The route between Mansilla de las Mullas and Puente Castro goes along a local but pretty busy road (N-601). The Camino path, however, is wide enough for walkers, cyclists or even horses so absolutely take it. There is an alternative route, apparently more scenic, but personally, I always take the Camino as described above.
4.50 kilometres from Mansilla de las Mullas you will pass through Villamoros de Mansilla (797m; 4.50 km→1.90 km to Puente Villarente). When you get to the village switch to the road and immediately outside the village take the path again and almost two kilometres later you get to Puente Villlarente (802m; 6.40 km→4.20 km to Arcahueja). When you arrive at the Romanesque bridge, mentioned by Aimery and converted many times since, walk your bike through pilgrim’s bridge or switch to the road. If you wish to stay in Puente Villarente overnight – when you cross the bridge turn right, as the albergue sign points out:
Albergue San Pelayo, 56 beds, open all year round, heating, microwave, 10 Euros
Otherwise, continue cycling on the hard shoulder of a pretty busy local road. Meters before the end of the village the Camino turns right and so should you. 4.20 km of cycling on a field track and you will reach Arcahueja (847m; 10.60 km→1.60 to Valdelafuente) a municipality with some nice picnic places prepared especially for pilgrims.
Albergue La Torre, 26 beds, opens from mid-March to mid-November, heating, microwave, 10-18 Euros
There is a change of scenery – as you get closer to Leon it becomes hilly again. 1.60 km on you will pass through Valdelafuente (871m; 12.20 km→2.80 km to Puente Castro) with its warehouses and industrial plants. When the Camino joins the N-601 you can follow it (it will take you to a sheer precipice) or stay on the road for another 500 meters or so and join the Camino again where you will see a blue bridge on your right.
Currently Spanish are building yet another road so the blue bridge is closed. Follow the Camino diversion. The yellow arrows lead to the remote sandy/gravel hills overlooking Leon, slide down steep slope and eventually 2.50 km from the blue bridge you will reach Avenida Madrid.
(Cross the blue bridge and slide down the pavement as the Camino way-marking indicates.) When you get to the main road of Puente Castro (847m; 15 km→4.40 km to Leon Cathedral), practically the outer suburbs of Leon, switch to the street (Av. Madrid).
To get to the albergue turn left onto the first street on the left called Avenida de la Lastra. Hostel is at number 53:
Albergue Santo Tomás de Canterbury, 60 beds, opens from February until November, heating, a kitchen, 8 Euros
Then stop at the roundabout, cross the street and join the cycle path on the left (Av. Fernandez Ladreda).
There is an albergue by the roundabout:
Albergue Check in Leon, 40 beds, open all year round, heating, kitchen, 11 Euros
Cycle straight on and just before the roundabout with Arena Leon, turn right and cross the street and switch to the road (the arena should be on your left) and almost immediately take the second street on the right (with a sign indicating ‘centro urbano’). Carre La Corredera will take you to the heart of Leon. When you pass the park there will be an intersection in front of you
To get to albergue San Francisco de Asis turn left on Avenida Alcalde Miguel Castaños and the albergue is right there:
Albergue San Francisco de Asis, 54-166 beds (depends on the season – the building also serves as a student house), open all year round, heating, 10 – 15 Euros (that includes free laundry)
A small road closed to cars to the right of the tiny petrol station is the street leading to Leon’s old town. Take it and when you get to the church (on your left) you have two options:
If you want to go to an albergue take Calle Puerta Moneda on your right, pass the church with the stone lions and almost immediately turn right onto Calle Escurial (there are arrows, but personally I always manage to pass the street with an albergue run by nuns):
Albergue del Monasterio de las Benedictinas, 132 beds, open all year round, heating, free breakfast, 5 Euros
To go to the cathedral go straight on the partially closed for cars Calle Rua (metal shells and shells inscribed in yellow triangles on the pavement show the route; currently mortal remains of yellow triangles). When you get to the wide main street called Calle Ancha (the 19th-century building in front of you is a Gaudi) turn right and a few minutes later you will find yourself in front of one of the most beautiful Spanish cathedrals – Santa Maria de Regla.
