El Acebo to Ponferrada – Stage 26

Stage 26 – El Acebo (León) – Ponferrada (Bierzo)
Total Distance – 17.0 km
Adjusted for Climb – 17.0 km (descent 700 m)
High Point: El Acebo at 1,150 m (4,940 feet)

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Acebo, a typical Roman plan town

El Acebo, a typical Roman plan town

El Acebo (pop. 17) was a godsend to us because of the steep and dangerous descent that immediately preceded it which made me grateful that this typical Roman mountain village was there to shelter us. Some documents and ancient books refer to the name of the village as: EL ACEBO DE SAN MIGUEL ARCÁNGEL, which is the name of its church and patron saint but this long version of the name is not used anymore for the village. This village in the 15th century achieved the distinction of being freed of all taxes in exchange for its inhabitants marking of the treacherous Camino route during the winter with 800 poles so that the route could be travelled during the winter snows. They were also expected to give shelter to peregrinos and to rescue those that found themselves in difficulties.

It was here that Sue noticed my clothes that were being dried and she was amazed that I could fit them and the rest of my equipment in my Mountainsmith day-pack! She, then and there, decided to christen it the “TARDIS”, after the blue police box that Dr. Who uses on TV to travel the galaxy anywhere in time and space. The TARDIS is infamous for actually being much, much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, TARDIS! While I do not consider myself to be “Dr. Who” I was pleased to have the TARDIS along with me on the Camino.

The TARDIS (right) in action!!

The TARDIS (right) in action!!

When Sue and I set out that morning we immediately were greeted by some unexpected travellers. These sheep were very well-behaved and were happy to follow their leader through the countryside and onto the road.

First there was one

First there was one

Then some more decided to join!

Then some more decided to join!

Then it became a party!

Then it became a party!

Soon we were on the trail towards Riego de Ambrós (pop. 35, alt. 930m), and we found it be a decidedly pretty mountain village. It was clear that houses were being renovated here for either seasonal or permanent occupancy. The beauty of the surrounding countryside and the closeness of Ponferrada by car made it an ideal location.

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DSCN2616 DSCN2628 DSCN2626 DSCN2623 DSCN2622While it was fun to be walking in such a beautiful area we soon were hit with a dose of reality in the form of a very steep, rocky, and dangerous descent. We knew it was coming because the guidebooks had alerted us to it but nonetheless it was a slow descent.

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Soon however we were to be rewarded with the beautiful sight of the town of Molinaseca (pop. 800). Nestled astride the gorge cut by the río Merulo Molinaseca is the gateway to the broad central valley of the Bierzo region. Occupying a strategic position leading to the Foncebadón pass it was an important Roman checkpoint on what they called the Interamnio Flavio – the Roman gold road. Two ancient bridges, the largest called the Puente de los Peregrinos, remain to give the town additional charm.

Sue on the outskirts of Molinaseca

Sue on the outskirts of Molinaseca

Crossing the bridge at Molinaseca

Crossing the bridge at Molinaseca

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It was a pleasure to be in this very picturesque small town nestled against the hills. While there Sue and I had to take a small break to enjoy the scenery. As you can see from the pictures we were not alone in our desire to relax and enjoy the view!

Young peregrinos relaxing with a beautiuful view

Young peregrinos relaxing with a beautiuful view

In case you're wondering both the beer and the flowing water were ice-cold!

In case you’re wondering both the beer and the flowing water were ice-cold!

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While we would of loved to have spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the view we had to get going. As I walked through this small town the streets reminded me a little of parts of Dijon in France.

The streets of Molinaseca

The streets of Molinaseca

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Santiago Peregrino

Santiago Peregrino

Statute of Santiago Peregrino with a marker from a sister town in Japan

Statute of Santiago Peregrino with a marker from a sister town in Japan

Ponferrada in the distance

Ponferrada in the distance

The rest of our journey that day was without a stop for rest except for a small detour to see an ancient Roman fountain that to my amazement was still delivering water! I stared at this fountain thinking that it had been bringing water down from the mountains for well over 1,600 years and probably would continue to do so in perpetuality!

Ponferrada in the distance

Ponferrada in the distance

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Tribute to a fallen Peregrino

Tribute to a fallen Peregrino

Rest in Peace - Descanse en Paz

Rest in Peace – Descanse en Paz

The Roman fountain is near!

The Roman fountain is near!

I stared at this fountain thinking that it had been bringing water down from the mountains for well over 1,600 years and probably would continue to do so in perpetuality!

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Two German Peregrinas on the road to Ponferrada

Two German Peregrinas on the road to Ponferrada. We would see them again in the coming days.

More Peregrinos

More Peregrinos

The bridge tat took us into the city.

The bridge tat took us into the city.

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Ponferrada

Ponferrada

Rabanal del Camino to Acebo – Stage 25

Stage 25 – Rabanal del Camino – Acebo
Total Distance – 14.8 km
Adjusted for Climb – 17.0 km (accrued ascent 400 m = 2.0 km)
High Point: La Cruz de Ferro at 1,505 m (4,940 feet)

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Manuel, the owner of the wonderful Casa Rural A Cruz De Ferro with myself and Sue

Manuel, the owner of the wonderful Casa Rural A Cruz De Ferro with myself and Sue

Myself, Manuel and his wife Miriam

Myself, Manuel and his wife Miriam

Having been fortified by the great hospitality of Manuel and Miriam our gracious hosts at the Casa Rural A Cruz De Ferro, Sue and I were ready to tackle the mountain pass of Irago that Brierly called,

…the highest point of our whole journey

Brierly was referring to the puerta Irago where la Cruz de Ferro is to been seen and I felt prepared and looked forward to the climb. With this in mind Sue and I made our way through the outskirts of Rabanal.

Cyclist making his way through Rabanal

Cyclist making his way through Rabanal

Watering area just outside Rabanal

Watering area just outside Rabanal

Monument outside of Rabanal

Monument outside of Rabanal

Soon we were making our way up the trail with views of the río Turienzo valley.

The terrain ahead

The terrain ahead

Walker, cyclist and Sue ahead on the trail

Walker, cyclist and Sue ahead on the trail

Beautiful watering trough that we saw north of Rabanal

Beautiful watering trough that we saw north of Rabanal

Detail of the watering trough

Detail of the watering trough

Both Sue and I were in good spirits as we tackled the gradual but steady climb. For the first 5 kilometers we would be climbing a little over 250 meters over a trail that was rocky in some places. Luckily for us the weather was beautiful and even though I had prepared for it to be cold by buying a black thermal shirt while in Astorga it wasn’t as cold as I expected it to be.

Sue enjoying the hike

Sue enjoying the hike

Me on the trail

Me on the trail

Posing with a local made fruit available to us poor peregrinos

Posing with a local who made fruit available to us poor peregrinos

Sue leading the way!

Sue leading the way!

Taking pictures of the local flowers

Taking pictures of the local flowers

DSCN2525We were steadily approaching the village of Foncebadón and I was thinking of the passage in Gitlitz’s and Davidson’s The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook that quoted a warning from 1790,

The nature of the landscape is extremely rough and fearsome, and from nearly the first of September until the end of May the pass is closed, and the neighboring villages put up cairns to mark the route, and if this is insufficient, they dedicate  themselves to guide, accompany, house and thaw out the poor pilgrims who come and go from Galicia.

I could well imagine how different out journey would have been in the throes of winter and I was glad that I did not have to face what the “poor pilgrims who come and go from Galicia” faced in 1790!

