As I leave Sahagun in the dark, the sun just beginning to rise behind me, I’m feeling much more positive than yesterday. Less than an hour into the walk I take an alternate route that is said to be more scenic and follows one of the best-preserved stretches of Roman road in Spain. It’s a few miles longer, but I’m so happy to have taken it. There’s no one around! It seems everyone else has opted for the shorter route that follows the highway. This is perfect for me on my first day of the Frances. I see just a few other pilgrims and enjoy the peaceful stretches of Roman road. In the late afternoon my alternate route meets back up with the main trail and there’s tons of people again. Everyone seems to be stopping in this one particular town for the day so I keep walking another 4 miles to the next town, Puente Villarente. I end up finding a nice, quiet, family-run albergue and get a whole room to myself for just 5€. Okay Camino de Frances, you’re turning out to be pretty alright so far…
This morning the route takes me into Leon, a decent sized city with an impressive cathedral in the center. In the afternoon I once again opt for a scenic alternate that avoids the highway but tacks on a few extra miles. It’s beautiful rolling countryside and there’s no one else out here! I stop at an albergue called Hostel de Jesus in Villar de Mazarife. It’s a cute place with a really friendly girl running it (we have the same birthday!) and there’s just a handful of other pilgrims here. My dinner ends up being kind of sad—a can of lentil soup and a bottle of wine from the tiny market in town, but one of the other pilgrims roasts a bunch of chestnuts he found on the trail today and gives me a bowlful. They’re delicious! I’ve never had them before, they remind me of sweet potatoes. I’m so surprised how peaceful the trail has been for these first two days. There’s only three other people in the room with me tonight…maybe the Frances isn’t as crowded as I thought it would be.
Unfortunately one of my bunk mates is an expert snorer and keeps me up all night. I’m pretty sure it’s the petite Asian girl. I can’t believe the sound she makes—a deep, resonating baritone rumble. Quite impressive but incredibly irritating!
Since I can’t sleep I get up early and quietly sneak out of the hostel before anyone else is up. For the first couple hours I walk down the middle of a straight, flat country road in the dark. I don’t use my headlamp, the white lines on the road are bright enough to follow. It’s such easy walking I’m able to spend most of the morning gazing at the stars until they fade away with the sunrise.
By midday I reach Astorga and take my first break. I grab an iced coffee and a bag of chips from the market and sit outside of the Gaudi Palace. It’s an impressively beautiful piece of architecture and I enjoy sitting in the sun and watching the hordes of tourists who stop to take photos. I don’t know why, but I get such a kick out of watching people as they pose for pictures. I could sit for hours but for some reason I’ve planned to walk 50 km today and I’m intent on sticking to my goal, so I pack up and hit the road.
I pass a small cafe on the outskirts of town and stop to use the bathroom and grab a small beer. As I’m about to go outside to enjoy my beer a couple at the bar starts talking to me. They’re a husband and wife from Washington D.C. and the woman just walked most of the Camino this past spring. She stopped in this same cafe during her walk and had fallen in love with the homemade cake here, so came back with her husband to get the recipe and meet the woman who makes it.
We go through the usual small talk routine and then she grabs my hands and looks intently into my eyes and I know it’s coming, the dreaded question… ”So why are YOU walking the Camino?” Ugh, why does everyone ask this? Why does there have to be some big, important reason? As I return her gaze I can see she’s very excited for my answer. I shrug and say, “I dunno, because I like to walk?” Her expression tells me this is not the profound response she was hoping for. Her husband then tells me his wife walked the Camino for deep spiritual reasons and carried the prayers of her friends along with her and dedicated each day of her walk to one of those prayers. He says the Camino for her was so much more than just a hike to check off a bucket list. I can’t help but feel like he’s insulting me, that because I’m walking for the pure joy of walking is an inferior reason. Whatever. I finish my beer and politely say goodbye. And by the way, I tried the cake, it wasn’t that good.
In the evening I finally reach the small rural village of Rabanal del Camino and look for an albergue. There’s a few in town and they’re all the same price, so it’s hard to decide which one is best. As I’ve been walking the past couple days I’ve been quite put off by the amount of hostels advertising along the way. It’s obnoxious, tons of small billboards and even glossy printed brochures littering the trail. Because of this, I try to avoid the albergues with the most advertising. Based on this criteria I decide on the Señora del Pilar hostel. It looks really cute from the outside and I’m exhausted from my 50 km day, so I figure it’ll be ok. It ends up being terrible. The woman who greets me is rude, hurries me through the check-in process, then ushers me into a giant room filled with about 30 bunks. It’s already filled with people, backpacks and clothing strewn everywhere. I get a dreaded top bunk and my bed is pushed right up against my neighbor, I’m basically sharing a bed with a stranger tonight. The entire room ends up being full and a busload of school kids shows up in the evening. I try to sleep but people are rustling around with their bags and opening and closing the door until nearly 2 am. As I lay awake all night amidst a symphony of snoring I wonder if my criteria for choosing albergues might be flawed.