Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada
I wake with my left knee throbbing. There is a trigger point nearly as large as a 20 cent sphere lodged in the tendons beside my knee cap. We pack our bags and head out of our room, hmmmm I can only walk down the stairs one at a time. My right knee which has been plaguing me for the last eighteen months has suddenly become my strong knee.
Luckily my right knee is feeling stronger every day and for the last two days has been almost pain free. I hope it stays that way for the twenty one kilometers we have to walk today.
We set off through Najera and find the Camino arrows again. We wind our way through the outskirts of the town with red cliffs towering to our right. The road out of town is steep uphill and soon we leave the bitumen and follow a gravel road.
We pass a sign stating it is 582 kilometers to Santiago. We had passed a sign yesterday saying it was 576 kilometers to Santiago about 20 km back from where we are now and I ask Pam ‘if we are walking backwards’. As we had stopped trusting distance signs long ago we just hitch up our backpacks and carry on.
We crest the hill and find ourselves back in wine country. We walk for kilometers through fields of grave vines interspersed with fallow fields full of golden stubble and stacked 6 string hay bales.
My knee is singing on every downhill no matter how slight however the flats and uphills are fine. The Camino is all country gravel roads so far today and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
As we approach the village Azofra we fall into step with a German woman and we have breakfast together in the village.
As we made our way out of Azofra we pass a Spanish man leading a heavily laden donkey in the other direction. We feel the donkey’s pain for we have both been beasts of burden for many days now.
The Camino rejoins the bitumen road for a couple of kilometers after Azofra and I am relived when we peel away again on gravel country roads making their way between fields towards the village Ciruena. We begin to climb gently and from a long way out I can see the first major rise for the day, with pilgrims far ahead of us looking like ants climbing the white gravel path. The iphone picture just cannot capture the scope of the moment.
Just before the real slope begins there is a large stack of hay bales with a single tree. A few pilgrims have stopped in the shade of the tree and are sitting on an old blue painted farm roller. Other than the ground there is no where else to sit and one of the pilgrims suggests we go into the shade of the haystack.
We think ‘oh that’s a good idea’ until we get there and see the flags of toilet paper waving everywhere.
The other pilgrims are leaving when we return holding our noses, so we sit on the roller in the shade eating fruit and listening to water trickling down the hillside in the drain beside us. Despite our aches and pains life is very good.
Striding up the hill ahead I realise how much fitter I have become since we left Australia. We only stop once to take pictures of the view from whence we came, not from lack of breath.
Just over the top of the rise a couple of enterprising young guys have set up a stand selling drinks and bread with jam. They have a few signs out saying they get no money from the government and they would rather do this than steal.
Pam buys a lemonade and we pause for a rest at the stone and wood seats lying just beyond the young men’s stand.
I see a sign to one side of the rest stop that cracks me up, I take pictures and show Pam. Both of us wish there were many other signs like this along the Camino.
The way into Ciruena passes the driving range of an eighteen hole golf course. Headlines such as ‘Aussie Camino Pilgrim felled by wayward yellow golf ball’ pass through my mind however everyone is driving long and true today. We stop for lunch at the golf club which serves passing pilgrims and have fried potato pieces with three different dipping sauces. Delicious.
One of our day one companions from Orisson, a lovely German lady Keirsten has also had lunch here and we chat for a while before she leaves ahead of us.
Like many other countries Spain had a massive real estate boom right before the 2008 financial crash and I had read of ‘Ghost Towns’ of quickly constructed units and houses left un-financed and uninhabited on completion.
Ciruena is such a village and the walk down streets with weed filled lawns and empty dwellings is eerie. We pass a single teenage girl on a deserted street and say Hola. There are parklands and swimming pools without children. Shivers run down my spine and I would not have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow past like in an old western.
Just past the ‘ghost town’ section we walk through the ‘old Ciruena’. Here there is a community garden with older locals chatting. The buildings are rough and made of cement bound old stones that have stood the test of time, with red terra-cotta tiles edged like half moons covering the roofs.
Old and alive beats young and dead.
