Camino de Santiago 12: except in church porches

Astorga to Vega del Valcarce (24th – 28th April 2007)

Yves Massarde: I understand you believe there is some sort of plague coming out of Mali.
Dr Frank Hopper: We don’t like to say “plague”.
Yves Massarde: What do you think it is, then?
Dr Eva Rojas: A plague. – Sahara, 2005

GENERAL: Away, away!

POLICE:(without moving) Yes, yes, we go.

GENERAL: These pirates slay.

POLICE: Tarantara!

GENERAL: Then do not stay.

POLICE: Tarantara!

GENERAL: Then why this delay?

POLICE: All right, we go.

ALL: Yes, forward on the foe! Yes, forward on the foe!

GENERAL: Yes, but you don’t go!

POLICE: We go, we go

ALL: Yes, forward on the foe! Yes, forward on the foe!

GENERAL: Yes, but you don’t go!

POLICE: We go, we go

ALL: At last they go! At last they really go! – The Pirates of Penzance – W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

The next morning we discovered the downside to staying in the wonderful Albergue San Miguel in Hospital de Orbigo. Our rucksacks had been invaded by bedbugs. ‘Chinches,’ the hospitalero said with resignation, and produced some potent and no doubt deeply environmentally unfriendly spray. We sprayed half-heartedly, promised to do it again later in the evening, and set out.

Anne reads Morning Prayer (the 1922 BCP was the smallest I could find) in the albergue at Astorga

Anne reads Morning Prayer (the 1922 BCP was the smallest I could find) in the albergue at Astorga

Astorga still seemed disinclined to let us leave, and it seemed that everything was in the wrong place. The post office would not sell us stamps; the supermarket would not sell us cheese. (The refrigerator was broken, making the staff understandably reluctant to sell its contents; this was somewhat ironic, given that we would be taking it up the mountains in no more efficient cooling container than a rucksack.) We did our best to find this amusing. A corner shop was more cooperative in matters cheesy, and we bought a few apples as well.

Stocking up on chocolate to take us over the mountains

Stocking up on chocolate to take us over the mountains

Mosaic on the side of a church on the way out of Astorga

Mosaic on the side of a church on the way out of Astorga

The day was overcast but warm, and we were excited at the prospect of getting into the mountains of León. The camino was well away from the road, and soon left it entirely. As we worked our way up the incline we discussed how Anne could possibly have such hopelessly blister-prone feet when her great-grandfather had made it most of the way up Everest on the 1924 expedition. We assumed it came from the other side of the family, but subsequent research showed that the more famous Norton had also had trouble with his feet.

Pause for chocolate

Pause for chocolate

I insisted that we stop for a while in Santa Catalina de Somoza, because it had my name. That, and the fact that it was definitely mid-morning by now, made it a reasonable point for a coffee break. We sat outside a bar and admired a pilgrim-shaped weathervane on a nearby house. At the next table was a party of four English pilgrims, three women and a man. One of them lent Anne some foot ointment after she had finished with it; she had fairly horrible blisters herself.

We would be seeing them again.

Wayside footcare in Santa Catalina de Somoza

Wayside footcare in Santa Catalina de Somoza

We walked on. Lunchtime coincided more or less happily with our arrival in El Ganso. We admired, but did not go into, Cowboy Bar, which looked very much as one might have expected from the name. The church porch proved to be an excellent place to eat our rolls and cheese, although I was getting thoroughly fed up with pan de leche by this point. We recalled the bit in 1066 And All That about nobody being allowed to be born, or marry, or die, except in church porches; this particular church porch, the guidebook said, ‘has sheltered countless pilgrims from both rain and sun’. In our case it was sun.

Mesón Cowboy

Mesón Cowboy

Eating lunch in the church porch at El Ganso

Eating lunch in the church porch at El Ganso

We slogged on up the hill into Rabanal del Camino. We were looking specifically for the refugio run by the Confraternity of Saint James, and passed an obvious rival with a garden festooned with tents on the way. Refugio Gaucelmo, the CSJ place, was at first sight concealed by a coach full of fake pilgrims. We scorned them and their suitcases.

