Sunday 3 June 2007

The Santiago Road: The Eighth Day

Day 8–Friday, May 31, 2002
Leon to Rabanal del Camino
74.14 km, total for trip 683.84 km

Leaving in the cool morning air, I headed out of León, ever westwards. Just before crossing the bridge over the Río Bernesga that would take me out of town, I passed an enormous establishment on the right side. I stopped in front of it to consult my map and the guidebook. I was standing before the former monastery of San Marcos. It was built on the site of a 12th century pilgrim hospice and had been taken over by the military Order of Santiago. This group was first organized in 1160, and Pope Alexander chartered it in 1175. Their purpose was to eliminate Islam and they were active in fighting the Moslems in Extremadura but do not seem to have been particularly supportive of the pilgrim traffic. The King of Spain took control of the Order in 1476 and decided to build a huge monastery but things moved pretty slowly and it took 200 years to finish it. By then, the Spanish monarchy had turned what could have been a political and military threat and turned it into an honorary organization. In 1837 it lost its function as a monastery and went through a series of incarnations: high school; Jesuit residence; cavalry barracks, veterinary college; military warehouse; hospital. In 1961 it was converted into a parador luxury hotel and a museum. As I rode by this huge building, there was no trace of this uproarious past in the morning silence.

I rode onwards through another series of small villages: Trobajo del Camino; la Virgen del Camino; Valverde del Camino; San Miguel del Camino; and San Martín del Camino. At least there was no doubt that I was on the right road! The little villages were not much to look at and I rode swiftly over the dry flatlands, arriving fairly quickly in Hospital de Órbigo.

Now, this was something interesting to look at ! The road into town took me over the Río Órbigo via a wonderful Gothic arched bridge, with no fewer than 19 arches. Since its construction in the 13th Century, floods have washed away some of the arches, while two others were destroyed by the British in the Peninsular War against Napoleon, but the reconstruction was always done in the same style so that while portions are from the 13th, 17th and 19th Century they all appear correctly medieval. I rode carefully over the cobbled bridge, enjoyed the view, if not the bumps.

As I crossed into the town, I saw a series of tents had been erected. There was going to be some jousting here, in commemoration of a great tournament held in July 1434, possibly the last true medieval tournament in Europe. It was a battle by a knight from León, Suero de Quiñones, who challenged all comers on the bridge. He was disappointed in his lady and wore an iron collar as an indication he was a prisoner of love and his challenge spread like wildfire through the European nobility as a chance to reclaim that mythical Age of Chivalry they had all been raised with. Not only was there a huge band of knights and their retinues but it was Holy Year and two weeks before St. James’ Day, so the place was full of pilgrims as well. Suero claimed victory, after two weeks, as he had kept his oath to break 300 lances and he gave his iron collar to the judges and became a pilgrim himself. Great stuff–the anti-Quixote, perhaps.

I rolled through the little town and found a sign that advertised a particularly nice stamp for the credencia and made my way to a little store where I received the promised stamp and bought something to drink as well.

The scenery was quite lovely as I continued on my way although I could see that there was going to be work ahead. At this point I could see in the distance two mountain chains, one to the north and one directly in my path to the west. I was coming to the end of the great plain of Castile and ahead were the Montes de León. The soil looked pretty barren to me, but apparently there are trace elements of gold in it and the Romans had actually operated some mines in the region. After 17 kms of easy riding, I reached Astorga and I could see the clouds forming ahead in the distance.

Astorga was originally a significant Roman city, gateway to the mines in the mountains beyond, and eventually, as the pilgrimage assumed greater importance, the city’s location ensured its prosperity. Not only was it a staging post on the road west from France, but a second road from the south joined here. Pilgrims prepared themselves for the difficult passage of the mountains as they headed towards Santiago de Compostela, or they recovered in Astorga on their return journey. At the height of the pilgrimage, Astorga boasted no fewer than 21 hospices, many of them devoted to particular professions or nationalities.

