If arriving in León had been an experience in urban exploration, leaving the city was no less so. Its industrial fingers stretched out from the city centre, following major motor routes on their way to other metropolitan dots on the map. Our pilgrim path followed the busy N-120 – which itself followed the newer, faster, grander A-71 – leading us westward for 24 kilometres to San Martín del Camino.
San Martín. The quintessential farming community. Wheat is the traditional crop hereabouts, although wells and irrigation have expanded the repertoire to potatoes, corn and sugar beets. We claim our private room in Albergue Santa Ana and head out for a stroll through this quiet prairie town. The atmosphere here is familiar, pure small town America, whether its Treherne in Manitoba or Grafton in North Dakota. There’s a quiet beauty here. And a sturdy matter-of-factness found in any small farming community. In the local bar sit a gaggle of men, playing cards, watching soccer, drinking beer or sipping a local wine. They give us a cautious glance before turning back to their games and drinks.
The next day takes us further down the shoulders of the N-120 until we finally break loose and enter the town of Astorga, 30 kilometres later.
It’s a beautiful town with Roman origins, a significant artifact of those early days being the walls surrounding the old town. True, they have been rebuilt twice, most lately in the 15th C. But they still give the town a formidable edge as well as a pleasant paseo on which to take a stroll and watch the sun set over the spectacular countryside.
Inside those walls lie several architectural treasures. There is the Gothic cathedral with its high-flying buttresses. There is the Baroque ayuntamento (city hall). But, for Antonio Gaudi buffs, the highlight is the Episcopal Palace. Construction of this palace for Archbishop Juan Bautista Grau Vallespinós began in 1889. But then the Archbishop died and construction halted for 20 years. It was not until 1913 that the building was completed by another architect, Ricard García Guereta, who added the second floor and roof. Still, Gaudi’s imaginative neo-Gothic design is clearly apparent.
The palace’s exterior is finished in granite from the nearby Bierzo region. Which is a fitting bridge to our dinner. Helping to wash down our Cocida Maragato – an overwhelming multi-course meal of meat, meat and more meat – is a splendid bottle of Bierzo red wine.
This is the fifteenth of a number of planned posts to my on-going Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay. If you have any observations or your own Camino experiences to relate, feel free to use the Comments section below.
If you are interested in purchasing prints for any of the photographs in this series of Camino de Santiago blog posts, they can be ordered directly from my website at www.firmangallery.com/camino-frances