Day 7 – Mazarife to Astorga (30.1 km)
At 6:30 in the morning I was on my way once more and it was as dark and unbelievably cold as it had been the morning prior to reaching Leon. This time, however, I was prepared: I wore a jersey, a coat with the hood pulled up and my wide-brimmed hat strapped over the hood. In spite of being lucky enough to have a warm body by nature, I certainly did not want a repeat of what I had experienced between Mansilla de las Mulas and León when my fingers became stiff and useless. I was glad to have Uta’s gloves with me which from now on were always in easy reach.
My body was still itching from my bug bites and when I found a pharmacy in Hospital de Orbigo, the lady attendant confirmed that, with so many people from around the world using albergues, bugs were not uncommon. She suggested that, in case of further bites, I would need to fumigate my clothes and for this purpose she offered an aerosol bug killer and a large plastic bag. She also prescribed a tight fitting medical sock to aid blood circulation and reduce the swelling of my leg
Down the road from the pharmacy the Belgian couple I had previously met on a few occasions had their lunch. She was a particularly petite woman and I had always admired her strength and stamina. Her husband had started his walk all the way back in Belgium, she had joined him near Bordeaux in France. We got talking about my last days’ experiences and I explained my predicament. This made her confess that she also had been badly bitten by bugs and was suffering in a similar way. The condition was even more stressful for her than it was to me and on my recommendation she returned to the pharmacy a little way back. Unfortunately this was the last time I saw both of them: I hope they did not have to abandon their pilgrimage.
Before reaching the pharmacy, I had crossed an impressively long bridge with 19 arches in Hospital de Orbigo and as it has an interesting story to tell, I copy the details from my guidebook.
‘Puente de Orbigo, one if the longest and oldest medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge, formed one of the greatest historical landmarks on the Camino. Its myriad arches span across the River Orbigo and make up the passage of honour, Paso Honroso, so called because of the famous jousting tournament that took place here in the holy year 1434.
A noble knight from León with the handsome name of Don Suero de Quinones, scorned by a beautiful lady, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge (and presumably his honour) against all men who dared to cross it.
Knights from all over Europe took up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge until his required 300 lances had been broken.
Together with his trusted comrades he then proceeded to Santiago to offer thanks for his ‘freedom from the bonds of love and for his honour, now restored.’
This certainly was a different era to the one we are living in now!
Further on, in the hilly and wooded countryside, I spread out my sarong on an embankment next to the path and had my lunch, which consisted of the usual salami, cheese, baguette and bananas. This was an isolated region and I was sitting under some trees about ten meters from the path and, because of my elevated position, the few pilgrims passing by did not notice me.
When I saw Audrey passing by, I called her and we exchanged a few words. She was the American girl who was one of our hosts in Vilar de Mazarife – but I did not invite her to join me for lunch. It turned out to be one of those moments where one hesitates, is too slow and in my case probably resistant to have company – and an opportunity passes by. It would have been a perfect opportunity for me to reciprocate for the previous night’s dinner. This is one of the afflictions which I carry with me – at times I avoid the company of others. Maybe the cause is a shyness that still lingers on from my youth when I felt decidedly out of place with people and society, especially around girls. Nowadays this is hardly an issue any more, especially when I am in a group with others, but lacking the light conversational touch and being alone with one person for a longer period can still make me feel uneasy and hemmed in. This is part of the baggage I had packed to resolve on this journey and the encounter with Audrey was my first lesson, which I had failed. Two or three days later I met her again and apologized for my rudeness. She replied that she would have liked to have had lunch with me and her comment made me feel even worse.
One can change in a negative or a positive way. Negative changes are untoward, not benefitting us nor humanity. No one really wants to change in an off-putting way. Those who do are ill advised, ego-driven, and obsessed by harmful emotions. However, even these people are probably convinced that positive change is beneficial – they may just not know how to bring this about. Positive change in the context of my diary is a change from a lower to a higher level of consciousness – from a lower to a higher level of being. Positive change is beneficial to all and raises not only our spirit but improves our everyday life, instils confidence, certainty and contentment and raises the level of enthusiasm. In order to change positively, one has to recognize that this enhancement is desirable and beneficial to oneself or to the situation in which one is involved. Why would anyone want to change something that seemingly had worked well so far? Change is not possible if we consider ourselves to be perfect, if we cannot recognize that it is possible to conduct ourselves differently, in a more constructive way, to our benefit and that of others.
The need to transform the way our mind works inevitably revolves around modifying emotions. Emotional strength is gained by reducing negative sentiments which automatically raises positive feelings. In my mind I envisage a neutral reference line – positive emotions are above this imaginary line and are beneficial, problematic emotions are below this line and invite trouble. Problematic emotions cause confusion and pain which will only change once we are able to convert these into positive emotions.
By gaining emotional strength we are able to live life more fully and all-embracing, which will make us more attractive to ourselves and to others. I was clearly lacking positive emotions, otherwise I would have invited Audrey to share lunch with me.
When we grow in inner strength and confidence we can handle most circumstances and deal with challenges. We can identify our positive as well as our less positive behaviours, may recognize their origins and search for ways to neutralize or temper related emotions.
