The Road to Santiago.

November 1, 2002

San Marcos.
San Marcos

León to San Martin del Camino

The weather was a little overcast and cool but at least it wasn't raining. I left my hotel and walked down the broad thoroughfare to the rotary at the edge of the city, beyond which I would find el camino again. There was very little traffic since it was early on a holiday morning (All Saints Day). Suddenly a car came around the rotary and stopped right in front of me. The sixty-ish woman rolled down the window and wished me a ¡buen camino! This is just another example of Spanish cordiality.

After I crossed the rotary I came to a plaza bordered by what looked like a palace. It is the Convent of San Marcos, which housed the Knights of Santiago, another group of military-type clerics, dedicated to the protection of pilgrims. The exterior façade is from the 16th Century and is in a style known as Plateresque.  [Editor's Note: Plateresque was the name given to the style with extravagant carved decorations which look like the work of a silversmith (platero) rather than a stonemason.] You would think that today it must be a museum. Actually it's a hotel — a very expensive hotel, known as a parador. The parador hotel system was started by the government back in the 1960s as a way of preserving many of the old castles and buildings throughout the country. Someday, I would like to have enough money to spend a night in this one. I wanted to see the inside but felt too shabby this day to try and get past the doorman.

Pilgrim statue.
Sleeping pilgrim.
In front of the hotel was an interesting pilgrim statue. Although frozen in bronze, you could sense his weariness. An interesting touch is the fact that he had taken off his sandals. Boy, do I know how that feels!
Church La Virgen del Camino.
Church La Virgen del Camino
Seven kilometers from León I came to the town of La Virgen del Camino which has a very interesting church — built in 1961. This town always had an important role on el camino and the church was built on the same site as the ancient one.
Church La Virgen del Camino.
Church La Virgen del Camino
As I passed by the church, people were coming out and proceeding to the cemetery to celebrate All Saints Day, which is very important in the Catholic religions and is especially important in Hispanic countries. The flowers they carried for the graves were very beautiful but I demurred from taking photos out of respect for the day. Spanish cemeteries are different from ours. They are small and surrounded by high protective walls. (The photo I've included is from a cemetery I passed a few days earlier.)
For miles and miles, I passed by piles and piles of football-sized root vegetables in the fields. I surmised the crop to be sugar beets. In similar areas were field after field of corn. But the stalks were brown and dry and I thought how strange that they hadn't picked the corn. Perhaps it was going to be used as silage. Or perhaps it was so dry that it wasn't worth harvesting. Another thought came to mind. Maybe it's like with cotton, which drastically depletes the soil. Maybe the corn will be plowed under — but I didn't think so. Perhaps my friends from the Midwest could provide me with an answer. Perhaps the man coming towards me could answer. When I asked him, he said the corn would be harvested it in a couple more weeks when the grains (kernels) got bigger. Bigger? I wasn't convinced — I know a dried stock when I see one! A few kilometers later I came across an old man at the side of a field where a farmer on a big tractor was digging up the root vegetables. The old man was doing what old men like to do — superintend. So I decided to test my hypothesis. "Pregunta. ¿Esos para azucar?" (Question. Are those for sugar?) He answered yes. Since I was having success, I tried to learn about the corn. "¿Porque no cortan el maiz?" (Why don't they cut the corn?) His answer was simple: "¡Mas pronto!" (Too soon!) There you have it — too soon! Okay, so maybe the other guy was right. What do I know? I'm an Easterner from a fishing community.

Not very far from La Virgen del Camino, el camino ran along the edge the highway. All of a sudden a car stopped and the driver jumped out and ran toward me across the street. He handed me a photocopied flyer and quickly returned to his car and drove off. It was an announcement of a new albergue at a town called San Martin del Camino. (Are you starting to see a pattern with these names?) I had intended to go to Villadangos del Páramo which was 3 K closer and, according to the guidebook, was one of the better albergues. But this flyer made it sound good: a new albergue, hot showers, a restaurant close by, and a tienda (store) where you could buy food. Besides, tomorrow it was supposed to rain, and walking 3 K extra in good weather meant walking 3 K less in the rain. Okay, I was sold.

Well, the part about the hot showers was true!

When I got to the albergue I was the only pilgrim there. I asked the woman hospitalera how many pilgrims were there yesterday, she said ninguno (none). Oh great, I was going to be alone in a strange place in a strange town. I really hoped that more pilgrims would come.

What's the saying about being careful for what you wish? Three more people stopped for the night. Relieved, I got out my computer and went into the kitchen to try and write. Well, all of a sudden there was a ruckus in the hallway, and I was sure that a fight had broken out. No, it was just a group of ten 14-year-old kids apparently on a mini-camino for the weekend.
It became too noisy to concentrate, so I put my computer away and decided to go to the restaurant which advertised that it served meals at 7:30. Since it was 7:10, I decided that I could while away the time at the bar and read a local newspaper. So I left the albergue and asked the first person where the restaurant was. He pointed across the street. I went in only to find that I had entered what seemed to be some sort of men's club with a bar. There were about 10 or 15 tables each with a group of men sitting around either playing cards or dominos. The noise level was high, even for a Spanish bar. Everyone was speaking so loudly that each had to almost shout to be understood. And the cracking of the dominos as they were slammed onto the table sounded like gunfire. Confused, I left and went back across the street and asked the old man again where the restaurant was. He angrily said, "Allí," and jabbed a finger from whence I had come.

I meekly went back and this time I saw that a screen had been erected in the back of the room, obviously designating what was considered the comedor (dining room). A man was setting a table with twelve places. When I asked him where he wanted me, he pointed to the table. Something didn't seem quite right, so I told him that I was by myself, a look of panic crossed his face. He told me to wait at the bar. He quickly ran to get a card table — literally. After throwing on a dingy white tablecloth and place setting, he invited me to sit. I was in the corner. And I mean the corner! While sitting there eating my less-than-mediocre meal, in walked the honored guests — the ten adolescents and their two (not very old themselves) leaders. I had to sit there listening to the giggles and verbal sparing of boys whose voices were just beginning to change. To make matters worse, most of them smoked (like most Spaniards) during the meal. Each tried to impress the other with their ability to blow smoke rings. Fine dining, indeed!

Later that night, while one of the pilgrims was trying to sleep, the kids were doing what kids the world over like to do — make noise. Angrily, she gave out a loud "ssh!" For the next hour it was a series of giggles and shhs back and forth among the "youths"!

Good night, you princes of León! (Remember a similar line from the movie Cider House Rules?)
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