Via de la Plata Camino – Day 16 (Mérida to Ourense). Friday 6 April 2018. 20 kms.
I am walking in Castilla y Léon and this part is very flat with a deal of road. The albergue in Calzada de Valdunciel is on the opposite side of the town, making it very simple and quick to find the way out in the dark.
‘Lodging facilities were generally provided outside the city walls to enable travellers to come and go after the gates of the town were shut at night’. The Pilgrimage to Santiago, Edwin Mullins.
The long straight path was not overly attractive but as the sun rose, everything changed colour, even the barbed wire fence took on a precious shine.
I came across a small forest of teasal, all turned towards the sun. They stood tall and prickly in the light, old and brown but glowing at the same time. I have never seen so many of them at once. Perhaps because I knew I would be walking past a prison later in the day, they reminded me of inmates pressed against the boundary fence (there was not enough light to take a photo).
Opposite the sun, in the same cobalt sky, was less than half a lint moon, a wafer-thin gauze of a slither. Where the warmth had not reached it, the grass was still stiff with the haw frost.
I followed the footprints of the people who had gone before me until a significant detour due to flooding. I was under a motorway bridge and the warning signs were easy to see except they were back-to-front, so first I took the left fork, met with the un-passable path and retraced my steps. Then it was not easy- arrows everywhere – and it was counter-intuitive winding back and over where I had already been. It seems that this diversion has been there a long time.
Soon it was lovely and warm. Straight, straight on, cars rushing past and I somehow missed Huelmos, the only pueblo between setting off and my destination. Shame about the sore feet. This type of stage often seems much further than it actually is, but I revelled in the wild flowers: the same selection from last week. I had hardly seen any since then and I wondered if the wheat spraying was responsible for the lack of them.
This time the accomodation, a private hostel, was just off the first road I came to on entering El Cubo, sort of round the back and next to what looked like a derelict area. It had a spacious garden surrounding it and those strips of plastic hanging in front of the front door.
As there was no answer I phoned and the owner appeared very quickly, offering me a welcome beer. The books say people are welcome to pop in for a drink and a seat – a nice idea that I had not come across before. As I sun-bathed, I remembered that I had forgotten to leave a donation at the Salamanca donativo hostel and resolved to ‘pass it forward’, as the cyclist from Malta who came briefly by for a coke and to fix his bike, suggested.
Later I went into the village to buy my tea and next day’s breakfast. Two women sitting on a bench outside their house pointed me in the right direction. I am now familiar with shops which are in apparently residential dwellings. In Edinburgh it is the opposite – many of the old shops have been made into homes. White doves flew up from the church.
Being private, there was no pilgrim’s kitchen but the retired owners allowed us to sit at the table alongside the others who were eating the supper provided. There were six of us including a young couple who are walking the camino, weekend by weekend, travelling by car from home on Friday nights, to the start of each stage, walking for two days, and then returning to their vehicle on the Sunday night for work the next day. It was a really enjoyable meal and the wine flowed freely – a delicious local white for the starter, red for the main – which I was (happily) encouraged to sample.
I was still meeting up with the duo from Seuil regularly. They always cater for themselves, being on a strict (almost impossible) budget, and the youngest is an avid footballer (he played for Rennes when he was younger) so despite walking every day, he goes out for football practice every evening – E, his ‘accompanying adult’, is consequently improving his moves!
They also washed our clothes for two euros, and there was plenty of hanging space in the garden. Unfortunately, having bought almost all of my stuff in before the storm except my double-layer socks which dry very slowly, I left them out all night. I padded out in bare feet through the puddles in the early hours when I remembered, but it was too late for them to dry for wearing that day.
I had a rather luxurious night: although I was in a shared room and had arrived first, picking the less expensive bunk, the whole establishment was full by 8pm and I was moved to a double bed – presumably because I was the matriach!!
Via de la Plata Camino, day 15 from Salamanca to Calzada de Valdunciel (on the Mérida to Ourense section). Thursday 5 April 2018. 15 kms?
I woke really early and crept out of the female dorm where I slept with 2 others. I had been warned that walking out of Salamanca would be frustrating, and it was. The start was straightforward: to Plaza Major, then onwards, the roads getting wider and more industrial as I went. But then there is a left; straight on at a supermarket (Carrefour); a hotel which would not let me use their toilets; a stadium which I crouched behind as a result; and motorway roundabouts. No paths nor pavements: terrible. I even saw a man spitting which although it is very common in Britain, I had never seen before here in Spain.
However, I could not help but be elated with the lovely buildings and the sunlight, even if it was mixed with frustration at getting the rucksack comfy, trudging along thinking about past relationships and sorting things out in my mind.
Finally there was a clay camino by the motorway and despite the ice on the ground it was starting to warm up.
I was getting a very different feeling from people in this part of the country: in the bars they were polite but gave us half a glass compared to the Spanish, and charged more; on the street, on the other hand, people were kindness itself, helping with directions despite my beginners Spanish.
For a while I walked amidst the green and earth – the plough had created gracious curves around the hills. Then more by road – I thought, ‘You must be joking’, but the challenge was to stay quiet inside and enjoy what was there. It worked! Very soon I was back off-road, and from then on it was a smooth, flat and ochre-coloured path.