Leon (883m; 19.40 km→4 km to Trobajo del Camino) is a town of Roman origin and the place where the Seventh Legion was stationed. For over a century the city was ruled by Muslims. In the middle of the 9th century the town was recaptured by Ordonio I of Asturias, an ambitious ruler responsible for the repopulation of the Valley of the Duero River, left depopulated after the wars with Islam. His successors led to the economic boom of Leon that was suddenly disrupted at the end of the 10th century by yet another invasion. Meanwhile, the rather weak rulers of the newly established Kingdom of Leon started to pay the caliphate to sustain peace. Fortune is fickle – three hundred years later Muslims had to pay Christians to do exactly the same. Another peak of prosperity coincides in time with the plague of Black Death between the 11th and 14th centuries when 200 million people were wiped out and the population of the city was cut by four. From that time date all the most interesting monuments. Welcome to Leon
residence of the king and the court, full of all delights
Santa Maria de Regla is one of three magnificent Spanish temples besides Burgos and Toledo, imitating the great French Gothic cathedrals. It was started in the first years of the 13th century and was finished in only 97 years as the whole kingdom spared no effort to fund the building. As a consequence, regardless of later additions, the cathedral is very much a 13th-century Gothic structure.
You can see this clearly when looking at the main façade enrapturing with proportion and lightness. In the centre on the mullion stands a beautiful 13th-century figure of Mary smiling known as Virgen Blanca (this one is a replica as the original one was moved inside the church and you can see it in one of the chapels behind the main altar). The unique thing about the Leon cathedral is the fact that it stands in a rather huge and empty square, so it can be seen at some distance from at least two sides. Before you enter the cathedral, walk around taking note of the massive buttresses supporting the structure of the building. Thanks to these, the walls of Santa Maria de Regla could be glass-paneled. The beauty of the cathedral at its height can be seen inside the building. The cathedral has 3 rose windows, 125 large and 57 smaller stained-glass windows. The majority of them were executed between the 13th and 15th centuries. Some of the oldest ones show some interesting scenes from medieval life. On a bright day, multi-coloured light floods into the interior of the cathedral. The view of the rose window from the choir stalls is unforgettable. Master Enrique, an architect who previously worked in Burgos is responsible for the shape of the cathedral. Planning the cathedral in Leon he simplified the design of the cathedral in Reims. The next architect, Juan Perez added some architectural solutions he knew from Amiens. Together they created the lightest and most soaring cathedral in Spain.
The interior is very commodious especially if you compare it to the cathedral you saw not long ago in Burgos. The 15th-century wooden choir stalls draw attention. They depict typical biblical scenes in the most prominent places, while in the background you might notice a moderately interesting depiction of virtues and a fascinating depiction of sins. As said above, the stalls are the place to admire the beauty of the 13th century rose window.
Behind the stalls are alabaster plaques carved by Esteban Jordan, one of the leading 16th-century Spanish sculptors. Personally, I always stop dead and gaze in amazement at the Nativity scene where livestock peeps curiously into a manger.
There are also interesting tombs that should not be missed: in the retro-choir close to the chapel with the Virgen Blanca is the high-class early Gothic tomb of King of Leon Orduno II, the donator of the land where today’s cathedral stands and the most intricately carved tomb of bishop Zamorano one the builders of the cathedral (the north transept). There is the 13th-century cloister with 16th-century vaults.
As the ticket entitles you to enter, take a look at the north façade of the cathedral. Other than that, you have already seen better cloisters on the Camino. So, if you don’t have much time spend it rather inside the cathedral as you won’t see stained glass windows and such lightness and grace of construction anywhere else on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Before you get to the cathedral you pass next to the first of two Antonio Gaudi buildings on the Camino. Casa de Botines was built at the end of the 19th century, straight after this famous Modernist architect finished the controversial Episcopal Palace in Astorga. Originally it was a department store with the upstairs apartments of the owners; today it is a seat of a bank. Unsurprisingly Casa de Botines was inspired by Gothic architecture. It has four towers and above the entrance, there is a sculpture of Saint George killing the dragon.
The building next to it is Casa de Guzmanes, a former Episcopal Palace built in the 16th century in Renaissance style, with a lovely patio that is a flagship example of early Spanish Mannerism.
If you follow the street between Gaudi and the palace you will get to the Basilica de San Isidoro. After cycling for about 300 meters on a cobbled surface you will get to a tarmac street. In front of you, there is the tower of Basilica, from there you can clearly see that the building is attached to the old city walls. Stop here and walk the small street on your right for 10 meters. If you are cycling to Basilica de San Isidoro from the cathedral, look for directions below.
