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.