Yesterday I walked in one long stretch of countryside with nothing to break it up, offering a chance to do a walking meditation. Today it was warmer and there were little hops from village to village and there was the spire of a church ahead in Aldeaseca de la Almuña. It was a square bell tower with a shallow triangular roof and a little blob of stork on its nest on top.
I passed one of the women I had seen the previous night. She was sitting outside a village supermarket having a quiet smoke. I chose a lovely wee shop round the corner, full of delights such as an unexpectedly wide range of perfume as well as the sweet things I was ready for even though only it was only 11am.
There was a tiny arrow between the church and the medical centre but I only saw it when I went back in and the shop-keeper pointed it out. There was a sign that the library bus visits on Mondays. I exited past the sunshine yellow play-park.
I admitted to myself (after my experience near Lake Tajo) that I am somewhat nervous of meeting single men on the outskirts of towns, and at the next village sure enough there was a car which went slowly. He hooted and later approached me, but it was fine – I walked on, did not look at or answer him, and he got the message.
There were new tulips out, a hoopoe saying bou bou bou, and wood pigeons coo cooing. Luckily my book said to walk on the right side of the road, and there was a path between the trees although I did not see the arrows. Later I discovered that others had continued along the road, and I was happy that for once I had found the gentler way.
Although in this flat land there are not a lot of places to snuck down for a pee!
Oh the sweet peeping of the small brown bird with a white belly! I had never seen the vino tinto-coloured catkins before: they were all over the ground.
Then, another first, I had to take my boots off and wade through the water which was blocking the way.
I crossed the very busy main road once more, using the motorists’ signs to help me: there are far fewer arrows in this region, though there are the more modern Castilla y León pillars encompassing a variety of directions. Here there were the same miniscule scarlet succulents growing in the gravel which were all over Extremadura. I was walking beside what you might call a posh housing estate, along a smaller road parallel to the A-one, into Castellanos de Villiquera. (The Valencia one I went to has security guards on call 24 hrs a day)
There were glimpses of turquoise swimming pools through hedges and I wondered for the 100th time, why I walk. We have forgotten the way people used to walk from town to village if they did not have a horse/cart. My favourite parts of the film Captain Corelli’s Mondolin are when the people wend their way out of the village down that zig-zag road, taking their time and following tradition. Now I hear that in America you are advised not to go on foot at all in some cities. I am fascinated by the quietness of this mode of transport, not for the sake of a romantic revisiting of a lost era but because it feels better. I see and hear more. If I am not in a hurry (as I was for the first 50 years of my life it seemed), then there is somehow more time for my soul to catch up with my body.
A woman beats a mat outside her house; in contrast the small tweety birds flutter their wings like hovver flies. A racing 3-year-old spaniel, wet from leaping through young wheat, and her owner (approximately 80 years old) stop to say, aren’t you cold? I said no, not after 15 kms, and we had a nice chat. He wished me a Buen Camino when we parted ways. It seems to be a very popular pastime for the retired, walking on the outskirts.
No-one overtook me today. I suspect the two men who left earlier are going for 30 kms or so. Planning each day involves looking at the distance between hostels and taking any main towns into account. It is certainly tempting to go further, and this is a topic of very regular debate both in my head and with others, but today’s tricky 60 kms to Zamora can be comfortably divided into 16, 23 and 21 which is much more relaxed.
I traipse through Calzada de Valdunciel, right to the other side, past a wall where there is an oficina virtual de turismo ie, not real people, but a digital tourist information. And arrive at a 12-bed, cute little albergue which shares a wall with a noisy metal-cutting factory (blessedly, they take a long lunch break!).
I am there first and although deserted, the door is open. One-by-one the others arrive: the 2 men from Seuil who I have been getting to know for a few days, came first, followed by others who looked and decided to move on, and, finally, the woman I saw that morning and she had to be turned away because by then we were full. There is a little kitchen with a stove and a string of (what turns out to be plastic) garlic. And a little bedside table.
Later I took a turn around the streets and met the same woman for the fourth time. I discovered that she was waiting for an ambulance outside that supermarket because she had come over all giddy. I had noticed her having coca cola and coffee for breakfast in Salamanca before her cigarette, so when she said she did not know why she had felt so ill we had a chat about it. Much later I got to know her well and heard her story. There is always a story.
March 31st 2018 10 kms 2. 5 hours then a bus to Béjar and a shared taxi (6.5 euros each) to Calzada de Béhar.
At the large hostal in the centre of the busy town, I had a couple of very interesting conversations with an Irishman, and an Englishman who lives near me in a Fife forest, both of whom are wild campers and walking with tents etc. This is something I have been thinking about for a while as it eliminates the need for finding a free bed every night. (See yesterday’s blog for a good example of how hard it can be unusual but worth knowing about if you are considering walking the Via de la Plata).
The dormitories are warm and the kitchen well equipped. It was swarming with peregrinos I had seen before and so was a friendly place to be.
After the escapades of the day before, I set off as usual, walking to Balneario which was all along the road.
