Archive for July, 2014

MY CAMINO – Leon

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[My apologies if you received this already, but although it was posted, no regular recipient I spoke with had received it today.  So I am re-posting in hopes that the auto-emails will work this time.]

Not only is the 17 km walk (10 miles) into Leon considered the “one place on the Camino where you might want to take the bus,” but precipitation was in the forecast. So my goal was simply to get to Leon as quickly as possible to avoid rain. As billed, the walk was ugly and industrial, but for some reason I was among a fairly large contingent headed into the cathedral city. I finally met a couple from Brazil, who I had seen almost every day for the prior week (and I would see almost every day until Santiago – and we finished within a couple of hours of each other). I hopscotched with three from Ireland and saw my two French buddies a few times during the otherwise uninteresting walk to Leon. (The Frenchmen had spent the night with be in Hontanas and I had seen them the next evening in Fromista and two days later in Mansilla – its just the way of the Camino).

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Despite the forecast, by 9:30 it’s partly sunny. Trying to counteract the ugly walk along busy roads, I listened to a Tim Keller talk about the “fruit of the spirit” and a variety of tunes by Bruce Hornsby, James Taylor, and Alison Krauss. Although the walk was billed as flat there was one really good hill climb after 11 kilometers. As blessed as I am, the sun came out as I made my way to the city center. Arriving right around noon, I marveled at the cathedral as I stood before it in its large, entrance square. Thinking that I needed a photograph of me before the grand church I spotted a young man who looked American to me and asked if he’d mind taking my photograph. With that request I was introduced to David – a medical student from Michigan. (I did not see David again in Leon, but little did I know then that David would play a prominent role in a number of my future days on the Camino.)

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I checked into Boccalino Hostel and cleaned up. I had a good half of a day to explore, which is just what I did. The city is believed to have been settled as early as 29 B.C. as part of the Romans efforts to protect the shipment of god out of Galicia to the west on its way to Italy. Leon has an interesting history of being run over and conquered and re-conquered by Muslims, Visagoths, Asturians and others. Just about the time that Santiago was being recognized as an important pilgrimage detention, Leon was rebuilt and became an important commercial center for the wool trade. That prosperity helped to fund the construction of a grand cathedral.

Leon Cathedral was begun in 1205 and finished in just under 100 years – apparently a record time. Guidebooks explain that its most noteworthy feature is its large stained glass windows, which emphasizes the use of light in the cathedral. One guidebook: “Without a flashy retablo, the cathedral lets the the streaming light steal the show.” There was an excellent audio self-tour that explained the history and architecture, including an extensive and risky, but ingenious renovation (that probably saved the cathedral from ruin) in the late 19th century. I also roamed the city and viewed its major historical and architectural highlights, including the 11th century Basilica de San Isidoro (“one of the premier Romanesque structures” in all of northern Spain, which was commissioned to house relics returned by Muslims after being defeated in the Reconquista), the more “modern” (19th century) Casa Los Botines, the Cathedral’s museum and Cloister, and the ancient city walls.

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Incredibly, as I cut through a square to return to my hotel I heard “Bruce! Bruce! off to my right. And in typical, but amazing Camino style, there was Frida, Lynn and Jen finishing a late lunch at an outdoor café. I sat with them and caught up on everyone’s journeys – and I heard “the rest of the story” about George’s boots. (I had not seen Frida or Jen since the rainy morning after Hontanas and I last saw Lynn early in the morning at Carrion as we both stood by the front door to the hostel that was locked and keeping us from starting our day’s walk.) Jen had just replicated one of the events in The Way – the movie about the Camino de Santiago starring Martin Sheen. Like Sheen’s character in the movie, after growing tired of hostel living, Jen treated the three of them to a night or two in the Parador – a five-star luxury hotel just outside the city center and on the route as the Camino starts to leave Leon. (I would pass right by it very early the next morning as I started my trek to the next destination. I assumed Frida, Jen, and Lynn were sleeping in, so I dared not stop.)

