The Camino de Santiago: Burgos to León

Heading off from Burgos at the unforgivably late hour of 08:30, I was both rested and yet unenthusiastic. My rest had made me lazy. The next big milestone was León and my destination that night was Hornillos del Camino, about 20km off, the terrain being mostly flat and would be a good test for my foot. As usual, heading out from the city was not very picturesque, though passing by the university was interesting, after many kilometers of suburbs, rough tracks and motorway the only point of interest in this rather grey morning was a stork in the fields. Just before the tiny town that was to be my stop for the day the sun broke through and I finally felt some heat in my bones, the first for days.

A tiny place, Hornillos’ only shop was closed, and after my usual end of day rituals and something to eat (I would have happily tucked into a small scabby child I was so hungry), I settled up on the sunny church steps to study and rest my sore but not crippling feet. I noticed a sign announcing a Pilgrim’s Blessing and with a lack of anything else to do decided to go to mass, voluntarily, for the first time in my life. A small group of Irish, French, Korean and Spanish pilgrims were joined by a stern but welcoming priest. Who was mad for the singing. And in groups by nationality, we were commanded to contribute a native song, as well as singing responses, hymns, prayers and the like. I was blessed twice, apparently, I need all the help I can get, and I have to say I enjoyed the experience. To steal a line from Fr Ted, “He gave a good mass”.

Dawn outside Hornillos del Camino, Camino de Santiago.
Dawn outside Hornillos del Camino, Camino de Santiago.

The next morning began with the most beautiful sunrise peeping over the hill and burning off the mist. Despite being a lot later than I had planned I couldn’t help but stand and appreciate the beautiful morning, trying and failing to capture it in photo. Spending most of the warm day walking in nature, surrounded at times by autumnal trees, seeing all the birds and even a few little country mice made for an excellent day and I eventually passed under the arches of the abandoned monastery of San Antón, the patron saint of lost things and apparently swineherds. Here there was a man offering sellos and selling offerings, insistent but kind and friendly when we began chatting. The same as everyone, he says there are few pilgrims on the road. I arrived tired and happy in Castrojeriz, a pretty town strung out under a mountain and dating back to Roman times. Too tired to even think about climbing up to the castle.

My plans to get up extra early for the slightly longer walk the next day went to pieces with the clocks going back and my alarm not syncing as expected. I overslept, lost an earplug and was generally a disaster setting off, a perfect start to a morning that involved a mountain first thing. After that the going was easier if a little long and I even spied a deer breaking free from hunters out on a warm, if hazy Sunday morning. The pilgrims I’ve met over the last stretch are really nice, chilled and friendly. However, I heard a strange story from one that morning, where another pilgrim, who I’ve exchanged pleasantries with over the days, was caught stealing in one of the albergues. Something which you would almost expect to happen in hostels but also that pilgrims might be a special breed apart. Which is apparently not true. To keep my spirits up the last few days I’ve been listening to an audiobook about Shackleton and the Endurance expedition. So when I’m feeling sorry for myself I’m cheered up by stories of fierce cold, ice cracking underneath the tents, starvation and so on. Still it helps with the long stretch of open road, still a little muddy in places. A Spanish pilgrim pointed of places of interest to me such as an old albergue which is almost traditional in its facilities and the border between the provinces of Burgos and Palencia. After a picturesque stretch along the Castile Canal, punctuated by a traffic jam of sheep I eventually arrived, exhausted, into Fromista, for only for washing and bed.

As typical of this area of Spain the road stretches out long and straight, sometimes by the main road as coming up to Carrión de los Condes and sometimes following the old Roman road to Ledigos. Carrión is a really pretty town with plenty of characterful old buildings and some really nice people. I spent almost an hour talking to the man who ran the souvenir shop and who’s walked the Camino an astounding eight times. I stayed in an old monastery, which was founded almost a millennia ago and (this was the real reason I HAD to stay there) contained a church with sarcophagi. Added to which I had a real room, my own bathroom and where I could even soak my feet for almost an hour in cold water.