Once there, I immediately saw the sign to the terma, the hot baths, and thought that would be a lovely treat but…
I entered a bar to find my companions already partaking of their morning coffee. One said he was staying behind to visit and after telephoning the hostel we were heading for, both for myself and 3 others because I spoke the most Spanish, I decided to stay as well.
The Roman baths were booked up ahead of time (this was the Saturday of Easter weekend and very busy with tourists) but the kind woman at the desk showed us around.
Then we went over the road to the modern baths and took advantage of the Pilgrim Discount (4 euros) for a leisurely swim and laze around on loungers, with a huge blue bathrobe thrown in for good measure. It was a small pool with one fountain and the only others present were a family with 2 young daughters, so reminiscent of my own in days gone by. I had a good sleep and after an hour and a half my feet were barely aching at all. Wonderful. (They are open until lunchtime and then reopen later in the day. )
We had a nice meal back at the bar (he had salad with orange and goats cheese; I had salad with gulas and prawns which turned out, despite my thinking it was a seafood salad by the title on the menu, to be sprinkled with thousands of tiny pieces of bacon which I laboriously separated from every mouthful before I ate it.)
Note to self: always check for the presence of meat before ordering!
The town is beautiful, tucked right in under the mountains and, on account of its height, very windy.
We managed to find a sunny corner to wait for the bus, before being driven to Béhar (only two buses that day at 12-something and 5pm) – an idea which the Tourist Information adviser had come up with. He said we could walk from there. It was lovely and warm and we wound our way up, higher and higher, through spectacular scenery, to the main town of this region, on the edge of Extremadura.
Once again we visited the Tourist Information and discovered it was further than we we had been led to believe and, it being close to the evening, my companion suggested we take a taxi – ending what was essentially a rest-day, which after all was day 10 and so a sensible time to take it.
Camino friends had already arrived at the albergue after a very steep climb, and the hospitaleros were most accommodating. There is a a garden overlooking the wonderful scenery, and loud music coming from a closed outbuilding which I was told the next day was where they were training horses to dance.
There were two very large sittings for the evening meal which consisted, for us vegetarians, of salad, omelette and flan. The usual, but all cooked on the premises and delicious.
Very sadly I forgot to take my swimming costume off the washing line the next morning.
23rd May 2017. Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Day 8: Villafranca de los Barros to Torremejía, in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Badajoz province. 26 kms which should take a minimum of 6 hours with breaks.
I left Villfranca at 5.50am and it was darker than ever before. Once I had found my way out of town I was in open scrub land. There was the dawn at the edge of the world; the sky was blue, red and orange. I heard the sound of a lone cockerel, saw a white horse just visible, and smelled the faint odour of farm fertiliser.
There were orange lights already in the distance, and tractors passed me under the tiny, thin crescent moon. Oh, the sweet, sweet feathered melodies!
As I found my stride, my state of mind calmed. My pack was extra heavy with provisions, and my feet already hot, but the air was cool and I gave thanks for that. The dusty path was occasionally lit up by one or two red tail lights. Then it went quiet. The flower buds were tightly shut.
The moment when the the sun finally rose was very exciting, and afterwards the opposite sky was a blank white.
‘(Pilgrimage is) … walking in search of something intangible..’ p. 45Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.
Some travellers write their blogs after getting home and I can see why; although the trekking itself does not take all day the mindset needed for that, together with the attendant tasks of looking after the BodyMind and dealing with practicalities, can do.
Indeed, I recently advised a prospective peregrino to leave books at home. That was partly due to the weight, but also because I do not read much when I am on a pilgrimage, and I do not see others reading around me. Fiction can transport you to another place, and many pilgrims believe that focussing on their spiritual goal is vital and do not want to be distracted.
‘…- and for pilgrims, walking is work.’ p. 45 Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.
On reflection, I ‘saw’ that I do tend to set myself extra and unnecessary tasks, and yesterday it transpired, I also did some needless work for the business back home thinking I was indispensible perhaps. As I put one foot in front of another I could take note of such patterns and habits of mine.
To the east were hills like different sized piles of manure you will clear up later. In the sky was an orange haze which seemed to be creating a white misty look between it and the land, whereas the other half of the globe was flat to the horizon, and the vineyards of the Ribeiro region a uniform blue. The arrows were easy to see, the backpack was no bother, but my feet were still calling my attention at times.
I enjoyed the immaculately ploughed red soil between rows of vines.
Olives, with their stumpy wiggly trunks, stretched into infinity. One patch had solar panels and an extra crop of what might have been green manure between the trees. The cordoned vines had thin little stems, perhaps because the wires were supporting them so they did not need to be stronger. I would like to know why some rows were planted north-south, and some east-west.
The sweet fennel and cow parsley smelled delicious. My skin remained cool, and it was brightening quickly. Other wild flowers competed with the blue of the sky, and there were pink His Master’s Voice horns of common bindweed by the path.
Before I left the hostel, breakfast looked better than usual so I had paid for it, and consequently I was full of sugary energy. My shadow was really tall; my alter ego which could reach things down from high shelves in the supermarket.
In the fields, today’s job was trimming the long tendrils, and other than those men, it was me myself I as far as I could see in both directions. Even the farmers were alone, although an occasional conversation reached me.