Looking at the façade of Basilica de San Isidoro you might not realise how huge the building complex it houses is. Behind the church, there are two cloisters and the left side of the building occupies the museum. Underneath is the Pantheon of Kings and Queens of Leon.
The Romanesque church was founded by King Fernando I in 1056 and finished in just 9 years. It took its name from the great Spanish Saint Isidore of Seville, whose mortal remains were brought to Leon on the orders of the King in 1063. Isidore, named Doctor of the Church in the 18th century is regarded one of the greatest saint bishops in Spain. Highly educated he is also the author of the first encyclopaedia published at the beginning of the 7th century. The next powerful person who took on the expansion of the building was Princess Urraca. After the princess’ death in 1101, King Alfonso II and his sister continued her work.
From that time date two beautiful portals –the Portal of the Lamb on your left and the Portal of Forgiveness on your right.
The Portal of the Lamb was carved between 1109 and 1115, making it one of the first portals on the road to Compostela. On the left is a figure of Saint Isidore of Seville and on the right Saint Pelagius of Cordova, a boy martyr sexually abused by the caliph, then tortured and murdered, whose remains were laid in the basilica before being moved to Oviedo, where they are venerated even today. Above the portal are the signs of the Zodiac. In the tympanum, there is a depiction of Abraham in the land of Moriah put to the test by God, who told him to offer, instead of the customary lamb, his only and beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. An Angel stops the hand of Abraham at the last moment – God doesn’t want to break the heart of father but doesn’t hesitate to break his own when he offers his only and beloved Son as a sacrifice. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, is represented above. The author of the north portal in Santiago de Compostela carved this beautiful portal.
An artist working in Saint-Sernin in Toulouse made the second portal called the Portal of Forgiveness. In the centre there is the scene of the Decent from the Cross-, to the left a very interesting deception of Ascension, where Jesus is raised by two rather strong angels and on the right the three Marys at the empty tomb. The artist from Toulouse gave each character a round face that you will probably find quite moving. Below the tympanum are heads of a lion and dog (I believe the lion is the one with the mane, but I might be wrong) again with round muzzles. That portal was finished in 1120 and was dedicated to pilgrims going to Compostela.
The Basilica became a model Romanesque church copied with great enthusiasm throughout the whole Kingdom of Leon. St Isidore is a three-nave church covered with barrel vaults, the walls are decorated with checkerboard ribbon, columns with Corinthian capitals and over the windows and doors are cylindrical arches, and the exterior has corbels of geometrical and animal shapes. Its walls are supported by the buttresses. The central apse is covered with a cross vault and is a later addition as the Romanesque one collapsed. Interior of the basilica is severe while walking around pay attention to the capitals decorated with monsters among other things. A Flamboyant Gothic main altar is a 16th-century work and contains a reliquary with remains of Saint Isidore. In the centre of the altar, there is a permanent exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, given as a privilege to the basilica in the 16th century. This means that the church is open 24 hours a day.
The real jewel of the basilica is hidden inside the original narthex (entrance) of the Romanesque church in its earliest shape. The Pantheon of the Kings (Panteon de los Reyes) is a masterpiece of European Romanesque wall painting. Six vaults and five walls – 64 m2 in total- sparkle with ochre, red, yellow and black colours. The frescos are simply breath-taking. We don’t know when exactly they were painted, probably in the second quarter of the 12th century.
One of the most moving ones shows an Angel announcing to the shepherds that Jesus is born. As you will quickly notice, it is not happening on the hills surrounding Bethlehem, but somewhere in the Kingdom of Leon. The shepherds are completely surprised – one of them was just about to play the panpipes, another one wanted to call out his sheep while the third one was lifting a bowl of milk to his lips. That scene is probably the best example of how true the saying is “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” as the shepherd’s dog, unmoved by Angel’s appearance, takes advantage of his owner’s complete stupefaction and behind his back drinks the milk from his cup. In general, the animals in this fresco seem to take the appearance of God’s Messenger quite naturally. Maybe they just see Angels more often than people do?
Anyway, livestock of Leon –goats, sheep, cattle and pigs – surrounds the shepherds. The last fresco seems to be a very important element of the local economy or maybe just close to the heart of the author of the frescos, as a pig’s life cycle appear in deception of 12 months – in October we are shown pigs being fed with acorns while November is the time of their slaughter in the 12th century the Kingdom of Leon.
