Thursday, 9 May 2019
Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Buffeted by the wind
Blown from side to side
I barely stay upright against the gale
Stands of poplars bend
In the woodland ride
And all the shrubs and bushes madly flail.
Never have I known a wind such as this, not even when facing a westerly on the coast of Western Australia.
It began as a cold wet wind, too strong for rain although it spattered a few drops from time to time. It was blowing across my path, threatening to push cyclists off the road, and me into traffic as I crossed an overpass over the motorway.
I ate my second breakfast at Reliegos, 13 kilometres from El Burgo Ranero.
Then the wind turned and strengthened. Dust blew across the path. Poplars leaned over, poppies bobbed, and the ubiquitous Dyer’s Woad shook itself like a mad thing. I hung onto the chin strap of my Tilley, for if the wind had snatched it, I would never have seen it again. Never have I been so buffeted and pummelled and shaken by the wind. It was fierce, it was brutal, it was savage. Walking against it was like a stiff climb. I arrived at Mansilla de las Mulas, decided there were too many people there, so walked on to Puente de Villarente. I am exhausted.
Last night the albergue filled up in the afternoon. In the evening, windows closed, the air became warm and muggy, and the woman next to me coughed and breathed out contagion throughout the night. How many of us will get sick over the next few days?
After that experience, I was wary of finding myself in a similar predicament tonight. I checked out the first albergue, and almost stayed, for there was only one person there. But it was a gloomy place. I pushed on and found the Albergue San Pelayo, a large ranch-like building with lots of room to sit down and relax. I am alone in a twelve-bed dorm. Excellent meal. Tomorrow, it is only a short hop into Leon, where I have booked a hotel.
Tuesday, 7 May 2019
On letting people know that you’re on the loo when you can’t close the door (third and final version)
I am in the loo-oo-oo, I can’t close the door
I pray you do not enter, that I would abhor.
I know you must be anxious, not to get caught short
I am trying har-ar-ar-ard, doing what I ought.
This is why I’m si-i-i-inging, so you know I’m here,
Give me five more minutes, then I’ll disappear.
I know the door is o-open, but you can’t come in,
I am on the loo-oo, yes I am within.
I know it must be tiresome, listening to my strain,
Give me five more mi-in-inutes, I’ll not come again.
This is why I’m si-i-i-inging, so you know I’m here,
Give me five more minutes, then I’ll disappear.
(To the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers)
Agnostic though I am, I’m grateful for my Christian exposure, a little from my school, but more from a local church where I was dragged one Sunday by a friend. There was nothing remotely unpleasant about it. No forced conversion, no indoctrination, no threats of hell and damnation, just freedom to make up my own mind. And to make friends.
I loved the hymns, and they still ring in my head to this day. I doubt if any churches still sing Onward Christian Soldiers: it’s hardly politically correct. Strangely, I got to sing it recently with a male voice choir which used to assist at a Remembrance Day ceremony. It was one of the hymns the vets liked: a good marching tune. Although they probably sang “Lloyd George knew my father” to the hymn tune.
The Albergue de peregrinos de la Santa Cruz was very comfortable. In the dorm it was 5€; I shared a double room for 10€.
Dinner was included, although we all had to make a contribution. I brought a bottle of Rioja. At the table, one end was English speaking, the other, French. This Camino Frances remains an appropriate name for this Camino.
A brother or priest gave a very tasteful blessing. You could be a cynical atheist and still feel welcome here. He tied the Camino in very nicely with the text, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Such a variety of people walk this Camino.
I had a conversation with a South Korean, of whom there are many on the Camino, without understanding a word she said. However, I must’ve made the right responses because she later came and shook my hand and wished me Buen Camino.
I met a very flustered Scottish woman who had just removed herself from another albergue and was complaining bitterly about it. She walked around muttering to herself and anyone else who would listen.
Pasco, my roommate, was a very intense Frenchman. He assured me that his hometown, Troyes, was the tenth most visited town by tourists in France. I imagined a list of the other nine. Paris, of course, Lyon, Montpelier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Chartres, perhaps, for the cathedral, Bayeux, for the tapestry... Pascal was camping along the way, but the site was closed in Sahagún. He would average 39 kms a day. He was off by seven.
Paul, a volunteer hospitalero, was most helpful. He was a rather nervous Englishman who complemented his speech with dramatic gestures and bodily contortions. He was torn. He would follow me to engage in conversation while apologizing for having to stay at his desk to work. And overworked he was. He welcomed pilgrims during the day, helped with the evening meal, and was up for breakfast at seven.
In the morning. it was more than a trickle; rather a drib-and-drabble, knots of pilgrims leaving at intervals. This the time to walk the Camino Frances, early in the season, when the albergues still have plenty of room. Ours was exactly half full.
I crossed an old bridge, and walked along a path beside the road, all the way to my destination. It was a pilgrims’ way, complete with recreational areas for picnics and wooden benches for the weary. Very different from my last trek along here when I’m sure we walked along the edge of the road.
At a bar at Bercianos Del Real Camino, ten kilometres on, I ran into Hans and Doris, the German couple. They told me that Albert the Dutchman had seen me yesterday heading off in the wrong direction and had yelled after me, but to no avail. Oh that I had been wearing my hearing aids!
It was not hard to imagine who was the most hated person in this town. There were several albergues in Bercianos Del Real Camino, situated in the original buildings. Many an old building has been saved in a Camino town, refurbished and put to good use as an albergue. Here they were competing for trade in a respectful manner when suddenly an upstart arrives, buys some land just before the town, for surely the town council wouldn’t give a building permit, and builds a slick modern albergue. The nerve! Enough to start the Albergue Wars.
