Camino 3a – 22 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Camino 3a – 22 September 2014, 09:15
We met a man outside Oviedo railway station. He was wearing shorts and walking shoes and carrying a rucksack. For the first time, we experienced the fraternity of the Camino. He walked across the stark, empty plaza to where we were sitting killing time before our train.
I don’t remember a great deal about him, other than he was walking alone from Oviedo taking the northern route through the Codillera Cantabrica – the Camino Primitivo. It’s said to be a beautiful path that links with our route, the Camino Frances, at Melide a couple of days east of Santiago. All roads lead to Santiago. We wished each other well and shook hands.
The 10:00 train was a fast RENFE express, heading to Alicante via Madrid – a hell of a journey, bisecting Spain. We would leave it at Leon, tracing another pilgrim route from Oviedo to the Camino Frances.
The express moved slowly through mist-shrouded mountains and valleys, twisting and turning between half-empty towns and villages. Here and there, a factory appeared and power-lines scaled shaven strips over the rocky landscape. We stretched our legs in the space between the seats and read yesterday’s newspaper.
As we reached lower ground, the express accelerated to its inter-city speed and we soon reached Leon. We were now on the Camino Frances route of the Camino de Santiago. We just needed to find the bus station for the ride to our starting point, Astorga.
We’d given ourselves nine or ten days to reach Santiago, following the well-used guide by John Brierley. That should give us a day at the end to bus out to Finisterre – the Roman “End of the World”. It’s there that the remains of the Apostle James are said by the faithful to have been rediscovered and reinterred at the place that now carries his name: Sant Iago.
First, we needed to eat. It was lunchtime.
We walked across the rio Barnesega, which separates the rail and bus stations from the historic centre of Leon, following a long straight road that leads to the cathedral. The centre was busy but bright in that Spanish way with a confusion of buildings old and new opening to the Plaza Regla.
A mix of heavy showers and sun had been forecast for the whole two weeks and it began to rain as we stood in the square taking in the mix of Gothic and modern. We moved closer to the cathedral for cover and I went to check out the inside. They were charging five euros. I stuck my head round the door to see if it was worth paying. No.
Reading the guide afterwards, Leon cathedral is said to be one of the great treasures of the route, with wonderful stained-glass. Maybe next time, then.
We found a café and ordered huge filled croissants and canas or small beers. My Spanish was returning – poco a poco. I watched as the men sitting up at the bar dropped their rubbish straight onto the floor. I soon realised everyone was doing it. The floor was covered. Then as the bar momentarily cleared, a waitress wielded a broom and efficiently restored the floor ready for the next scene.
Back over the river, we bought our ALSA bus tickets to Astorga. ALSA’s a good service, similar to the UK’s National Express. The cashier pointed out which stand we needed. Our bus hadn’t yet arrived. In the queue were a number of others carrying back-packs. The small groups and couples kept themselves to themselves and waited.
Once we were on board, we settled down for the ride as the bus eased through the city. I photographed the streets to try to capture “real” Leon. Untidy, workaday scenes with scruffy buildings, many businesses closed down and their empty lots “Se Vende”.
Among all of this we spotted the first blue and yellow signs carrying the words “Camino de Santiago” and a graphic depicting the pilgrim’s scallop shell. Soon we began to see people with rucksacks and walking sticks, many in shorts or wearing wide-brimmed hats. They stood out, negotiating the busy, almost hostile streets of the Leon suburbs.
Out on the main road, we kept spotting the Camino signs. Occasionally pilgrims could be seen disappearing into the scrub away from the road. Further along they reappeared and for a while ran the gauntlet of the traffic sometimes on the safe side of the barrier, sometimes on the road side of it. The mid-afternoon sun was beating down.
Just under an hour later, we swung off the road into Astorga and pulled our packs out of the hold. The bus was going on to Ponferrada and Villafranca.
Crossing the road towards the tall city wall, we gathered in front of a city plan trying to orientate ourselves. Right in front of us stood the cathedral and Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace – we had reached our starting point on the route.
We walked through stone plazas, past the cathedral and city hall with its figures striking the hours on an open bell, until we found our pension.
The evening was spent wandering around the streets and buying water for the next day. Brief greetings were exchanged with a couple we’d seen at the bus station in Leon.
We chose badly for food and ended up with reheated paella in some fast-food chain. There wasn’t much more to do other than get an early night.
We slept badly again.
By morning it was raining steadily.