Bull fighting area near León, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: León, Spain

It was a great feeling to reach León. The days of hiking across the meseta were behind me. This was the third big city I had reached since starting my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage at St. Jean Pied de Port in fall 2014. Cities are much different than walking in the country. Entering a large city by walking takes a long time.

As I walked through the industrial section, the suburbs, and the new areas of city buildings, I was not very excited by León. I did see a big bull fighting area, which you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. But as I walked to la ciudad viejo, the old city, I was impressed by the open squares and narrow streets, lined with shops and outdoor cafés, with music streaming out of the open windows and doors. I was anxious to find Monasterio Benedictino de las Hermanas Carbajalas, an ancient walled monastery now converted into an albergue–my place to stay.

I walked under an arch, into the walled entrance, past the massive, thick doors which stood open, and into a large interior patio. There were tables set up in the long, narrow entry, with seated attendants ready to register the waiting pilgrims. I dug out my el Camino passport, paid, and waited to be shown a bed in the women’s section. There were three rooms of wall-to-wall bunk beds! There was no room for boots, poles, or packs, except for a makeshift shelf over the heating registers. I settled in, cleaned up, and went out for something to eat.

I was anxious to see León: I toured the old city with the tenth-century cathedral and its famous thirteenth-century rose window, the Pantheon, and the grand squares. But I enjoyed sitting in an outside café, listening to the Spanish music, and watching the people. The people are so stylish and dressed up in their finery. The food is so elegantly prepared, and the shop windows are beautifully set up. This is what I will take back with me about León.

When I went back to the albergue I was greeted by Maxwell, the one Italian left from the group of eight formed at the beginning of the el Camino trail. He was happy to see me, but he felt terrible. The el Camino was getting the best of him. I hoped he could continue and reach Santiago. Some pilgrims wait years to be able to do the el Camino and this becomes a dream come true.

I met a young woman from the Philippines today. It has taken her 40 days to reach León. But now her time is up and she must fly home. She did not fulfill her dream of reaching Santiago. She is happy for the experience, but it is a bittersweet ending.

I sat on my bed, and a nurse volunteer came by, checking on people’s feet. She rubbed my feet and put on a soothing, healing lotion. It felt so good! In the next bunk, a young, red-headed Irish woman took off her boots and socks, and waited to have her blisters treated. Today is her first day back on the trail, on her third year to finish her journey.

In the early morning, I left the old monastery, but I will remember the pilgrims I met, the volunteer nurse, and the crowded place. I was glad to be out on the cobblestone streets, walking and looking for trail markers: brass scallop-shaped shells embedded in the cement of the streets, and yellow arrows on the walls of the buildings. It was a long walk out of the city.

As soon as I left the monastery, my pilgrimage resumed. I saw a younger man ahead of me. I followed him in the dark, with only the streetlights to guide me, until he finally disappeared in the twists and turns of the city streets. Still in the city, I continued on alone, and soon I noticed an older man having difficulty finding the trail signs. At one corner, where he had crossed the street and was heading in the opposite direction, I whistled and pointed to the sign near me. He caught up with me, passed me, and went in the wrong direction again! I whistled and pointed in the correct direction. After the third mistake where I whistled and corrected him, he decided to slow down and walk with me; by this time, we were heading out into the suburbs of León, and it was after dawn. I did not have much time to look back at this city or think about it before the thunder and lightning began.

Even in the city of León, there is adventure! As the storm approached, I noticed several Japanese, Philippines, and Koreans had stopped to put on rain gear and pack covers. A young Japanese couple stopped and offered to help me. I was okay: I put on my rain gear and covered my pack with a rain proof cover, while a Frenchman next to me did the same thing. The four of us started off together.

We had to walk under the giant power lines going into the city, while the lightning was striking ever so closely. Several times, the lightning struck the power lines, and the lights went out all over the city. There was no place to take cover. I would jump, and the Frenchman (who could not speak English) would kindly put his hand on my shoulder. The four of us walked at a good pace with our heads down in quiet. I had two metal trekking poles and the lightning was too close for comfort. We kept walking until finally it was just rain coming down.

We came to a small café: I bid the thoughtful young Japanese couple goodbye, said au revoir to the Frenchman, and went on alone. I walked on until my rain gear had dried – then I stopped and put it in my pack. In all the many days I had been walking, this was the first time it had rained. It didn’t last too long, but it was dramatic, and that was my exit from León, a grand Spanish city steeped with history and modern in activity.

(posted April 7, 2015)