of all the types of potential accommodation available along the Camino, it took us 24 days to stay in a casa rural — basically a B&B — but it was worth the wait. the place I’d tried to book (fancier and farther up the hill) didn’t have a record of my request (which didn’t come as a surprise) so we headed back down the hill ad tried the first non-albergue we could find. the room they offered us overlooked the main road (along which the Camino began its final ascent towards our next set of mountains) and a ruined building with mountains in the distance. a wonderfully peaceful place to rest with spectacular view.
after our standard shower-nap program, our location dictated that either of our food options required a steep climb back up the hill; our fatigued feet opted for the easy way to start (downhill) and delaying the greater exertion for later. immediately next to our casa rural stood a tiny church whose door stood open to entice peregrinos to enter. inside, beyond an alcove with a history of the church written on panels, and through metal bars designed to keep unsavory characters away, stood a remarkably impressive, gilded altar. dazzling in the sunlight that filtered through the open door — in a tiny church in a tiny town way off the beaten path in remote León. in a church that wasn’t even the village’s primary church! the wide-ranging influence of the Catholic church, sneaking up on you in the most unusual places.
the village dates from the period of Roman mining of precious metals in the nearby hills though its location on the Camino — approximately one day’s walk from the popular starting point of Astorga — enhanced its viability. ** an aside: in order to receive the Compostela in Santiago, one needn’t complete the entire Camino Frances (departing from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles). you technically only need to walk the last 100 kilometers (from approximately Sarria), about which more later, though many people complete it in stages. most commonly, people complete it over three years and walk St. Jean to Burgos one year, Burgos to Astorga another, and then Astorga to Santiago. ** in the 12th century, the Knights Templar maintained a garrison in Rabanal tasked with protecting peregrinos heading over the mountain towards Ponferrada, a Templar stronghold. while Rabanal catered strongly to peregrinos, it was merely one of several small villages along the Camino up the mountain to do so, and some itineraries had people continuing on to the nearly-deserted town of Foncebadon instead. after walking through as part of a steady stream of peregrinos, I can’t quite imagine spending the night in such a ghostly shell of a town-that-once-was.
heading out of Astorga, the terrain grew dramatically more interesting if commensurately challenging. hills! and trees! and still more fields though these were marked into smaller parcels by short, stacked-stone walls (that reminded me somewhat of Ireland). this terrain is better for grazing rather than planting and we saw more, though not many, grazing animals.
the second town we passed through out of Astorga had a distinctly remote and timeless quality to it. the houses were stout, the windows small, and some of the roofs thatched. little existed beyond the main street, which hosted three cafes and two or three casa rurales or albergues. the only water fountain was hidden behind some buildings and could only be accessed down a narrow pathway between the two. we stopped to peel an orange on a bench beside what might have been someone’s front door and saw more than a couple people pass the passage and double back when they realized their overshoot.
one of the more interesting sites on this stretch was a cafe (and possibly albergue) in the tiny town of El Ganso. unlike the previous town, it had an odd mix of modern/rustic — maintained but aging homes, presumably inhabited by aging owners without flashy young money to install the latest conveniences, and an assortment of homes being completely gutted and remodeled and re-roofed to satisfy the preferences for city-living, weekend-visiting younger owners. my cultural book indicates its one of the best places to view traditional Maragato architecture and that the main road wasn’t paved until the 1990s.
in El Ganso we stopped at a cafe called Meson Cowboy for our standard bocadilla. as we claimed a spot in the shade, we saw the Australian couple we’d dined with at the albergue in San Martin and said our hellos (we saw them again several more times though not with the consistency with which we saw the Koreans early on the Camino). at the bar we also encountered a herd of cats of various shapes, sizes, and temperaments — as well as some of the ruder German tourists we encountered on the Camino. it’s likely they were peregrinos, but they certainly behaved and carried themselves more like tourists disinclined to engage local culture. at least their presence spurred us to return to the day’s hike with a shorter-than-intended break. suppose it worked out in our favor somehow — helped us nab a room at a casa rural in Rabanal with a great view of the mountains where we chatted with a nice Canadian (?) couple at breakfast the following morning. a stark contrast and heartening reminder of all the reasons people decide to set out on the Camino.
