Astorga, on the Camino de Santiago trail, was known for its chocolate industry; photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Nineteen Days and Counting

My feet were feeling better after the nurse volunteer doctored them at the restored albergue in León, so I was much more excited to hike today! A ways out of León, the path split at a small town, and I decided to take the straight one, which was better marked and safer.

However, my guide book did not mention where the trails met again, so I kept walking to Villachangos del Paramo. The outskirts of the town were truck stops and places to avoid. I was getting tired, and when I get tired, I need to stop. I saw an albergue, but it was still closed, so I kept walking into town.

There was one tiny store along the route, and outside were several pilgrims, putting on their packs, ready to continue walking the trail. I asked how far to the next albergue. One said 12 kilometers, and I thought to myself, “No!” I went into the store, and the clerk said there was a hotel in town. A pleasant older man said he would show me. I decided to spend the night there and have a room to myself.

Later that evening for dinner, I was joined by a man from Ukraine, two Canadian women, a French couple, and a German couple who knew me from the trail. We were all pilgrims walking the trail. We had merasopa, a soup with clams, calamari, and whole shrimp, eyes and all. I was so hungry–I can’t believe it tasted so good. This was followed by a full meal and dessert.

The next morning, I woke at 4 am, and then went back to sleep. I woke again at what I thought was 5:30 am, but after I dressed, I realized it was 6:30. I was on the trail pronto. It was a quiet walk, with only one man I could see ahead of me. I was alone almost to Astorga and then I started to see people.

I met Timo, who became one of my trail friends. In our conversations over time I learned that Timo was from Germany, in his 20’s, and working on his PhD in advanced mathematics. We walked the last 5 kilometers into Astorga together. As we came up a steep hill to the old town, there was thunder. Later it rained, but the timing was great, as we were in the albergue and off the trail. The climate is different here from the dry meseta. I am now headed to a higher elevation through the high passes of the Cordillera Cantábrica.

Astorga is a small city, and the trail leads into the old section, to a new multi-story albergue. Timo and I both planned to stay here. When we entered, there was a line of pilgrims waiting to register. The attendant saw me at the back of the line and asked my age. This was a first for me, as age had never mattered before in registering–it had simply been first come, first served. Shortly afterward, the assistant told Timo and me to follow her and the others ahead of us.

In single file we paraded down a long hall. Timo was dropped off on that floor, the blue floor, and told to find a bed in the large room filled with bunk beds. Further on, several other women were asked to go in another large room and take a bed, while others were dropped off on the green floor. Finally only one other woman and I were left following the assistant up to the orange floor. Even the walls and stairs were painted brightly to match the floor level color. I knew which floor I was on, because I was surrounded by orange! The assistant opened a small room and the other woman hurried in. The assistant looked at her, said “No,” and pointed for her to get out. She let me in: there were two bunks and I had the room alone. This was a senior room! Life is crazy sometimes; every albergue is different.

Later, I went down to the ground floor to leave for dinner, and found Timo waiting. We went out along the street, which turned into a beautiful plaza with stores, cafes, and chocolate shops. This was a city known for the chocolate industry many years ago; you can see one of the shops in my photo at the top of this blog post. I had the best pizza in a café in the plaza. On the way back to the albergue, I had planned to go to Mass at the historic cathedral. Timo asked if he could join me. I was carrying a pizza box with leftover pizza, which I put under my pew. I don’t wonder what the locals think of the pilgrims, as the smell of the freshly baked pizza carried beyond a few pews!

At the end of the day, sitting on my bed, I reflected on the day. Today I walked through fields, up hills, and along a highway. I crossed the longest, grandest Roman bridge, and went up and over two tall, metal railroad pedestrian bridges. This is not a race, but I am moving along. People who started at the beginning of the trail are becoming more excited at the prospect of fulfilling their dreams. The Brazilian couple hugged me today when they saw me at the end of the day. It has been 19 straight days of hiking, and I am below the average time of pilgrims completing the trail. I never think about whether I will complete the trail or not; once a goal is in place, I simply set about it and complete it. It is not an option–just be prepared and do it, one step at a time. Attitude is everything. Be positive and help others along the way. After 19 days of adventure, I am still eager to continue this amazing el Camino.

(posted April 14, 2015)