I liked the swirls in the earth at the ends of rows where the tractor had turned; hated the repetitive machinery noise to my left which source I could not see; and blocked my nose from the acrid, chemical smell I had been warned about.
I had also read that there was neither village nor water for the entire 26 kilometers and I could believe it. I only had one litre and so knew that I would have to be careful not to drink too much too soon. Sadly, as I took the signposted turning, the noise got louder.
The tireder I got, the less time had passed since I last looked at my watch. Chemicals smelling like paint were being sprayed so I tried to pick up pace, but my body had set its own rhythm. Tonight, I thought, I am drinking some wine!
By 8.40am I was no longer alone; there were four Italians in a group and another solitary man on the road. We moved at regular intervals from each other.
After almost 3 hours without a break, I was casting ahead for a tree throwing shade, but there was not one until 9.20! After a 15 minute break, and having eaten my orange because it was the heaviest and also full much needed fluids (delicious it was), I deduced that we were barmy, the lot of us, walking so far in this heat.
I then passed the hat-wearing man sitting on a wee waymarker, and he said he was muy cansado (very tired). He added that we were half way. On I went.
A town with unusual looking farm buildings appeared. Ah! maybe wine vats. It looked like the outside edges of a huge swimming pool and I imagined it was full of grapes with barefooted people trampling around it. Do they actually do that these days? It could of course be sewage, which would be less ‘romantic’.
Luckily, the actual smell was of newly cut branches and very fresh sap.
For some reason I suffered a lot of pains on and off, and I also started to feel the skin on my right arm and leg, the side where the sun was, getting that soon-to-be-burned feeling. To remedy it, I draped my magenta wrap over that side of me. That wrap sure does come in handy. (See my blog on what to pack in your rucksack).
Swifts zapped flies, zig-zagging across my sight. Were those cordoned olives? If they were, then that would make for many more plants per acre than the row system, so it would certainly make financial sense if the earth could sustain it.
I broke again at 10.45 for lunch under a tree, feet throbbing – it was so very hot. A pylon was crackling like a fire, indeed there was a smell of burning. As I ate I let my crumbs drop for the ants and watched one carry a huge piece away, picturing it arriving back home and saying ‘look what I got!’ It was a messy business for the bottom, sitting on the earth like that. I restarted at 11am and, yes, there were a lot of little inexplicable smouldering fires between the olive trees.
Towards the end of the day’s walk I spent a short period, only the second time in the past 8 days, talking to someone as we went along. He was from Barcelona and was doing the camino to get away from his demanding family, he said. He assured me that despite his exhaustion, of course he wanted to keep on walking until he reached Salamanca (a further 11 days). Such determination!
At 1pm in a 31 degree heat, after seven rather than six hours of walking, I arrived in Torremejía. (Put the accent on the final ee: toh-ray-mah-heee-ah).
The hostel host owns a bar as well, on Avenida Extremadura, but there was a family issue and it was closed that evening, so I sat in the one opposite and had a beer and wrote my notes. Useful info: the supermarket on the same street is shut for a long time between lunch and evening.
I did buy that bottle of wine I had promised myself, and I also invited the man in the above photo, plus a Dutch cyclist new on the scene, to join me. We had some surprisingly entertaining conversation, in divers languages, and it was very enjoyable to sit around the table with fellow travellers again as I had done so often on the Camino Frances.
For some reason the host kindly offered us a free breakfast when his bar reopened the next morning; it provided simple fare with generous portions and friendly service.
Tomorrow would be my last day on this leg of the 1000 kilometer Via de la Plata, so I would have to wait to see Salamanca another time.
Rojo-Plata bar. I had a free breakfast there but did not eat an evening meal https://www.tripadvisor.ie/Restaurant_Review-g7614464-d7986966-Reviews-Restaurante_Albergue_Rojo_Plata-Torremejia_Province_of_Badajoz_Extremadura.html
20.5.17 Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos, on the Via de la Plata Spanish Camino. 22kms – a nice sensible distance to walk after yesterday!
Last night I had wandered around Monesterio, shopping and having a beer, so I knew my way – or I thought I did. I got to the outskirts of town, stood in the middle of the road and scanned for yellow arrows which I had been following, retraced my steps and met a second solo female traveler, Yvette. It was 7.40am. She said I looked so confident that she had been following me! Together we found our way quickly and for the first time I had a companion.
She told me she was Slovakian, and she spoke good English, which was great as I have no Slovak. We established that we shared interests, chatting about complementary medicine and health-related matters, how the body manages stress, and of course why we were walking alone in Southern Spain. There was a good energy and we endeavoured to be mindful of our own body at the same time as sharing the way.
There were cows wearing bells, herds of goats and other animals. We walked past beautiful streams, grand trees, and there was a green peace all around us.
She spoke about the luxury of not having another person’s stuff to process, and we mused that in the past men went to war and many did not return. Now we divorce each other, so either way there are still a lot of women alone at the end of their lives.
In fact she was walking much more slowly than I was as she was not well. I slowed down for a time because of the pleasure of having company, but we agreed to separate after an hour and a half or so, so she could rest more.
Black winged birds with orange caps, and white throats and undersides were singing beside me. The fragrant shrub I had not managed to identify on the internet last night, so still thought of as a sort of broom, repeatedly attracted my attention with its so sweet smell.
