Stage 21 Leon to Mazarife 13.8 miles.
The sun came out in the course of the morning and it was a dawdle from the Convent down to Virgen del Camino. There was a modern church at a major crossroads with interesting bronze apostle statues on the front elevation facing west towards Santiago. I no longer cared if the route was scenic. I was just grateful to be dry. By chance we chose a lovely cafe where the owner had made apple pie from the apples from his tree. I make a decent apple pie myself and know how much trouble it is. My pie was despised by my children because I used apples from our tree, too. I admit that the tree suffered from periodic infestation but I was careful to cut the bad bits out. And if I sometimes left a bit of skin on, well, they’re always telling us how fibre is good for you. He had a little bowl of apples on the counter, hoping to sell. He wasn’t making much money. There were a lot of cafes in the same street. But I told all the pilgrims who followed us in that the apple pie was brilliant and not to be missed, and they all bought it.
Further along the trail, at Oncina, there was a stall selling donativo fruit. Nancy and Naomi were there, and we all bought bananas. ‘ Pleasure is often spoiled by describing it,’ wrote Stendhal, so let me just record that it was a happy, simple time.
Then when the glow of the fruit had worn off it turned into a long dry slog along straight metal roads. The fields on either side were dreary and uninteresting. It felt much more tiring than climbing the Pyrenees.
There was a choice of two albergues in Mazarife and instead of Tio Pepe I chose La Casa de Jesus. The Home of Jesus. It sounded religious and respectful, possibly another convent. I could do with a quiet, peaceful night, I told Hugh.
But I had forgotten that Jesus is a Tom, Dick and Harry name in Spain. The Casa turned out to be a derelict two storey barn with a grim faced woman….in no sense a hospitalera…. at the door. Thankfully, there was no sign of Jesus himself. There was a courtyard with dirty abandoned mattresses to negotiate in order to access our dorm. They had been left outside for a long time and looked damp.
‘That’s great,’ said Hugh cheerfully. ‘They’re prepared for pilgrim overspill. No one gets turned away here.’
The walls had long ago been painted a dingy lilac and were now covered with graffiti.
‘Oh look,’ said Naomi, equally cheerfully. ‘It’s pilgrim thoughts and inspirations. Last night it was paintings, now it’s language. So many means of expression! You’ll love this, Esther!’
Naomi is imbued with the same positivity of outlook as Hugh. She had shared a table with a couple of retired teachers the previous week and I had been obliged to overhear every word of the conversation. It seemed that the older and less attractive of the two had been an outstanding teacher, and had intervened in the life of one individual pupil, so that, thanks entirely to her, instead of heading to prison he now had a certificate or two and every chance of a remarkable career. Fair enough! We all like to think we’ve helped someone along the way. But we were sharing a slow three course dinner and this woman was still explaining to her companions of duller intelligence how she alone of all the staff had spotted his potential by the time we reached the coffee.
Don’t know why I was surprised. Schools are full of such self – regarding staff. But Naomi had never met this woman or her star pupil before.
And she was from Australia. She might have had stories herself to contribute…. dangerous dingoes, kick boxing kangaroos, salty crocodiles, man eating spiders, soaring house prices in Sydney, that sort of thing. But she never got a word in. And yet she smiled politely throughout the meal and expressed regret to these new found companions that she would be going back to a different albergue for the night.
A French intellectual once wrote, Hell is other people. It was in a play called Huis Clos, which translates as In Camera. So you’re no further forward as regards meaning. But it was a good enough story, about three people, a man and two women in a room, the afterlife. He took a shine to one if the women, but she fell in love with the other woman. They were to be frustrated in perpetuity. I was reminded of him suddenly.
I lay sulking in my bunk while Hugh went for a beer in the bar with Naomi and I had a good read at the pilgrim thoughts on the walls. Total rubbish. And I’ve never understood why people would want to deface walls in the first place. It’s out of control in our society. The Ancient Sumerians, I believe it was, gave us paper. What a gift! And I think the Egyptians invented vellum. Vellum! It has such an enchanting sound. Goatskin, was it? Anyway, I have never in my life wanted to deface a wall. My Spanish daughter in law invited us to her house in Barcelona for Christmas and her Mum gifted me an exquisite notebook and a very fancy pen to write in it. But I never had any thoughts worth recording, so it’s still in a drawer. Alba’s mum sends me elevated thoughts translated from medieval texts, round about Christmas time, and beautifully crafted in fine calligraphy. Here’s a sample –
‘Pass quietly through the din and haste and remember how much peace there can be in silence. Always you can, without having to humble yourself, keep good relationship with everybody. Tell your opinion with calmness, and clearly, and listen to others, including the dull and the ignorant; they also have a story to tell.