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MY CAMINO – Leon

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Not only is the 17 km walk (10 miles) into Leon considered the “one place on the Camino where you might want to take the bus,” but precipitation was in the forecast. So my goal was simply to get to Leon as quickly as possible to avoid rain. As billed, the walk was ugly and industrial, but for some reason I was among a fairly large contingent headed into the cathedral city. I finally met a couple from Brazil, who I had seen almost every day for the prior week (and I would see almost every day until Santiago – and we finished within a couple of hours of each other). I hopscotched with three from Ireland and saw my two French buddies a few times during the otherwise uninteresting walk to Leon. (The Frenchmen had spent the night with be in Hontanas and I had seen them the next evening in Fromista and two days later in Mansilla – its just the way of the Camino).

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Despite the forecast, by 9:30 it’s partly sunny. Trying to counteract the ugly walk along busy roads, I listened to a Tim Keller talk about the “fruit of the spirit” and a variety of tunes by Bruce Hornsby, James Taylor, and Alison Krauss. Although the walk was billed as flat there was one really good hill climb after 11 kilometers. As blessed as I am, the sun came out as I made my way to the city center. Arriving right around noon, I marveled at the cathedral as I stood before it in its large, entrance square. Thinking that I needed a photograph of me before the grand church I spotted a young man who looked American to me and asked if he’d mind taking my photograph. With that request I was introduced to David – a medical student from Michigan. (I did not see David again in Leon, but little did I know then that David would play a prominent role in a number of my future days on the Camino.)

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I checked into Boccalino Hostel and cleaned up. I had a good half of a day to explore, which is just what I did. The city is believe to have been settled as early as 29 B.C. as part of the Romans efforts to protect the shipment of god out of Galicia to the west on its way to Italy. Leon has an interesting history of being run over and conquered and re-conquered by Muslims, Visagoths, Asturians and others. Just about the time that Santiago was being recognized as an important pilgrimage detention, Leon was rebuilt and became an important commercial center for the wool trade. That prosperity helped to fund the construction of a grand cathedral.

Leon Cathedral was begun in 1205 and finished in just under 100 years – apparently a record time. Guidebooks explain that its most noteworthy feature is its large stained glass windows, which emphasizes the use of light in the cathedral. One guidebook: “Without a flashy retablo, the cathedral lets the the streaming light steal the show.” There was an excellent audio self-tour that explained the history and architecture, including an extensive and risky, but ingenious renovation (that probably saved the cathedral from ruin) in the late 19th century. I also roamed the city and viewed its major historical and architectural highlights, including the 11th century Basilica de San Isidoro (“one of the premier Romanesque structures” in all of northern Spain, which was commissioned to house relics returned by Muslims after being defeated in the Reconquista), the more “modern” (19th century) Casa Los Botines, the Cathedral’s museum and Cloister, and the ancient city walls.

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Incredibly, as I cut through a square to return to my hotel I heard “Bruce! Bruce! off to my right. And in typical, but amazing Camino style, there was Frida, Lynn and Jen finishing a late lunch at an outdoor cafe. I sat with them and caught up on everyone’s journeys – and I heard “the rest of the story” about George’s boots. (I had not seen Frida or Jen since the rainy morning after Hontanas and I last saw Lynn early in the morning at Carrion as we both stood by the front door to the hostel that was locked and keeping us from starting our day’s walk.) Jen had just replicated one of the events in The Way – the movie about the Camino de Santiago starring Martin Sheen. Like Sheen’s character in the movie, after growing tired of hostel living, Jen treated the three of them to a night or two in the Parador – a five-star luxury hotel just outside the city center and on the route as the Camino starts to leave Leon. (I would pass right by it very early the next morning as I started my trek to the next destination. I assumed Frida, Jen, and Lynn were sleeping in, so I dared not stop.)

