Tuesday 23 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 5

Life In The Slow Lane - El Burgo Ranero to Leon

Day 14 - El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas: 21.07km / Ascent 78m / Descent 146m

This morning’s breakfast was notable for two reasons: first because it was available nice and early, and second because it was such a copious affair we were able to eat our fill there and then, take left-over bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes and bananas for lunch, and still not finish everything!

After another stifling night when sleep was hard-won, it was surprisingly cool as we set off in the half light of early morning. Nice for walking, though, and many others thought the same, judging by the number of familiar faces that were also hitting the trail early.

For much of the morning we walked beside the road, which was quiet enough at this time of the day. With trees on our left and occasional picnic spots along the way, we enjoyed a relaxed pace, passing and re-passing our friends as we went.

We stopped for a drink break beside the entrance to Villamarco village, chatted briefly to a girl from Hungary, and took a short detour to view the exhibition of old farm implements which made for an interesting diversion.

Tumbledown adobe buildings beneath clouds and contrails

Back en route, we kept along beside side the road, passed an airfield and further rest stops, until a picnic area near Reliegos provided a good, shady spot for lunch. A little later on, as we passed through the village, we popped into a bar for ice creams and cold drinks.

With only 6 kilometers of the day remaining, we took our time getting to Mansilla de las Mulas. Nevertheless, it was barely 2.00pm when we passed through the old town walls and headed for our hotel.  

Entering Mansilla de las Mulas

We bumped into the four Scots for the first time since Calzada del Coto, and a Japanese girl who had walked the 38 kilometers from Sahagun. This gave us some food for thought: having eventually reached a level of fitness, we both felt that the last few days’ walking had not offered quite enough challenge, and it would have been good if they’d been a little bit longer. Perhaps not 38k at a stretch: maybe 30 kilometers per day, give or take, would be ideal. That way we wouldn’t arrive at our destination quite so early in the afternoons, and may have “saved” a day – or possibly even two – by adopting a more flexible schedule between Burgos and Leon. Of course it’s entirely our own fault in that we pre-arranged the days’ duration in advance, but it’s a lesson learned for next time, I feel.

Once again, our room is simple and functional, but seems quite quiet and will suit us just fine. It’s hot, though, just like at Calzadilla and El Burgo Ranero, and we hope it will cool as the sun goes down.

Camino sculpture, Mansilla de las Mulas

We spent the afternoon resting and pottering round town. What interest there was lay mainly amongst the high-sided, narrow streets of the old town. It’s not a big place, though, and one lap revealed the best of what was on offer. We went to a bar near the Albergue where a few pilgrims lounged, soaking up cold drinks and writing up our notes, wondering if any familiar faces would appear. But they didn’t.

It was later that we caught up with friends: pre-dinner drinks with Fred, Frans and Ann, followed by a filling meal of pasta, grilled pork steaks and chips.  

Day 15 – Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon: 20.30km / Ascent 257m / Descent 175m

And so to our last day – the final leg of this section – from Mansilla into Leon, where we have to leave the Camino and return home.

Again, it was a cool morning, belying the fact of another hot, sleep-interrupted night. On reflection, I think we coped better with the heat during the day (wide-brimmed hat, frequent applications of sunscreen, plenty of water, keeping to the shade) than we did at night, which seems slightly odd given all the warnings about afternoon temperatures at this time of year.

Town walls, early morning

We were underway by 8.30am – later than normal, but not too bad considering there was only 20 kilometers to go.  Some of our regular chums were also about, but others had opted to take the bus. Word had got round that the last part of the walk into Leon wasn’t very nice: dangerous, even, as it followed the shoulder of a busy road.

True, walking into the main cities was often less than scenic, but there was usually something of interest to see. And all the reasoning in the world (more time in Leon, a chance for a rest day, catching up with others) wouldn’t change one simple fact: we were not going to put ourselves in the position of getting to Santiago, looking back and wishing we’d not missed a bit! After all, we’d promised ourselves “the full distance on foot, no matter what”.

Twenty-arched bridge, Puente Villarente

As has been alluded to earlier, the Camino again paralleled the road or used pavements for much of the day. We passed through a minor village, Villamoros, before taking a coffee break with Fred at a bar in Puente Villarente, a village with an historic twenty-arch bridge and a little museum about the history and restoration of the major bridges along the Camino.

Beyond Puente Villarente, we headed off on a now-familiar gravel track. A short detour to the Albergue in Arcahueja offered a lazy rest stop with cheese and chorizo sandwiches and cokes. We met Belgian Dirk, and caught up again with the Chamonix ranger from a few days ago, who was stopping for the day there and then because of foot trouble!

