Day 21. Congosto to Ponferrada (16-19 km)
I am just planning on taking us from Congosto into Ponferrada, unless anyone thinks they would be interested in the Cabanas Raras route, which joins up with the Francés in Cacabelos. I know I’ve said this a million times, but if you are going to continue from here to Santiago, I think heading to Ponferrada and then walking the Invierno to Santiago is a terrific choice! With apologies to the dilligent Olvidado organization.
The official Camino Olvidado does not go down to Ponferrada, but rather continues for two more days to Cabañas Raras (20 km) and then onto the Francés at Cacabelos, with a stage ending in Villafranca del Bierzo (16 km from Cabañas). I have gone into Ponferrada both times, in order to get on the Invierno, which is a combination of caminos made in heaven. If you are going to continue on the Francés, though, Cabañas Raras is very eager to have pilgrims, and there is an “acogida” in town.
There are at least 2 ways to get from Congosto to Ponferrada. One is along the reservoir and across the dam. The spot where you leave the Olvidado to go into Ponferrada is obvious, but someone has tried mightily to erase the arrows showing the split. I would have a GPS just to make sure get on the right path, and there are many wikiloc tracks.
In 2014 I followed the arrows and it turned out to be a slightly convoluted loop. You walk alongside the reservoir, and cross over to the other side at the dam. It keeps you on the route to Cabañas Raras for a lot of the way, and then a cut south down to Ponferrada.
In 2019 I thought I was heading to the romanesque church I describe below, but got turned around and wound up in a pine forest. Luckily I came across a European Diabetic biking group, and they helped me get back on track. (And I ran into them the next day in Las Médulas!). The pine forest is a nice option for going into Ponferrada, but I’m afraid I can’t reconstruct it since I was lost.
On both occasions I joined the Francés at Columbrianos and then walked “backwards” to Ponferrada.
A second way into Ponferrada was brought to my attention after my last Olvidado. It is based on the idea that you want to go straight from Congosto to Ponferrada, rather than walk along the Olvidado route leaving Congosto and then detour. So this route leaves the Olvidado directly in Congosto. And it is a few km shorter.
This route will not take you to Santo Tomás de las Ollas, with its 10C Mozárabe church, unless you detour off the wikiloc tracks, near where the wikiloc map says “Urbanización Patricia.”
Alansykes was able to visit and enjoyed it immensely. He forged his own route, staying part of the way on the Olvidado and then turning off. Here’s what he reported:
Assuming you're planning on taking the Invierno into Compostela, I'd recommend leaving the Olvidado near the Bárcena reservoir and going straight into Ponferrada, rather than following the official route on to Villafranca del Bierzo. As well as saving a day or so, the main advantage is that you get to pass the glorious (possibly partly pre-)Romanesque/mozárabe church of Santo Tomás de las Ollas, with its amazing horseshoe arches and breathtaking almost circular simple apse.
I was sitting sadly outside thinking I would never see the interior when Manuela, a relatively elderly lady living in one of the houses on the square in front of the church came out with the key and let me in and gave me a lot of information about this fascinating site, including that it's just possible that it's of Visigothic origin. If Manuela isn't about, she told me that the local bar will let people know where she is, or find a key somewhere else (they're clearly justly proud if this hidden gem in the area). And then only a km or so into the centre of Ponferrada. "Vaut le detour", as the Michelin guides used to say.
The official Ponferrada website says to call the tourist office to see about getting someone to open it up. 918.104.22.168 Open every day except Monday.
So there you have it, the Olvidado from Bilbao to Ponferrada!