The Landscape

The Landscape

English peregrino walking into Foncebadón

English peregrino walking into Foncebadón

The village of Foncebadón

The village of Foncebadón

Foncebadón, semi-abandoned but rebounding today, has been a village for over 2,000 years and in its Roman past was an important place in the machinery of the Empire in that the village and the mountain pass through the Irago mountains served as an artery connecting Rome and the crucial wheat lands of the Castilian Meseta with the gold mines of Bierzo. In the houses that are being renovated you notice that their construction makes heavy use of local slate. Roofs are covered in slate or thatch and the chimneys are enclosed with slate. The walls of the ancient buildings are capped with flat horizontal stones that keep out rain, snow and dew from penetrating the walls or otherwise they would freeze and crack open.

Marcos, ex-paratrooper and my host at La Taberna de Gaia in Foncebadón

Marcos, ex-paratrooper and my gracious host at La Taberna de Gaia in Foncebadón

His campaign flag

His campaign flag

It makes very good sense to stop while in Foncebadón (also it’s the only place to stop for food) because you need to gather up your strength before the rest of the climb and not to mention the steep and dangerous descent that awaits you. We had the good fortune to have met Marcos who was our host at La Taberna de Gaia. This mountain-side tavern was a refreshing stop and I enjoyed conversing with Marcos about his days as a paratrooper and also about his son who is a player in the Barcelona system. As a Real Madrid supporter I was met with the expected ribbing but I managed to give as good as I got. It was all in great fun and I told Marcos that I expected to see his son play professionally one day in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. He made a look of horror as I said this but recovered when I told him that it was as a Barcelona and not a Madrid player that I expected to see him. Soon, we had to get on our way because we still had quite a way to go.

Views from Foncebadón

Views from Foncebadón

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The road leading up from Foncebadón.

The road leading up from Foncebadón.

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Foncebadón from up higher

Foncebadón from up higher

More heights await us ahead

More heights await us ahead

Sue moving on ahead

Sue moving on ahead

The famous La Cruz de Ferro is just 2 kilometers above Foncebadón and very soon we were there. This cross is to my way of thinking both a monument to the mountain pass, reminding you that you are now at 1,504 meters (4,934 feet) of altitude, and a monument to the Pilgrimage. It is here at the top of the immense rock-pile that peregrinos leave a rock, either one that they’ve brought from home or one that they’ve picked up at the start of their journey as a symbol of their journey or as an act of contrition. This simple act also has a precedent in history be it the pre-Roman Celts (the Gaelic for these piles of rock is the word cairns) or Roman travelers who used them to pay homage to the God Mercury.  It was here that the hermit Gaucelmo decided to top a rock-pile with a cross and turn the tables on a pagan act.

La Cruz de Ferro

La Cruz de Ferro

Sue leaving her stone at the top of the rockpile. Notice the hats, ribbons, notes that peregrinos have left stapled to the pole

Sue leaving her stone at the top of the rockpile. Notice the hats, ribbons, notes that peregrinos have left stapled to the pole

A short while after our visit to La Cruz de Ferro we met a young American peregrino named Chris. Sue was intrigued by the fact that he and I had the two smallest backpacks she had ever see on the Camino. She made sure to record the fact.

Dueling backpacks

Dueling backpacks

Chris moving ahead

Chris moving ahead

Chris contemplating the way ahead

Chris contemplating the way ahead

Another fallen peregrina

Another fallen peregrina

While walking with Sue and Chris we started discussing the next village on our route. It was a place named Manjarín and it was another of those abandoned villages one sees from time to time on the Camino. That one had a strange twist in that there was a communal albergue in a renovated house, with very basic facilities, there that boasted “the last Templar”. Chris was very keen on staying there and I definitely was not because it was too early in the stage and it seemed too “primitive” for my tastes.

Chris heading toward Manjarín.

Chris heading toward Manjarín.

Manjarín and its communal albergue

Manjarín and its communal albergue

Manjarín

Manjarín

Sue and I left an excited Chris in Manjarín and proceeded on our way through a wonderful mountain trail. Soon we were at a fruit stand and there we met the owner of the fruit stand. Her name was Siehoa and she was originally from the Basque country. She told me that she was hiking in the area and that she fell in love with it and never returned home. She had renovated a house in Manjarín and she lived there now.

The English peregrino taking a picture of the fruit stand

The English peregrino taking a picture of the fruit stand

Siehoa and me

Siehoa and me

After leaving the fruit stand we were heading for the military observation post which marked the highest elevation of the whole route. From that point on the route was dangerously steep and full of large-sized rocks that made for a difficult descent. I can tell you that I found it to be the most difficult descent (400 meters in 2 km!)  of the whole Camino!! I had to be very deliberate in where I was steeping in order to avoid twisting my ankle. Because of the difficult nature of the descent we made an executive decision to stop for the evening at Acebo. It was a good decision because we could go no further. Tired but happy we settled in early in the one-street town of Acebo.

Sue again leading the way! You can see the military observation post at the top of the mountain at 1.535 meters (5.036 feet!)

Sue again leading the way! You can see the military observation post at the top of the mountain at 1.535 meters (5.036 feet!)

The trail

The trail

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The nuclear power station at the left of the picture

The nuclear power station at the left of the picture

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Peregrinos making good time

Peregrinos making good time

The trail in front of us was very steep and full of rocks

The trail in front of us was very steep and full of rocks

Acebo our destination

Acebo, our destination

The Casa Rural where we stayed

The Casa Rural where we stayed

The view from Acebo

The view from Acebo

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

Stage 24 – Astorga – Rabanal del Camino
Total Distance – 21.4 km
Adjusted for Climb – 23.4 km (accrued ascent 400 m = 2.0 km)
High Point: Rabanal del Camino at 1,150 m (3,770 feet)

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Breakfast in Astorga was on the early side (7:30) for me and I was fortunate to have run in to Jean-Marie a French peregrino from Perpingan. Jean-Marie had a respiratory infection and I was sad that he would not be starting out with me from Astorga and after wishing him “Bon Chance” I started walking. I soon stopped in order to say a prayer in the beautiful Catedral de Santa Maria and continued on my way.

As I walked the easy road out of Astorga my thoughts were centered on Rabanal del Camino which was to be my destination. Brierly, in my guide called it, “one of the most authentic and welcoming villages along the entire camino” but he also called for caution because several pilgrims had been “killed on these roads in recent years.” It didn’t take long for me to reach the cross that marked the sight of one of these deaths.

DSCN2454I was soon upon the charming medieval hermitage Ecce Homo at the crossroads that lead to the village of Valdevivas. Here I took some time to take a water break and visit the lovely little hermitage. It was here that I was given a prayer card that had a lovely Pilgrim’s Prayer written in 5 languages. I’ve re-produced the prayer on my Spiritual page. As you can tell from the picture below this lovely hermitage has undergone extensive restorations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Ecce Homo hermitage where I made my first stop of the morning for water.

The Ecce Homo hermitage where I made my first stop of the morning for water.

Inside

Inside

The signs at Valdeviejas and the site of where I believe another peregrino had died.

The signs at Valdeviejas and the site of where I believe another peregrino had died.

As I continued walking I decided to take the path at Murias de Rechivaldo rather than continue on the side of the road. My decision was one that I regularly took and not only for safety reasons. I always chose a path or trail rather than walk along the side of a road or highway mainly because it was easier on the feet and I preferred to see the country views rather than take a risk with automobiles on the road.  Murias de Rechivaldo was a Maragato town that in the past was famous for supplying carters and pack-mule trains to the region. The strategic position of the town, right at the beginning but still relatively flat portion of the entrance to the mountain passes that lead to Leòn’s El Bierzo region makes it an ideal place to organize pack-mule trains.