Astorga presented with us an unexpected delight: Gaudí‘s Palacio Episcopal. as I mentioned in my previous Gaudí-related post, I only realized we’d seen his work in León after I saw pictures of the building while researching. in Astorga, however, there was no missing it — even if we hadn’t gotten a map from the front desk of the hotel with all the sights highlighted. we came up a side street, past the Museo del Chocolate and into the plaza — with Astorga’s cathedral at the other end with the Palacio Episcopal beside it.
along with the Casa de los Botines, the Palacio is one of three buildings Gaudí designed that stand outside of Catalonia (his works in and around Barcelona make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and was constructed between 1899 and 1913. after a fire destroyed the previous building, the bishop of the time (name Grau) and a friend of Gaudí asked the renowned architect to take on the project of designing a new structure. Gaudí agreed though his work on the Palau Güell prevented him from leaving Barcelona to visit Astorga to get a sense of the city and terrain; instead he relied on photos and other pertinent information sent by Grau to complete his building design.
the supervisory council approved Gaudí’s design in February 1889 and work began in June (on the feast day of St. John) of the same year. following Grau’s death in 1893, however, Gaudí and the council began to disagree — perhaps over Gaudí’s decision to use Catalan workers with whom he’d contracted previously and upon whom he could rely to follow his vision during his absences or perhaps because the modernist building didn’t fit the council’s vision of appropriate religious architecture or perhaps because the project was getting expensive — and Gaudí ultimately resigned. he took his workers with him when he left construction halted for several years. several of the architects subsequently hired to direct the project came and left without making much of an impact on progress; the last one resigned before the completion of the fourth (and final) floor. the project finally wrapped up between 1913 and 1915. during the Spanish Civil War it served as headquarters for the Falange but in 1956 restoration work (really aimed at finishing up the planned final details) began, aimed at converting it (back) to its intended use as a bishop’s residence. today it serves as a religious museum dedicated to the Camino — the Museo de los Caminos.
after cleaning off the day’s Camio, we headed out to the Plaza Mayor for something to eat, finding a place that served pizza and offered a view of the ayuntamiento and its clock tower with typically-dressed figures of Maragatos (about which more later) that have emerged to strike the hour since 1748. not as elaborate as the astronomical clocks in Prague or Olomouc but significantly less touristy.
waiting for our meal gave us an opportunity to watch the locals out and about in the plaza. a group of people with various physical disabilities came by, presumably from an institution for which I saw a sign off to the south. bikers in Very Serious gear but who seemed to simply be biking rather than completing the Camino on bike. and by far the best: three little kids in various stages of learning to ride a bike. older sister was already a pro on two wheels; as we sat down the middle brother was in his first, tentative laps without training wheels and dad holding the back of his seat; the youngest brother was racing around, supremely confident if tipsy on his training wheels, dodging all manner of close calls at top speed. when we came back later, the youngest had just had his training wheels removed and wasn’t moving quite so quickly as before.
pizza consumed, clock strike witnessed, and training-wheel-free biking observed, we headed out to see what the rest of the city held. in the next plaza over we came across a statue of a lion pinning an eagle — homage to Spanish forces that campaigned against Napoleons invading forces in the 19th century. José María Santocildes led the (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of Astorga in the Guerra de la Independencia. the city was the farthest west that Napoleons troops occupied and following their expulsion, Astorga again prospered with a plethora of bakers, chocolatiers, tanners, and craftspeople. now its primarily a destination for tourists though it remains crucial as a trading hub.
at the outset of the Camino, our stay in Astorga was one of the things to which I was most excited: I’d found a five-star spa/hotel to help soothe what I anticipated might prove dastardly aches and pains. unfortunately, shifting our itinerary to take a day of rest in León meant arriving in Astorga on a Monday — the only day the spa didn’t operate. could have been a tragedy if the bed hadn’t proven so fantastically, magically comfortable. and they gave us bathrobes and slippers to use, as one might expect a spa/hotel might do. it makes me smile just thinking about it.
not only did the day of rest in León give us a boost of energy kicking off the day to Astorga, the fabulous breakfast and knowledge we had a comfortable room booked for the night made the hike that much more tolerable. we arrived with time and energy to spare and got a good look around town before burrowing into the bed for a(nother) good night’s sleep.
