Stormin’ through Astorga.

Day 29 – 15th October 2015, Villar de Mazarife to Santibanez de Valdeiglesia.

Hello friends!

Well, it’s one thing to share table fellowship with pilgrim family members and it is quite another to share dormitories and related facilities! Unfortunately, while the Casa de Jesus seemed homely and welcoming, it wasn’t the most practical of establishments to cater for large numbers of pilgrims. For example, there was a solitary loo, with a loud flush, on one end of a narrow corridor on our floor and a single shower at the opposite end. I shuddered to think about the pilgrim rush hour in the morning.

Our first floor vibrated with a veritable choir of snorers that night. I tried to sleep through the cacophony, using my ear plugs, but even then, I still had a disturbed sleep with people popping in and out of the loo at the end of the landing and corridor lights going on and off. The next morning, I slipped downstairs to use the downstairs loo and washroom to beat the crush. On my way back upstairs, I found Roisin had taken drastic action and even slept out on the landing in the open air. Brrrrr! I admired her courage and resourcefulness and thought she must have been very cold, but she said she was warm enough under her sleeping bag and blanket. I wondered what it would be like to camp out in the open all along the Camino. I wouldn’t mind trying that one day, perhaps along one of the other Camino routes.

My mind wandered along memory lane. I used to love camping. Several years ago, my work as a humanitarian aid worker led me to the war zone of South Sudan. There, we formed mobile teams to bring emergency aid to local people in remote areas of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, who had been displaced by the fighting. Our way of life was simple and yet challenging. I spent two years living in a one-person tent, taking all I needed with me, such as a trunk containing camping equipment and another one full of tinned and packet food to last me for eight weeks or so in the bush. My team mates and I were transported by small aircraft to our locations, where pitched our tents under an acacia tree in a remote village, do our work for a couple of weeks and then our plane picked us up (weather and conflict permitting) and dropped off at another location. I have to confess that I absolutely hated it for the first six weeks, being forever dusty and sweaty and having no privacy but soon grew to love the simplicity of that way of life and being so close to nature and the people I worked with.

My trusty stomach alien interrupted my reverie and reminded me that I needed to eat so I ventured downstairs to the bar, not to drink alcohol, I hasten to add, but to check if the albergue served breakfast.  The bar was buzzing already, as several pilgrims were breakfasting or packing up ready to go. I spotted the Four Pissed Pilgrims, who didn’t look that worse for wear after our fabulous communal dinner party. They were in fine spirits, so I chatted with the guys briefly before they set off. Fiona joined me for breakfast and we followed suit, a short while later.

Oh I nearly forget, its time for another nerdy fact alert! Yesterday, Fiona and I reached Villar de Mazarife, which lies about 288 km or 179 miles from Santiago de Compostela. This means I have trekked 488 kms or 303 miles so far. Woo hoo! This felt really great! Today, the first six kilometres or so of the Camino trail took us along a country lane in pretty much a straight line. Once again the morning air was crisp and quite chilly so it took me a while to warm up the old limbs, stretch muscles and get into a rhythm. I reflected on the various rhythms of life on the Camino. The circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking, rising between 5.30am and 6.30am most mornings and going to bed somewhere between 9 and 10.30pm. The every day reality of a very simple physical rhythm of getting up, stretching and stepping out, one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Of walking and resting, eating and drinking. Sometimes I felt my footsteps synchronised with my heart beat and breath. I pondered on the speed of my walk, as my gait lengthened or shortened with the changing landscape. Then there are the periods of walking in company with other pilgrims interspersed with quite moments of solitude.  All rhythms, play their part in weaving the sweet soul music of pilgrimage.

We crossed over the arroyo de la Mata and a couple of canals, wended our way through the small village of Villavante and along a very impressive and well preserved, medieval stone bridge, the Puente de Orbigo, into a larger village called Hospital de Orbigo. The Hospital de Orbigo has a fascinating history. In the past, the Knights of the Order of St. John maintained a pilgrim hospital here. It is an attractive place and I would have liked to spend more time exploring it but Fiona and I were hungry and a little bit road-weary so we decided to hunt down a sort of second breakfast-come-lunch. We popped into one of the cafe/restaurants and I ordered a lovely slice of tortilla and some coffee. Just what the doctor ordered! Apparently, there is a wonderful albergue here called Verde, which, as the name suggests, is ‘green’ and has a vegetarian menu. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check this out, or rather my tired feet and legs didn’t relish walking further than I needed to but I made a mental note to pass this information on to Alan for the second half of his Camino walk.