A road crossing at Murias de Rechivaldo.

A road crossing at Murias de Rechivaldo.

The town of Murias de Rechivaldo

The town of Murias de Rechivaldo

The mountains in the distance are where I'm headed!

The mountains in the distance are where I’m headed!

Walking here one cannot help notice how the terrain changes and suddenly you find yourself gradually climbing long ridges that lack vegetation other than scrub oak, heather, broom and wild thyme.

The village of San Blas

The village of San Blas

The Bar where I had my lunch in San Blas

The Bar where I had my lunch in San Blas

San Blas

San Blas

One also sees changes in the in the villages. The major change is the extensive use of stone for the houses. In addition to the stone houses you now see stone walls and stone corrals which I had not seen on such a widespread basis until after I had left Burgos. These villages alas are semi-deserted but you also find some newly renovated stone houses.

Those mountains are where I have to go!

Those mountains are where I have to go!

On the trail again

On the trail again

I had been noticing all these aspects of my environment when I had to stop and say a prayer for the family of a peregrina named Trudy who had died at a spot alongside the road. It was my custom to do because I felt that it was only right to honor those of my fellow peregrinos who had died walking and also to remember their families who loved them so that they would go to the expense of memorializing them. It was the least that I could do to remember them in my prayers.

Tribute to a fallen peregrina

Tribute to a fallen peregrina

Rest in Peace/Descanse en Paz Trudy

Rest in Peace/Descanse en Paz Trudy

As I approached the small village of El Ganso (It means the Goose in Spanish) little did I know that I would have a fateful meeting in a place called the Cowboy Bar. It was in this oddly named establishment (had somehow American Cowboys invaded the place?) that I met an Australian peregrina named Sue. We were both sitting outside in the patio area of the Cowboy Bar when we struck up a conversation with each other. We decided then that we would walk together and little did I know at the time that we would walk together all the way to Santiago!! I guess stranger things have happened in stranger places than the Cowboy Bar but Sue always answered people who would ask how we met by saying that I picked her up at the Cowboy Bar!!

Entering the fateful town of El Ganso

Entering the fateful town of El Ganso

El Ganso

El Ganso

Furnishings of the Cowboy Bar where I met Sue

Furnishings of the Cowboy Bar where I met Sue

So after our drinks we started out together and as is normal after you start walking with someone new on the Camino you tend to talk a lot about where you are from, why you are walking the Camino, etc.. For me this is one of those great moments on the Camino where one can make a friend and indeed Sue and I were so compatible and at ease with each other that we talked and talked and this is why I don’t have a picture of her on this first day we met. Sue had actually started her Camino in Le Puy in France. She originally was with a friend and did not intend to walk the entire Camino but alas the Camino Bug got into her and she continued on long after her friend had decided to return to Melbourne, Australia.

DSCN2479 DSCN2483Finally we reached Rabanal del Camino and I must say that it was one of my favorite places on the Camino. It had a peaceful Alpine village feel to it that somehow (Don’t ask me how because I’m a City Boy!) attracted me. I can’t explain other than maybe it was because Rabanal had once been a Templar outpost that protected peregrinos in their passage over the mountains. Or maybe it was that the Ruta de Oro (The Gold Route) led to the original Roman Gold mines just 1.5 kilometers away. Whatever it was I felt noticeably at peace here during my stay.

Entering Rabanal del Camino

Entering Rabanal del Camino

The Casa Rural where we stayed

The Casa Rural – A Cruz De Ferro – where we stayed

My good sensation about Rabanal was only increased tenfold by the wonderful Casa Rural A Cruz De Ferro where we had the good fortune of staying. I will write a detailed description in my Places to Stay page but let me say that everything there was outstanding – from the wine and olives that welcome you, the Paella at dinner to the private rooms – it was a pleasure to stay there. Another pleasure and indeed an honor for me was the opportunity to attend Vespers at 19:30 that evening and Compiline at 21:30 with the Bavarian Benedictine missionary monks at the monastery San Salvador del Monte Irago in Rabanal. The Gregorian chants were a thing of beauty and the prelude to a peaceful and contented slumber that night.

A Walk Through Astorga

Dena and Ian leading us in to Astorga. The Roman name for the town, Asturica Augusta, is in the middle of the traffic circle

Dena and Ian leading us in to Astorga. The Roman name for the town, Asturica Augusta, is in the middle of the traffic circle.

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As you walk through (and up to) Astorga you get a tour of the history of the town. The Roman name for the town, Asturica Augusta, gives us the name of the of the bygone  Astur tribe whose capital this town once was. The intersection here reminds us also that Astorga was and is located at the crossroads of the east-west Via Traiana and the north-south Via de la Plata that begins in Andalucía. This crossroads and indeed the town itself was important to the Romans because it guarded the mountain roads to the profitable mines. For peregrinos traversing both of these pilgrim routes it is no less important because it gives them an opportunity to rest and gather up their strength before climbing the imposing mountains that guard the way to El Bierzo and Galicia.

At least he has a view of the iglesia de San Francisco!

At least he has a view of the iglesia de San Francisco!

After tackling a steep incline to you are in the Plaza San Francisco and from here history tells us that Astorga was an important Christian Center. So important was it that at the height of the pilgrimage it hosted no less than 21 hospices – this impressive number of hospices was only second to Burgos. St. Francis of Assisi was a peregrino that stayed here on his way to Santiago de Compostela in 1214.

The view from the Jardin de La Sinagoga, a park that shows the city walls that were orignally Roman but have been reconstructed many, many times.

The view from the Jardin de La Sinagoga, a park that shows the city walls that were originally Roman but have been reconstructed many, many times.

The city walls seen from the Jardin de La Sinagoga remind us that Astorga was called by Pliny an urbs magnifica and being one was also heavily fortified. As you look at the walls you can picture the relentless attacks (now happily a thing of the past) that this stronghold endured be it from a Germanic tribe called the Suevi, Muslim invaders in 714, or the French during the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century. It was this last group of invaders that destroyed much of the remaining Roman wall.

A small part of the Jardin de La Sinagoga

A small part of the Jardin de La Sinagoga

The Jardin de La Sinagoga (it translates to the Garden of the Synagogue) also reminds us that Astorga was once home to a thriving Jewish community. Here in 1073 a synagogue was founded to be followed by a Jewish cemetery in 1092. The number of Jewish inhabitants was such that it supported two separate Jewish neighborhoods. Why so many? It was simply because and almost unique to Astorga that Jews were welcomed and participated in all aspects of city life until their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Plaza San Bartolomè with the Iglesia San Bartolomè in the backgroiund

Plaza San Bartolomè with the Iglesia San Bartolomè in the background

A slight climb up from the Plaza San Francisco is the Plaza San Bartolomè. For us this was where we had our famous Maragato stew in the Restaurante Casa Maragato II. This plaza is noteworthy for the Roman Museum located in a Roman construction called the Ergástula that before its present-day use was utilized as an access tunnel, slave enclave and a jail.

Link to the Roman Museum in Astorga

The Ayuntamiento in the Plaza Mayor

The Ayuntamiento in the Plaza Mayor

The ornate clock of the Ayuntamiento

The ornate clock of the Ayuntamiento

The Plaza Mayor is a very, very short walk and it was here that I enjoyed an espresso while taking in the magnificent Ayuntamiento with its beautiful 17th century Baroque facade (1683-1704). The clock of the Ayuntamiento features mechanical figures of a man and woman dressed in traditional Maragato costumes striking the bell every hour. Close to here you can also find remains of Roman baths, sewers and walls.

