Thursday, May 15
We arrived in Astorga today, after a peaceful walk through the foothills of the mountains that we’ll begin to climb tomorrow. We passed through a small pueblo where music was being broadcast on loudspeakers from atop the church. Songs of prayer and also songs about the Camino. “Soy peregrino, soy vagabundo…” And as we began our descent from a hill into Astorga, a man with a guitar sang a simple but oddly catchy tune about pilgrims. When he learned I was from California he added a verse for me, and also asked me if I had any souvenirs from California on me that I might give him. But I have none, so I could only offer euros.
After checking in at the municipal albergue and eating lunch, Larissa, Miguel, and I lost sight of Alejandro. We walked towards the Cathedral expecting that we might find him there.
But we never made it that far. We were stopped on the street by an old man, dressed all in white with a white hat and white beard. He wore enormous metal rings on his fingers. When he saw us his eyes lit up and he called out, “Peregrinos!” There is a supermarket nearby, he told us hurriedly, where the floor is glass and you can see down into Roman ruins — Astorga is built on an ancient Roman city.
Like any sensible pilgrim would, we followed the strange man quickly through the streets to the supermarket. Farther and farther back into the store, where I was very sure we’d find a meat locker full of other pilgrims. But no, instead we came to a portion of the market where the floor is glass, and below it lies an ancient Roman rain-catching system now in ruin.
The tour wasn’t done yet. He whisked us around the city. He pointed out the distant mountains where there had been gold mines. He brought us to a convent where there was a statue of a pregnant Mary, and a unique sculpture of a woman on the cross. He showed us a ruined Roman amphitheater and gave us rocks he claims are from the construction 2000 years ago. Here, a house where a poet lived. There, a building were Dalí and other artists and poets stayed together. An ancient church, the Cathedral, and a palace designed by Gaudí. A private albergue that was once a jail for women. A plant which grows there and has iodine-rich sap, good for blisters. Often he’d stop every few feet, whirl around to face us, finger outstretched towards small lights embedded in the sidewalk. “Luces! Para peregrinos!”
He rattled off so much information in so little time that our heads were ready to burst and our feet ready to surrender from the endless walking. I asked him his name — he said his name is Amador. He who loves. Everyone we passed knew him and called to him.
We offered to pay him for his time and he declined, but he accepted our invitation to join us for a beer. He’s lived here all his life, being born just outside of the city near a pueblo we passed. He works in art and antiquities, when he’s not escorting pilgrims around town out of the goodness of his heart and his love of his city. We drank together and he told perhaps a thousand Spanish jokes, many of which went right over my head. Finally we said goodbye, and the most surreal experience of the Camino to date came to an end.
What were the chances? How fortunate that we should be there, on that corner, at that moment. Any later and he would’ve been long gone, and we would’ve been none the wiser. Perhaps other pilgrims would’ve been less trusting of the strange man in white, and missed the entire experience.
The Camino is full of such bizarre serendipity.
Pilgrims reading this — if you’re wandering in Astorga and a strange man in white calls to you to follow him, consider saying yes.
Tomorrow we aim for Foncebadon.