Fuelled up and ready to go, we ambled up the main street and noticed Barbara, a young pilgrim, and an expert juggler from Chile.  I had seen her before somewhere along the trail but I couldn’t quite place her at that moment and that’s the way it goes sometimes, the names, faces and places start to bleed into one. Anyway, we waved to her and wished her a “Buen Camino” as we clicked on. We passed through the small village of Villares de Orbigo and a couple of kilometres later we reached our destination, another tiny village called Santibanez de Valdeiglesia, approximately 19.5 km from our starting point of the day. If it wasn’t for the Camino trail passing through these settlements and bringing a steady stream of pilgrims, it is likely they would have died out, as young people followed a trend of leaving the rural areas to go to the towns and the cities. I’m glad that el Camino de Santiago breathed new life into these places.

Fiona and I checked into the relatively new albergue Camino Frances. It was bright, clean and cosy.  Desperate to unpack and take a shower, I went straight up to a large dorm and greeted Janie and Roisin, who were already settled in. The hot shower was utter bliss and soothed my aching back and limbs. Afterwards I sat outside in the sunny courtyard to catch up on some writing. As the sun moved round, I felt the chill on my arms and legs so I went out to the front and sat with Janie for a bit. It was so good to see her again and catch up. We revelled in the last of the sun’s rays. I went for a quick wander around and found that the local church was shut and there were not many options for dinner out.

Meanwhile, Fiona chatted to some Aussies, who were thinking ahead to their ascent of Cruz de Ferro, coming up in the next few days. Fiona and I decided to join most of the other pilgrims for a pilgrim meal in house. I sat next to Anne from New Zealand and we swapped stories about our purpose on the Camino and our experiences so far. The company made up for a rather mediocre pilgrim meal, served by a very grumpy lady, who wore a thunderous expression and made use of her sharp tongue! A bunch of rowdy French blokes were busy getting plastered at the end of the table. I was relieved to roll into bed for a welcome sleep.

Day 30 – 16th October 2015, Santibanez de Valdeiglesia to Santa Catalina de Somoza.

I had a slightly better night than the previous one and got up with one or two others and crept gently out of the dorm to the shower room. I took my stuff down to the bar and dining area. The lady behind the counter seemed less surly than the evening before and was it my imagination or did I detect a minuscule curl of her lips into a faint smile? Perhaps she had got out of bed on the right side. Breakfast was in the usual, simple continental style of orange juice, toast and coffee. I was grateful for the caffeine and the carbs!

Roisin, Fiona and I walked out of the albergue together, into the darkness just as the sun began to peep over the horizon. At the edge of the village, behind a farm, we stopped for a few moments by a cross at the side of the road and turned back to watch the beautiful sunrise. Another magical moment on the Camino! We strolled on over gently undulating hills and through oak woodland. I tried to keep both of my companions in my line of sight, as we strung out along the inclines and the route felt quite remote. Behind me, in the distance, I noticed Sven trucking along at a good pace. He soon overtook us. About four kilometres later, Fiona and I climbed up another hill to reach to a larger, stone cross, called Cruceiro de Santo Toribio and caught up with Roisin again. It was time for a quick photo opportunity in front of the magnificent vista before us!

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Apparently the stone cross commemorated the 5th century Bishop Toribio of Astorga, who, according to legend, fell to his knees in farewell when he was banished from the town. I’m not sure why he was exiled. On the way down the hill, we heard a man singing and playing the guitar. The tune put a spring in my step and the musician called out a cheery “Buen Camino” to us as we descended into the satellite town of San Justo de la Vega. I heard the call for a mid-morning coffee and we stopped briefly in a bar to refuel. An older local man took a great interest in our pilgrimage and asked us where we were from. He was happy to meet pilgrims on the way to Santiago and was impressed by the distance travelled from St. Jean Pied de Port.