Avoid the vulgar and the aggressive, because they oppress your soul. If you compare yourself with others you run the risk of making either pride or bitterness grow inside you because there will always be better or worse people than you.’
Calming, isn’t it? And so it goes on. It’s from a manuscript from 1692 found in a church in Italy. And she wrote it out just for me. I can appreciate that. People I know are always trying to make me a better person. She’s only met me a few times but she seems to have got my measure. It’s possible Alba filled her in. I would love to pass through the world in silence. I just find it more difficult than most.
Anyway, even the British hostages chained to a radiator in Beirut in the Eighties did not write messages on the walls. I know how I would put a stop to it.
‘You’ll be all right when you’ve had some food,’ said Hugh. ‘And see, everyone’s here… Graham and Cindy have just arrived. That’ll cheer you up. And the Australian pair….’
They all met up for supper at the bar. We sat apart at a small table and watched how hard the Australian girl tried to interest Graham without openly ditching her own partner.
‘Chocolate, anyone? So, you two, how long have you two known each other?’
‘About two years,’ came the reply.
‘And for how long of that have you been….together?’
Cindy gave the reply this time. It might have been ‘Two years.’ Or perhaps it was ‘None of your business.’
‘So, how do you show your love for Cindy,’ she turned to Graham. ‘How does she know that you love her?’
‘What do you mean?’ He was clearly embarrassed. I could have answered for him but it would have been unseemly coming from a woman of my age.
‘Well, do you clean the house …..or cook her a meal….or something?’
‘Yeah…I cook for her. Sometimes.’
‘Do you have any other ways of showing your love,’ she persisted. ‘How does Cindy know you love her?’
There was a brief silence.
‘Come on, old man,’ I told Hugh. ‘Time we were out of here. Before her boyfriend clocks her one.’
We relaxed in the bar with Naomi.
‘Have you noticed how she’s changed,’ said Naomi of the hospitalera. ‘She’s put on some makeup and some jewellery and now she’s smiling at the customers. Yes, it’s the same woman.’ Naomi herself was still smiling. She seemed to find it easy to be cheerful. She and Hugh had a long chat. They brightened the place up.
I found I was able to sleep through the lilac graffiti after all.
Stage 22 Mazarife to Astorga via Hospital del Orbigo 19.4 miles
My knees were beginning to hurt and I got relief by binding them very tightly with crepe bandages.
Hospital de Orbigo is famous for its long Roman bridge. It marks another of the Brierley stages. By the time we arrived I had bound both my knees even more tightly, so it was probably not a good idea to ask for my blood pressure reading at the pharmacy en route. It was a disgrace.
We arrived early at the private San Miguel albergue at the same time as Naomi and Nancy and we had the choice of dorms. There was a dark, silent room at the back away from the rest and another with open access to the stair way and flooded with light.
‘It’ll be nice and quiet in here,’ I called from the dark doorway, but I was ignored. Hugh and Naomi were already unpacking in the sunshine and Nancy had begun addressing her blisters.
The walls were covered in pilgrim paintings. The hospitalero showed us some dusty art materials and invited us to contribute. And only then did we learn that Naomi was a college of art teacher. She set to work with pleasure. And this is what she produced.
The hospitalero had compiled a book about his pilgrims showing things of interest in the locale and I sat and leafed through it while Naomi was painting.
Even better, he lent me a hairdryer. He keeps it in the cupboard under the stairs. There are no hair dryers anywhere on the Camino so for that alone he deserves to be remembered.
It was turning out to be a happy afternoon….
Ether and Hugh were two of my absolute favs on the Camino – so happy to have featured in such a nice little vignette in Esther’s memoir.
Cant wait for the Camino to be open again – I love the pilgrim life.