I walked on another seven kilometres to El Burgo Ranero, where I found a bed in the Albergue La Laguna for nine euros. Not quite the same value as last night. More a commercial operation. But the proprietor was honest. He came to find me later because I’d left a euro in change on the reception counter.
A lazy day, but the weather was changing. I took advantage of a fierce wind to dry my washing. Rain is forecast for tomorrow.
Monday, 6 May 2019
Lines composed while walking along an irrigation ditch
I walked along an irrigation ditch,
For such it was, Indeed no more, but which
Some would give a grander name, to whit
A canal. A gross misnomer, for each bit
Was choked with reeds and rushes, even trees,
No water flowed in channels such as these.
A muddy pool, a puddle, stretch of slime
To thee, O ditch, I dedicate this rhyme.
They were the most hospitable hosts I have ever met, genuinely concerned for the pilgrims’ welfare. Food was simple but good. We began each meal with a rhythmical grace, involving a chant, much banging on the table, and clapping of hands. I didn’t know the words but my rhythm was good.
There were five of us: the German couple Hans and Doris, Albert the Dutchman, and I. Albert is something of a polyglot. He spoke Spanish to the hosts, German to the couple, and English to me
I set out for Sahagun, 19 kilometres away. The hospitalero had said it was an easy walk: across the fields, along the canal, and across the fields again. Remembering my canal walking of a couple of days ago, I was looking forward to doing some more of it.
It was cool as I walked out of town. I have learned to tell the temperature by the state of my fingers. It was 3°.
I crossed the field and arrived at the near ghost town of Arenillas de Valderaduey, where I admired the beautiful apse of the church. Then I crossed a ditch, and headed out once more across a field. After a while, worried by the absence of arrows, I retraced my steps and found that I had missed a sign. It directed me along the irrigation ditch, the canal.
One of the reasons I write this blog is that it occupies my thoughts as I walk across the plain. I dictate them into the notes app on my phone. The composition of doggerel can carry me over many a kilometre. The other day I composed a poem as I walked along, dictating it line by line. The larks were singing, the muse was soaring. Three stanzas, a real gem. But later, when I went to retrieve the poem, it was gone. Somehow I had touched the undo button on the screen. That was the one that would’ve made it into the Oxford Book of English verse. I felt like Coleridge, but without the opium hangover. An unfortunate bit of pocket dialing! Now I try to remember to touch the done button at the top of the screen after each dictation.
I walked beside the ditch for seven or eight kilometres, passed under the railway line, crossed the bridge over the canal, and then followed a gravel road towards Sahagun in the distance.
But the Camino was not finished with me yet. Sahagun wasone of those towns that seems to get further away as you approach. But finally, I arrived at the junction with the Camino Frances. The end! But I have a few days left, and will walk on to Leon, 55 kilometres away.
The town is not overrun with pilgrims, as I had feared. As I sit here, in the early evening, enjoying a beer in a bar on the pilgrim way, they appear, strolling, rolling, limping, staggering, many with the pilgrim’s gait after a shower, a kind of rolling like an old sea captain on dry land. Bult it’s a trickle, not a stream, or the river it will become closer to Santiago. I watch one now, walking slowly, but not in a straight line, still with pack on back so he hasn’t found an albergue. To arrive this late, if he left in the morning, he must have walked 40 kilometres or more.
I am staying in the Albergue de peregrinos de la Santa Cruz, formerly run by nuns, but now by volunteers. It’s in a fine 18th century brick building, a block long. My roommate, Pascale, walks 40 kilometres a day. I won’t see him again.
The wooden pillar stood outside the church
Bearing up the heavy beam above
Faded were the carvings on the face
Of what was once a humble work of love.
Weathered by the heavy wrack of time.
Of its design mere traces do remain.
What once was first a testament to God
Is now eroded by the wind and rain
Saintt or sinner? What story did it tell
To faithful folk assembled down below?
No matter now. They all have gone
The artist, and the world he tried to show.
It was bitterly cold this morning as I walked the five kilometres to Villanon de Campos for breakfast. The sun just above the horizon, the wind biting my fingers, I followed a footpath-cum-bicycle path, once a major road for it was raised above the fields, but was now lined with trees and the occasional iris, and provided with benches for people to sit and enjoy the bird life.
I had breakfast at the Bar Restaurant Camas, well, coffee and a couple of sweet horribles. It was there that I encountered one of the most idiosyncratic loos I have ever experienced. Entering through the door marked Servicios at the back of the bar, I stumbled in the dark down a couple of steps, lucky not to have broken my leg, and careered into the Gents. I pressed the dreaded timed switch, and sat down. I fixed my eyes on it, ready to press it again, when it timed out. But it flashed on and off at intervals, then gave up altogether. I tried the switch again. Same thing. Bit like doing number twos under slow-motion strobe lighting. And the toilet was a leaner. You know what I mean? As I leaned over, it leaned with me, somehow maintaining its seal with the sewer pipe beneath. I completed what the French would call une grosse commission, left the toilet on an even keel, minded the step, and returned to the bar. To be fair, on looking back at the door on the way out, I noticed an Attention Steps sign.
