The Crowds Descend on the Camino – Sarria -Portomarin

After a long, peaceful week on the Camino we felt part of the Camino family.  We knew what we were supposed to do and say to everyone, and most importantly what to expect each day. Get up, walk, eat and rest, nothing more, nothing less.

Once we arrived in Sarria, Spain the atmosphere quickly changed and the peaceful calm of the previous trail was gone.   There were pilgrims everywhere and they looked clean and energized with their sparkling new clothes and equipment.    Sarria, Spain is the starting points for most pilgrims walking the Camino because the final 100 kilometers it is the least distance you can walk and still qualify for a Compestela once you arrive in Santiago.   It was exciting to see so many new faces and groups but I was a little melancholy that the experience as I had known it, was over.

We stayed in a new albergue called Albergue Puente Ribeira in Sarria, right on the canal that runs through the Camino area.  We loved our albergue because it was near all the action including a street fair and many restaurants.  Puente Ribeira is super clean, modern and had several washers and dryers so we were able to sanitize our disgusting clothes and towels. Here is the website and I do absolutely recommend this place.

http://www.alberguepuenteribeira.com

Albergue in Sarria, Spain
Albergue in Sarria, Spain

 

My clothes were falling off me because I lost weight from the heat and longs hikes so we stop by the local Rhodani Sports Store and bought new trail pants and shirts. Yea!   The store was well stocked and the prices were similar to REI or Dicks in the US but they did not have a lot or any XL women clothes so I bought men’s clothes.   Here’s the website:

https://shop.rhodani.com/es/content/23-tienda-pesca-lugo

We enjoyed some seafood and rice at one of the many cafes along the canal and then retired to our much-loved room to prepare for the final 100 kilometers of our Camino.

The next morning, we departed our albergue and jumped right back on the Camino which was located behind our albergue.  All the additional pilgrims ensured the peacefulness and serenity of our prior days had disappeared, but it wasn’t unexpected.  We had been warned the most people start their Camino in Sarria and it was true.

 

We wandered through beautiful hills,  forest, and some older farming villages.  We peeked into some of the open barns to gaze at enormous cows and enjoyed listening to the roosters trying to wake everyone up.  Although the Camino had now changed for us it was still a simple place.

 

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Barns on the Camino
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Locals butchering an animal
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Donkey on the Camino
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The Crowds have arrived on the Camino

This day was long but it was relatively flat.  After lunch, I swore we had walked at least 30 miles but it was probably only about 15.  Today’s endeavor just would not end.   Just when I thought I couldn’t go on anymore we approached the River Mino and the Camino trail went over the bridge over the river.  Portomarin was our final destination for the day and it was just on the other side of the bridge.

Walking over the bridge was the most frightened I was our entire time in Spain. It was built high above the water and the cars sped by us pilgrims.    I thought for sure we were going to get hit and tossed straight down into the River Minho.    Looking back at the pictures it doesn’t look so precipitous as I remember but I guarantee you if you are the least bit afraid of heights you will not like anything about this bridge.  Funny, but my 12-year-old wasn’t concerned about the terrifying bridge in the least. She was singing along with her music and devoid of any fear.  Silly girl.

After timidly crossing the bridge we then faced a steep set of stairs up into Portomarin.

Will we ever finish this ‘easy’ day??  The stairs were a beast but the view the entire up is stunning, so we took our time and just kept climbing.  Unfortunately, after climbing the stairs and entering this charming town we discovered this town was built on a steep hill and the main church and our lodging were at the top of this hill.  Somehow we made arrived at our Refugio and were happy with our accomplishments.

 

River over Minho River on the Camino Santiago
Scary bridge on the Camino Santiago

 

 

 

Camino /Bridge into Portomarin.
View of the Bridge from Portomarin.

 

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Portomarin Spain Sign on Camino Santiago

 

Portomarin was definitely one of our favorite places. The main plaza has great restaurants where pilgrims congregate to socialize and discuss the day’s events.