We rejoined the main road in Valdelafuente, and followed an intricate set of paths and bridges to reach the outskirts of the town proper near the Psychiatric Hospital at Puente Castro. From what I can work out this sinuous route is new, created to remove the pilgrim from a dangerous roadside plodge.

Extravagant new bridge, Valdelafuente

Walking through the streets, familiar voices hailed us from a nearby bar. Having passed us while we were ensconced in the Arcahueja Albergue, Mike and Carol had been there a while and already slipped into relaxation mode. So we joined them for a beer: a bit early, maybe, but if it was OK by the locals and OK by other pilgrims, it was certainly OK by us.

Looking back at my notes and photographs, it seems like these final days just flew by. The thought of finishing this year’s section had been preying on our minds a little, and with these longer breaks I get the impression we were deliberately trying to prolong the experience and delay the moment when it would be time to rejoin the “real world” once again. 

The odd thing is that over the last two weeks the simple recurring mantra of “eat, sleep, hike” had become our reality, and we were reluctant to leave it behind. Our busy lives of only a few days ago, lives full of noise and stress and obligation, structured by outside commitments and pressures and soon to be rejoined, are the lives that now seem peculiar, distant and incongruous. I guess this is how the Camino gets into your system; how it changes your life.

Double thickness city walls, Leon

There was another kilometer or so of pavement bashing through the outskirts, before finally passing through the ancient walls and entering the beautiful and historic city centre. We followed the Camino through narrow streets, and turned towards the Plaza Santo Martino to reach our hotel. Part of the collegiate church of San Isidoro, it proved a magnificent setting in which to spend the last night of our pilgrimage.

Inside the Casa de Espiritualidad

After a rest and a quick wash and brush up, we set out to explore the city – wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We’d arranged a rendezvous by the cathedral, but bumped into JD while we were out and about who said a bunch of pilgrims were gathered at a bar round the corner. 

Leon Cathedral

So we all joined up – us, Mike and Carol, Frans and Ann, Don, John, John and Stephen (the four Scots), Dirk, JD and Becky, Sandi and Dean – all our friends from the last couple of weeks on the Camino gathered together one final time before we all went our separate ways.

Sandi, Dean, Ann & Frans

Frans, Don & John

John, Becky, JD, Dirk & Stephen 

Us, with Mike & Carol

I had deliberately kept fairly quiet about it being my 50th birthday – the idea of arriving into Leon at the end of a great fortnight being present enough. But word had got out: Carol had bought me a small present and a beautiful hand-painted card which everyone signed. It was great – a lovely thought and a fantastic memento of a unique and wonderful two weeks!

It also turned out to be Ann’s birthday, and the eve of her and Frans’ wedding anniversary, so there was a definite celebratory air about the evenings’ proceedings. Eventually, though, everyone began to drift away. For some, the immediate future meant carrying on along the Camino: for others, like us, it was time to turn for home.


We had dinner with Mike and Carol at a small off-the-beaten-track café – loads of food and wine at a very modest price – and rounded-off the evening watching a son et lumiere show telling the history of Leon, which was projected on to the side of the San Isidoro church. Brilliant! It was a fabulous evening of fun, friendship and celebration, and I can’t think of a better way of marking the end of a memorable fortnight.

Sound & light show projected on to the facade of San Isidoro church

Day 16 – Leon to Home

There was precious little chance to do anything much this morning, but we did our best to make the most of what time there was. We had a quick look round town, wished a few departing pilgrims well (with more than a tinge of sadness) and took a guided tour of the hotel/church complex.

Tower and courtyard, Casa de Espiritualidad

It was hard to leave, but we know we have lots to look forward to when we return. And return we will to finish our pilgrimage – God willing, of course. 

Interior of San Isidoro from the gallery

Saturday 20 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 4

Our Camino, Our Way – Carrion de los Condes to El Burgo Ranero

Day 11 - Carrion to Calzadilla de la Cueza: 16.87km / Ascent 108m / Descent 65m

After the shock of yesterday's news and the ensuing late night, it was good in a way that breakfast was a little later than usual. Coupled with a lazy getaway, it meant it was after 9.00am before we hit the trail.

Facade of the Monastery San Zoilo

Passing the front of the monastery, we first followed the road to the edge of town, crossed the bypass, and picked up a minor road heading west.

Via Aquitana, the ancient Roman highway crossing northern Spain

Pilgrims reading this will have a variety of opinions on our method of walking the Camino, and I’m sure there are many people out there who take a dim view of the way we have chosen to complete our pilgrimage, thinking to themselves (or even out loud) that doing it in sections, pre-booking generally better standard accommodation beforehand and not relying on the Albergue system is somehow not in the spirit of the Camino.

