Day 26 – 12th October 2015 Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon.
Today’s trek involved a 18 km schlepp from Mansilla de las Mulas to the city of Leon. I woke up in two minds about the walk and felt a pit of dread churning in my stomach. I didn’t enjoy walking along suburban and urban stretches of the Camino into and out of the cities, where traffic noise, drag and fumes from passing vehicles assault the senses. I had also heard on the grapevine that this particular stretch of the Camino was notoriously treacherous. On the other hand I had two things to look forward to when I reached my destination – meeting up with my friend Fiona, who would begin her own pilgrimage in Leon and we had planned to walk together; and an opportunity to take a rest day to chill out, recharge and perhaps take in some of the sights and sounds of this magnificent city! To me the Camino always seemed to present the ‘light and shade’ of rewards and tough challenges along the journey.
Although my bed was comfortable in the cosy dorm, unfortunately I had a disturbed night. I was in a dorm of males, most of whom snored and tossed and turned a lot. As usual I got up early, showered and managed to extricate my pack and my things carefully from the bottom bunk. I hoisted them into the hallway to pack up without disturbing anyone. One or two of the pilgrims in the neighbouring dorm were also up and about. I bade a hasty farewell to Chris and Tim, who were just up and getting ready as I wanted to press on ahead in the hope I would reach Leon by lunch time. Fiona had flown in the night before and I didn’t want to keep her waiting. I poked my head out of the front door and to my dismay it was pissing it down. Oh what joy, I thought to myself! The kind owner of the Albergue, Carlos, helped me on with my rain poncho, because I got tangled up in it with my trekking pole in my bleary-eyed morning fogginess. I murmured a quiet thank you and goodbye before stumbling out onto the pitch dark street. Oh my word, it was not raining domestic animals, no siree bob…a deluge of epic Safari park big five proportions greeted me as soon as I stepped out of the safe, warm and cosy confines of Albergue Gaia into the arms of earth mother Gaia in all her glory!
Struggling with the remnants of a second Camino cold, which had gone to my chest, I wheezed and coughed my way in time to my footsteps towards the little stone bridge over the Rio Esla on the edge of town. I loitered under the lamp post to wait for Janie and her friend Bonnie to come along as we had arranged to meet there (I know what you are thinking…but no…not that kind of loitering!). Man, I was dead beat, exhausted and just wanted to get to Leon for a rest. I had made the grave mistake of not taking enough rest days previously en route and now I was paying the price. The Camino forces each pilgrim to get in touch with his or her own physicality and frailties and yet, how often do we ignore the signs and symptoms of a body in dis-ease and in need of proper rest? I had a history of pushing myself beyond the limit. Like many other humanitarian aid workers, there came a couple of times in my life when working in back-to-back emergencies took its toll on my physical and emotional health and I burned out. But still we keep going on don’t we?
I looked up through the rivulets of rain running down my face and spotted Roisin coming towards me. She had the same idea to get cracking early, despite the weather, and push on to the city. I wished her a good walk as she went past. Soon Janie and Bonnie arrived and we stepped out to walk the dangerous stretch of road together. Safety and visibility in numbers we thought! The gravel senda, running parallel to the autopista was awash with water. We got fed up of hopping around the deep, sticky-muddy puddles and decided to brave the hard shoulder of the autopista itself. Not pleasant. It was hard to talk because we had to remain in single file. I remember reading in the Brierley Camino guide, the author’s suggestion to bus this bit! What sacrilege! Just joking ha ha. But seriously I could understand it though and began to question my own decision to continue on foot. However, I was determined to walk every single step of my pilgrimage come hell or high water. To me every step was a prayer to my mum and one of gratitude and love, and if it hurt, I was bloody well going to push through the pain! I remembered seeing a familiar slogan of “No pain, no glory” painted in red on the side of the Elvis bar in Reliegos from the day before. Hmmm….no pain, no glory. I pondered on the glory bit and tried to ignore the pain but it was proving to be a difficult exercise.
Joking apart there is this funny thing called ‘judgement’, which seems to pop up now and again on the Camino. I have fallen into the judgement trap myself. We can all laugh about it but I would hazard a guess that there is not a single pilgrim, who walks the entire length of the Camino without making value judgements about other pilgrims along the way. One of the common traps tends to be about whether another pilgrim is ‘true’ or ‘false’ i.e. a ‘true’ pilgrim is purported to be one who walks the entire route carrying all he or she needs in a back pack neither using public transport nor shipping bags ahead, whereas a ‘false’ pilgrim is believed to be a person who chooses to use other forms of transport and doesn’t carry his or her baggage, or at least not for all of the journey. This is silly. It’s only the ego speaking up after all and what utter nonsense it says, when given a free reign. Every person has his or her own reasons and purpose for taking the important decision to make a pilgrimage. Walking the Camino de Santiago is a deeply personal experience and to me, is more about entering a state of physical, emotional and spiritual of practice, which embraces reverence for all that is – encompassing the divine, the human and all of nature; quiet contemplation and reflection and communing with others. Therefore, the distance walked or how a pilgrim eventually completes the walk is not as important as attitude, intention and behaviour. Surely ‘truth’ is contained in the heart and becomes the heart of the way?
