Stories and photographs

Camino Francés – The Meseta– Part 3/3

The more in harmony with yourself you are, the more joyful you are and the more faithful you are. Faith is not to disconnect you from reality – it connects you to reality.” Paulo Coelho.

Day Twenty-two:  Bercianos del Real Camino – Reliegos (LA Cantina de Teddy)

According to our map, Bercianos had around two hundred residents and four roads. The hamlet, which had an eerie quietness, proved to be a trickster, masking the location of our accommodation, and the local tienda. We were nearing the edge of town, on our way to Reliegos when I realised I wasn’t wearing my Fitbit. Yelling out that I would be right back, I rushed off into the dark, sleepy streets on my own. Instead of going straight ahead, I turned into a narrow lane which led me into an enclave of houses. I took a deep breath, stilled my mind and remembered I did a gear check before going to sleep. On a nearby bench, I unpacked and located my watch.  I was putting it on, just as Den found me.  Reunited with Pam, we rushed out of Bercianos, happy to be gone and reconnected with the long straight Camino track to Reliegos.

It was nearly nine o’clock when we reached the only town on today’s journey. The initial route took us past a 361 km waymarker, across the Rio Fuentes, then descended into flatlands. Ahead of us was a side road leading to the town centre. The road was long and narrow, brick buildings on either side when suddenly the town ended and we were facing a barren subdivision. Thankfully, a backpacker strolled by and provided directions to the local cafe.

Up until the last five kilometres of this day the guidebook map was accurate.  However, from the time we crossed under the railway line, they differed. In reality, the track twisted and turned, rather than slightly wending through the Valle de Valdearcos. We trudged along this tree-lined senda. Mentally, I knew we were climbing, but the lack of landscape markers made me feel as though I was on a treadmill. As we crossed the river bed, the sun began to peek. I plodded up the never-ending track.  Finally, we started to ascend. Rounding the bend, I spied some rusty red buildings, then noticed a two-storied house on the opposite side. It was our Albergue. Although we couldn’t see the township, the promise of a bed, a bathroom and rest, was the boost I needed to get me across the finish line.

We were led upstairs by one of the owners of La Cantina de Teddy. The landing was sunny, the cafe table and chairs an invitation to hang out. To the left our room. My side had a single bed, with side tables, shelving unit and door leading out to a Juliet balcony. In the corner by the entrance door was a clothes rack. Den and Pam bedroom area was spacious and also led to a balcony. The whole of the top floor was full of Asian artefacts, these beautiful pieces and the homely feel of La Cantina de Teddy a welcome respite from the austere Albergues dormitories.

Although there was a restaurant downstairs, the hospitalero suggested we walk down into the village for lunch. Bar Gill II had an excellent selection of tostadas. The bread piled high with roasted vegetables, beef tomatoes and cheese, and different cuts of meats. We chose a table near the door, caught the breeze, and had a leisurely lunch. Afterwards, we wandered down into the village to find the infamous Bar Elvis. Unfortunately, it was closed.

Early evening, I wandered back to the village with our water bottles. I filled them up at the local Fuente, and sat on a nearby bench, enjoying the shade from its hanging branches. The sun was starting to go down when Elvis opened the door of his bar. Time for us all to have a sundowner and view first-hand the graffiti walls of Bar Elvis.

Day Twenty-three:  Reliegos – León (13 Suites)

It was early morning when we strode out of Reliegos, and descended into Mansilla de las Mulas and the Rio Esla. The light from my headlamp barely cut through the inky blackness. My cold-weather options – merino-technical hoodie, sleeveless puffer vest, zipped up to my chin, woollen beanie, leather gloves, and rain-wind jacket – were doing their job. I was tucked in behind the others, marching in unison along the long straight pedestrian path to Mansilla de las Mulas.

The Real Camino Francés and Via Romana converge at Santa Maria, a church off the edge of Plaza del Pozo. The streets were still dark. We followed in the wake of some other early-morning pilgrims down the narrow streets and into Plaza San Nicolas. We had walked six kilometres, it was the same distance to the next village. We took a vote on which town to stop at, it was two to one. We rushed into the nearest café for hot drinks, to use the bathroom and thaw out.

The highlights of the day were the small village near the Rio Porma and its ancient bridge, Puente Villarente. The river banks densely planted with trees, which had thin bleached trunks and wispy leaves. After another long stretch of pathway next to the busy N-160, we ended up on a new boardwalk, where we strolled alongside another ancient bridge, Puente Ingente or ‘Giant bridge’ its twenty-arches both majestical and awe-inspiring.

Puente Ingente or ‘Giant bridge’

 

Crossing over the Canal de Porma, there is a new pilgrims track, the ascent, a hundred metres up to Alto del Portillo, stretched out ahead of us. The sun was shining, but not at full strength. I put on some upbeat music, did a little happy dance, and set forth. Suddenly pain pulsated through my body. I came to the slow realisation that once again, I had hurt my left foot. I stumbled forward to the nearby stone bench, sat down, got out my medical kit, strapped my foot and took some painkillers. We continued, climbing up the gravel track towards Alto del Portillo. My energy was focused on that climb and stilling the memories of my past Camino injuries. The route at this point, skirts around Alto del Portillo, through the industrial township of Valdelafuente, then crosses over the N-601 on a new pilgrim metal footbridge. Traversing the bridge was challenging. On the bottom rung, I stopped, fished into my pack again, found some topical Voltaren, and rubbed it into the foot.

