ASTORGA: PLACE OF PILGRIMAGE FOR CHRISTIANS & CHOCOHOLICS
Astorga is a tiny place with a big personality; like most of towns along the Camino de Santiago there’s a big cathedral in town, and the Bishop of Astorga had Antoni Gaudi design his palace so we got to visit that today too. This is not just a place of religious sites, however, it is also a Mecca for any serious chocoholic – Astorga happens to be the place where chocolate was first introduced to Europe and every second shop, it seems, is dedicated to the wonders that can be created from Theobroma cacao.
With each passing week sunrise is getting later and later – the sky was only just starting to lighten when we left our guesthouse this morning at 8:00am* bound for the Estación de Autobuses de Leon. The bus ride to Astorga took us past more of the rocky rural landscape we’ve gotten used to over the past few days here in Castilla. There were already a number of walkers on the road this morning, a few hiking as part of small groups, laughing and chatting, but most of them walking alone, heads bowed and thoughts turned inwards.
*Which, by Spanish standards, is like being awake at 6:00am.
The trail for the Camino runs right by the roadside for much of the distance between Burgos and Leon, which we couldn’t help but feel would detract from the experience – how can you enjoy the peace and serenity, or marvel at the great expanse of nature around you, if there are trucks, buses and cars zipping past you every few minutes?! Still, we can’t help but respect what these modern-day trekkers are doing – the physical, mental, and emotional fortitude it would take to walk 800km (if they’re doing the entire Camino) is quite awe-inspiring.
We weren’t originally going to stop in Astorga, figuring it would be too small to warrant our attentions (the town’s population is only about 12,000), but a number of people we’ve spoken to said it’s a lovely little town, so here we are! Turns out that those people were, in fact, correct. Astorga may be small, but it’s vibrant and made for a great stop on our journey across Northern Spain.
The Roman city of Asturica was founded in 14BC and, like most of the towns in this part of Spain, functioned as a military outpost for many years. Ruins of the city’s original Roman baths are still visible today and there’s a small museum in town that displays artefacts from Astorga’s time as a Roman settlement.
Astorga’s importance as a town diminished greatly with the collapse of the Roman empire; it took the establishment of the Camino de Santiago in 1063 to restore this walled city to some semblance of prosperity.
As with most medium to large towns along the Camino, Astorga has an epic cathedral where pilgrims would go to pray. The Cathedral of Astorga dates back to 1471 and, though smaller than those in Burgos and Leon, is still a grand Gothic edifice.
Beside the cathedral sits Astorga’s greatest treasure, however: the Palacio Episcopal de Astorga. Designed by Antoni Gaudi (of Barcelona fame), this magnificent Modernist building was commissioned by the Bishop of Astorga in 1888 after the Bishop’s original Medieval palace burnt down. As with all Gaudi’s buildings the building was fascinating to explore, combining architectural ideas and features from various sources to create some truly unique shapes and spaces.
The palace looked like a small neo-Gothic castle, complete with battlements, towers, and a small moat. Inside there were some beautiful stained glass windows, especially in the tiny chapel and main dining hall. Today the palace houses a museum dedicated to the Camino, which is interesting enough, though no where near as interesting as the building itself.
From the museum housed within Gaudi’s Palacio Episcopal we learned that Astorga remained a small village for about 500 years after the Camino de Santiago was established – it was a stop along the Camino, but certainly not a significant one. It wasn’t until 1528 that the town’s fortunes really changed; because in 1528 Hernán Cortés brought the Mexican cacao bean to Spain, establishing Europe’s first (and for many years, ONLY) chocolate factory in his home town of Astorga. Astorga is effectively the European birthplace of chocolate; here the ground pulp from the imported cocoa beans was extracted, dried, and turned into a rich drink that became an instant hit with the Spanish, and consequently European, aristocracy. So important was chocolate to Astorga’s economy that there is a museum dedicated to this fine confectionary in town. Unfortunately the museum was closed for the long weekend (Hispanic Day is tomorrow), but we at least got to sample some of Astorga’s splendid, chocolatey heritage for ourselves.
Since Astorga is so small and the bus ride from Leon was so short, we had time this afternoon to relax and took the opportunity to reflect a little on the last few days of travel. Our route through this part of Spain has taken us through many of the towns along the Camino de Santiago and we’ve become accustomed to seeing “pilgrims*” everywhere we go. We’ve spoken to a few of them and it seems there are a whole range of reasons why people set out to do the Camino – some seem to have taken on the task purely for the physical challenge it represents; some as a way of relaxing and retreating from the busy modern world for a while; and more than a few are using the trek as a way of doing a “walking meditation”.
*The use of the term “pilgrim” to describe everyone that walks the Camino seems somewhat outdated to us, especially given that most people that do the walk have no religious intentions at all. Still, maybe not – walking all that way would no doubt inspire some introspection, which is in many ways the purpose of a pilgrimage.
Many of the towns we’ve stopped in, Astorga included, have statues honouring those that do the Camino (it’s an important part of the local economy, after all) and there’s a real respect for pilgrims everywhere we go. In some ways we’re starting to feel like we’re missing out on something – we’re zipping through these towns, travelling the “easy” way, and though we’re stopping to see some of the big sights, we’re not spending days and weeks soaking in the vibe of the place. It’s almost seems that, by traveling through this part of Spain by bus, we’ve perhaps deprived ourselves of a crucial element of the experience. The towns, cathedrals, and grand buildings are all beautiful in their own way, but maybe when you walk the Camino, they become more than that too.
We didn’t set out to do the Camino de Santiago because we didn’t feel we needed weeks of profound introspection – for us this is part of a much bigger adventure, an opportunity to explore some of the landscapes, sights, foods, and peoples that makes this world so fascinating and diverse. Still, we have certainly come to appreciate why the Camino is so popular and why, even in the modern context, so many people come to Spain to walk the Way of St James.