Madrid to Leon, May 28
The ultra cold Spanish spring convinced me to move from Camino Norte to the more traditional Camino Frances. I wanted to restart my Camino in Burgos but felt the weather was still too cold and with only 2° separating the cities, I elected instead to go to Leon. I took another ALSA bus ride from toasty Madrid to the fertile Castilian plains of Leon. The Visigoths, Moors and Christians all held power over this area and I was eager to get walking again and soak up its history.
Leon is a healthy city of 130,000 with a magnificent 13th century Gothic cathedral Pulchra Leonina and Antoni Gaudi’s Casa de Botines. I was working on a budget economy so municipal albergues were the preferred choice for 5 Euros @ night. A peregrino menu del dia was usually 9 Euros. I was trying to manage on 25 Euros a day and that was next to impossible.
After a long walk from the bus station, I crossed the river and checked into the albergue Santa Maria situated in the Benedictine Monastery. Room was by donation and after dropping off my knapsack, was free to roam the city with its many plazas and historical sites. I took dinner of tuna salad and wine in the plaza bar with a couple travelling from Britain. Later, we attended the Pilgrim’s Blessing offered by the Benedictine nuns who sang a hymn and blessed us where we had assembled. It was a very moving, powerful experience.
Leon to Virgen del Camino, May 29
It was a light day of walking as I elected to only go 8.7 kilometres thinking that I might not make the longer leg to Villar de Mazarife.
Again it was bitterly cold as we set off from the monastery at dawn, we walked through the Renaissance adorned Plaza San Marcos that formerly served as the headquarters of the Knights of Santiago before reaching the industrial suburbs of Leon. Finding a bar unusually open that early, I walked in and ordered a coffee and asked if I could have a couple of the small muffins. The owner refused money, offering the small meal as a gift of the Camino. The dozens of similar acts of kindness for which I was the recipient never ceased to amaze me. I met up with a fellow peregrino who was a Swedish tattoo artist and we walked amiably together that morning until we arrived at the little village of la Virgen del Camino.
I ducked into a local cafe/bar for brunch and warmed myself by the iron wood stove. I was wearing every stitch of clothing I had and wished to wait a few hours until the albergue opened. Had a delightful morning folding origami for the bar owner and patrons – I was carrying 2.75 kilos of origami paper – and I am always happy to unload some paper to the delight of unsuspecting onlookers.
The albergue was terrific. Well appointed with reading lounges, TV, internet, massage chair and spotlessly clean dorms and kitchen. Met a young woman from SoCal named Bobbie and together we went back to town to shop for dinner groceries with which we made an outstanding dinner of pasta, salad and wine. When night-time came, I discovered that I was sharing the room with 20-others including a nursing mother with a 3-month daughter, a woman with her dog and a drunk German who terror screamed in his sleep. I moved out of the dorm and slept in the lounge. Great sleep, if only for 6-hours.
Virgen del Camino to Villar de Mazarife, May 30
Left Virgen del Camino at dawn, saying my goodbyes to Bobbie. She was lame from walking and needed a rest day. I lathered my feet in vaseline and started my walk.
We dribbled out of the albergue one or two at a time. I saw that everyone elected to take the highway to Villadangos del Paramo but I noticed a gravel track leading a different way and took it, going under the highway, across a small river and then 13-kilometers of grasslands, wheat fields and brilliant vistas. It was a glorious walk listening Oliver Schroer and his “Camino” album as I had the road entirely to myself for the full day. It was just magic to walk the plains of Spain through shuttered villages where so many pilgrims have gone before but now everyone asleep except the livestock.
It was a languorous trek. It was one of the best days of my life as I fell into a day of prayer and reflection. No one was within earshot so I was able to exorcise a truck load of pain and let it freely course out of my body. This was the grail of my camino – finding the time to communicate with something outside of myself without the noise of traffic and the distractions of comfort.
After 13.5 kilometres, I arrived at Villar de Mazarife, a small village with three albergues. I picked the Antonio de Padua albergue – a mistake – under the care of an unpleasant, taciturn woman. I later discovered Tio Pepe, a much friendlier albergue in the middle of town. After shopping for groceries, I lay down on the grass of a little park on the cusp of the village and enjoyed a restful afternoon.
Villar de Mazarife to Hospital de Orbigo, May 31
Left the pilgrim-friendly Villar de Mazarife, passing its ancient church with requisite storks in the belfry. It was crisp and bright outside when I started my 14-kilometre walk to Hospital de Orbigo, named after the 12th Century Knights Hospitaller of St. John built a hospital on the riverside. Gorgeous day, walking along narrow paths, trails across ploughed fields, rail bridges and a renovated mill before reaching the cobbled path to the Puente de Orbigo.
Each Camino day begins with copious water works as I realize that all the hurts and failures, all the wanderings, losings, dyings, and forgettings were but a part of gaining of the rich material of my life. I have been working on forgiveness for a long time not understanding that I had not given permission to my body to release my pain. Doing so now allows all that pain to dissipate and frees me from its chains. Sometimes I wail long and loud, and the stretches of solitary walking are a blessing. I am being liberated. I am dying on this trip and couldn’t be happier.
Had lunch at a picnic spot at the edge of Villavante, a picturesque little village. I am in the habit of walking until the early afternoon before seeking accommodation. I crossed the Puente de Órbigo, one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century. It was built over an earlier Roman bridge which formed one of the great historical landmarks on the Camino. The many arches of the bridge carried me over Río Órbigo to the town, where they were getting ready for the big festival that was to begin today. It is a medieval festival that dates to the 15th century commemorating a famous jousting tournament that took place in the Holy Year 1434. Some say this was an inspiration for Cervantes famous Don Quixote. Today, there were all sorts of Knights’ tents that we’re being set up on a big field where some jousting was to take place. I found the well-lighted Albergue San Miguel in a refurbished building that served as an art gallery. The bunk beds were upstairs surrounding an interior courtyard with tables, chairs and laundry. I have three sets of clothes that I hand wash twice weekly. I am enjoying the simple humility of hand washing and drying clothes. I took advantage of the laundry and went off to explore the town.
To my luck and delight, I found the entire populace dressed in medieval garb. The entire town turned the clock back to the Middle Ages. Jousting tournaments, sword play challenges, roast pigs and dozens of food stalls were being prepared for tomorrow’s opening. It was surreal, walking about a town with every man, woman and child dressed in medieval fashion. During the festival 90% of the city converts its currency to Doblas. There is an exchange office in the main square in the city centre that will switch your euros to Doblas to be used during the festival.
I found a fine looking restaurant and corralled some others to gather round and sup together: a Hungarian, German, two Dutch and myself enjoying a 3-course peregrino dinner. Working around the language issue, we dived into an existential conversation that allowed each of us to share why we were here, what we are learning about ourselves and the frisson of the Camino. It was one of those dialogues not soon forgotten and one of the treasures of this pilgrimage.
I also taught the Hungarian teacher how to make origami lotuses. And elected to layover one day to enjoy the festival.
Hospital de Orbigo, June 1
next leg Hospital de Orbigo to Rabanal