Peregrinos Before

~ Camino de Santiago part 2: from Sahagun to Astorga ~

Bodegas near
Terradillos de los Templarios
Calzadilla de la Cueza in the early hours of the morning hums with tractor engines and pilgrim chatter.We left it behind us as the morning mist lifted out under our feet. We passed by the buzzing fields and bodegas (wine cellars) with seasoned strength in our legs, aiming to make the city of Sahagun by the afternoon. The rain held off and despite the loss of my water canteen (left in a small village where we made lunch), we were in good spirits when we first glimpsed our first urban destination.

La Virgen del Puente
(XIIth cen.) 
Walking into a city is a surreal experience. Never has the automobile been cast in such an ugly light as that shed by the pedestrian who has traversed nothing but country side and quiet village over the past week. The layout of modern pavement lacks the convenience that medieval cobblestone affords to the foot-traveler. The city block became a ludicrously inefficient route for two legs and for the first time I realized why ancient towns were planned to radiate outwards. B and I had been careful to avoid the “senda” routes thus far but it now seemed unavoidable. These paved sections of the Camino are maintained by government tourism promoters to direct pilgrims to commercial areas of interest. Unfortunately, this often means they run right next to busy motorways and often share the same asphalt. Local associations and The Friends of the Camino are constantly planning out and maintaining routes that more closely follow the course of the original pilgrimage but landowners are not always cooperative. One such alternate route takes walkers out off the Camino to visit La Virgen del Puente just outside of Sahagun. This provides a quiet tour of untouched landscape and then up to the city’s industrial district as a shortcut into the medieval quarter; an extra kilometer in exchange for clean air and a simple path is a good deal.

Arco San Benito, Sahagun
Sahagun has a deep history stretching back to the Roman occupation and boasts ties to historical figures like Charlemagne. It was here that Saint Facundo was martyred making him the patron saint of this present-day industrial outpost. Sahagun was once home to numerous monasteries, churches, and pilgrim hospices that have since crumbled to dust. The city lacked access to large quantities of stone thus building was traditionally done with brick, leaving ruins where monuments once stood. The municipal albergue is situated on the makeshift upper floor of what was once the Iglesia de la Trinidad, one such architectural victim of time that has been salvaged into a hostel and performance space. Our stay was pleasant and even though the hospitalera was very strict about kicking us out in the morning, we were able to enjoy some of the music filtering up from a rehearsal below.

Iglesia San Lorenzo, Sahagun
(XIIth cen.)
Sahagun’s Muslim influence could be seen in the tower of the iconic Iglesia San Lorenzo, dating back to the 12th century. This is a brick Mudejar styled building still stands despite the limited lifespan of its constitution, contributing a unique architectural element to the city’s skyline. B and I walked around the outside of the church on our way out of town in the morning and were impressed by such a stark departure from the contemporary Romanesque that we had seen so far. We also had chance to walk by the ruins of the Iglesia San Tirso, an earlier construction credited with bringing the Mudejar style to the area. These buildings, crumbling though they may be, stand testament to the influence that people of disparate cultures can have on one another now and in the past.

Calzada Romana west of
Calzadilla de los Hermanillos
We opted to leave the "senda" behind us and make for Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, following in Charlemagne’s footsteps down the old roman road. The walk was a peaceful one and took us swiftly from the busy streets of Sahagun and into the light forest that surrounds this stretch of the Calzada Romana. Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was a small village that grew up as a wayside on this ancient route. We found the albergue pleasant, if nearly vacant, and continued on to a longer stretch of wilderness the following day after leaving a donation with the hospitalero (many of the albergues in this region operate on a donation/volunteer basis). The morning had brought with it a blinding fog that obscured the landscape for most of the day. The wide roman road was an easy track to follow through the mists and the atmosphere allowed us to contemplate what was under our feet rather than that which lay ahead. How many steps had this road seen? We marveled that the Romans take the trouble to pile rock six feet deep, leagues after league, that this road may stand today (whilst decedents made of simple asphalt crack and degrade in less than a decade). The mist lifted in the late afternoon leaving us curious if we were even going the right direction. We ended up in the village of Reliegos and joined the "senda" for a few short kilometers into Mansilla de las Mulas.

Puerta Castilla,
Mansilla de las Mulas
Once a prominent livestock market and pilgrim halt en route to Santiago, Mansilla de las Mulas retains some of its medieval flavor behind city walls dating back to the 12th century. B and I entered them through the Puerta Castilla and easily found our way past the remnants of the Iglesia Santa Maria to the municipal albergue. Our guide book suggested forgoing the busy road between Mansilla de las Mulas and Leon, an 18 kilometer stretch, but we decided that the walk would be enlightening (considering our journey through Sahagun’s traffic). Our instincts could not have been further from the truth.

