Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 5

Life In The Slow Lane - El Burgo Ranero to Leon

Day 14 - El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas: 21.07km / Ascent 78m / Descent 146m

This morning’s breakfast was notable for two reasons: first because it was available nice and early, and second because it was such a copious affair we were able to eat our fill there and then, take left-over bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes and bananas for lunch, and still not finish everything!

After another stifling night when sleep was hard-won, it was surprisingly cool as we set off in the half light of early morning. Nice for walking, though, and many others thought the same, judging by the number of familiar faces that were also hitting the trail early.

For much of the morning we walked beside the road, which was quiet enough at this time of the day. With trees on our left and occasional picnic spots along the way, we enjoyed a relaxed pace, passing and re-passing our friends as we went.

We stopped for a drink break beside the entrance to Villamarco village, chatted briefly to a girl from Hungary, and took a short detour to view the exhibition of old farm implements which made for an interesting diversion.

Tumbledown adobe buildings beneath clouds and contrails

Back en route, we kept along beside side the road, passed an airfield and further rest stops, until a picnic area near Reliegos provided a good, shady spot for lunch. A little later on, as we passed through the village, we popped into a bar for ice creams and cold drinks.

With only 6 kilometers of the day remaining, we took our time getting to Mansilla de las Mulas. Nevertheless, it was barely 2.00pm when we passed through the old town walls and headed for our hotel.  

Entering Mansilla de las Mulas

We bumped into the four Scots for the first time since Calzada del Coto, and a Japanese girl who had walked the 38 kilometers from Sahagun. This gave us some food for thought: having eventually reached a level of fitness, we both felt that the last few days’ walking had not offered quite enough challenge, and it would have been good if they’d been a little bit longer. Perhaps not 38k at a stretch: maybe 30 kilometers per day, give or take, would be ideal. That way we wouldn’t arrive at our destination quite so early in the afternoons, and may have “saved” a day – or possibly even two – by adopting a more flexible schedule between Burgos and Leon. Of course it’s entirely our own fault in that we pre-arranged the days’ duration in advance, but it’s a lesson learned for next time, I feel.

Once again, our room is simple and functional, but seems quite quiet and will suit us just fine. It’s hot, though, just like at Calzadilla and El Burgo Ranero, and we hope it will cool as the sun goes down.

Camino sculpture, Mansilla de las Mulas

We spent the afternoon resting and pottering round town. What interest there was lay mainly amongst the high-sided, narrow streets of the old town. It’s not a big place, though, and one lap revealed the best of what was on offer. We went to a bar near the Albergue where a few pilgrims lounged, soaking up cold drinks and writing up our notes, wondering if any familiar faces would appear. But they didn’t.

It was later that we caught up with friends: pre-dinner drinks with Fred, Frans and Ann, followed by a filling meal of pasta, grilled pork steaks and chips.  

Day 15 – Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon: 20.30km / Ascent 257m / Descent 175m

And so to our last day – the final leg of this section – from Mansilla into Leon, where we have to leave the Camino and return home.

Again, it was a cool morning, belying the fact of another hot, sleep-interrupted night. On reflection, I think we coped better with the heat during the day (wide-brimmed hat, frequent applications of sunscreen, plenty of water, keeping to the shade) than we did at night, which seems slightly odd given all the warnings about afternoon temperatures at this time of year.

Town walls, early morning

We were underway by 8.30am – later than normal, but not too bad considering there was only 20 kilometers to go.  Some of our regular chums were also about, but others had opted to take the bus. Word had got round that the last part of the walk into Leon wasn’t very nice: dangerous, even, as it followed the shoulder of a busy road.

True, walking into the main cities was often less than scenic, but there was usually something of interest to see. And all the reasoning in the world (more time in Leon, a chance for a rest day, catching up with others) wouldn’t change one simple fact: we were not going to put ourselves in the position of getting to Santiago, looking back and wishing we’d not missed a bit! After all, we’d promised ourselves “the full distance on foot, no matter what”.

Twenty-arched bridge, Puente Villarente

As has been alluded to earlier, the Camino again paralleled the road or used pavements for much of the day. We passed through a minor village, Villamoros, before taking a coffee break with Fred at a bar in Puente Villarente, a village with an historic twenty-arch bridge and a little museum about the history and restoration of the major bridges along the Camino.

