Arcahueja >>> Leon (10.9km) >>> Villadangos (23.7km) >>> Astorga (28km) >>> Rabanal del Camino (20km) >>> Molinaseca (27.8km)
= 110.4km (Total: 543.8km)
We almost forgot that we were walking the Camino when we stayed in Leon. It was the biggest city we had been to in a while and we had planned to spend a whole day there. We had only walked 11km in the morning from Acahueja so we weren’t too exhausted to explore which is something that happens quite often.
We found our albergue straight away, showered, dressed and wandered into the old town. The cathedral was amazing. A long time ago, the massive stone building had threatened to collapse and it took multiple architects and decades to obtain stability. For this reason it is particularly special to the people of Leon. The stained glass windows were the prettiest and biggest I’ve ever seen. The audio guide told me that there were over 1000 square metres of stained glass throughout the cathedral which made it so different from the others I have visited in Spain. After that, we pretty much ate our way through Leon. We started with the most delicate pastries and coffee for bunch, hot chocolate and ricotta tart for lunch and tapas and wine for dinner. To say the least, we seriously indulged. And boy did we feel it the following morning.
The few days leading up to Leon and the 3 days that followed were the worst we’ve had on the walk so far. The monotonous uninteresting scenery and endless stretches of pavement either on or right next to the highway made the days seem to go on for ever. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when cars are whizzing by every few seconds and the landscape is industrial. We had heard that there would be a stretch like this on the Camino that would test our mental strength and morale. We hoped this was it and that it was now over and done with.
Thankfully we left the highway on our way out of Astorga. We also had a new addition to our group – a French man called Guillaume. The path was pretty and we felt like we were getting back to nature as we walked into the cute little town of Rabanal. This was where we started seriously checking the weather. This is because the next part of our journey was going to take us up and over the Leon-Castilla mountain ranges and it can sometimes be quite dangerous to follow the path due to blizzards, cold weather etc. Sure enough, the weather turned the night before. It snowed and the wind was blowing a gale outside. We celebrated Australia Day with a couple of red wines and joked with Guillaume that none of us were properly prepared for hiking in the snow. The next morning we carefully selected our clothing. We donned our fleeces, thermals, waterproof pants, buffs, gloves, beanies, etc. I tied plastic bags around my sock-covered feet before I put them into my shoes – a menial attempt at mitigating the non-waterproof issue. And then we set off in the windy snowy cold. The locals suggested we stick to the road rather than the trail and who were we to argue?
The road up the mountain was cold, long and arduous. The wind was crazy-strong. Adam had his buff completely covering his face and you couldn’t blame him. The wind was blowing the snow into our eyes, up our sleeves and down our collars. Not only that, the road was very slippery so we had to stick to the edges where there was fresh snowfall to maintain tread. One positive was that it the temperature wasn’t alarmingly cold and we managed to warm up quite a bit by the time we reached the first town at 4.5km. There the temperature gauge showed us it was minus one degree which was enough of an excuse for us to stop for a coffee and some milk chocolate. We were in very high spirits, despite the weather and so we continued up the mountain.
On one of the main peaks between the next two towns, Foncebadon and Majarin, there stands the very famous Cruz de Ferro, or ‘Iron Cross’. This tall cross has a mound of stones, rocks and other objects beneath it. This is where pilgrims place the rock or special object that they have been carrying ever since they began their journey. It is supposed to represent whatever it is you want to leave behind before your ‘rebirth’ on the final part of your pilgrimage to Santiago. It was a special moment when we placed our rocks beneath the cross. Guillaume explained to us that the rock that he carried represented his sins and his old way of living. He went on to tell us that he was making a new start in life by trying to be the best person he can be. We reflected on this and seeing his conviction and passion we couldn’t help but feel in some way that we were a part of something special. After all, we had walked over 500 kilometres in the last 25 days which was no small feat for any of us and it certainly hadn’t been easy.
We walked away from the Cruz de Ferro feeling elated and after about a kilometre of walking, we stumbled across a small hut in Majarin and realised that it was the place our friend Jack had told us about. It is a small refugio run by Tom, a man who takes pilgrims in and gives them refreshments in the winter and accommodation in the summer. It was a little wood hut with barely any lights and we sat in there, happy to be warm and out of the snow. He stamped our pilgrim passports, gave us hot coffee and biscuits and we chatted with him about the weather before moving on. He told us that it could be worse and that there was 80cm of snow when the last Australian came through. After reading the register we worked out that this Australian was actually our friend Jack.
Despite random bursts of snow, hail and rain, the rest of the day was clear and the view from the top of the mountain was spectacular. We parted ways with Guillaume once we reached the down hill stretch and it was like we had stepped out of winter into spring. There was green grass all around us and little mountain streams that crossed the path. Our spirits couldn’t have been higher and we all agreed that it was our best day on the Camino yet.
That night we stayed in Molinaseca at a lovely little casa rural with a woman who looked after us and fed us the most delicious food. We rested as much as we could because the next few days were going to be big ones (30km +).
But incredibly, we only have a few more days until we reach the home stretch of 100km to Santiago.