When others in our lives display an excess of problematic emotions, perhaps being too critical, angry, interfering or by being overly anxious, meek and hyper-sensitive, awareness will assist us in diffusing these conditions. In my case, even if other people are less pleasant than Audrey, I should have made more of an effort. The greater the level of awareness, the more easily we bridge shyness, lower expectations, leave behind tempers and limit aggressiveness. We can then stand our ground in a non-hostile way, be more humane and become compassionate in our actions.
Change from a problematic to a more beneficial state may be slow, hardly noticeable at first, but as we progress, we will develop an awareness of transformation. Even others may then see us in a new light. We will grow in mindfulness and understanding, which will enhance life. Through positive human behaviour we will manage a simpler daily existence and develop a more peaceful mind.
To confirm my understanding of the words awareness, consciousness, and mindfulness, I consulted Wikipedia, which describes the following: On gaining awareness, the mind first becomes conscious, which, according to psychologists, is when we recognize the quality of our inner dialogue and feelings. We begin to understand that we, like everyone, create emotional barriers and cause breakdown in communication. We become aware of the consequence of our own contribution and develop a sense of conscious fairness to communicating and behavioural processes.
Finally we become people able to apply consciousness, which is the state of being alert and compelled to hear, see and think what is really true. We then feel obliged to recognize the need for change.
This is the stage at which we make determined choices. We have not only understood our defensiveness and anger, we have resolved these misguided feelings either partially or completely and we are able to actively contribute to level-headedness, thus defusing unpleasantness.
Once we are able to handle inter-personal confrontations, neutralise conflict and misunderstanding and communicate with clarity, we are on the way to live with greater awareness and compassion.
In Astorga I received a message that my son Arno was horrified by the distances I had hiked, however, the physical build-up over the last seven days had been very helpful, and walking was getting easier as I went along. I could not have tackled 31 km in the first four days, not with my legs seizing and my tendons appearing seriously shrunk. This was no longer the case. After showering and washing my clothes, I felt fit enough to explore the towns or villages of my overnight stays.
Many of my fellow pilgrims that I had previously met were in Astorga and I enjoyed seeing them again. On this particular morning, after leaving Vilar de Mazarife, I reached Villavante – a small village with two bars. The first bar looked rather tatty and the second only opened on our knocking. Two Canadian ladies I had met on the way joined me and we talked while having a coffee. They were gray-haired, mid-sixties, rather sweet and granny-like and had commenced their walk in Burgos. They managed around 15 km per day and one of them had developed knee problems. To lessen the load on her leg, she had arranged for her backpack to be transported on a daily basis to her next accommodation. Despite the discomfort and pain she had to endure she was determined to get to Santiago. Her friend still carried her backpack – this spirited lady was not prepared to take the easy way out. She could just as well have thrown her backpack with that of her friend into the taxi, but chose not to. I was amazed by their determination – even when aching, complaining was not an option.
Shortly before Astorga Walter from the Canary Islands caught up with me and together we made our way to the oldest and most interesting hostel in town. He had slept there previously and knew what to expect. This albergue is a stately sixteenth century building with thick walls, enormous beams and creaky wooden floors. We were lucky and grateful to get the last two beds, and Walter offered me the better of the two.
Since the eighteenth century Astorga has been the chocolate centre of Spain, so I bought a large slab, which disappeared in no time at all. A few days previously I had seen a sign, ‘León 87 km’. By car this stretch would be comfortably covered in less than an hour, but it had taken me three days to walk this distance! This was indeed a crazy undertaking!
In the Middle Ages Astorga had twenty hostels to accommodate the never-ending stream of pilgrims. Nowadays there are only four albergues, though they might be a bit larger than those early ones. The town with its many monuments is perched on a hilltop and an impressively high, fluted Roman retaining wall can be seen in one corner, propping up the historic city centre. It was a great achievement to build this wall, and a mighty deterrent for any invader.
Astorga is a very pleasant place with many plazas, historical buildings and churches, narrow streets and monuments and a major stopover on the route. In Roman times the town was known as Asturica Augusta (founded in 14 BC) and a number of roads radiated in all directions from this major trading post. Today the Camino Mozarabe from Seville joins the Camino Francés here in Astorga, just as in Roman times, when the Via de la Plata from Seville joined the Via Traja, which the Camino Francés roughly follows.
On my return from sightseeing, Don, Walter and Audrey ‒ we all had initially met in Vilar de Mazarife ‒ were already waiting for me and we prepared noodles with tuna and tomato sauce that evening. This time I helped with the preparations, which I enjoyed more than washing dirty dishes. We had a great evening, with Russians, Belgians and a Canadian woman joining in.
Sleep was influenced by the age of the building: the floorboards above and below creaked incessantly from the many footsteps to the bathrooms. During the night temperatures dropped drastically and it became freezingly cold. As usual I had covered myself only with my bed-linen and spread my thin sarong on top. On previous nights this was sufficient but from then on I always spread my blanket over the bed sheet.
The next day, as is common practice on Mondays all over Europe, all museums and churches were closed. For a moment I considered leaving Astorga at lunchtime but this walk was supposed to be a pilgrimage, not a sightseeing tour, if churches were open, I entered; if museums were closed, I walked.
What is a pilgrimage? I asked many pilgrims this question and received many different answers. Some pilgrims had experienced great hardship in their life and wanted to find their bearings again. Others were generally shy and wanted to bridge this shortfall through contact with other people. Some wanted to re-establish their religious beliefs and there are those who were on a journey of discovery, exploring, contemplating, re-balancing. Some came for thanksgiving and gratitude.