Wednesday 17 September 2014

Pilgrim's Progress - Part 2

A New Way of Life - Santo Domingo to Burgos

Day 4 – Santo Domingo to Belorado: 23.77km / Ascent 553m / Descent 413m

By now we were settling into life on The Way. Our early morning routine in particular was taking shape – packing, breakfasting and leaving sometime between 8.00 and 8.30am each day became our regular start. It’s amazing just how quickly one can settle into a completely different daily regime, and this suited us fine: walking in the cool of the morning, no need to rush, and with the prospect of reaching our next overnight by mid-afternoon so as to avoid the worst of the heat and allow time to look round the place.

Keep an eye out for the yellow arrows, they come in all shapes and sizes

A quick backtrack took us to where we left the Camino yesterday, then on we went - through town, across the bridge and out into the flat farmlands that surround Santo Domingo.

Cathedral of San Salvador

The first few kilometers of the day were easy enough, following a series of flat gravel tracks, predominantly beside the busy N120 Logrono to Burgos road. It was only as we made the short climb into the small, walled town of Grañón, perched on its low hillock, that we became aware of the strong breeze that would be a feature of the rest of the day – a definite help in mitigating the soaring temperatures, but somewhat of a hindrance in being relentlessly in our faces all day.

On the way to Granon: Cruz de los Valientos

We took a short coffee break then carried on, accumulating distance steadily. The going was easy underfoot, the route clearly marked, and the landscape of dusty, cropped cereals, sunflower fields and green hedges didn't change much - just got slightly more undulating as we progressed. 

Leaving Granon

At the brow of a low hill we passed from La Rioja into the province of Burgos, but other than a large sign to that effect there was little to indicate any obvious change. Spain is a big country, and walking a slow passage: in such circumstances it is possible for whole days to pass while the look of the landscape evolves very little.

Crossing the provincial boundary: from La Rioja into Burgos

Small villages came and went. We stopped briefly for water in Recedilla del Camino, had lunch and a longer rest in Castildelgado - sleepy and almost empty apart from one elderly woman and a mobile fish salesman who punctured the quiet by insistent use of the car horn to notify people of his arrival.

Sleepy Castildelgado

Then on again, via Viloria de la Rioja (birthplace of Santo Domingo de la Calzada) to Villamayor del Rio – not, according to our guide book, a "big town on a river" but more accurately "a small village by a stream" – where we rested briefly before the final hour or so into Belorado.

On reflection, this last 5 kilometers was one of the least enjoyable sections of the whole fortnight: hot, dusty, noisy and hard underfoot, always with that incessant strong wind in our faces and seemingly never-ending. It was like walking into the blast of an industrial hairdryer.

Landscape near Villamayor del Rio

However, we finally made Belorado at around 3.45pm, a little tired and with our feet voicing their complaint. It’s quite a nice little place: our hotel is right on the Camino near the centre of town, and we have a nice room - quite large with curving beams and a slightly bohemian feel. 

We were quite glad to be there in all honesty, as a 24 kilometer stint on gravel roads through unchanging scenery into the teeth of a hot gale was quite testing! Showering tonight left a tray full of dirt - teeth and eyeballs having been coated in a film of dust as the day went on, and skin sandblasted and buffed to a pink shine. Still, it's all part of the Camino experience, and, in hindsight, nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Our room

Dinner tonight appears to be in a nearby restaurant. Our hotelier didn’t speak much English and our Spanish is non-existent, but we got directions that seemed clear enough, plus lots of other information that we didn’t really understand. However, it appears that tonight is Fiesta night – some kind of "festival of bulls" – and he seemed to be saying "be careful" as if real bulls might be involved!

We pottered along to the main square and had a beer before dinner. This turned out to be at the local Albergue, and many now-familiar faces were in attendence. We sat with Rita and her Japanese friend whose name we didn't catch, and had pasta/paella to start, pork loin/chicken for main, caramel cream and custard for pudding, plus wine and water. A really decent meal seeing as it was the basic Pilgrim’s menu.

On the way back there were loads of people about, spilling out of the bars and into the streets. There were fairground rides, Blackpool-like illuminations, and high spirits in evidence, plus live music in the square, but - as far as we could see - no bulls.

Day 5 – Belorado to St Juan de Ortega25.97km / Ascent 620m / Descent 385m

Another warm day beckoned, so we rose and breakfasted a bit earlier than usual in order to get away in good time. There was no “evidence” of bulls in the street – turns out it was a bull fight, not a “running with the bulls” type event - however, there were communications of sorts to be found underfoot. 

