on the way to San Martin

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!

Hornillos and its albergue

the town that followed Burgos was something of the polar opposite of the sprawling, urban, cosmopolitan metropolis. Hornillos has a population of approximately 70 (according to the 2004 census); we didn’t see much evidence of those inhabitants upon our noontime arrival under brilliantly blue, cloud-strewn skies. there were two lodging options: a small casa rural (that had a sign out front indicating it was booked solid for the night) and the albergue municipal. 
the next option for lodging was some seven or eight additional kilometers — a distance we had no interest in traversing in light of our various physical afflictions. a compact stone building immediately next to the church housed some 40 bunks for peregrinos. of course, most peregrinos opt not to continue on beyond Hornillos and 40-odd bunks and perhaps a half dozen private beds didn’t suffice for our not-quite-peak-season. when the bunks in the stone building filled up, overflow peregrinos are assigned mattresses on the floor of town hall and, once all that floor space is occupied, on the floor of the sports complex behind the albergue building. (see that white building beyond the laundry in the picture at the top — that’s the sports complex.) by the time we got to the showers in the albergue, the water was fully cold, so I suppose sleeping on a gym floor and using locker room showers wouldn’t be all that bad. what can you expect for 5 euros?
Hornillos was our first taste of truly limited options. in addition to one casa rural and one albergue, there was one bar/cafe and one corner shop. while the corner shop proved fairly well-stocked (with a disproportionate share of German snack foods), the bar/cafe only had about 8 tables to seat about 40 — half of the seats in the bar with a more a la carte-style menu (like sandwiches and plates of food) while if you sat in the cafe part (as we did), it was menu del peregrino or nothing as we and, much to their consternation, a group of 8 English-speakers found out because there were no seats in the bar area.
the town plaza and its one bar/cafe

despite the rather bland options (for a vegetarian in particular) on offer for the menu del peregrino, we did get seated with an older Spanish couple in a bid to maximize table capacity. through my limited Spanish we managed to converse a bit about our respective Caminos — the husband had done the walk before and offered some advice on the stretch beyond Astorga. that’s about all I remember about them, despite the fact that they slept in the bunks beneath ours in Hornillos and we saw them pretty much every day until we got to León. apart from eating our meal, stocking up for the following day, and trading between Kindle and paperback, there wasn’t much to do. despite dire predictions of Olympic-level snoring in our room full of middle-aged men, I slept pretty well — doesn’t hurt to fall asleep before everyone else while the sun is still setting — and we were up and on the road before it rose the next morning.

menu del peregrino

house wine in at the municipal albergue in Ages

as I wager many of you know, Spain is known for their late dining habits. restaurants routinely do not open for dinner until 9:00 p.m. or later, which proves monumentally inconvenient for peregrinos who start hiking by 7:00 a.m. each day and hope to be asleep, or at least in bed, by 9:00 p.m. to adjust for this, along the Camino many, if not all, restaurants offer a fixed menu del peregrino that gets served around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. for about 10 euro, you get a starter, an entree, dessert, bread, water, and wine.


our first experience with the menu del peregrino was in Roncesvalles; the upscale hotel next to the albergue advertised theirs well and had us walking through the door to reserve seats before we knew how big town might be. the advertised start of the meal was 7:00 p.m. but when we showed up at 7:02, or so, nearly all the  50 or so seats were filled — fellow peregrinos as hungry as we were anxious to get a jump on the meal. this particular meal was served family style on long tables, which fostered a communal feel that resulted in my receiving about six left-over dessert yogurts at the end of the meal. the main course was fish and when word made it down the table that I don’t eat fish, people passed the yogurt served as dessert that they either didn’t care for or didn’t have room to eat. I managed to eat about four before tapping out; it was the best yogurt I ate the entire time we were in Spain.


my favorite meal — at the Hotel Dona Mayor in Fromista

while occasionally we had family-style peregrino meals (usually at private hostels that also had menus or restaurants), usually we had a table to ourselves. the menu options were always fixed to three or four options per course and were never veg-friendly; even the uninspired iceberg lettuce salads came with hard boiled eggs and tuna. even thinking about it now exasperates me (and re-inspires me for the CSA salad I’m eating for tomorrow’s lunch). once I figured out how to manipulate the menu, I managed fine by ordering two veg-friendlier first courses — often soup and pasta with tomato sauce. after a while, the pork or beef stock they used to make the soup got frustrating, but it for a time it served as a welcome alternative to terrible salads. on one memorable occasion, I ordered pasta with tomato sauce without meat and, as often happened, it came out with ham and chicken in the sauce anyway; our server/owner of the establishment was aghast and swept the plate away before I could take another bite to make a plate without meat. I’m never one to make a fuss about meals not coming out as expected and would have eaten around the ham and chicken, but after two weeks it was nice to have someone look after my dietary preferences.