The real masterpiece of the Pantheon is Christ Pantocrator, a depiction you already saw in the facade of St James’ church in Carrion de los Condes. Christ in a blue mandorla is surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists – Lion (Mark), Ox (Luke), Eagle (John) and Angel (Matthew). His majestic figure emanates calmness, the composition of the fresco is extremely harmonious and sublime. The painting is on the vault and if you give yourself a bit more time to look at it you might get the feeling that the scene is really taking place above your head. So, if that fresco still makes such an impression today, I only wonder how it must have dazzled the minds of the 12th-century pilgrims on their way to Compostela.
Under the vaults of the Pantheon are the graves of 23 Kings and Queens of Leon. While looking at the frescos narrating the life of Christ from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, pay attention also to the 11th century decorated capitals – especially the two flanking the original entrance to the church. The scene of healing the leper and resurrecting Lazarus were the first capitals in Spain with scenes from the Gospel.
Entrance to the church is free, but to see the Pantheon you have to buy a ticket from the museum (museum is private, guided tours only, unfortunately; no photos, unfortunately). The ticket allows you also to see the treasury and among other things the agate chalice of Dona Urraca from the 11th century and a silver reliquary of St Isidoro from the same time.
Leon is a beautiful city and if you walk its streets in the evening you will discover charming squares hidden in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Leon’s last treasure – San Marcos will be described below.
There are four albergues in central Leon, all of them within walking distance from the cathedral. The first and second, run by the convent and monastery have already been mentioned. To get to the third one pass the Albergue del Monasterio and at the end of the street turn right and then walk along the one-way street Calle Tarifa. The albergue is at number 5:
Albergue Muralla Leonesa, 80 beds, opens from March to November (the rest of the year from Thursday to Sunday), heating, a kitchen, 12 Euros
To get to the fourth albergue (actually a student residence that serves as an alberge in summer) you have to pass the main façade of the cathedral and take the street in front of you called Calle Pablo Florez and then immediately turn left to a very narrow one-way street called San Pelayo. At number 15 there is an albergue with a back garden. This one is virtually 2 minutes from the cathedral:
Albergue Unamuno, 86 beds, opens from July until mid-September, heating, 10 – 20 Euros
Take the street in the front of the Cathedral’s main façade (by the Tourist Information Centre) called Calle Sierra Pambley and then immediately turn right into a street called Damaso Merino. Following the Camino way-makings, keep going straight and when you get to the fence turn right. Now you are standing in front of the Basilica de San Isidoro. Take the street right next to the church called Calle Sacramento, turn left behind the church complex as indicated by a pillar optimistically informing you that there are only 306 km left to Santiago (it’s more 10 km more at least for the cyclist). From now on the Camino guides through the one-way streets, so ignore the Camino way-marking.
When you get to the tarmac street turn left (you are still going around Basilica San Isidoro; that’s what I meant when I said that the church complex is huge) and seeing the church tower to your left, turn right. Cycle straight up to the large roundabout (Plaza de la Immaculata) and then turn into the third street called Av. Gran Via de San Marcos that will take you to San Marcos, a jewel of Spanish Plateresque-Renaissance architecture.
San Marcos is a former monastery and hospital for pilgrims. It was founded in the 12th century and given to the new brotherhood of knights known as the Order of Santiago. Although the new order took its name from Saint James the Greater and his red cross pointed with a sword as its sign it was never based in Santiago de Compostela. Its Castilian headquarters were in Ucles (La Mancha) and San Marcos was their seat in the Kingdom of Leon. Order of Santiago was founded as a military brotherhood designed for wars with Arabs. They also protected pilgrims going to Compostela. Unlike the other Orders, they enrolled not only single but also married man although with certain provisions.
Brotherhood was mighty and prestigious reserved only for the nobleman of unimpeachable honesty. With time it became also the honorary title given by the king to those who rendered great service to the country. Diego Velázquez in a self-portrait that is a part of masterpiece painting “Las Meninas” has Santiago Order’s red cross on his chest.
