Hostel de las Soportales had a nice dining area downstairs so I was able to get up and and enjoy some quiet time first thing yesterday. It also had decent WiFi, a major bonus! I saw Diane and Zee come through, fully loaded. They were leaving the Camino today from Leon and headed to Barcelona to catch their cruise. They debated for a few minutes on whether or not to get their hot water at the hostel or at the cafe – Diane was quite proud that she brought a small carafe that they could warm water in so they could water down the overly strong Spanish coffee. As I said, very quirky.
Later, I met Bobby from Ireland. He was here with his mates (there were six of them). They caught the Camino bug after watching The Way a few years ago. They love to walk together in Ireland and decided to do it in Spain. They’ve broken it up into 10 day segments and this is their third over the last 24 months. They will head home shortly after Leon. Bobby shook my hand normally and then shifted into an arm wrestling grip – it had been years since I’d experienced such a friendly handshake. His accent was pure Irish and I had to really focus to understand him – I found it completely endearing. He observed that there were many approaches to the Camino and that many pilgrims were not walking the full distances. “What do you mean?“ I asked. He said that he is in good shape but after a day of 14–17 miles, his legs and feet hurt and he’s tired. He’s walked into way too many towns to see “pilgrims” (air quotes included) sitting in a cafe, drinking a bottle of wine, and looking far too fresh to have spent a day on the road. “That’s not pilgrimage,” he growled. I liked Bobby immediately, however, I had to fight back the contrarian in me who really wanted to jump onto that complaint train. Instead, I nodded and laughed. Points for self control?
Speaking of lazy peregrinos, we decided on a different approach as we came to our last major city before Santiago. We booked a nice hotel in the city center of Leon and forwarded both of our backpacks. Then, we caught a taxi for the 11 mile trip into the city. We wanted to take a rest day but did not want to add a day to our walk so we compromised. Before we left Mansilla, I saw Bobby at the cafe and felt like I had to confess. He smiled while his friend, Martin, joyfully shook my hand and said “See you along the Way!” I suppose we got a bit of a pass since we were walking the full 500 miles. I cringed a bit as we drove past a number of pilgrims making their way to Leon.
Fortunately, our guilt was short-lived and we had a very restful day in Leon. Both of us wore our sandals all day – which is a gift to the feet as they begin to cry a little whenever they are put back into our hiking shoes. One would think that finding a Mass in a city with tons of churches would be easy but I still have not figured out the secret place where they post times. In previous villages, we’ve seen some churches that post Mass times on their front door but nothing recently. We missed Mass in the Leon Cathedral but found a lovely “little” church around the corner that just happened to have a 10am Mass. Of course, no times were posted.
The Leon Cathedral is a Gothic work of high art built in the 13th century. Stunning for its soaring vaults and incredible stained glass. It only took 50 years to build and the feat was accomplished when Leon had a population of only 5000. Apparently, Chartres is the only other cathedral in Europe that can rival its sheer volume of stained glass (1800 square meters). The Cathedral had major rework done in the 17th and 19th centuries as some of its structural integrity became compromised and parts of its nave caved in. Apparently, they were pushing the limits of design and technology in the 13th century.
As we were finishing our tour, Julia called out to us and came running over. I discovered that I was standing right next to her boyfriend, Thomas, who had just finished a hiking trip in Switzerland. He was a very pleasant fellow and told us that he had heard all about us. It appeared that whatever had been said was relatively positive and he was very gracious in our conversation. Julia looked quite recovered from her knee challenges though she was hopeful to find a pharmacy to replenish the miracle cream that had saved the day. She told us that Kayla was making her way to Leon and that they would head out together tomorrow. We have seen Julia and Kayla more than any other pilgrims; I wonder if that will continue. Julia quipped that we only had 12 days until we reached Santiago. A mixed feeling of joy and sadness came over me as I pondered her comment. I looked at Sally, “Is that right?”
We bid Julia and Thomas farewell and made our way through the Cathedral’s cloister. It afforded beautiful views of the Cathedral from a different angle and we were able to see many of the original statues, though they were considerably worn. Apparently, something in the material from which they were carved was not as resistant to the elements as some stone materials and they had not aged very well. Leaving the Cathedral, we made our way to our hotel and discovered our backpacks had already arrived. What an amazing service! We couldn’t check-in yet so we headed back out for lunch.
El Patio was the place we chose for lunch and it was hopping! I was able to get a proper hamburger and Sally had a crispy chicken sandwich. Both were not exactly American but close enough to be enjoyed fully. Like many Spanish restaurants, most of the patrons were outside, in this case, on the patio. It was pretty cool outside but there is no smoking inside and it seems that most everyone smokes. The patio was about twice as large as the inside dining area and completely full. The center of Leon was buzzing as locals and visitors enjoyed the sunny Sunday afternoon. The entire area in and around the Cathedral and over to our hotel was full of cafes, bars, and restaurants. We sat and people watched for a couple of hours before heading to the Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro to check into our room.
The hotel is fully renovated and attached to the Basilica of St Isidore, a large Romanesque church built in the 10th century on what was formerly a Roman temple. It is a museum now and many of the Kings of Leon and their families are buried beneath its vaults. The Royal College was renovated as a hotel in 2005 and is a very nice place for a pair of resting peregrinos to stay.
Last night, we ate at Ezequial’s. We had a huge appetizer of cured meet with manchego cheese plus a shared salad. We ate a lot of food yesterday which felt kind of strange. We looked at our schedule and determined that we’ve got 13 walking days to Santiago – which could change depending on what we encounter in the mountains ahead. On our way out of Leon today, we are going to an outfitter to check out options for warmth and water protection. We’ve started to talk about what we’ll do after Santiago – something that, to this date has seemed so far off that it wasn’t worth discussing. As we get closer to our target, the urge to get there increases along with our thoughts of home.
Onward to Villadangos!