Buen Camino

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New Facebook Group for Camino Prep

I just started a new Facebook Group for those wishing to begin researching, preparing and finding out info for a possible Camino Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage.

This group is not made up of judgemental or experts on the Camino.  It is just a group of regular people who want to learn more about the Camino and possibly start planning their Pilgrimage.   Those who have walked before are especially welcomed to answer questions.

Please consider joining and contributing your knowledge.   Here is the link to copy and paste into your browser:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2000846623526485/?ref=br_rs

 

Elizabeth on the Camino Santiago de Compestela

 

 

 

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Horseback riding on the Camino Santiago

Today we went on a little horse ride up a  mountain trail on the Camino.

Elizabeth was still suffering from a blister on one of her toes,  and although we tried all the recommended therapies it was necessary to give her foot a rest so it could heal.  We decided to skip hiking for a day and to ride horses along the Camino trail instead.

Our next area to walk was up to the mountain hamlet known as  O’Cebreiro in Galicia and I found a horse stable called Al-Paso that caters to Pilgrims.  Al-Paso is located directly on the Camino in Herrerias and has twice daily trips up the mountain for about 30 euros each.  The manager’s name is Victor, and he was a wealth of information about the horses and the Camino.   Elizabeth was the youngest rider but luckily there was another young person about 18 years old for her to chum around with.  Our group consisted of about 8 riders,  2 guides and the rest Pilgrims from Italy, New Zealand and the USA.

The horses well-cared care for and were given a lot of attention and love by Victor and his staff.   There were a lot of flies swarming around the horses’ heads and they were not wearing fly masks,  but the assistant assured me that horses were used to it and it didn’t bother them.  Still,  I spent a lot of the time swatting the pesky insects off of my poor animal’s head during our ride.

Our group rode straight up the mountain and passed many Pilgrims and runners along the way. The ride was smooth but we moved at a quick enough pass that it was fun and exciting.  The farmlands and valley views were spectacular and we both really enjoyed this experience.

We only stopped once so the horses could have a drink from a water trough in the center of a small village about  3/4 of the way up.  Once we arrived at the top and dismounted we took some photos and then headed to the center of the ancient but tiny village  called O’Cebreiro,  where we  enjoyed local music, some tapas and liquid refreshments.

O’Cebreiro weather is startlingly different from the other parts of the Camino we had walked in.  It had a thick mist surrounding it and was much cooler and comfortable out.  There are lots of things  to see  in a small space which has been described as a hobbit’s hamlet. The round stone buildings with thatched roofs are called pallazas and they appear to be right out of a fairy tale.   I bought several tee shirts and the prices were very affordable.  This is a cool place to spend an afternoon.

Buen Camino

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Herrerias, Spain on the Camino Santiago de Compestela
Bridge above Herrerias, Spain
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Elizabeth about to ride to O’Ceb.
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We’re off
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Camino Santiago
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Camino Santiago
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Camino Santiago on Horseback
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Side of the trail
Horses at the top of O'Ceb on Camino Santiago
O’Ceb, Camino Santiago de Compestela
Mother and Daughter on top of the O'Ceb.
O’Cebreiro, Spain
The crew on top of O'Cebreiro, Spain
After completing our horseback ride we took a group photo with Victor.

 

 

 

Mother & Daughter Bonding in Galicia

The next few days rushed by and I hardly had time to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the Camino way.   We completed walking in the Leon Province and then entered the hypnotizing countryside and vineyards of the Galicia Region.

Elizabeth and I were eating, sleeping and most importantly walking together, day after day, with no breaks from each other or the schedule.  To pass the time,  sometimes we discussed history, politics, how talented she was twirling her walking stick and how difficult middle school was.   We took care of each other, me by ensuring her toe blister was cared for and her by handing me her walking stick each time we descended steep hills,  so I did not kill myself in a tumble.   We were both entirely committed to each other’s success here and in life.    She seemed to mature right before my eyes and my stress levels vanished to a non-existent level.   The life I had was perfect at this time, as we wandered up and down the hilly pathways and inched closer to Santiago.

