Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Camino de Madrid. Day 7. April 29, 2019. Coca to Alcarazem. 24 kms

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

Camino de Madrid. Day 6, April 28, 2019. Santa Maria la Real de Nieva to Coca. 23.8 kms

We are the people of England who have not spoken yet

We set off from the Hostal Avanto, around 9:00 am, sober and sore, and walked the 1.7 km into the  town of Santa Maria la Real de Nieva, and past the massive church which indicated that this had been a prosperous town during the Middle Ages.

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

Camino de Madrid. Day 5. April 27, 2019. Segovia to Santa Maria la Real de Nieva. 33 kms

"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

Camino de Madrid. Day 4, April 25, 2019. La Dehesas to Segovia. 28 kms

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

Camino de Madrid. Day 3. April 24, 2019. Manzanares el Real to Las Dehesas. 24 kms

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.)

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Camino de Madrid. Day 2, April 23, 2019. Tres Cantos to Manzanares el Real. 27 kms

With a hey ho,the wind and the rain

It was a day of variable weather, so we were constantly donning and doffing ponchos and down jackets. In the morning it was windy and wet, leaving me shivering at the bar where we had our second breakfast. The rain stopped in the afternoon, and then started again, and as we climbed, the weather cooled off, only to warm up again as we descended into the valley and the town of Manzanes el Real. And it was a hard day, 12 kms in the wind and rain, and then fifteen up to the top of a hill, and down again.

We awoke at 5:30 and were out of the dorm before the police knocked on the door at six o’clock. We had been directed to a bar that opened at six and was bustling when we arrived. It was a bar with character, where the workers arrived for breakfast before their early morning shifts. 

I had another fitful night. Strangely, although the albergue advertised places for four, there was only one double bunk, already taken by a Belarussian couple, leaving a very thin mattress through which my hips protruded into the floorboards. But there was no charge nor request for donations.

My pack heavy on my back, we left town, crossed the bridge over the motorway, and rejoined the Camino. A winding dirt road led down into a broad valley, through undulating pasture country dotted with shrubby pines. We passed some stately horses, and a bull chasing some cows but frightening them off with his jangling cowbell. Eventually, the path climbed out of the valley and up to the town of Colmenar Viejo, where we thawed out in a bar. 

After the church, we lost the yellow arrows, and wandered around the town asking for the Camino de Santiago. Few people had heard of it, but eventually someone pointed us in the right direction. 

Leaving town, we walked along a wide path between two dry stone walls. Flourishes of yellow broom and the occasional bush of purple heather marked our way.

We crossed a highway, and then a stone bridge, and continued along a wide farm road running between mesh fences tall enough to keep in a giraffe, but angled outwards at the top, as if to keep humans out rather than animals in. We climbed steadily towards distant mountains, eventually turning down into a valley and the town of Manazares el Real where we found lodgings at the Hostal la Pedriza. Twenty-four euros each, but very comfortable. Beds with sheets, hot showers, and towels in the bathroom rather than hot-air germ dispensers.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Camino de Madrid, Day 1, April 22, 2019, Madrid to Tres Cantos, 26 kms

The sage leaf rock rose

And the white asphodel

Stand before the stately oaks

In the sunny dell


This year I am walking with my daughter Rachel from New Zealand. I am a little apprehensive: I am old and decrepid; she is young and fit, and recently ran a marathon. Will I keep up with her?

For me it was two flights to get here: Victoria - Toronto, Toronto - Madrid;  and for Rach as well but much longer: Auckland - Dubai, Dubai - Madrid, but she has flown quite literally half-way round the globe, for Spain is antipodally opposite to New Zealand.

 On the flight to Madrid I was seated almost at the front of the economy section, a good possie for a quick exit at the end of the flight, and for early service of the meal, but it offered a tantalizing view of the business section, where the attendant would come forward with a bottle of wine in each hand ready to refill the glasses of his passengers, but would stop short just before he reached me as if pulled back by an invisible string, so that I was left with my empty 187.5 ml bottle of plonk, which is not quite enough to sustain the chicken or pasta you are served in the economy section.

And why the seemingly arbitrary quantity of 187.5 ml of red wine in a little bottle? Well, by my calculation, it’s one-quarter of a regular 750 ml bottle of wine, deemed sufficient by some authority.

