Monday, March 7, 2011

Tales of Knights and Damsels and Roman Bridges

The bridge at Hospital de Orbigo that dates from Roman
times, where medieval knights strutted their stuff.
It felt like we left León with a hangover, but in reality it was two things: a) the dismal suburbs west of the city that resulted in a half day of slogging along on bleak sidewalks, and b) our sadness at having to leave such a wonderful town. León definitely was a high point of the Camino with its combination of rich history, great architecture, rich nightlife, and pilgrim subculture. Sitting at a cafe on Calle Atoche one can watch the Camino march right by as pilgrims from all over the world funnel into the old city to soothe their blisters and whet their appetites.

It's now clear that our ragtag group of walkers consists of two pilgrims styles. We'll call them the "walkers" and the "runners."* Some of our group enjoy a leisurely stroll through the countryside, noticing flowers and stopping for photos of mountains and buying an extra ice cream bar at an alimentación. Others of us sprint ahead and quick rack up the miles. The runners include Bart, Jackie, Elissa, and yours truly. The rest are walkers, with the exception of Susan and Gwynne who stick to a slower pace, but relentlessly accumulate miles under their feet.
At Hospital de Orbigo. Front frow from left: Elissa and
Dana. Rear, from left: Bart, Erin Elaine, Alison, Sandy,
and Susan. 

The first day out of León we managed a good, long day of walking, surprising ourselves with a 37 km journey that landed us at Hospital de Orbigo. The town is named for a pilgrim hospital from the Middle Ages and the Camino crosses the River Orbigo on a long bridge here, surprisingly long for the tiny river below. In Roman times, when the bridge was built, the river followed a broad, shallow track at this point. Now its channel is narrow and deep. Over the centuries the bridge has accumulated a hefty amount of folklore. Here's a description of some of its history from a Camino cultural guide:

A strategic point on the Roman route connecting the Roman city of Astorga and the silver mines of the Bierzo region with France, the town has witnessed many battles in its long history. The Suevi and the Visigoths met in battle here in the fifth century, and four centuries later Alfonso III defeated the Moors and recaptured the city for the kingdom of León.
However, it was not any of these military engagements that made the town´s name famous for all time, but a contest of a more romantic nature that took place in the mid-15th century. That was when a Leonese knight named Suero de Quiñones issued a challenge to the best lances in all of Europe, vowing to meet them in battle for 30 days on the stone bridge that spans the river in order to prove his devotion for an unnamed noble lady who had rejected his declaration of love. Some 300 jousts and one month later, having proved his love for his lady and considering himself released from what he regarded as his "prison of love", the victorious knight removed the iron collar he had worn around his neck as a symbol of his enslavement of love and took to the Camino de Santiago as a pilgrim. Upon arrival at the cathedral, he deposited a jewel-encrusted golden bracelet as a symbol of his release from the prison in which love had kept him prisoner. The bracelet can still be seen around the neck of a bust of St. James the Lesser in the cathedral museum in Santiago.

The albergue at Hospital de Orbigo was a delight, with artfully painted walls and handcrafted stone floors. To be honest, the uneven floors were a little painful for our tender feet, but nothing could stop us from enjoying the great pilgrim company of new international friends and the nice tastes of a nearby Italian (!) restaurant. Tomorrow, Astorga!
And whose knight in shining armor
might this be?

*Our exercise miles continue to accumulate. Elissa, Jackie, Bart, and Sandy are training for a marathon and half-marathon on April 16, so their miles are accumulating rapidly. As of Week 5 the individual totals are: Bart, 115; Jackie, 102.8; Sandy, 94.6; Susan 94, Gwynne, 93.3; Elissa, 81.9; Alison, 59.3; John 58.9; Erin Elaine, 49; Dana, 24; Greta, 19.5; Jeanne, 4; Dawn, 4; Lisa,3. Team Charles has pulled out to a commanding lead with 433.3 miles, while Team John is pulling up the rear with 376.5. 

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