(On a pedantic note, notice that I careered into the Gents. I did not careen. The latter verb means to beach a ship to repair the hull, as Captain Cook did on the coast of northern Queensland. “Shut up, you reactionary old pedagogue,” I hear you say. Sorry, the misuse of careen, and other words like fulsome, which doesn’t mean full, and disinterested, which doesn’t mean uninterested, really bothers me. Yes, I know, commomon misusage eventually becomes common usage, but when that happens the English language suffers a little loss.)
I set out for the town of Santervás de Campos, 16 kilometres across the fields. The wind howled about my ears, threatening to pluck my Tilley from my head.
I entered the hamlet of Fontinoyuelo, a sad place, where a few houses were in good repair, but many were in ruins or heading that way. I passed a playground, overgrown with weeds, silent forever to the sound of children’s voices. I sat down on a bench in front of a church and ate my bread and cheese.
Part of the church had been repaired, the front stuccoed, and new rafters were holding up the roof above the porch. But it was a losing battle. Bricks were falling, leaving holes in the walls of the church. I was particularly struck by a weathered post still displaying the trace of original carvings.
I walked on, not far now, along a slightly more undulating track leading to the little town of Santervás de Campos.
As I walked in the door of the albergue, a woman cried, “Peregrino,” and a man, “We eat at half past two. It was a nice welcome!
Later, a woman appeared and told us were having a tour of the museum and church. This town was the home of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish navigator who first set foot on the continent of America. The museum was excellent for a small town. The church was a mix of styles, but the Romanesque apse was particularly fine. There were two statues of Christ, one from the 12th, the other from the 16th century. The latter was the typical crucified Christ, head forward, bleeding, suffering, not suitable for children, symbol of the joyless Church which prevailed in recent centuries. But the 12th century statue was of Christ alive on the cross, presenting a different message to the faithful.
Saturday, 4 May 2019
On letting people know that you’re on the loo when you can’t close the door (second version)
All you who wait out in the hall
Must know I’m on the loo.
My plaintive voice must tell you all
That I do spend a sou.
(To the tune of O God Our Help in Ages Past)
Rach got lost yesterday as she made her way back to Madrid. She was planning to walk back to Simancas to catch a bus to Valladolid in time for her train. But it’s not easy following the arrows backwards; you need eyes in the back of your head, and Rach doesn’t have them. After wandering in the wilderness for a while she returned to Penaflor de Hornija. She sought the help of the wonderful Gonzales at the El Bar Hornija, where the good food is served. Gonzales’ girlfriend drove Rach back to Valladolid in time for her train.
After a quick breakfast in the centre of town at Medina de Rioseco, I walked for eight kilometres along the bank of the Canal Castilla. It was a delight. Sunny but cool: my numb fingers told me it was only two or three degrees. But oh, so calm and peaceful.
Three long low warehouses lined one side of the canal at its beginning, suggesting it was once a very important transport route. Magnificent buildings!
What do canals and discontinued railway lines have in common? They are flat, and a joy to walk along.
Happily, the canal was lined with poplars, not plain trees. On the Canal du Midi the plain trees are dying, stricken by a curious malady that seems to be transmitted by the water flowing along the canal.
About eight kilometres on, I arrived at a bridge next to an old mill. A leet (how often do I get to use that word?) ran underneath the mill, fed by a pond formed by a widening of the canal. I crossed the bridge and walked towards Tamariz de Campos. Here there was supposed to be a friendly bar, when it was open. It wasn’t.
Just after the town the guide suggested several options, including a direct but unofficial route along the road. Surprisingly, this was the route indicated by the arrows, so I walked along the highway for eight kilometres to Cuenca de Campos.
The field to one side stretched as far as the eye could see. Newly cut hay indicated that this land was used for producing animal feed. On the other side I noticed splashes of water rising in different parts of the field. Sprinklers were fed by pumps on tractor trailers drawing water from a network of pipes obviously coming from the canal. After the ground was soaked, a tractor would draw the pump to the next location. The motors driving the pumps would be running all day long.
In the grand scheme to end the raising of animals for food, these fields would be planted with trees, for this was a wasteful consumption of water and fuel. But every farmer who passed me by gave me a friendly wave. They enjoyed farming this land.
Part of a tower and a wall were all that remained of a ruined church, but the storks were happy to make their nests on the top of the tower
A tractor passed me by, and the make reminded me of an old joke, attributed by my daughter to one of her teachers, about the man whose wife left him for a tractor salesman and sent him a John Deere letter.
I had a mixed salad at the restaurant, and checked into the albergue, the upper floor of a palatial municipal building, shared by an elderly German couple and me. I haven’t seen Albert the Dutchman today, but Rachel the Brit stayed here last night.
Friday, 3 May 2019
I’m on the loo, but can not close the door,
So please be patient, just five minutes more.
That’s why I’m singing, more or less in tune
And I’ll be out of here, very soon
(to the tune of Abide with Me)
It was a very comfortable albergue: three rooms with four bunks each, a heater in each room, and a wifi that didn’t work. Only one bathroom, with a toilet and shower. Bit of a problem here: the bathroom door wouldn’t close; in fact, it wouldn’t even stay ajar, but would swing wide open. Not really a problem with just three of us, Rach and I and Albert the Dutchman. We had to sing on the loo to let the others know it was occupied, but with a dozen people and one bathroom with an open door, that would be difficult.
Rach and I parted company this morning: she to walk back to Simancas to catch a bus into Valladolid for a four o’clock train to Madrid. It was a sad farewell: I could not have asked for better company.
I walked out of the the town down a long ramp, circled round a little, then doubled back for a long climb out of the hollow.