foremost, Astorga is a crossroads; two major Camino routes converge here — the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata from the south — as well as the Calzada Romana from Rome and other major trade routes. it’s strategic importance dates from the Asturians (a Celtic people) that pre-dated settlement by the Romans. preserved Roman baths and a museum explaining the city’s heritage stood between the first albergue and our hotel — one of the first things you see as you enter the city on top of the hill. the city walls are (in part) of Roman construction. during Roman times, the city functioned largely to protect the roads, especially the one that headed to precious metal mines in the surrounding mountains. (our map noted several mine ruins — all of which seemed way too far off the Camino on day 22 to even consider venturing towards for investigation.)
because of the converging roads, nearby mines, and proximity to Santiago, Astorga became important for early Christianity in the Iberian peninsula; one of the first three bishoprics of Spain was established here before the 3rd century and the title of the officeholder is one of the oldest religious titles in Europe. rumor contends that both St. Paul and Santiago preached in Astorga at some point.
after the re-conquest, Ordoño I fortified the city and emphasized it as a Christian stronghold; it remained un-raided during the 10th century wars to the east consequently became the de facto capital of León. the following centuries saw Camino-driven prosperity and trade. the city declined somewhat with the tapering off of peregrinos but continued prosper because of its location; in addition to all manner of other goods and treasures it acted as the royal drove road for livestock going virtually anywhere in the Iberian peninsula. no wonder it’s thrived so long — it had way more than the presence and demands of peregrinos to keep it humming.
seeing the strategic importance of the ford over the river at Órbigo, the Romans established a town here, though it remained quite small for quite some time. over the centuries, towns grew up on both sides of the river, resulting in several names for the town based on the primary function of each — Hospital for its work with peregrinos, Encomienda for the Knights Templar, and Puente for the bridge.
the bridge is by far the most remarkable site in the town. its one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain, dating from the 13th century though several of the arches have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries (including two by the Spanish in an effort to halt Napoleon’s march sweep across Spain). the view from the bridge offers great views of the jousting lists, which appear to remain standing year-round though we saw a poster advertising jousts set to take place about two weeks after we walked through.
apparently, Órbigo is known for a particular joust, known as the Paso Honroso, that took place in the Jacobean Holy Year of 1434. a Leonese knight, Suero de Quiñones — scorned by his lady and wearing an iron collar as a symbol of being bound to her — sought and received permission from Juan II of Castilla to hold a special tournament wherein all knights passing the venue could be pressed into participating. those refusing to participate had to leave a token of their cowardice and wade across the river. the king proved highly obliging for the event, providing accommodations, having his herald pronounce the terms of Quiñones challenge throughout the kingdom, and “inviting” all the knights at court to participate. (as my cultural book describes it, everyone at court was bored of the “messy intricacies of court politics and gruesome dynastic wars and yearning for a simpler world they read about in … books of chivalry.”)
Quiñones chose to stage his tournament beginning in July 11, two weeks before St. James’ Day when the number of peregrinos, eager to receive the extra perks of completing the Camino during a Holy Year, was highest. during the several weeks the tournament lasted, Quiñones broke some “300 lances,” including some belonging to a Catalán knight named Gutierre de Quijada. in acknowledgement of Quiñones reputation, Quijada dressed in double-thick armor; Quiñones mocked this decision by dressing in light armor and a woman’s blouse which seemed like a good idea until Quijada knocked him to the ground. Quiñones continued to mock his opponent, dancing up and proclaiming the blow Quijada landed was nothing. shamed and embarrassed, Quijada and his men rode off, continuing on their way to Santiago. two weeks later on August 9, Quiñones wrapped the tournament up by removing his iron collar and proclaiming himself free of his lady and announcing his intention to compete the Camino as a sign of his new-found freedom.
twenty-four years after the tournament of 1434 and Quiñones’ Camino to Santiago de Compostela, he encountered Gutierre de Quijada while out riding. not one to let the previous, reputation-sullying encounter go, Quijada and Quiñones dropped their visors and rode at one another and after a few passes Quiñones fell once again but this time didn’t manage to spring up and dance around to mock the blow.
we opted for the less scenic route from León to our next destination — off our guidebook’s preferred path –of San Martin del Camino. while probably “less scenic” as it followed more of the highway-hugging sendas, this alternative route provided more amenities and a shorter step count. I guess I should qualify that following the sendas made the trip shorter on balance; we actually walked farther the day after León than our book suggested on the “scenic” route but we had fresh legs and the day after San Martin, to Astorga, was shorter. rather than a 22km day followed by a 31km we had a 24km day followed by another 24km day. no brainer!