Ian with a backpack worthy of a Giant!

Ian with a backpack worthy of a Giant!

Next on this walking tour and north of the Plaza Mayor is the Plaza Santocildes and here Astorga’s Napoleonic past is celebrated with a majestic lion statute that reminds us of the siege of Astorga which began on March 21, 1810 when Napoleon’s 8th corps, consisting of 12,000 men, including 1,200 cavalry surrounded the city. The town was defended by Marshal José María Francisco Silvestre Santocildes y de Llanos and 2,700 Spanish Infantry. The siege was a stalemate until April 15 when 18 siege guns were delivered to the French. By the 20th, the wall of the city was breached with the French storming the city the next evening. This first attack was repulsed at the cost of 300 men. The next morning, Santocildes surrendered as the French were preparing for another attack because he had almost run out of ammunition with fewer than 30 rounds left per man and only 8 rounds of artillery. French losses were 160 men killed with 400 wounded. The Spanish defenders lost only 51 killed with 109 wounded.     

The Spanish Lion trampling on the French Eagle

The Spanish Lion trampling on the French Eagle

DSCN2439 DSCN2441Very, very close to the Plaza Santocildes is Astorga’s famous Chocolate Museum (Museo de Chocolate). Alas the museum had closed and I missed it but that doesn’t mean you should miss it. At times I felt like the whole town is one large chocolate factory and believe it or not I had plenty of chocolate in my backpack after my stay in Astorga.

Link to the Museo de Chocolate

Antonio Gaudí's Gothic masterpiece El Palacio Episcopal (The Bishop's Palace) with the Catedral de Santa Maria in the background.

Antoni Gaudí’s Gothic masterpiece El Palacio Episcopal (The Bishop’s Palace) with the Catedral de Santa Maria in the background.

Notice the mixture of stone, tile, and sculpture.

Notice the mixture of stone, tile, and sculpture.

My stopping point on this walk was to be the Plaza Catedral where my hotel was located and where also I had the added pleasure of seeing Antoni Gaudí’s Gothic masterpiece El Palacio Episcopal (The Bishop’s Palace). One of only three buildings designed by Gaudí outside of Barcelona, this neo-Gothic palace was designed in 1889 for his friend the Archbishop Juan Bautista Grau Vallepinós. It took twenty years to complete due to  various problems including the death of the Archbishop. Today it is open for tours (alas I could not due to time constraints) and it houses the Museum of the Pilgrimage.

Link to the life story of Antoni Gaudí – A MUST READ!

The construction of La Catedral de Santa Maria was begun in 1471 over the remains of an earlier Romanesque church that was at the site from 1069 to the 13th century. The church was re-built after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and after the French occupation (1810-1812). It is said that the cathedral’s west facade (1704) and the main retablo – one of the best Renaissance pieces on the Pilgrimage Road, designed by Gaspar Becerra (1558-62), a disciple of Michelangelo and Raphael, – are not to be missed. I did have the good fortune to view and enter this beautiful cathedral the following day as I began my walk up into the mountains of León.

La Catedral de Santa Maria in the twilight.

La Catedral de Santa Maria in the twilight.

El retablo mayor by Gaspar Becerra built from 1558 to 1562.

El retablo mayor by Gaspar Becerra built from 1558 to 1562.

Next time I will devote TWO FULL DAYS to Astorga!!!

Hospital de Órbigo to Astorga – Stage 23

Stage 23 – Hospital de Órbigo – Astorga

Total Distance – 15.0 km

Adjusted for Climb – 15.6 km (accrued ascent 125 m = .6 km)

High Point: Cruceiro Santo Toribio at 905 m (2,970 feet)

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A glorious rainbow outside my window!

A glorious rainbow outside my window!

The evening before in Hospital de Órbigo I saw a beautiful rainbow outside of my bedroom window. The beauty of that sight put a smile on my face and pretty much summed up my stay. Re-invigorated by the beauty and history of the bridge, well-fed, with a clean-looking haircut and animated by the conversations with the lovely Brazilian hospitalera and Marta who was from Argentina, I awoke ready, in the best tradition of all peregrinos, ready for anything, but breakfast was to come first!

Breakfast at the Albergue San Miguel with (from left to right) a French couple, my Brazilian hospitalera, Marta and yours truly.

Breakfast at the Albergue San Miguel with (from left to right) a French couple, the Brazilian hospitalera, Marta and yours truly.

As Marta and I started out from Hospital de Órbigo we noticed that it was a clear and beautiful day. Soon we were on the Camino trail walking towards Villares de Órbigo as we chatted amongst ourselves in Spanish. Soon into the walk we had an opportunity to have a conversation with a Spanish farmer who was caring for his own individual plot of land. He had multiple crops planted and it was obvious that what he planted was for the private use of his family.

Villares de Órbigo in the background

Villares de Órbigo in the background

A beautiful copse of trees on the way to Villares de Órbigo. The peregrina on the right I was to meet later further up on the camino.

A beautiful copse of trees on the way to Villares de Órbigo. Marta is on the left and the peregrina on the right I was to meet later further up on the camino.

Me and the proud farmer!

Me and the proud farmer!

The entrance to Villares de Órbigo.

The entrance to Villares de Órbigo.

The only inhabitants of Villares de Órbigo that we met that day.

The only inhabitants of Villares de Órbigo that we met that day.

I soon was separated from Marta due to her injured foot. It had been troubling her for days and she had warned me that she would not be able to keep up with my pace. I was sad to leave her but continued on until I met a peregrina from Romania. Marta and I had seen her before on the trail but we had not had an opportunity to talk to her. Her name was Maria and I was astounded to hear her tell me that she was 82 years old! She was the oldest peregrina I had ever met and although she was struggling up the hills she was determined to continue on. I could not help but admire her fortitude and determination! She could not keep up with my pace and I did lose contact with her in the hills before Santibañez de Valdeiglesia.

Maria walking on ahead of me towards Santibañez de Valdeiglesia.

Maria walking on ahead of me towards Santibañez de Valdeiglesia.

Santibañez de Valdeiglesia, notice the spire of the church in the middle.

Santibañez de Valdeiglesia, notice the spire of the church in the middle.

Interestingly enough when doing my historical research on Santibañez de Valdeiglesia and Villares de Órbigo I could not find and mention of the history of both villages. What I did find were descriptions of the lodgings available in both places and the fact that both villages had a church with the image of Santiago Matamorros. I did find on a Spanish website a controversial back and forth discussion about which route was the “historical” Camino. Was it the one I was on or was it the route that followed the N-120? I’ll never know and it seems that neither will the participants of that discussion. When I did arrive at Santibañez de Valdeiglesia I did not spend much time there because the church was closed and I did not see much to keep me there. I did run into a group of Spanish senior-citizens from Cartagena that started their walk from the Albergue there. Soon I was past them but was to meet up with them many times on this day.

The group from Cartgena in my wake

The group from Cartagena in my wake

The way forward!

The way forward!

The path through this gentle valley

The path through this gentle valley

A cross and rather stiff peregrino in the distance.

A cross and rather stiff peregrino in the distance.

That rather stiff peregrino was at a place called Cruz del Valle. Everyone stopped here to have their picture taken and to get a little rest because the way ahead was to get a little steeper. DSCN2360

It says something to the effect, "Here is your homage for those going to Santiago." It's hard to make out exactly because words have been crossed off.

