October 12th- Saturday
Astorga to Castrillo de Los Polvazare
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With only four miles to walk today and our albergue for the evening booked, J’Nell and I sleep in late at Hotel Gaudi and further explore the alluring hilltop town of Astorga. 

After leaving our mochillas (backpacks) at the front desk at check-out, we head back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria just around the corner.   An excellent audio guide comes with the price of admission, and I’m glad it starts you outside to appreciate the façade of the building. The structure has two towers of slightly different colors (one reddish brown and the other tan), with the elaborately carved center featuring some great gargoyles attached by short flying buttresses on either side.  I could have stared at it for hours.

Beginning the Santa Maria Cathedral and Museum tour

Inside is a fantastic museum with paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, religious items of all kind, and gorgeous illuminated manuscripts dating back more than 600 years.  There are also numerous interesting side chapels and outstanding stained glass windows.  And how about that glittering gold altarpiece by Gaspar Becerra, who studied under Michelangelo . . .  a Wow sight!

We’ve seen a lot of churches up to this point, and while all special in their own way, this one really speaks to me.  For all the reasons above I loved it, but there was something atavistic that hit me on a deeper level I still haven’t been able to understand.  For favorites thus far, I put it up there with Burgos, Leon, and the round Templar church in Torres del Río. 

Next was a delicious lunch in the plaza at the Gaudi Café, which is run by the hotel where we stayed.  J’Nell stays in the square to journal and have another beer, and I go across the street to visit the Gaudi Palace, a late 1800s castle-looking building.  You can of course see it from outside the gate, but the 5 euro price of admission is worth getting to tour the grounds (providing different angles of the unique structure) and exploring the rich interior.

Highlights include the beautiful chapel and luminous stained glass windows, excellent Roman artifacts dating back to the 1st century, and the floor dedicated to the history of the Camino.  Probably the coolest sight is the original Cruz de Ferro, the famous iron cross perched on the pillar where people have been leaving stones for thousands of years (the one there now is a duplicate). 

The standout of the collection is the original Cruz de Ferro. A copy of this iron cross now sits on the iconic spot at the highest point on the Camino, which we’ll be seeing soon

I meet J’Nell back in the plaza at 2 pm, we collect our backpacks at the hotel, and we’re on our way to Castrillo de los Polvazares.  The reason we are making this short detour is that the town comes highly recommended by Ron, a buddy of J’Nell’s Dad, who has done the Camino 5 times.  He is great friends with Basia and Betrand, the couple who run Flores  del  Camino, a retreat center there.  In fact Ron has just spent some time with them, and we unfortunately miss him by one day.    

Castrillo de los Polvazares is likely the most charming town we have experienced on the whole Camino, and we’ve been through lots of them. The whole place seems to be built from the same reddish brown stones, and it gives the overall feel a perfect balance and special harmony. And to make it even more cool, we’re welcomed into town by a man serenading us with his guitar.

A nice welcome into town

It is Espana Day, a national holiday, and fun to see the cobblestone streets teeming with people. Normally when we enter a town during siesta time, it seems like it is completely deserted.  But this one is alive with everyone appearing joyous and dressed for fiesta. I did not take any photos because I didn’t want to be intrusive to their celebration. 

Since Flores del Camino is booked full with a group, we are staying at the municipal albergue which is also run by Basia and Betrand.  We were instructed to get the key at the retreat center, and the very friendly Basia is there to welcome us and extend a dinner invitation for later in the evening.  The albergue, like the rest of the town made out of those wonderful stones, is just a short walk around the corner. 

There are only two other people staying there, where it could probably accommodate around 20.  Michael, a 50ish gentleman from Canada, is extremely nice and will join us at dinner.  We say hello to the 30ish Frenchwoman when we get settled, but then do not interact with her again.  There are no places in town that serve dinner (only lunch), so she must have utilized the kitchen at the albergue for her meal and went to bed early.

We are worried there wouldn’t be any bars open to relax and journal before dinner, but thankfully we find the atmospheric El Trechiro that brews its own beer.  We sit in the pleasant stone wall courtyard with vines growing over the walls, and it is one of my favorites on the whole Camino.

There are only locals there, many families with small children, and they’re still celebrating Espana Day.  The stereo plays acoustic covers of popular English songs (U2’s With or Without You was on when we enter) as well as Spanish language ones, and it contributes to the overall terrific vibe.  We don’t want to leave, but the dinner invite is for 7:30 pm. We finish our beers and hustle down the street, thankful it is only a short walk.

It ends up being a fantastic evening with Alexander and the ten or so people he is leading on the retreat.  We don’t see Basia since she’s busy prepping the meal, but glad to finally meet Betrand and he is a wonderful person. J’Nell and I want to help with dinner, but unfortunately there is not much for us to do so instead we socialize with the group.

Alexander has done the Camino every year since 2012, and it is great talking to him not only about his experiences on the Way, but also about San Francisco (he lived there for 25 years, me for 8), and his book.  Returning from the Camino is a guide on how to readjust back to your regular life once you finish walking and how to integrate your Camino experiences in it.  I saw a copy of it at the albergue earlier, and had taken a photo of the cover so I could buy it later on; very cool to meet the author and he was such a nice person.

The wonderful time at Flores del Camino makes we want to return again someday to take part in one of their retreats.  When the group heads off to sleep, J’Nell and I get a nightcap at the El Trechiro (which surprisingly was still open).  We only have one drink to be respectful to our two mates in the albergue, and are back in our beds by 10 pm (the usual lights-out time).

Sunset in Castrillo de los Polvazares
Moonlight and time to say goodnight

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