Camino Day 22 – San Martin to Astorga

We get up at 7 for breakfast, it’s not quite ready. At 7:10 or 7:15, the hospitalero opens up and gets us breakfast, and sits down in a chair near the bar. He immediately dozes off and snores gently. A guy comes in and hesitates to wake him, but he notices him and straightens up, saying “dime” with almost enough confidence to dispel the notion that he’s asleep on the job. I think the guy is delivering mail or something. Moments later, the gentle snoring starts up again.

As we start walking, it’s cold and I remember I should buy a long sleeve shirt or something. I joke that as soon as the sun is higher in the sky I’ll forget that I need it, which happens to be true.

We walk past Hospital de Orbigos, and the bridge. There’s some legend associated with this, jousting or something,  El Cid or Charlemagne, but I can’t recall it offhand.

There is a tour group or something going through, and this bridge is crowded.

We pass and are passed by the couple from our last dinner, they seem to be walking a little slower but stopping as frequently. We don’t really stop to say much more than hi.

We get coffee and sandwiches in …, and then stop again at another oasis, this one more hippyish. We’re grateful that they have healthy food – fruit and juices. We mix orange and carrot juices, eat a plum and a slice of watermelon. It’s self service, donativo, and delicious. We sit in the shade with  an Australian with white hair, who’s just started his walk from Leon. We say what a great place, and he complains “yeah, but there’s no beer here.” Later we laugh. Beer isn’t at all rare on the Camino but free juice and varieties of juice? This was the real treasure.

Getting to Astoria is a bit frustrating. We see the city from a hilltop (and stop to take a picture of a particularly nice rose) and descend. Before long we’re forced to take the stupidest pedestrian bridge I’ve ever seen to get over the railroad tracks. It is long and winding, and goes in three levels of ramps on each side. In the half hour (est.) that it takes us to cross the tracks, not a single train passes by. Then we enter what we think is Astorga, with views of the cathedral in the distance, but is actually a whole separate city. We don’t stop for coffee, (but the lesbians from the night before do) and press on, re-entering the wilderness before climbing back up into Astoria proper. Dorcinda leaves me behind again, and, rather than racing to catch up, I put headphones in and listen to three songs. Ratatat is pretty good walking music. NOW we’re tired.

In Astorga, we realize that what we thought was the Gaudi Hotel is the episcopal palace. The Gaudi Hotel is just a regular building across the street, with VIEWS of the palace. This softens the blow, from last night, of learning that the place is full up and unavailable. We head to the best restaurant in town, according to the reviews, and get lunch. It is a ridiculous place, open more or less from 1pm to 4pm, and really only serves one dish, cocino de magarato. We don’t know what this is, but seemingly every restaurant in Astorga advertises it, so we get that. Dorcinda opens the door a crack and immediately retreats. Maybe we should eat somewhere else. The patrons are fancy looking and we are ashamed of our dirt and sweat. “We’re sorry we’re so dirty ladies and gentlemen, but we didn’t have time to take a bath, we’re pilgrims!” I take the lead and enter the restaurant.

The host seats us right by the door, which allows us to stash our packs in the corner, but also, I think, offers poor advertising for anyone else who peeks into the door. I need not have worried though – soon the place is jam packed, and some of the people entering are regular folks with kids – I hold the door open for a woman struggling with a stroller, and her son follows her crawling through the doorway on hands and knees. He stands up, and his hands are filthy, making us feel less self-conscious. We’re no longer the dirtiest people in the room, thanks to a small boy who probably doesn’t know any better.

Ordering is surprisingly difficult, they talk fast and don’t offer menu or options, but we manage. Essentially, the guy asks, are you here for the thing? And I ask, can we share the thing? It’s priced per person, he says, and includes bread and wine. Vale, I say.

We are given a tub of bread and a bottle of wine. A few moments later, we get a bucket of assorted meat, boiled I guess. There are things in there I definitely would not order – a square of just fat, a joint of some kind with no meat except skin, chunks of pork boiled with the skin and hair still on, and a rubbery strip that I’m pretty sure is intestine. We start with the chorizo, which at least is a familiar kind of bad. We drink a lot of the wine to wash down the meats, and I guilt Dorcinda into eating more than she wants of this stuff. I longingly recall the juice stand, and how happy I was to eat light, fresh, vegetarian food. I shovel another bit of soft fat into my mouth. We eat more than three-quarters of our bucket, and I’m proud of us. We’re pretty full and ready to move on.

The waiter asks us if we want garbanzo beans, and I realize our mistake – this was just the first course. We look around and realize that no one else has eat as much of their meat bucket as we have. There’s a family of three next to us, and they eat barely half of their meat bucket. We eat beans, and then pork noodle soup, and then have dessert – a cream pudding – with digestifs and coffees.   By the end, we’ve polished off our bottle of wine while the family near us leaves about two-thirds left in the bottle. We’re embarrassed for a whole new reason – we’re barbarians, gluttons. I wonder if there’s a willy wonka like contest – whoever eats all the food put in front of them automatically becomes the new heir, the owner of the place. I imagine the wait staff swapping stories about us later – did you see those two pilgrims? They were small, but they must not have eaten all day – they polished off the entire bucket of meat!! No, no, the other will say, I’m pretty sure its because they’re Americans – everyone in that country is a competitive eater – have you seen the hot dog contest at Coney Island on TV? Strange people, those American, he’ll say, wisely shaking his head.

Stuffed to the gills, we waddle over to a nearby hotel. Dorcinda wants to treat herself for her birthday so we pay for a spa treatment. But it’s a repeat of the restaurant to some degree – we have no idea what we’re getting into. We walk to the spa, and say, we’re here for the thing. The woman at the desk says, oh, the thing? Right this way, and hands us a robe. We change into the robe and, unsure, keep our underwear on underneath. After we’re robed up, she explains, it’s basically a warm pool with air jets and showers. There is steam sauna and a dry sauna, heated chairs that I don’t know how to use, a foot washing station for pilgrims, some showers, and a oil shower car wash gauntlet thing that I don’t understand. We have one hour. We try pretty much everything, except the chairs, and some of the in-pool shower things are surprisingly strong, offering a better than expected back and shoulder massage. We dry off, put clothes over our wet underwear, and head out. I use a hair dryer for my underwear, and it works pretty well.

Next we head for a chocolate museum. Astorga used to be a big chocolate making city, at one point having more than 400 chocolate factories  in town. We struggle through a room displaying the tools for making chocolate “a brazo” and “a piedras” and between the machines and skimming descriptions in spanish, come to a very vague understanding of the process. The next room, however, has a video with English subtitles and it all starts to come together. There are also rooms displaying advertisements and packaging, chocolate presses and moulds, and a description of some of the big chocolatier families in Astorga and around Spain. At the end, we get free chocolate and dumb postcards.

Next up, we want to see the palace and the cathedral, but we’re running low on time, so we go with Gaudi.

We rush through but are impressed by the stained glass, the whimsical and functional and elegant that is Gaudi’s calling card. I think I’ve seen most of his buildings by now, but should double check that. In the basement, we see stone remnants of earlier churches – bits of worn statues, broken columns, empty stone sarcophagi. This is like the church’s knicknack drawer, I think. Stuff that serves no purpose, but once was worth something to somebody, so you’re loathe to discard it completely.

At the end of the day, we attempt to head out to a pinchos bar we’d heard of, just in the same square as our hotel, but when we get there, we’re sickened by the thought of stuffing more food or booze into our bodies. Its too bad, the square has a nice lively saturday night atmosphere. We go upstairs and write for a little before bed.

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