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MY CAMINO – Finishing the Meseta

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In many respects the great cathedral cities of Burgess and Leon serve as bookends for the meseta on the Camino. It starts almost immediately as you leave Burgos and you “feel” that left the meseta after suffering through the long industrial entrance into, and exit from, Leon. (Technically, it would take one more day before the meseta was behind me as the pilgrim catches a final look at the broad, flat agricultural plain during the second half of the day after leaving Leon).  While I enjoyed this region more than I thought I might based upon some early warnings, nonetheless there was a sameness to the relatively flat terrain with massive wheat fields and big sky.  But for the occasional town or village, monotony may have developed.  The last two days in the meseta illustrate this well.

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After my “nero” day in Carrion, I targeted a 40 kilometer day, so I was planning to get a particularly early start, but was again locked in at the albergue until 6:30 a.m.  Yet, I was still out before sunrise. The route this day is on the Via Aquitana – a restored Roman road. Yet, this stretch is one of the longest on the Camino without relief or services. The day’s walk was again more challenging from an aesthetic standpoint – a hard dirt path alongside a roadway with little scenery. The intermediate towns of Calzadilla de la Cueza, Ledigos, and Terradillos de Templarios (this town once was home to a 13th century church belonging to the Knights Templar) provided a respite from the sameness of the hike, but they seemed to be very aged and tired. Many homes and other buildings were made of only mud and straw (“mudbrick”) and, of these, many were dilapidated and many were closed, especially the churches in these towns.

“Ricky”, who I had met five days earlier when he had started his Camino in Burgos, and I past one another a few times this day as it seemed as though when I stopped for water or lunch he’d walk by and then I’d do the same. (Ricky asked we call him by that name because he knew we’d have trouble pronouncing his real, Japanese name.) We spoke little that day, but always exchanged a vigorous wave. (Who knew then that we’d walk together 5 days later and we’d finish in Santiago the same day.) I saw few other pilgrims, except a number on bicycle. The monotony of the landscape did provide a good atmosphere for solo, contemplative walking, which can be good for the soul.

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With an ambitious goal that day, I walked later than most days. The sky had turned overcast, which didn’t help my impression of Sahagun (my planned destination) as I climbed uphill and crossed over train tracks into the town around 5 p.m.  Somewhat like most of the towns and villages in this region, Sahagun exhibited a past that spoke of significantly more prominence and importance than the modern day.

Sahagun looked and felt old, grey, and tired. Yet, it was a most vigorous city in the medieval times.  King Alfonso VI was educated there and reared the area after defeating his brother for control of the monarchy.  The city was the center of development by the Benedictines of Cluny, which controlled over 100 monasteries.  The town has various remnants of its past, particularly some diverse architectural styles (including significant Islamic influence from the Moors that resulted in what is now called the “Romanesque-Mudejar” style.

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Arriving a little later than usual and seeking to get another early start (and a little privacy is good for the soul sometimes), I stayed in a simple hotel, named, perhaps not surprisingly, Alfonso VI.

The next day was very similar.  Out early for a 37 kilometer day with the town of Mansilla de las Mulas as my targeted destination for the night.  The route started out pleasantly as I crossed over a river (“Rio Cea”) on a bridge first built by Alfonso VI and walked through a grove of poplar trees, but soon the path returned to a flat, dull route on a hard dirt trail along side a road with a similar 17 kilometer section with no water or services.  The guidebook does say that this stretch is “one of the best sections of Roman road in all of Spain.” Perhaps it was, but it was still flat and dull with no water or other services.

The path into Mansilla was flat, unlike the fairly typical situation where the approach is often uphill to the town or village (presumably for defense purposes in the middle ages). The entrance to the town immediately signals to the traveler that time has not been as unkind to Mansilla as it has to a large number of the meseta towns.  A pretty square with statutes and a water fountain welcomes pilgrims. Remains of the 12th century fortifications can be seen here as well just beyond the square. (In fact, a walk through Mansilla reveals that over half of these ancient walls still remain.) Although it has lost five of its six 13th century churches, the town seems to have modernized with the times.  Mansilla also has an excellent albergue, excellent private hostels/pensions, and some good restaurants as well as most any services (supermarkets and ATM machines) a pilgrim may need.

