Camino de Santiago: Deciding whether to stay in León

A girl could get used to this…

Distance walked: 26.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 309km

The walk out of Mansilla de las Mulas was flat and happily uneventful. After the previous day’s walk,  my feet and shoulders were exceptionally sore and I walked a bit more gingerly than usual. As the morning wore on, my muscles warmed up, the coffee worked its magic, and I found a pace I could comfortably sustain. Like all the days before me, I just put one foot in front of the other.

By then, I’d already covered nearly 500km of the route so I was well and truly past the half way mark. Honestly, I felt it. I felt like a bit of a nomad. All that open landscape and blue, blue sky had altered my sense of…everything. Surprisingly, I enjoyed that the trail was significantly quieter than every other stretch of the camino. Similarly, I enjoyed the expansiveness of such a flat landscape. And even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, a week of walking through the Meseta really made me feel like I was a long way from home – not just in terms of miles, but in terms of mindset, too. Everywhere else on camino, supermarkets and people and newspaper stands reminded me that I was effectively on holidays in another country. Out in the Meseta though, I felt different. I don’t know if it’s because farming towns and villages are different, or because there were so few people, or because of the landscape itself, but I really felt I was on a journey, not just on holidays. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

All the pilgrims planned to stop in the city of León later that day. After a week of wheat and corn fields, they were looking forward to a cityscape again, with the famous cathedral and some fine dining. Me? I was kind of “done” with the Meseta too. I’d seen enough wheat and corn, and I needed a bit of visual diversity again. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to be in a city – even one as small as 130,000 people. I didn’t care about the cathedral. I didn’t care about shopping or restaurants or staying in a nice hotel. I was happier out in the countryside.

León was bustling with energy and spirit. Natives, pilgrims, and regular (by that I mean non-pilgrim) tourists poured through the cobbled streets, filling the air with laughter and chat. I followed the yellow arrows through the streets, all the while trying to decide whether to stay in the city that night. Though I had started camino on a one-way ticket and had no planned return date, things had changed in the meantime. I had booked a return flight home and so, I needed to be in Santiago by a specific date.

Did I feel pressured by that timeline?

Absolutely.

And yet, I felt that I didn’t want to stay in Spain for more than six weeks. I might have felt greatly detatched from my life at home but I didn’t want to make that a reality by staying any longer.

So, I wandered through León, feeling the atmosphere as I went, and tried to decide what to do.

I wanted to stop for some food and a rest.

I wanted to stop and reflect a little while.

I wanted to decide whether to push on to Santiago for a specific date, or to go a bit more slowly.

I rounded a corner and came into an open square, filled with outdoor tables and chairs in anticipation of lunchtime. Delighted that they were all in the shade, I pulled up a chair and removed my sweaty backpack, and consulted the menu. And then, with no forewarning or pre-planning, I spotted someone I knew: Kevin! The same guy I’d met way back on Day 1 in Orisson, and whom I’d bumped into countless times since, was in León! We hadn’t seen each other in days, but it felt like months or even years. We hadn’t planned to meet so to spot him right there, right then, was such a joy.

Amazing serendipity!

He ran to retrieve Liz and together, the three of us sat for lunch in the shady square. I feasted on paella and wine, and considered my options for the road ahead. Liz, a great listener, helped me articulate my reservations about staying in León. I might have been the only pilgrim that day who didn’t want to stop in the city and take in its sights, but Liz gently coaxed me to do what I wanted to do. And so, when the food was eaten and the wine was drunk, I stood up to bid them farewell. I’d have loved to stay on for dinner  that evening but the road called: I wanted to keep walking. Right before I left, Liz undid a delicate scapular from around her own neck and gently placed it around mine. I’ve never been one to wear religious tokens but she hoped that it would help me with the decision-making that lay ahead. I hoped so too, and I gladly wore the piece for the remainder of my camino, and beyond.

And then, I walked out of the shady square into the bright afternoon sunlight, leaving Kevin and Liz behind me, again, until God knows when.

Other blogs and guidebooks are filled with criticism for the walk out of León, towards La Virgen del Camino. They talk about poor signage and an ugly landscape. I suppose, after the beauty and grandeur of León, those 6km are a bit rough. That day, I didn’t see that at all. I felt lighthearted and happy to be on the move so those 6km, while searingly hot, were some of the happiest kilometers in my camino journey. That’s what happened when I walked camino in my own way. 😀

 

 

Walking 4 hours for my morning coffee…

Distance walked: 24.5km

When I arrived in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos on a sweaty, dusty, Sunday afternoon, I was hugely relieved to get a bed in the hostel. There wasn’t anywhere else to stay for another 17km and I was tired enough from walking 24km already. The ground seared from the heat and it was a relief to get in to the shade. I have to thank my fellow pilgrims for pointing out that the local shop was open for only an hour that afternoon. If I needed food or drink, I’d need to be quick. Just as well because not only was there nowhere to stay for another 17km, there was also nowhere to get food, either. Without that pilgrim’s advice, I would have missed out on the shop’s opening hours and I would have had nothing to eat for breakfast the next day.

The next morning, I ate my breakfast baguette sitting on the side of a corn field, with the morning sun in my face. I did some stretches. I drank some water. I gazed out on the flatness of the landscape and enjoyed that there were almost no trees, no shady spots from the rising sun. It’s one of my favourite memories of all camino, probably just because it is so simple.

That morning, I salivated in anticipation of a coffee. I would have to walk for hours to get one and I realised just how privileged I was, and am, in my everyday life. In my day job before camino, I often got a morning coffee to drink while I worked. The walk from my desk took all of 30 seconds and I did it without really thinking. Here I was, in the hot meseta, walking 4 hours to get my morning coffee. It felt incredible. And I thought of all my former colleagues who were surely at work that morning, perhaps walking 30 seconds to their morning coffee, and perhaps not quite realising how comfortable their lives were. They had no idea the efforts I was going to that morning but you know, my life was comfortable too. I didn’t, and don’t, have to walk hours every day to secure fresh drinking water. Compared to millions of others, I have a dream life. I’d do well to remember that more often.

I did do something rather stupid that day, though. I carried 4 litres of water in my backpack, which added a staggering 4kg of weight to my load.

Why?

Well, the previous evening I chatted with a pilgrim who allegedly cured her tendonitis and plantar fasciitis by drinking lots of water. I mean, 7-8 litres a day. On the surface this sounds plain ridiculous because it puts pressure on the kidneys and one spends the day looking for toilet stops. She insisted it worked though, and I was so sore and so reluctant to take painkillers that I thought I’d try it out. There were no water stops for at least 17km that morning so I filled my water bottles at the hostel before I started out.

Big mistake.

The extra weight hurt my shoulders and back. I drank all morning and even filled up along the way in an effort to hit the 7-8 litre target. Sure, the more I drank, the lighter my pack became. Great. But by the time I arrived in Mansilla de las Mulas that afternoon, I was sore in a whole new way. A word of advice? Don’t carry 4 litres of water at any one time, it’s really not a smart move.

As for drinking 7-8 litres of water each day to cure tendonitis? Well, I tried it for a few days with no notable results only that my feet were even more sore from carrying the extra weight on my pack and I needed to pee every 20 minutes. Medics have since explained to me that consuming that much water throws the body’s salt/water balance out of whack. Drinking that much water, even when walking 30km a day in 30-something degree heat, isn’t necessary. It also isn’t helpful. And carrying that much extra weight? Well, that was was definitely one of my dumb-ass days on camino!

Still, that morning coffee was AM-A-ZING. So good, in fact, that I had two…and you would too if you’d walked 4 hours to get it! 🙂