Iglesia Santa Maria (XVIIth cen.),
Mansilla de las Mulas
The modern road network that surrounds Leon was terrifying. We walked past ruins dating back to the Roman conquests and never noticed the excavation pits for all of the construction of even more motorways. I encourage anyone who owns a car to walk into a city sometime to fully comprehend what western society has created. B and I made our way with a type of sadness upon us, feeling sorry for all of the motorists in their speeding boxes of steel that appeared to be rushing from one compartment to the next in a futile maze. We came unto the suburbs of Leon two hours before we reached the old medieval quarter of the city and now understand why our guidebook recommended taking the bus. This stretch was certain to knock out any spiritual highs that had been gained from the countryside for most pilgrims. But we were resolved not to shy away from the ugly truth of industry and our understanding of Leon was greater for the trial.

Leon city walls
At one time this city was a Roman military garrison, deriving its name from the VIIth Legion. It became a capitol within the region, to be conquered and re-conquered by parties throughout history. The Camino is marked here with discreet brass scallop shells rather than the little yellow arrows that we had earlier known, belying the great wealth that Leon holds. The medieval walls still stand around the old city and the twisting narrow alleys made a welcome sight after the superhighway spectacle. We found our way to the Convent of Santa Maria de Carbajal for accommodation and were shown to separate male and female dormitories by the resident nuns. The town had more than enough options for supper and street performers lined the Calle Ancha, the city’s busy shopping avenue leading to the cathedral. We had decided to take a second day in Leon to rest and were able to attend a late night pilgrim’s blessing at the convent before retiring. It was then that we met both a pilgrim from America just beginning her journey and a Swedish acquaintance we met the previous week who was staying at the convent for a few days to deal with the theft of his backpack. We bid the newcomer safe travels and left the Swede with most of our tobacco (having quit the habit recently) and all of our sympathy.

Pulchra Leonina (XIIIth - XVth cen.),
Leon
Leon’s star attraction is her cathedral. Also called the Pulchra Leonina or The House of Light, the cathedral boasts well over a square mile of ornate stain glass. Most of which are original works dating from between the 13th and 15th centuries, making this collection among the world’s finest displays of stained glass. The ceiling appears to float on colored light from inside the cathedral, a spectacle that my camera failed on all accounts to capture (my attempts are documented at the end of this post). This amazing feat of construction almost caused the cathedral to fail until an architect in the 18th century, well studied on Gothic technique, began renovations that required each piece of glass to be removed and then put back into place decades later. The sheer scope of such a renovation makes this a marvel unto itself. The cathedral has reaffirmed the missions of millions of pilgrims before us and this energy cannot be lost on anyone who steps inside this magnificent building. Both B and I found our visit revitalizing.

Casa de Botines, Astorga
We took the time to enjoy the cathedral cloisters and also paid a visit to the Pantheon of San Isidoro. At one time, pilgrims who could continue no further would enter and plead for forgiveness, sometimes receiving a similar indulgence from the church as if they had completed the journey to Santiago. Today San Isidoro houses a medieval art and book collection that provide an enlightening look into the art of medieval illumination. Leon is also home to a seminal work by famous architect, Antoni Gaudi. We were unable to get inside Gaudi’s Casa de Botines but enjoyed a view of the architect’s masterpiece from the square. The food and lively culture of Leon beckoned us to stay from every avenue and corner. Nevertheless, we set off the next day with refreshed intentions. Passing by the old monastery of San Marcos, now a luxury hotel, we made our way out of town via the western suburbs and left the senda once more to take a quieter route.

Water font,
Villar de Mazarife
This led us into the town of Villar de Mazarife by the afternoon. We had been frustrated in the village of Chozas de Abajo, where the bar owners have corrupted the yellow arrows for their own petty gain, and made weary from the morning trek out of the city. Yet Villar de Mazarife was a quiet (and honest) enough village to warmly welcome us back to rural Spain. We sought accommodation at Casa de Jesus, a friendly bar and hostel with character in spades. Every wall was covered in art from pilgrims past and the bar was dominated by local farmers enjoying an afternoon drink. The albergue featured hearty fare, good wine, and a misplaced Viking ship run aground in the front yard. We left our mark, as so many others had, behind us in the morning and set out into the frosty hills ahead. Winter was coming to Spain and put a sense of urgency into the pilgrims on the Camino. The mornings would only get colder from here on out.