It says something to the effect, “Here is your homage for those going to Santiago.” It’s hard to make out exactly because words have been crossed off.

I hope that I'm in better shape than he is!

I hope that I’m in better shape than he is!

Cruz del Valle

Cruz del Valle

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The ubquitous yellow arrow pointing the way!

The ubiquitous yellow arrow pointing the way!

The terrain that I encountered as I approached the extreme northwest corner of the Castilian Meseta was a combination of hills, fields of wheat and large-trunked, long-leafed, Chestnut trees.

Peregrinos on the trail.

Peregrinos on the trail.

A quarry for clay that can be easily seen from the air

A quarry for clay that can be easily seen from the air

To the west were the Montes de León and to the north was the Cordillera Cantábrica. The soil here was red and sandy because it contained minuscule traces of gold. It was the greater concentrations of gold that were found higher up in the Montes de León that the Romans mined. I saw a sign for an old mine but decided not to deviate from my path. Good thing that I didn’t because I soon made friends with a trio that consisted of an Australian husband and wife (Ian and Dena) who were travelling with Jude, an American from Kentucky. Ian and I walked ahead of Jude and Dena and we had a very nice chat as we walked together. I learned that Ian and Dena had started their Camino in León while Jude had started out in Bilbao and had taken the Camino del Norte. She told me how the Camino del Norte was not as well-marked as the Camino Francés and the terrain was steep and dangerous. It was a struggle for her to make it to Santander and she decided then and there to abandon the Camino del Norte and continue on the Camino Francés. I couldn’t blame her as I imagined what it must of been like for her early on when northern Spain was experiencing record rainfalls. Soon we noticed a slight commotion in front of us, outside of what I took to be a ramshackle building. It was La Casa de los Dioses (the House of the Gods) and the commotion was being made by the senior-citizen group that was effusively greeting Davide, the host there. Davide is an exceptionally friendly individual who has lived in a ramshackle deserted building for four years, with no running water, gas or electricity. His one and only job is to greet peregrinos and offer them refreshment and a hearty greeting.

Peregrinos arriving at La Casa de los Dioses (the House of the Gods)

Peregrinos arriving at La Casa de los Dioses (the House of the Gods)

Our host Davide, posing with members of the senior citizen group.

Our host Davide, posing with members of the senior citizen group. One member of the group turned out to be the CEO for the brand of juice products that Davide stocked! The white T-Shirts have to logo of the juice company.

DSCN2374Davide doesn’t ask anything in return for bringing you “Paradise on the Camino de Santiago” but he is so sociable and he has such great snacks that I believe it would be a crime not to leave a donativo.

Here is the FaceBook page where you can make donations to La Casa de los Dioses.

Here is the FaceBook page where you can make donations to La Casa de los Dioses.

Davide has quite a spread and you can have anything! Most people leave a donativo for what thye have eaten or drank.

Davide has quite a spread and you can have anything! Most people leave a donativo for what they have eaten or drank.

Davide and I

Davide and I

As if La Casa de los Dioses wasn’t enough excitement we were about to experience one of those surreal moments that happen on the Camino. For me it was like a scene out of one of those Westerns that Americans were so fond of in the 1960′s. To set the scene, our American/Australian group had just arrived at the Cruciero Santo Torbio – a stone cross commemorating Bishop Torbio who in the 5th century went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and returned with a fragment of the true cross – at the cross was the Spanish group from Cartagena when suddenly in the distance – out of the blue and reminiscent of a scene from Western film – we all saw a group of horsemen (actually there was a woman amongst them) riding in our direction! The senior-citizens waved and encouraged them to pose in front of the cross with them. As this scene was unfolding in front of me I was hearing the big western-themed music that one would hear during a climatic scene in a Western film!

The Spanish group has just sighted the horsemen

The Spanish group has just sighted the horsemen

Cue the Western music because here they come!

Cue the Western music because here they come!

It was very exciting to see them come amongst us!

It was very exciting to see them come amongst us!

Their pose in front of the cross and the troubador that was singing Camino songs.

Their pose in front of the cross and the troubador that was singing Camino songs.

We saw the horses again in the next town, San Justo de La Vega. They were in an abandoned parking lot munching on some hay and attended by two riders while the rest of the group were enjoying beers in an adjoining Bar. This motivated us to seek out refreshments also! I would get an appetizer of Astorga’s substantial Roman past when  we would have to cross the Roman footbridge that was in Astorga’s suburbs.

San Justo de La Vega at he bottom of the hill with Astorga in the background 5 kms away

San Justo de La Vega at he bottom of the hill with Astorga in the background 5 kms away

From left to right - Myself, Dena, Jude and Ian having a refreshment break in San Justo de La Vega.

From left to right – Myself, Dena, Jude and Ian having a refreshment break in San Justo de La Vega.

Puente de La Moldería

Puente de La Moldería

Astorga as seen from the surburbs.

Astorga as seen from the suburbs.

Dena and Ian leading us in to Astorga. The Roman name for the town, Asturica Augusta, is in the middle of the traffic circle

Dena and Ian leading us in to Astorga. The Roman name for the town, Asturica Augusta, is in the middle of the traffic circle

We still had a steep climb in order to really be in Astorga and as soon as we finished the climb we found ourselves in the Plaza San Francisco. It was in the Convento de Francisco that St. Francis of Assisi stayed during his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1212. No doubt he also saw the adjoining foundation of a Roman villa complete with thermal baths!

This Peregrino did not walk far as we did!

This Peregrino did not walk far as we did!

At least he has a view of the iglesia de San Francisco!

At least he has a view of the iglesia de San Francisco!

I wanted my son in the United States to see that St. Francis came there.

I wanted my son in the United States to see that St. Francis came there.

The view from the Jardin de La Sinagoga, a park that shows the city walls that were orignally Roman but have been reconstructed many, many times.

The view from the Jardin de La Sinagoga, a park that shows the city walls that were originally Roman but have been reconstructed many, many times.

The Roman bath ruins

The Roman bath ruins

The plan of the Roman Villa.

The plan of the Roman Villa.

Here you can see the floor mosaics of the villa.

Here you can see the floor mosaics of the villa.

My next post will amaze you with the rich history of Astorga and probably disgust you with a description of the Maragato stew that we ate just 60 meters from the Plaza San Francisco. You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow!

Villar de Mazarife to Hospital de Órbigo – Stage 22

Stage 22 – Villar de Mazarife – Hospital de Órbigo
Total Distance – 14.1 km
Adjusted for Climb – 0 km (accrued ascent 0 m = 0 km)
High Point: Villar de Mazarife at 880 m (2,887 feet)

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The beautiful Albergue Antonio de Padua from where I started out from that sunny day.

The beautiful Albergue Antonio de Padua from where I started out from that sunny day.

Before describing this solitary stage for me I need to say something about the village of Villar de Mazarife (Pop. 398). This village is very much like a number of small villages that you encounter on the Camino Francés in that it is quite small and one that exists solely for the Camino. Even the grocery store is called Frutas del Camino de Santiago and the church is dedicated to St. James!

Ever the historian – it’s what I studied in college – I have a deep-seated need to know more about what the village was in the past and also a need to communicate that to others. So – here goes..

DSCN2262The village owes its existence and name to a certain man named Mazaref who in the late 9th century was the head of a mozarabic family from Córdoba that enjoyed certain privileges conferred upon him by the kings of Asturias and León. With royal blessings he began the great enterprise of repopulating the area of the high Páramo with his descendents and succeeded in spreading his family all the way to the banks of río Cea.