our route took us through a series of small towns, most of which had a distinctly different character from small towns we’d walked through prior to León. as towns on the US-highway and/or Interstate system all across America can attest, proximity to a major highway and the national autopista system definitely affects the viability and character of your town. in lots of ways the highway adjacent were the same as the ones at a distance from the highway — quiet with any number of abandoned structures or windows shuttered to keep out early morning sunlight or allow for afternoon napping. it’s quite odd, though, to have a major two-lane highway — one down which lorries come barreling without much warning — bisect your town. maybe you get used to watching for and dodging highway-speed trucks and traffic on your way to get a pack of smokes at the shop across the street. as a peregrino, though, it was nerve-wracking.
in Villadangos del Paramo (the last town of the day before arriving San Martin), we encountered a disoriented Brazilian peregrino in search of a bus stop to catch a ride to San Martin. though we hadn’t any idea, we walked with him towards the “center” of town — really, just an arbitrary distance mid-way through town on the highway — in search of a cafe for answers (and nosh for us). by his estimation, he hadn’t eaten a good enough breakfast in preparation for the day and decided that busing the last 4km to San Martin might be a better idea. sometimes your body makes decisions for you. he had a smoke and got something to snack on while he waited for the bus outside a cafe; we ate our bocadillo and headed onward.
there were several albergue options in San Martin, including the municipal one “directly under the watertower.” we opted for a private one on the road into town and snagged a private two-bed room with access to some chilly showers. it’s one of the only places I remember seeing crucifixes on the walls… we had a tasty communal menu del peregrino, sharing our table with some Quebecois and an Australian couple. dinner conversation ranged all over the place, from housing crises in our respective countries (and Spain), to politics, to our respective Camino experiences. at the end of the meal the proprietor brought out three bottles of liquor as after-dinner drinks, something we’d never encountered before but which our companions had enjoyed occasionally at albergues before. in addition to brandy, we tasted muscatel and a boysenberry non-alcoholic drink that, I have on reliable authority, tasted like jell-o. all the chat and drink kept us later than normal and meant we started out later to Astorga, but it was a good time and I certainly enjoyed the company of our Australian companions. we saw them several more times before the end of the Camino — and if we hadn’t taken that extra day in León we’d never have met them!
after a good look around the cathedral we went in search of tolerable rest-day sustenance. one downside to the larger towns: you pay more for mediocre food and, in most of the areas we found ourselves, really good food proved elusive. couldn’t complain about the food, exactly; it wasn’t any worse than your average bocadillo or bar sandwich — it just cost more.
but, as in León, people watching tended to be more interesting — fewer of our fellow peregrinos whom we’d seen every day for the last 20. in fact, after our day off in León we didn’t see many of the people we started off with ever again. they didn’t take a rest day, arrived in Santiago earlier than we did and, presumably, headed off home. anyway, we found a decent cafe and sat outside with our small cervezas and bocadillas to watch people — Saturday shoppers, families coming or going from weddings, crazy homeless people (and I say “crazy” as a person who regularly sees non-crazy homeless people out and about in town), American college students just wrapping up their semester or just starting their mini-terms or summers abroad. lots of dogs. more dogs than I recalled seeing in any other city we’d passed through yet. and fewer babies. saw lots of babies in Pamplona but fewer in Burgos and León. perhaps different population demographics, perhaps all the Leonese babies were at home sleeping.
our second evening in León, after enjoying some wine and reading on our balcony, I discovered the Eurovision song contest on one of the television channels available in our room. I’d seen a fair number of adverts with the Spanish entry but didn’t realize how imminent the competition was until I happened upon it that Saturday night in León. watched about half of it before the signal went out including the eventual winner, Loreen from Sweden (as I discovered the following morning). we also saw Russia’s entry (Buranovskiye Babushki) and, after discovering that he’d never heard of Lordi much less seen or heard their entry, made Andy watch their 2006 Eurovision-winning performance of Hard Rock Hallelujah (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend doing so). in the process of looking up the Lordi video, I also learned that Celine Dion won the contest in the mid-90s as did ABBA in 1974 with “Waterloo.” Ireland’s won the contest more than any other country and I can’t say that surprises me.
anyway — León offered a bit of history, a bit of contrast, plenty of rest and reading, and a little bit of crazy nationalistic European song contest.
