Rising to the Challenge—and Taking the Road Less Traveled—at Dragonte

Villafranca del Bierzo

The day before the Camino de Santiago enters Galicia, it beings in the charming town of Villafranca del Bierzo, set in a fertile grape-growing valley in the shadow of several mountains. Pilgrims are faced with a choice: take the less-imposing path that winds gently up the valley before ending in O Cebreio, or take the steeper, emptier path up and down three mountains for a total ascent more than 50% greater than the alternative.

Precipice of clouds

By now, you know how I operate; along with an adventuresome Australian girl named Carly and a gung-ho Arizonan named Joey I tackled the steeper, longer, and more exhausting Dragonte path. As always, the more you sacrifice, the greater the payoff, and although we had to sweat more for every km gained, we exalted throughout the day in our choice.

Virgil

Fortune favored us pretty much from the start; there were heavy clouds throughout the day, but it didn’t rain until the very last km or so. We were also lucky to have Virgil as our guide; I am referring not to Dante’s pal during his descent into the Inferno, but to the wonderful beagle that made sure we stayed on the right path and didn’t get lost.

Sea of clouds

As we ascended above low-hanging clouds, we were rewarded with stunning views from just about every angle. After covering just about every conceivable type of terrain on the Camino de Santiago, it’s clear that I have a thing for mountains; my body relishes the challenge of the ascent, and the panorama from the top is a great payoff for my mind. I can safely say that out of all the stages of the Camino, Dragonte is the hardest on the body (you ascend a total of 1900 m, way more than any other stage) but also the easiest mentally.

The last peak

To cap off an exceptional day of leaning into steep uphill climbs, tip-toeing across shallow streambeds at the bottom of each valley, brushing aside prickly brambles, and ducking swirling leaves blown about by the wind, we stopped in the tiny hamlet of Villasinde prior to starting our final descent into Herreiras, a village not too far from O Cebreio.None of us had taken much food to eat along the way (after all, uneaten food is just dead weight), but in Villasinde we found Celia, a spunky grandmother who runs a bar beneath her house and opens it when pilgrims happen to be passing by. She made us the best tortilla I have had in Spain—and believe me, I’ve tried a lot of them at this point. The potatoes and onions she put in were crispy and just a little bit burnt, and you could tell she used real eggs, rather than the pathetic egg substitute a lot of bars on the Camino use for their tortillas. As satisfying as the food was, Celia’s warmth and soul gave us just as much energy to carry on until we reached civilization on the other side of Dragonte.

Valley of Clouds

There is much to be said for the road less traveled, and I think Dragonte speaks volumes. Every unsavory aspect of the Camino de Santiago that I have encountered since entering Spain, such as overcrowded trails, noisy pilgrims, proximity to busy roads, snobbish locals, and in-your-face commercialism is gone from this path. And I am optimistic that because of how tough it is for most pilgrims, Dragonte will be as unperturbed in a hundred years as it has been for the last thousand.

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