Back on the meseta, I walked long the edge of a field of wind turbines, all of them turning lazily except two together who were stubbornly still. They looked oddly petulant. Perhaps the others were stealing their wind.
After five kilometres, I passed through a wood, by a pig farm, then back onto the fields. And then, at ten, I walked into Castromonte, past a magnificent nineteen thirties school which had become the albergue, and into the bar for my first coffee. Albert the Dutchman arrived while I was there.
As I left Castromonte a sign on the highway indicated that my destination was only 13 km away but the arrows led me off the highway. What a pleasant diversion beside a brook! But then back to the meseta.
As I walked on I thought about the discussions Rach and I had enjoyed along the way. Rich is a vegan, for ethical reasons, mainly. She doesn’t believe in the exploitation of animals, and she understands their environmental impact through their production of toxic gases and the growing of crops for their food. Stop eating animals and save the planet!
She is right, of course. If the land on either side of me and elsewhere in the world that is given over to the production of animal food were planted instead with trees, then we would reduce the production of methane and carbon dioxide enough to reverse climate change.
But what to do about all the people that would no longer have a livelihood? People that don’t have a meaningful purpose in life don’t care about saving the planet. Jobs, jobs, jobs! It really is the most important thing.
As I pondered upon this, a fellow driving a tractor approached, slowed down, and opened his door to speak to me. He must have noticed me grunting and sweating under my weary load and wanted to encourage me.
“Only two kilometres to Valverde de Campos,”, he said, “where there’s a bar, and seven kilometres to Medina de Rioseco, where there’s an albergue.” He was a happy fellow. But take away his livelihood, and he might drive his tractor at me.
Or as a disgruntled Brexiter put it recently, “I may have voted for disaster, but at least those bastards in London are going down with me.”
I walked into Valverde de Campos and ate my lunch on a bench outside the church. And then it was an easy five kilometres to Medina Rioseco where I found a bed at the Albergue Convente de Sara Clara.
Zambs have but a short time to live
Despite the insistence of Arturo the hospitalero that the roads were too dangerous, we decided to walk the highway to re-join the Camino. And the tourist bureau said this was quite possible.
From the front of the cathedral we took a long street with a succession of different names to the river crossing, and then a couple of streets down, we found the road to Zaratán, six kilometres away. This was easy walking, on the footpath all the way. Here we had a second coffee, and a little later on we passed some happy chooks.
We found the VA-514 and followed it all the way to Wamba. We were quite safe on the bitumen shoulder walking into the traffic. We still had the stone embankment to our left.
After the first long climb up onto the plain, we came upon a huge bank of solar panels, stretching forever in both directions. Rach and I differed on how many there were: She thoughts hundreds, I thought thousands. Either way, according the sign they produced 9 MW, surely enough to power the city of Valladolid.
Rach decided it was time to ditch her Zambs. I tried to persuade her to keep them to plant her geraniums in, but she decided to leave them by the wayside. We held a short ceremony.
We continued to walk along the highway. More solar panels ahead, on the left, and wind turbines on the right. I wondered about their comparative efficiency, in places that were both hot and windy. And how much did the environmental benefits from their renewable energy outweigh the environmental impact of building them?
Thirteen kilometres from the cathedral we came to a turnoff to Ciguñuela. We could see the town two or three kilometres to the left. We decided to keep walking along the highway off to Wamba, the next town on the Camino.
Just after the 18 km mark we saw the yellow arrow. The Camino had joined us from the left. It had been an easy walk. I turned around and shouted back towards Puente Duero, “You’re up the pole, Arturo.”
We walked on to be greeted by the statue of the Visigoth King Wamba, who had given his name to the town. Apparently, Wamba is the only word in Spanish to begin with a “w”. Unfortunately the beautiful Romanesque church of Santa Maria was closed. But the bar wasn’t, so we went in for a coffee and a snack. A husky was outside. We had run into a man and his dog again. They were moving slowly, but we had in effect lost a day, so we had met up again.
We asked after Jack the dog’s progress. I mentioned how, as a husky, he must have thrived in the snow on the mountains. But no, turns out he’s a bit of a sook. His master said it was too cold for him to go over the mountains, and even down on the plain he sometimes needs a coat.
After that, it was a seven kilometre slog to Peñaflor de Hornija, à town on a hill in a hollow on the meseta. We found our albergue and went out for a meal. We had been told that the bar would serve them at any time.
Some locals pointed us to a bar run by a woman with a smile that flashed on and off. Do you serve meals? No. Is there anything to eat? A sandwich. There was nothing to eat for Rach at all, but I had a sandwich of stale bread and stale sausage. While I was eating it, Rach dartedup the street and found the bar which served meals. Now why hadn’t the miserable crone directed us to it? I abandoned my sandwich.
At the bar on the Plaza Mayor, we had excellent food, served by the amenable Gonzales, who gave us helpful advice, and prepared us a takeaway breakfast for the morrow, for the bar would not be open.
Thursday, 2 May 2019
All’s well that ends well
It was a very pleasant stay at the albergue. Just three of us: Rachel and I, and another Rachel from England. We have made a choice. Until now we have been covering long distances each day in the hope that Rach might reach Sahagun before going home. To do so she would’ve been walking on her last day before getting a train back to Madrid, to catch her flight at 9:00 pm. But she decided that it was cutting it a bit too fine.
So we have decided to take a detour into Valladolid, the other big city along the route. Arturo, the hospitalero, insisted that we would have to come back to Puente Dueroto to rejoin the Camino, that it was impossible to meet it further north, too dangerous along the road, but I was certain we would find a way. We set off.
