They come from all over the world to spend a month or two walking across northern Spain. Last year there were more than 300,000 of them. The Spanish word for a male pilgrim is peregrino. And they call female pilgrims peregrinas. Stay with me for awhile as we watch one of these peregrinos follow the yellow arrows through the streets of León’s Old Town.
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The peregrino is nearing the end of his eleven mile journey as he walks through the Money Gate (Porto de Moneda) and into the old city of León. His day started before sunrise in the tiny town of Mansilla de las Mulas and he walked his first two miles in the dark. This day, number 20 on the Camino, was the easiest so far. Only 11 miles. Most days were 15 to 18 miles. Once he walked 20. And the weather wasn’t bad. One of the reasons he started out so early was to arrive at his destination by noon, before it got too hot. Of course another reason was that he and the other pilgrims got kicked out of the albergue so that they could clean up and get ready for the next batch of pilgrims who would arrive in just a few hours. The road wasn’t bad either. Mostly level. A little boring, too, because most of the time he was walking right next to a highway.
But here he is walking on Calle Herreros looking for the albergue where he would spend the night. Soon he catches sight of an old church — Nuestra Senora de la Mercado — and he knows he is getting close. And a few minutes later he is standing at a doorway with two yellow arrows pointing the way. He has arrived at Albergue Santa Maria de Carbajal.
400 years ago a group of Benedictine nuns arrived in León and built a convent for themselves that also served as a hostel for pilgrims. The convent is still there and the right side is a two-room albergue filled with bunk beds. The left side of the convent is the entrance to a regular hotel, also run by the nuns, and it includes a restaurant.
León offers many choice of where to stay. The nuns’ own hotel next door (Hospederia Monastica Pax, three stars, rated # 2 of 36 hotels by Trip Advisor) is very nice and has a restaurant. There are several hostels that are closer to either the basilica or the cathedral. There’s a nice 4-star hotel in the Plaza Major (NH Collection Plaza Major, rated # 1 by Trip Advisor) just a couple of blocks from the cathedral. And if you can afford it, the Hostel de San Marcos (rated # 4 by Trip Advisor) tempts you with its luxurious suites. There are also a half dozen other albergues around town. But the nuns only ask for a five euro donation and the place is peaceful. Also, if you are religious, the nuns allow you to join them for vespers at 9 o’clock in their chapel and there’s a pilgrim’s benediction at 10.
The peregrino showers and washes his clothes and then walks out to the plaza known as Plaza del Grano but lately most people call it Plaza Santa Maria del Camino. Someone calls out his name and he joins a group of fellow pilgrims he has met on The Way. They are about to go visit the Cathedral and so he tags along, following the Camino though the streets of the old city. From the plaza they walk to Calle Herreros and then down the street called Calle de la Rua which ends at Las Botines, the splendid building designed by Antoni Gaudi. They then turn up Calle Ancha and walk past the Palacios de Guzmanes to the Plaza de Regla and Catedral de León. The tour takes about two hours and then they walk back for dinner.
By the time he finishes his dinner the sun is about to set and there will soon be a lot of revelry as the tapas bars in all of the plazas within the Barrio Humedo fill up with students and tourists but not with the peregrino and his ilk. The nuns lock the doors by 10pm or so and lights are out by 10:30, just when things get going in Plaza San Martin and elsewhere.
Early the next morning the peregrino is on his way, walking down Calle de la Rua again but this time he only walks a block up Calle Ancha before turning left on Calle del Cid which ends at the Plaza San Isidoro and the basilica. Back in the day pilgrims were required to visit San Isidoro because of the relics that church collected. León was once a kingdom of its own and its kings and queens are buried in San Isidoro along with Isidoro himself who was once a famous theologian and bishop of Seville.
From San Isidoro it’s practically a straight line down Calle Renueva and Avenida Suero de Quinones to Plaza San Marcos and the old monastery that is now a five-star Parador. The hotel entrance is on the left; the church of San Marcos is on the right. In the middle of the plaza the peregrino sees a fellow peregrino resting his weary feet.
The peregrino says farewell to León and he crosses the bridge over the Rio Bernesga and walks toward his next destination: an albergue in Villadangos del Paramo 13 miles away. And 13 days to Santiago. There are mountains ahead and plenty of rain in the forecast. But the peregrino is cheerful and resolute despite the pain in his knee and the blisters on his feet and as he passes a fellow pilgrim on the road he waves and calls out “Buen Camino!”