The San Marcos we see today was started in 1515 for royal money. Building it took 200 years. The right side of the façade (from the church to the main entrance) was built between 1533 and 1541, the rest is the 17th and early 18th century. It is very harmonious even though some elements were added later. The façade is a gem of Plateresque architecture, an early Renaissance style typical of the Iberian Peninsula. A mixture of Gothic, Mudejar and Italian elements distinguishes it. The rich and filigree decoration singles out a style that copies the one used to decorate goldsmithery (plateros means goldsmiths in Spanish). The Plateresque architecture looks like a richly decorated casket made by an expert goldsmith. The façade of San Marcos is decorated with almost 50 medallions with characters from mythology, the Bible and Spanish history. In addition, there are hundreds of fauns, sirens, angels, garlands and everything else that at that time was en vogue or rather in pattern books. It is hard to grasp the whole and in the end, you just sit down, just like the sculptured pilgrim in front of San Marcos and look with admiration at the façade lit up by the rays of the rising sun.
San Marcos is today a Parador (luxury hotel). The cloister, which is part of the museum, and the church were mostly executed in Renaissance style, although the façade of the church is an interesting mixture of Renaissance and Plateresque with late Gothic elements. The descent from the Cross, on the left, is by Juan de Juni, an outstanding Spanish sculptor who started his career in San Marcos. His artistic work links late Gothic art with Italian Renaissance. Since his sculptures are full of drama he is seen as one of the precursors of the Baroque style. There are many other works of his in the church and museum.
Following the Camino way-markings, cross the river; on the other side of the bridge, you will see a cross and Camino arrows with a bicycle. At the roundabout go straight on.
Now you cycle on quite a busy road; when you see the green bridge for pedestrians you can cycle over it or continue cycling on the street – both ways soon meet. Now you are in San Andrés del Rabanedo, the municipality that has Saint James’ scallops on its seal. Pass through and then cycle through yet another municipality – Trobajo del Camino (845m; 23.40 km→3 km to Virgen del Camino).
Then turn right onto a small tarmac road. You shouldn’t miss this turn – there are a big yellow arrow and a blue plaque with scallops. Notice on your left the very interesting root cellars that look more like small holiday cottages than a place for keeping potatoes in the winter. Following the arrows go straight on through an industrial area; when the road joins the main road keep straight on. Now you are in Virgen del Camino (910m; 26.40 km→4.30 km to Valverde de la Virgen).
On the left, you see a modern church built in the 1960s that contains a highly venerated 16th-century wooden statue of Pieta. She is the Virgen del Camino (Our Lady of the Way), patroness of the Leon region. The first sanctuary built in her honour was at this site in the 16th century:
Albergue Don Antonino y Doña Cinia, 40 beds, opens from 1st April to 12th October, heating, a kitchen, 7 Euros
At the sanctuary, cross over to the other side of the street. The arrows will lead you to a small tarmac road parallel to the N-120 you cycled on before. There is an alternative way, a bit further away from the main road, but personally, I wouldn’t bother – it is not the most beautiful part of the Camino anyway, so I think that the best is to get out of Leon’s outskirts as soon as possible and get to Villadangos del Paramo. After about 2 km the Camino will lead you through small paths and short but dark tunnels under a huge intersection. Immediately after this, you get to a small hill; slide down the slope on a field track to Valverde de la Virgen 905m; 30.70 km→1.50 to San Miguel del Camino:
La Casa del Camino, 32 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 8 Euros
When you get to Valverde de la Virgen switch to the road. On the outskirts of the municipality, you can cycle on the N-120 or switch to a parallel field track. In San Miguel del Camino (906m; 32.20 km→7.40 km to Villadangos del Paramo) stay on the road. When you exit the municipality, switch to the Camino again.
The path parallel to the N-120 will soon widen and is excellent to cycle on. After 7.40 km of cycling you will get to Villadangos del Paramo (905m; 39.60 km→4.50 km to San Martin del Camino) a small but thriving community. The local church is dedicated to St James and his 18th-century statue as Santiago Matamoros is venerated. On the Baroque altarpiece, there is also another depiction of Saint James as a pilgrim. The municipality celebrates St James’ feast day riotously and, on his behalf, takes care of pilgrims. The albergue municipal (at the entrance of the municipality on the right) is a good place to stay for the night:
Albergue de Villadangos del Páramo, 72 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
Pass the albergue and almost immediately turn right onto a small street flanked with houses, just as the Camino way-markings direct you. Pass the shop, where incidentally you can get your stamp (there is a friendly bar on the left) cross the small canal and minutes later your field track will be parallel to the N-120. Although your track is next to the main road, it is wide and pretty good to cycle on.
