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Day 45 on the Camino

Today we are in Leon. It's a national holiday here in Spain but luckily Leon cathedral with its beautiful stained glass windows was open this morning. It is day 45, we have walked 950 km and are more than two thirds of the way through our adventure. The landscape in the last 8 days has been less inspiring than before: we have been walking on a plateau with little variations in terrain. Dry red soil. Some crops. Long stretches of land with little changing except the light.

This photo was taken at different moments during a single day, the first at 9 am or so, the last at 14.30. 

The light has made a big difference. The first two hours after sunrise are stunning: misleadingly chilly (between 5 and 8 degrees); silent except loud bird song and if we are walking alongside the N120 (a major road running across the north of Spain), the hum of traffic; and characterised by the transition from the moon going to sleep to the sun waking up. 

Many pilgrims leave before dawn to avoid the afternoon heat. We tried it on our 31 km day but the experience was ridiculous: we couldn't see the yellow Camino arrows, couldn't see to take photos and couldn't even see to follow the pilgrims ahead. We will stick to leaving at around 8 am.  

Our various encounters this week have made up for the flatness of the landscape. After a paella cooked in front of us in a village called Hornillos del Camino, I went for a walk (because let's face it, I am not walking much in the day) and met an elderly French pilgrim called Henri. We admired the full moon rising over the church in this strange desert-like landscape and shared a moment. 

In Castrojeriz, 2 km long village (very long when your albergue is at the entrance, the cash point is at the end, it is 30 degrees and you have already walked 21 Km), we found ourselves in an albergue which served Korean food. We spent the evening on a table with six Koreans all of who approved the food. Here we made a particular friend who we were to see again.

One of my favourite afternoons was spent laughing and drinking beer with Hamani and our 2 Slovenian friends in a cafe in Carrion de Los Condes. The pilgrimage creates a shared experience (the insanity of doing it, the absurdity of carrying our heavy bags, the joy and pride that we are even doing it, the commiseration as we discuss our various Camino-related injuries) and is, as a result, a great leveller. What we do in our non-Camino lives bears no relevance to this moment in time.

Later that same day I spent half an hour in comical mime with Sister Maria at the convent we were staying in. I helped her fold some sheets and she put our dusty washing in the machine. While doing so, I learnt she was 89, that there 9 nuns left in the convent, that the washing machine was new and expensive. I have no idea what else she told me. I had hoped my 3 week intensive Spanish course in Ecuador in 2002 would enable immediate fluency but I remember only about 10 words.

The next day after a glorious start, Alex was stopped outside a village and handed a piece of wood by an elderly man standing at the aide of the path. He had sanded and cut it, transforming it into a perfect pilgrim's staff. The man handed it to Alex, saying only that it was a gift and he wished us a good walk, 'a Buen Camino'. 

After what seemed like a triple gin with Petra and Katja, in a village called Ledigos, we met Finn the Pilgrim Dog. He is not the first we have seen, but this time we got to ask his German owners (Anke and Marcos) all about his journey. Finn walks about 20 km a day and then one of his owners cycles back, picks up their camper van and drives back.

Yesterday we had an unexpectedly chatty breakfast with a young couple who seemed perfectly in sync: Liza from Ireland and Lucas from the Czech Republic. They shared their bread with us, we gave them an orange. When we asked how long they had been together (you get straight to the point on the Camino), Liza said, "Two weeks." A Camino Couple. We had heard about such things but they were our first. 

Many of the people I have met have pretty moving stories. We have encountered people with enormous physical and emotional courage; some who are in transition; some who want a life-changing adventure; and some complete crack pots too, let's not be too sentimental about it all. I know I may never see many of these people again but I felt pretty blown away by some of the conversations I have had this week.

It is delicious to have a day off today. We are now watching 'Rogue One' in Spanish - I saw it last in French; I have covered my feet in arnica oil and Vaseline and wrapped them in cling film; and Alex, we hope, does not risk exposure to the mysterious insects who have been attacking him over the last week. Tomorrow we begin a nine day stretch which will leave the desert behind. In a couple of days the landscape will become green and mountainous and a few days later we will be in Galicia, only one rest day away from Santiago itself.

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