The first sighting of Leóns Cathedral, by the roundabout near the Hospital, was spectacular and another milestone of this adventure.

Pam and Den accompanied me on the footslog through the suburbs of León. Ten kilometres had passed since the happy dance moment, my body bathed in sweat, and my energy was on the verge of expiration. There was a café up ahead, we sat on the pavement, I imagine I drank lemon Kas. Whatever it was the sugar got me into the old town, up the crowded streets and into Calle Ancha, the main tourist street and the apartment I’d booked for a couple of nights. We parted ways opposite the apartment, I went and sat outside a local café, ordered a salad and messaged 13 Suites. I had finished lunch when I received a message, saying I could book in early. I was greeted by Javier, saying, “I don’t think your foot is going to like this.” With that, he beckoned me up many flights of stairs. It felt like a repeat of Tui (Camino Portuguese), so many stairs, then inside my designer split-level apartment, more stairs. 

All I wanted to do was take a shower, unpack, go upstairs, lie down on the crisp white linen coverings of my bed and catch the sun rays streaming through the attic windows. The Gods were not on my side that day. Tomorrow was a National holiday, there would only be a few restaurants open. I downloaded Maps.me app Den recommended, located the Lavanderia, Javier recommended, and the Post Office and then bundled up all my clothes, sleeping bag liner, sarong into my daypack. Got a shopping sac, the cardboard tube with my half-way certificate and headed off, slowly. Naturally, the post office and Lavanderia were just outside León’s town walls. Ticking those chores off, I headed back into the city centre, stopped to get food and wine – I wanted to invite Pam and Den over for lunch on Saturday, as thanks.

During my training regime, I tramped through rainstorms and discovered that putting on a poncho over my raincoat significantly reduced wind and chill factors. I decided to buy one in León, as I didn’t think I would need it before then.

Looking like an overladen Sherpa, I made my way into Calle Ancha,  and saw the Farmacia opposite my apartment, window sign stated: “English speaking pharmacist”. The brief consultation, ruled out plantar fasciitis, and broken bones. I left feeling relieved and with a tube of strong topical ibuprofen gel to help reduce the swelling.

Once again, I traversed the stairwell to the top floor.

Eleonore messaged, inviting me to dinner. I needed to eat, the company would take my mind off my woes, and she was happy to come to me. Her Camino buddy, Canadian Jim, joined us at the restaurant next to my apartment. The food, regional specialities and the wine, the laughter, a perfect tonic.

Day Twenty-four:  Rest day – León (13 Suites)

Pam and Den, came over for lunch – smoked salmon salad, fresh bread, cheese, grapes and red wine. Over lunch, we discussed the next stage of our journey, as they were keen for us to continue together.

Den and I talked through the options for Sundays walk, settling on the route to Vilar de Mazarife. I decided my best option was to take the bus with Eleonore from León to La Virgin del Camino. Then hike across the earthen pathways, and met up with them in Vilar de Mazarife. The next morning we would hike to Santibanez de Valdeiglesia, and walk the following day together to Astorga. I was reluctant to cancel the accommodation I had booked for this day, in Rabanal del Camino. Given I would need to limit my walking distance for a while, I decided that I would need to take a bus there from Astorga.

It probably was an ambitious plan given I had sprained my ankle. However, with some stretches from my Osteopath, to assist my recovery process, I was feeling more upbeat and confident.

Lisa, messaged me, telling me to think of myself as an elite athlete, and to start icing my foot every day. Not how I would describe myself, however, walking 466.6 km over mountains, through desert-like terrain, in twenty-three days, carrying a backpack almost every day, seems to fit the moniker.

I strolled up to the Cathedral, meet up with some Irish Camino friends who asked me to join them. I declined, as I wanted to give my foot more rest. Then bought an ice-cream on the way back to my apartment.

That night it rained – first rain since Day three.

Day Twenty-five: León – Vilar de Mazarife (Albergue Tío Pepe Mesón) 

Eleonore and I arranged to meet opposite Casa de Botines, Gaudís neo-Gothic, austere fake-looking building at 8:15 am.

The bus to La Virgen Del Camino, the town where the Camino splits – a direct route alongside the main road or a scenic more isolated trail – was due to depart at 8:30 am. An elderly gentleman acted as a tour guide and ensured we got off at the correct stop. At La Virgen, we navigated our way across a series of main roads and motorways, to the start of the track. We parted company, as Eleonor was meeting her walking buddy there.

