THE WALK FROM LEON TO HOSPITAL DE ORBIGO:
From a dry, brown, treeless plateau area (called mesata or paramo) to the green valley that’s irrigated by the river Orbigo
After our first, and very long, day of walking — at 32k/19.6 miles, this will be our longest walk until the day before we enter Santiago — we made our first victory of many, arriving in the town called Hospital de Orbigo aka Encomienda de Orbigo aka Puente de Orbigo. The first name has stuck the most, named after the pilgrim hostel established by the Knights of Malta, which sadly no longer stands today. Rich in history, this town has been everything from an important Roman town due to its strategic placement for transportation to the place where the Moors lost to Alfonso III in 878. But it is most known for the (anti) love story that took place on its famous bridge. More on that later. First, you have to read about Fordham’s bit of history in 2018.
Our walk was an adventure to say the least. Half the class arrived between 1:45 and 3pm. Half arrived at 5 after being way too excited by everything to walk at a decent pace and not stop every 5 minutes for a photo op, pilgrim stamp, ice cream, or St. James statue which we were obligated to hydrate at.
Our path was riddled with snails which we tried our hardest to avoid, and we marched a good chunk of our first day through the pouring rain. While the views leaving Leon are nothing to sneeze at compared to what the mountains of Molinaseca and vineyards near Villafranca have in store just a few days down the road, to new eyes (especially the eyes of someone who hasn’t been abroad since 9 years old), everything is worth sneezing at – and not just because of the ample pollen floating through the rural air! The excitement of the first day propelled us through the walk, but by the last 5k, our bodies were very much done. Walking alongside a highway with dirty trucks zooming passed your soggy, blistered, ragtag group of pilgrims is not exactly the definition of encouraging at the end of a 10 hour day. The famous bridge (to be explained in a bit) was enough to revive us for the last leg of a journey, which ended with us essentially crawling into a vegan hostile named Albergue Verde, supplied with fresh food, puppies, and an existential yoga instructor who taught us that the future does not exist. This has proved to be a helpful mantra to ignore the countless kilometers we have between us and Santiago.
The walk itself has several tour guide-esque notes of interest besides our class’ shenanigans. First off, it has 2 possible routes, one riddled with famous sites, the other quiet, rural, but slightly longer. The first route has the modern church called La Virgen del Camino, which has the fabled history of being the site of a 1505 miracle involving Mother Mary appearing to a shepard and asking for a church to be built. The bishop didn’t believe him, so the shepard threw a rock that miraculously turned into a boulder. On a less joyful note, the small town of San Miguel was the site of a historic fire in 1743 that devastated 9 out of 16 of its homes, unfortunately built out of straw and adobe. Besides historical sites, this walk is also notable for the dramatic change of landscape. Leaving Leon means walking on brown, dry land called the “paramo.” But you know you’re approaching Hospital de Orbigo because the land starts to become green and lush thanks to irrigation from the river Orbigo.
The river Orbigo brings us to the first, hard-to-miss site at Hospital de Orbigo: the bridge!! (The love story is coming soon, hang tight). This Gothic bridge, built way back when in the 1200s, is the longest on the entire Camino, at a whopping 19-arches, 670 feet long, which is probably making you picture a pretty wide river… but there’s actually only water flowing through 3 of them. Rest assured, this wasn’t an extravagant waste of building materials to make an excessively epic bridge — the river used to be wider until a dam was built at Barrios de Luna. While its length is impressive, its width is humble, only open to pedestrians since it is only as wide as a single car. The bridge has weathered a lot, including losing several arches, several times, from severe flooding, and losing 2 arches to an explosion caused by English General John Moore in an attempt to protect his men as they retreated from Napoleon’s army. This means there are arches from 3 different centuries – the 13th, 17th, and 19th.
But the most exciting thing that happened on this bridge involves, like all good stories, a lovesick knight trying to win the favor of an unimpressed lady named Doña Leonor de Tobar. This guy, Leonés Don Suero de Quiñones, was so determined to make her fall in love that each Thursday he would fast and wear an iron ring around his neck to demonstrate how he had become her slave. But Doña was the queen of playing hard to get, and a literal chain around a man was not enough to win her heart. So Don Suero stepped up his game and proposed to the king that he, along with 9 of his knight friends, would do a month long tournament where he pledged to break 300 lances by challenging any knights who wanted to cross the Orbigo bridge, including those who were on the pilgrimage. It was 1434, a Jacobean Holy Year, so there were a lot of people coming through Orbigo. Knights who did not want to partake had to leave a glove behind to show their weakness, and then cross through the river itself instead of using the bridge. Don Suero ended up only breaking just under 200 lances, fighting 68 men, and actually killing 1. However, because he had still shown his strength, the king released him from the iron collar anyway. This whole ordeal is referred to as the “Passo Honroso” or the “Honorable Passing.” It got so much attention that Don Quijote even references it. While Don Suero emerged generally triumphant from this excessive endeavor, one of the defeated knights, Gutierre de Quijada, who had promised revenge, encountered Don Suero out in the country 24 years later and within minutes had killed him. What a way to go.
While our humble class does not plan on battling anyone and certainly won’t be shackled by any chains besides our packs and some KT tape, we would certainly still appreciate your prayers!! See you at the next town!
Gitlitz, David M and Linda Day Davidson. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete
Cultural Handbook. St. Martin’s Griffin, 200.