After many hours of wandering with a mounting sense of panic, I am no longer lost in the foggy, newly plowed and reorganized fields of northern Spain. Whew. And I didn’t go more than a couple of miles out of my way, either. I followed the distant sounds of cars and my compass readings to the highways and found a parallel gravel service road which took me to the ancient Roman town of Astorga, the site of my very first Camino beginning point ever, in 1999. Thank God for iPhone’s compass! Who knew Girl Scout skills would come in handy while on pilgrimage in a developed nation in the modern age?
Lots has changed in Astorga since the turn of the century. For instance, there’s a 4 star hotel that has a 12 Euro/1.5 hr special in their hydrotherapy center on Sundays, which I was just in time to take advantage of. Jets, showers, steam room, sauna, a giant warm pool and a massage therapist who had studied four years for some sort of PT/massage degree who did an outstanding job on my feet and legs. No one seemed to care that I was wearing a sports bra and pilgrim panties (quick-dry, sturdy, modest).
After unpacking in my ultra modern beautiful fancy room for less than the cost of a Comfort Inn and hand washing my clothes and draping them over the heater attached to the wall, I ventured out into the rainy November night to find dinner. I crossed the plaza in front of City Hall, where I remembered my brother doing street performance to earn money for dinner 15 years ago when several of us walked this trail together. (He’s a professional actor now and currently starring as the lead role in a musical in London.) Past stacked metal tables chained to a stone pillar in front of my favorite cafe where I’d eaten breakfast more than one year in a row. Under wet awnings and past warmly lit eateries where servers in black shirts and aprons were sweeping, stacking, polishing, closing up.
My super scrunch-down-able down jacket was beginning to feel heavy with rain and let in the chill when I found what might have been the only place open past nine on a Sunday night. I and one other party were the guests there that night at Hotel Astvr Plaza. Our server, a very earnest, slender man I’ll call Enrique (because I really want him to have a name and I don’t remember it) recommended the steak to me and brought it out with a lovely side salad at my request and for no additional charge.
The air was hazy with smoke from the meat the other diners had ordered and which was being cooked at their table on a volcanically hot piece of stone. (BTW, menus here distinguish between cow, bull and oxen – evidently there’s a marked difference in flavor. Who knew?) An instrumental version of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”, my high school graduating class’s song, piped through a speaker right above my head. From time to time, Enrique opened the door, admitting damp, cold air in an unsuccessful attempt to clear the haze of charring meat.
I started out with a cup of hot tea, not wanting to get too tired from wine, but changed my mind when I saw my meal approach – a thick, charred-on the edges steak and fried potatoes garnished with roasted red peppers. Chamomile tea with that meal would have been like wearing running shoes with a ball gown. Possible, comfortable, but simply not done. “Vino, por favor.” Enrique disappeared and returned with a bottle whose label he wiped clean with the edge of his black apron before showing it to me. “Es un vino muy muy MUY bueno de la region.”
There’s an expansiveness that comes with being exhausted, warm, relaxed, clean, in mostly-clean clothes, with a clean bed waiting in a clean room with a clean bathroom that you don’t have to share with anyone else, sitting down to a delicious meal. I had no idea how much this really really REALLY good wine from the region was going to set me back, but at that point I didn’t care. “Dale” (dah-lay) I told him. Go for it.
He uncorked and poured and continued to monitor the emptiness of my glass for the rest of the night, reappearing as I neared the bottom making sure it was refilled. I finished the whole bottle. He was right. It was good. Very good.
When he brought the bill, I noticed that this superlative wine hadn’t made it to the tab.
“You forgot to charge me for the wine.”
“No I didn’t. It was my treat.”
He looked me straight in the eyes.
“You deserve that, and SO much more.”
Then he handed me a pilgrim shell that I think may have been an ashtray at one point and attempted to scratch his name on its hard interior with a dying ballpoint pen. Solemnly, he handed it to me and I received it with both hands, extended, like the offer of communion it was.
“I wish you a buen Camino.” (Buen Camino is the traditional wish one gives to a pilgrim; it literally means “Good Way”.)
After paying and leaving an outrageous tip, I walked back to my hotel room through the empty town square, taking in the diffused glow of street lamps in heavy mist, listening to water drip from balconies and the muffled echo of my footsteps bouncing off stone walls. I felt surrounded, warmed, blessed by the this unexpected kindness and the other kindnesses that had enveloped me along my way and sent up a prayer of gratitude for Enrique, that he would be wrapped in the same blanket as well.