Gaucelmo was a lovely place. The hospitaleros, an Irish couple called Peter and Kathleen, were very welcoming – although disappointed that I wasn’t Irish myself, with a name like that. Unusually, there was a large garden behind the building, quite apart from all the facilities one would expect. It appeared that we had managed to lose the new bottle of shampoo – egg-flavoured, which seemed quite common in Spain, and which we used for washing clothes and skin as well as hair. The shop was able to supply a replacement, not to mention some very juvenile fizzy sweets. A fizzy sweet or six once in a while can be most heartening. We took advantage of the garden by spreading out our sleeping bags, spraying them with bug spray and then sponging them down. It was tedious and rather embarrassing, but finding four-leafed clovers in the grass heartened us. We left the sleeping bags to dry off again and did some more orthodox laundry – including, which was a mistake, my brown microfleece – before dinner. Anne spent most of it with her right foot up on a chair, wrapped up with an icepack – a proper icepack, not ice cubes wrapped in a towel – because her ankle was still playing up.

Afterwards we began saying Compline in the kitchen, before Kathleen popped in to let us know that there was actually a dedicated prayer room, if we would like to use that. We most certainly would. After the Office, we inspected the icon on the wall; it represented Saint James, events from his life both scriptural and apocryphal, and pilgrims through the ages. It was a pity they didn’t sell postcards of it; I found it impossible to get a good photograph, and would have dearly liked a copy. Still, it were better to have loved and lost, etcetera, and all in all the day seemed more successful than not. We went to bed happy to be in a really civilised refugio.

Icon of St James in Refugio Gaucelmo

Icon of St James in Refugio Gaucelmo

The next morning my microfleece was still sopping wet; I bunged it into a bag and hoped it wouldn’t leak. Anne had another dose of icepack over breakfast. We discovered that the four English pilgrims we had met the day before were also at Gaucelmo. It was already raining, and waterproofs were emerging right, left and centre. I donned my cyberman trousers and my big blue poncho. We were hoping that this combination would solve the problem caused by rain running off my rucksack cover and soaking my trousers. One of the English pilgrims – Sheila – was dressed from top to toe in black, and looked like nothing so much as a penguin in her peaked hood.

We set out in dribs and drabs. The landscape was now more like Dartmoor, consisting in large part of granite and gorse. Within the space of a hundred yards my silver trousers had developed a small tear. As I walked it became a large tear. I resolved to obtain some kind of tape to fix it as soon as we could find a shop. Not a chance. They were soon ripped beyond repair, and I had to take them off.

We walked on into Foncebadón. It was another strategic site in Sir John Moore’s retreat to Coruña, but we found nothing more aggressive than a flock of geese. Even the geese were not terribly aggressive. I recalled the story of Saint Milburga, who delivered the village of Stoke St Milborough in Shropshire from a flock of vicious geese. Anne thought that perhaps she should go on to do a Masters in saints with animal-related miracles. What with Santo Domingo, we had already collected a fair bit of material.

We were approaching what is perhaps the most well-known landmark of the Camino Francés, the Cruz de Ferro. As the name suggests, it is a large iron cross. Over the years a cairn has grown up around its base; traditionally each pilgrim carries a stone with them from home and leaves it at the Cruz de Ferro. It’s meant to be symbolic: think of Christian’s burden falling off and rolling down the hill in Pilgrim’s Progress. We had not done this, having gone for the sensible rather than the penitential approach to pilgrimage. Carrying unnecessary stones in our rucksacks seemed almost on a par with filling our boots with pebbles, or eating yew berries to induce penitential diarrhoea – both authentic medieval pilgrim practices. Anyway, we already had cairn fatigue. We walked around the Cruz de Ferro and glared at it from the shelter of a little hut, where I was able to rearrange my complicated system of waterproofs. It kept on raining and we kept on walking; we were reasonably cheerful, since rain was now something of a novelty. The mist, grey stone and purple heather made us feel at home.

Manjarín is an abandoned village – abandoned except for the albergue run by a man by the name of Tomás, who battles against rain, snow, and the authorities to keep a welcome for tired pilgrims. We hadn’t planned on stopping, but the place looked so enticing, in a countercultural hippie kind of a way, that we went in. A few other pilgrims were there already. Coffee appeared almost instantly, for which I was extremely grateful. We looked at photographs of Foncebadón in the snow, and quite understood why Moore had trouble there.