Anyway, I came out of my rambling reverie when my stomach alien reminded me that I was hungry. I hadn’t stopped for breakfast in Mansilla de las Mulas. Janie and Bonnie were also ready for a pit stop too so we began to search for a suitable watering hole. Nearing the half-way point, we came to a hostal on the left, which looked a bit run down on the outside but was open. I grabbed an over-priced breakfast and I took my soaked rain poncho and ultra down jackets off and put them to dry for a few minutes. When we resumed our walk, we motored along at different speeds. I was eager to get into town and check in at the Hostal Albany, a good find on Booking.com and take a hot soak in the bath! Oohhh what bliss that would be to soothe my aching limbs and take my feet off the ground for a while.
The section between our rest stop and the city centre was so long, grim and pretty soul destroying. I urged my body up and over a large metal bridge across the autopista and still the Camino trail seemed go on and on forever and I think, on reflection, this was the worse stretch of the Camino for me so far. At least nearer the city centre the weather cleared up enough for me to take my rain poncho off, so there is always a silver lining to every cloud!
I arrived at the Hostal Albany just after noon. I found it tucked neatly behind a cafe and ice cream parlour of the same name (result!) in a narrow street across from the statuesque cathedral. To continue with the Safari park analogy, I mentioned earlier, the cathedral is known as Pulchra Leonina, which means beautiful lion. The direct translation of the name Leon, in both Latin and Spanish is lion and the city’s coat of arms boldly displays a crimson lion rearing on its hind legs, throwing its head back and roaring! I had entered the place where lions roar! I texted Fiona and we arranged to meet in Cafe Albany, after I checked in, had that wonderful soak in a very hot and bubbly bath and changed into some dry, clean and non-smelly clothes. It was great to see her! We met up over coffee and then Fiona also checked in and we settled into the room for short while but not for long because it was time to hunt down some lunch.
We didn’t have to go far. Just down one of the main streets radiating out from the cathedral, we came to Cafe Victoria, which seemed to be buzzing and served up some reasonably priced pasta dishes. We spotted a table near the window and I hotched myself up onto the tall bar chair. I don’t normally like sitting on bar stools or bar chairs. Frankly I don’t have legs like a giraffe and I don’t see the point of dangling my feet off the floor, its most uncomfortable. Anyway, this time, I didn’t mind the space between my feet and the floor. They were having a well earned rest, while I stuffed my face with spaghetti carbonara and washed it down with some coffee. Fiona was very gracious towards me and put up with my moans about how exhausted I was that I felt like I wanted to go home. She kindly encouraged me to continue and suggested I would feel a lot better after a proper rest.
We took some time to amble around the streets of Leon to get our bearings, popped into Cafe Albany for an impromptu dessert of helados (naughty but nice) and then strode off towards Plaza San Marcos and the convent of the same name, which is now the famous luxury Parador hotel. You might be familiar with it, because it features in the film The Way, where Tom treats his pilgrim companions to an overnight stay there. I had a lovely surprise on my way in to Leon, because I received a message from Laurie, who was still in town and we arranged a mini-reunion at the cafe on the ground floor of the Parador. I was so happy to see Laurie again! She introduced Fiona and I to her travelling companions, Claire and Paul from Australia and over a nice cup of tea we exchanged hilarious stories about our walk.
Afterwards, Laurie took us all on a guided tour of the hotel. It was a spooky place. I felt several cold spots in the cloisters that made my spine tingle and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Laurie explained some of the history of the place. The convent was originally built in the twelfth century and was originally used as a pilgrim hospital. A while later it became the headquarters for Knights of the Order of Santiago, which was formed to protect pilgrims along the pilgrimage route. Fast forward to the twentieth century and an even darker period of its history, during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1940) the convent became a prison under General Franco’s nationalist army. Reports state that approximately 20,000 Republican militia members and political prisoners passed through its cells resulting in many of the 3,000 deaths recorded in the Province of Leon, owing to the repression at that time. The very fabric of the building seemed to record and play back the echoes of sorrow and suffering. Now, in the 21st century the role of the convent has returned to one of hospitality, welcoming pilgrims and other travellers from all over the world. It stands bold in all of its majestic splendour, challenging onlookers to gaze up in awe at the intricate facade. The interior is just as opulent and Fiona and I experienced pangs of room envy! On the way up and down the main staircase, Laurie pointed out something incredibly uncanny. One of the portraits of a nobleman, staring down from the high walls, following us with his eyes, bore a striking resemblance to her husband. How very odd is that? Was this merely a bizarre coincidence or a case of the past reaching through to the present day? At several moments along my journey, I have felt intuitively that the Camino opens up possibilities to connect with the past, present and future simultaneously.
All too soon it was time for us to say our goodbyes. I felt immensely grateful for Laurie’s friendship and I was so glad to reconnect with her, however briefly. We wished Laurie, Claire and Paul well for their walk the next day as they were leaving early in the morning. Fiona and I wandered back into town as the light was fading and searched out somewhere to eat for dinner. At least in Leon there was plenty of choice of places open for meals before 8pm. We eventually settled on the trendy looking El Topo restaurant in the cathedral square and ordered pizza. Yey! There’s nothing like a carb blow out to make the world seem like a nice place (despite horrible histories!).
And that’s all for today…more coming.
Peace, love and light,