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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.