Shortly after leaving Manjarín we reached the highest point on the Camino Francés, according to the book. It was not particularly obvious, but knowing that we had, at some point, managed to pass it felt like an achievement. It continued to rain. Another crowd of trippers appeared – probably the same crowd of trippers that we had encountered in Rabanal. We did our best to keep out of their way, but when we reached El Acebo we found to our disgust that the bar was packed to bursting with this egregious coach party and that the overflow was milling around in the narrow street outside and all too eager to quiz some genuine pilgrims. To add insult to injury, one of them was wearing that most unhikerlike of garments, a skirt. We found that we couldn’t trust ourselves to keep civil tongues in our heads, faced with such provocation, so we moved on.

Deprived of a sit-down and a chance to attend to suffering feet, carrying on and stopping for the day as soon as possible seemed to be the only thing to do. It was four kilometres to Riego de Ambrós, and we resented every step of it. Had the refugio there been shut there would have been trouble; providentially it opened just as we arrived. Even better, there was a fire – well, a wood-burning stove – in the kitchen. We spread wet things out to dry as quickly as possible and settled down in the kitchen for the afternoon. We even drank the instant cup soup that we had been avoiding on the grounds that instant cup soup was minging. The improvised icepack suffered from proximity to the fire, but there wasn’t much we could do about that. It was not such a bad afternoon after all; there is nothing like being inside in the warm while the weather is audibly miserable outside. Instant soup for lunch was followed by instant couscous for supper, Evensong, and bed.

Soggy view from the kitchen window at the Riego de Ambrós albergue

Soggy view from the kitchen window at the Riego de Ambrós albergue

Having reached the highest point on Wednesday, Thursday morning began with a steep climb down again. The road descended in hairpin bends of the sort seen in James Bond films, and the path did much the same, ten metres higher. The track was slippery and the views were amazing, even through the mist, but we reached Molinaseca with no accidents. We sat for a while looking across the river to recover our breath after the descent. Trees, mountains, water; it was amazing how much the landscape had changed within a distance of three days.

The descent from Riego de Ambrós.

The descent from Riego de Ambrós.

The rocky path down and west

The rocky path down and west

The church at Molinaseca

The church at Molinaseca

Molinaseca was a relatively large village, and as the camino passed through it joined roads and pavements. It was tarmac all the way to Ponferrada, the next large town. We stopped in the first available bar for what the Americans call a ‘comfort break’. The staff were most obliging and seemed not to object to Anne unwinding and repinning miles of bandage while I sat and drank my coffee. They were so obliging that they gave us cake – free – which is what I call service. It surely doesn’t count as tapas?

Ponferrada was generally friendly. We were unable to have a proper look at the castle, which was undergoing renovations, but when we managed to get ourselves lost around its ramparts a kind citizen put us back on the right track. The right track happened to go past a shop that sold stamps and a small supermarket, which was all to the good. The more modern, less interesting, part of the city went on for rather further than the older, more interesting part, but that was not really a problem because we had better things to do than sight-seeing. We had to get to Camponaraya, where, Mathias had claimed, there was an albergue.

A mural on a church in Compostilla, a couple of kilometres out of the city, cleared up a debate that we had been engaged in for some time. It depicted the four evangelists as their symbolic animals, and, what was more, it had their names helpfully inscribed next their heads. We had never had any problem with John (eagle) or Luke (ox), but I maintained that Mark was the man and Matthew the lion. Anne said it was the other way round. The mural sorted it out: Anne was right. I had been sure that it had something to do with Matthew depicting Jesus as king. If Mark were going to be any kind of big cat, surely he ought to be a cheetah?

Christ and the Evangelists mural at Compostilla

Christ and the Evangelists mural at Compostilla


I soothed my hurt pride with an ice cream in the village bar. Anne had one too, for solidarity’s sake, or something like that. In Columbrianos my foot began to hurt, the same sharp, mysterious pain that had plagued me while heading into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and crossing the Pyrenees, but in the other foot this time. I was glad to think of the albergue in Camponaraya. On the bright side, I was amused to see that a pole had been erected to divert storks from the church, and that a pair of storks were making good use of it. One does not want to drive storks away – they bring good luck, after all – but in some places they can be a nuisance. A dedicated stork pillar was an inspired idea.