The Camino de Madrid is not one of the major historic pilgrim routes, but there are records of pilgrims having travelled north to meet the Camino Frances and on to Santiago. Undoubtedly so, since they would have left from Madrid just as they left from every other town in Europe. But the way has been designated in recent years by the Amigos de Los Camino de Santiago de Madrid.

The way begins at the Church of Santiago and Saint John the Baptist in the Plaza de Santiago. There are two ways of getting there from the airport which I will spell out for anyone coming after me. The first is to take the metro to the Opera station. This involves two changes. The second is to take a bus from outside the terminal to the Atocha mainline station. This is simple and costs only five euros. You then have a little walk along the Calle Atocha past a number of hotels and hostels to the church. A good place to stay. We found the Hotel Catalonia Atocha. Very comfortable for 75 euros, but we didn’t really benefit from the facilities.

We set out to visit the church and get our credentials stamped but it was closed. But at least we had begun our walk and wouldn’t have to return in the morning.

The hotel was a good choice. The shower was a delight. Hot water gushed forth like a geyser from Yellowstone National Park. No sudden changes of temperature or interruptions of flow, and I didn’t have to clutch the shower head in one hand and rincé with the other. But my bathroom adventures were only beginning.

It was a long night. I had been up since three-thirty the day before, and Rach for even longer. Sleep was pressing heavily upon us, but we managed to stay up until about eight thirty, reluctant to go to bed too early for fear of waking up in the middle of the night.

If you’re an elderly gentleman with stuff on your mind, you develop the art of visiting the loo in the night without fully waking up. Otherwise you don’t get back to sleep. 

I didn’t turn the light on. It was just around the corner from my bed. I got my bearings from the eyes of various LED gadgets glowing at me in the dark. Desperately, I backed my way into every corner of bathroom trying to find the loo. To no avail. Where was it? Finally I found a switch on the wall. I wasn’t in the bathroom at at all, but just outside the door.

On my next visit, I was unable to open the large opaque glass door to the bathroom. I pulled at one side. It wouldn’t open. I tried the other. No success. Was it a slider? No, it wouldn’t budge. What the hell was wrong? Why wouldn’t the bloody thing open? I felt my way around it. Strangely, it would give a little at the bottom, but would not open. Again, I found a light switch. I had been trying to prise a full-length mirror off the wall.

I guess I was jet-lagged and groggy, but after all this I was awake and couldn’t get back to sleep.

In the morning, after a coffee and croissant at a neighbouring cafe, we headed north towards the Plaza Castilla in the Paseo de Castillana where the yellow arrows begin. We passed under a pair of spectacular leaning towers. I wondered whether, like the one at Pisa, they were leaning over a little further each year.

At Fuenvarral we left the city behind and ventured out into the country, heading north on a dirt track with deep gouges and muddy puddles from recent rains.  We passed through a subway with every inch of wall covered with coluful graffiti. Out onto higher ground. A couple of rabbits bounced away and a solitary magpie strutted in the distance. The broom was in flower. Daisies, buttercups and the occasional poppy lined the verge.  And then I spied an old friend, the spectacular sage leaf rock rose, which I had encountered further south on the Via de la Plata. At the time, I waxed poetically about it and the white asphodel.

We passed along a lane, with rustic farms on either side. Over a fence we saw a colony of cats, all shapes and sizes, lazing around and on top of an old car. I counted twenty or more and they kept appearing. Was this a shelter? wondered Rach hopefully. No, these were farm cats, left to breed and fend for themselves, to keep down the rat population, I speculated. They seemed happy enough: a felicity of cats. Or a moggitude. Or a conchaternity? 

We crossed a discontinued railway line, an abandoned station sitting forlornly beside it. And then the main line to Leon which we followed for several kilometres.

We stopped for a break at the railway station of El Goloso about five kilometres before our destination. Again the old station was abandoned, taken over by an ecological organization called Rain Forest. Nobody was home. 

Leaving the station we walked easily along a bicycle path until we arrived at Tres Cantos. We crossed a bridge across the motorway and into the town where we found a couple of beds on the floor of a pilgrims’ albergue in the basement of the town hall. Every albergue has its peculiarity. Here, we had to vacate the room at six in the morning, perhaps the earliest forced departure time of any albergue on the Camino.