Trust me; we have rehearsed those same arguments over and over again. In the end it comes down to this: with busy lives, family responsibilities and work commitments, it is the only way we can currently undertake such a trip, and with a maximum two-weeks-at-a-time vacation rule, keeping to a rigid schedule and taking certain liberties with the essence of the journey is the only way we can do it at this stage in our lives.

Excluding students, retirees and the non-working for a moment, the number of people we met of working age who said they had effectively just quit their jobs and set off on pilgrimage seems pretty high. Interestingly, when we talked to them about it, almost all advice we received – not all of it tongue-in-cheek, I suspect – was for us to do the same. Heaven knows; if yesterday’s news demonstrated anything it was that opportunities must be grasped and that the future should never be taken for granted. The thought of giving it all up is tempting – very tempting - but it’s not for us. Not just yet, anyway!

The route today was pretty simple - leave town, head in a straight line for 17 kilometers, reach Calzadilla de la Cueza. At a T junction we left the tarmac and kept straight ahead along the gravel track which would accompany us all the way to Calzadilla. It was a short leg today – the shortest of our current trip – but unusual in that we would not pass through a single village all day.

Morning rest stop beneath shady trees

To make the journey a little easier, a couple of rest stops had been constructed that offered seats and shade for the hot and tired. We reached the first after 6 or 7 kilometers, an arrangement of picnic tables beneath shady trees. Because the day was short we had a good half-hour break, a bite to eat and some water, and dozed in the shade to conserve valuable energy.

Setting off again we noticed it was already quite warm, even though it was barely mid-morning. Another hour or so on the trail brought us to the second rest area – this one with lean-to for shade plus other wooden benches – where we ate lunch and again sat for a good while, simply dozing and reading. Just before we set off, Mike and Carol arrived – a good chance to check we were all fit for the walk ahead and had enough food and water to keep us going.

From here on into Calzadilla it was about 6 kilometers, with no shade at all for the entire section. Our guidebook had warned us of this in advance – helpful, as we knew we would probably have to tackle it in the heat of the afternoon – and we had made allowances. But we were beginning to rue the late start and slow pace on what everyone feels is the hottest afternoon of the week by some margin. Heat bouncing back from the pale track bed added to the discomfort, and it came as a shock but no real surprise when the Albergue owner confirmed an afternoon temperature of 39˚C (102˚F). Phew!

Although the biggest place for miles around, Calzadilla is still a bit of a one-horse town. However we received a warm, friendly welcome from our hoteliers, and were swiftly shown to our room where we had a quick shower to clean up and cool down. Cooling down was definitely the order of the day - when we bought drinks and ice creams later, the barman also confirmed his belief that it was hottest day of the year so far.

Whatever the actuality, it was certainly warm enough for us. Even so, we went for a walk round the town so we weren't stuck inside all afternoon, gravitating to the shadows wherever possible for maximum cool before finally retiring inside for drinks. As the afternoon wore on people rolled in, and it wasn’t long before a whole bunch of pilgrims were sitting around chatting and whiling away the time with an iced beverage.

Dinner at the United Nations

Dinner at the hotel resembled a select gathering of member states of the United Nations, represented as we were by England (2 counties), Scotland, the US (5 states), Canada, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Brazil. Portion sizes were as prodigious as the number of nationalities around the table was profuse, and included a chick pea soup that was as good as anything we ate all fortnight.

A final drink beckoned before bedtime, but the beer ran out: pilgrims can be a thirsty lot when pushed. However it was still so hot that no one was keen to shut themselves in their rooms just yet. No offence meant to any the hotels or Albergues along the way, but entering the bedrooms was often like opening an oven door – too hot and uncomfortable for sleep – so we ended the day with a late stroll to try to catch whatever cool was going.

Day 12 - Calzadilla de los Cueza to Sahagun: 23.89km / Ascent 234m / Descent 259m

The heat of yesterday had persuaded most to make an early start so as to finish before the thuggish temperatures of the afternoon set in. I also suspect that most were awake early as getting any sleep in such conditions proved pretty difficult. So we had breakfasted and were underway by 7.45am, heading out of Calzadilla beside the ubiquitous N120 road.

It was a very pleasant morning, and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of the first 6 kilometers to Ledigos. Here, we stopped for a coffee with JD and Becky and Frans and Ann.

Adobe housing, Terradillos de los Templarios

It was still barely past 9.30am as we moved off again, completing another straightforward 6 kilometer stretch, through the wonderfully named village of Terradillos de los Templarios, to the little hamlet of Moratinos where we broke for cokes and sandwiches with Frans and Ann.

Memorial tree to the late Rev Philip Wren, the
"Methodist Pilgrim" who died May 2013 on The Way

On the way we saw a memorial to a British reverend and chatted briefly to a chap from Lyon in France - a recently retired forest ranger in Chamonix. What a great job that must have been!