Of course there had been pre-Roman settlements in the area but with the Romans and the Roman road the area became strategically important in the maintaining of communications between the important cities of Astúrica Augusta, Bílbilis, Cesaraugusta and Tarraco. This road became the Pilgrim road with the popularization of the pilgrimage to Santiago and continues to be so.

DSCN2258My experience in Villar de Mazarife was limited to my stay in the beautiful Albergue Antonio de Padua. I was sorely in need of a nurturing place to stay and luckily, after having no luck at the overflowing Albergue Tío Pepe, found a private room at the albergue. I was offered an opportunity to partake of a vegetarian paella with all the Peregrinos there but I opted to rest and recuperate with some chorizo and cheese in my room. Theresa who was also staying there enjoyed the excellent paella and the company of all the others at dinner. While at the albergue I met two women from Norway who had visited the small and eclectic museum dedicated to telephones and telegraphs that was nearby. They enjoyed this somewhat unusual museum and also told me about the art gallery of the artist called Monseñor. This gentleman specializes in neo-Romanesque religious works of art.

In the shadow of Monseñor or was he in my shadow?

In the shadow of Monseñor or was he in my shadow?

Breakfast at the albergue was delicious and an opportunity to meet some more of my fellow travellers. Theresa had left much earlier that morning and I did not get a chance to see her before she left and indeed the evening before was the last time I saw her on the Camino. While having breakfast I consulted my guidebook and determined to cut the next stage, that Brierly said was 31 km, in half so that I could spend some quality time in Hospital de Órbigo (Pop. 1,100). Its location on a strategic crossing point on the río Órbigo led the Romans to establish the town. This has made it the site of many battles, the most famous one being the defeat of the Moors here in 878 by Alfonso III (866-910). The town was also once owned by the Knights Templar and the site of a famous pilgrim hospice which gave the town its name. It has one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century that is built over an existing Roman bridge. The town is also noted for having been a Commandery of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John (no doubt they took over the Templar possessions here).

I said in my introduction that this was to be a solitary stage for me and indeed it was. This was one of those rare moments where I did not walk with anyone from the start of the stage to the finish.

Walking out of town, just me and my shadow!

Walking out of town, just me and my shadow!

A local woman in the distance was walking between towns. Judging from her pace she regularly did this.

A local woman in the distance was walking between towns. Judging from her pace she regularly did this.

I did see other Peregrinos!

I did see other Peregrinos!

The 15 km to that I had to travel was very flat and a mixture of roads and trails. As such I was able to arrive in record time and had plenty of opportunity to shower and rest before lunch.

What is this? Grain storage?

What is this? Grain storage?

I always took pictures of the flowers for my wife to enjoy back home.

I always took pictures of the flowers for my wife to enjoy back home.

At least I knew I was on the right path!

At least I knew I was on the right path!

When I arrived I made sure to take many pictures of this beautiful and splendid Medieval bridge. As you can see it was well worth my time to have extended my time on the Camino!

A wonderful view of the bridge!

A wonderful view of the bridge!

The town is in the background.

The town is in the background.

You can clearly see the lower part of the bridge that is the original Roman bridge.

You can clearly see the lower part of the bridge that is the original Roman bridge.

The majesty and beauty of this bridge is undeniable and in addition to this it also has a place in history for one of the most chivalrous acts ever. The name of this act is called El Passo Honroso (The Honorable Pass). It was here in 1434 that the noble Leonese knight Don Suero de Quiñones, after being scorned by a beautiful woman, defended the bridge against any and all knights from all over Europe in a jousting tournament. Only Peregrinos with a letter from their Parish certifying them as such were allowed to pass. The tournament began on July 11, 1434 (two weeks before St. James Day in what was a Jacobean year)) and continued for two weeks during which Don Suero successfully defended the bridge until the required 300 lances were broken and regained his honor. After successfully defending the bridge he and his knights completed their Pilgrimage to Santiago. The irony here is that he later married this same woman!! Also, significantly, his chivalrous act may have been an inspiration for Cervantes in his writing of Don Quixote.

Imagine yourself defending this bridge against all comers.

Imagine yourself defending this bridge against all comers.

My wife when I told her this story said, "What a woman!" to which I replied, "What a man!!"

My wife when I told her this story said, “What a woman!” to which I replied, “What a man!!”

After photographing the bridge and while on my way to lunch I noticed the stork nests in the church belfry. I was to see this same sight in many towns and villages in northern Spain.

DSCN2311 DSCN2309 DSCN2310 DSCN2312My quality time in Hospital de Órbigo consisted of a leisurely lunch, plenty of time for photos, a haircut (oh, what a simple luxury!) and a trip to the pharmacy for toothpaste. It doesn’t sound like much but believe me it was a pleasure to take care of these needs. It was also a pleasure to have stayed at the Albergue San Miguel. I chose it because of its name (Gee, I wonder why!) and it turned out to be the right choice for me. The hostess was from Brazil and she was very friendly and helpful and I also met Marta from Argentina who I would start my walk with the next morning.

DSCN2296DSCN2297DSCN2314DSCN2315The Albergue San Miguel is a peaceful place to rest and is filled with artwork done by the visiting Peregrinos. Some of it is quite good and my friend Marta even contributed her own work to the collection.

DSCN2301 DSCN2300I greatly enjoyed my stay in Hospital de Órbigo and was rested and ready to tackle the next stage to Astorga!

León to Villar de Mazarife – Stage 21

Stage 21– León to Villar de Mazarife
Total Distance – 22.2 km + 4.5 km (getting lost) = 26.7 km
Adjusted for Climb – 27.9 km (accrued ascent 250 m = 1.2 km)
High Point: Páramo 901 m (2,956 feet)

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La Calle Ancha which translates to "the wide street"

La Calle Ancha which translates to “the wide street”

As I walked along León’s Calle Anche toward La Plaza Regla I reflected on my two days in the city. I had used the inclement weather to my advantage to rest and recuperate. I also had the good fortune to run into the Canadian trio of Rhys (the 10-year-old Peregrino), his father Jamie and his uncle Michael on my first night in town. They were eating dinner in the Bar “La Jouja” on the Plaza Torres de Omaña when I happened to enter it looking for a place to eat. I gladly accepted their offer to join their group of 6 Peregrinos and we had an enjoyable evening eating, drinking and talking about our experiences. They were moving on the next day and I unfortunately would not see them anymore while on the Camino.

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Fast forward to my last morning in León, as I was walking on the Calle Ancha I was asked by a group of Canadian women for help in locating their convent/albergue and as I finished giving them directions I heard “Miguel, Miguel!” shouted by Juan, the Mexican Peregrino I had dined with at the monasterio in Sahagún. It was great to be reunited with him and we walked together to the Cathedral where he took my picture before I continued on my way out-of-town. Unfortunately, he was staying another day in town but we enjoyed our brief reunion together.

The picture in La Plaza Regla in front of the Catherdal that Juan took of me  as I set out that rainy morning.

The picture in La Plaza Regla in front of the cathedral that Juan took of me as I set out that rainy morning.

