Monday 13 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 1

Getting Back On Track – Leon to Astorga

Day 1 - Leon to Villadangos: 22.55k / Ascent 296m / Descent 223m

In some ways, it seems like an age since we last walked these streets; in others, hardly any time at all. But here we were, back in Leon, soaking up the sights and sounds and readying ourselves for the final part of our 3-year Camino walk.

Leon Catherdral, early morning May 31st 2015

Yesterday had gone pretty well for a travel and transfer day, with few hitches and prompt service, so we had an afternoon and evening to reacquaint ourselves with this historic town, shed the worries and concerns of our day-to-day lives, and turn our thoughts once more in a westerly direction.

Basilica of San Isidoro

By way of re-establishing the mood, we wandered the same streets, frequented the same bars and ate in the same café as we did on that memorable night some nine months ago – the night of my 50th birthday – when a happy band of pilgrims converged to celebrate two weeks of great company and wish each other Buen Camino! for whatever future paths our lives would follow.

Ready for off

And then, after a poor night’s sleep and breakfast, we were on our way again. Having rested and reminisced, the travails of the intervening three-quarter-year pushed determinedly to one side, we were ready to tread the historic paths once again. 

Convent of San Marcos, now a luxury parador hotel

It was barely 9am - early enough, but late by pilgrim standards - as we made our way through the streets, from smart city centre to suburbs in all their vast variety.

Houses built into old Bodegas

La Virgen del Camino is about 7.5k away, but in all that journey you might never realise you'd left Leon, such is the continuity of housing, business and industry. However, although it might not be picturesque, it was far from dull - we saw large bicycle-like scooters, a British Colonial themed chain pub, houses in old Bodegas and all manner of Sunday morning comings and goings.

We passed through Virgen del Camino without stopping, eager to continue our good progress. However, we fell into something of a dawdle over the next section, and might have benefitted from a rest.

Lavender and Broom

Pushing on, we took the N120-side option out of the town. Having negotiated a complex road junction, we passed through Valverde where we paused to watch the local Stork population (and wondered whether one was on its way to our friends’ very expectant daughter, Charlie).

Storks nesting, Valverde

On we went again, following the roadside route to San Miguel, where we decided to make a proper stop. Besides the occasional brief halt, we hadn’t taken a decent break all day. The El Rincon de Julia was perfect - only just off the main road, but beautifully quiet and with undercover seating in the garden. Café con leche and Magnum ice creams were purchased and disposed of in short order.

Approaching Villadangos

The final 8k continued to parallel the N120 all the way to Villadangos. It sounds quite grim, but in reality it wasn’t all that bad: we saw Red Kites and other birds, and heard frogs croaking in the undergrowth.

Villadangos is small town, and we found the hotel with no trouble. After a friendly welcome, we retired to our room via an unlit corridor that was tricky to negotiate in sunglasses. Once settled, we had a rest, got ourselves organised, saved stats and wrote notes.

Hotel Libertad, Villadangos

It’s funny really - half a day back on the Camino, and already it feels like a perfectly normal way of living, the simple mantra of “eat, sleep, hike” providing a truer rhythm of life than the daily grind back at home.

To be honest, although it was not a hot, strenuous day, the 22k walked plus the unaccustomed warmth and lack of sleep over the previous 48 hours meant that we spent the remainder of the day resting, although we did manage a couple of laps of the block after dinner to help the meal settle - melon/paella starter, with escalope and flan to follow. As usual, the menu del dia provided ample food, so a couple of pieces of escalope disappeared into our sandwich box for tomorrow.

Day 2 - Villadangos to Astorga: 30.13k / Ascent 338m / Descent 329m

An overcast morning greeted us, along with the prospect of a fuller day’s walking. At a shade over 30k, it was the kind of distance we had not walked since last year’s Camino (and then only once) but which we were due to exceed on a number of occasions over the next week and a half. 

Not far, then ......

This was a deliberate move. Last time round we felt quite a few of the days we walked were a bit on the short side, finishing as early as 2.00pm on a number of occasions. Although we didn't want to overreach ourselves this time, we did aim to mix shorter and longer days to offer a bit more challenge.

Plant seeds lying like snow on the ground

Glancing up at the sky, it seemed at first that the weather could go either way, but as we plodded along beside the N120 the sun eventually broke through and the need for waterproofs evaporated.  

Poppies and hedgerows

The first part of the day was an 11k stretch through San Martin del Camino to Hospital de Orbigo. The roadside walking wasn’t especially conducive to conversation, so in the main we made quiet progress. However, we did pass an old Italian guy we would bump into quite frequently over the next few days, and saw some of the noisy frogs in a pond on the way into the town.

Paso Honroso, Hospital de Orbigo

Hospital de Orbigo is a small town famous for its 20-arch, 200m long bridge, the Paso Honroso. We stopped in a nice bar for coffee and juice before crossing: on the flood-plain below, preparations were underway for the annual commemorative jousting competition.

Crossing the bridge

For the next section, we opted for the longer but more interesting route to Astorga via Viljares de Orbigo, Santibanez de Valdeiglesias and San Justo de la Vega. We followed wide gravel tracks through scrubby woodland and undulating countryside, threading our way between the villages and onto higher land.

Santibanez in the distance

Sandstone cliffs, home to Sand Martins

Hedgerow flowers

It was a warm afternoon. Shortly before the descent into San Justo, we stopped by a mobile donativo stall offering fruit, juices, coffees, etc, (“free” in return for a donation), and had some delicious cherries and watermelon. We chatted briefly to a family from Brazil (father, mother and son) who we would bump into a number of times over the next couple of days.

The road ahead, mountains on the horizon

Donativo fruit stall

San Justo is a straggling village, beyond which was a long trudge on hard surfaces into Astorga, whose twin Cathedral spires were clearly visible ahead. It was now quite hot, and the last few kilometers seemed to pass too slowly as heat and fatigue played their part. A lesson to be learned, perhaps: don’t forget to take regular rest stops, drink plenty of water and remember to eat, even if not hungry.

Don't forget to drink plenty of water

Eventually we arrived, climbing up through the old city walls into the town centre. We stopped for a beer in one of the many squares, cooled down and rested up before wandering through the streets to our digs – a small hotel directly opposite the dramatic Episcopal Palace (designed and built by late 19th and early 20th Century Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi).

View from our balcony - the Episcopal Palace, Astorga

Astorga is an interesting town: established in the Iron Age, it later became one of the Roman strongholds in the region and is the confluence of two pilgrim routes – the Camino Frances and the Camino Mozarabe (Via de la Plata) – so heavily influenced by pilgrim culture, offering a place to rest before tackling the more mountainous ground to the west. We had a wander round town either side of dinner, window-shopped for souvenirs and bought food for tomorrow’s lunch.

Cathedral, Astorga

Already, we had slipped back into the routine of life on the Camino, and with little trouble. In physical terms this was fairly easy, having developed walking fitness before we started and employed a tried-and-tested approach to packing and logistics. Mentally, though, we were also well prepared: we had made a special point of considering ourselves still “on Camino” during the intervening months – a hiatus on the continuing path, rather than two separate visits – and I think this really helped our rehabilitation to life on The Way once again. 

It was also interesting to note that although Leon was an obvious joining point for pilgrims, many of our co-walkers had started in St Jean Pied de Port some three weeks ago, were already walk-hardened and had formed social groups along the way, creating a very different dynamic on the trail to the one we left last September. Fortunately, we had anticipated this, but it is worth considering that if you join the Camino part way along it can feel as if you are gate-crashing a party where you’ve been invited but don’t really know anyone else!    

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