After passing through another small village, we started on the lengthy stretch towards Sahagun, taking the opportunity for a break and some food in the shady surrounds of the Ermita Virgen del Puente picnic area.

The Ermita Virgen del Puente

The final 3 kilometers into town tripped through the usual edge-of-town factory-scape. The Camino chose to take a couple of different routes through the town centre, and we ended up taking a slightly roundabout way to our hotel in the main square. We’d arrived shortly after 2.15pm, and even though by common consensus it was nothing like as warm as the day before, it was still nice to arrive with plenty of time to rest, relax and explore the town.

For the first time in a long time, we seem to be the only pilgrims in our particular hotel. I’m not quite sure why: where we are – 2 floors above the bar with a view over the square – is nothing special but perfectly fine. Best of all, it has air conditioning – something of a relief after days of hot weather – and with it the promise of a good night’s sleep.

Pilgrims about town, Sahagun

Others appear to be spread across a couple of Albergues and a hotel or two. After a rest and showers, we went for a walk round town. It was pretty quiet at first, as the siesta seemed to be observed with more diligence here than in some places we have stayed. However, we thought we’d go for a beer and see whether any other pilgrims were afoot. They were, and the square outside our hotel seems to be the place to be. Others were abroad as well, and we swapped the day's news with all and sundry.

We dined in the evening with Fred and Brian, and Sandy and Dean from Seattle. We had bread, a delicious tuna salad and a massive fish Paella that was supposed to feed four, not the six who tucked in but couldn’t finish it. During the course of the evening one advantage of using hotels became apparent: the others were all on curfew from their respective Albergues, and had to negotiate extensions after 9.00pm – in some cases not without serious complaint!

Day 13 - Sahagun to El Burgo Ranero: 18.96km / Ascent 140m / Descent 76m

After a simple but excellent breakfast of coffee, juice and Danish pastries, we were on the road again by 7.45am. Other pilgrims were lurking outside, sourcing their breakfast from one or other of the many cafés on the square.

We swapped news of schedules, working out who we might bump into over the coming few days and whether we would see some people again. In the course of conversation, another advantage of using small hotels manifested itself – or rather it was an outbreak of bedbugs that had manifested itself in one of the Albergues overnight. Not nice!

Frans and Ann by the Arco de San Benito, Sahagun

Leaving Sahagun by the bridge over the Rio Cea, we fell in with Mike and Carol and Frans and Ann, and would continue to walk with or near them for much of the day. At the first village, Calzada de Coto, the Camino splits in two – both official routes running roughly parallel to each other, but divergent for around 30 kilometers. One way is the original Camino Real route; the other follows the Via Trajana, an old Roman road. We all opted for the Camino Real route; the four Scots, on the other hand, chose the Via Trajana. So we wished them well and went our separate ways.

Tree-lined tracks like this offer vital shade on hot days

Between Calzada de Coto and Bercianos del Real Camino we walked with Frans and Ann, talking about topics as diverse as international business, nuclear power, the Belgian football team, beer (and the beauty of small producers) and Wagnerian opera. Variety is, after all, the spice of life. In Bercianos we stopped for a lazy coffee break, where Mike and Carol caught up and joined us as well.

After a sociable first 10 kilometers, we walked the next section on our own, all the while walking beside the road in the shade of poplar trees. After half an hour or so, we passed a bird hide by a small, reedy lake, which made an ideal spot to eat our sandwiches.

Bird hide beside the small laguna between Bercianos del Real Camino
and El Burgo Ranero, an ideal spot for birdwatching and lunch

Because today's walk was not especially long, it was barely 1.30pm when we reached El Burgo Ranero, even though we had adopted a fairly relaxed pace. After an impromptu tour of the village we found the hotel, though not before starting a minor disagreement between two local women as to where we needed to go (one said she knew exactly where our hotel was but was wrong, the other denied any knowledge of its existence at all). All was well in the end, though: we checked in and were treated to one of the most delightful welcomes of the trip so far - a cold bottle of beer each!

We popped to the room for a rest and a wash. We have the tiniest bath known to man – I could barely squeeze my legs in under the tap, and had to use an empty beer bottle to wash my hair. After a quick circuit of the village, we settled at the bar for to relax, write notes and catch up on the day’s news with other pilgrims.   

We sat with Mike and Carol for dinner. Under intense interrogation they let on it was their wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with wine and a menu peregrino, and offered them congratulations and best wishes for the future!

Later, we went for another quick stroll, and rang home to swap news before going to bed. It was very hot in the room, and again we didn't sleep too well. The heat had been a notable feature of the last few days, both during the day and at night, but we didn’t let it detract from the fact that we were having a great time. 