After two hours the landscape had changed and there were no trees, although luckily there was a breeze. Quite a few lizards I did not quite see, scarpered at my approach.
I remembered that yesterday when I sat down to eat there was a grasshopper right by my left ear. Listening in this quiet place is one of the great pleasures of the Camino. I reflect that as a therapist I am familiar with listening to others. Attending work supervision, and being with friends enables me to be listened to. When I walk, however, I luxuriate in paying attention to the subtlety of nature and to myself.
I try listening under a tree away from the beating sun, but not for long as my sweaty back gets cold. I eat some sugary cakes to feed my muscles.
Even though I try to avoid ssuashing insects, unfortunately the scuttley spiders seem to change direction just before my foot descends, alerted by the earth moving as I walk towards them. Sadly they are therefore more likely to be stepped on. I spend some time thinking about fear.
I notice ants going up and down a tree – something new to me.
Both Christ and the Buddha walked and meditated. It seems to be something closely related to religion. I think it must be about contemplating ones behaviour and the habits of others, on the meaning of things.
There are empty husks, dry whispering beside me. Are they oats? They rustle and shine white-gold in the sunshine.
How do I know the smell of dust? It blows around me. Over and over again I breathe it in without noticing, until I recognise that it is the dust which smells like that, not the other things which we are there simultaneously. It is the same way I can smell snow in the air back home, and people are surprised. I think my father taught me to focus on smelling, as it was something he really appreciated. Despite being a smoker, he really enjoyed sniffing the roses at dusk, or inhaling the gentle scent of a child’s hair.
The grasshoppers, they were loud, louder, really loud as I got closer, and then their noise subsided and tailed off as I ambled on. It was the opposite and slower version of standing by a motorway as cars zoom past me.
I reminded myself that I do always know that I will get there eventually. I thought I must still be tired from yesterday if I needed reminding like that.
A tiny bird balanced on one ear of corn.
Where the trees were, I sat with my feet in the water to cool, and I listened and watched. I took my top off for airing. Then, when I was ready to go, Yvette came by and we found we had more things in common. We made plans to meet that evening before I toddled on. What a happy, golden corn, blue sky sort of a day it was.
Entering the near deserted town.
The last hour was really hard, hard work in the heat, and I stumbled off the edge of a pavement in Fuente de Cantos and twisted my ankle which was not at all like me. But round the corner was a patisserie with its sweet sugar smell, and a few doors up was an oasis. It did not look much from the road, but this was not the municipal albergue, rather, one I had seen advertised on the road. In fact I had picked up the last leaflet.
I wondered if I was in the right place because it looked like heaven. The door was open so I wandered through the great entrance hall into the courtyard. I sat by the fountain. I admired my surroundings. Of course I started to take photos, when out popped a man and offered me a drink. Most kind. So I had a seat (although I was very sweaty, in the 30 degree heat), and heard the water burbling and allowed the flowery aromas to waft around me, and exhaled.
What a find! I was, yes, you guessed it, the only person there, so I had the whole place to myself. Including the swimming pool which was great water therapy for my ankle. Of course, I had sent my bathing costume home on day 1, so it had to be underwear, but then again there was no-one to see me. Well only the owner and his dad pottering about the place. Oops!
I did walk out later to get some messages (used in Scotland to mean shopping) and it was a dusty and extremely hot walk to the edge of town to the supermercado. I visited the convent turned hostel which the others were staying in, both to see it and meet Yvette, but unfortunately she was nowhere to be seen, and I never saw her again. I did bump into the English cyclist who I had passed yesterday. He was looking for the post office to send his guitar home. He said he did not find that he had a need for it.
Shots of the town.
A glass or two of wine; the view from where I stayed; a lovely Madonna tile; and not everywhere was as smart.
There was a museum at the albergue, full of baskets, old farm machinery, and knick knacks. Fascinating.
Places to rest and recuperate as the temperature slowly cooled.
The downstairs bathroom and ceiling of the dormitory – all really attractively decorated.
Fuente de Cantos was the home of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), so I visited the museum. Not my cup of tea, but what a cutting figure he made!
19.5.17 day 4 Almaden de la Plata, through El Real, to Monesterio, on the Via de la Plata Spanish Camino. 35kms – crazy!
The Christmas lights were on in Almaden as I left the town after an over-confident decision to make a double day’s walking. It had actually been cold in the night and was cooler than normal as I walked out this morning. I wondered if it was because of the altitude.
So, in my last blog I noted that the east-west route for today was clear from the top of the hill, and I knew which side of me the sun should be. But, I was distracted by the goats and made a major mistake, the worst I have ever made in terms of time spent going in the wrong direction. I did not take the option on the left. If it is dark, fellow walkers, be careful! Note to self: I have to be extra watchful in mornings.
I had wanted to get a head-start: uncomfortably my competitve streak seemed to be coming out. I knew I was walking towards the rising sun, and that I should be going east to west, but I also thought I was right. However, just look! the mist was coming off the glassy water just as if it was an Enid Blyton magical pool.