4.50 km later you will pass through San Martin del Camino (877m; 44.10 km→6.90 km to Hospital de Orbigo). There are four albergues in this village, the first three are private and they are on the left, while the municipal one (recommended by the pilgrims) is on the right:
Albergue Vieira, 45 beds, open all year round, heating, 7 Euros
Albergue Santa Ana, 96 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 6 – 20 Euros
Albergue La Casa Verde, 8 beds, opens from mid-April until the beginning of January, heating, a kitchen, 8 Euros
Albergue de San Martín del Camino, open all year round, 68 beds, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
In the village switch to the N-120 but when you pass San Martin del Camino take the wide Camino field track again. The track is parallel to the N-120 and soon becomes narrow crossing small bridges over numerous irrigation canals. Even though you are cycling next to the road, the track is really pleasant. After 6.30 km the field track turns away from the main road towards the right and about 500 meters later you will find yourself on a famous bridge in charming Hospital de Orbigo (842m; 51 km→11.80 km to San Justo de la Vega).
The town has a long tradition of caring for pilgrims; The Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem ran a hospice here that gave the town its name. In the 13th century, the Hospital de Orbigo belonged to the Knights Templars. From this time dates the magnificent over 200 meters long bridge, considered as one of the best medieval bridges in Spain. The bridge suffered some damage throughout its history: its spans were blown up during the Napoleon wars; floods damaged others. Nevertheless spans 3 to 6 are still the original 13th century, the others are from the 17th and 19th centuries. The bridge was recently renovated and it’s just amazing. It will lead you to the charming cobbled main street of Hospital de Orbigo.
The trout jumping up happily from the waters of the River Orbigo are the stars of the local cuisine. You can try them hot with ham, in soup or marinated or choose to save their lives and have other Leonese delicacies instead. If you wish to stay in Hospital de Orbigo for the night you have a choice between a private albergue and a parish one.
To get to the first one cycle down from the bridge turn right by the first passage for pedestrians (before you get to the hotel), then cycle for about 100 meters
Albergue La Encina, 22 beds, open all year round, heating, 9,50 – 19.50 Euros (double room)
On the cobbled street on your right
Albergue parroquial Karl Leisner, 90 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
On the cobbled street on your left
Albergue San Miguel, 40 beds, opens from the beginning of March until the end of October, heating, a kitchen, 7 Euros
The Camino runs through the cobbled street, then goes straight ahead on Calle Santiago. At the last house in Hospital de Orbigo the track forks – the route that turns right is not suitable for the cyclists, so take the Camino track in front of you instead. Soon the field track will take you towards the N-120.
Keep on cycling the field track alongside the road – there might not be Camino way-markings. At the traffic light go straight on taking the tarmac road, parallel to the N-120 with a signpost for Santibanez de Valdeiglesias. A few minutes later don’t turn right to Santibanez and ignoring the Camino arrows pointing out the village (Albergue Camino Frances, 14 beds, opens from April to October, heating, 8.50 Euros; the other albergue doesn’t have great reviews on the Internet), just go straight on and in a minute or so you will get back to the N-120.
Cycle the main road and after 100 meters take the Camino track to the right, parallel to the road. When you get to the roundabout, switch to the tarmac road on your left. You will cycle the Camino as far as Astorga, so will occasionally see arrows or posts. The road you are cycling on is comfortable and empty, but personally, I wouldn’t do it alone late in the evening because even though it is parallel to the N-120 in places it feels pretty remote. In the meantime, the surrounding landscape changes – it becomes hillier and you can see mountains on the horizon. Change from the left to the right side of the road as the Camino board points out.
When you turn off the main road onto the track you will see a small forest on your left and a wire fence on your right. After about 1.20 km you will get to Crucero de Santo Toribio, a stone cross, dedicated to the 5th-century bishop of Astorga. Decide here if you want to cycle or rather walk down the road, as it is extremely steep. Now you enter San Justo de la Vega (849m; 62.80 km→5.20 km to Astorga Cathedral); a town that solemnly celebrates Holy Week, Corpus Christi and Santo Toribio day (Turibius of Astorga; feast day is 17th April).
Take the main road to cycle through the town, then go across the bridge and almost immediately turn right onto a field track parallel to the main road. At the end of the track, turn left, as the arrow points out and cross over the railway track by a green, pretty complicated bridge.
On the other side of the green bridge follow the arrows, turning left and then left again. At the roundabout as the arrows indicate take the road that climbs up to the historical centre of Astorga. At the end of the street, turn left and almost immediately turn right onto a very steep road that will take you to the very centre of the town.
