The following morning, we left the monastery while it was still quite dark and rode through sleepy streets to find somewhere we could have a spot of breakfast. We eventually came across a café near the river bank which had just opened, so we were their first customers of the day. We ordered croissants and coffee, and watched as the street outside began to come alive with the usual hustle and bustle of such a large city. We left along a small bridge that spanned the river, and were soon to find ourselves on the LE441 which eventually led us onto the N120.
It didn’t take us long to reach Valverde de la Virgen, then San Miguel del Camino. The whole area seemed to be quite built-up and commercialized but at least there were tracks on either side of the busy road, keeping us away from the main thoroughfare of traffic. Mile after mile of soulless towns with, surprisingly, a few isolated houses on large plots of land. This was a more salubrious part of Spain obviously, as many of the houses were enclosed by large fences and gates.
Even this, however, eventually gave way to a much quieter area. Although still busy with cars, at least the industrial areas and houses had disappeared. Eventually we found our way off the N120, onto a wide well-kept section of the trail and heading for San Justo de la Vega. Almost there, we came across Cruceiro Toribio, a small cross. When we arrived, there was nobody around and we stopped for a rest. I asked John if we should leave the stones (given to us by our family) by this cross because there was already a small pile there. He agreed that it would be ok, but as I got off my bike and proceeded towards the cross, a cyclist rode up to us – and stopped.
It was our friend Miguel from the Monastery. He remonstrated with me and kept saying that “the stones belong at Cruz de Ferro” so I eventually had to admit defeat, put the stones back in my pannier, and carry on. Laughing at ourselves, we realized that, yet again, we were being “directed” as, until this point, on the few occasions that we had run into Miguel, we were usually eating his dust, not the other way round.
Eventually, we left the cross and began a steep descent towards Astorga. We were delighted to come across what can only be described as one of the “wonders of the world” when it comes to engineering feats – a large green iron bridge that traverses in a zigzag fashion – up, over and then down the other side of the railway track. It was so ugly that it was actually quite beautiful. I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals thought of this monstrosity, which is picture on the Introduction page. Shortly after the bridge, we were greeted by a large shell perched on a roundabout with the words “Astorga”. )
Once in the town centre, we hailed a cyclist as she was riding passed, and asked her if she would like join us. She put her bike next to ours and joined us on the veranda of a small hotel. We spent a welcoming hour chatting over lunch, then spent some time together exploring Astorga. Our new friend’s name was Clara, a young Belgian who we had seen occasionally along the route. It transpired that Clara was travelling without a puncture repair kit or even a pump. She added that she was putting her trust in the Camino and, indeed, she had not had any punctures since leaving her home some weeks before. She kindly took a picture of us outside L’Hotel de Ville, D’Astorga.
Having said our farewells to our new friend, we still had quite a bit of the day to get through at this stage, so set off once more. We decided not to return to the N120 (admittedly, much of it runs parallel to the walkers’ trail), as we were desperate to get away from noisy lorries for a while, so were relieved to come across the much smaller LE142 road, almost certainly part of the walking trail. This minor road led us towards a particularly stunning village called Castrillo de los Polvazares. It is famous for its location and is well known for being used as a backdrop for Spanish films. This was easy to believe if only because of its aesthetics and building materials. The roads, houses and shops are made of local stones and slates typically in the Maragato style – low, humble buildings of one- or two-storeys clustered tightly together around winding cobbled streets.
We left our bikes in what was obviously a parking area and walked towards the narrow streets (not comfortable to ride on). There was a small church, Santa Maria Magdalena, a simple structure with a crude but attractive facade. You could walk around the whole village within 45 minutes. I was told later that the restaurants and bars do not open here on Mondays, although today was Friday anyway.
We certainly found it difficult to leave before turning our attention to reaching the next village where we were to stay the night. Santa Catalina de Somoza is an upmarket version of the little village we had just visited and it was easy to find a charming little albergue. The dormitory was particularly small, and almost full by the time we arrived. But there was an upstairs area with some private rooms where, for the princely sum of 35 euros, we were happy to use.
We were both tired and delighted to discover that they sold evening meals so we settled in for the evening with a Dutch priest and some German pilgrims for company. A young Australian man joined us at the bar after supper. I asked him where his valuables were because he did not appear to have them on him. He replied that he had left them in his backpack. When I mentioned that this was, surely, rather foolish, he said that he “trusted in the Camino”. Having recently been given proof in Leon that leaving things in your backpack was perhaps not a great idea, all I could say was that I hoped he was right.
Today had started out with a lot of cycling on main roads, with nothing but cars and heavy trucks to keep your mind from wandering, and ended up with cycling through some delightful areas, full of character.