50 Days of Camino

Kevin Soltysiak's travel log of the way of St. James, the "Camino de Santiago"

Meseta ~ Leon

Villarmentero de Campos — Calzada del Coto

I woke up around 7. After the events of the previous nights I decided it was time for me to move on. As much I was enjoying the company of this group, I felt that if I stretched it, it would only be getting worse. And since I knew that I was falling far behind my other friends, I resolved to catch up, however long it would be.

During the first days of the trip, Loïc and I would tell the other about our current readings. At the time, his was Kerouac’s On the Road, and one specific passage resonated with me at that moment, the one where Neal has a tight schedule for his life, down to the minute: I thought that I taking a cue from him could help me, so I made a schedule of my own.

Sahagún, the town where I though my friends would be, was approximatively 50km away from where I was. Since it was almost 8h, I decided that should have walked 10km by 10h, 20 by 12h.. in order to arrived at 50km around 18h. It made for an average of 5km/hour, a pace I knew I could sustain. If I wanted to take breaks, I’d have to walk faster; the only rule being to keep my schedule.

Iron pilgrim, soon on your screens.

And so I started to walk while it was still dark, with a few stars over my head and the sun slowly rising. I arrived in Carrión de los Condes around 9:30, took a quick coffee break and was walking again at 9:45. Around 12:30 I was in Calzadilla de la Cueza, ahead of my schedule. I allowed myself a decent lunch break.

This part of the Camino is known as the meseta: long flat plains going approximatively from Burgos to Astorga. The lack of trees, towns and water points can make it challenging to walk those parts, especially when the weather is hot. It was the end of October so the weather was not too aggressive, but the lack of shade made it difficult for the pilgrims with less affinity with the sun than I had.

After the lunch break, I took shorter breaks but more often. I was starting to feel a little bit of pain here and there, but nothing I could not ignore. Around 17h, I reached Sahagún, one hour earlier than planned! I got to regroup with Loïc, Krista, Saula, part of the group of italians, Manu and Stephan as well, and it was time for beers. It felt really good to have so many people impressed with what I achieved that day: having been overweight most of my adult life, the recognition of a physical achievement really meant something to me.

And soon enough came the catch: everybody intended on moving on to the next city! 5 more kilometers to walk. My body had cooled down and I was cramped… But I felt like taking the challenge and go the extra mile, or miles in that instance. I had to borrow a wooden staff though. We made our way to Calzada del Coto and arrived there around 19h. We got some food at the supermarket after Loïc had fun with a group of kids, and ate our dinner at the albergue where we met Jem again.

At some point, Loïc decided that the next day, he would be running instead of walking, so he borrowed my shoes and booked a taxi for his backpack… Knowing that he never runs, it seemed that he was looking for trouble… But after walking between 50 and 55km that day, who was I to judge.

Calzada del Coto — Mansilla de las Mulas

When I left the previous day, I had really enjoyed walking while it was still dark, under the night sky, with stars you could still see. I had planned on doing the same that day: I woke up early, took my breakfast and packed my stuff way quicker than I used to and I was out around 7h. The first half hour was great as planned, with barely a hint of a rising sun behind me. I couldn’t see far ahead and I lost my track once because of that; but soon enough the sun rised enough to let me see where I was going.

Around one hour and a half after I was gone, I started hearing a sound behind me: I took my earphones off and there was Loïc, running, all red-faced and sweaty, doing what he said he would do. Not long after I arrived in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, the last stop before a long stretch. Loïc was there, taking a little break. We grabbed a coffee and he left, running. He felt confident he could make it all the way to Mansilla de las Mulas. I was eager to see how bad he would be feeling at the end of the day… Bad Kevin.

Bracing for the sun

The next 18km were not particularly noteworthy, mostly fields and a few trees here and there. Overall, the paths we had in France were more interesting. The meseta parts would be at the bottom of the ranking if there was one; luckily it was soon coming to an end.

