Finally, no rain! And no rush either – it’s a pleasant enough walk into León from here, and I want to really enjoy my last day of walking. Communal walking. Most of the pilgrims from last night have already left, some of them planning to walk straight through the city and just get a stamp before they move on and stop in the countryside. Some are planning to make the most of this short day to enjoy what León has to offer, some are planning to take a rest day in a hotel, chilling and sightseeing and restocking on socks, medicines, energy.
First pit stop, for second breakfast, is in Arcahueja, where random yellow dots make us laugh and lead us towards the bar. Familiar faces all around, it’s like coming home! All the talk is about what we’ll do when we get to a big city again – posh hotel rooms, hairdressers, massages, foot treatments, and sadly, for some – like me – one day of excessive tapas intake before they have to leave. When I tell the others, they look at me with empathy bordering on pity. I would too, if the Tevas were on the other foot.
The blue bridge across the main road is still closed, and the reroute is not too bad – at least you can see the city in front of you and just focus on it.
These words do resonnate though. I don’t want to stop walking. My favourite and often walked stretch is from Astorga, only two or three days’ walk from León, to Santiago. I could be there in two weeks … two lovely weeks of green Galician woods and stunning views and … and … but first, León. Just keep walking for now.
Entering León is surprisingly easy, and suddenly you find yourself smack in the middle of the city. Normal people in elegant clothes mill about, and culture shocked pilgrims, still dusty from the meseta, blink against this abundance of – well, everything! People, noise, smells, signs, shops, cafés, bars – yes bars, surely this calls for an anchor beer!
I sit down at the bar we arranged to meet at in town, overlooking the gorgeous cathedral, and have a look at the map in my guidebook to find the shortest route to the room I booked months ago. No check-in until three, so I have lots of time to enjoy a drink, a tapa or two, and people watch in the sun. I really like half-days; you arrive in town before the ones who walk the ‘normal’ stages into town from Mansilla or even further back, but still have all day to enjoy your destination. I have clean clothes in my pack, so all I need to do is shower and change in my own room. I can do laundry tomorrow, so I have clean clothes for the journey home. But we don’t want to think about that. Camarero! Una clara mas, por favor!
Just before three I find my reception and my room, quickly unpack – spreading clothes and stuff around at will, what luxury! – and hop in the shower. Afterwards I actually just rest on the bed for a while, even turn the telly on, just because I can. Is this a sign I am reentering reality?
But much as I enjoy the room, the surfaces, the bed and the lock on the door, the real treat is León herself, so I get dressed
up and go out. The plan was to meet at the bar, though the time was a bit loose. Some want to attend mass, some won’t arrive until now, so I saunter (from sainte terre, so a proper pilgrim way to walk) around town, getting my bearings and taking photos. Shops don’t seem to tempt me, my pack is too small, but I can’t resist the cathedral gift shop, and get a notebook, pen, fridge magnet, and a camino shell button for my sunhat.
But as always happens, you come around a corner and there they are! No matter the size of the city, you always bump into people you were hoping to see again, and there are shrieks and laughter and sometimes tears, from exhaustion and dehydration and joy and sadness and general overwhelm. Some of us head for the bar for a catch-up, some want a shower first, in time the family and its many extensions are gathered again and head into the Barrio Húmedo for tapas and drinks and celebration, stories and memories and farewells and safe journey home and buen caminos.
The warm Spanish night seems without end, but at some point it is time to get back to that lovely bed. The walk is over, but I still have a whole day in León to look forward to. Starting with a serious lie-in and a shower before brunch, just because I can!