Cleverly placed arrow pointing the way to Plaza Isidoro

Cleverly placed arrow pointing the way to Plaza de San Isidoro

Marker showing the way to Plaza Isidoro

Marker showing the way to Plaza de San Isidoro

As I followed those ever-present yellow arrows I was soon at the Plaza de San Isidoro, the cradle of the Kingdom of León. The plaza, which has a Basílica, Pantheon and museum, is named after Isidoro de Sevilla (560 – 636 AD) who was a very important Visigoth scholar-cleric. In addition to building schools and composing missals and breviaries he wrote the Etymologies, the world’s first encyclopedia. The Basílica is built in a Romanesque style of the 11th century and it was constructed from 1056 to 1067 due to the efforts of Fernando I of Castilla and León who was a famous warrior in addition to being a deeply religious monarch. Located here are some of the best in situ Romanesque murals in al of Spain and very possibly all of Europe. The museum contains a large amount of high quality art and the Pantheon de los Reyes is the resting place 23 kings, 12 princes and 9 counts. In the Pantheon you will also see fresco paintings dating from the first third of the 12th century. The themes of the paintings are the childhood, Passion and glorification of Christ with episodes of the childhood and Passion arranged in accordance with the pattern of a Mozarabic mass. The Pantheon because of the great beauty of its frescoes has been called Spain’s Romanesque Sistine Chapel. Did I see any of these wonders? No!! I would have needed at least 2 hours and to my dismay I had to move on.

Plaza Isidoro.

Plaza de San Isidoro.

Plaque commemorating the 1100th anniversary of the Kingdom of Leon.

Plaque commemorating the 1100th anniversary of the Kingdom of Leon in 2010.

This fountain was build to honor the Roman Legio VII Gemina

This fountain was built to honor the Roman Legio VII Gemina

DSCN2213Before entering the Basìlica for a quick visit I saw a priest standing amongst a group of three tourists. He was a tall, good-looking man dressed in an old-fashioned long black cassock that buttoned up from the ankles almost all the way up to his neck. A wide-brimmed black hat shaded his face and I thought 20 years ago this young Jesuit would have been a Spaniard but that was not the case now as the handsome Jesuit was clearly an African priest. He was the center of attention in the small group and I very much wanted to ask him for a pilgrim’s blessing but I didn’t dare because I did not want to disturb him or his group so I entered the Basìlica without asking. As I left the Basìlica he and his group were gone and I felt annoyed with myself for not asking for that blessing. Little did I know that I was to have a second chance at a pilgrim’s blessing that day.

Inside the Basìlica.

Inside the Basìlica.

My next stop would be León’s Plaza de San Marcos. Here was the magnificent monastery of San Marcos which is now a Parador Nacional 5-Star hotel, church and museum. Originally on this site was an ancient pilgrim hospital that was owned by the Order of Santiago. Fernando el Católico in 1514 decided to raze the ancient structure and build the monastary. The architects he chose for the project were: Juan de Orozco (church), Martín de Villarreal (Facade) y Juan de Badajoz el Mozo (cloister and sacristy). Little did they know that it would take over two centuries to complete the project.  In the past this building served as a:

In 1875 the local government had plans to tear down the building but luckily those plans were shelved. The beauty of the building is self-evident and I’ve seen pictures of it at night that are magnificent. Next trip I will make sure to stay here and enjoy all the beauty that it has to offer.

Plaza San Marcos

Plaza San Marcos

The pilgrim hospital that is now a Parador Hotel

The monasterio that is now a Parador Hotel

The church next to the hotel

The church next to the hotel

Just outside the Parador in the Plaza San Marcos is a cross with a weary Peregrino to greet all of the peregrinos walking on to Santiago!

The Cross and Peregrino

The Cross and Peregrino

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Somethings never change! I've seen many Peregrinos resting this way. Notice the scallop shell on his hat.

Somethings never change! I’ve seen many Peregrinos resting this way. Notice the scallop shell on his hat.

After a brief stop at the Plaza San Marcos I continued over the 16th century Puente río Bernesga and was soon in the suburbs of the town. It was in the suburbs that I encountered a trio of Irish Peregrinos; Theresa (who I had met while walking to Villalcázar de Sirga), James and Shane. We kept on seeing each other on the route so much that we soon ended up walking together.

Iglesia La Virgen del Camino

Iglesia La Virgen del Camino

After walking for close to an hour we stopped at the Iglesia La Virgen del Camino. The Church is ultra modern (1961) and built on the site of the shrine where a shepherd, in the early 16th Century, saw a vision of the Virgin who told him to throw a stone and then build a church on the spot where it landed. The church has become a pilgrimage site in its’ own right on the account of the miracles performed here. Today it was to be the site of a special blessing.

Wonderful Altarpiece in the Iglesia La Virgen del Camino

Wonderful Altarpiece in the Iglesia La Virgen del Camino

Each member of our group was sitting or kneeling in the church praying and alone with their thoughts. During this time I noticed that a young Priest was doing some of the work that’s done after the Mass. I immediately went up to him and asked for a blessing for our group.

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He took us to the chapel at the back of the church and gave us all a fantastic blessing!!! It was the standard beautiful blessing from 12th Century (in Spanish) that all Pereginos have heard at one time or another, but, he took it to another level by putting his hand on our foreheads and hugging each and every one of us. I truly felt blessed.

Theresa, Shane, the Dominican Priest, James and myself in the chapel where we recieved our special blessing

Theresa, Shane, the Dominican Priest, James and myself in the chapel where we recieved our special blessing

It turns out the Priest (dressed in a white Dominican habit) spoke a little English because he had lived in Cork, Ireland (where Theresa of our group is from) and he spent time talking to each and every one of us asking about where we were from. We had a very pleasant time chatting but soon had to continue on our way.

My son later emailed me and said that the Priest was, “An Angel in White” and I agree.

Theresa and Shane

Theresa and Shane

Our group was soon out of the suburbs and walking in the open countryside of the páramo (meaning barren plain or moorland) and it was here that two things happened. First we met Isabella a Peregrina from Yorkshire, England. Isabella was in her early twenties and soon joined our group. Unfortunately, it was here right at the intersection of the N-120 and A-66 roads that we ended up taking a massively wrong turn and we were soon off course and in the rain! I still don’t know how we got so far off course but soon we realized that we were going in the wrong direction. Now, with hindsight I know that we actually walked along the A-66 to a path that took us to the Urbanization Jano (a sleepy hamlet of homes). Exactly the opposite way that we needed to go!! Luckily we found a sanitation truck and the driver told us that we had to walk until we saw a road and go to the right. Well his directions eventually got us to almost to the place where we started, the intersection of the N-120 and the A-66! Now I know that we covered about 4.5 km more than we needed too!

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It's says, Dream what you dare to dream, Know what you want to be, Go where you want to go... Live!

It’s says,
Dream what you dare to dream, Know what you want to be, Go where you want to go… Live!

The rest of our journey to Villar de Mazarife was a long walk in the cold rain. I remember at one time becoming separated from James and Shane because Theresa, Isabella and I were wet and cold and we decided to quicken the pace. I don’t think I ever walked as fast in my life as I walked that day with those two!! At one point we did a 6 km clip in an hour!! It must have been our adrenalin kicking in because of our desperation to arrive. Whatever it was we made it to Villar de Mazarife in the evening.

Villar de Mazarife

Villar de Mazarife

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The Cathedral – Rest Day Two in León

The Jewel in the Crown

The Jewel in the Crown

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Writing about Cathedrals is difficult for me because there is so much to say! Where do I start? How detailed do I become? What are the significant facts that I need to convey? One could write for days about some of these cathedrals and not do them justice. So, I’m going to something really radical here (for me that is), I’m not going to cite any facts or figures. I’ll let you decide if you need to know more about the history of this cathedral and show you where you can get more information. What I will talk about are the feelings I experience when walking or sitting in a cathedral.

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One feeling is awe at the beauty that surrounds me. My thoughts immediately go to thinking of the faith of the artisans that worked on the construction of the building and all of the art, both inside and outside. I imagine that their faith in God must of been immense in order for them to have produced such beauty. How does our faith today compare with theirs? Is it even fair to ask this question because of the vastly different times that we live in?

