One of the best parts of any intranational or international travel in Europe is that it is exceedingly easy. Public transportation is affordable, clean, and reliable; never in Europe have I worried about getting from place to place as I normally do in the United States. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a program that will arrange some group excursions for you; thus far there have been two, the first to Madrid and Toledo, and the second along part of the French Way of the Camino de Santiago between León and Ponferrada. It was that second trip that gave me the greatest gem of any experience I’ve had during my first month studying in Spain.
The excursion began with a bus ride from Salamanca, our host city, to León, about a two-hour drive to the north. The two cities are in the same autonomous community, Castile and León, but each give the name to their respective provinces; there are slight but important differences, largely tied to history and the amount of time each suffered under Muslim rule. Salamanca was in the caliphate for longer but has largely rid itself of that legacy, and it is far more typical of the old Castile than the once-sovereign area around León. The Leonese cityscape is pure in its beauty; there appear to be a height restriction and stylistic regulations, preserving the old character of the city center and the layout of the neighborhoods on its outskirts. The drive into the city features another form of majesty: the surrounding mountains north of the Castilian plateau.
We stayed in a pilgrims’ hostel just outside the old city, which is itself an experience of great value. Pilgrims from seemingly every continent were staying in the hostel, all sharing stories of their journeys over a home-cooked meal. North Americans and Europeans mixed with Africans, East Asians, South Asians, and Latin Americans, all seeking the same joys, reflections, and revelations. It was a short, one-night window into the monthslong experiences of the many pilgrims. I made a promise to myself that I will complete the whole of the French Way before I die.
The second night was spent in the village of Astorga, no larger than the town in which I grew up in Maine. Tucked into a valley in the western edge of the Cantabrian Mountains, it was the first place I have visited outside the main national and provincial cities in Spain. The center of the town is built up upon the old medieval walls, a well-preserved structure which surrounds the ruins of the old Roman baths and forum. The town has been inhabited for millennia; it was a Celtic village before the arrival of the Romans, and the Romans converted it into a critical fortress guarding the nearby gold mines, a resource under constant threat from the warring tribes of the peninsula at the time. The crown jewel of the ruins is a pristine mosaic floor in the public bathhouse, with green and yellow tiling displaying a floral-patterned border around a geometric center; while only about the size of a standard university classroom, it is nonetheless breathtaking to behold.
It was in Astorga that I had the best experience of my time in Spain so far. We arrived at the hotel around four o’clock in the afternoon, and we were afforded two hours of rest before a guided tour of the town and dinner. Having slept plenty on the bus ride from León, I was not inclined to lie down in my hotel room; I asked others in the group if they would like to join me for a walk, but I received no affirmative responses. Restless, and in need of a snack, I ventured out into the center of the village for some Iberico ham and a glass of Leonese dry red. Having swiftly satisfied my pre-dinner needs, I had over an hour remaining before having to be back at the hotel, and I decided to walk to the path that runs atop the medieval walls. Being in such a small village, it took all of five minutes to reach my destination.
The top of the walls featured a small botanical garden, a wide promenade-like walking path, and many benches; the view from the benches was crystal clear, unlike that in the dusty plateau further south. I could see where the mountains met the sky, the rows of whatever was being grown on the farms, and the green runoff areas of the countryside. Having walked along the entire northern edge of the walls, I found an empty bench on which to sit and scanned the horizon, admiring all the greenery that Salamanca thoroughly lacks. I was surprised by how few people were out; it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, but there didn’t seem to be much activity along the path nor at the cafes. A few older couples passed by, nodding or greeting verbally, and carrying on their way.
Just as I was about to depart for the walk back to the hotel, an elderly woman, certainly short of five feet tall, wandered along the path from my left. Like many Spanish women of her age, she was very well dressed, even if just for a stroll outside the house; she wore a lavender dress coat with a large silver brooch on her lapel, so she was easy to see among the beige and green of the background. Initially, I thought nothing of her, apart for my admiration for the fact that her gait betrayed no signs of her age; as she approached we greeted each other, but she continued walking for half a dozen meters or so. The only thing that kept me on the bench was an email to which I was promptly replying.
Just as I looked down at my phone, I caught her in the corner of my eye, coming from my right and clearly walking directly towards me. I looked up, and as she arrived at the bench, she asked me if she could sit; I said of course, and our conversation, in Castilian, began.
–“Do you live here?”
–“No ma’am, I am only visiting for the night.”
–“Oh, I see. Where are you from?”
–“I’m from the United States, from a small state in the north.”
She seemed surprised that she had come across an American. Astorga is a waypoint along the French Way, and many Americans pass through, so I can only assume she rarely interacts with the pilgrims.
–“What do you do?”
–“I’m a student. I’m studying in Salamanca for the fall semester, and several of us Americans are here to see the Camino.”
–“Many people come for the Camino. How old are you?”
–“I’m twenty-one years old.”
–“Twenty-one? You are a baby! I am ninety.”
She didn’t appear ashamed of her age at all; on the contrary, it seemed more like a proud declaration. We spoke for about half an hour. She told me her whole life story: she was born in the Basque Country in the chaotic first years of the Second Republic, experienced the tribulations of the Civil War as a child, and suffered greatly as a Basque under the Francoist dictatorship. She spent the entirety of the fascist years in her native Basque Country; Madrid was especially harsh on the regional minorities during this period, so I cannot imagine how her days could have been during the first half of her life.
My new friend went on, evidently delighted to find someone to talk to; I was equally delighted to listen. She told me that she moved to Astorga for her retirement, having arrived about twenty years ago. Her three sons, all military officers, live in different parts of the country. I asked her how often she sees her grandchildren; once each month or so, she told me, and I couldn’t help but feel a slight sadness at the fact that once each month is far more often than I ever saw my grandparents while they were alive. I made a mental note to call my surviving grandmother.
As we looked out across the countryside and gazed over where the valley meets the hills and the hills meet the heavens, she explained to me that she likes winter much better than summer, if only for the fact that the snow on the peaks reminds her of her old home province. She pointed out a small structure in the distance, explaining that it was a convent; she lamented that fewer and fewer young people were joining holy orders, and suggested to me that I might move to Spain and become a priest. I politely entertained her proposition, knowing fully well that I am too much of a sinner to ever wear the collar.
–“Well, chico, I must be going, I am on a walk. My name is Vergelia, and yours?”
–“Joseph. It is a pleasure to meet you. Of course, and I hope you enjoy it. Thank you for stopping.”
–“It is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for speaking with me.”
I firmly believe that God speaks to us directly, and that it is incumbent upon us to recognize when this is happening. My conversation with Vergelia, one that was all too brief, was a shining example of when fate, the hand of God, presents a gift of immeasurable value. Not one experience so far has come close to this chat on a bench. I will never see Vergelia again, but she will live in my memory forever. May God grant her good health so that she may take a walk, happen upon another traveler, and make their day, just as she did mine.
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