Tuesday, July 12, 2016

El Camino de Santiago, Part V

Mountain relief from the sweltering plain

By Valeria Idakieva

[Part IV, “The Meseta,” was published on April 12.]

Early in the morning after the day dedicated to sightseeing in the glorious city of Leon, I said goodbye and buen camino to Bill, who had been walking with me for a few days and decided to walk a bit more slowly and then travel to Portugal where he was going to join a group from the USA.
    As for me, it was time to continue faster after a day of rest and out of the sweltering Meseta.
    On the way out of the city, I met some fellow pilgrims and we started chatting and walking in a relaxed manner as if we had all the time in the world, so my plan for a fast start did not work. After 10 km we had to part because there were two different routes and we didn’t take the same one.
    But now I had to hurry. In about an hour I saw a familiar backpack in front of a café. “Hey, Bill!”
    “How come?” he exclaimed in bewilderment. “You started earlier and you walk fast, but I am ahead of you. And I was sure you would take the other route because you do not like the noise of the highway along this route.”
    “Yes, that is true, but I met these fellows and then everybody chose the quieter, picturesque route and I decided it would be too crowded.”
    Then Bill and I had another good-bye coffee and said buen camino for the second time that day. Now I really had to hurry and no more delays and excuses.

In the late afternoon I reached the place where I had chosen to spend the night. It is situated near one of the most famous bridges along the Camino over the river Orbigo.
    It too is surrounded by legends and history, and again I cannot help sharing one of them taken from my guidebook.
    It is said that in 1434 Suero de Quinones, a Leonese knight, held a jousting contest on the bridge as the result of being scorned by the lady he loved. He wore an iron collar around his neck and resolved to beat all comers. Because it was a Jacobean Holy Year, many people came to watch. The tournament started two weeks before St James day and ran until the 11th of August, finding Quinones still undefeated, having broken 300 lances belonging to his opponents. The iron collar was taken off and he declared his honor intact and himself free from the love that had bound him.

The next morning, looking at the clear, blue sky, without a trace of a cloud, I was thinking it was going to be another scorching day, so I’d better hurry through the fields to the city of Astorga, where I was going to have lunch and rest.
    Upon entering the city of Astorga I met a group of pilgrims who were having their lunch, sitting on the ground in front of a church. I stopped there to have a look at the church and one of them jumped to offer me some Spanish tortilla. I did not dare to refuse him. My eyes were fixed on his feet. Apparently he was doing the Camino barefoot since the soles of his feet were black and callused. I guessed he was sick of answering the question why he was doing it, so I refrained from asking him, instead just thanking him for the food and continuing on.
    The guidebooks say Astorga has a long tradition of aiding pilgrims. It was interesting for me to learn that unlike other cities Astorga provided shelter in their albergues to the homeless and indigent.
    A friendly local reminded me to watch and listen to the beautiful clock of the city hall.

    After having a substantial lunch in one of the cafés in the centre of the city, I spent an hour wandering through the streets of Astorga, marveling at the architecture and the way the old and the new peacefully coexisted.

    In the early afternoon I decided that 30 km and eight hours of sun were enough for that day and stayed for the night in the little village of El Ganzo.

In the morning I told myself, It is due to rain. After all that heat, we should have some fresh air in the mountains. And the morning sky agreed with me.
    Actually, it was the first time I was using my raincoat along the Camino. Having had some coffee in one of the villages on the way, I decided to walk in the rain, but when lightning struck and the sky started to roar I had to find shelter. On the way out of the village I happened to be in, I joined a group of fellow pilgrims who had stopped under the roof of a deserted building, waiting for the storm to pass.
    Soon it was over and the sun appeared through the clouds. We continued joyfully to Cruz de Ferro – an iron cross where pilgrims leave a stone or something they have brought from home, hoping to leave behind a burden or let it go. The cross is believed to have been placed there in the 11th century, but some legends say the place was originally an altar built to the Roman god Mercury, or the pile of stones was erected there in Celtic times.

Finally in the mountains. I am enjoying the wonderful views together with Hiroki and Lisa.
    After an unexpected steep climb we reached the highest point of the Camino. The mountain gives me wings; I always feel happy on a mountain.

    The steep climb was naturally followed by a steep descent, weaving through picturesque mountain villages. It was in one of these beautiful places that I chose to stay that night.
    I did not hurry to leave Molinaseca early in the morning since the city of Ponferrada was only 8 km away and I intended to find an internet café in which to print out the confirmation letter for my flight back to Sofia in a couple of weeks. But I probably was not going to find a café open before 9 a.m.
    Walking leisurely, I entered the city about 9 and found out that the tourist centre didn’t open until 9:30. I gathered some patience over a cup of coffee and went to the centre and learned where to find an internet café. After circling the centre of the city I finally arrived at the right place.
    So far, so good, but when I opened my email from the airline and tried to print out the confirmation letter, it turned out that only the computer of the person working there was connected to a printer. He tried to copy the letter onto a flash stick, but it didn’t work. He called someone else to consult and continued repeating that such a thing had not happened before. His colleague’s advice did not help, so I sent the file to his email, and he was able to print the document. Finally, after an hour, I had the precious piece of paper in my hands. But now I could look at the Templar Castle only from outside, because tours to go inside were available only at certain other hours.
    You cannot have everything, can you?

    I spent the rest of the day walking through beautiful vineyards.
Links to earlier parts:
Part I: Challenge and reward
Part II: On the road again
Part III: Legends and reality
Part IV: The Meseta
Copyright © 2016 by Valeria Idakieva


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for the encouraging words! I am not much of a photographer, but I am trying to do my best.

  2. Wow, what gorgeous photos of a beautiful country! I have a friend who is in Spain right now. I didn’t realize how much northern Spain resembles northern California, my home (except for the cathedrals, Roman-looking gates, and umbrella pines). The photos at the start of your journey could easily pass for Sonoma or Marin counties. I especially like your bits of history: the niche in the ruined cathedral where bread used to be left for pilgrims, or the cross at the mound of discarded burdens on the site of an altar to Mercury (the god of travelers). And what an adventurer you are, walking all that way, and starting off without your luggage! Did you wear a Fitbit (for tracking steps)? Your numbers must be off the charts. This is a stunning, stunning visual education, and your written narrative is wonderful. I am going to print it all out and prepare for my own Camino pilgrimage someday, if my knees and hips hold out! But then, I should be ashamed of myself if that German woman with prosthetics could do it. Thank you to Morris for drawing my attention to this: I travel so much for work, and my work days are so long that my dips into Moristotle are less frequent than I could wish. Great job Valeria, and thank you for this extraordinary experience you have been sharing with all of us!

    1. I am happy you liked the Camono stories and I really appreciate your comment. The person who should be thanked is Moris who encouraged me, put up with my strange English, corrected it when needed and let me share the the experience.

  3. Dear Valeria,
    These are fascinating chronicles! Thank-you taking the time to share your experiences with us. I know a lady who is currently on the El Camino de Santiago.

  4. Dear Andre,
    Thank you for taking the time to read about my Camino experiences and comment.