Stork's nest on its own dedicated pillar

Stork’s nest on its own dedicated pillar

We limped on into Camponaraya. There was no albergue. There wasn’t even an hostal. We would probably have settled for it, had there been one. The best we could do was a pair of doughnuts in Bar Brazal. We made the most of those, and pressed on through the vineyards in the gathering dusk in a state of considerable exhaustion and some pain on both parts. As we approached Cacabelos we passed a stall where two men were handing out free samples of wine; but stopping would have been fatal. We would never have moved again.

7

Vineyard in the dusk

Worse was to follow. We met a fellow pilgrim as we entered the village. She had bad news: the hostel was closed. Not even full, closed. We did not like this news one little bit; wherever the next one was, we weren’t in a fit state to walk there. Curling up in the gutter and going to sleep seemed a more viable option.

It did not quite come to that. Refugio or, as in this case, no albergue, Cacabelos was not entirely devoid of beds. It had a number of bars, and one of those bars had a bed going spare. One solitary, just-about-queen-sized-if-you-both-breathed-in, bed, in a cramped room up a flight of crazy stairs. We handed over thirty-five euros without a murmur, laid out our sleeping bags, and had a very good cry. I blew goodness knows how much phone credit talking to my long-suffering boyfriend for the first time in weeks. Anne did likewise, talking to a useful friend from church. We went to bed without dinner. It was a fitting end to the day.

The next morning was a great improvement. The bar served chocolatey waffles, and was showing a Spanish-dubbed version of Fantastic Four on the television. It also had an impressive sello depicting a windmill. We had been too preoccupied the previous night to notice that the place was called El Molino, but that made sense, we supposed.

It was seven kilometres to Villafranca del Bierzo, mainly along the road, and we walked it very slowly and stopped when we got there. We passed a yard full of sculptures, and very few cars. El Bierzo is renowned (in Spain) for its wine, which is not bad, at that. We hadn’t heard anything about sculptures.

We stopped at the albergue Ave Fenix, which was a joyously unconventional establishment with star-shaped cut-outs in the dormitory roof, a young ginkgo tree growing in the yard, and dodgy plumbing. The guidebook advised us, assuming the opportunity presented itself, to partake in a queimada – ‘at a queimada an alcoholic concoction of drink is lit in gathering darkness and, whilst those present are sharing it, tales are told and spells incanted’. The opportunity did not present itself, and I think we were, secretly, rather relieved.

In the courtyard at Ave Fenix

In the courtyard at Ave Fenix

Villafranca was a good place to laze around in. We went down to one of the restaurants for lunch and, since we were nearing Galicia, I tried a bowl of caldo gallego – a Galician-style stew involving haricot beans and bacon. It was very good. Lunch was laid-back. So was the rest of the day. We had a look at the church of Santiago, but, since that was right next the albergue, it didn’t take a huge amount of effort, and we appreciated that after the tribulations of the day before.

The church of Santiago in Villafranca del Bierzo

The church of Santiago in Villafranca del Bierzo

Our greatest mistake that day was going for a drink after dinner. We wandered all the way down the valley (Villafranca del Bierzo is built up the sides of a rather steep valley) to the main square and sat outside a café to drink a lemonade. This was all well and good, but it meant that by the time we got back and were ready for bed, several other pilgrims had beaten us to the dormitory. On previous nights we had found that the only surefire way not to find oneself disturbed by snoring was to go to sleep before everyone else.

We were already too late, and passed a miserable night in consequence. There were at least three distinct snorers, one directly beneath us, and each snored at his own pace and rhythm, stopping and starting just when one least expected it. Murderous thoughts ran through my head. The temptation to empty a Platypus full of water over the side of the bunk was almost overwhelming. I staged a half-hearted screaming nightmare, but only managed to disturb people who weren’t asleep. It was a very quiet screaming nightmare.