With sore feet a thing of the past, the daily routine honed with military precision and new friendships forged, we felt like we could walk forever. Even the sad news of a few days earlier couldn’t detract from that. However, for us the end was approaching – just three more days walking before our Camino for this year had to come to an end. Although we still had plenty to look forward to, we couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of melancholy that the life we were living and the way we had slipped into it so easily would soon be exchanged for the “real world” once more.  

Friday 19 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 3

Carry On Along The Camino – Burgos to Carrion de los Condes

Day 7 - Burgos to Hornillos del Camino: 21.64km / Ascent 238m / Descent 266m

On the face of it, today offered up a shorter day than most to date, although, in the end, it turned out to be a little longer than expected. We set off at about 8.00am on a cool, overcast morning after partaking fully of the breakfast at our disposal.

Hotel Abba Burgos - right on the Camino

To be honest, breakfast at the Abba Burgos - rated as a 4 star hotel - was a bit better than the average pilgrim fayre: there was the full gamut of cereals, juices, hot and cold breakfast items and drinks to choose from, and I have to say we unashamedly tucked in. After a few days’ continuous walking, when all the energy reserves have been used up, it comes as no surprise to find that the appetite has been whetted and the availability of food becomes a key concern each day.

City walls, Burgos

Leaving town, we passed the old hospital, bought bread from a small bakery, trundled through the streets to cross the Rio Arlanzon by the Malatos bridge, and walked through a park along a broad avenue of trees that we think was featured in the film The Way.

Park gates on The Way

Gradually we left the city behind, and made our way into an area of flat land characterised by a mix of light agriculture and light industry, and criss-crossed periodically by road and rail links. A detour to avoid road works added a couple of unexpected kilometers to the distance travelled, and we seemed to bypass the first village of Villabilla altogether. So it was gone 10.30am by the time we stopped for a rest and drinks in the village of Tardajos.

Could be Constable country? Could be the Rio Arlanzon near Tardajos?

We pulled over at a busy little shop with a tent rigged up outside as a café annexe. Rita and her Japanese friend were there, plus a couple of young Germans we had seen from time to time as well, and we met a bunch of four Scots gents for the first time - Don, Stephen, John and John – who we would go on to see and walk with frequently over the next week or so.

At the next village, Rabe de las Calzadas, we stopped beside the church to eat our lunch in the shade. Despite the fact that the mornings were cool and the temperatures not excessive for the time of year, it was still getting pretty warm from lunchtime onwards - just as if someone turned the heating up from midday. Afternoons could easily hit the mid-30-degrees Celsius and shade was often at a premium, especially on the meseta, so it made sense to grab a few minutes out of the sun when the chance presented itself.

Climbing up to the meseta for the first time

Beyond the village, the track began a gentle but lengthy climb up on to the meseta – the flat, expansive, prarie-like upland plateau that would be our companion for the next few days’ walking.

There are many views regarding the meseta. Some consider it boring, worry about the heat and the lack of shade, and frankly can’t wait for it all to be over. For others, there is a stark beauty about the place, miles of lonely walking accompanied only by the wind and one’s own thoughts, providing the solitude and meditative thinking time some so desperately seek.

What we found was an upland table not unlike some of the higher ground of the Cotswolds or even the Long Mynd, but cut with valleys of a different nature. Yes, it was stark, and the sheer size somewhat daunting, but we found comfort in the seeming familiarity of it all, and consider our days crossing it some of the most enjoyable we experienced.

The flat ground made for easy walking (even with sore feet) and it wasn’t long before we were making the descent into Hornillos del Camino – the end of the road for today. We found a bar near the centre of town, bought drinks and caught up with our new-found friends as they rolled in – Montana, a lady from South Carolina; the four Scots; others.

Descending towards Hornillos del Camino

Our accommodation for the evening was organised at a small hotel a couple of kilometers off route in the neighbouring village of Isar. Others, too, had made various arrangements, including transfers to other nearby villages or, in one case, back to Burgos.

To be honest, we had some misgivings about this arrangement when we found out about it; not least because it took us so far off route that we needed a lift to get there. We had it as an absolute condition of our Camino that we didn’t want to travel any of the trail by vehicle, and have always felt we must do the full distance on foot, no matter what. Until we got to Hornillos we weren’t sure how we would feel about the transfer, but in the end we had no qualms about it, relieved to find out that we would be returned to exactly the same spot in the morning.

