June 12, 2008 Mansilla de las Mulas to León

Today I learned why many people suggest taking the bus into Leon. The long walk through suburban/exurban estates sucked the life out of the spirit, but as León became more dense the city started to breathe. On entering the old city it became clear León is a gem of Spain. Its walled city contains hidden plazas and winding streets full of restaurants, pubs and, at night, party-goers. The center of it all is the cathedral, which on Saturday overflows with brides and grooms readying themselves for the wedding vows. I could tell I would love this place.

I found my hotel, the Posada Regia, and then sat at a table on the Calle Ancha, where I discovered a great vantage point for pilgrim-watching. One after another I saw pilgrim friends and acquaintances walk by and share  waves, hugs, and “buen caminos.” Stefan called to say he’d like to meet me here to tour me through the nightlife of the town, so I prepared for an extra day for rest and to gather strength for a party night with Stefan. I hung out through the day with Maria Paluselli of California and scouted out a masseuse to ease our tired muscles and relaxed next to the constant stream of pilgrims on Calle Ancha.

Next day: I visited the cathedral and the church of St. Isadore, along with many of the nooks and crannies of the old city. In the evening I met Stefan, greeting the one remnant of my original camino family with many hugs, stories and laughter. Stefan is a force of nature and one just has to try to keep one’s footing while being around him. He’s full of ideas, muscular charm, an eye for pretty girls and the South African equivalent of the gift of Blarney. We headed out for a night of great food, great conversation, and several types of the mysterious liquor absinthe, a curiosity of mine that at the time could not be sold in America. Thanks to the persistence of Stefan, who after much searching and much sampling, found this rare liquor at one tiny bar that didn’t open until after midnight.

By 1:00 a.m. I had had my quota of 4 drinks in one day, so I carefully and a little nauseously walked back to the hotel and dropped on the bed to get some sleep in advance of a long walk tomorrow to Hospital de Orbigo. It was great to see Stefan and I had a blast with him in one of the true “party nights” of my straight-laced life.

June 11, 2008 Bercianos to Mansilla de las Mulas

As Tim, Trevor, Danni and I were leaving Bercianos, Trevor announced his plan to take a bus from Mansilla de las Mulas into León. His goal was to miss the long slog through suburbs into this beautiful, but sprawling metropolis. I worried privately that my plan to walk the whole distance would mean that I would miss them after this evening.

We walked through Moratinos and the odd underground homes between there and Reliegos. At Reliegos we stopped at a bar/cafe and there met Daniel Harman, a biker whose plan was to ride from his home in Brighton, England to the tip of South Africa. He had discovered the Camino de Santiago as he’d ridden across Spain and had decided to wander along with the flow of pilgrims for at least a few days. We described albergue life to him and he purchased a credential and stayed with us for several evenings along the way.

On the outskirts of Mansilla de las Mulas another vast flock of sheep took up the road in front of us. In town I found the main albergue which has a large courtyard where pilgrims do their washing and socializing. I said goodbye to Danni, Trevor and Tim and contented myself with  laundry, food gathering, and ATM plundering. That evening I got an SMS message from Stefan of South Africa. “When will you be in León?” he asked. “Tomorrow night,” I replied. He was in Ponferrada, was wanting to spend another great Friday night in the party-city of León, and promised to meet me there to show me how to celebrate like a true pilgrim. I went to bed with the sadness of missing one set of friends, but the joy of knowing I’d see another in a little more than a day.