Walking the Camino is like playing a game; you’re always looking out for the next shell or yellow arrow to lead you along the right path to Santiago. We left the monastery we had been staying in and returned to following the signs – shells engraved in the streets of the city. The Camino leads us on a final tour of Leon, through the market square, up past the cathedral and out of the city via Gaudi’s house. Lying ahead of us in the distance is a long range of mountains, the highest peaks still covered in snow, Los Picos d’Europa; only a couple of days and we will be walking across them.
Heading along an alternative route, avoiding the main road, we arrived two days later in Astorga. As for Leon we had high expectations for this city and they were met by the castle and cathedral that mark the entrance to the city. To avoid its busy atmosphere and exited by the mountains now waiting just in front of us, we decided to carry on. A dirt track which stretches as far as the eye can see leads us slowly up hill and into the mountains. We knew we had made the right decision the moment we stepped under the shade of the first trees. An end had finally come to those endless days spent walking through monotonous crop lands.
We stayed in the albergue of a small town called El Ganso. In these less touristic locations, away from the commercial side of the Camino, you have the opportunity to get in touch with the local community, experience and understand their culture. Too many pilgrims are so busy walking in the same direction every day that they cannot stop and take the time to enjoy what lies around them. We had dinner with the owner of the albergue and later he gave us some insight on the path that lay ahead of us, recommending we make a short detour to a town called Matavenero. A project started here 25 years ago to transform the abandoned town into an eco-village, now inhabited by an international community. This prospect seemed exciting.
We left the next morning our minds set on reaching the town. From El Ganso we headed further up into the mountains to Foncebadon, a beautiful little village sitting at the top of a peak at 1500 metres. From here it is only a 7km detour to Matavenero, which can only be reached on foot or by horse and mule. Instead of the usual shells we are now guided by signs of painted rainbows, they slowly lead us through the mountains and into this small portion of paradise.
The village is hidden from sight until you climb over the last few rocks, and then, dotted on the face of the mountain, you see about 30 houses, mostly wooden and all unique in shape and size. The view is breathtaking, high mountains with a gorge and river running through them. The core of the mountain is made of quartz and on it a forest of chestnuts, oaks and maples spreads out. The villagers live as much as possible off the land; there are fruit trees and vegetable gardens everywhere and they also farm chickens, goats and donkeys. Everything here gets recycled. An intricate web of pipes supplies water to everyone and the little electricity they have is generated by solar panels.
We arrived as the villagers were having their weekly meeting – here all decisions are made unanimously. Felix welcomed us and showed us to the guest house, a large room with a wooden stove in the centre, bunk beds to the left and a dining area in the far right. In these simple lodgings we felt more at home than we had since we left from St Jean Pied de Port nearly a month ago. The guest house serves as a communal kitchen and that night we enjoyed a tasty paella with Felix and a few other villagers who cooked there on the wooden stove by candle light.
This is now my third day here, I am sitting looking over at the waterfall from which the river flows into a small lagoon surrounded by a 100m high rock wall. They showed us this place as soon as we arrived here, it is their pride and jewel, and my preferred writing spot. Everything is so beautiful here, life so slow and peaceful, that we are struggling to leave. Tonight one of the villagers is having a party, tomorrow the town’s communal bakery is open and everyone comes together to bake bread and pizza, Sunday morning is also the community breakfast. I guess I’ll be staying here a few more days.