Having reset my course, I continued on through this area of outstanding natural beauty, heading towards the Sierra Norte. There were sheep bells tinkling all around me (idyllic, I know), and I saw one of those huge black and white birds standing as still as if it was waiting until it understood what the world was all about.
I realise, however, that when you walk alone, you get the autonomy but no support.
The same birds as yesterday were ‘boh boh’, answering each other across the path in the early morning sunshine.
Walking, for me, is all about doing the work of sorting things out. The same themes of loneliness and relationships were on my mind this morning.
Yes, I knew I should have been heading , in that direction, but the little voice inside my head had to get very loud before I stopped and retraced my steps. It is something I have always hated doing, going back on myself. Is it because of the time and energy lost or what?
There were a whole lot more animals here than I had seen on the rest of the journey put together. Curly horned goats were eating voraciously, and pigs, sheep, chickens and even one lone peregrino.
Not that I was giving myself a hard time, but I do belive that it was a matter of the tortoise and the hare: I had been impetuous and mind-less, and, interestingly, it happened on a day when I had decided to do twice as many kilometers.
Anyway, I was going slowly, and without a doubt the smell had changed as the sun warmed the world up. There was more to sniff overall, less subtle, and, well, the beasts were ….pungent.
The rich, deep orange, red, and brown soil was so hard and so full of rocks, the drought had made great cleaves in it.
Time: there is simply getting through it, and just managing it. And then there is racing. This walk is supposed to be about sampling every moment and being in the world, being in place, so to speak, so that I can see what is around me in glorious technicolor. That is what I have given myself the opportunity to do.
Then from stage left, out of the scrub, comes the first solo peregrina, a woman also walking on her own. I nod hello and get no response so I leave her to herself.
Immediately I came across a huge flock of goats, tucked against the fence and around the gate, and guarded by one, no, two dogs. All was peaceful munching, dozing, and baa-ing. I moved through the throng, and was about to do the right thing and close the gate, when I picked up a change in energy and heard the goats starting to bleat, and then I saw that the dogs were on their feet. I looked and the female walker behind me was obviously scared. Her fear was transmitting to the animals – she was frozen.
I went back and accompanied her out and tried various languages to communicate, but she seemed to speak none of them, so I left her to her own pace and went on.
I reflect that this walking lark is a test of how I cope with thinking on my feet, how I deal with obstacles such as metal gates, goats or water blocking the way.
Pools of unfathomable beauty were reflective and languid. They made me want to stop and sit for ever.
In the middle of the park was the village of El Real, at 11am. It was a short stage of 15.5 kilometers, but tricky, especially if you get lost, are older, or have blisters.
But I did stop for a green tea (some of you will not be surprised), and some of my pack lunch, and the group of Italians I had originally been ahead of, and who obviously did not get lost, were there too.
The little village had a good array of shops, and I was able to buy bread and a few other things I needed. All in all, it was a necessary and welcome hiatus.
Then I was off again, up the steep hill and back into open country. There was a little queue of us, well spread out, and it was already very hot.
It was a long arduous climb, one that would have been at the beginning of the day rather than the hot middle, if I had slept at that place. Yesterday there was a short but very steep one and I was aware of my breathing as I climbed. Today it went on longer and I could feel my heart beating too.
I see the Buddha all around me sitting under trees as he was reputed to do.
The buzzing of a spaghetti junction of pylons as I walked under it helped raise my Ki at GV20, but if it happened for too long, I reckoned, the Yin would turn to Yang.
Then a different type of buzzing: frogs which I was told was grenouille by a French man imparting knowledge as he happened to pass by. He was going so fast he would not have noticed if I had not stopped him and his wife to delightedly point the noise out. I had been sitting silently having my snack and listening to their songs.
On through the Sierra Norte I walked, finding it hard without a guidebook to help me on my way. Looking down, I realised that, in this part of the world, even ants have shadows. I thought I would make that the name of my travel book if I ever write one. What do you think?
I move through a landscape of trees, wild flowers, and a mountain herd of cows, all a rich brown with horns and swishing tails. There were calves and two men on horseback herding them through. Seemed a peculiarly Spanish scene.
There was bullfighting on the tv in the cafe where I sat the night before last. In front of dignitaries, the waistcoats of the matadors were splendid, and their magenta swathes of cloaks were no doubt admired as swash-buckling, but I had to leave: it was devastating to watch.
I gave thanks for the wind.
I passed the man who ate tinned peas and carrots for tea and tinned fruit salad for breakfast as he sat by the roadside contemplating an empty can. I thought how it must be so heavy to carry them all.
Kilometer after kilometer I trek, the yellow fragrant broom-type plant making my path fragrant.
After the lovely Sierras the air is full of industrial noise, an acrid smell in my nose, and what with the searing heat and dust, and the fact that the Extremadura Road sign tells me I have a further 10kms to go, I am somewhat down-hearted.
How much better than the motorway, though still I have to admit it is really hard going.
There are little signposted paths, but you must look hard for some of them and there are almost dangerous parts, presumably to avoid the motorway. It was so very hot by now, and I took frequent tiny breaks. I think one of them was where I left my water bottle 😦
Why did I choose to do this long etape? I inevitably ask myself.