Hotel Rural La Consulta De Isar
Hotel Rural La Consultar de Isar

The plan was that we would arrive at Hornillos and ring the hotel who would send someone to pick us up. To facilitate this, I had practiced a conversation in my best Spanish which I thought was a noble effort given the typical Englishman’s reticence in learning a foreign language – something along the lines of "Hola, Hotel Rural La Consulta de Isar? Mi nombre e Jules y tengo una reserva. Hablar Inglés?" To which the reply came: “No”, which put the pressure on a bit! Never mind – it was worth a try. Anyway, we got sorted pretty quickly: I don’t suppose there were all that many scenarios that might play out involving a non-Spanish speaking Briton with a reservation ringing a small hotel in the middle of nowhere.

After having had the 4-star treatment in Burgos, it was back to the simple life again for tonight. And very pleasant it was, too: nothing fancy, just a basic clean room and a nice meal of tuna soup, grilled pork and salad, and caramel flan. The four Scots were staying there as well, so we chatted a bit then had a brief amble round the village before turning in.

Day 8 - Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz: 20.97km / Ascent 273m / Descent 293m

The usual early start worked pretty well this morning: breakfast at 7.30am; back in Hornillos and underway by 8.00am, looking forward to another day on the meseta.

The route out of the village was easy enough, rising gently along a wide track rather than tackling the steeper slope head on. This is a feature of the Camino - it will generally take the path of least resistance between villages, more often than not taking the direct route as opposed to the scenic one, maintaining low gradients and crossing low passes rather than scaling high peaks.

On the meseta

For the first few kilometers we walked alone, although we knew there were other pilgrims both ahead and behind. It was an overcast morning, and cool - the coolest of the trip so far – which made a pleasant change from the usual heat.

Soon we reached the plateau. It's a slightly odd landscape in that it is pretty flat in general, but intermittently bisected by small ravines where the streams have cut through, and with the occasional valley or bowl sufficiently large enough to hold towns or villages. Our guidebook describes the meseta as "a dustbowl in summer", an area of "undulating expanses reaching out to infinity" that you will find either "hauntingly beautiful" or "extremely tedious", and that "apart from electricity pylons in the distance ... there is no sign of any sort of habitation in any direction".

Typical valley, hollowed out from the surrounding plateau

Well, I have to say I disagree with most of that. There are tracks crossing the plateau, lined with stone walls and marked with cairns at the junctions; fields of (now mown) hay and cropped cereals; pylons for sure, but also wind farms in almost every direction. I wouldn't describe it as "hauntingly beautiful", but in no way is it the tedious nothingness alluded to in the above quote, either. It’s definitely breezy, hence the wind farms, but nothing like the blast we encountered a few days ago, and all in all it made for quite pleasant walking – one of the nicest sections, in our opinion, and definitely preferable to the last few kilometers into Belorado or those passing the airfield near Burgos yesterday (by far the worst section by our estimation). It just goes to show: everyone has their own opinion on these matters.

Near the refugio at the Arroyo San Bol, we bumped into Brian for the first time (a New Yorker now living in South Carolina) and we walked together for a while. The next village, Hontanas, appeared quite suddenly, hidden from view until the last moment in a hollow scooped out of the flat plateau.

Approaching Hontanas

Cafés spanned the main street. Spread across them was an assortment of pilgrims – many of the faces we’d been seeing during the day – and we were introduced to a Texan couple, JD and Becky, bringing to seven our tally for US state bingo.

The church struck 11.00am as we left the village. For the first time all week it was chilly enough to warrant a jacket, even though the morning was almost through. We stopped to put them on: needless to say within 20 minutes the sun had come out and we were stripping off to shirt sleeves again. This section also offered up another "first" for the trip: underfoot a part of the Camino that could best be described as "path" as opposed to "track" or "road".

A "first" for the trip: path underfoot

We stopped for a bite to eat beside the ruins of the Hospital San Anton. Back in the Middle Ages, monks of the Order of St. Anthony were renowned for being able to successfully cure the gangrenous poisoning known as St Anthony's Fire (also known as Ignis Sacer and Holy Fire), the physical and psychological symptoms of which were often mistakenly thought to be “bewitchment”.

Bewitching? The Hospital San Anton

We sat on a wall in the shade, keeping an eye out for any passing spells. Fortunately our symptoms were down to nothing more than hot weather, tired limbs and lack of food, and no cure other than a cold drink, a sandwich and a sit down was required to set us right.

Solitary pilgrim on the tree-lined avenue near Castrojeriz 

The short break made all the difference, though, in facing the last few kilometers into Castrojeriz. We'd made good time, and it was barely 1.30pm as we made our way along the long main street. We popped into a bar for a beer, purely so we could use the chairs (yeah, right!) and chatted for a while to JD and Becky. They were a ranching family from west Texas who raised beef cattle and ran hunting trips, and came from one of the few places on the planet regularly hotter than Spain on an August afternoon (you get all sorts on the Camino).