In Belorado, the Camino route has been marked using the hand-
and foot-prints of famous Spanish athletes. This is 5-time
Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain

The first hour and a half passed through countryside not unlike yesterday: a little more undulating, perhaps, with the greenery of hedges and the upcoming hills to ring the changes.


Early morning on the trail

We skirted the first village of the day - Tosantos - and passed through the next, Villambistia with just a quick water stop.

12th Century Ermita Virgen de la Pena, set into the hillside near Tosantos

We fell in with a Swedish lady, Inge, who was taking a break from working in Denver, Colorado. Soon, we reached Espinosa del Camino and stopped at a bar for a great cup of coffee. The sandwiches looked good, too, but we had a few snacks and had pinched bread, ham and cheese from the breakfast table, so we resisted.

The hills of the Montes de Oca ahead

The next village, Villafranca Montes de Oca, was less than 4 kilometers further on, but we built in a stop here as well as it was the last village before the 12 kilometer stretch over the hills to St Juan. We stopped at the bar for a coke and an ice cream, but peace and quiet was in short supply as the village was on a main road and trucks thundered through with monotonous regularity.

Climbing into the hills

The next stage began with an uncharacteristic climb up into the wooded hills of the Montes del Oca. By the standards of the Camino it quite a steep rise and walking through the woods offered a welcome change of scenery. 

Looking back towards Belorado

After a couple of kilometers we stopped to sit on a bank in the shade and breeze while we ate our purloined sandwiches - and delicious they were too, just the right combo of ham and cheese. Moving on, we passed a memorial to those killed in the Civil War, the Monumento de los Caidos, bobbed through a steep dip on a gravel track and followed a very wide forest track that acted as a sun trap.

This wide forest track acted as a sun trap

Respite can come in many forms, and on this occasion it was provided by an enterprising young woman who had set up a mobile bar by the side of the track. This meant beer o'clock came a little earlier than expected at about 2.30pm.

Grabbing some shade and a cool drink

It should have been quite a simple matter to reach St Juan, being as it was only about 9 kilometers away. But in the heat of the afternoon and with a few miles already behind us, the final stretch was a bit of a trudge: hot and hard on the feet, especially feet that were somewhat squashed into uncomfortable boots (even the daily ritual of taping and padding them had lost its effectiveness by this time of the day). However, we finally completed the gentle descent to the small village of St Juan de Ortega, where we checked in to our digs.  

Church of San Nicolas, San Juan de Ortega

St Juan de Ortega (which translates as St John of the Nettles) is a tiny village – little more that a large church, a monastery, a bar, an Albergue and a few scattered houses. San Juan de Ortega the person is a famous architect, remembered here for providing shelter to pilgrims in the "notoriously dangerous and bandit-infested Montes de Oca". Good job we stopped here, then ..... 

We had a rest, cleaned up, and went to the bar for a drink before dinner – a simple repast, but none the worse for that. In fact the Morcilla, pork steaks, fried eggs, bread and salad was perhaps the best meal so far: maybe that, or maybe we were just very hungry. Red wine helped it go down, and cafe con leche afterwards sealed the deal. It was plentiful, too, so we borrowed bread and Morcilla to make a couple of sandwiches for tomorrow.

The bar didn't open until 9.00 in the morning, so in lieu of breakfast we were given a picnic - enough to feed an army, it seemed, with water, juice, sandwiches, bananas and muffins. This would allow us to set off early: a good thing, as with 28 or so kilometers to Burgos we could do a good chunk of it before it got too hot.

Day 6 - St Juan de Ortega to Burgos: 28.55km / Ascent 313m / Descent 393m

Our plan for an early start would have worked perfectly had it not been for one tiny detail: we somehow forgot to set the alarm! With our good intentions dashed, we rallied round and still managed to be on the road before 8.00am, the morning bright and cool with just a little cloud to add interest.

Early morning near St Juan de Ortega

At first we were walking for Ages - or Agés as the village is more properly spelled. It was barely an hour away, but we stopped for coffee anyway. Some of our recent walking companions were there too, Inge and NZ lady, plus Fritz, an American from Ohio we would spend quite a bit of time with during the day.


Next we followed the road to Atapuerca another couple of kilometers further on. The village is noted for a number of archaeological sites after spectacular “finds” in the late 20th Century. Branching off on a rough, rocky track, we took a route over the hillside of the Sierra Atapuerca, through an attractive landscape of rocky ground and low trees.

Cruz de Matogrande

At the summit, we passed a large wooden cross – the Cruz de Matogrande. Nearby on the rocky ground, some stones had been arranged into concentric circles – whether the work of Neolithic man or cheeky pilgrims, I don’t know.

