León to Astorga, City of Chocolate

León to Astorga

To give Mom’s toe more time to heal, and because walking from León to Santiago would

Gaudí's Palace

have required an aggressive 18 kilometers a day, every day, for 12 days, we took a short bus ride from Burgos to Astorga.  Astorga is a pleasant little town.  Marie Anne had recommended that we be sure to stop here.  There is an embarrassing wealth of cathedrals and churches for such a small town, and a Museum of Chocolate, which Carrie was determined to see.  The old town in which we’re staying sits on a bluff overlooking the surrounding countryside.

Legend has it that both Santiago and St. Paul preached in Astorga.  Both legends seem to me unlikely, but the city did merit a bishopric of its own.  Because it’s at the foot of two very steep climbs, it became a place on the Camino for travelers to rest up before the next ascent.  As a result, there were once more hostels here than anywhere but Burgos.

Astorga was originally a Celtic settlement and in 14 BCE became a Roman stronghold in what was known as Asturica.  Still visible today are the ruins of a sumptuous private home, complete with baths (featuring, as in the baths I’ve seen in Israel, hot, cold, and

Ruins of a Roman Villa

even tepid water), and the town’s walls. Plinius called the city urbs magnifica, “magnificent city”, but most of what the Romans built was destroyed when the Visigoth Teodorico II defeated the Suevi tribe that had settled the area after the fall of Rome. The Moors later destroyed the Visigothic city.  After the campaigns of Alfonso I of Asturias (739-757) against the Moors, the city was abandoned until the 11th century, when it became a major stop on the Camino.  The city was unusually welcoming to its Jewish residents until 1492, when all Jews were either forcibly converted, killed, or expelled from Spain.

Astorga has a fine cathedral, to judge from the outside.  But both times we arrived it was

Astoga Cathedral

closed, so we’ll never know what’s inside.  It might have held the Holy Grail, or a BMW Z8.  We ran into the same problem at the neo-Gothic, fairytale Bishop’s Palace designed by the great and whimsical Antonio Gaudi.

Happily, in Astorga there is a fine little albergue.  The owners or managers are a Spanish couple, and the volunteer hospitalerosare German, this time a couple from a town near Koblenz.  Mom was utterly delighted with the kitchen, which led to a patio with a view for

Mom and a view of and from the Patio at the Astorga Albergue

many miles, and she could not have been happier about immediately going shopping and making lunch – German-style hamburger patties with onions and German potato salad, along with white asparagus, raw red peppers, banana slices, and grapes.

We got a room with a view – and the room holds only four people, the fourth being Barbara, a woman of a certain age from near Munich, whose daughter was once a satisfied exchange student in Iowa.  She has that Bavarian accent that reminds me of my relatives, and childhood, in Bavaria.  Barbara’s crown has broken, so she is off to see a dentist.  Curiously, this happened to another pilgrim just a few days ago.

I’m tired today.  I didn’t get much sleep last night.  At least one man, and maybe two, sounded like nothing so much as a motorcycle starting up.  I am becoming an aficionado of snoring sounds.  It’s like Nabokov, collecting and documenting butterflies, only with more rage.  Truly, hostels need to provide those little anti-snore strips and require that snorers use them.  It should also be made kosher for other pilgrims to wake a snorer without a strip and ask him to get one or to banish himself from the albergue, if not from society entirely.

I am looking forward to a greater probability of a full night’s sleep.  It would depress me beyond measure for Barbara’s crown, say, to get broken again.

Counting another bus trip, we’ll have about 169 kilometers to go, out of the original 800+.  If we budget 11 days (we leave from Lisbon on October 22, but wanted to spend some time in Portugal), then we need to cover 15.4 kilometers per day.  That’s easily doable, if we can avoid injuries and other health issues.  Apparently one must cover the last 100 kilometers to get the special badge of the pilgrim.  Or maybe it’s an embossed certificate from the Pope, along with an accounting of the sins remitted (and how does he know?  But then, Santa Claus knows, so why can’t the Pope know?)  Julio told us that in Santiago, the townsfolk offer to host pilgrims in their own homes, and that there is some kind of ceremony at the cathedral where the pilgrims’ names are called out publicly.


One proud native informed us that Astorga was the site of the first manufacture of chocolate in Europe.  (He also said the first shop was in Aachen, Germany).  I wasn’t able to confirm this with Google, and the Museo de Chocolate, for which we had high hopes, was of no help.  The museum appears to have been carved out of the living quarters of someone’s home, and it offers less an education in things chocolate than a collection of old chocolate-making tools.  But its curators’ primary interest seems to have been Spanish-language chocolate advertising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Somewhere in the world, a Ph.D. student with an esoteric thesis will be very happy someday.

The Spanish were the first to bring chocolate to the Old World, and like so much else, they got it from the Aztecs.  Montezuma drank the stuff eight times a day, and believed it was the key to good health.  When Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who destroyed Aztec civilization, broke into Montezuma’s palace, in 1591, to rob his treasury of its gold and silver, he was astonished to find only a truck-load of cocoa beans.  Cortés brought Xocolatl! to Spain, where the bitter stuff was made more palatable to European tastes by mixing the ground roasted beans with sugar and vanilla.  When more and more sugar was added, it became edible to Americans.

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