I was relieved to finally arrive in Reliegos. Right after I entered the town I saw a cyclist pass me by, and he had a bear on his back… The same bloody bear that Saula was carrying since Burgos! I was already amazed that she still had it, but now the thing had found a new carrier…


Diego (the cyclist) and I stopped at the same place for a beer. He was from Ecuador, and I had seen him in Sahagún the day before. He had run into Saula on the road and had offered her to take the bear to Mansilla and drop it at the albergue. The bar we were in had its walls covered in writings, and there were a few Elvis memorabilia here and there. I remembered Jem mentionning an Elvis bar the night before: this was probably the place.

The owner seemed like the happiest man on earth. He was singing along his radio, dancing and cheering while drafting our beers and indulging us with very large tapas. I didn’t stay there long, but many friends spent the whole afternoon there drinking with the owner. They told me that he was making more money than he needed during high season so come September, he was happy to be generous with everybody. Quite a character!

I made for Mansilla and checked in the albergue once I found it. The lady in charge was swearing all the time, laughing and teasing people, and asking everybody who and where was the owner of “el puto oso” (the fucking bear)! Later, she came with a saw and asked if anybody had pain in the legs…

Meanwhile, Loïc was there too. He had spent the afternoon sleeping and recovering from his run. I had forgotten to warn him about a common issue among runners: nipple-burn. He obviously felt sore in the muscles, which was funny from my point of view but less from his. All joking aside, for someone who never runs, he managed to run around 30km. Very impressive, and speaking as someone who enjoys running but never managed to perform a half-marathon, I was a little annoyed. But between his performance and James’ challenge, I had enough examples to know that all I needed was to push myself a little bit more.

We were a large group that night, with most of the pilgrims I was used to see at the albergue. The wine flowed, the food was good, Laura (the hostess) was entertaining… The night was really one of the best of the whole trip. The people there started to feel like a band, after a few days of running into each other all the time. Some called it “the camino family”, but I’d say it’s more like being classmates in your last year of school. People hang out by affinity, a few couples pop up here and there, there’s some people you like less than the others, and you know it will come to an end at some point; but you still make the most of it while you can. And I, for one, know that I did.

Mansilla de las Mulas — León

I slept like a well-behaved baby that night. I took my breakfast and waited for Loïc to be ready while everyone was leaving, to no avail: he was sore from his run of the day earlier and could barely walk. I sticked with him a little but it was actually hard to slow down to his pace. I ventured of my own, knowing that he didn’t mind being left on his own. I passed by a few friends and slowed only when I had found Krista, Saula and Jem.

After a coffee break, I kept going with Jone. I had first met her in Burgos where she had joined a friend of hers, Marina. We had briefly talked then, and again the night before. She was from the Basque country and therefore spoke french, basque, spanish and since she was living in Barcelona, catalan as well.

We arrived at the entrance of León around noon and sat in a park, waiting for the others to catch up, but they were tooking too long. After a beer, we went to the main albergue of the town: she checked in and I hesitated, not sure wether I wanted to check in there or find another place.

Leon's cathedral

With a few others, we had talked about booking a large airbnb to accomodate many of us and allow us to go out without restrictions, but short of going into a hostel we didn’t find anything suitable. In the end, almost everybody (including myself) checked into the main albergue, save for Monica, Sacha and Paul who went to another one with less restrictions. In hindsight, that’s where I should have gone to; but in way, I did… More on that later.

Once everybody checked in, Jose, Loic, Jone, Christian and I went for a tapas-athon. Quite a simple plan, really: one bar, one beer, one tapas, and fifteen minutes later, same program but at the next bar. León felt more alive than any other town we had stayed in until then, but maybe it was because for once, we had some sun !

The square next to the albergue

After five bars, Jone and I were quite tired and went back to the albergue for a nap. After a shower, I joined a few others for drinks and from there, the night consisted of bar hopping and randomly meeting pilgrims and locals. It was saturday night and many people were already celebrating halloween so the city was overran with joyful people. We kept going around until curfew: only the pilgrims of the other albergue stayed out, as well as Loïc and Christian who didn’t care much about spending the night outside. Either that, or they had faith in finding a late-minute host.

