Montes des Leon, complete with fresh farmers cheese and cowbells.
Today we jumped out of bed and headed out to walk through the Monte des Leon (mountains of Leon). I first stopped at the reception desk to drop off the key and buy some water for the long day ahead, only to find a sign that informed us that reception was closed and those departing should leave the key on the desk. Okay then…
It was still dark out and the was air was misty as we headed up the hill and soon passed a closed café. I kept assuming we would find someplace to buy water for the upcoming walk but I was wrong. As always, around 5:30 a crowd of pilgrims were beginning their daily trek and soon enough we approached a Camino arrow and could see with our headlamp that the trail was leaving the village and heading into a forested area. I knew from looking at a map that the next town was only 6 kilometers away and figured it wouldn’t be difficult. The heat hadn’t started it meteoric rise yet but all we had was about 5 swigs of water left in our water bottle. Most reasonable people would turn around and wait until the town opened up to buy water but not me. I just wanted to stay with the multitude of pilgrims, avoiding a late start and being left behind. Huge mistake.
When the sun finally rose, we could see the landscape had changed dramatically. We were now on a gravelly dirt trail in the mountains. On our right was higher elevation and to our left was a gentle drop down from the mountain slope. We experienced beautiful views but at no time did we see any houses or facilities in any direction.
The heat came in quick and hard, and I was huffing and puffing as we continued forward and upwards. I had put my daughter and myself danger of dehydration and heat exhaustion with my haste to get on the Camino.
After a while, we stopped to rest on a felled tree aka a Camino rest stop, as I tried to figure out how to make this situation right. Camino veterans always say “the Camino provides” which is loosely translated to mean that when a pilgrim is lost or out of sorts the Camino will give you what you need, and somehow at just that moment, it did. We were deep in the forest with no cell service or water and thoroughly overheated when two young Brazilian brothers sat down and joined us. They spoke minimal English and I spoke no Portuguese, but they offered us a granola bar. I declined the food and instead asked if my daughter could have a small drink of water because we had none. They shared some of their water with us, I thanked them and we were all on our way again. Many pilgrims have very limited funds and resources, but everyone we met was beyond generous and kind.
We continued on up the mountain range and a short time later we reached the small hamlet of Foncebadon, which until very recently was an abandoned town overrun with wild dogs that supposedly do not like pilgrims. After several famous books and a popular movie about the Camino Santiago de Compostela were released and the Camino regained its popularity and this once deserted town is now being reborn. I believe 10 people now reside there and volunteers routinely visit to assists with pilgrims passing through.
I rushed into the first cafe and purchased at least 5 bottles of spring water and some locally made cheese. This café, as were most, was located right on the Camino trail, literally a few steps from where pilgrims walked by. As we sat outside at the plastic picnic tables assembled for the pilgrims we saw our Brazilian saviors. I gave the brothers several bottles of water but they declined my offer to buy their breakfast. I am quite sure they thought I was some crazy old lady, dangerously walking in the mountains with her child with no provisions and they were right. We would see them again many times on the trail and I will always be grateful for their kindness.
Foncebadon is an isolated mountain outpost with a strange but quaint vibe. It looks like it could be a science fictions movie set but staged in a beautiful country area. It’s main, and possibly the only road is made of dirt and runs straight up into the mountains, but on both sides of the road are all these old, dilapidated stone structures that don’t look habitable; most without roofs or windows. But every now and then someone has gentrified one of these ruins and now uses it as a café or albergue. It’s either going to be the coolest location to visit in about 10 years because of these unique structures being renovated or completely deserted again because too many of these same structures have collapsed. It’s hard to tell which will happen.
In the 12th Century, a hermit named Gaucelmo set up shelter and protection for pilgrims passing through the mountains here. It was an important route toward Santiago but in the late 20th Century it was known more as an abandoned town where wild dogs routinely attacked pilgrims. We did not see any wild dogs ready to pounce on us as we passed, though we did see at least 30 -40 gentle sheep wandering down the road toward us. Elizabeth loved this encounter with the sheep.
After moving on, we were blessed to have experienced one of my favorite moments on the Camino. As we walked the trail the forest opened up and we could now see the most beautiful blue sky and an incredible panoramic view of the valley. We heard cowbells ringing in the distance and saw several horses grazing a few feet from us. We then sat on my towel about 10 feet from the Camino on the side of a mountain saturated with acres of wildflowers and hundreds of bright orange butterflies and had an impromptu picnic of farm fresh cheese, chocolate, rasberries and spring water. Absolute heaven.