Departing Ponferrada,  we enjoyed the path out of town because this flat Camino section runs parallel to a river or creek that was partially visible with our head lights.  But just when I thought it was going to be an easy day, we were faced with a monstrous stone staircase that needed to be climbed.  It was only 6:00 am, and I was already overheated and panting climbing these killers.  But once we arrived at the top, it was satisfying to know that we were able to do it without stopping to rest.   Our bodies and our mother-daughter bond were getting stronger by the day.    After the stairs, we were rewarded with a lovely stroll through the edge of town.  We then entered the bountiful and green,  wine producing region of NW Spain known as Galicia.

Spain is the worldwide leader in exporting wine, ahead of even Italy and France, and its wine production dates back 2,000 years.  Galicia is well known for its lush landscape, white wines, and seafood.    At one point on the Camino, we approached a large wine production factory that bottled wines called Vinas de Bierzoso.  It was opened to the public and although there was a wine tasting area,  this was a real wine factory with its workers in protective clothing and hairnets. I wanted to buy a bottle but did not want to carry it, so we continued on.  It was so nice to walk in and out of different grape vineyards  during this wonderful day and we sat down regularly to enjoy the pretty scenery.

The heat wave continued to haunt us and that night while staying in the lovely town of Villa Franca del Bierzo  we found some relief.  The town has a picturesque river flowing through it with a beach area for swimming and sun bathing. This place seemed different from the others to me in that it wasn’t a  typical Camino type stop with tourist stores everywhere but a real town with restaurants, stores and  locals who were out and about, working and socializing. I liked it here.

After checking into our Refugio, we went for a swim in the crystal clear, fresh water river.  I expected to see many pilgrims cooling off  but didn’t any.  It did not matter because we had a ball.      Elizabeth was thrilled to be swimming and devouring ice cream at the foot of Leon mountains we had just walked over.  The icy cold water was the perfect remedy for my aching legs and Elizabeth’s sore foot.

 

Buen Camino

 

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Galicia Grape Orchard
Elizabeth walking through among the grape vines
Elizabeth on the Camino
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Wine liters for sale in Galicia
Elizabeth and her map on Camino
Elizabeth on the Camino in Galicia, Spain
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Swim Spot on the Camino
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Villa Franca del Beirzo, Spain
Enjoying the ice cold mountain water in Spain
Elizabeth enjoying the river on Camino Santiago

 

Real Pilgrims

As Elizabeth and I continued our pilgrimage towards Santiago, we started to feel like real pilgrims.  We seemed to recognize the others everywhere we went and felt comfortable eating and socializing with them.

Just like the other pilgrims, we washed our sweat soaked clothes in a sink each day and then immediately tried to air dry them,  because we would be wearing them the following morning.  We took a glorious siesta every day after our walk by falling into a deep sleep for a couple of hours around 4:00 pm.  This allowed us to recharge and recover from the brutal heat and the steep hills, both up and down.   The best part of all was all the stress and concerns from our life back home ceased to exist for us.  Camino related concerns were the only thing we worried about, and they were minimal at best.  Life was definitely good.

After Cruz de Ferro we walked several kilometers through mostly mountain trails.  At one point we saw a paved street abutting the Camino.    Parked in a small pullout area was a food truck complete with 5 or 6 plastic tables with umbrellas.  This truck stop/rest area was clearly popular because it was the first place to buy anything in a long while.  We stopped and had some refreshments including my first beer of this trip.  I hardly ever drink beer, but this drink was the best cold one I have ever had in my life.  I was so depleted from the heat and the Estrella Galicia beer was so cold and delicious, that I did not care that I was drinking a beer at 10:30 in the morning in front of my daughter.  After that day I made a rule that I would reward myself with one delicious Estrella every day until we left Spain.

