Day 21 - Mansilla to Leon
We reach Leon in early afternoon, with Barney from Washington drily observing that it didn’t seem to matter whether you walked 18k or 30k in a day; either way you arrived tired. After a nap and a shower we head out, bumping into hordes of pilgrims on the way to the cathedral.
That evening sees the World Cup beginning, and - of more import to us - Sorren’s birthday, so after watching the match in the main square we head off for dinner. Eventually we end up, somewhat improbably, in an Irish bar the main feature of which seems to be a traditional red English phone box. The dance floor is ours for the night, and we all experience an apparent Camino miracle, as our foot ailments are forgotten.
Day 22 - Leon
Sadly, last night’s miracle doesn’t last, but once our feet are suitably sorted, today’s given over to leisurely sight-seeing, with me visiting the breath-taking cathedral and the more quietly reverent church of St Isidore, before meeting the others for drinks at Leon’s opulent state-owned Parador hotel.
After touring the building’s historic cloisters we amble down to the main square to watch Spain play Holland. Nobody expects a 5-1 trouncing, and the crowd sits in stunned silence. Afterwards I meet Dutch Eve, with whom I’d celebrated my birthday; she’s decided to go on by train. “My Camino is over,” she smiles. I never found out what she was seeking here in Spain, but whatever it was, she seems to have found it.
Day 23 - Leon to Mazarife
We leave Leon in ones and twos late in the morning, startling pilgrims who are staying an extra day. “You’re only leaving now?” laugh Davey and Jayne from Holyhead, and while chatting with them I’m joined by David and Christa from Colorado, who I’ve not seen since Burgos.
I walk alone for half the day, content to sleep out should Mazarife’s albergues be full. Walking alone is nice, and gives time for reflection and prayer, staying with those for whom I’ve promised to pray on the way: some are expecting babies, others have recently been bereaved, some are ill, others have recently recovered, some are discerning vocations, one is writing a book, and others have obscure intentions committed to me with the cryptic assurance that God knows what they need.
Home seems so far away here on the Camino, and were it not for the discipline of praying for people, I’m not sure how often I’d think of it.
I stop to fix my boots and grab a quick bite, and as I tinker with the insole that’s been blistering my left foot for more than a fortnight I spot two tiny figures. Hannah and Suzanne, somehow, are later even than me. We carry on, through what seems a continuation of the Meseta, until eventually we reach Mazarife and head straight for the hostel with a pool. As we sign in, we spot that Carlos, Sorren, Diana, and Jeanne are already here, and within a couple of hours Chris and Steve show up too.
Carlos cooks that evening, with a couple of the girls making salad, and the rest of us wash up. It’s good for us all to be together, as we’re expecting tomorrow to be horrible.
Day 24 - Mazarife to Astorga
At more than 32k, today is the longest day of the Camino so far, and it exacts a brutal toll. By the time Chris, Hannah, Suzanne, and I stagger into Astorga, Carlos has fallen 10k behind, with Steve having damaged his knee and being even further back. Jeanne beat us to Astorga but has suspected tendonitis, and Diana looks as exhausted as Suzanne, who has doubts about whether she can walk tomorrow.
That said, it’s a great day in some ways: lunch was a joy, I found temporary insoles that might help my blisters, we encounter a village fiesta that tempts us to stop where we are, and late in the afternoon we rest in the shade of a tree to pool what food we have left and have an impromptu picnic. We may be ending the day with an exhausted pizza, but things might be better in the morning.
Day 25 - Astorga to Foncebadon
Jeanne and Suzanne elect to send their bags on ahead, enabling them to keep walking despite exhaustion and ailments. Chris, Suzanne, and I make good time in the morning and by the time we catch up with Hannah we’ve composed two songs we perform over lunch to the surprise of the other dining pilgrims. Later we’re thanked by Scott from Georgia who says we’ve given him what’ll surely be one of his most cherished Camino moments.
Meeting the other girls at the next town, we decide to push on and end up in a wonderful hostel in Foncebadon. The communal dinner is superb, and it takes discipline to go to bed rather than while the evening away playing with the albergue’s roaming puppies or lounging in the lush green grass, so different to the crunchy yellow grass of the Meseta.
Day 26 - Foncebadon to Ponferrada
The morning sees us climbing to the iconic Cruz de Ferro, a small iron cross on a wooden pole standing on a cairn of stones brought by pilgrims, each signifying a prayer of one sort or another. The highest point of the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro seems to fulfil a dual purpose: buzzing with pilgrims posing and taking pictures, it’s equally a place of quiet contemplation, of deep privacy, of sorrow and gratitude and hope. We spend far longer there than I think any of us expect.
The climb down to the idyllic town of Molinaseca is beautiful but long and treacherous, and by the time I arrive my blisters have become unbearable. I accept a lift to Ponferrada, where at the local hospital which treats pilgrims for free my feet are patched up and I’m given a list of things to buy at the pharmacist.
Day 27 - Ponferrada to Villafranca
“Happy birthday,” I say to Chris when we wake on the floor of the humid library where we’ve hardly slept a wink, adding “You know what you’ve done, don’t you? You’ve turned us into ‘Those People’.”
“Just for one day,” he smiles. Neither of us are fans of the early risers who wake the dorms up with their crepuscular rustling, but today we’ve a long walk ahead of us and want to arrive at Villafranca in time to relax and celebrate properly.
We cover ground quickly in the morning, but by the temperature rises to over 36 degrees in the afternoon, and I struggle terribly, running out of water and depending on Hannah to keep me going. Still, eventually we make it into Villafranca, and before long we’re gathered in the main square watching Australia take on Holland in the football.
The afternoon’s biggest cheer is reserved for the arrival of Steve, who with his knee braced had covered 40k to make it in time for the birthday fun. Dinner follows around the corner, with us being joined by Chris’s friends Paul and Roxy, and Tom and Frances, an Irish couple living in Canada who we’d been bumping into since Burgos. We perform our songs again, this time adding a surprise ditty about Chris, and end the night at a nearby bar where the barmaid isn’t too pushed about Spain’s latest defeat and guaranteed exit from the World Cup.
Bed, then. Tomorrow we approach O’Cebreiro, the Camino’s last big climb.
Part V continues tomorrow.
Greg Daly travelled with Camino Ways www.caminoways.com. Tel: 353 (0)1-525-28-86.