Walking without a donkey 13: Camino Francés

Days 5 and 6. 28-29 October 2016. Nájera (Camino Francés) – Burgos – Cortiguera – Madrid – Aranjuez – San Juan de Ortega (back on the Camino)

Pantano Reservoir, Logroño on the way to Najera 28 October 2016

I made a promise to visit Gill (who had already put me in touch with so many lovely Shiatsu people to stay with) in Aranjuez, which is 50km south of Madrid, before the end of October. So I left the Camino at Nájera, after only 5 days of walking (blog posts 9, 10, 11), and went there via Burgos (90km, 1.5 hours by bus), Cortiguera (blog post 12, 70km north of Burgos), and Madrid (250km, 2.5 hours back down south) – a very long way round!


River Arlanzon, Burgos

I only spent a little time in Burgos this time, but the sun shone and the bus station is central, so I was able to walk across the river, into Cathedral Square where I sat and ate my sandwiches, walked around the adjoining streets, visited a cafe for a green tea and wifi, and photographed the famous pilgrim statue.




Afterwards I returned to get my link to Cortiguera to see Dirk and Charo.

This was where I saw a group of vultures circling at eye level in front of majestic rocks above the slit of river far below.

On the way to Cortiguera

I wrote in my diary on the bus: ‘This time the ‘bird’ I see as I approach the city is a silver plane rising in the blue sky. After the outdoorsy life I’ve been living in the country and small villages, I’m nervous about entering the capital city for the first time.’

I was right, it was a serious contrast, and I found travelling across Madrid a terrible strain. After calmly walking through the regions of La Rioja and Cantabria, with their expansive silence and disinterested wildlife, the thoughtful travellers at a regular pace, the noise, the numbers of people, the difficulty in negotiating the ticket machines at the underground stations – it was all an onslaught to my system – and I couldn’t take any photos.

On arrival at Aranjuez, I partook of a glass of wine and settled myself. Later I was treated to a pizza (urban food!), and taken to Gill’s amazing kitchen garden. Here she grows fruit and vegetables, and bakes delicious bread in an open oven which she shares with her neighbour. Alongside giving and teaching Shiatsu, hosting visiting tutors, leading chi gung classes, and generally keeping a large sector of the Spanish Shiatsu community connected, she delivers this fresh produce to people in the local area.

I had not bargained for the power of the Camino, and the next morning I overturned my plans to stay south for 5 days, and returned to the north, via Madrid and the bus station I was getting to know and love, back to Burgos and the Way. Thank you Gill and Jorge for being so understanding.

Hostel at San Juan de Ortega

It turns out that getting to San Juan de Ortega in the evening is tricky. It was hard to get information and a taxi would have been extortionate, so I waited 4 hours (witnessing drunken fisticuffs in the street), before joining a local bus service which several people had told me would go there and for which I had a ticket. Needless to say I was the only foreigner. The large family group which made up the majority of the other passengers, were friendly and interested in me and why I was there. They chattered loudly, not seeming bothered by my pigeon Spanish, offering to share their snacks with me, and laughing hilariously at my escapades up and down the country.

When I was the only one left, and we were driving through the pitch dark (by now three quarters of an hour late), the driver asked me where I was going and ‘Si, si’, he pointed into the distance. He told me all about his wife and kids, and where he was going on holiday, and eventually deposited me in front of the former monastery, where I was met by a kind, but rather worried, fellow walker. He had been told that the bus usually drops folk off at the previous village and was ready to come out and escort me in case I met wolves walking through the night forest. Apparently the bus had made a detour especially for me. Being so late meant there were no beds left, but this same kind man had negotiated an alternative – in the library – as well as having supper waiting for me. I always knew I would get there safely, but those around me were not so sure until I actually arrived!

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San Juan church

The next day we walked to Burgos!

Last 2 photos courtesy of A. Bec

Walking without a donkey 11: Camino Francés

Days 3 – 5. 23 – 25 October 2016

Sometimes I walk to get from a to b, sometimes because I am in training for a trip (eg when I was preparing to walk in the alps), and sometimes simply because the day is beautiful and I need to be outside.

I have been taking walks here and there in Spain – between towns, along beaches, on plains, up hills, through forests – and now I am getting hooked on the Camino Francés (the best known) of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages, The Way of St. James.

My day three takes me from Estella (Navarra) to Los Arcos; on day four I reach Logroño; and at the end of day five I sleep in Nájera (La Rioja), all in northern Spain, moving east to west.

For me the process of walking day-by-day engenders prosaic observations, deep thought, and empty mind. For example, it strikes me as I stride that once you have decided on your path you just have to keep going until you get there. And if you take a wrong turn you can either retrace your footsteps, or choose a new way. What you can’t do is make the end come sooner than it does. There just are that many miles between you and where you are going.

On the other hand, although walking along the flat is good, when there’s nothing for miles around it’s impossible to find somewhere to snuck down for a private pee.