While at the rest stop we were speaking with a Spanish pilgrim and she explained there were 2 Camino routes available to get to the next town of El Acerbo.  One was on the paved road we were on and the entry to the more difficult route was across the street back into a mountain trail.    Up to this point we had been walking on loose rock-filled dirt trails and you had to be extra cautious of where you were placing your feet because the rocks were so unstable.  My feet were killing me, it was hotter than hell out and I had no desire to fight pesky unstable rocks anymore that day, so we decided to walk on the side of the asphalt road to the next town.

When I grew up, many years ago,  the kids in my neighborhood use to race barefoot and I was quite good at it.    After walking about 20 minutes on the asphalt route, I removed my hiking boots and walked for the next 45 minutes with just my socks on my feet.  Having shed the heavy boots for a period proved to be the most comfortable my feet felt the entire time we were in Spain.  My daughter removed her hiking boots as well and walked the same distance in her flip-flops.  We were happy campers.

After about an hour we re-entered the other route and started hiking in the mountains again. The trail was treacherous and I fell once, but soon enough we were back in our grove.   We passed through El Acerbo and the picturesque village of Molinaseca and spent the night in the city of Ponferrada, which has a population of about 65,000.

At this point, Elizabeth complained of a blister on her toe.  On the Camino blisters are a big deal and the pain can dash a pilgrim’s hope of finishing the pilgrimage, so off to the pharmacy we went.  In Spain, you don’t have to go to the Emergency Room for some basic medical care instead people go to the local pharmacy. The pharmacist listened to our blister problem and then provided expert treatment recommendations.  I then purchased every kind of blister remedy she suggested and then some.

We then walked around this fairly large city and visited a few of the cultural and religious sites,  including the exquisite Basilica of Our Lady of Encina.

Here is the website if you want to learn more:  http://www.basilicadelaencina.es

After strolling through a couple of the pretty plazas within Ponferrada and having a quick supper, we retired to our rooms and collapsed for the evening.

Buen Camino

 

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A picture of the trail  before El Acebo, Spain
Trail in El Acebo area in Spain
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Elizabeth on the Camino
Is this trail ever going to end?
Is this trail ever going to end?
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Elizabeth outside of El Acebo, Spain
Estrella Galicia Cerveza
My new best friend

 

 

 

 

Montes des Leon, complete with fresh farmers cheese and cowbells.

 

Today we jumped out of bed and headed out to walk through the Monte des Leon (mountains of Leon).   I first stopped at the reception desk to drop off the key and buy some water for the long day ahead, only to find a sign that informed us that reception was closed and those departing should leave the key on the desk.    Okay then…

It was still dark out and the was air was misty as we headed up the hill and soon passed a closed café.  I kept assuming we would find someplace to buy water for the upcoming walk but I was wrong.   As always, around 5:30 a crowd of pilgrims were beginning their daily trek and soon enough we approached a Camino arrow and could see with our headlamp that the trail was leaving the village and heading into a forested area.   I knew from looking at a map that the next town was only 6 kilometers away and figured it wouldn’t be difficult. The heat hadn’t started it meteoric rise yet but all we had was about 5 swigs of water left in our water bottle.  Most reasonable people would turn around and wait until the town opened up to buy water but not me. I just wanted to stay with the multitude of pilgrims, avoiding a late start and being left behind.  Huge mistake.

When the sun finally rose, we could see the landscape had changed dramatically. We were now on a gravelly dirt trail in the mountains.  On our right was higher elevation and to our left was a gentle drop down from the mountain slope.  We experienced beautiful views but at no time did we see any houses or facilities in any direction.

The heat came in quick and hard, and I was huffing and puffing as we continued forward and upwards.   I had put my daughter and myself danger of dehydration and heat exhaustion with my haste to get on the Camino.

