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.  

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