Now follows one of those stories that people say can only happen on the Camino. A hundred yards from the albergue, Rach wondered if she had left her phone behind. She returned, only to find that it was in her pack after all. While she was there, the hospitalero said, “You didn’t leave a donation.” “Yes,” she replied, “two tens, there on the table.” “Ah,” he said, “the other Rachel must have taken them in error.” Our Rachel offered to pay again, but he refused to accept it.
So we walked on, disturbed by the incident, thinking that we would never see the other Rachel again, because she was fast and going in a different direction. But there she was, coming towards us, having lost her way. We told her what had happened. She searched in her purse, found the two tens, and left at once to return to the albergue.
But for this happy series of coincidences, perhaps he would be thinking, bloody mean Canadians didn’t leave a donation, or, after Rach had gone back for her phone, silly bloody Brit taking my 20€, or, perhaps the Canadian didn’t leave a donation at all, or, perhaps the Brit took the money deliberately?
Instead we were all left with positive feelings. We were impressed with his decency in refusing a second donation and the other Rachel’s honesty in returning to the hostel. His doubts about the veracity of our story and her honesty were dispelled. The other Rachel would have been relieved not to have discovered the missing tens in her purse and wondered if she had inadvertently taken our donation.
It was an easy walk all the way in to Valladolid along a bicycle path.
We crossed the motorway and entered the outskirts of Valladolid, stopping for our second breakfast at the Cantena La Puneta. Two coffees, two orange juices, a croissant, a generous slice of tortilla, all for less than five euros.
Apart perhaps from the entrance to Toulouse along the Canal du Midi, this is the most pleasant entry to a city I have experienced. You enter along the Passeo de Zarilla, a broad thoroughfare, perhaps a hundred yards wide, road, bike lanes, footpaths, all running together, and separated by plain trees, the humblest and yet noblest of trees, providing the shade and separating the lanes.
We spent the rest of the day strolling around this delightful city, with its churches, plazas, and winding streets. In one of these an English class was in session. We were impressed by the notice outside.
We are staying at the Book Factory Hostel, in a dorm because the rooms were taken, but it is a pleasant place. Rach and I differed over whether her nail clippers would work on my fingers and toes. Ever helpful, she insisted they would, but I was dubious. I didn’t even get to my toes; they broke on my second thumb. Tough calcium!
Wednesday, 1 May 2019
You take the low road and I’ll take the high road
No room to swing a cat. There were six of us in an eight-bunk dorm: Rachel and I, an Austrian couple, and a Japanese man and a Barcelonian fellow who were traveling together having met on the Camino many years ago. At our end of the dorm, both upper and lower bunks were occupied, so we were forever bumping into each other.
Rach and I differed over whether the cover on the bed was a blanket or a bedspread.
Last night we ate at the Bar Real, where we had got the key for the albergue. Superb meal, lentil soup followed by an omelette.
We left at 8:15, after eating a bit of tasteless cheese on some stale bread. No bar was open this morning. It was fifteen kilometres to a coffee.
After crossing a very busy highway, we passed a bank of solar panels on the left, the first I have seen on this walk. They were much more common in the south along the Via de la Plata.
Suddenly, the husky we had met yesterday, darted out of the woods, investigated me, and then headed back into the woods towards town. Her master was nowhere in sight. A few minutes later he appeared, looking for his dog. I pointed in the direction she had gone. Later I learned that theyhad found each other. Fortunately!
Not a good idea to bring a dog on a walk like this, I thought. Dogs do not have the stamina for this kind of activity. They start out in the morning bursting with energy, and burn it off. But then they need to rest. Last night the two of them arrived at the bar while we were eating. He had had to stop for three hours in the afternoon while she slept.
We continued through the woods, and then along the highway, across a little bridge over the river, and then back into the woods,until at last we came out onto a broad plain with the little town of Valldestillas ahead of us.
The clock struck the twelve as we entered town.
We met the Austrian couple outside a café and enjoyed a farewell chat. They were going an extra six kilometres to avoid the albergue we were heading for, fearing another night in close confinement.
A long stroll out of this long and narrow town, up to the railway line, right along the highway, across the river over an old bridge or a new bridge, depending on which arrow you followed, and then north on the east bank into more pine trees.
No longer harvested for their oil, these pines were of a more stately variety, with tall trunks and a symmetrical globular canopy, the sort of trees children draw in their picture books, as we did in my childhood, although no gum tree ever had a circular outline. But that was what we saw in our English story books. Except for Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, of course.
We walked for seven kilometres along or beside the road, Rach down on the path in the gully, I on the edge of the road.
I can proudly say that I have walked every step of the way. I didn’t take the train across the bridge at Boo or the bus through the pass at Somport, or the metro out of the suburbs of a city, but I’m not above taking a shortcut.
As it turned out, there was plenty of room at the albergue. It’s a charming place with a live-in hospitalero. It’s a wooden shack, about 20 by 30 feet, the front half a kitchen and living room, the back half, three small bedrooms, two for pilgrims and one for the hospitalero. As you would expect, every wall was adorned with pilgrim paraphernalia.
Tuesday, 30 April 2019
Toast and marmalade for tea
Sailing ships upon the sea
The albergue at Coca was basic but comfortable, and managed by a lovely old lady from whom we obtained the key. We were so tired after our marathon effort the day before that we didn’t really do the town justice. We paid a quick visit to the church, and ate at a bar set in the remaining 200 metres of a medieval wall, but there was a castle to see as well.