Roman town of Castrojeriz, with the Colegiata de Nuestra Senora
del Manzano on the right and the hilltop castle to the rear

We had a little look round a hippy-ish, arty refugio called The Hospital for the Soul, which was dark and cool and delightfully out of the sun. There was a photography exhibition themed on shadows, some of them really beautiful, whilst candles flickered and restful new age music tinkled in the background. Really, we could have been in Glastonbury rather than Castrojeriz.

One of a pair of skull-and-crossbones adornments to the Church of Santo
Domingo. Captioned "death" and "eternity", they are perhaps a little
gruesome, but act as a potent reminder to all passers-by

Then it was off to check into the hotel - not the straightforward process you might imagine. First, we got the wrong place – well, it was close by and had a very similar name (that's our excuse, and we’re sticking to it!). Then, when we'd found the right place, there was no one on reception – just a note to say call at the bar next door. Which we did. After some slightly calm-but-frantic too-ing and fro-ing and some feverish whispering amongst the staff, Oscar came along to do the check in stuff. We have a nice room on the second floor where we are resting and getting cleaned up before a tootle round the village and dinner.

Pre-dinner drinks at El Meson

During the evening we had a little wander around the village, building up a thirst for a pre-prandial drink. Whilst waiting to eat we had a nice chat with a Belgian couple (Frans and Ann) who would become close companions over the next week or so. We were going to eat by ourselves, but English speaking voices from the adjacent table encouraged us to join them: a couple from Canada, and Mike and Carol from Suffolk (who we would also become close with as we progressed towards Leon).

So with these two couples, the Belgians, the four Scots, a group of cyclists from the English fenlands, the two separate South Carolinians and the Texan couple, a sizeable group of friendly new acquaintances had coalesced since leaving Burgos. We’d had a lovely night: the food and wine was plentiful (noodle/bean soup, goulash and chips, rice pudding/flan), the company interesting and fun, and the prospects for the days ahead seemed settled and trouble free.

Day 9 - Castrojeriz to Fromista: 25.54km / Ascent 337m / Descent 333m

Breakfast this morning, after some initial confusion, was at 8.00am in El Meson – the restaurant where we had eaten at last night. Simple but ample, it prepared us well for the 25 kilometer day to Fromista.

Bridge over the Rio Odrilla, with climb behind

Leaving Castrojeriz behind, we crossed the Rio Odrilla and climbed on a prepared gravel track up on to the meseta once more. Assorted grumblings could be heard about the ridiculously long and steep climb. In truth, though, it was nothing much by hillwalking standards, but compared to some days on the Camino when the cumulative ascent might be less than 100m – over a distance of twenty or twenty-five kilometers, that is almost billiard-table flat – it was considerably more off-horizontal than most bits.

Looking back to Castrojeriz from the Alto de Mostelares

At the top, the Alto de Mostelares, there was a little picnic area and an enterprising chap offering drinks, fruit and bicycle repairs to passing pilgrims. The all-round views were amazing in the early morning light – certainly this was not the dreary trudge foretold by our guidebook.

Start of the steep descent into the next valley

We bought bananas and carried on. The route then dropped abruptly down into the next valley: ahead, the forthcoming villages were vaguely discernible in the distance, linked by a wobbly gravel thread. The route was quite busy with walkers and cyclists, but no one we really knew, and we spent much of the first hour-and-a-half moving quietly by ourselves.

The Camino stretching into the distance

Beyond the Fuente del Piojo, we fell in with Fred from The Netherlands - another recruit to our happy little band of Camino-ers - and walked chatting for the next while. After crossing the lovely bridge over the Rio Pisuerga, we caught up with Frans and Ann and trundled on into Itero de la Vega.

Rio Pisuerga near Itero de la Vega

Having been propositioned by a young lady on the way into the village, it seemed only right and proper that we took advantage of the services on offer. So we had a break for coffee at the Cafe Tachu, bought a sandwich for later, and chatted to a couple of girls from West Virginia who's seats we'd inadvertently nicked (ticking off another box in our US state bingo as we did).

Fred walking the long straight road out of Itero de la Vega

Moving on, we walked again briefly with Fred from the Netherlands. Long straight roads disappeared off into the distance: we talked of movies, and Paris, Texas sprung to our collective mind. Beyond the Canal del Pisuerga – a grand-sounding waterway that in reality was little more than a concrete water conduit – the trail rose to the apex of a low pass between conical hills where we stopped to eat our lunch in the shade of the few surrounding trees.

The next village - Boadilla del Camino – was reached through increasing heat and pestering swarms of little black flies. Once in the village we passed the first two bars, opting for the quiet of the third where ice cream and ice cold coke were consumed in the shade of the verandah. With 6 kilometers still to go and hot conditions out in the open, a preparatory girding of loins in the cool seemed a sensible strategy.

