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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 32: La Ruta Dragonte revisited

The beginning of the variante. Even looking at this photo has my juices flowing already

The Ruta Dragonte has a lot to answer for. On Sunday 3rd June 2012 I arrived in the town of Villafranca del Bierzo, by bus from nearby Ponferrada, in a state of considerable disillusion with the Camino Frances in particular and the concept of pilgrimage as a whole. I was - still am - a bad Catholic, spiritually shallow, what on earth was I trying to prove? Who was I trying to impress? I'd struggled across the Meseta, tempted by the lure of the mountains of the Cordillera Cantabrica. I persevered only because I couldn't face returning to friends and family with the ghost of failure stalking my every step.

Looking back at Villafranca and El Bierzo from the road up to Dragonte


The road up to Dragonte is a thing of great beauty in itself, between chestnut trees and vines. I can feel it, drawing me in, casting its enchanting spell. I'm soon drawn in

 So, in a fit of rebellious pique, and as a means of sticking two fingers up at a doubting hospitalero, I decided to go for it, big time. In for a centavo, in for an euro, as they don't say.

Above Dragonte, looking back to El Bierzo. I'm emerging from the gloom and, with every step, edging closer to heaven.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that what happened on the June day back in 2012 completely and utterly changed my life. What happened deep in that verdant valley, between the tiny, run-down villages of Moral de Valcarce and Villar de Corales, by the slick and silvery waters of the Arroyo de Moral, has since become the subject of my doctoral research. That landscape experience, with its religious and spiritual connotations has been my raison d'etre ever since.

And suddenly the valley of the Arroyo de Moral opens up. This, dear reader, is quite simply as good as it gets. This is superlative, I can imagine no landscape more dangerously dreamlike.

I have no other life. 

Gone are the yellow arrows, waymarking is very much hit and miss on the Ruta Dragonte. Well, more miss than hit, but the potential for getting lost just adds to the pleasure.

I was always destined to return. Not only for this, the focus of my fieldwork but, I would imagine, again and again; the Ruta Dragonte passes through a landscape that has me hooked. In the deep folds and lofty slopes of these mountains I am ... well not at peace - the intensity of emotions the landscape evokes won't allow for that. Instead I'm fizzing and buzzing, torn between tears of ecstatic happiness and extreme melancholy. I turn a corner, another vista excites my gaze and I can't contain my emotions. And I mean that quite literally; I mean that, quite literally, my breath is taken away and I can't cope with what I'm looking at, what I'm taking in with every available sense. It is, simply put, just too much for my poor little mind and soul; sometimes I cry, sometimes I shout out to the God(des), expletives deleted. 

Moral de Valcarce. With every step I'm moving further and further away from the banalities of 'so-called 'reality'.

Deep in the valley floor, enclosed by chestnut trees on either side

And this is where, on Monday 3rd June, 2012, 'it' happened. Amongst the deep green, flashes of red and gold. A presence watching over me, close by. She - for I'm pretty sure who this presence was - guided me up and out of the valley.

Never before have I been so deliriously happy to set eyes on an abandoned earth excavator. Even though I'd hiked it before, the complete absence of waymarking makes the prospect of getting utterly lost a quite deliciously Gothic possibility. This abandoned earth excavator stuck fast in my earth memory, I knew I was on the right track.

How green are these valleys?



  1. Holy excavators! Great post, good walking!

  2. Love this post. What's more I understand it: those are emotions I recognize as friends. Thank you for the blog and for following me on Twitter. My current book is on the experience of place (in Brittany).