We resolved to set out early this morning to beat the heat and to arrive with enough time left in the day to rest up.
Rachel and I differed over which way to walk around the church to find the yellow arrow that would lead us out of town.
After a dip into a ravine we were back in the pine forest, but the trees were more scattered now. Down to the right was the valley where once raged a mighty river, but now flowed a modest stream. Green fields stretched up the slope above a long stretch of poplars.
Absolute silence was interrupted only by the occasional note from a bird. This was a no avian concert, no coloratura sopranos, but I could make out a few distinct calls. There was a chirp, and a trill, and a seesaw sound, rather like someone rapidly using a handsaw, and a high pitched call like someone scratching glass with a piece of steel. But these occasional calls only emphasized the absolue silence. Such peace and tranquillity. Good for the soul.
Lost in this revelry I took a tumble and ended up with a mouth full of sand. As I hauled myself up I heard a distant echo from the past: Perhaps that’ll knock some sense into you.
We left the forest and entered a broad plain. Stretched out long and low before us was the little town of Villeguillo. According to the guide, there was a bar here that offered a warm welcome to pilgrims, but it was closed on Mondays. Today was Monday.
However, pleasant surprise, it was open and we had a very pleasant hobbit’s second breakfast: toast and marmalade, orange juice, coffee and fruit.
We sat out in the sun, the shade pre-emptied by a group of locals belching forth cigarette smoke and shouting at each other in staccato bursts.
It was a much better breakfast than our first: a croissant in a cellophane wrapper, made at a factory in Ponferrada several months ago. We had brought one with us in case we could find no provisions along the way, but even the town stray turned up his nose at it.
He was a forlorn little fellow, brown and white, a typical Spanish perro, as far from a designer dog as you can imagine. He wanted desperately to be friends, but he was afraid, and backed away as we approached. Some of the men who passed him gave him a stern glance, and he cringed away.
We left town, overtook the Austrian couple, ventured out into the field and then into the pine forest again.The guide had maintained that this was an easy but monotonous day. Too right!
We have met two delightful Spanish lads. Both spoke English well. One was at the hostel last night, and was hoping to reach Sahagun on his bicycle today. The other was walking with his dog, a husky, and we passed the two of them sitting in the shade of a tree. He told me that his dog had wanted to rest. Indeed, the dog was more flaked out then he. They were walking to Sahagun, and then on to Santiago.
They represent the new Europe: educated, sensitive, tolerant inclusive. The future flies in their hands. But it won’t be easy. Dark forces are on the rise, over the channel, across the Atlantic, and even today in Spain’s election results.
We arrived at the highway, followed it to the right for a while, crossed an old bridge, and then took off to the north past a field of buttercups with a solitary poppy. We climbed out of the river valley again and back into the forest. It was a difficult climb at this time of day.
Finally we left the woods and headed across an open field, the railway line off to the left and a range of hills to the right. On the horizon was a church, its medieval pre-eminence dwarfed by a modern cell phone tower twice its height. Eventually, we arrived at Alcazaren and found the key to the albergue at the Bar Real.
Monday, 29 April 2019
Up some stone steps and between the Residence Santa Maria and a plaza de toros, constructed I noticed in 1848 but longer used, I hoped. We walked down a gentle slope towards the town of Nieva, a couple of kilometers away.
We bypassed the town, continued along the road for a couple of kilometers, and then ventured off into a pine forest where the path continued for sometime before emerging beside and continuing around a huge rectangular sand quarry. Then we crossed a large prairie field of wheat and arrived at the town of Nava de la Asuncion. We stopped for a beer and tapas at the very popular Bar Bulevar on the way out of town.
We followed the dirt road under the railway line, and ventured once more into a pine forest. In a field on one side, I noticed a group of sheep huddled together and not moving. Where were the dogs, I wondered.
And then they appeared beside us, barking at first, then sensing that we were no threat to their sheep, bounding around us affectionately. They were taking a break from their job.
These sheep aren’t very bright. They won’t even know we’ve gone. We’ll just go and say hello to these pilgrims.
They followed followed us for a few yards and then turned back to their charge.
I am amazed by the intelligence of these sheep dogs. I passed one yesterday, guarding a group of about twenty sheep standing with their shepherd, who was gazing out over the field, lost in thought. The sheep were not moving, but the dog was dancing back and forth, not spooking them, but letting them know who was boss.
From time to time we run into an Austrian couple who are keeping pace with us. Rach and I argued over the spelling of “Gruss Gott”. She was right.
We also lamented the madness of Brexit. I would like to live long enough to read Theresa May’s memoir. Is she merely an expedient politician, or a stateswoman with a secret plan for keeping Britain tied closely enough to Europe to be able to get back in when the people of England come to their senses? I always hoped, that as a secret Remainer, she was going along with negotiations, hoping ultimately to have to yield to the demand for a second referendum. But it seems I was wrong.
We walked around an extensive series of greenhouses, and then a hog barn and a couple of penned-up greyhound dogs. A little further on we arrived at Coca. We were exhausted. It was not so far today, but we were still recovering from the folly of yesterday. We found a spot at the municipal albergue.
Sunday, 28 April 2019
"Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab"
Said the Chimpie to the Monk
"Baba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab"
Said the Monkey to the Chimp…
We spent a day in Segovia with our friends Paul and Michelle from Lyon. We explored the town. Segovia defies description. But I will defy my own maxim and make a couple of comments.