Because it’s hard not to look at the ground when you walk, you do get to see the little things which live down there. Flowers, butterflies, bugs, and an iguana basking on the dry, bleached path. People who know the hedgerows of Britain, my mother being the best amongst them, and from whom I learned most of what I know about flora and fauna, will recognise many of the flowers and bushes along this section of the Way: fennel, brambles, vetch, ragwort to name a few.

Not far out of Estella we come to the Bodegas Irache with it’s free wine fountain from which, tradition has it, you fill a small bottle and carry it to Santiago de Compostella as an offering. Needless to say most people drink it there and then, and I share a laugh with the other peregrinos (pilgrims) at this alcoholic alternative.

Further along, outside the ancient Benedictine Capuchin monastery and church, there is a large group of all ages, from little ones who are carried on their father’s shoulders, to teenagers and parents, singing the old English folk song Greeensleeves. Apparently they are members of the same extended family who are doing part of the Camino every school holidays.

There’s a strong wind today and I have more contact with others from all over the world, perhaps to take my mind off it – 2 strong American women with lots of experience; a Polish priest; a Frenchman who started on 4 September in Paris and has had barely a drop of rain in 6 weeks; a cigar seller from Alabama (a giant of a man with an impressive beard and booming voice); and many other interesting people who are all walking for their own individual, personal, and spiritual reasons.

Advice: If you fancy trying this, do remember to bring walking sticks to take some of the weight off your feet, waterproof footwear, and a cover for your back pack. I didn’t!

Logroño, a Camino city.
Logroño with my magenta scarf.
Typical rural landscape of the Rioja region.
Los Arcos.
Los Arcos – you can see pilgrim murals like this all along the Camino Francés.
Albergue, Los Arcos where I gave an impromptu early morning Chi Gung class for about 8 people.

This blog is dedicated to my friend Liz (who I have worked with for many years, and who came into Edinburgh especially to lend me her book and share her Camino with me), and to Edie, who helped me keep the dream alive, although she was unable to accompany me.

Walking without a donkey 10: Camino Francés 

Day 2 – 22 October 2016

The albergue hostel taken the afternoon before

I walked out of Puente la Reina, alone, before sun up. What a clean and well kept town. It was to be a day of minute observations, personal memories, and heightened awareness.

The conversations of the night before rang in my head. I had discovered a new language made up of words I could remember from school French, the 10 Spanish classes I took before I left Edinburgh, and ones I didn’t know I knew from long-ago Italian travels, novels and films. We all spoke a variation of that when we were together – the peregrinos’ hybrid.

As the day lightened, I remembered a walking meditation I was taught, and tried to imagine I was kissing the ground with my feet, especially when they felt sore. I was trying to go softly through the landscape. Little pains in my joints – left knee, right hip, left sole – reminded me to pay full attention to the way my feet met the soil and how my body weight was spread over them. There’s a Spanish phrase I learned early on: Poco a poco’, meaning that bit-by-bit something will happen, but you have to wait. It’s a good motto for the Camino: Take one mindful step at a time!

My mobile phone sat in my right hip pocket, and it seemed like I was carrying Tolkein’s ring or the locket horcrux in Harry Potter, but I decided I needed it to take photos and make quick notes of the many, wonderful things and places I was seeing.

Beautiful tiles set into coarse stone benches – ideal for relieving an aching body.

I saw more vultures (ref. to my Cortiguera blog), which, I was told, are ‘passeurs’ in Buddhism, symbols of moving from one life to the next (though I can’t find any information about this). It wasn’t until much later that I realised what they seemed to represent for me on my own journey. This bird watches and waits for something to die so that it can live. When I decided to come to Spain, I knew I wanted to clean up my life, metaphorically, so that I could move forwards into the second half of it with clarity. (Note: beware the Camino for prompting such deep thoughts!) These grand birds circle and float all around me at very regular intervals all along the way.

Reds, browns, greens – layer upon fertile layer of landscape.

Village by village I trod my way on, sharing stories with others who fell into step with me, stopping for a moment before picking up their own pace. People in my line of work talk about places which, with the right sort of use, gain in energy and atmosphere over time. This path has been trodden by countless pilgrims for centuries, and the energy is palpable.

Fuente, a fountain for refilling my water bottle.

Today I noticed that my breathing was starting to deepen, and I was starting to smell the plants around me. Each time I put my hand in my pocket and tasted a salted almond or sweet cranberry which my friend Merce gave me, I recalled the care I have been shown over and over again in Spain, and was grateful.

Villatuerta, Navarra.
Albergue / hostel courtyard.

Before the day passed, I discovered Villatuerta town square with seven oak treees and that took me back to my home in Sevenoaks, Kent in England. This encouraged me to reflect that a number of things have been happening while I am in Spain, which are sort of taking me back through earlier times in my life. In Tarot there are Gate cards, meaning that if you meditate on them they allow you to move under and on to another state or stage. All along my way there are gates and archways, man-made and natural, which seem to invite me through. It is well known that the Camino can have this effect too.

I walk into Estella with a companion, changing from Spanish to French. We pay 6 euros for our beds in a huge shared dormitory, and I am treated to a cooked dinner. There’s a great sense of well-being and peace after walking all day. It’s a simple pastime and, poco a poco, it slows down my thoughts .