22nd May 2017. Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Day 7: Zafra to Villafranca de los Barros, in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Badajoz province. 19 kms.
It was already 22 degrees when I left at 6.45am with no breakfast or tea because I could not use the kitchen at the municipal hostel in Zafra. My body had had a good rest and felt better, but not my mind which was busy again trying to puzzle out why life offered me some things and then promptly took them away again.
I passed Spanish farmsteads in the flat brush land, exactly as I imagined Australian ranches. There was honeysuckle and abundant roses in deep pink, red and orange; puppies frolicking, watched and kept in line by the absolute authority of the papa; cats wary of a large bird nearby; and my way was uphill. It was the second cloudy day, although it had cleared late last night, and it was pleasant, cool on my skin. There was a smell of olives and thyme crushed under foot, and the scent of pine added to the pleasure. I saw an almond tree for the first time on this trek.
I compare the two aspects of my life: walking outdoors in this beautiful natural place, and working at home with family and friends in Edinburgh. I had spent the week basically alone, and this sort of retreat was continuing to raise things about being with others or not. I reminded myself I could stop any time.
In her discussion about religion and walking, in Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes, ‘…that non-believer’s paradise, nature…’. This rather dense tome covers the origin of bipedalism right up to modern day pilgrimage.
There was activity all around me: wheeshts of sparrows, and wooden clagging of storks’ beaks as they stretched their throats and pointed at the sky. The sun was catching the tops of the grasses and there was a large town and farmland spread ahead, with a chemical factory spewing in the distance.
There was a satellite tower on the peak I had reached after the climb, and then I descended through pine trees with rabbits popping up all over, but still no deer. I was an hour from Los Santos de Maimona.
A new house with a solar panel heralded the place I was planning to replenish myself. Another commuter town to Zafra, I guessed, with its BMWs and smart houses. I seemed to have a dreadful tendency to be self-pitying at times. It is a good thing I am walking to balance my earth element which that is related to.
“A young German man expressed it this way: ‘In the experience of walking, each step is a thought, you can’t escape yourself.'” p. 51, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit.
Thankfully I could not risk missing the signs so that bought me into the present. There was a double bell tower and the familiar, beautifully-kept town square.
Kids were off to school in skinny jeans and trainers, rucksacks and hoodies, with straightened hair, all so familiar from our Scottish children. But what a soulless place it was at 8am, and how very, very hard to find bar.
The search and service took a while, but the tea and tostada con tomate (basically toast with garlic and tomato paste) were good and the women very friendly. I left at 8.30am.
Black pigs were grooming each other which I had not seen before, but otherwise there was more of the same really, day after day walking forward with a pack on my back, trying to understand life, except I was ever fitter and feeling better about myself overall.
Walking is to ‘nourish a profound, fruitful relationship with the self.’ Taken from Christophe Andre’s La Vie Interieure in France Culture magazine.
Two men, each with multiple greyhounds passed me an hour apart.
A huge horse rolled over in the dust, and I was not that different, having to brush away metaphorical flies myself. Doing something repetitive helps you see the differences or similarities between things. Then again, sometimes even the most beautiful views, seen repeatedly, become commonplace.
I thought there were a few pilgrims gaining on me from behind, but it was a man on a tractor on his phone. And ten minutes later there he was again still on the mobile. At 10.30am my day’s destination was sighted, and I was resting under olive branches. Just me, the birds and that tractor.
I crossed the train tracks and a busy road, managing through a semi-rural urban environment, one dusty route in a long uphill haul in the heat. The French couple were there, he having insisted on walking 30 kilometers and she with blisters. I felt for her. Now that I did not have my baton, the woman I met a few days earlier was right, the blood does collect into my hands and they get swollen. I expect the heat does not help. Sometimes I also experienced really sharp pains in different parts of my body, mostly the inside edge of my right foot, but they passed.
‘Pilgrimages make it possible, through the exertions of ones body, step by step, toward those intangible spiritual goals that are otherwise so hard to grasp.’ p. 50 Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit.
I had read that there was a choice between two albergues and that the far one, the municipal hostel, only had one toilet for everyone, so when I arrived at the edge of the town and immediately found the private albergue, I stopped there.
The nineteen kms took just under 3.5 hours, 4.5 if you count the 1 x 45 and 1 x 15 minute detours/breaks, averaging 5.5 kms per hour, although noting that one is likely to go slower at the end and if it is very hot. If you were chatting that could slow you down too. Today I arrived at noon.
My advice: do not try to find the tourist office or follow the signs as no-one knows where it is but they do kindly guess, sending you off on a wild goose chase every time! In fact, I think it is usually, or used to be, behind the lovely apricot-coloured church next to the police station, and that place is worth visiting because it has good maps and they can stamp your credential (the pilgrim paper for collecting proof of stages attained).
Villafranca is a big, prosperous town with a smart new medical centre and a wide, dry river bed running through the middle. There are lots of shops which do of course shut in the afternoon.
The mercado (market) building rivals one in Madrid, and the bazaar shop has more things crammed into it than I have ever seen, except postcards which was what I was after.
Tourist site: Villafranca: http://www.turismoextremadura.com/viajar/turismo/en/explora/Villafranca-de-los-Barros-00001/