Every town in Spain has its plaza mayor. Typically, as in Salamanca for example, it is a grand rectangular space with buildings on four sides, each with an arcade to give shelter. People walk and talk and eat and drink and entertain each other as they have done for generations. The plaza mayor of Segovia was different, with only one right angle and not four sides but six, more like the chords of a circle than a rectangle. The cathedral was at one end, the theatre at the other. The Plaza is magnificent. If I ever come close to being deeply moved by the spirit of the Camino, it is in places like the Plaza Mayor at Segovia.
We visited the cathedral, of course. For me, it was cold in more ways than one. Religious works of art adorn the walls and the crypt has been converted into a special gallery. Walking around and looking at the paintings, I could understand why lapsed Catholics feel such hostility towards the Church. Nowhere on any face in any painting could I see an expression of joy or happiness. Rather it was misery and fear and self-righteousness. And I fancied i could see the men who would have a later role to play in one of the Church’s most shameful moments.
The other joy for me in Segovia is the Roman aqueduct that brought water to the old town from a reservoir in the hills. The walled city was surrounded by a natural moat and the aqueduct carried the water across this gulf. We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant just by the aqueduct. This was our view.
We stayed for two nights at Exe Casa de Los Linajes, a charming hotel with character, for 75€ a night. But we had to move on.
We set out the next morning with Paul and Michelle who were going to walk with us for a while before turning back to Segovia. It was a glorious day: sunny, cool, with a gentle breeze wafting through the green fields of wheat. This is just like the Canadian prairies, said Rach.
Suddenly, as we came over a rise, we could see the next town ahead, the sight that gladdens every pilgrim’s eye. I was desperate for a coffee. Cafe, dit Paul, est le carburant. Oui, j’ai répondu, et la bière est l’additif!
We said farewell to our dear friends. We had spent a delightful moment together.
Over a beer at Los Huertos, the next town, we discussed our predicament it was 10 kilometres to the little town of Ane which the guidebook had warned us against and my correspondent Gitti had said to avoid at any cost. I was particularly perturbed by a comment in the guidebook that said we had to carry out our own waste. What did that mean? A portable dunny?
But it was a further ten kilometres on to Santa Maria la Real de Nieva where we could find food and accommodation, a 20 km stretch from where we were, and it was already one o’clock.
We walked for a while along a discontinued railway line, and then suddenly crossed a bridge over the line and adjacent river. Here there were two arrows: one pointing along the road and the other down the embankment. What to do? It looked easier down the road so we walked a few hundred meters but then the path turned back along the foot of the embankment to the bridge. I swore at the guide!
We walked on into a pine forest where little containers were collecting the sap from the trees. Not for sweet syrop, we speculated, but for pine oils for the skin. Leaving the forest we walked across a field that stretched out to the horizon.
Rach and I argued about the pronunciation of the word “Tonga”. For her, the hard “g” was not sounded; for me it was.
Out of curiosity we checked out the albergue at Âne. I expected to see the line from Dante on the door, but inside it was not too bad: big, two rooms, one with a heater, and lots of beds. Notes from different Pilgrims included one from Australia that thanked Ane “for a wonderful night”. Mind you, that was in 2014.
We staggered on. A few kms before Santa Maria, we spied a structure off to the left that looked like a small prairie grain silo. More about this later.
When we arrived at the albergue, there was no room. But one of the pilgrims told us there was a hostel just a kilometre out of town. Our guide book confirmed this: it was 1.7 km out of town and accessible from the way.
Here beginneth a tale of woe familiar to every pilgrim. Feel for us. We had walked 33.3 kms and now had to keep going. I railed at the guide book at the time, but on later reflection realized that our misfortune was our own doing. We assumed that the 1.7 kms “out of town” was further along the way, and we walked on. Unable to find hostel or signpost, we consulted Sheila (Siri’s cousin) who directed us half a kilometre to the west, and then back towards town and into an industrial site besides a large crane. Nothing, apart from half a dozen pilgrim shells on a post. Had this once been the site of a former Hostal Avaunto? Rach phoned the proprietor who told us that, yes, he was one kilometre out of town, but on the other side, towards Segovia. I won’t prolong this tale of misery, but after a couple more minor mishaps, we found our meal and a bed at the Hostal Avanto. It was near the peculiar prairie grain silo we had noticed earlier. It was 8:00 pm.
Friday, 26 April 2019
A cold coming we had of it
We awoke this morning to glorious clear skies to the south, swirling clouds above. Rain was forecast for eleven o’clock, so we left early, hoping to do most of the climbing before the rain started. Today we would climb to the pass, la Puerto de la Puenfria (1,796m), the highest point on the Camino.
The lady at reception who stamped our credentials was more optimistic about the weather. No rain, she said, but huddled herself up to indicate it would be very cold. How right she was!
We walked a kilometre along the road until we reached a second youth hostel, and then followed a stony path to the right which in places became a stream. The arrows had disappeared but we followed green circular markings which, we were 90% certain, indicated the trail to the pass. A phone call to the youth hostel confirmed this.
We passed a small military base on the right and then arrived at a couple of tall stone pillars. On a boulder to the left was a yellow arrow. All was well. And then a second on a fence post, and a third on a tree, a little further on.
We were following the route of a Roman road, and for much of the time it was paved with heavy stones and boulders. Whether these were the original Roman placement, or later mediaeval construction, I’m not sure. Either way, it was an engineering marvel. But even when it was built, it must’ve been a bone shaking ride for a Roman chariot or a mediaeval cart.