The reed-fringed Canal de Castilla

Out on the way once more, a gravel track lined with tall poplar trees brought us to the towpath of the Canal de Castilla, an altogether more picturesque waterway than the last, fringed by reeds and with a shady path alongside. In many ways it reminded us of the Norfolk Broads. Display boards showed the range of wildlife that might be encountered, which left us hoping for sightings of herons and bitterns. Sadly we didn’t see or hear either, but it was still a nice change from the predominantly arid, agricultural countryside we had been mostly walking through.

Crossing the canal near Fromista

After a relaxed 3 kilometer stretch in the shade, we left the canal and headed into Fromista after one of the most enjoyable days walking so far. After checking in to the hotel, we rested and bathed, then popped out for a short walk to see the town. The imposing church of San Martin is one of the main attractions.   

Church of San Martin, Fromista

Another substantial menu peregrino offered up macaroni, chicken and chips/pork, ham and egg and chips, yoghurt and pineapple slices. There was plenty, so we nicked the pork for tomorrow's sandwiches.

Church of San Martin at sunset #1

Church of San Martin at sunset #2

Church of San Martin at sunset #3

Church of San Martin at sunset #4

Church of San Martin at sunset #5

A final quick stroll to look at the church as the sun was setting helped the meal settle, then beers with Mike and Carol rounded off the day nicely.

Day 10 - Fromista to Carrion de las Condes: 22.38km / Ascent 163m / Descent 109m

After a good long day yesterday, we were up and ready in good time again this morning. It’s a fairly short day to Carrion de los Condes, but pretty much all the Camino-ers we knew were down for breakfast for 7.30am on the dot, looking to make the distance before the heat of the day kicked in in earnest.

It was very pleasant as we got underway, following the road out of town, past the junctions with the N-620 and A-12 roads, aiming, along with a stream of other pilgrims, for Poblacion de Campos - a nice looking village, but coming too soon in the day to warrant a stop for coffee.

From Poblacion, there were two choices of official route - a new "motorway" beside the road, or the more scenic original route alongside the Rio Ucieza. It’s a bit of a no-brainer, really: we opted for the nice route, especially as it added very little to the overall distance. The four Scots felt the same, and we walked together chatting for the few kilometers into Villovieco.

Riverside path between Villovieco and Villalcazar de Sirga

Beside a small bridge spanning the narrow river, a bar loomed invitingly. Sadly, it happened to be closed on Mondays, and – you’ve guessed it – today was a Monday. They stopped for a sit down: we decided to carry on, happy to have chatted, but happy to have some quiet time to ourselves as well. The path beside the river was lovely, and although we were plagued by flies again for part of the way, a pleasant breeze kept them off for most of the time. 

A couple of pilgrims at rest in Villalcazar de Sirga 

An hour or so later, we met the road and turned left for the final stretch into Villalcazar de Sirga. Here, we had a lengthy break, indulging in drinks and a sandwich whilst watching the world go by.

The Camino runs right beside the road all the way to Carrion de los Condes

The final few kilometers into Carrion de los Condes followed a track right beside the main road. It was busy and quite noisy, and offered no shade whatsoever on what was becoming a hot afternoon. We made the town soon after 2.00pm, had more cooling cokes at a shady bar, bought a souvenir Camino bracelet for Missy G and shopped for lunch stuff at Spar.

Hotel San Zoilo, Carrion de los Condes

We understood we were to be staying at a converted monastery tonight. We had also read in our guide book about one that had been turned into a luxury hotel, so wondered if it was the same place but with a special annexe for smelly pilgrims, fully expecting to be shooed away if not. But no; it was one and the same place. We have a lovely room looking out over an inner courtyard, there are cloisters to walk round, and lots and lots of period features. It really is far too swish for a pair of fragrant, bedraggled walkers like us, and we felt rather self-conscious trailing our dusty luggage through the baronial surroundings.

Grounds of the Hotel San Zoilo, Carrion de los Condes

However, that didn’t mean we had to forgo the comforts on offer, and we had a relaxing afternoon snoozing in the gardens while some washing dried, and our books lay steadfastly unread as our eyelids drooped.

Dinner was scheduled for 8.00pm onwards. We went down early to have a drink and catch up with everyone, only to learn some rather upsetting news. For the sake of propriety and respect I won’t divulge names and circumstances: suffice it to say that someone we met on the Camino a couple of days ago died suddenly this morning of a heart attack, here in the hotel car park. It’s such sad news - he seemed like a very nice chap, and it must be awful for the friends he was travelling with and his wider friends and family back home.

We were both quite shocked to hear the news. Having done what little we could to console his devastated companion, the remainder of the evening was a subdued affair.