The gravel road ahead is long, straight and undulating. For kilometers we walk between fields of golden stubble making good time despite my troubles on the downhills.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada can be seen from the final crest down a long two stage downhill run. My beloved Pacerpoles are bearing a lot of weight on the downhills today as I move like some crippled android.
Just on the outskirts of the town we run into Keirsten again, she is eating an orange and in true Camino fashion offers us some. We walk together into town and Keirsten sees a small bird that may have been hit by a car shivering on the roadside. She demonstrates her kind heart by picking the bird up and carrying it with her to the Alburque to see if something can be done.
We make our way to our hotel which is a converted monastery run by nuns. The nuns obviously still live here for we walk through private waiting rooms full of diverse eclectic furnishings ranging from simple wooden seats to velvet plush covered chaise lounges on the way to our simple room.
The shower in our room is so small that I barely fit in and recovering a dropped soap bar would be impossible.
We shower and rest and head into town to do our daily laundry. We have been told there is a launderette in town and we find a tiny room with two washing machines, two dryers and a long queue.
We decide to have some drinks waiting and run into our German friends Keirsten, Varena and Monica again. Varena is having Achilles Tendon problems and thinks she is going to catch the bus to Burgos the following day and then go home.
Drinking, washing, drinking, drying, drinking…..the pilgrims life is simple and soused.
Spanish towns come to life after 7:00pm. We walk to the town square and church that is famous for keeping a live rooster and hen inside the cathedral.
The Cathedral also has an unusual design with the clock tower and spire housed in a three times built, twice destroyed, building that is separate to the cathedral itself.
The legend associated with the town since the eleventh century is that a young german pilgrim wrongly convicted and hung was restored to life in a miracle attributed to St Dominic. Simultaneously with the restoration of life to the pilgrim a cooked chicken jumped off the judge’s dinner plate and crowed.
Having the rooster crow whist inside the Cathedral assures pilgrims good luck on their journey.
We have a very plain pilgrims meal (my chicken did not reanimate) hurriedly cooked by stressing nuns at nine that night. My knee is still painful and we have decided on at least two shorter days walking to enable me to recover.
We have not seen a double bed since Orisson and I toss and turn with aching knees in my single bed all night.
Pam sleeps like a log.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Redecilla del Camino
We leave Santo Domingo following the bitumen road and cross the Rio Oja via the Puente del Santo which is a fancy bridge spanning a wide river that has no water.
We walk for kilometers beside the highway before taking a smaller bitumen road heading for the village Granon.
The road from Granon to Redecilla del Camino winds through rural fields of sunflowers and golden stubble. Between these two villages we travel from the La Rioja area of Spain and enter the Castilla y Leon region.
We make Redicilla del Camino in a few hours and decide to stop here allowing a long afternoon drinking, chatting with passing pilgrims (Keith from Canada) and catching up with the blog to assist with my knee recovery.
We stay at a little hotel which is the only one in town. The single beds have super comfortable foam mattresses which remind me of our glorious bed back in Rochedale.
The pilgrims dinner is cooked by the mom and son running the hotel. I have the ‘house speciality’ potato and chorizo soup which is delicious.
I have spent the afternoon and evening grinding down the trigger point in my knee however I am still having trouble walking downstairs.
‘Single bed, sa sa sa single bed’
‘There ain’t no room, for your sweet head’
Redecilla del Camino to Belorado
I had suggested an early morning start. Pam one ups me and sets the alarm for 5:45am. It is 6:30am and still completely dark by time we leave Redecilla de Camino with trucks thundering down the highway and fixing us like trembling rabbits in their headlights.
The 280 lumen torch finds its way to Pam’s hand again as she mutters about how stupid I am for making her get up so early. I gently remind her that she choose to set the alarm so early however she is having none of it and strides off with the torch, leaving me to stumble along behind knowing I have no chance of catching her.
I have good night vision and have no trouble making out the path ahead as we follow gravel service roads along the highway. It is still predawn twilight as we pass through the village Castildegado.