There is albergue Siervas de Maria on your left and a church on your right, go past it; the glass screens on your right cover an archaeological excavation. Pass next to a square with cafes and restaurants, the Camino leads diagonally through the square. Cycle straight on as the arrows indicate; the Museum of Chocolate is on the first narrow street on your right. When you get to the red brick wall turn right and seconds later turn left. The Disney type building in front of you is Gaudi’s Bishop’s Palace, the Tourist Information is on your left; cycle straight on until you get to the front façade of the Cathedral. Albergue San Javier is on the first street to the left. You are in
Astorga (923m; 68 km→3.90 to Murias de Rechivaldo) – a city of good architecture and chocolate.
Astorga is said to be the place where Saint James was preaching while converting the Iberian Penisula. The local diocese is very ancient indeed, mentioned for the first time in a letter of St Cyprien in the 3rd century. As it is possible that the foundation of the first church might be close in time to the preaching of the Apostles James and Paul, the cathedral bears the title ‘’Apostolic”.
The Gothic Cathedral de Santa María de Astorga was started in 1471 as an extension of the Romanesque church. Building works were finished off in the 18th century so the cathedral is a mixture of Flamboyant Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classicism. Its West façade (all Catholic churches are oriented to the East, so the West façade is usually the main one) represents first-class Baroque. Inside the cathedral, you will find Gothic vaulting with colourful keystone riveting.
The main altar was executed by the 16th-century artist Gaspar Becerra who cooperated with Esteban Jordan, the artist whose masterly carved alabaster low-relief you saw yesterday in Leon’s cathedral.
Becerra was the artist who brought the monumental style of Michelangelo to Spain and the altar in Astorga is the fundamental work defining this new style. The monumental altar narrates the life story of Jesus and his Mother and matches the tasteful interior of the cathedral. If you have some time the cathedral museum is also worth visiting. You can see, among other things one of the most treasured possessions of the cathedral: a golden 12/13th century Reliquary of the True Cross.
The Bishop’s Palace, by the Catalan Antonio Gaudi, acknowledged as the most original and creative modernist architect rises up proudly next to the cathedral. It is designed in Neo-Gothic style, the same as Casa Botines you saw yesterday in Leon. The palace was a source of numerous controversies, which comes as no surprise to me. Suffice to say that every time I am in Astorga I look at the building and smile broadly.
When the former palace burnt down, the then Archbishop, originally from Catalonia commissioned Gaudi to design a new one. The architect didn’t have time to come up North, so he asked for photos of the surroundings and then designed the new palace. I believe that if he had come to the city, the palace would have looked different. In other words, I suspect that Gaudi’s absence in Astorga may partially explain the undeniable fact that the palace by its presence slaughters the elegant mass of the cathedral. Don’t get me wrong – the building is a piece of very good architecture, but perhaps it should stand further away from the cathedral. And it’s perhaps because it looks like a castle for a medieval princess waiting for her prince to arrive on his white horse, that none of the bishops ever decided to live there and quite quickly the palace was converted into a Museum of the Pilgrimage. However, having said all that the Bishops Palace is an absolute must-see. The family of storks is of the opinion that it is also an excellent place to live.
Astorga is famous for its chocolate, slightly different in taste from ordinary chocolate. There are cake shops everywhere in the city with very tasty displays of sweets. The Museum of Chocolate is rather small but worth visiting. It has amassed a good collection of vintage ceramics, posters, advertisements and antique tools for making chocolate. I really enjoyed it. The other sweet product characteristic of the region is a spongy cake called Mantecadas de Astorga, in taste a bit similar to Magdalenas.
When you get back to Plaza Espania – the square with the cafes and restaurants (walk down the road next to the Bishop’s Palace) pay attention to the Baroque City Hall, on whose façade a sculptured Maragatos couple ring a bell every hour (Maragatos are described in greater detail in the next chapter); then when you return to the first albergue you will notice Roman ruins while the gate on the right will lead you to a small park and the city walls of Roman origin, rebuilt in the 15th century. The view from the city walls is not to be missed.
Albergue Siervas de Maria, 164 beds, open all year round, heating, a kitchen, 5 Euros
Albergue San Xavier, 96 beds, opens from April to the end of November, heating, a kitchen, 8 Euros
Both the albergues have an excellent reputation amongst pilgrims, although personally I always stay at the latter. There is a good restaurant called Gaudi, opposite the Bishop’s Palace. The meals there are indeed unforgettable.