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Some people when they see all of this beauty and opulence are repelled because they think of how these riches could be used to feed the poor. I, on the other hand take a different view. If God is truly omnipotent why not then honor God with some of the most beautiful buildings and artwork ever produced by man? I’m becoming very philosophical here but being in a cathedral makes me so and I think this is a good thing.

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In addition my feeling of awe I also derive great comfort from a cathedral. The comfort comes from a feeling of shared faith with our ancestors. This continuity of community over the millennia is special and the cathedral for me epitomizes the continuity of our community of faith. Speaking of faith I cannot help but feel inadequate in my faith when seeing the beauty that the faith of others has given to us. I don’t think I’m alone in this or that this is a necessarily bad feeling to have. Having places that bring up all these feelings, emotions and questions about oneself I believe is a blessing and one that modern society does not value. This makes me feel truly privileged when I’m sitting silently soaking up the beauty and faith all around me.

DSCN2192 DSCN2193 DSCN2194Web Resources

In English

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le%C3%B3n_Cathedral

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/leon-cathedral

In Spanish

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catedral_de_Le%C3%B3n

http://www.catedraldeleon.org/

León – Resting Days

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Gaudi's famous Casa de Botines (far left with spires) and the Palacio de los Guzmanes (center)

My first view of Gaudi’s famous Casa de Botines (far left with spires) and the Palacio de los Guzmanes (center)

In my advance planning for my pilgrimage León had always figured prominently. The city was one of my triumvirate of cities (Pamplona, Burgos and León) where I would spend days resting and recuperating from my walking. It was a good plan that my health on the road cooperated with and I’d like to think that I picked my cities well. When I got off the bus and arrived at León’s bus station it was an overcast and rainy day. It was no problem finding a taxi and I got to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes that I love to engage in when I arrive at a new place; talking to taxi drivers! It may have been cloudy and overcast outside but our conversation inside the taxi was bright and animated. My erstwhile taxi driver was especially effusive when it came to describing to beauty of the women of León and he said that the most beautiful women in all of Spain were in León. He was definitely a true Patriot!! In my best interests and while considering the views of all my Spanish friends that I met before and after that moment in the taxi, I dared not contradict him nor correct him. In fact, as I was to later discover while walking around town the next two days he might have had a good point. What was not debatable was the beauty of the city. As I was staying at the Hotel Alfonso V, a stone’s throw from the Plaza San Marcelo, where the old quarter of the city begins, I immediately was able to enjoy the beautiful plazas and buildings! Even though the day was one of intermittent rain (you’ll notice that my camera lens were always wet!) the beauty of the city was unimpaired.

Gaudi's famous Casa de Botines

Antoni Gaudi’s famous Casa de Botines, one of three buildings he designed that were located outside of Catalonia

The Palacio de los Guzmanes - Home of the Diputación Provincial de León

The Palacio de los Guzmanes – Home of the Diputación Provincial de León

The Palacio de los Guzmanes - Home of the Diputación Provincial de León

The Palacio de los Guzmanes – Home of the Diputación Provincial de León

What excited me about the city was that I knew that León had been the Headquarters of the Roman Legio VII “Gemina” and that the name of the city is derived from the word Le/gi/on. Starting from the founding of the city in 70 A.D. the Seventh Legion protected the Galician gold mines from here and also used the city as a base for the conquest of the Suevi tribe of northwest Spain. The Suevi would not be easily conquered and it took the mighty Roman Empire 350 years to attempt this. The empire was not completely successful and the Visigoth King Leonvigildo completed the conquest of the Suevi in 585. You’d figure that having an entire Roman legion based here and the fact that León was the Roman capital of Northwest Spain you would find a whole host of excavated Roman buildings but that is sadly not the case. Except for a portion of a Roman wall and some Roman baths under the Cathedral, no Roman buildings have been found. While the name of the city, street signs and plaques point to the city’s proud Roman past, sadly very little from the Roman period exists. Nonetheless, I could feel a Roman vibe as I walked around the old part of León that actually is the location of the Roman fortified city (fortified, remember the Suevi!).

Plaque honoring the original Roman Military Camp (1st Century AD) on this site and the Roman walled city.

Plaque honoring 20 centuries of the city. At the top is the original Roman Military Camp (1st Century AD) on this site and at the bottom is the Roman walled city.

Part of the Roman Main Gate to the city

Part of the Roman Main Gate to the city

The only existing part of the old Roman wall

The only existing part of the old Roman wall

You will remember that I had the good fortune to meet a trio of Spanish cyclists from Madrid while sharing a meal with them in the village of Hornillos del Camino. We became friends and they would email me descriptions of places that they enjoyed while cycling furiously ahead of me. Because of them I learned of a lot of good places to eat and one of their tips was that León had a district called El Barrio Hùmedo (the Wet Quarter). Named this way because of all the bars (at least 150!) located within the part of the city that approximates the area that was enclosed by the Roman wall, this area is replete with bars that serve some delicious tapas and restaurants with great food. Of course, any good plan for rest and recuperation should involve some good food. The question is amongst such abundance where does one go? My modus operandi was always to ask the locals so when I was at a sporting goods store (on the Calle Rúa right off the Plaza San Marcelo) buying some needed gloves I asked for some recommendations. Every Spanish person that I met was an expert on where to eat and the gentleman at the store was no exception, after a hurried consultation with a friend of his, he told me of a couple of places where I could go to get authentic local food. Luckily for me the Calle Rúa was the entry way to the Barrio Hùmedo and I was in the right place.

Calle Rúa

Calle Rúa

Calle Rúa had lots of stores. The Sporting Goods store is just past the store on the right.

Calle Rúa had lots of stores. The Sporting Goods store is just two doors past the store on the right.

León has so many beautiful sites that you really must devote two days to the city to see all the magnificent churches and buildings but alas my time was limited and interrupted because of the rain. I did however get to see León’s Jewel in the Crown which is its magnificent cathedral. The first day I just had to walk up to see the exterior and I was to save the rest of the the cathedral for the next day because I wanted to have enough time to savor its beauty.

Luckily for me the Plaza San Marcelo was the center of the city.

Luckily for me the Plaza San Marcelo was the center of the city.

The Calle Ancha which leads you to the cathedral.

The Calle Ancha which leads you to the cathedral.

The Jewel in the Crown

The Jewel in the Crown (13th Century)

My next post will be about the cathedral.

In Case You’ve Been Wondering Where I’ve Been

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Since I haven’t posted for a while you might be wondering if I’ll write another post anytime soon. Rest assured, I’m back to writing about the rest of the 15 stages that I completed on the Camino.

Part of the reason for my hiatus is something that also happened to me on the Camino. Quite simply at one point when I was walking I knew that I would complete my pilgrimage, the walking was easier, I was more confident with every step that I took and the kilometers on the signs to Santiago de Compostela began to steadily decrease. I knew I was close to my destination and that’s when I wanted to slow down, to savor every moment. Did I slow down? No, but I did look at the people I met, the countryside, the churches and everything around me with a sense of melancholy. My senses slowed down but my feet didn’t. I think that my fellow Pereginos can understand the feeling.

Well, the same thing has happened now with my writing. I want to savor the memories but it’s time now to write and complete the task at hand. So to recap, my last post was about Stage 20 to Leòn. I’ll take up the story of my Pilgrimage from there and I plan on being finished describing all my stages by the end of 2013.

Buen Camino!