Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Highways in the Sky

The day dawned dry in Villafranca del Bierzo. Dry as in the hotel staff (Maria) overslept and therefore didn’t turn on the water. This also impacted breakfast. In not all that much time, the water returned and breakfast appeared, at least to the extent breakfast ever appears in small Spanish hotels.
And so off up the valley toward O’Cebreiro, tomorrow’s pass through the low mountains separating Leon from Galicia. Today we made it only as far as Herrerias before stopping short of the steep climbs. Since all roads leave to the same gap in the mountains, it was a day of crossing and re-crossing the A-6 autopista.
In the beginning there was the rio Valcarce, a small tumbling stream that has entirely more twists and doublings back upon itself than would same to make sense for a small stream seeking lower ground. Then the N-VI national highway was built (circa 1980’s?), which struggled for a slightly more direct path down the valley, while essentially following the river. Man’s real ability to abstract from nature’s blueprint began to emerge with the N-VI v.2.0, which carved away more hillsides and ventured the occasional bridge over needless dips in the terrain.
The A-6 autopista finally arrived (in the last ten years or so?). It’s soaring flyovers and tunnels bored through hillsides result in a laserlike passage through the countryside with minimal regard for nature.
The final result of all this is a layering of highways, with the old N-VI more or less along the rio Valcarce, the new N-VI passing above the old road and river, and the A-6 autopista somewhere in the sky when it doesn’t disappear into a hillside. The Camino follows the river and the old road for the most part, with occasional unfortunate stretches along the new N-VI where the old highway has either disappeared or goes roundabout in a ways not even a pilgrim can tolerate. Lamentably for their diminishing inhabitants, the old town are for the most part bypassed by both the new N-VI highway and the A-6 autopista, resulting in a ghost town quality and general feeling of emptiness. The hike through the open countryside and these small villages was pleasant on a brisk fall day, but the experience of walking long a country road where, in many places, not one but two layers of highway float across the sky above seemed time-warped.