After a while, we stopped to rest on a felled tree aka a Camino rest stop, as I tried to figure out how to make this situation right.  Camino veterans always say “the Camino provides” which is loosely translated to mean that when a pilgrim is lost or out of sorts the Camino will give you what you need, and somehow at just that moment, it did.    We were deep in the forest with no cell service or water and thoroughly overheated when two young Brazilian brothers sat down and joined us.   They spoke minimal English and I spoke no Portuguese, but they offered us a granola bar. I declined the food and instead asked if my daughter could have a small drink of water because we had none.  They shared some of their water with us, I thanked them and we were all on our way again.    Many pilgrims have very limited funds and resources, but everyone we met was beyond generous and kind.

We continued on up the mountain range and a short time later we reached the small hamlet of Foncebadon, which until very recently was an abandoned town overrun with wild dogs that supposedly do not like pilgrims.   After several famous books and a popular movie about the Camino Santiago de Compostela were released and the Camino regained its popularity and this once deserted town is now being reborn.  I believe 10 people now reside there and volunteers routinely visit to assists with pilgrims passing through.

I rushed into the first cafe and purchased at least 5 bottles of spring water and some locally made cheese. This café, as were most, was located right on the Camino trail, literally a few steps from where pilgrims walked by.   As we sat outside at the plastic picnic tables assembled for the pilgrims we saw our Brazilian saviors.  I gave the brothers several bottles of water but they declined my offer to buy their breakfast.  I am quite sure they thought I was some crazy old lady, dangerously walking in the mountains with her child with no provisions and they were right.  We would see them again many times on the trail and I will always be grateful for their kindness.

Foncebadon is an isolated mountain outpost with a strange but quaint vibe.  It looks like it could be a science fictions movie set but staged in a beautiful country area.  It’s main, and possibly the only road is made of dirt and runs straight up into the mountains, but on both sides of the road are all these old, dilapidated stone structures that don’t look habitable; most without roofs or windows.    But every now and then someone has gentrified one of these ruins and now uses it as a café or albergue.  It’s either going to be the coolest location to visit in about 10 years because of these unique structures being renovated or completely deserted again because too many of these same structures have collapsed. It’s hard to tell which will happen.

In the 12th Century, a hermit named Gaucelmo set up shelter and protection for pilgrims passing through the mountains here.  It was an important route toward Santiago but in the late 20th Century it was known more as an abandoned town where wild dogs routinely attacked pilgrims.   We did not see any wild dogs ready to pounce on us as we passed, though we did see at least 30 -40 gentle sheep wandering down the road toward us.  Elizabeth loved this encounter with the sheep.

After moving on, we were blessed to have experienced one of my favorite moments on the Camino.  As we walked the trail the forest opened up and we could now see the most beautiful blue sky and an incredible panoramic view of the valley.  We heard cowbells ringing in the distance and saw several horses grazing a few feet from us.   We then sat on my towel about 10 feet from the Camino on the side of a mountain saturated with acres of wildflowers and hundreds of bright orange butterflies and had an impromptu picnic of farm fresh cheese, chocolate, rasberries and spring water.   Absolute heaven.

Buen Camino

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Cafe in Foncebadon, Spain
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Pilgrim Elizabeth
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Sheep in Spain

 

 

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Elizabeth and the Sheep

 

Foncebadon, Spain
Camino Santiago
Sheep Everywhere
Sheep Everywhere
Laurie on the Camino in the Leon Mountains, Spain
Laurie on the Camino
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Camino Trail

 

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Wild Flowers in Foncebadon, Spain
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Butterflies were everywhere on the Camino Santiago de Compestela

Guadi Palace, Grand Cathedral and the Camino Santiago de Compestela in Astorga, Spain.

We arrived at the deserted Astorga, Spain train station around noon, during a heat wave so hot and uncomfortable that it was widely referred to in Europe as ‘Lucifer’.  Carrying all our worldly possessions on our back, we were full of excitement to start our pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago the next morning.

Although everyone told me I wouldn’t get lost on the Camino I was soon skeptical.  After exiting the train station, I really did not know how to get to our hotel, just that it was a block or two from the Camino and the Cathedral.   Somehow, I thought I would just know how to get there but this was not the case.