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Having reached Mansilla, I knew I had substantially completed the meseta.  It had its pros and its cons.  There was beauty to the starkness and the accompanying “big sky” country and the flat terrain meant that 40 kilometer days were possible.  On the other hand, time has forgotten much of the region and there was a sadness to many parts of the mudbrick villages and farming communities.

All that said, now having walked through it for 4 or 5 days, my experience in the meseta recalls another writer’s description of this region that not only do I find accurate but is said better than I could say:  “The Meseta is sparsely populated. The scattered, earth-coloured villages are often camouflaged in the open plain, and only a church tower – or nowadays a grain silo — identifies their location. With mechanization of the land, many of the villages are now abandoned or inhabited only by older people, the younger set having either emigrated or moved to the large towns in the 1960s and 70s in search of work.”

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The final “bookend” to the meseta is the important city of Leon. While the guidebooks tell us that Pamplona has the largest population of any of the cities along the Camino, my sense wad that Leon was certainly the largest city. But before getting a chance to see its famous Gothic cathedral and other interesting sites, I still had to cover almost 18 kilometers from Mansilla.

Once again I was out walking before the sun rose and the day was beautiful. That said, the following description of these 18 kilometers into Leon is probably all that needs to be said further:

“If you were going to skip one day on the camino, this would be it. Much ahs been done to improve the safety of the pilgrim approach to Leon, with pedestrian bridges and overpasses, but the route still involves a lot of industrial walking.”

With a good, cool morning and flat (albeit visually unappealing) terrain, I was able to arrive in Leon by noon and enjoy a half of a day off and to see much of the city.

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MY CAMINO – More of the Meseta

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[My apologies for being absent so long.  I’m eager to finish the posts about the Camino journey, but after being away for six weeks life caught up with me.  I’m back to blog about the second half of my walk across the north of Spain.  When we left off, I had just finished a very long walk on a changeable weather day that was also Easter Sunday.]

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After a Sunday much like the first Easter weekend itself (a dark gloomy morning that cleared and finished with magnificent sunlight), the wonderful weather continued as the optimism of new birth invigorated the soul .  I left Fromista in the dark and enjoyed one of my favorite sunrises.  As I’m bound to do, after 3 kilometers I took the road less traveled as I followed a small “river”  (Rio Ucieza) west rather than follow the main road to Carrion de los Condes – the site of my first planned “nero”.  The path was uncharacteristically overgrown and the morning dew got my feet wet for the first time on the trip.  I loved the solitude though.  I ran into a local Spaniard and his dog collecting snails for his next Sunday paella.  Before long a veered away from the river and the more rural path into a small town and then on a hard dirt path along the main road.  I reached carrion before noon.  if you hike the Appalachian Trail a “zero” day is a rest day ( a day of no hiking – zero miles) and a “nero” is almost a zero day.  I had planned to read, write, rest and resupply in Carrion.  I was the first to check into the Santa Maria albergue – part of the Santa Maria church complex.  The hostel is run by the nuns who sing folk songs with the pilgrims each evening.

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As I enjoyed the sunshine and relaxed in the church courtyard I ran into and greeted a remarkable number of fellow pilgrims I had seen previously along the way. I joined in a communal meal preparation and sat down with 15 pilgrims from all over the world, including Jacob from Poland (who I’d spend the evening with in Finisterre 2 weeks later).  The evening was spent in the bottom bunk in a room with 10 bunks, which was occupied by 20 year-old college students from Japan, a 65 year-old from Austria, George from Arizona, “Lynn” – a 55 year-old from British Columbia, a 30 year-old German woman with a very bad leg injury, and a young Korean woman (“Lee”) between jobs slept in the bunk above.

I rested up for two more long days in the meseta and then on to the great cathedral town of Leon.

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