Concentric stone rings, and view to distant mountains

On the descent, we got our first glimpse of Burgos - deceptively close at hand, but in reality requiring some 20 kilometers or more of walking to reach. Sights like this can cheer and deject in equal measure: the goal seemingly so near, but with work aplenty to do in order to achieve it.  

Sign and first sighting of Burgos

A sign on the brow of the hill reads (in very rough translation):

“since the Pilgrim came in the mountains of Navarra at Burguete and saw the vast fields of Spain, he has not enjoyed a more beautiful view than this”. Presumably this quote originated from a time before the adjacent Zona Militar and the miles of rusting barbed wire fence on our left marking its edge, a feature that detracted somewhat from the scene of bucolic beauty.

For the next few kilometers we walked with a couple of Norwegian girls, chatting about this and that until we reached the village of Villaval, where a picnic bench in the shade proved irresistible to us. We waved them on their way and stopped for our sandwiches.

More road walking followed, through a couple of villages, as far as Orbaneja, where we met up with Fritz again and stopped for a drink. As far as we knew, this was the last nice spot before Burgos. I ended up with a very large cerveza grande. Firstly the keg ran out, then the barman went for bottles instead, which just fizzed over the side of the glass. So, with an exasperated "pffffff" and an irritable wave of the arms, he indicated I just take both! With the Spanish equivalent of the entente cordiale in mind, I agreed: after all, it would have been churlish to refuse ….

Crossing motorway on the outskirts of Burgos

Beyond Orbaneja there were two options to Burgos - neither being very nice, according to my guide book, and both requiring a lengthy tramp through city outskirts and industrial landscape. We opted for the one that didn't run beside a busy main road for 10 kilometers – worth an extra kilometer or so to save us from being continually strafed by heavy trucks and speeding cars.

Setting off round the airfield perimeter

Keeping the perimeter fence of an airfield to our right, we followed a gravel track for about 4 kilometers, eventually reaching the suburb village of Castanares where a shady bench beckoned. As we ate our ham and cheese sandwiches, Fritz caught us up again, as did Anke, a German woman from Hanover, and we all sat contemplating the best way into town.  

Having already avoided one road-side march, the obvious route from here also seemed to be a tramp alongside the main road, and waymarkers seemed to support this. However, we were all aware of a third possibility if we could find it: a little longer, but following beside the river all the way to the city centre.

Although we were a bit unsure of the way at first – into a housing estate, past allotments and a factory – we soon picked up official Camino waymarkers which led us through riverside park and gardens all the way into town. It was really quite lovely, with plenty of shade to keep us cool and life on the river to watch as we went. We were pleasantly surprised by the attractiveness of the route, and would certainly recommend it to other pilgrims who are not simply seeking the quickest way from A to B.  

Shady, tree-lined route into Burgos

Finally, we crossed the river into the city, saying goodbye to Anke who was going to look for accommodation (she and Fritz had walked from Villafranca - a 40k plus day!). The rest of us set off into town looking for our hotel. Not knowing quite which way to go, we asked a local chap for directions. He wasn't sure either, but a lady who happened to overhear our conversation said she was going that way. Good job, too - it was further than we thought, although pretty much all along the Camino.

At first sight, we were unsure if we had the right place – the hotel having a smart, decidedly upmarket business air about it, and, on the face of it, not looking like the sort of place hoping to attract smelly pilgrims. But it was fine - this was the right place, and we were made as welcome as other guests (although for the sake of decorum we removed our bedraggled and odiferous selves from the public areas as soon as possible). 

Burgos Cathedral from the Calle de Fernan Gonzales

We rested up, washed and got ready to go out. Burgos is one of Spain's great cities, and with good reason. In hindsight we wished we had allowed a bit more time here to explore, especially the Gothic cathedral where the remains of El Cid are buried. It also looked good for a night out, buzzing with people and with some wonderful plazas and architecture as a backdrop. We went for drinks and tapas in a little bar near the cathedral, then headed back for sleep as the sun was setting and the locals were heading out for the evening.

Sunset over the rooftops

Since leaving Santo Domingo we had been making decent progress, and life on the road was suiting us just fine. Sore feet notwithstanding, we were in good shape: looking forward to the day ahead each morning, and, almost without exception, enjoying the scenery and landscape through which we had been moving.

Beyond Burgos things would change. Being a major city with good transport connections and lots to offer in the way of facilities and sightseeing, many people chose to leave or join the Camino here, or simply take a short break to rest up, do some sightseeing, wash clothes and sort out gear and feet. Over the next few days, we would meet a new group of pilgrims and head into the famed (or infamous, depending on your point of view) dry, upland plateau of the meseta.

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