that greeted us next, and if there’s one thing I would say about this place, it would be wine. The village is surrounded by vineyards, and when you leave, the Camino takes you within touching distance of the grapevines.

Your break from the hills unfortunately ends at this point to an extent, though it’s nothing compared to earlier in the day. You have just 6km to the next town, Cacabelos, and when you get there, you follow a narrow street from the get go, which leads you to the main church of town and is also full of places to stop if you needed to. When we passed through there, we got caught up in some sort of ceremony taking place, forcing us to hop off and walk for a bit. Your way out of town sees you connect to the main road again, and over the River Cúa, which has a photo-worthy view with mountains in the background.

The final push to Villafranca was only made easier in that we were on tarmac for the rest of the day. The climbs are fairly short, and on a normal day, you wouldn’t have much to huff and puff about, but we already had 70km under our belt, and once again Rafael would surge ahead from time to time. The hamlet of Pieros was the only place left for any rest you may want, and from there you get a good view of where you had been. From there, the road, beautiful though it is, continued to be a challenge and I couldn’t wait to just get to Villafranca. 1km from the village, and we stopped one last time, hopeful that the climbs were over and done with. Rafael even expressed his concern at how I was feeling. I guess he still had some energy left.

The final push was thankfully downhill, and we made it to Villafranca some 11hours after we left Astorga. Slow-going yes, but I was happy with how far we had gone, and we were rewarded with a lovely Hostel called Albergue Avenida Fenix, next to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Castillo de Villafranca practically next door as well. Again, 5€ for the night, just like the previous day, and a completely different feel to the place. This one was rustic, had wooden beams everywhere and an open courtyard. For aesthetics, this was the nicest Hostel of the entire trip.

This time, we couldn’t be bothered to cook, so we walked down into the centre and found a restaurant, that offered a set menu. I had noticed they had special menus for pilgrims at really good prices along the journey, and this one was 10€, and after that experience, I highly recommend doing that at least once while doing the Camino. I had a fish soup big enough to serve 3 people, a large steak, and I can’t remember the name of the pudding, but it made Rafael Jealous when he saw it. We got back to the hostel and immediately afterwards, it started raining, hard. We were a little worried about the weather for the following day, and we knew there were more mountains to climb. Day 2 ended with some anxiety…

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