In the dormitory at Villafranca del Bierzo

In the dormitory at Villafranca del Bierzo

 

Cat at Villafranca

Cat at Villafranca

Still, we made it through the night, and set out cheerfully the next morning – pausing to take a picture of the resident cat. The guidebook offered us a choice of three routes; it did not take us long to choose the one that was shortest and easiest, although probably also the most boring. It ran alongside the main road – which was not nearly so dire as we feared it might be; there was very little traffic, and decent scenery most of the way. Another pilgrim appeared – going the wrong way. Kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many were going to Santiago? It turned out that he had already got there, and was walking the return journey, too. We thought this very keen. We stopped in one bar that had the wood panelling and gloom of a decent British pub. It also had cake, so that was all right. As we plodded on, as the camino snaked around and over the main road, Anne attempted to explain to me the allure of World of Warcraft, to which I attributed, with the arrogance that only a best friend can get away with, everything that had gone wrong with her life in the past couple of months. I still didn’t get it.

We stopped at a small shop in Trabadelo and purchased revolting and E-number-rich snacks. Then, fingers orange from the Spanish equivalent of Cheesy Wotsits, we moved on. The next rest was in La Portela de Valcarce; a plaque on a pilgrim statue helpfully informed us that it was 559km to Roncesvalles, and, more excitingly, 190km to Santiago. Tomorrow we would be in Galicia.

Handy milestone sculpture

Handy milestone sculpture

The first albergue in Vega de Valcarce was the Albergue do Brasil, and it looked so intriguing that we decided to stop right there, before we even got into the village. There were hammocks in the front yard, and a covered area described by a wooden sign as ‘Camelot’. Cristina, the hospitalera, welcomed us with open arms. She told us how the refugio was run by a Brazilian organisation, how she would be there six months, how she wished her daughter (who was about our age, she said) would do the camino too. She offered us the chance to share a Brazilian dinner that night; breakfast would also be served. After a little deliberation, we went for dinner, but decided to pass on breakfast. Breakfast, we thought, would be breakfast, while dinner would very likely be interesting.

The Brazilian flag flies at Vega del Valcarce

The Brazilian flag flies at Vega del Valcarce

Anne relaxes at Albergue do Brasil

Anne relaxes at Albergue do Brasil

We passed the afternoon lazing in the hammocks, watching other pilgrims pass by. I looked up the valley and saw the main road on stilts high, high above us. It was peculiarly depressing. How long would it last, I wondered, this lovely land of dust and green? I had probably read too many terrifying editorials in New Scientist. Anne succeeded in distracting me from my gloomy thoughts by pointing out a pond full of trout, and we watched them happily.

By the evening three other pilgrims had arrived who wanted to partake in the repast, all of them German: Elke, Marina and Daniel. Daniel was one of the legendary fast walkers, but Elke and Marina seemed to be moving at what we considered to be a more sensible pace. The food was simple but delicious – a rice dish followed by a bean and egg concoction. Anne loved the place and was not to be prevented from buying a frivolous red feather clip to go in her hair: not the type of thing that a pilgrim would wear, at all, but we took our luxuries where we could find them. The only problem was how to pack it: it ended up inside an empty plastic bottle. I contented myself with buying a length of printed friendship bracelet. Cristina said I had to make a wish, and when the thing broke and fell off my wrist, the wish would come true. Anne said, ‘You’d better make sure it’s not a wish you’re particularly bothered about.’ She knew that I fully intended to sew it onto my blanket.

Tomorrow, Galicia.

Dinner at Albergue do Brasil. Cristina sits at the head of the table.

Dinner at Albergue do Brasil. Cristina sits at the head of the table.

Camino de Santiago 11: Ai Nostri Monti Ritorneremo

Virgen del Camino to Astorga, 20th – 23rd April 2007

‘The Shepherds, I say, whose names were Knowledge, Experience, Watchful and Sincere, took them by the hand, and had them to the tents, and made them partake of that which was ready at present. They said, moreover, We would that ye should stay here awhile, to be acquainted with us; and yet more to solace yourselves with the good of these Delectable Mountains. They then told them, that they were content to stay; so they went to their rest that night, because it was very late.’
Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

The albergue kicked us out at eight on the dot, but since we intended to shake the dust of León from our feet as quickly as possible this was no great hardship. It did mean that we had to cut off Morning Prayer half way through; the Lord, we hoped, would understand. Having decided to take the longer, quieter route to Hospital de Orbigo, rather than walking alongside the road, we stopped in Chozas de Abajo and completed the service. It was a pleasant morning, not yet too hot, and we lazed on a bench there for a little while. The next settlement, Villar de Mazarife, was only 4.5km further on, and we arrived well before lunchtime. We could have carried on, but the next albergue appeared to be another 15km away, and, when the one here was in plain sight and had a row of sun loungers temptingly displayed on the front lawn… we found that we weren’t feeling all that energetic.

