Hospital del Orbigo – Astorga
Cacti can be prickly and painful to the touch. Distilling their essence down to firewater, whilst certainly potentially dangerous to one’s overall state of mind if consumed in excess, apparently renders the prickles supple and painless.
I wake with a clear head. Once again stranger things have happened at sea.
Pam is keen to get packed fast so she can Facetime with our sister in law Jenny and our nephews Joel and Troy. It is Joel’s fourth birthday and Pam has organised a delivery of balloons for Joel. Jenny sends a pic of Joel standing in front of a huge bunch of balloons, one of which is an Elmo replica larger than Joel himself. Joel has this look of amazed rapture that makes us both laugh in delight.
He talks for five seconds to Pam then it is back to the balloons.
A great start to the day.
We leave our Albergue after Pam has a coffee and toast and I have eaten my fruit rations for the early morning. We turn right onto the main cobblestone street at the bridge end and make our way through the town. The clouds are low and heavy however it does not feel like it will rain today.
We dodge puddles lying in every low area of the road from the rain of the previous night.
There are two distinct choices for the Way today, flat bitumen road or winding gravel paths through farm country.
Just at the end of town as we turn right onto the gravel road heading towards Villares de Orbigo we come up to Joanna (Jo) who we had first met back in Calzadilla de la Cueza and her two travel companions Rosie and Amr. Amr is a retired doctor and Rosie a retired nurse and they have heard of my whining about my sore knees. We have a conversation as we walk about alternative pain relief medications to the bulk Voltaren I am currently taking and Rosie offers to donate me some alternatives from the dispensary they are apparently carrying in their packs for needy pilgrims.
Pam and I stop to take photos of the Way and our three new friends stride on ahead. The cloud line is hanging just above the church spire in Villares de Orbigo ahead, swallowing the hills to come.
The morning is still very young as we pass through Villares de Orbigo and I am careful to apply my rubber tips to my Pacerpoles (I do this on every hard surface) to ensure I avoid ‘Stiletto Syndrome’ as we walk through the town.
We cross a bitumen road and the Way becomes a narrow track winding sideways uphill, water lies in puddles waiting to fill boots placed in errant footfalls.
We walk up into clouds that envelope and caress us with seductive whispers of being alone and unique.
Satibanez de Valdeiglesias looms out from the mist and we pass through only pausing to take a picture of the village church.
The Way veers to the right and becomes rough gravel farm roads winding through fields of grape vines. We walk on as the mist swirls in our wake.
Many farm roads veer off from our path and the Way is only occasionally indicated by the odd stone painted yellow here, or stone arrows gathered and built by pilgrims. None the less we could follow the Way by the imprints of boots and bike wheels in the mud on puddle edges.
A tractor and two farm cars pass us as we walk uphill. At the crest we come to a cross and nearby dressed pilgrim statue. At the base of the cross lies our first clear indication of the Way for some time.
We descend and are passed by another tractor and car, these will be the last vehicles we see until San Justo de la Vega. The tractor and car pull off into fields to our left ahead of us and the mist quickly swallows the sound of the workers as we pass.
We continue to descend passing an old quarry lying to our left, the fog thickens around us. We walk on, up hill down dale, the gravel road always rough and eroded on the down stretches.
Finally the cloud begins to lift and at the beginning of the last upwards slope for the day we come across a large stone arrow indicating the way. The slope uphill passes freshly plowed fields that are so stony it is hard to see where the road ends and the field begins. Very typical for the Spanish agriculture we have seen thus far.
At the top of the last rise the Way becomes flat for quite a distance. There is a stall with a person offering fruit and drinks by the side of the path however Pam and I have been drinking in the air with every step so far today and we feel no urge to stop.
About one hundred meters to our left we can see pilgrims walking the bitumen path of the roadside alternative Way.
Just beyond this stall the way crosses a small bitumen road heading towards the main road. On the far side is a concrete tower covered in artistic grafitti.
We march on.
The plateau path continues up to a concrete cross erected on the cusp of the slope heading down to San Justo de la Vega. As we pass we are serenaded by a Spanish guitarist busking and welcoming pilgrims. I had thought we would be seeing Flamenco guitar buskers on every street corner in Spain (guess they are like the Kangaroos on every street tourists expect in Australia) and I am so happy to finally come across one we donate all the coins we are carrying (probably two Euros) as we pass.
The busker tells us it is we have still about four kilometers left to make Astorga which looks a lot closer from the hilltop where we stand. Once again I resolve not to make stupid estimates regarding distance into large towns and we walk down the wide concrete pathway leading to the road passing through San Justo de la Vega.
We run into Amr and Rosie at a Cafe in San Justo and Rosie kindly donates the pills we had discussed earlier in the day.
From San Justo the road crosses the Rio Tuelto then heads straight towards Astorga. The Way leaves the road on this straight stretch and we follow a smooth gravel road through some corn fields lying between the towns and then behind large warehouses.
We cross a little creek via a quaint stone bridge, turn left and head towards the railway.
No love on the tracks here, for the rail line is fenced and is only crossable via a green maze of a crossing. This rail crossing adds what feels like another kilometer of walking to cover fifty meters.
Finally we head towards Astorga again, and miracle of miracles, on the first roundabout into town come across signs clearly marking the directions to most of the larger hotels in town.
