Walking the Camino de Santiago from Leon to Santiago
Morning began in San Martín with the cold clarity of pre-dawn. We weary pilgrims began our day tossing and turning to the sound of Gregorian chants that floated from Joe’s alarm before struggling off towards the kitchen for breakfast. The meal consisted of a gargantuan mug of the customary café con leche and a plate stacked high with enormous slabs of bread and butter. It was a veritable smörgåsbord. With the rising sun at our backs, the sinking moon ahead, and full packs and stomachs, we set off for the little town of Hospital de Órbigo.
From San Martín, Hospital de Órbigo is a brief 7 kilometers (4.2 miles for you devoted US readers) — a far cry from the 25k day before, and the perfect location for a pit stop during what would become another 20+ kilometer day. I began the trek with Joe, Dr. Meyers, and Kirstin, setting off as the first group from the Albergue Santa Ana. As we walked, we chatted about all sorts of topics (ranging from deep-sea diving to the philosophies of B&B owners in Eastern Maine), and the morning seemed to fly by. The walk proved far more picturesque and pastoral than its predecessor, as we were farther from the highway. Passing through veritable tunnels of greenery, we quickly shook off our stiffness and fell back into the rhythm of the Camino.
Even after only one morning, it had become clearthat each person has a natural pace. Some like to move quickly, with a destination-oriented mindset, thinking of the journey as a blur of breathtaking scenery, pinpointed by destinations, where the real fun would begin. Others, however, take the path more slowly, soaking and breathing the profound nature of individual moments, with destinations holding secondary importance (serving merely as moments to pause and recover between gorgeous walks.
So it was that our group of 4 reached the Puente de Órbigo quickly and stationed ourselves in a cafe on the western side of the Rio Órbigo which overlooked the bridge and the medieval jousting grounds. As usual, the other peregrinos entered town in a steady stream over tyhe course of a half hour, ordered their chosen caffeinated beverages, and awaited the first presentation of the day. My presentation covered information on the history of Hospital de Órbigo and was given from the comfort of the balcony of the cafe, as my indomitable and cheerful companions sipped their warm milk-based stimulants.
Hospital de Órbigo is a small town that is centered around a gorgeousmedieval bridge that was lengthened in the Renaissance and in the 19th century. The bridge was important for trade flowing from the mountainous region of Galicia to the plateaus and plains of Castilla y León. Though the bridge itself is quite beautiful, however, it is remembered because of the small floodplain that lies on its Western side. It was on this plain, in 1434, that Suero de Quiñones, in a foolhardy gesture of devoted and perhaps obsessive love, swore to break the lances of 300 knights in order to prove his pure and passionate intentions to the entirely uninterested woman of his dreams (who, unlike the valiant and idiotic don Suero, has been forgotten by history). This, however, is the only consensus that historians have reached. In the description of the outcome, stories diverge. Some say that Suero and his 9 companions were sucessful. Others say that upon breaking 166 lances, and reaching 1.5 months of constant battles (think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Suero dislocated his arm, and he and his companions gave up. Declaring the love to have been proven as honest and good, the companions (sans the love of Suero’s life) rode off to Santiago de Compostela, and gave a bracelet to the greatly more receptive church at Santiago in another sign of devotion (yeesh). To this day, the town has accepted and held to its identity, which is intrinsically tied to its bloody and romanticized medieval history.
After leaving Hospital del Orbigo, Astorga was our next destination. The day before we had walked along the highway but finally we reached open country. There was something amazing around every corner and over every hill that we climbed. The landscape had changed from our first day. It began to resemble more and more of my native California with rolling hills, brush oak, wild lavendar and yellow mustard. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful as the numerous wheat fields we walked through. I made my first friends of the Camino between Orbigo and Astorga. First was a girl from South Korea who simply told us to “Call [her] cutie” and an Australian named Trent; both had started from St. Jean Pied de Port. I felt like a baby Pilgrim in comparison. But, as my blisters proved, I too was now a pilgrim.
After walking for three hours, we got our first look at Astorga from on top of a tower that Suzanne, Craig and I chose to climb. We would have a view of the city for another two hours before finally reaching Asturica Augusta, now known as Astorga. It´s strange entering a town I had read so much about, I wasn´t exactly sure what to expect, but Astorga did not disappoint. Astorga was originally a Roman camp for the Tenth Twin Legion and as we walked into town, the natural landscape really does lend itself to be a militarily advantageous location. It is situated on a hill, which is quite the final obstacle into town. Once in town there are Roman ruins and as we walked through town the Roman as well as later history was revealed further. The Camino, as well as our deviations from it, led us past the Townhall built in 1675, which was constructed over the Roman Forum. A little further and we passed a statue commemorating Napoleon´s victory in Astorga; Astorga is actually one of the cities listed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Then we finally got our first upclose view of what had been taunting us for two hours: The Cathedral as well as Gaudi´s Palacio Episcopal. Along with t he joy that accompanied reaching town, we were in the midst of a wedding party and a bride being led into the church by traditional music from Astorga. It was really wonderful and felt like the whole town was welcoming us. We settled into our albergue and then toured the Cathedral and Roman walls. Although we were all tired we had a wonderful time in Astorga, partially due to the amount of Chocolate available for purchase, but also because we were finally pilgrims on our way to Santiago and we were part of a greater project.