May 26th marked our first day of walking the Camino de Santiago. Leaving Leon, our destination would be the town of Hospital de Órbigo, at a distance of around 18 miles. Everyone was excited and nervous with anticipation, unsure of precisely what to expect.
Since the forecast had called for rain starting at 2:00 pm, we hoped to get an early start on the day and avoid the bad weather. Everyone woke up fairly early and ate a quick breakfast of eggs, hardboiled by Christina B. the night before, but we were only out the door by 7:30 a.m. It had been raining intermittently during the night and early morning, so most people in our group had their ponchos and raincovers ready.
Leaving our albergue, we met by the stone cross in the plaza in front of the Hotel San Marcos, a former monastery. Here, Drs. Myers and Gyug explained the day before us. In particular, they warned us about a risk we would face: a branch in the Camino path, leading to an alternate, longer “scenic” route. Unless we wanted to add unnecessary distance to our hike, we would have to be careful to stick to the right and stay on the main trail.
After this, we crossed the River Bernesga and began our day’s journey. By now, the rain had begun falling steadily. We initially proceeded in a group; however, our fellowship was broken when we became separated while crossing a busy road. After this, everyone primarily formed into small groups, losing and gaining members as we discovered our pace. Many people stopped for coffee at a certain café in Virgen del Camino, others also stopped for lunch in San Martin. By two o’clock the rain had stopped, the forecast proving precisely backwards. The first of our pilgrims also reached our new albergue around two, with everyone else trickling in over the next several hours. Everyone arrived extremely tired, but having for the most part avoided major disaster.
During this stretch of the Camino, the route closely follows the roads. Leaving the suburbs of Leon, it goes through a number of small towns as well as flat farmland. The Shrine of Our Lady of the Camino, a modern structure with a tall cross, is one of the important landmarks the route passes. Another notable sight are the storks’ nests, which can be found in elevated places such as church belfries. Poppies are also an abundant feature of the landscape, which is crisscrossed by irrigation canals and channels. The route is very long, and after San Martin markers become infrequent and the trail sometimes overgrown. It can therefore become very easy to become discouraged towards the end, until one rounds a bend and Hospital de Órbigo comes suddenly into view.
Hospital de Órbigo, our destination, is a small town on the River Órbigo, notable primarily for its bridge. Historically, there have been three names for the town: Hospital de Órbigo, after the Pilgrim’s hospital, Encomienda de Órbigo, after it was granted to the Templar order, and Puente de Órbigo, after the bridge.
This point on the river contains a ford and the bridge, and has long been an important strategic point. The town was first established by the Romans. On October 5, 456, the town was the site of a battle between the Visigoths of Theodoric II and the Suevi of Rechiar, leading to the collapse of the Suebian kingdom and the triumph of Arianism in Spain. In 878 Alfonso III defeated the Moors here. The Muslim Warlord Almanzor also passed through during his military campaigns in the late 10th to early 11th centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars, an English army under Gen. John Moore retreated through the town in 1809, blowing up part of the bridge to guard their retreat from Napoleon.
The town and bridge have also been an important point on the Camino pilgrimage route. The town grew up on the left bank, while the right bank formerly held a pilgrim hospice, established by the Knights Hospitaller (The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta), which gave the town its present name.
There are two churches in the town: Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Purificacion (Our Lady of the Purification), a chapel, and Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), which was established by the Knights Templar (Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) in 1184. The surrounding countryside was originally dry, wheat-farming country. In the twentieth century wells and irrigation canals were dug which has allowed a diversification of crops. Trout, fished from the river, has also been an important food staple in the area, being used in dishes such as trout soup and pickled trout. The town’s trout is celebrated by a festival in March; the town also celebrates the feasts of St. Blaise (Feb. 3) and St John the Baptist (June 24). The town is also home to the Escuela de Ampliación de Instrucción Primaria y de Agricultura (School of Extension of Primary Education and Agriculture). The Camino de Santiago has remained an integral part of the modern town, and Hospital is home to many pilgrim services such as hostels, restaurants, and even a campground. Currently, the town has a population of around 1,000 inhabitants, down from a peak in the 1950s.
The main landmark in the town is the bridge over the river. The present span was first built in the 13th century. It is in the Gothic style. Over time, the bridge has been damaged, rebuilt, and restored at differing points. Presently, from east to west, the 3rd-6th arches date from the 13th century, the 7th-16th date from the 17th century, and the 1st, 2nd, and 17th-19th arches date from the 19th century.
The bridge is also the site of one of the town’s most interesting episodes. The Paso Honroso (the Pass of Honor) was a tournament (a pas d’armes) held in Hospital in 1434, one of the last such grand tournaments in Europe. It was held by Don Suero de Quinones, a knight from Leon, who wished to free himself from the bondage of love. Don Suero had taken to wearing an iron collar on Thursdays to signify this burden of courtly love. He secured permission from King Juan II to hold the tournament in July 1434, during a Jacobean Holy Year, when the route would be full of pilgrims. The tournament attracted knights from all over Europe. Over the course of two weeks, Suero and his nine companions were able to defeat between 200-300 challengers. At the conclusion of the tournament it was deemed that Don Suero was free from his bondage of love, and he traveled to Santiago where he presented the Cathedral with a gold band in symbolic thanksgiving to St. James. Don Suero would later be killed by a knight he had defeated who was seeking revenge. An account of the tournament, the Libro del Passo honroso, was later published by Don Luis Alonso Luengo, and Don Suero became somewhat legendary in Spain. He would be cited in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (P. 1 Cap. XLIX) as an example of the sort of chivalry that the book sought to satire, and his tournament has lent its name to a chain of gas stations. Since 1997, Hospital has commemorated this event every June with a mock tournament, held beside the bridge.
In Hospital, we stayed at the Albergue Verde. This is a “green” and vegan hostel, which uses the Camino to focus on a right relation between humanity and the earth. The building and its owners are very pleasant, and the accommodations are very nice. The albergue is often host to a well-regarded yogi; during our stay, those who were not too tired took part in a calming dance routine. We were also served a vegan dinner, which was offered on donations. Overall, our stay was very pleasant if short. By 11:00 pm, everyone had retired to bed in order to prepare ourselves for the next day ahead.