We are staying at the Hostal La Coruna tonight which has online advertising indicating it is located a mere 300m from the Cathedral and town square. We are mystified to finally arrive at the indicated address and find the hotel has relocated about 500 meters further up the road.
‘No problem’ Pam says ‘what is another extra kilometer in and out of town to seasoned walkers’. My knees sing another tune entirely and I grimace a smile in reply.
Finally we arrive and arrange our room details. The staff are friendly and helpful, they offer a cheap laundry service however there is no Wifi. We can live with no Wifi and having our clothes washed is a tremendous bonus. Maybe the extra 500m is ok.
We go up via a lift and step out into a hall that smells strongly of cigarette smoke. This does not bode well.
We enter our room and cigarette odour slaps us in the face, quadrupled from the mild stench of the hall.
Gasping we turn down the bed and grimace at the threadbare sheets. Thoughts of swarming bedbugs pass through my mind however my lips remain sealed knowing my love’s paranoia regarding insect bites.
‘It would not be a pilgrimage if there wasn’t a little suffering’ Pam says in reply to my rolling eyes and ‘finger down throat’ retching mockery.
‘I guess we just have to sleep here, it is good motivation to get out and about’ is all I can think to say.
We re-christen the La Coruna, El Stanko, shower, take down our laundry (the staff still super friendly and helpful) and head off into the sweet clean air of Astorga’s streets.
Pam immediately begins walking in the wrong direction.
Once I have regained the helm of our tour we quickly find the town square and walk around the huge cathedral and beautiful Palacio Episcopal de Astorga.
Astorga is renowned for its chocolate however by the time we have made the town square it is 3:30pm and everywhere is closed for siesta. Pam wants to have lunch in the middle of town and we walk down streets full of closed restaurants and cafes.
Finally we come across an open cafe and Pam orders a Sandwich Vegetal and I order a hamburger (traditional cuisine) along with our wine and beer. There is one other customer drinking beer on a stool at the bar and a little girl sitting behind us doing her homework.
As we sit drinking and waiting for our food the girl seems to run into trouble with something on her homework and her mother, who is the proprietor, goes over to help her. The mother and girl quickly get into a screaming argument which escalates rapidly until the mother reaches across the table and slaps the girl across the face.
Pam and I don’t know what to do, ‘don’t look, don’t get involved, it is not our business to tell people how to raise their kids in foreign countries’ I tell Pam who is going red in the face and has a white knuckled grip on the table top.
The man at the bar appears to be a relative and is shouting at the mother as the girl releases a series of ear piercing screams that drill holes in my brain.
The girls screaming gets louder until she starts to throw up into her hands and runs through the back door of the shop to seek comfort from the grandmother who has now appeared at the door.
All three of the adults are shouting at each other and speaking super fast Spanish. Pam and I have paid for our food and drinks however are just on the verge of sneaking out before being cut down in the crossfire when suddenly the grandmother brings out our food.
Our hands are a blur as we shove the meal down.
Bizarrely as we leave the mother calls out ‘gracias, buenos dias’ as if nothing had happened. Pam is shaking with rage and muttering threats of murder in the night under her breath as we walk away.
Said it before and I’ll say it again ‘You can escape Logan but you can’t escape bogans’.
To calm Pam down I walk her back to the town square and around the cathedral again. Siesta is just about over we are soon able to tour the Palacio Episcopal de Astorga.
The Palacio Episcopal de Astorga was designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi and the town square has also been named in his honour.
This beautiful building complements the much larger Cathedral standing next to it. Stained glass windows allow sunlight to stream in from each possible angle and dark slate tiled turrets containing winding staircases stand near each corner.
We enter behind a crowd of teenage school children being herded in by their teacher.
The Palacio Episcopal de Astorga is not a church despite the many stained glass windows. It is now a museum devoted to the Way, the Museo de los Caminos.
There are four levels from the subterranean basement to the smaller lofts above. The two lower floors walls are home to paintings mostly depicting religious events and sculptures of Jesus’ suffering while the floor space makes room for display cases full of religious iconography.
The light from the stained windows is all that is required.
We roam from room to room. Each room has a domelike ceiling with decorated brown brick arch supports meeting at the apogee. Each brick is decorated with symbols that to me speak of archaic life, the Trilobite, the veins of a leaf, the rib cage, the spine. Representations of existence permeating far beyond faith and belief.
It is the building itself that fills me with awe.
We climb to the lofts, here the artwork is modern and surprisingly eclectic.
We descend to the basement, here artificial light is required to see the ancient remains of civilizations on display. Tablets from Roman times, ancient coins, sarcophagi. The basement is a crypt displaying the dead and gone.
I realise the layout of the artwork is historically tiered like a layered cake.
Our mood completely elevated we leave the Palacio Episcopal de Astorga and elect to wander the town further in search of refreshment. Not hard to do in a town famous for chocolate.
We sample wares at bar after bar (some might call it a pub crawl). The highlight being the Churos con Chocolate (long straight donut dunked in a glass of hot molten chocolate) Pam orders in the last bar we frequent.
We wander back to El Stanko for a rest before heading out into the sweet night air for dinner. We end up eating simply at the hippest place in town. The walls are covered in concert posters of musicians who have played here over the years.
Pilgrims go to sleep just as the Spanish come out to dine and socialize.
We eat alone in the cafe.
Pam and Mick