Saturday, October 24, 2009

Away from the Autopista

Walking out of Astorga this morning across the bridge over the autopista, the cars rushing under me with their occupants cocooned in their steel capsules made me think about how different the world is at 3 mph. The series of pictures following the autopista snapshot illustrate just one day’s worth of slow travel.
In the next little town, I rejected the Camino signs urging me to veer to the left side of Murias de Rechivaldo (apparently a routing resulting from some successful massaging of whatever bureaucracy defines the Camino currently), and instead stayed on the road through the center of this small village, which continued on to Castrillo de Polvzares, a highly gentrified reconstruction of a once abandoned Maragato village.
The Maragato are – or rather were, given how few remain – an ethnic enigma living west of Astorga. They kept much to themselves, and given the poorness of their soil, depended on work in transport, for many centuries as carters and muleteers, more recently as truck drivers. No one has identified the origin of these hill people. Theories and speculations have them as survivors of Goths who invaded the peninsula, or related to the Moors who remained in Northern Spain after the reconquest, or as descendants of the ancient Astures who lived in the area before the Roman conquest, etc., etc.
But, before they withered and became assimilated, the Maragato built fine dry-wall stone houses and fences. So restoration by people seeking second homes has become a major pastime, and perhaps the Camino has contributed somewhat to a restored prosperity also.
Walking along the local road to Castrillo, my eye was caught by an incongruous Tex-Mex style hotel and restaurante traveling under the name Meson Casa Flop. It struck me as an odd name until I got it. Some people take this Camino business less seriously than others.
Castrillo itself was wonderfully restored, indeed too much so. The perfect stonework of the streets and every house gave it something of the feel of a Maragato Williamsburg. The feeling of ancient stones was muddied by the weekenders’ insistence of parking their BMW’s in front of their perfect houses on their perfect cobblestone street. But still a more than worthwhile detour.
I took the path at the far end of town toward the next town, Santa Catalina de Somoza, with mild hesitation since my guidebook warned it was poorly marked. Unmarked proved more accurate, but no path passing a paddock of white horses can be all bad. The path was really a narrow dirt road in any event, and I reasoned, where else would it go but Santa Catalina. True enough, but when I came to a Y-intersection, the question posed was which road went to Santa Catalina. I opted for the conservative left fork (which, if it didn’t go where I wanted, was at least headed back toward the paved road). Some of my friends made the opposite decision later in the day, spunkily aiming for the next town beyond, El Ganso, and came to regret it. Sometimes being a wimp works out well.
Santa Catalina was a good Camino town (it had two coffee bars) with an appealing dirt road leading into town toward the inevitable church belfry (although this one had only one stork nest). El Ganso, next along, was less engaging, but did have lots of Maragato stonework in varying states of decline and restoration (gentrification is apparently proceeding westward from Castrillo).
The long rise west of El Ganso – we picked up 1,600 feet over a few kilometers – offered wonderful views back over the flatness of the meseta which has bored everyone for a good part of the last week. And in terms of unexpected pleasant surprises, I turned a twist in the path toward the top of the hill, and came across a Spanish peregrino posed in an improbable swing while her girlfriend took her picture. I asked if I could take a picture of my own, and declined their invitation to take one of me on the swing.
My walk for the day ended in Foncebadon, a few kilometers from the high point of the Camino, where I’d made arrangements for a ride six kilometers back to Rabanal (in order to shorten an otherwise long walk tomorrow). Foncebadon is at the treeline – it would make a good finish for one of the lesser climbing days in the Tour de France. While sitting on a stone wall waiting for my pickup, one of the town cows snarfed grass closer and closer (the picture was taken with a wide-angle lens, not a telephoto) until I adjourned across the road to take a picture of the donkey with his friend the goat. Not much else going on in Foncebadon.
Back in Rabanal, I took a swing around town in search of a “wee-fee” network. No luck there, but I did find ample quality stonework, more than a little rundown, to make me sure this will be as gentrified as Castrillo in another five or ten years.Now, wasn’t that better than a day on the autopista?