Over the past few days we have slowly been gaining altitude as we approach and enter the foothills of the Mountains of Leon that sit between us and the final miles leading into Santiago. Over the next day or two we will continue to climb, peaking out at the highest point on the Camino (1505 meters in altitude.) This is the site of the famous Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) – but, more about that when we arrive there. As we have moved west, the agriculture has also been slowly changing. We are now hiking amidst fields of corn, mostly. As we ascend, the landscape is also becoming more wooded. Tomorrow we will ascend to the peak and then begin a slow descent of almost 900 meters leading into Ponferrada in a few days. This change is welcome since it provides us some variety while on the Camino.
Our planned destination for yesterday had been the city of Astorga (population of 12,000.) The city of Astorga turned out to be a lively and very stylish place with many fine restaurants and shops. The city is noted for its 15th century Gothic cathedral which features a magnificent portal leading to the main church doors. Also in the area are another building designed by Gaudi and the remains of a Roman era villa that have been exposed, including part of a lovely mosaic floor. Although we have become accustomed to seeing some of the finest Gothic cathedrals and churches as we have crossed Spain, we also occasionally encounter some stunning modern architecture in church buildings. One on the outskirts of Astorga was especially noteworthy for its lovely artistic design.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the albergue we had chosen for the night it was closed (either just for the day or permanently – it was hard for us to tell.) So, we decided to press on to a tiny village a few kilometers beyond Astorga called Valdeviejas where we stayed in the equally tiny municipal albergue (only 10 beds.) There was nothing going on for us in this hamlet, but that had some charm of its own. It was very quiet and restful. We had a room to ourselves and found the experience, overall, to be quite pleasant.
Since the village was too small to have its own restaurant, the hospitaleros (albergue staff) phoned a restaurant in the next town over and, at no extra charge, they sent over a car to pick us up and take us to the restaurant – and returned us when we were done eating. This restaurant featured a local cuisine specialty known as “cocido maragato” which we decided to sample. Our meal started off with a hearty plate of roasted pork with cuts from all parts of the pig followed by a plate of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and cabbage, then with a bowl of broth with fine noodles, and finished with flan. It was delicious! There is a local population of people known as the Maragatos and this cuisine is a specialty of their culture.
Leading up to the city of Astorga was the Cruceiro Santo Toribo, a beautiful stone cross overlooking the city where the 5th century Bishop Toribo reportedly fell to his knees in a final farewell to the city after having been banished.
Today marked our 28th day on the Camino – four full weeks. We just shake our heads in disbelief when we look at the map and see how far we have walked to date. We are 2/3 of the way to Santiago! We have covered about 550 kilometers on foot to date. And only(!) have about 240 kilometers to go. So far, this has been a truly amazing experience and we are feeling differences not only in our bodies but in our personalities as well. It will be very interesting to think back and consider the changes after we return to our homes in a few weeks.
Tonight we are staying in the town of Rabanal del Camino – a town that has been caring for pilgrims for centuries. The Knights Templar had a presence here as early as the 12th century protecting pilgrims from danger, although we don’t think there are many more of them around today – just an order of monks who sing Gregorian chants at their services in the local church. The path leading up to Rabanal was increasingly wooded and serves as a foretaste of the hike we will encounter tomorrow as we approach the Cruz de Ferro.