And then, at last, I was at the first roundabout of what turned out to be a largeish town: Monesterio. That is something worth noting: if you do not have a book, nor able to use the internet, you do not know whence you are heading, and it is therefore always a surprise – in my case always a good one!
Once again, there was a long walk to the municipal albergue, an ex-convent, and it was not at all straightforward. Up half of the cowboy-film-style main street I went – the sign directed me to the left – and through the small streets I wound, asking people if I saw any, although it was all but deserted at this hour, tracing and retracing my steps until I arrived.
The lone Italian woman was next door, we shared a bathroom, which flooded at the easiest opportunity, and she was not happy with any of it.
There was a large courtyard out the back, I really mean huge, which as far as I could tell belonged to another building. At the top of a tower which I could see from my bedroom, there was a gigantic nest, but there were no birds visible.
Do you know what? In the kitchen there was a machine which dispensed tea bags. Never seen anything like it. It even had green tea!
12.11.16 – 13.11.16 Foncebadon to Molinaseca 19.5km; Molinaseca to Pieros 21.1km
It was a cloudy start from Foncebadon this happy Saturday.
‘Daytime never starts with an act of will: it arises in unworried certainty. To walk in the early morning is to understand the strength of natural beginnings.’ (p.98).
I relished in the green lushness after the rain, which highlighted the autumn reds and orange.
Cruz de Ferro (Hierro) is an important cross marking the highest point of the Camino Frances at 1517m, with its little chapel and enormous pile of meaningful stones, placed by pilgrims over the years. There are no public toilets along the path, and long gaps between bars (where you must buy something in order to use the facilities), so, sadly, there is always white paper behind these charming buildings.
It was to be a smaller number of kilometers that day, but a steep ascent to Manjarin, with quite a surprising welcome when we arrived. In fact, quite one of the most unusual situations I have ever been in.
An (almost) abandoned village, Manjarin has one inhabitant, and his abode is decorated with insignia from all over the world, prayer flags, and messages in many languages. He welcomes walkers in to his warm ‘cave’. Leaving the light and moving into the dark, it’s initially impossible to see and there’s a musty scent. Then the passage opens out into a wide room, like something out of Robin Hood, with a rustic, bright fire and circular, wooden table, around which sit two men dressed as Knights with the red Templar cross on their tunics.
We are offered, and I drink, for the first time in perhaps 25 years, a (caffeinated) coffee. There are snacks and as our eyes get accustomed to the dimness, there is plenty to see around the walls. We listen to their chatter as they incongruously show each other photos on their mobile phones.
On the way out, we are invited to join a ceremony at the altar containing a statue of the Virgin and lots of Camino shells, and I am given a flag to hold, while one man reads a moving prayer (in Spanish) for peace and harmony amongst all peoples.
We descend almost 500m that afternoon, mist swirling around, with breath-taking views, through the mountain village of El Acebo de San Miguel (means, Saint Michael’s holly) in upper El Bierzo, and down to Molinaseca. I can smell the damp, decaying landscape, and feel the droplets on my face as I tramp. There’s the dry shush of copper leaves as I keep to the softer edges to avoid the tarmac. My feet have become so sensitised that I fancy I can feel each stone through my soles, but at least after all this time my feet have hardened and are blister-free. Most of the trees have lost their leaves at this altitude, although withered blackberries remain on the brambles.
There were trees with silver lichen and scarlet, rotund seed heads; and dry, beige grasses reminiscent of the Scottish hills. Village streets wound round stone dwellings with sturdy wooden balconies, seemingly deserted except for, here and there, washing hanging out to dry in the grey day. Even without the sun, the wooded slopes of the valleys were spectacular as the clouds hung among them.
Molinaseca has a comparatively large population of 800, surprising after the day’s rural walk, with it’s handsome church and bridge, and where we stayed at the municipal dormitory as usual, with its bunks, wooden floor and steel beams.
The sky cleared as we slept, revealing a blue morning.
And an hour later we entered Ponferada, on the river Sil, with its imposing monastery, castellated and turreted. It’s the official end of the Camino Frances and the start of the Camino Santiago, but you would not know that as you walked through.
The road continued through yellow glades, over ancient stone bridges, and past single storey, white stone, one-room buildings with dark grey slate rooves. There were more cranes nests on top of council-erected poles, and ‘authentic’ murals showing monks and pilgrims striding out. The path widened and flattened, and the mountains were once again in the distance. We passed through Cacabelos without stopping, the end of the day’s trek now nearby, and up another very steep incline, to Pieros.
This tiny hostel Casa Sol y Luna was an alternative to the norm, with it’s meditation room upstairs and cosy dining room down. The hospitalier was most attentive, drying my knickers in front of the stove, and accompanying me to see the massive harvest moon I had seen heralded on Facebook (but impossible to photograph with a mere phone camera)!
The walls of the small dorm were like outdoors indoors, where you can see the grouting between the stones. We spent time gossiping over which enthusiastic youths lived here, who was sleeping with whom (was she creeping off in the middle of the night to avoid the snoring, or for a tryst with the lascivious gentleman?), and I translated the gushing messages in the visitor’s book for the owner (all about stars and angels – it was that kind of place). We had a delicious vegan meal with wine in situ as it was a Sunday (no shops open), and there was much warmth, song and laughter at the table that night.