The city is rather compact and I rode into a park, where the Visitor Information Office was located, where there were traces of the original Roman walls and a map that I used to orient myself. I rode a bit further along, turned left past an adobe structure that was once a water reservoir, and climbed a hill past another section of Roman wall before turning into the city proper and locking up the bicycle near the very impressive cathedral. I then went by foot all over Astorga.

First stop was the cathedral itself. This was begun in the mid-15th Century, with most of the work being completed in the 16th. The impressive Baroque west facade is somewhat later and is extremely ornate and detailed.

Nearby stands the Bishops’ Palace and Museum, which looked vaguely like the Casa de Botines in León. It turned out that in fact it was also designed by Antonio Gaudí, with construction beginning in 1889, but the death of the sponsoring Archbishop and various other issues meant that it was not completed until 1913. It is a charming building and now houses a large museum devoted to the pilgrimage.

The Ayuntamiento is the Baroque city hall of Astorga, standing on its own square and very horizontal in appearance. There were many visitors the day I was there, including what appeared to be a local marching band wandering around the square. The whole city was very striking in appearance and in spite of its small size one of the highlights of the Camino. I would leave the main road, following quiet LE 142, as the Camino moved away from the A6 highway at Astorga.

Castrillo de los Polvazares

I also could see that the weather was not improving, so I went back to the bicycle, rode downhill and off to new adventures. The first of these was riding into the village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, which seemed almost entirely deserted. The buildings were unlike any I had seen so far, being of light brown stone. There are small windows to shelter from the heat–which was already tiring me–and overhanging balconies. It looked like some sort of Wild West town, except for the stone corrals that you could see everywhere.

The Camino, with heather and pilgrims

The Donkey at El Ganso

Following the quiet road, I passed pilgrims walking along the original dirt Camino. It was starting to rain, but extremely lightly, and it was a relief from the oppressive heat. Everything smelled fresh and there were wildflowers to be seen. I passed through the village of El Ganso, which had a little church with a one-dimensional steeple, and there was only a sole donkey to greet me. The road was climbing gently now, and the landscape had become scrubby, with heather and wild thyme in abundance. Soon there would only be brush to be seen.

The rain was a gentle mist and as it was approaching 6 pm I thought that I would stop in the next town of substance. This was Rabanal del Camino, which had been founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th Century to protect pilgrims and the red cross of the Knights was still in evidence as a sign of local pride. There is a hostal here administered by the Confraternity of Saint James, who had issued my credencia, but instead I pulled into a small stone hotel and found a room for the night. I began to sort out my gear in my little room when I heard an amazing sound: the sky opened up and the rain was hammering down on the roof as if it was a hurricane outside. I looked outside and saw what must have been the heaviest rainstorm I have seen outside of Asia when the typhoons come.

The dining room

The rain showed no sign of letting up and the hotel was obviously prepared as huge plastic garbage cans had been set up in various spots, including the dining room, to deal with the leaks. I had a simple dinner, but it was like sitting near a waterfall with all of the drumming noise of the water. I was glad not to be out on the road!

Eventually the rain passed and after dinner I walked around the village. Everywhere under the eaves were swallows, flying to and fro and fiercely concentrating on their nest-building. It looked as if hundreds of generations of swallows had come to Rabanal.

Views of Rabanal


Will said...

Sound like quite a trip - great photos. I too am fascinated with medieval history (fav bike tour was through the French Dordogne - full of castles from the 100 years war).

Believe it otrnot, One minor arm of the St Jacques de Compestella pilgrim trail actually touches my back garden. Starting from Geneva.

Everyday, "pilgrims" with huge backpacks pass by - not sure if trying to get all the way to Spain.

In addition to the pilgrim signs, the back path is also a "black" rated mountain bike route.

Sprocketboy said...

I am not surprised that you could walk on a marked trail from your backyard to Santiago. It was the first example of mass tourism and many routes snaked across Europe, joining up in St. Jean Pied de Port where the route became like a pilgrim's superhighway. I have seen signs for Santiago from the most obscure places in Germany and Switzerland, and people actually do walk it. Glad you like the photos!