Beyond Puente Villarente, we headed off on a now-familiar gravel track. A short detour to the Albergue in Arcahueja offered a lazy rest stop with cheese and chorizo sandwiches and cokes. We met Belgian Dirk, and caught up again with the Chamonix ranger from a few days ago, who was stopping for the day there and then because of foot trouble!

We rejoined the main road in Valdelafuente, and followed an intricate set of paths and bridges to reach the outskirts of the town proper near the Psychiatric Hospital at Puente Castro. From what I can work out this sinuous route is new, created to remove the pilgrim from a dangerous roadside plodge.

Extravagant new bridge, Valdelafuente

Walking through the streets, familiar voices hailed us from a nearby bar. Having passed us while we were ensconced in the Arcahueja Albergue, Mike and Carol had been there a while and already slipped into relaxation mode. So we joined them for a beer: a bit early, maybe, but if it was OK by the locals and OK by other pilgrims, it was certainly OK by us.

Looking back at my notes and photographs, it seems like these final days just flew by. The thought of finishing this year’s section had been preying on our minds a little, and with these longer breaks I get the impression we were deliberately trying to prolong the experience and delay the moment when it would be time to rejoin the “real world” once again. 

The odd thing is that over the last two weeks the simple recurring mantra of “eat, sleep, hike” had become our reality, and we were reluctant to leave it behind. Our busy lives of only a few days ago, lives full of noise and stress and obligation, structured by outside commitments and pressures and soon to be rejoined, are the lives that now seem peculiar, distant and incongruous. I guess this is how the Camino gets into your system; how it changes your life.

Double thickness city walls, Leon

There was another kilometer or so of pavement bashing through the outskirts, before finally passing through the ancient walls and entering the beautiful and historic city centre. We followed the Camino through narrow streets, and turned towards the Plaza Santo Martino to reach our hotel. Part of the collegiate church of San Isidoro, it proved a magnificent setting in which to spend the last night of our pilgrimage.

Inside the Casa de Espiritualidad

After a rest and a quick wash and brush up, we set out to explore the city – wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We’d arranged a rendezvous by the cathedral, but bumped into JD while we were out and about who said a bunch of pilgrims were gathered at a bar round the corner. 

Leon Cathedral

So we all joined up – us, Mike and Carol, Frans and Ann, Don, John, John and Stephen (the four Scots), Dirk, JD and Becky, Sandi and Dean – all our friends from the last couple of weeks on the Camino gathered together one final time before we all went our separate ways.

Sandi, Dean, Ann & Frans

Frans, Don & John

John, Becky, JD, Dirk & Stephen 

Us, with Mike & Carol

I had deliberately kept fairly quiet about it being my 50th birthday – the idea of arriving into Leon at the end of a great fortnight being present enough. But word had got out: Carol had bought me a small present and a beautiful hand-painted card which everyone signed. It was great – a lovely thought and a fantastic memento of a unique and wonderful two weeks!

It also turned out to be Ann’s birthday, and the eve of her and Frans’ wedding anniversary, so there was a definite celebratory air about the evenings’ proceedings. Eventually, though, everyone began to drift away. For some, the immediate future meant carrying on along the Camino: for others, like us, it was time to turn for home.


We had dinner with Mike and Carol at a small off-the-beaten-track café – loads of food and wine at a very modest price – and rounded-off the evening watching a son et lumiere show telling the history of Leon, which was projected on to the side of the San Isidoro church. Brilliant! It was a fabulous evening of fun, friendship and celebration, and I can’t think of a better way of marking the end of a memorable fortnight.

Sound & light show projected on to the facade of San Isidoro church

Day 16 – Leon to Home

There was precious little chance to do anything much this morning, but we did our best to make the most of what time there was. We had a quick look round town, wished a few departing pilgrims well (with more than a tinge of sadness) and took a guided tour of the hotel/church complex.

Tower and courtyard, Casa de Espiritualidad

It was hard to leave, but we know we have lots to look forward to when we return. And return we will to finish our pilgrimage – God willing, of course. 

Interior of San Isidoro from the gallery

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful long distance path. Happy 50th too Jules. I'll not be long behind you, and like many of your walking buddies along the Camino, I am all too ready to give up work and enjoy life.......... I just need a little help ;-)
    Thanks for the read, and all the wonderful pics.