Day 5 – Mansilla de las Mulas to León (19.8 km)
I left Mansilla de las Mulas in total darkness again and when searching for the path I was misled by a chalk arrow. I turned right too soon, walked through fields, passed some rather astonished-looking cows, who were probably not expecting anyone at this time of day. Finally I returned to the main road leading to León and joined pilgrims who by now had caught up with me.
With the mountains merely a day’s journey away it was starting to get chilly. I need to rephrase this: ‘starting to get chilly’ was a vast understatement for this particular morning. I have never been so cold in my life! I did not expect this enormous overnight drop in temperature and was dressed far too lightly. At first it was bearable, but then the cold seeped into my body. I decided to walk with one stick, so that I could bury one hand in my pocket, but this provided hardly any relief. I expected the sun to be up soon and provide warmth so I did not look for my jacket stored at the very bottom of my backpack.
When the sun finally did appear, it did not provide any warmth at all and I shivered on in defiance. I tried to have breakfast in Valdelafuente but could not even undo the knot on the plastic shopping bag nor could I open my Jack-knife; that’s how useless the cold had rendered my fingers. Luckily Alexander and Horst from Germany caught up with me and with their help we managed a good breakfast together.
León is a major city, and after passing through the notoriously boring industrial suburbs and residential areas of recent construction, I finally, when passing through a few remaining ruins of the old ramparts, entered the historic centre with its narrow streets and old buildings, all well preserved and inviting with cozy places for restaurants. The foundations of the ramparts date back to Roman times when León was a Roman garrison. It was conquered as late as AD 586 by the Christian Visigoths, the Germanic tribe that progressively liberated Spain from the Romans in the 5th century. By this time Rome had governed the Iberian Peninsula for around 600 years.
The city has a long and colourful history. Spain, under the control of the Carthaginian army in the 3rd century BC, was still a wild and undeveloped country when its hero Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants and unsuccessfully tried to besiege Rome. The Roman armies eventually defeated the remaining Carthaginian forces and Hannibal had to flee Italy. Retaliation did not take long and Roman legions conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 205 BC. In time the old established ex-Carthaginian nobles sided with the Romans and adopted their culture and lifestyle. The local Carthaginians governed the Peninsula under Roman rule and influence, similar to the practice in all other countries conquered by Rome.
The vast Roman Empire was in great need of agricultural goods such as wheat, olive oil, wine and many other products which Spain was able to supply together with diverse minerals such as gold, tin, silver, lead, iron, etc. The trade stimulated the economy and lined the pockets of the elite. To transport goods and ensure the efficient deployment of the Roman armies, a vast network of roads was built, and in this way all major cities were connected. León, which housed the 11th Legion, hence ‘León’, was one of the cities linked in this way and nowadays pilgrims still walk over bridges and almost 2000 year old Roman roads.
Long ago the Visigoths, who originally emigrated from the Balkan states, were allies of the Romans. However, being less sophisticated and rather barbaric in the eyes of their masters, they were frowned upon and mistreated and eventually they moved on to southern France. Around AD 410 they progressed into Spain conquering the Roman legions, and this was one of the crucial reasons for the ultimate demise of the Roman Empire.
The Visigoth kingdom in Spain survived until 711, when the Moorish invasions took place. This was the beginning of the Muslim conquest and by 718 the Iberian Peninsula was almost totally under Muslim control. The Muslim occupation of parts of Spain lasted for 785 years.
The Benedictine Cloister in León was our albergue for the night and after the usual ablution routine, including preparing the bed for the night, I searched unsuccessfully for a new camera and a cell phone. It appears these were more easily obtainable in the newer parts of the city, but, as it was Saturday shops closed early.
At midday the temperature was 34°C and I cooled down in the cathedral of León, a most beautiful Gothic church with enormous stained glass windows reaching up to the arched ceilings. They were so high and wide that I could not find a position from which to have an all-encompassing view of these magnificent structures. One wonders how the narrow masonry columns between the windows are able to support the roof – they are extremely slender and graceful; very unusual for a large building of this kind.
Incidentally, Anna was right when she proclaimed that as a pilgrim one should not take an easy and comfortable shortcut whenever an opportunity presents itself; I was rewarded with great satisfaction for resisting the temptation to use the bus service, even though I could have had quite a good reason not to walk, as my right leg was badly swollen at the ankle and above. Some other pilgrims, however, were much worse off. A young woman was limping with a strap around her knee and a middle-aged woman must have had a shoe full of blisters – she could hardly put down her foot. Neither had taken the bus. Thank you, Anna, for setting me on the right path!
Suffering is part of life; we all suffer at some time or the other, be it mentally, emotionally or physically. But on the Camino, despite developing blisters, unpleasant knee problems or some other physical malaise, most pilgrims appear to be blessed and happy.
Real life is no different. Probably most of us are healthy and active and free from physical restrictions, others have been dealt a raw deal without in any way deserving this. They may have physical impairments, possibly from birth, or caused by illness or accidents or in some other way and they have to live with these condition and the consequences for the rest of their lives. They must surely envy those more fortunate, healthy and mobile.
Under these circumstances it is even more important to develop and maintain positive mind-sets. Those suffering from physical illnesses might not be able to fully participate in our daily activities; they may be restricted in one way or the other, and they may even hinder others, or be a burden to those close to them, however, it is remarkable to experience that those who are afflicted in this way often have a strong character and are spirited people. It is probably through acceptance of their fate that they can maintain a positive outlook.
I wanted to attend Vespers in the monastery in León, which is sung every day at seven in the evening by the resident nuns. This restricted my afternoon movements somewhat and I furthermore found most museums closed. Consequently I enjoyed a beer on a terrace and continued writing my diary. There was so much to write about: events, thoughts, observations and ideas that had come to me as I walked and which I obviously could not jot down while on route. However, when I sat down after hours, the flow of thoughts had often evaporated, and at times it was even difficult to remember their content or the atmosphere in which they were born. All that one remembers might be that there was something important – which is gone. One should have a microphone strapped around the neck like those used by carpet-cleaning salesmen at a fair. But then, apart from looking ridiculous with this contraption, one might be tempted to say too much and express many trivialities like I did at the onset of writing this book.
It is amazing how the mind is constantly active on the Camino, often with thoughts of no importance, such as those about the ongoing changes of walking patterns, or about checking one’s backpack, or listening to the shoulder straps of the rucksack shaving and straining, which probably sounds not unlike the chafing noise made by a saddle when riding a horse at slow pace. One also gazes at pebbles in front of one’s feet, or registers a train or some other movement in the distance, or listens to people catching up – hearing their footsteps – or one contemplates how to greet the person you are about to overtake, after all, one meets many nationalities along the way. Thinking of profound matters while on the way was less likely to happen, and was hardly worth trying to achieve: concentrating on physical endurance came first. Thoughts might be scattered, but one certainly does not walk like a zombie unless one is seriously tired. The mind can be stimulated by any occurrence, maybe by some observation, or by a particular sound, even by smell or by others comments. Maybe even when hearing music or when one has to make decisions of some sort. Later one revives memories when describing the adventure, or when one writes the diary. I was not in a hurry to provoke deeper thoughts: there were many days left and, should such thoughts ever arise, I would deal with them. I did not start this walk with the expectation of experiencing revelations or reinventing myself; I started it because I felt it was the right thing to do. Some pilgrims, even those that had been on the Camino for months, were in fact disappointed that nothing great or profound or life-changing had touched them, so I should not anticipate too much.