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.
as I mentioned in my previous post, a clock tower tops the ayutameiento (or city hall, basically) in Plaza Mayor in Astorga and features two traditionally-dressed Maragatos. their likeness can be seen all over town — from the clock tower to a mosaic below the display window of jewelry store to boxes of the local pastry known as Mantecadas. while they the pastry, similar to pound cake, can be found throughout Spain the Mantecadas de Astorga are unique in the type of ingredients, which consist of eggs, flour, sugar, and cow fat. that last item is what sets them apart — so much so that they’ve received official designation and protection for their geographic uniqueness from the European Union.
I’ve conflated Mantecadas and Maragatos in my head but the are, in fact, remarkably different — one is a tasty pastry that uses cow fat and enjoys governmental protection, the other is a group of people that have long populated the region around Astorga. the origins of the Maragatos are hazy because they come from the mountains to the west of the city their ancestry is disputed. in the mid-19th century a British observer speculated they might be descended from Goths who sided with Muslims during the period of Moorish control of the region. other theories contend that: they descended from a king with the name of Maragato; the name stems from a Roman word meaning “merchant” because they relied on trading rather than farming to survive in the rocky mountains; they’re an isolated group of Mozarabs who managed to preserve their customs in the face of Christian dominance; the consist of the last remnant of Astures, Berbers, Visigoths or Carthaginians.
whatever their origins, their dress set them apart whenever they travel throughout Spain, though its become less common to see the distinct outfits in recent decades. men wore wide breeches, white shirts, red garters, and slouch hats. women wore crescent hats, lacy mantles, black skirts and intricate filigree earrings. as with much of traditional Spain, the modern era has withered away both cultural traditions and dress and sightings now remain consigned primarily to museums or tourist sites.
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.