Using my trekking poles, I negotiated the bumpy gravel track under the motorway. I had only walked a few kilometres when I stopped at a cafe, to give my foot a rest. From here the trail dropped down to the Rio Oncina, then climbed for another two kilometres into the hamlet Oncina de la Valdoncina. The route looked as though it by-passed the parish. I had two options, stop at the nearby Albergue or continue through the countryside for another 5.5 km and reassess my foot. I went inside. Eleonore and her friend were sitting at the corner table, outside a group of Irish kids on bikes zoomed past us, I envied their speed. The café owner kindly called a taxi.

It felt strange to arrive at the Albergue by taxi. Despite my early arrival, I was welcomed and shown to our room – small with two sets of bunks – invited to make myself at home. I gave my foot a massage and had a rest. Then met Elenore downstairs for lunch. By the time she departed, the room had filled up with locals and other pilgrims. Amid all the chaos, our host came to our table, told us the church had just opened and said we needed to go over now. The Priest stood at the doorway, welcoming Pam, Den and myself inside, not as we thought to visit the church, but to attend Sunday mass.

That evening my Camino friend Yolande, sent me a healing prayer, she wrote to remove the inflammation in my foot. It was a beautiful prayer and a fitting end to what many pilgrims view as the start of the spiritual stage.

Day Twenty-six:  Vilar de Mazarife – Santibanez de Valdeiglesia (Albergue Camino Francés)

I received a text from Elenore – “the first six kilometres of the day was on bitumen, the next four kilometres on gravel, both routes were straight. Although easy to walk, I suggest that you might like to take another day to rest your foot.”  While I didn’t take this advice, I took her earlier suggestion of porting some of my gear.

On the edge of town, much to the amusement of another pilgrim, we started gearing up for rain. Within minutes a squall rolled over us. The pilgrim who had made fun of us was huddling in the bushes, struggling to put on his rain gear.

By the time we reached Villavante, I had forgotten about my sprained ankle.  I was surefooted as we crossed a canal, a motorway and main road. Wandering through the small hamlets, which occupied the spaces in between, we kept hearing a car horn. It was the baker, and we were following in his wake. We became so engrossed watching the ladies come out to greet him and collect their fresh bread, that we were surprised when the Rio Órbigo appeared ahead of us. Rounding the corner, we got our first sighting of the magnificent Puente de Órbigo, one of the longest and best-preserved Roman bridges. I stood on the bridge and soaked up the atmosphere. We hung around taking photographs, then walked across the stone bridge, stopping along the way to take in the archways.

As there was no sign of life in the Hospital de Órbigo, we continued to Villares de Órbigo. After a brief walk around the deserted village centre, we came across an open Albergue. Within minutes of finding a table in the Albergues cafeteria-style restaurant, a storm hit the village, the driving rain buffeting the side of the building, quickly followed by cold and wet pilgrims clambering through the thick wooden front door.

The 2.5 km walk to Santibañez de Valdeiglesia was on a soggy uphill farmland path. We then joined an asphalt road that took us into the main street of Santibañez de Valdeiglesia, and our Albergue. We were settled in and had just organised our laundry when hail pelted down onto the pavement of the nearby open courtyard.

It seemed strange to be back in a crowded dormitory.  Hoping to escape the night noises, I burrowed into my sleeping bag, pulled the borrowed wool blanket over my shoulders, squished the silicone earplugs into my ears, and covered my eyes with a mask.

Day Twenty-seven – stage one:  Santibañez de Valdeiglesia  – Astorga

Access to the bathrooms of Albergue Camino Francés was via an outside balcony. In the summer, the fresh air would be a welcome respite from a stuffy dormitory, however, on this particular morning, dashing through the bitterly cold wind was horrible.

The hunt for the yellow arrows, which would take us through the farmland and onto the earth pathways, began the minute we left the Albergue. Once again, I was heading into the darkness, with minimal lighting. I hung in behind Den as we climbed and descended into two river valleys. Negotiating these uneven and rocky tracks safely, zapped most of my energy, and I was relieved when we finally reached the plateau and the iconic stone cross Crueiro Santo Toribio.

Daylight was breaking as we made our way down into the satellite suburb of San Justo de la Vega. The snow-capped Montes of Leon came into view – no wonder we were freezing. We stopped at a bar, warming up with hot drinks, restoring energy with food. We then continued to Astorga, following the yellow arrows into the city centre. The large square of Plaza España was fill of market stalls, bustling with locals. Manoeuvring ourselves around the edge, I spied a Farmacia with an Orthopaedist. Thankfully, English speaking and available for a consultation. She said, “you can continue to walk, as long as you get lots of rest.” It was a confidence booster. Next on our list was a sports store. On the other side, we found the best pilgrim store, Deportes Huracan. Excellent service, which included three price-point options, gear reviews and a discussion on the weather conditions up in the mountains. With a Mammut top, liner pants, water-wicking gloves and a new headlamp, I was now fully equipped for the next stage.

Opposite the Gaudi – Palacio Episcopal (Bishops Palace) I farewelled Den and Pam –they were going to Ganso on foot and I was going to Rabanal del Camino by bus.

 

 

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