Other than a short detour through the village Viloria de Rioja, where Pam takes a photo of a road sign that has been funnily graffitied, our way today is beside the highway on service roads.
At one stage we see a single man deftly operating a Kato equipped with hydraulic jaws constructing a rock wall alongside the highway. Spanish soil is full of rocks and stones, we have walked past many many kilometers of vineyards planted in soils I would have thought too rocky to farm at home. Houses and walls are built from local stones and rather than the concrete so ubiquitous in roadworks in Australia retaining walls are built from jigsaws of massive stone pieces.
This guy is a skillful operator picking up single stones from a heap dumped beside his Kato, placing each one where it will best fit, then gently nudging it into place.
I could have watched him work for quite some time however Pam is striding off into the distance. I can’t let her get too far in front or I can never catch her.
The rest of our walk is along unremarkable service roads beside the highway towards Belorado.
We stay in Belorado in a private room of the first Albergue we come across as we enter the town. It is still morning by the time we have arrived.
We walk about town once we have showered and done our laundry. The town sits beneath a massive rock formation that towers above one of the town’s churches. This church itself is home to large bird nests that cling to its steeples.
The Camino way through Belorado is marked with brass plates imprinted with casts of one hand print and one shoe print of important people to the town.
There are casts from many olympians and politicians unknown to us along with the hand and shoe prints of the actor Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez.
We return to our room for some rest and set out for the town square later in the afternoon for drinks and dinner. The square which was largely deserted earlier in the day is now jumping. The centre is full of children climbing and kicking soccer balls while their parents have a drink and socialise.
We join in with the mix,have a few drinks and watch Spanish evening life spin about us before going upstairs to the restaurant to have a meal.
While we are eating I notice a clock in front of me showing the incorrect time. The second hand jerks up without moving forwards, the minute and hour hands stay immobile. I point this out to Pam and she looks around the room where there are many other clocks all showing different times with no hands moving. We start counting the clocks in the room and have got to about thirty when the waitress, who speaks no English, writes down on our table cloth that there are 80 clocks all showing the incorrect time with second hands jerking in the two floors of the establishment.
Tonight we dine in a room where conversation flows forward whilst time stands still.
Belorado to Villafranca de Montes de Oca.
We follow the imprints of the rich and famous through Belorado passing the John Lennon Bar and some interesting graffiti. The Camino takes us away from the main road shortly after leaving town (YAY) and we stride off into the morning following the white gravel roads between fields of sunflowers and stubble.
Even the sunflowers are showing us the way to Santiago.
We have a break at Tosantos for a Cafe con Leche for Pam and march on.
Being away from the highway has us both in good spirits, my knee is improving and we are making good time.
Coming up to the next village Villambistia Pam regales me with information regarding the legendary fountain of Fuente de los Pere Gringos. Apparently if an exhausted pilgrim dips their head into this fountain they will receive the strength to continue their journey to Santiago.
Well I am exhausted and I need all the strength I can muster and then some so I am definitely dunking my scone.
When we arrive at the fountain of legend we find four pipes spilling into an algae filled octagonal basin. Much to the mirth of the locals I dunk my sweaty head deep. Pam is not quite so brave/foolish and more sedately lets the running water from one of the pipes spill over her head.
I feel immediately revitalised. That algae is good tucker.
We rest again at a cafe in Espinosa del Camino. There is a young surly boy sitting writing lines in some old school method of punishment outside. As we sit a van selling bread winds through the little town beeping its horn furiously. The van comes to a stop, after doing the rounds, at the cafe and older locals come from their houses to buy bread.
We march on towards Villafranca Montes de Oca, the fields now all winnowed stubble waiting to be baled.
As we walk shots ring out, bang, bang, bang, and we look up startled. A man with two hounds is shooting quail as they fly startled from the lines of fallen grass.
As ever when I feel death circling near me my thoughts turn inwards and I meditate for a long period as we pace. Death is the true advisor.
Lines from my long poem ‘The Tyrants Temple’ pass through my mind.