Since I didn’t want my 12-year old to know I was feeling disoriented and had no idea where the Camino was actually situated, I needed to get my act together.   Luckily, I did have cell service and was able to google and find directions that were only 5 minutes away.  But as we trudged up the steep road I then realized the Google estimate was for driving not walking.    For the next 2 plus weeks, the only directions or times I would need from google would be the walking instructions.

The Camino’s path is marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells all directing you towards Santiago.  We started seeing the arrows and we finally found our hotel across from the Cathedral and right off of the Camino.

Astorga is a beautiful town with lots to see and do. Hotel Spa Cuidad de Astorga was chosen as our hotel because it had a pool and spa.  I wanted my child to enjoy her time here in Spain, thus the pool, but I really needed to recover from the jet lag, so the steam and sauna were for me.  The hotel was quirky, modern, centrally located, and the staff was extremely helpful.  They are used to pilgrims and their needs, and it shows.    Our room was air conditioned but little did I know that would be one of the last air conditioned anything I would see for a couple of weeks.

We ditched our backpacks and went downstairs to the Spa.  We had the entire place to ourselves as there wasn’t even an attendant there and thoroughly enjoyed the pool, hot tub, sauna, steam and Turkish baths.   They have plush towels and drinks set out for those using the facilities.   Although it is in the hotel’s basement, it had large windows and skylights, so beautiful light streamed in and it never felt closed-in nor claustrophobic.

We then set out to obtain our first pilgrim passport stamp in Astorga from the nearest albergue.  An albergue is an inexpensive place where pilgrims sleep while on pilgrimage in Spain, that is owned by the local government or the Catholic Church.   Since most albergues are co-ed I decided that it was best that my child and I stay in private rooms or moderately priced hotels along the way.

The pilgrim’s passport inscribed with your name is available through organizations such as American Pilgrims on the Camino ( APOC).  Just like an official travel passport receives stamps from different countries, this passport receives a unique stamp from the businesses along the Camino.  This passport entitles pilgrims to pilgrim’s meals and lodging at a substantially discounted rate along the way.  Once you complete the Camino, the passport will be your proof at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago that you walked the required stages of the Camino. After examining your passport, with its many different stamps and dates, the Pilgrim’s Reception officials will issue you a Compostela if you have completed the necessary requirements.

Here is a link to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office:

https://oficinadelperegrino.com/en/

We then walked to the Albergue de Peregrinos San Javier to have our passport stamped.   Once inside we realized how hot these albergues can be.  There were no apparent fans and the place was stifling.   We saw several pilgrims lying on their cots totally exhausted from the long day’s hike.  Alarmed is an understatement of how I felt at that moment.  What was I doing bringing my 12-year-old to Spain alone to walk 270 kilometers during the summer?  Was I crazy?  I would soon find out.

We then visited magnificent Astorga Cathedral, which began construction in the 15th century but not completed until the 18th.  Adjacent to the Cathedral is the Episcopal Palace a beautiful castle designed by the incomparable architect  Antonin Gaudi at the turn of the 20th century and which houses a museum devoted to pilgrims.  This town, with a population of only 11, 000, has both a palace, a cathedral and the Camino trail running through the town center.  Amazing sightseeing opportunities everywhere in this village.

Within blocks of the Cathedral are plenty of shops serving pilgrims needs such as hiking gear, scallop shells and sun hats. After some last-minute shopping, we remained in the plaza just pilgrim watching.    I was just so jealous of their look, which was part strength and confidence, and part shabby and dusty.   They appeared exhausted to me and I could not wait for the next morning to become part of this group; those that were willing to give up their comfortable lives back home to walk across NW Spain.

Our plan for the following day was to rise before dawn to start out at 5:30 am when it was still reasonably cool and to begin our Camino.

Buen Camino.

 

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Cathedral in Astorga, Spain
The Astorga Cathedral
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In front of the Albergue in Astorga, Spain
Astorga Hotel
Wonderful Spa in Astorga, Spain
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Follow the scallop shells