This tempting refugio was the Albergue San Antonio de Padua, a relatively new establishment opened by a professional massage therapist. Mathias, the massage therapist, seemed slightly surprised to see us this early in the day, but welcomed us in and showed us to our own room. Luxury! We did some laundry, and hung it up to dry. Then, having surfed the internet for as long as our patience allowed, the connection being exceedingly slow, we set off to explore the village. Mathias requested that we buy him some cigarettes, and gave us cash for same. We acquiesced, and found some other useful things in the village shop. According to numerous signs, the place to eat was Bar Tio Pepe, so we went there and sampled their pilgrim menu. It was one of the more imaginative that we had come across – which isn’t saying much, when you come to think about it – and we enjoyed some potato and meat soup and a Spanish omelette. The yoghurt, not so much.

The afternoon was blissful. We took possession of a pair of sunloungers, and applied ourselves to learning some more psalm chants. Mathias remarked on the serendipity of our contrasting voices. ‘Very good. One high, one low. One soprano, one contralto. It works well.’ Having learned the chants, we used them for Evensong – and stayed out in the sun for that, too.

One more solitary pilgrim had turned up by nightfall, a German by the name of Norbert. We all drank coffee together, together with Mathias, who brought his extensive knowledge of the Camino to bear on our individual pilgrimages and advised us on the most sensible pace to adopt. He advocated taking it slowly. Anne and I had plenty of time; we’d booked a ferry several days later than we expected to finish, and Mathias said that we should make the most of those several days. Even if we wanted to walk on to Finisterre after arriving in Santiago, there was still no need to rush. He also claimed that most pilgrims got up far too early, and that we should have a lie-in tomorrow.

Mathias then rounded off the evening by giving us both massages – the one not on the receiving end remaining decorously in the room for the duration – and making affirmative comments on the state of our back muscles. We slept well. The next morning brought our first encounter with the Spanish delicacy known as churros, which are probably best described as long, thin, doughnuts: deep-fried cylinders of batter, sprinkled with sugar. Unhealthy as anything, of course, but delicious.

A mystery solved: what storks live on, miles from water

A mystery solved: what storks live on, miles from water

Mindful of Mathias’ advice, we dawdled over breakfast and set out rather late. Predictably enough, this resulted in a walk in hot sun, which in turn resulted in the pair of us being unconscionably grumpy. A discussion on the merits of Firefly diverted us for a little, but could not distract from how hot it was, and how dull it was, and how we’d rather not be walking. We stopped in Villavente, but, the bar we hit on proving gloomy and unwelcoming, this did little to improve matters. Even the ice creams didn’t help.

Resting beside the weary road

Resting beside the weary road


We failed to follow the instructions in the guidebook; this appeared to make very little difference in the long run. We found ourselves walking alongside the railway for four or five kilometres, and the niggling feeling that we were not on the right path made those four or five kilometres go on forever. The lizards that scampered over the ballast and sleepers seemed to be enjoying the sun; we weren’t, particularly. We sulked our way across the main road, up, down, into Hospital de Orbigo – or what we thought was Hospital de Orbigo. In fact, this was Puente de Orbigo, and Hospital de Orbigo turned out to be over the other side of a long, impressive bridge that interested us not in the least.

The Hospital de Orbigo albergue was hospitable indeed, and a refuge from the heat and the dust. It had large, cool dormitories, a shady courtyard, a washing line, friendly hospitaleros, bottom bunks that one could occupy without painful impact to the head. Self-expression was encouraged, and the walls were hung with artworks executed by pilgrims who had passed through. It did have its bad points, but the most annoying of these did not make itself obvious until some days later, so I shall pass over it for the moment. Suffice it to say that, at that moment, for the moment, Albergue San Miguel was exactly what we needed.