That which you possess, possesses you as it’s slave
Unto possessive progeny slavery disperses, disguised as pleasure
Here on the Camino we have only our boots and backpack, the blue sky and each other.
Halfway between the last village and our destination we crest the final ascent for the day. The view whence we came is magnificent and fantasies of future horizons draw us ever onwards.
Down the slope leading to the river flats of the Rio Oca we see the last remaining ruins of the Monasterio de San Felices.
Crossing a narrow footbridge over the Rio Oca we enter Villafranca Montes de Oca which is a little town spread on each side of the highway.
Our accommodation for the night is the Hotel San Anton Abad which is a beautifully renovated original pilgrims hospital from 1377. Judge by the following photo’s how tough the pilgrim’s life is. Also note the two single beds.
We have arrived by 1:00pm and lunch begins at 2:00pm so we shower and launder before going back to the restaurant for a fancy pilgrims lunch and bottle of Vino tinto.
We are so full after lunch we decide we will just eat fruit for dinner. Sight seeing in the town was completed in five minutes and we join some locals at one of the two bars for drinks.
We have read the next part of the Camino can be difficult so we are in bed before the sun has set at nine. For the first time since leaving Australia we turn a television on and watch the end of an old romantic Spanish film.
We make up the dialogue.
Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega
Breakfast at the hotel is included so we eat well before we set off. The Camino passes right by the hotel so it is simply a matter of walking out the front gates and turning right and we are back on the path.
I rapidly wish I had not eaten such a large breakfast for the way is steep and rough and within seconds I am sweating despite the cool air.
‘Onwards and ever upwards’ I sing as each pace takes us up towards the clouds which are heavy, dark and low.
The stubble fields give way to forests, green and moist, that are obviously used to having clouds draped about them and soon we are just below the cloud line itself. Purple heather like flowers line the path.
There is something magical about walking up into a cloud, Pam and I both comment on the joy we feel as the mist swirls thicker and thicker with each ascending step.
The path is now a wide gravel road, the cloud dampens sounds as it lifts spirits. Our footsteps are muffled and the air is still, serene. I inhale deeper with each breath sinking moist air down to my Dan Tian.
Such a glorious morning to be walking beside the one I love.
The wild forest is replaced by planted pine forest as we cross the highest point and make our way slowly down from the heavenly mist.
We pause beside a monument devoted to the fallen from the Spanish Civil war. The English translation of the dedication ‘Their deaths were not useless, only their executions by firing squad’.
A steep example of the Pilgrims Law of Undulation passes beneath our feet, my left knee is coming back to strength and though I still feel the strain of the descent there is no real pain. The following ascent has us breathing hard however we press on.
To our right suddenly a gap in the trees lets us see to our right, wind turbines that the previous day lay half covered by the crest we have just overcome. Yesterday we could see blades pierce the sky from below the hilltop, today blades descend like octopus tentacles from the cloud that covers the turbines.
We fall into step with an Irish girl Ger and chat like old old friends as the way takes us down into San Juan de Ortega.
She is going on to at least the next town and leaves us in the small village (population 10-20).
We sit for a while at the bar for the 12km walk has only taken us two and a half hours and it is far too early to check in to the delightful hotel where we are staying.
At the table where we are sitting there is a young couple. We get to chatting and it turns out the girl Chelsea is from Western Australia and her companion Vince is French but is now living with Chelsea in WA. We enjoy a coffee and conversation with them until they leave for the next town.
A fellow pilgrim from Sydney, Phillip, who we met at the restaurant of 80 clocks and who we have seen several times since, resurfaces here and joins us for a chat.
I have just pulled the ipad out to try to get the blog up to date when our old friends Marte and Elma from the Netherlands roll up and sit with us. We are joking and swapping tales of our homelands like the very best of friends until they also get up to leave.
As previously staded, shared pain makes for fast friends.
We make our way to our hotel at last, laundry and douching completed. Now we have some time to spend bringing this bloody blog up to date.
Thank you for your patience gentle reader, for these last blogs have been overlong.
We shall do our best to provide ‘live feed’ from now on.
Mick & Pam