Bridge over the river Orbigo,
Hospital de Orbigo
The day warmed only slightly as we came to Hospital de Orbigo but the clouds failed to part. It was here that we crossed the 13th century bridge over the rio Orbigo where a knight once challenged the world for honor's sake after being spurned by a local lady. The noble, Don Suero de Quinones of Leon threw down the gauntlet to any knight who wished to pass for a month in 1434. Legend has it he provoked knights from all over Europe to come and challenge him until he left the bridge undefeated, 300 fallen knights in his wake. A tourney ground still stands on the flood plain below the bridge to this day where jousting remains a local favorite in the Summer months. The accommodations were slim in Hospital de Orbigo so we continued on to the next village, Villares de Orbigo where a private albergue was still open. The atmosphere of this quiet hostel was superb despite the lack of guest (there were only four of us) and a less that thrilling recommendation from the guidebook.

Pilgrim's token,
on the Camino
We met an older woman from Colorado that night who walked with us a little on our way over the hills to Astorga the following day. We were leaving the Tierra de Campos region and the shift in geography was felt in the hills that now characterized our trail. There began to be makeshift monuments on hill tops and in the trees, dedications left by pilgrims past to reassure us that we were following in the footsteps of something greater. Although our walk to Astorga was short, we found ourselves fatigued by the hills and were relieved to arrive in town in time to visit the chocolate museum for a pick-me-up and treat along our way.

Early cacao press
Astorga had once been home to chocolate companies that were the pride of Spain. Receiving raw product from colonial plantations, chocolate makers processed cacao beans into one ounce cubes for shipment across Europe. The Museum of Chocolate highlights key developments in the history of Astorga’s sweet industry and offers samples for visitors to enjoy. We left our packs by the door and enjoyed touring the exhibits. It was Halloween back home, a time for costumes and candies. On the Camino we were satisfied with a little chocolate.

Palacio Episcopal, Astorga
We found the albergue near the cathedral. Considerably more austere The House of Light in Leon, Astorga’s cathedral is a graceful Gothic construction that is almost overshadowed by a Gaudi work known as the Palacio Episcopal. The cathedral lacked the structural glamour of its counterpart in Leon but excelled with an extensive collection of paintings. Unorthodox Christian imagery from throughout the medieval period populates several floors within the cloisters and was well worth the entrance fee. I was able to take a few photographs without flash so that I could further research the meanings of some of the stranger paintings in the future (see some examples at the end of this post).

Enjoying the albergue, Astorga
Astorga was a wonderful town in which to spend our Halloween. The hills were turning into mountains under our feet and rather than dwell upon the obstacles in front of us, we enjoyed a bottle of Prieto Picudo (a local wine variety) by the fire and contemplated all of the people who have made this journey before us. We met a French woman who was going home with shin splints after pushing herself too far, too fast, and wondered how many pilgrims in the past had to turn back from Santiago. The pilgrim graveyards, becoming more frequent along the Way, were testament to those less fortunate than B and myself. Times had changed, cars were now more deadly than bandits and no longer did knights protect pilgrims from the dangers of travel. Fortunately, the woman would return to finish her walk another day, simply the victim of an overzealous athletic mindset propagated by a society bent on fast results. We would continue on tomorrow, towards the next challenge, in the footsteps of the peregrinos before.

Plaza Mayor at Sahagun
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Two Caminos join at Leon
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Ornately carved choir of the Leon Cathedral
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Stain glass of the Leon Cathedral
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Stain glass of the Leon Cathedral
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Cloisters at the Leon Cathedral
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Remnants of a fresco. The cloisters at Leon Cathedral
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Santiago Peregrino (the Pilgrim). Cloisters at Leon Cathedral
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San Marcos. Now the Leon Parador
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Welcome sign for pilgrims to Villar de Mazarife
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B hanging out with a creepy makeshift monument to the pilgrim
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Old barn converted to a complementary pilgrim refreshment station, donations accepted.
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Cross of San Torbido on the hill before Astorga
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Astorga Cathedral Altar
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Astorga Cathedral Portal
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Christ surrounded by female apostles (?). Collection of Astorga Cathedral
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St. James Matamoros (the Moorslayer). Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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Morbid Saint. I am interested to know the story behind this one. Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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Life of St. Anthony series. Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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Life of St. Anthony series. Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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Life of St. Anthony series. Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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Life of St. Anthony series. Collection of Astorga Cathedral.
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