Prior to walking the Camino Frances in 2019, Judith and I had followed the route by car in 1988. Aside from becoming true pilgrims – we didn’t pretend we were in 1988 – there were clearly huge differences: Spain had changed a huge amount as a country, and the Camino was much more popular: there were nearly 100 times as many pilgrims arriving in Santiago in 2019 as in 1988. In some places, the changes were particularly stark, most of all in a village named El Acebo, between Leon and Ponferrada.

El Acebo left a strong impression on our first visit. It was clearly a pilgrim village, with a narrow street and buildings dating back centuries, but it was showing obvious signs of rural decline, and frankly looked remarkably primitive. I made a note at the time: from the cairn at Cruz Ferro, we went down “on one of the worst ‘proper’ roads I’ve ever been on, to Ponferrada. Going through a place called El Acebo, the road isn’t metalled at all. Some of it is derelict, but there are a few new houses among the old, and it’s bizarre that such a road survives.”

There’s a huge contrast now. Not only is the road is properly made up, all the houses in El Acebo have been reroofed in the same way - it’s very striking as you come into the village from the mountains above. Similarly, doors and windows are mostly modern, with attractive balconies overhanging the still narrow main street (Calle Real). At the far end of the village is a new pilgrim hostel with its own swimming pool, and half a dozen flags on tall flagpoles, like an international hotel, visible for miles.

It’s not clear why things have changed to such a degree. The greater prosperity and development in Spain, and the popularity of the Camino have clearly helped. As pilgrims, we can be grateful for the ready availability of facilities, which certainly wasn’t the case in the 1980s. The Way still goes through rural villages which don’t seem to have shared in the greater wealth to the same extent.