The return to the albergue felt like losing a battle. Many of us still felt like going out and having fun, but the albergue was closed and no obivous way to get out. I was restless though, and Monica was texting me to convince me to go out and that since she had a two-bed room, she could host me. I declined at first, but I eventually got up, got dressed, and try to see if there was a way out. I ran into a few of the italians and Yutaka, a japanese pilgrim, also looking to escape. They had found a way out through the hotel next door, but the security had told them that they once they were out, they wouldn’t be able to come back in until 6, so they gave up.

I didn’t care, though, and neither did Yutaka, so we went out. It felt really exciting to “jump the wall”, something I’d never done when I was younger. Yutaka had no backup plan and didn’t care: all he wanted to do was to go out, have fun and dance. We found Loïc, Isabel and a few others and then joined the rest of the group. They were hanging at the bar right in front of the albergue, and I could see the windows without any light, aware that there were a few people in there that wanted to be with us.

Monica had managed to make Paul go out, even though he was kind of worried he was too old to hang out with us. Him and Loïc spent a good portion of the night talking. I was too busy drinking: for some reason everybody kept offering me shots and beers! We danced and laughed with all the pilgrims there. We even talked with underaged girls all dressed up as human ouija boards for halloween. Despite their age, they seemed quite familiar with the bartender; Spain seems more relaxed than France on that matter.

It was the only “party night” we shared before we reached Santiago, and it was quite a good one. I walked back Monica to her hostel around 2 or 3, when we were both too tired to stay out more. I was glad that she had a place for me because I really could not see myself stay out all night.

León (2)

Even though we were not walking that day and the hostel was not kicking us out by 8, I had to wake up early to fetch my stuff at the other albergue. When I left, the security guard noticed that I didn’t have a pass and started asking me about my floor and room. When he saw that I wasn’t from here, he told me he was going to call the police because I wasn’t allowed in there without checking in. It was way too early for me to be able to talk or react in any other manner than comply so I just apologized over and over. In the end, he only scanned my ID and let me go afterwards.

I got back in my albergue just in time to pack my things and enjoy a quick breakfast. We met Hortense, a fellow french pilgrim who was a few hours away from going back to France. She wanted to visit Strasbourg with her girlfriend and Loïc was maybe able to lend them his room. There is a saying that goes, “the camino provides”, meaning that should you be in need of something, it find its way to you. Truth be told, it happened more often than not.

We dropped the bags at the albergue (without checking in) and went for a tour of the city. It was really nice to have a blue skye over our heads while we were in a city, for once, and it made our stay in León better. Around the cathedral, I ran into Krista, Saula, and a few others, including Brice. Brice was a friend of Krista and Saula; they had met him in France a while back and he had joined them in Burgos.

Krista was feeling a bit low that morning, partly because she felt she was spending too much time waiting on her group while she wanted to visit the city and move on to the next one. I tried to cheer her up and offered some support, and that’s when Brice came to me and told me that even though it wasn’t up to him, he wasn’t happy with me having my arm around her.

It really took me by surprise and I actually did what he asked. Part of me regrets that I sheepishly obeyed, but on the other hand it was probably better not to start a conflict out of pride. I talk about it with Krista (since he had talked to me in French) and all it did was add to her confusion. I was pretty pissed at him for causing all this drama for pretty much nothing, but well. I left the group there and went on my own for a while, pondering wether I should stay one more night in León or not.

After having lunch with Monica and Amy, I settled on staying one more night and not let one bad experience taint the rest of my day. I had dinner with Loïc, Nora and a few others, and then it was time for them to go back to the albergue. I had the luxury of staying in Monica’s spare bed one more night, and most of all, the luxury of being able to wake up whenever I feel like it on the next day.

Leon's cathedral

Previously: Burgos ~ Meseta

Next: Ponferrada