A steep stony path led up to a wide stone bridge, la Puente del Descalzo, after which the road cut straight off to the right in a steady gradient across the contours, and then doubled back, a zig and then a zag, a very, very long stretch of Roman Road up to a horizontal line against the sky. Was this the pass?
It was indeed: the edge of a gravel road through the pass! The road descended, but not us; we continued on a flat snow-covered track around the side of the mountain. Brrr. It was winter up there! Bitterly cold, and sleeting heavily. And we were walking into the wind. No place to be stuck. Rach and I argued over whether it was snow or sleet or freezing rain.
After a lomg stretch of gradually descending forest mountain road, we caught a glimpse through the trees of Segovia Cathedral, and a little later emerged from the forest. Gentle slopes descended to a vast plain which extended to the horizon.
But we still had a dozen kilometres to cover into a forty-knot gale, strong enough push against us. Eventually, we reached a motor way where the underpass was blocked by a barrier, a stern warning, and information about an impossible detour. We bypassed the barrier, scuttled under the motorway, and squeezed past some scaffolding on the other side. Soon we arrived at the outskirts of Segovia, made our way into the old town, and found our hotel. Tomorrow, we are spending the day in town with our dear friends Paul and Michelle, the purveyors of Lyon sausage.
This was a serious mountain crossing, and we were barely warm enough. I was wearing a down sweater and Rachel, a Kiwi equivalent. But even as I was warm from my vigorous exercise, I could feel the cold penetrating my jacket and banishing the heat within. Certainly, this was my coldest day on any Camino, and perhaps the most difficult.
Thursday, 25 April 2019
There is no frigate like a book
To take us miles away
For the first time on this trip I had a really good sleep. A sound sleep, the sleep of the dead, but I awoke. And looked outside. To my dismay, it was raining.
After breakfast at a Panaria just down the street, we found our way out of town and on to the Via Pecuria, which we have followed several times since leaving Madrid. It was a wide stretch of land fenced on either side, with a dirt track running down the middle. I suspect that this was one of the drovers’ routes which crisscross much of Spain. I have walked on them before on the Via de la Plata. It was a very gradual climb. I found my rhythm and for the first time on this trip I really enjoyed the activity of walking. I could walk at this pace till Kingdom Come, I said to Rach.
Then the gradient increased. We passed between a steep hill and a little village. Onwards and upwards. Rach and I argued over whether it was snowing or raining. Either way, my fingers were numb.
A whiff of woodsmoke on the air signalled habitation ahead. We climbed a steep hill and arrived at Mataelpino. By now there was no doubt. Rach heaved a snow ball at me. We staggered into a bar, my fingers so numb I could barely undo the clips on my pack. I checked the temperature on my phone: it was two degrees.
Out of town, up a steep hill, and then on to a highway, a slight gradient making for easy walking, brisk enough to keep warm. There was snow in the ditches on either side, on the bushes, and on a mountain slope leading up to a rugged ridge of boulders on the crest.
A cacophonous clang of cowbells disturbed the peace, and what I took to be the deep hum of a generator at a nearby farm turned out to be the rushing of water through a culvert.
Rach pointed out an example of inter-species friendship, a horse and a couple of young cows nestling together, a manifestation of one of the earliest phrases we learned as children. Even if we lived in the city, we knew about horses and cows. They belonged in the rich world of our imagination.
I worry about a generation of children nourished by electronic gadgets instead of books.
Some would argue that electronic games allow the child to be involved, to be stimulated. But what kind of interaction is it? A grunt, a trigger response on the control, a shout of triumph as an opponent is zapped, whereas we as children ventured into the enchanted wood or behind the waterfall, and experienced a world beyond our own, real people in the world of our imagination.
There is a theory which holds that we humans are destined to be controlled by artificial intelligence (AI). The signs are there, aren’t they: a crowd of people standing at a bus stop, captive to their iPhones, or an iPad babysitting a child.
We stopped at Navacerrada for a beer and a snack. I can recommend the Cerveceria Los Angeles where a large black stove was puffing out clouds of heat as we entered. It even offered free beer!
The landlord was friendly and helpful and stamped our credential. Pilgrim insignia adorned a wall, but I was concerned by a profile of the elevation along the way. We were to cross the mountain tomorrow. I hoped the chart wasn’t drawn to scale.
Then a brutal climb up a street to the top of the town, and along a very steep gravel path, the snow slushy enough to allow traction, onto a flat forest road, and then back to the highway again.
Four or five kilometres before Cercedilla the path dived deep into the woods, but another arrow indicated that we could keep going along the highway. And a delightful stroll it was. No traffic, absolutely flat, firm footing, until suddenly the road was blocked by a barrier and a guard standing in front of a long string of vans. What’s going on, asked Rach. They’re making a movie, he said. We could be in it, I suggested. A veritable pair of pilgrims. We could swell a scene or two. He declined, and directed us on to a gravel road. Unable to find any arrows, we consulted Sheila (Siri’s cousin) who guided us into Cercedilla.
We stopped an inn for a beer, and then walked several kilometres on to a youth hostel at Las Dehesas, cutting a few kilometres off the long and arduous tomorrow. Despite the rain and snow, it was a good day.
At the youth hostel we opted for the demi-pension for 30.60€ each. Neither of us qualified for the youth (under 30) category (not even Rach), which was even cheaper. All the same, it was a good bargain.
(My apologies to anyone who read my last post and said, “That’s not heather, that’s lavender.” How right you were.)