All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
Thanks to Alain for taking beautiful photos.
A fellow walker’s blog http://www.caminosantiagodecompostela.com/camino-de-santiago-frances/part-3-leon-santiago/24-astorga-molinaseca/
The famous shell, symbol of the Camino, the Way, which runs from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in north western Spain, with an optional extra wander to Finnistere.
I could have started at the beginning and walked straight through to the end. After all I had the time, but it took a while for the fear that I wouldn’t manage the miles, and the weight of my rucksack, to be assailed. So I did some practices, left a lot of stuff with the delightful Carmen (Shiatsu practitioner) in Pamplona, travelled close to Uterga by bus, and began to walk from there.
I begin! 2pm Lagarda.
I walked to Mucuzbal, all the way worrying, and then reassuring myself, that I would be ok, even though I didn’t know what was ahead. I was grateful that I had been practicing that for a while. The inevitable wrong turns reminded me of my habit of going back into the house a few times before leaving proper.
As I cross the first main road and cars zoom by, I am realise that I started my Spanish adventures on a boat, which is so much slower than going by air, and now I am taking an hour to get somewhere I could get to by car in a few minutes. I like it – that’s what I came here for!
Santa Maria de Eunate is perfectly blended into the landscape. It’s scorchinghot and I was mighty glad to take my backpack off.
I walk through olive groves, past almond trees, alongside acres of gleaming red peppers, and by slopes of maize. There are villages with their church spires on little hills in the distance, white wind turbines along the high edges between sky and forest, and fennel growing everywhere. The first taste of its seeds is of sweet aniseed, then green juiciness in my mouth, and finally the strong essential oil perforates my sinuses.
The end of summer leaves the routes bleached, with muted colours of brown, yellow and dusty green against the strong blue sky.
I have of course internalised the donkey, and am starting to get used to the best way of tightening the straps of my rucksack and relieving back strain. Several little bubbles of happiness move from my centre (Hara in Shiatsu) upwards, a signal that I’m doing the right thing.
I arrive in Puente de la Reina, the monastery hostel for peregrinos (the name for people who walk the Camino) at 5pm, and pay 5€ for a dormitory bed. I shop and cook alongside the others, and before I know it I am giving foot Shiatsu to the lovely girl who offered to share her chickpeas with me. Guess what? Early to bed and only slightly footsore!
The very early car journey from Santander to Aviles was spectacular. The sun rose orange behind us as we passed through beautiful ancient villages, huge imposing mountains, and industrial factories spewing much gunk.
My first hour-long walk with all the stuff on my back was from Aviles to Salinas on the same northern coast of Spain, but further West of Santander. It was a Google maps walk which means it was efficient (I didn’t get lost), but all on tarmac.
I was carrying what I hoped would be enough, but not too much, for 3 months – information gleaned from the web and the Camino book my friend, colleague and experienced walker, Liz leant me. I am likely to walk through 3 seasons, and this initial amble when my hips, feet, and knees all ached, immediately impressed upon me that I can’t carry that much for up to 8 hours on the Camino de Santiago otherwise, known as the Camino de Peregrinos (pilgrims).
Thus began the process of letting go of what I believed I needed, probably a metaphor for the mental process too. I left things at hostels and friend’s houses and I sent some back home, some forwards to be there later in the year.
I walked past a mix of the industrial type of area you get on the outskirts of a town, past prettily coloured and elegantly balconied residencies, and beautifully kept front gardens with both larger versions of the sorts of plants I am familiar, with as well as ones which don’t thrive in the UK. I stopped to buy a croissant for breakfast and the woman in the shop, like all the oh-so-friendly people I have come across, wanted to know where I was from and where I was going.
Montse, a newly qualified Shiatsu practitioner, met me in the hot sun and took me to her flat where we started the process of getting to know each other, she often in English, me in Spanish. We spoke about being a mother, and about the age children get to when they are part independent and part dependent. I gave my third Shiatsu session and enjoyed it. All of them felt spacious and it was great to be swapping for such amazing hospitality.
The beach at Salinas is another surfer’s paradise and it was warm enough for me to sun bathe on the wonderful swathe of golden sand and watch. I don’t know anything about surfing, but usually people seem to head straight into the beach, whereas one impressive guy skimmed on top of a single wave parallel to the shore for what seemed like miles.
It may be something to do with the Shiatsu folk I stayed with, but I was served fresh and local produce wherever I went. One of the first new words I learned from Manolo, who I stayed with in Santander, was huerte meaning vegetable garden, and their fresh tomato salad was muy rica (‘delicious’. Thanks Iris for teaching me this in my Spanish classes!). Montse, her mum, and I picked apples and lemons, and gathered nettles and mint for infusions from an orchard in the hills outside the town. We has fresh figs, black carrots, and walnuts; merluza (fish, hake); home-made marmalade, and drank cidra (cider), which this area is especially well-known for (not all in the same meal).
Montse did her Shiatsu training with Gill, my principle Spanish contact, in Aviles, and we moved back and forth several times between there and Salinas when she worked and I engaged in sightseeing or where I taught my first Shiatsu workshop. Aviles is the subject of the next blog!