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OK, I admit it. My first full day on the Camino de Santiago was a cheat day.

After spending an entire day flying from Toronto to Paris to Madrid and then bussing it 5 hours from Madrid to León, I was knackered on arrival, so relaxing my first night was a must. But my friend Leanne, whom I’d flown there to meet, had the brilliant idea of taking the bus 50 kilometres from León to Astorga, saving us a day of walking and giving me a day to get over my jetlag.

Now, believe me when I say I was keen on setting out on foot on Day 2, as I was determined to do the full 300 kilometres from León to Santiago de Compostela. But I also was wiped from the flights and bus ride, so I wasn’t about to fight Leanne about not walking outta León à pied.

Despite deeming it our lazy day, we still were in pilgrim mode, waking up at the crack of dawn. LESSON 2: Whether you want to or not, you’ll wake up before sunrise, when all the other pilgrims in your dorm stop snoring and start rustling their sleeping bags, getting dressed and chatting to their friends. If you’re blessed with super-awesome earplugs, you might block out the noise enough so you can sleep in till 7 or 7:30 a.m. But by 8 a.m., the albergue manager will flick the lights on and come barging through your dorm yelling “Buen Camino!” to signal it’s time you hit the road!

The lovely manager at the Albergue del Monasterio de las Benedictinas (Santa Maria de Carabajal) did that around 6 a.m.! By then, most of the 28-some people in my mixed dorm had fled to the trail, leaving me and Leanne behind to eat our humble breakfast of yogurt, milk and leftover snacks from my flights. It gave me time to snap pics of the convent entry, mainly the bin of walking sticks (an albergue entryway staple) and the heavy wood doors.

Day 2 being my first real Camino day, I couldn’t resist a shot of Leanne’s backpack, complete with requisite pilgrim’s shell featuring the cross of St. James. At the time, I was a tad jealous that I didn’t have that same shell, but it’s so ubiquitous on the Camino, it has a massmarket feel to it and I’m glad I waited to find the right shell for me.

And I just noticed now that there’s a yellow Camino arrow on the ground, pointing to the convent door (see photo above)! In fact, there are 2 arrows (see below), just to make sure pilgrims don’t walk right past the Nuns’ Hostel.

Not spotting the yellow arrows was something I did quite well those first few days on the Camino. You’d think, because they’re everywhere, it’s something you’d notice upon first glance. But it really does take some getting used to, the looking for the yellow arrows that direct you where to walk.

LESSON 3: The Camino is all about intuition. Whether it’s learning to spot the yellow arrows or understanding the trail so you know where to go even when there isn’t an arrow in sight, walking the Camino is about being in tune with your surroundings. It’s finding your own way of walking – how fast or slow your pace is, how often and when and where you take breaks (and why! it could be just to take in the views from a mountaintop!), which towns or villages you want to sleep in, where and what you want to eat.

There’s a common saying among pilgrims: everyone has their own way of walking.

Some people think pilgrims need to suffer a bit – painful blistered feet will attest to that. Others think that pilgrims walk for many reasons and each has their own way, and lest you judge the pilgrim who stays in fancy hotels or takes cabs or buses or has their bags shuttled from hostel to hostel.

When I started out, I didn’t think much about either camp. I was there to walk with a friend, experience a different culture and landscape, and take a pause from everyday life. So my first full day on the Camino was indeed a lazy day, and it began with a stroll from the convent to León’s famous cathedral.

Steps from the convent is this little square. The night before, it was bustling with the dinner crowd chatting away at cafe tables in spite of the light rain. 

Weathered gargoyles, still intricately detailed despite their decay, embellished the church exterior.

Playing peekaboo: a pigeon who stuffed himself into a wee opening in the church wall! 

A wrought-iron juliet balcony filled with red geraniums – what’s more Mediterranean than that? 

A lingering symbol from Palm Sunday, dried palm leaves strewn across balconies was a common sight in León in May.

Up until that morning, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a pilgrim, and even though I’d dined and shared a dorm with pilgrims, I hadn’t seen one (aside from Leanne) in full form. By 8 a.m., there were still some stragglers making their way through León, and so I had my first glimpse of pilgrims.

As we approached the cathedral, I spotted my first shells! There’s a pedestrian-only street in León that’s embedded with bronze shells, so pilgrims making their way to the cathedral walk over the pilgrims’ symbol.

The pedestrian street also features bronze pilgrims’ footprints surrounded by stone mosaics. I was sincerely stunned by the sublime sight of this footprint as I took my first steps as a pilgrim.

The cathedral was still closed when we got there, so we wandered a bit more, admiring the unusual street art by this stone archway.

I also saw my first giant stork, which I actually thought was art because it was sooo large! Those storks are everywhere on this stretch of the Camino, building their ginormous nests on church steeples. I honestly couldn’t stop taking pictures of each stork I saw – that’s how awed I was by their size.

And when we finally got back round to cathedral, I actually forgot to take pictures! I think I wasn’t quite clueing in to the age of the cathedral, but I was awestruck by the gothic architecture and 1,800-square metres of stained glass windows.

 After poking around the cathedral, we had our third breakfast of the day. Our first was at the albergue, our second was on a bench beside the cathedral, when we were waiting for it to open, and our third was at a café. This habit of having multiple breakfasts is a Camino thing, as pilgrims start out so early and need lots of fuel, plus it’s always a treat to chill at a café.

But on our way to the café, we spotted this awesome bike share service. It’s funny, but I was more floored by the bikes than I was by the cathedral. I honestly don’t know much about the bike share program, except we found out from a gentleman there that it’s free and only for residents of that neighbourhood. Free bike share! We so need that in Toronto!

So much activity, and it was only about 10:30 a.m.! For a lazy day, we sure packed in a lot in the morning. After having our croissants and cafe con leche at a cafe, we headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Astorga. I sure appreciated the nap on the bus, and woke up ready to explore the city known for it’s Gaudi architecture as much as it is for its macarons: Astorga!

For that, you must read on!

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And for more on my Camino, check out:
Leon, Spain: My First Steps on the Camino de Santiago
Camino Albergues: Where to Stay Between León and Ponferrada, Spain
The Way of the Lightweight Backpacker

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