Relaxing at San Miguel

Relaxing at San Miguel

We did our washing. We sat out in the courtyard while it dried, and played Spite and Malice (oh yes, it had playing cards, too) all through the siesta hour. Then we sallied forth to the shop and purchased the wherewithal for supper. Supper was good. The wine was bad – the worst we’d had, in fact. Perhaps it was a cautionary reminder that one can’t always pay two euros for a bottle and get away with it. We abandoned it after a glass. Anne persuaded me to buy a waterproof poncho – an odd purchase, one might think, given the weather outside, but we were approaching the mountains and, beyond them, Galicia, notorious for its rainy climate.

There was a little of the meseta left to go, however: one day’s walk to Astorga. Astorga was the beginning of the end for Sir John Moore’s army in the Napoleonic Wars; we hoped it would not prove so tragic for us. At least the landscape looked more interesting. It was still sunny and dusty, but it was beginning to have some gradients. Groves of olive trees made a change from the endless fields. Ahead of us was a large party of pilgrims, many of them burdened with garments and luggage that we immediately condemned as unsuitable. They comprised an example of our least favourite travelling companion: the coach party. Still, today it was easy enough to lag behind and wait until they got well ahead of us.

Pilgrim statue/scarecrow

Pilgrim statue/scarecrow


We found a picnic area with a kind of shrine adorned with a metal sculpture depicting a pilgrim. The pilgrim had himself been adorned with various cast-offs – trousers, a shirt, a small rucksack. And again, the shirt was covered with inked messages from passing pilgrims. We added to it our It’s a long way to Santiago. I wondered idly whether it would catch on, and, a year hence, pilgrims up and down the camino might sing it, not knowing where it originated. (We signed our names to it, though.)

The approach to Astorga

The approach to Astorga


Once we judged that the trippers would be well ahead of us, we carried on. We stopped for lunch in Santo Toribio, at the top of a small hill. Behind us the meseta stretched back beyond memory. Ahead of us was Astorga and, beyond it, the mountains. This was a landscape that lent itself to the imagination. Today was much more optimistic. We might actually get somewhere, and achieve something, and we might do it before we dropped dead of thirst and boredom. We started down the hill happily.

Animal carvings in the cathedral at Astorga

Animal carvings in the cathedral at Astorga

Astorga is one of those places that it is very difficult to leave. An early getaway the next morning was impossible: it was a Sunday, and all the useful sort of shops were closed. (Pilgrim tat shops, on the other hand, were carrying on regardless.) We were not sure where the next food shop would be, and were reluctant to start out over the mountains only carrying what we already had. At present we had no intention of leaving Astorga; there was too much to look at. We signed into one of the three albergues, a huge, rambling, rickety building near the cathedral.

The bunks were crammed in; there were more to a room than ought to have been possible. Anne followed local custom and took a siesta. I took a bundle of laundry into the courtyard, washed it, and hung it out to dry. Washing lines stretched across the yard from the first floor windows: very sensible. Then I indulged myself with a session on the internet. An opportunity to find out what was going on back in civilisation was not to be passed up.

A maragato atop Astorga cathedral

A maragato atop Astorga cathedral

When Anne had rested we had a look at the cathedral, which had three distinct shades of stone without, and a good deal of gold within. On the top it had the figure of a maragato (a resident of the area), and next it was the former Bishop’s Palace. This was nothing like something out of the works of Anthony Trollope. The works of Walt Disney would be nearer the mark, with a side-order of Hammer Horror. It was designed by Gaudí in one of his… moments. It was not the kind of palace where one imagined a Bishop living. Perhaps Sleeping Beauty, in her Goth phase. The three stone angels in the garden, bearing mitre, cross and crozier, did little to render it less surreal.