as impressive the history of the construction of the cathedral, the interior offers remarkable sites and has a fair bit of story as well. the fact I found most impressive: most of the stained glass (some 1,800 square meters of it) is the original glass and dates from the 13th to 15th centuries — something nearly improbable for me to comprehend having seen so many restored or battle-scarred cathedrals across Europe. moreover, the cathedral in León has more glass and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain; it’s sometimes known as the “cathedral without walls.”
without question the windows impress in their detail, color, and diversity. designs include scenes of traditional medieval life as well as depictions of “heavenly” saint-types and “earthly” saint-types. the northern windows, done in darker colors and which receive less light, depict the “heavenly” scenes — apostles and biblical scenes from the Old Testament. the south-facing windows, which receive more light, depict more mundane, “earthly” images, including vegetables, as well as stories from the New Testament.
on the wall of one of the south transept, mimicking that on the wall of the north transept, and tucked beside the door and beneath one of the rose windows, stands the tomb of Bishop Rodrigo, who oversaw the early stages of construction of the cathedral. he died before its completion and was laid to rest under an impressive and intricate sculpture. the Bishop of Zamora lies in a similarly designed tomb to the north.
there were some other unique features — a wall (transcoro) that cut the choir off from the front of the church fronted with alabaster plaques in a distinctly different style than the rest of the cathedral’s artwork; carvings in the back of all the choir seats of various noteworthy people (monarchs, Apostles, prophets, saints) in the 15th century style; a retablo behind the altar that went from five panels to a great deal more stretching up and obscuring the stained glass windows and back to five in one of the more modern restorations. and in the Capilla de la Virgen de la Esperanza there’s a sculpture of a pregnant Virgin Mary something my audio guide highlighted as unusual. can’t say I’ve ever seen one like it elsewhere … and it certainly stuck out from all the other art I saw in the cathedral. while the windows were my favorite aspect of the cathedral, as well as the openness of the space, the gaps in the stained glass — where white light streamed onto the floor — was almost as magical.
the community of León became a bishopric under the Romans and a full two hundred years before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. the cathedral in León is the second of three massive sacred sites along the Camino — the cathedrals in Burgos and Santiago de Compostela being the other two. three other structures occupied this site, beginning in the 10th century with a Visigothic-style church over ruins of the Roman baths, with the churches lasting only about a century before replacements were deemed necessary. (church one begun about 924; church two, in 1084; church three, in 1175; church four — the current cathedral — in 1205.)
the first, simple structure, built on lands donated by Ordoño II, was replaced after a century under the direction of the bishop with a more impressive Romanesque building. the second building, which included a palace, library, and hospice for peregrinos and the poor, saw the coronation of Alfonso VII as emperor of Castilla and León in 1135 with all the major monarchs and rulers across Spain in attendance. work on the third church began 40 years later and its designers aimed at creating something to rival other monumental churches on the Camino and effectively demonstrating the immense wealth and political clout of León.
work on the Gothic cathedral that stands today began in 1205 and continued for just under a century, though the south tower wasn’t completed until the 15th century. the plan largely copies that of the cathedral at Reims, but at two-thirds scale, and shares elements with other major French cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Paris, and Saint-Denis. financial backing from both the the monarchy of Castilla y León and the papacy meant progress moved smoothly and concluded in near record time. according to my reference book, Alfonso X “contributed handsomely, in part to compensate morally for never having repaid a loan the Pope had given his father Fernando III for his war to conquer Sevilla.” for his generosity, Alfonso (as well as other major contributors to the project) received an indulgence and part of his father’s loans were forgiven.
one of the more remarkable facts about the cathedral is the length gone to restore it in the 19th century. essentially, they removed the roof, reinforced the walls, and put the roof back on — all while more than slightly concerned the building might collapse entirely when the roof went back on. from early on, weaknesses in the foundation and poor structural integrity of the stones used posed major problems for the cathedral. part of the south transept collapsed in the mid-17th century and was rebuilt. discussion about restoration began in 1844 when, in an effort to highlight the importance of the building, the cathedral was named a national monument; it took another four decades before restoration got underway in earnest, however, and lasted two decades. it reopened to worshipers in 1901 and the fortification efforts worked. it was reputedly one of the most complicated and risky restoration projects in 19th century Europe. the project’s primary architect, Juan de Madrazo, posthumously received a gold medal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts for his work on the project. it’s undergoing another round of restoration now to clean and restore the facade.