Thursday, March 6, 2014: My second day in Spain found me travelling by rail to what would become my starting point for my Camino: Leon. But first, I had to get to the Renfe train station in Madrid by subway. After my success with the metro system the night before, I felt at ease that morning as I made my way to the metro station nearest to the hostel. With a bit of cockiness in my step, I sauntered in to find the subway I needed. However, I was very quickly brought back down to earth once I realized that particular subway station was a major hub and I found myself a wee bit lost. Also, might I add, it was morning rush hour.
I knew what line I needed, but couldn’t find the actual subway. I also knew what station I needed to get off at, so when that station name caught my eye as I was passing a map for a different line, I took a chance and got on. Thankfully, it turned out to be an alternate route to the Renfe and I didn’t miss my northbound train to Leon.
I honestly don’t remember a thing about that train ride because I slept the whole way (thanks, jet lag, for knocking me out). I didn’t really have a plan for my free day in Leon, but I knew I wanted to visit the cathedral as a way to sort of bless my Camino. This time I actually had a map but I didn’t need it — within a few minutes of leaving the train station I spotted one of the towers of the cathedral and simply followed the main street leading to it. You have to love European city planning where most major roads stem out from a piazza or a cathedral square. Makes life a little easier for us tourists.
Unfortunately when I arrived the cathedral was closed and wouldn’t reopen for another few hours, so I grabbed a coffee and sat on the square to take in the sights.
Knowing I had to still check in to my hostel, I came up with a plan to drop off my bag and return to the cathedral later, then grab some lunch. According to the map I had, the hostel looked relatively easy to get to from where I was. If I remember correctly it should have been something like “go back down this main road, turn left after three blocks, walk for a bit, turn left down this side street, then right, and the hostel will be on your left.” Ya, not so much.
In reality it turned out to be “walk down this main road looking for the road to turn left, can’t find it, backtrack to my starting point, start again, still can’t find it, back track to midway, guess and turn down a road that you THINK might lead to where you need to go, turn here, ask this person who doesn’t speak English for directions to no avail, continue going in what you feel is the WRONG direction, turn left just for shits and giggles, ask somebody else who can at least offer a point in the right direction, walk down a very small, shady looking alley, turn right, turn left, turn right again, and then all of a sudden BAM! the blasted hostel is in front of you.” Welcome to the world of medieval towns. Although the main roads might all lead to a certain point, the little intertwining roads and alleys in between seem to go in whatever direction they please.
I actually passed one or two other pilgrim’s hostels while I was trying to find my way, but I was determined to stay at the one I had in mind — it’s not every day you can say you’ve slept in a monastery.
I was greeted by a warm and welcoming Spaniard whose English was as good as my Spanish. We still managed to have a conversation mind you, and I found out he was working as a volunteer. He provided me with the first stamp in my pilgrim’s passport, showed me my bed, and conveyed to me (through bad Spanglish and lots of hand gestures) that there was going to be a mass that evening with a blessing for the pilgrims. With this in mind, I freshened up and made my way back to the cathedral.
Despite the difficulty I had in finding the monastery, I had no problems whatsoever in getting back to the cathedral square, even though it involved taking a different route. I did, however, make a mental note of the landmarks I passed on the way to ensure I didn’t get lost in that maze again.
The interior of the cathedral is stunning. The light at that time of day was perfect to illuminate the stained glass. You can’t help but stand in awe with your mouth agape as you look upwards to take it all in.
I have a thing for churches, if you haven’t already noticed. I blame the art history student in me. Whenever I go somewhere new I have to visit their major cathedral or church just to say a quick “hello”. This time, however, I also had some business to attend to while I was inside.
I hope no one is offended by me saying this, but despite my love for church architecture, I always feel a bit awkward while I’m inside. I have to walk around and admire all the details; I can’t just sit still in a pew (unless there’s a service going on, but even then I feel awkward because I don’t know what to do during mass unless I see everyone else doing it…and yes, I’m a Catholic…a rather lax Catholic…). However, I told myself that I would say a prayer in the cathedral in Leon to ask for guidance and protection during my pilgrimage.
Instead of doing a traditional kneeling prayer, I did the next best thing I could think of. While I walked around admiring all the details of the cathedral, I had a lengthy conversation in my head with the Big Man Upstairs that went something like this: “Dear God [yes, I speak to him like I’m writing a letter, leave me alone], Tomorrow I leave Leon to begin my pilgrimage to Santiago. Please don’t let me get lost, please don’t let my buggered knee act up, and please let the weather be nice. I’m scared to be doing this on my own, so please keep me safe. Please don’t let me end up in a ditch somewhere in Spain.”
I then had to leave because the centuries old stone does nothing to keep the heat in and I started to shiver.
While I was in the cathedral I inadvertently paid for an audio tour (which I didn’t use), and admittance to the cloisters behind the church. Not wanting to waste an admission ticket, I took advantage of my mistake and strolled through the cloisters.
The sun coming through the open spaces warmed me up and casted shadows throughout the statues. It was a bit eerie, I’ll admit, but still beautiful.
Happy with my time spent indoors, I grabbed a bite to eat on the cathedral square (more Spanish tortilla and a café con leche) and watched as more and more people came outdoors to end the daily siesta. It’s quite amazing how empty a square can be one moment, only to see it fill up an hour later.
As I finished my café I tried to mentally prepare myself for the walk back to the hostel and the certain possibility of me getting lost again. I don’t know what Leon had against me, but it sure as hell felt like the city was testing my navigational skills. This time, I at least took some pictures along the way.
I retraced my steps, certain of the landmarks I had seen, then the inevitable happened and I found myself in a laneway I didn’t recognize. I popped into a shop to look at some souvenirs, exited from a door different from the one I had entered from and had a HUZZAH! moment when I realized I actually knew where I was.
I made it back to the monastery in time to be introduced to the other pilgrims staying the night, and eventually joined them for dinner. I made friends with a mother/son duo from Ottawa, a gentleman from Italy, a few others from Austria and Germany, an Argentinian, and two girls from South Korea. Our dinner table looked like a meeting of the United Nations.
My fellow Canucks and I attended mass then headed back to our bunks to prepare for the day to come. It was going to be my first official day on the Camino, and as luck would have it I was started my hike with the Canadians. Figures. You can leave home but you still find your countrymen wherever you may go.