It is interesting to observe how the impulse to offer hospitality to visitors can become corrupted by the lure of money.
It happens all over. The camino is not immune. There has always been an economic element; routing the way through particular towns brought prosperity. For every pilgrim travelling simply, there were two or three spending freely.
Arriving in Leon early in the morning, I found a bar near the cathedral for a coffee with complimentary churro ( sausage shaped doughnut, traditionally dipped in chocolate). I added a pastry. The young woman serving had a sincere smile. €3.50 seemed fine, especially as I had half an hour of free wifi too.
Later that day, I returned for a late lunch. Not wanting meat, I went off the tourist menu and had a salad, some chips (which turned out to be the ready made variety), some tortilla, a glass of wine. With the basket of bread, it was filling. When I went to pay, the young woman went to ask her boss how much to charge. He sent her to ask his boss. Maybe her father and mother, I don't know. She looked unhappy, brought the bill. The tourist price, plus the wine. I smiled, paid, left her a good tip. Her soul was insulted and I wanted her to know I knew.
The next day, on the road, at San Martin, I called into a bar for a coffee solo. Another young woman with a lovely smile. Tortilla, cake or biscuit, she asked. Cake please. She filled a small glass with orange juice. €1 for all of it. She asked about the camino, said she would like to do it one day.
This morning in Astorga a similar contrast. In search of an early coffee. I found a back street bar. The owner looked grumpy, served my cafe con leche. I asked for two churros. €2.50.
Back in the centre, I felt like more coffee, maybe a better experience. In the Sonrisa Bar, two smiley young women. Coffee solo, with complimentary churros, €1. Also asked about the walk, offered a cheery "buen camino" when I left. After packing at the alberge, I was tempted back to Sonrisas. A carahillo please. The coffee solo arrived, complimentary churros, two small bottles with pouring spouts. Which do you want, conac or aguedente? I pour some clear spirit in. Warms me up for the wet walk ahead. €1 for all of it. And another "buen camino" to set me on my way. Churros for breakfast, faith in humanity restored.
As the Camino Frances gets closer to Santiago, the alberges and bars multiply. Special pilgrim menus. ( Juanma joked: do non-pilgrims pay a different price?) Yet there is still an underlying respect for the tradition. At the risk of stereotyping, I think it is stronger back in the mountains than on the plain.
As for the pilgrim menus, the best food has been collectively bought, cooked and shared by the pilgrims in the alberge kitchens.
Yesterday's lunch of bread, sheep's cheese, tomato washed down with water from the fountain outside the church in Hospital de Obrigo was special too. Simplicity.