I think I’ve really found my rhythm now. Both physically and mentally. As I said to the Camino veteran the pilgrims on this last stretch have been lovely. We chat sometimes walking, they’re kind, relaxed, respectful of everyone’s personal Camino which is a huge change from before. Irish, Italian, Spanish, German, Korean, Kenyan – a huge variety but all appreciating this meditative stretch of the Way. My Spanish is really being challenged daily too, to the absolute detriment of my Icelandic. I feel like I’ve forgotten everything! The road itself is challenging, not physically but mentally. Long, long straight stretches where I try and lose myself in Don Quixote and not think about the kilometers. Deciding to do some shorter stretches for a few days my next port of call was Ledigos. The road is straight and might even be called boring along here in the plains of Castile and Leon, with endless fields, some more full of stones than earth. A part of this is on the old Roman road. And there is something exciting about walking on a two-thousand-year-old route. I’m currently listening to Don Quixote, though I’ve been asked if it is wise to listen to the rambling of a lunatic knight errant on these plains that already allow the mind to wander too freely, perhaps there is truth to this.

Ledigos has two albergues and I unfortunately picked the wrong one. Frozen at night, I was also munched on by bed bugs. I’ve heard of four stories of these little critters from people I know walking the Camino at this time, so I suppose it’s not that uncommon. Still, the next morning, cold and overcast, flat landscape and my late start time did not improve my mood and I hurried on to Sahagrun to disinfect everything I had. What did cheer me up in this little place, the geographical centre of the Camino was collecting my certificate to say I had completed half the Camino and finding (by nose) a little bakery that made the best galletas or biscuits I’ve found so far on the Camino. The church La Perigrina also had some mummies, and a camino exhibit, apparently more women now walk the Camino than men, which traditionally was not the case. The free sample didn’t hurt this opinion. After a hearty plate of pasta in the local Irish pub, a stroll around town to admire the charming streets and old buildings, I retired to the municipal albergue situated in a deconsecrated church without being chewed in my sleep.
Onwards to El Burgo Ranero, with more fields but also autumnal trees and falling leaves. An unremarkable walk except for the fine weather, I even took long breaks out in the air to enjoy the sunshine before checking into the albergue municipal (donation) and after all the necessaries had something to eat. I ran into an old Camino friend from Orisson and we caught up. The municipal albergues usually have an early kicking out time and I didn’t have to be called by the friendly Catalan volunteer hospitalero.

A beautiful sunrise quickly turned into a cold, wet and windy day, all I really wanted was to reach Mansilla de las Mulas, 20km up the road, as quickly as possible. A pretty town, all the shops, some restaurants and even bars were shut as it was All Saint’s Day, so by necessity dinner was whatever crap I bought at the garage. Still, only 20km remained to León where I could sleep in, gorge on tapas and rest my sore feet. This last, quite windy day before León passed quite quickly with several small towns along the route. As is typical the scenery was generally more of the industrial suburbs and motorways, than rolling landscapes, still, kicking the crisp autumn leaves kept my spirits up. Having started with a friend of mine, losing her along the way, then meeting again along with her Korean friend, we ran into an elderly Spanish lady at the start of Leon proper. She asked where we from, where we had started from today, scolded me for not wearing a scarf on such a cold day, proclaimed us all strong and pretty and left us with many kisses. A simple and sincere interaction that will always stay with me.
Intending to spend a few days in León over a public holiday weekend proved more expensive than I would have liked, especially for what I got, but being out a bit from the centre would shorten my next walking day. Thoroughly tired, I resolved to spend at least one day being totally lazy, while devoting another to the sights of the city. The old quarter with its narrow streets and many tapas bars, where often you get free tapas with your drinks, the old pilgrim lodgings, magnificent in the sunshine, crowded markets, the usual beautiful churches and so on. The life cities in Spain have is evident. People actually live, eat, work and shop in just about all quarters. Everyone walks the streets in the evenings, the squares outside churches are busy after mass, mornings see the residents walking back from the bakeries with a fresh loaf under their arms. It all adds to a feeling of vitality that I miss in Ireland and Iceland, where everyone retreats to the suburbs.

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