Soon we resumed our trek and while we clicked our way down the street we fell into step with Nici from Germany, who had begun her pilgrimage in Leon and her Spanish companion, who had walked the Camino before. The stretch between San Justo de la Vega and Astorga didn’t look that far, but it seemed to take ages to reach the centre of the city, criss crossing main roads and over the railway track and finally a very steep road uphill.

Astorga was an impressive city (I say city because it has a cathedral but really it is the size of a small town), steeped in history and had a friendly, laid back air like Leon. Roisin planned to stay the night here and went off in search of accommodation. Fiona and I hunted down some pieces of extra kit. I bought a pair of bright, electric blue gloves in preparation for the cold mountain air coming up in the next couple of days. We opted to grab an early-ish lunch in the square, near Hotel Astur and the sun was warm enough for us to enjoy our meal outside on the terrace. We had a quick look round on our way out of town, stopping to admire the lofty heights of the gothic cathedral, Iglesia de Santa Marta near to Gaudi‘s equally lofty and imposing Palacio Episcopal.

As we turned left and trundled down the street away from the Plaza Cathedral and right, though the Puerta Obispo, I felt immensely grateful for Fiona’s company. Earlier on, during our approach to Astorga, we had discussed the tragedy of American pilgrim Denise Thiem, who, sadly lost her life when her killer lured her off the Camino trail in the Astorga region by using false markings. The police captured a man, who later confessed to the crime. It was a horrific story and my heart went out to Denise’s family and friends, while we walked along. Fiona and I noticed that the local authorities had taken great care to re-enforce the true Camino trail markings by painting huge yellow arrows along the roads, which was somewhat encouraging and comforting. I have to say that I have felt very safe and well looked after on my pilgrimage so far, but it is always good to remain streetwise and keep a wide arc of awareness to what is going on, as any well travelled global citizen will tell you.

As if to encourage us further, we came to a lovely, little, stone hermitage, called Ermita del Ecce Homo, which was a remnant of a former pilgrim hospice. The fountain next to it bore the words “The faith, the fountain of health” and I found myself reflecting on my own personal faith and spiritual journey over the years, which was very important to me and played an important part in my overall health and wellbeing as well as enabling me to endure some tough times.

On the wall next to the door, I noticed this beautiful, timeless prayer for pilgrims.

The Pilgrim’s Prayer

Jesus, by Lord, my friend, 

You, the icon of God,

You, fountain of communion of freedom and love,

You, who are my servant,

Walk always with me.

The walk is the transformation what happened to Jesus, and now, through the Holy Spirit, may and should happen to you.  What a pure statement of truth and a powerful affirmation. The concept of ‘walk as transformation’ really resonated with my heart. I have felt the company of the ancients, of God and my mum along my pilgrimage, supporting me on my own personal journey of transformation. I know I am never alone, even when I walk in solitude.

Refreshed by these comforting words of prayer, Fiona and I continued to click our way along the Camino trail by the side of a busy main road through the busy village of Murias de Rechivaldo and onwards along a more rural section of the Camino to the quieter, more traditional village of Santa Catalina de Somoza, our destination for the day. Tiredness had well and truly taken over my body at this point, so I was glad to check into the Albergue El Caminante. This seemed a beautiful, tranquil spot, with a friendly owner and had a lovely courtyard decked out with bright red geraniums. Fiona and I bagged bottom bunks in a mixed dorm, off the courtyard and after showing and doing my laundry, I sat outside on the terrace to catch the last few rays of the sunshine.

We discovered that Janie and Bonny were also staying here – great minds think alike!  We caught up with them. They decided to pop out for dinner, but Fiona and I took the lazier option of staying in. The pilgrim meal was reasonably OK but I have eaten so many of them, they began to taste exactly the same! Still, I was grateful for the hearty portions and the warm and comfortable atmosphere. Well it was warm and comfy up until the moment Fiona and I wanted to pay for our meals but the owner was nowhere to be seen. Thinking, it would be OK to come back later to settle up, I went off to collect my laundry from the washing line. As if by magic, the owner came chasing after us, looking particularly indignant and the atmosphere had turned a shade cooler! I explained we were not going without paying, we just couldn’t find him at that moment and we duly settled the bill. It wasn’t long before I flopped into bed, as once again, it would be an early start the next morning.

Thank you for journeying with me so far. There are more adventures coming up!

Peace, love and light,

Sarah xxx

 

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