The Bishop's Palace

The Bishop’s Palace

We dragged ourselves away from this alarming sight, and raided the tat shop for postcards of it. An unexpected – and welcome – find was a basket of waterproof jacket-and-trousers sets. They were stupidly cheap, so I bought a snazzy silver number. We discovered, when I tried it on back at the albergue, that it made me look like a Cyberman. The albergue kept a large basket into which unwanted garments and items could be hurled, and all pilgrims were welcome to rummage through it in case it contained something they could use. I discarded the jacket – there was no way a two euro plastic creation would work better than Rohan’s latest technology – and put the trousers away until they should be needed.

Dinner that night was in the dazzling dining room of the Hotel Gaudí, where a 10€ menu could be procured on production of credencial. We felt extremely out of place, but made the most of it. I had an extremely nice seafood dish. Anne, still wary, stuck to tamer foods.

The next day was Monday. We intended to do some food shopping and then leave. Astorga, however, had other ideas. All the shops were shut. It was St George’s Day, and we wondered whether that had something to do with it. We thought it unlikely, and concluded that it must be the feast of Our Lady of My-goodness-it’s-been-two-weeks-since-Easter-time-for-another-bank-holiday. Whatever the facts, it was a little inconvenient, but we made the best of it.

The pink facade of Albergue Camino y Via

The pink facade of Albergue Camino y Via

The first step was to find breakfast. We did better than that – we found churros. Then, feeling that we had not yet assimilated the weirdness of the Bishop’s Palace, we spent some time sitting on a bench in front of it, just looking at it. After a while, when we judged that the other albergues in the town would be open for business, we moved on. Having searched unsuccessfully for the one run by nuns, we ended up at Albergue Camino y Via, which we had passed on the way into the town the previous day. It was a maze of a building, the back of which looked out from the old town walls, back the way we had come.

Looking east from the back of Albergue Camino y Via

Looking east from the back of Albergue Camino y Via

Anne, who had passed an unpleasant night due to the crowdedness of the dormitory at San Javier, went straight off for a nap, while I looked at the Roman pavements and found some more tacky postcard shops. One of these sold not only tacky postcards but also tacky prayer cards, credit-card sized pieces of plastic with a picture of a saint on the front, a prayer on the back and, if you were lucky, a tin medallion suspended in a hole at the top right corner. To my delight there was one featuring Saint Roch, the patron saint of pilgrims afflicted by plague. (He looks very much like Saint James, who also tends to crop up sporting a hat with a shell on the brim. Roch is the one hitching up his garment to show off the festering sore on his leg, and accompanied by a little dog who carries the saint’s bread in his mouth. With that attitude to basic hygiene, it’s hardly surprising he had a problem with plague.) I bought it for Anne, in the hope that it might help with the blisters; she carries it in her purse to this day. I also bought another cloth badge for my camp blanket.

Roman pavement under glass in Astorga

Roman pavement under glass in Astorga

Storks circling above the town hall

Storks circling above the town hall


By the time I got back, Anne was mid-way through doing the laundry. When she had done, and we had hung it up in a kind of shelter at the back of the albergue, we went out into the town for lunch. The eateries were not, fortunately, closed for the bank holiday, and we decided to be distinctly un-Spanish and eat pizza at the place in the main square. We sat outside and watched the storks circling around the town hall. I decided that I needed something to keep my hair from blowing in my face – it was getting longer and more straggly – so we visited a shop that sold cheap jewellery and other accessories. I also indulged in a little black-and-white painted wooden ring. It was a mistake: I’d lost it within the week.

Street performer in Astorga

Street performer in Astorga

Afterwards, we returned to the albergue, and, after another short session on the internet, it was my turn for a nap – slightly marred, I may say, by the proximity of some loud, off-key, frequently ringing bells. Still, I coped. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, hoping against hope that a shoe shop might exist in an open state, because my little crochet pumps were falling to pieces. Eventually we gave up and went to a bar. I was not to be deprived of shoes, however, because upon leaving the bar we at last found a shop that was open. Granted, it was not a shoe shop as such; it was one of those odd shops that sell everything from tiger-print wall-hangings to lighters with pictures of cannabis leaves on them. The range of weirdness encompassed footwear, however, and I came away with a pair of ugly cloth sandals for the princely sum of €2.50. Dinner followed, sausage, egg and chips in a dingy café, and then we retired to bed for the second night in Astorga. Tomorrow, we devoutly hoped, we would move on.Collapse