We begin today by taking a comfortable bus out of Leon for about 40 minutes to a town called Hospital Del Orbigo. We are dropped off at the highway and walk into the old town in search of the most famous of the surviving Roman bridges along the Camino. It spans the Rio Orbigo, has dozens of arches, and is a beauty.
The bridge was an important trade link in Roman times and has hosted a good number of battles over the centuries, including those between Christians and Moors and among knights themselves in the form of jousting tournaments. Legend has it that the bridge may also have served as an inspiration for the Castilian Cervantes and his novel Don Quixote.
Back country to Astorga
Beyond Hospital de Orbigo, we again choose a back country route away from the road and spend time walking beside farms and even through farm yards. I see some Holstein cattle in one of them. For a portion of the day we walk through a light drizzle, marveling again at how lucky we are to have experienced so little rain in our three weeks on the trail.
We are on our way to Astorga, a small but historic city of 12,000. We get our first full view of it from a lookout dominated by Crucero de Santo Toribio, a huge cross on a hill, with the city lying in the near distance below us. The colour combination of red slate roofs with dark and threatening blue clouds hanging over them is a pleasing one. The city is not in the mountains but we can see them in the distance and in a couple of days we will be walking in them.
A basic hostel
Once in the city we book into an albergue called Siervas de Maria, which is very basic and features rooms crammed with bunks. Ours is a private room with just one bunk and really nothing else except for a lovely view from our window of the sky and surrounding countryside. There are blankets or sheets on the plastic mattresses and for only the second or third time on this trip, we use the lightweight sleeping bags that we have purchased and carried in our backpacks.
We share the bathrooms with a lot of people and it is all unisex. There is no hot water, no meal on offer (a kitchen though), and no breakfast. However, breakfast is always easy to find in bar-cafes which open early.
Gregorian chant at 6:00 a.m.
At 6:00 a.m. we are awakened by the sound of loud music routed through speakers. There is no mistaking the meaning that we are to be up and on our way. Fortunately, it is Gregorian chant so the awakening is rather gentle.
There have been a network of pilgrim albergues and hospitals along the Camino in Spain for hundreds of years and this is one, although the religious sisters who ran it cared for other sick people too. Being a pilgrim was a risky endeavour in the centuries preceding modern highways, vaccinations and good medical care, cell phones, hiking boots, rain ponchos – not to mention the earlier danger thieves who lay in waiting to relieve pilgrims of their few possessions.
A sign that I see on the wall of the albergue here says that the sisters vacated the building in 2004 and it is now owned by a group called Association of Friends of the Santiago. It is quite common along the Camino to encounter various religiously-inspired groups and volunteers who provide simple hospitality to tourists. It was even more common in centuries gone by.
A writer named Chris Lowney says that during some years in medieval times as many two million pilgrims would walk to Santiago, making it perhaps the most popular pilgrimage route in the Christian world. The number now is about 200,000 annually and that figure is much higher than it was a few decades ago.
A bygone era
Astorga contains remnants that reflect that bygone era: several old albergues, an imposing 15th century Gothic cathedral, not to mention a section of Roman walls and a small archeological display under glass at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. In the town square, we meet a meet a woman named Barb from North Battleford, Saskatchewan and two older Australian women who are just beginning their walk. They are highly excited about their have taken some Spanish lessons in preparation – enough, it seems, to correct me on some of my pronunciation.
There is also an oddly impressive bishop’s palace here built by the great Spanish architect Gaudi with his characteristic bold turrets. Apparently the bishop didn’t like it and they had a falling out.
Walking for Bob
Sadly, we received news via email early this morning that our Ottawa neighbour and friend Bob Carty has succumbed to cancer. Bob was a great radio documentarist for the CBC, a fine singer and musician, a justice seeker and a good raconteur. Our hearts go out to his wife Fran and their son Michael. Today we walked for Bob.