No evening passed without a cervesa or two and at least the regulation half bottle of vino tinto. It was more than I’d drink at home but after a long day on the road it felt about the right dose.
And, just as alcohol was essential in the evening, we drank water by the litre through the day, regularly filling up at the well marked fuentes.
Only once did I join some local workmen in a coffee liqueur with their early morning café con leche. They convinced me it would give me more strength “mas fuerte” for the day so I slugged back “El elfilador” and needed more stops today than I’d ever needed before!
The biggest mistake we made was underestimating how much water we’d need for the long hot slog over the mesata from Calzadilla to Reliegos. It was just over 18km from Calzadilla but we had already walked 13km from Sahagún and the sun was high in the sky when we set out. The heat was vicious and there was no shade either so I changed into long sleeves. And the blister on my little toe was starting to make itself felt.
Our water bottles were dry before we had even reached half way so the next 10km were really hard going and on arriving in Reliegos we were desperate for fluids. We walked straight to the bar and when the barmaid saw our red sweaty faces she immediately filled huge glasses with ice, water and refrescos. So that’s what dehydration and heat exhaustion feels like. It was a silly mistake to make.
But what a great evening we had with Patrick and Andreas, two men we teamed up with at the albergue. The food in the bar was delicious, the company first class and the wine? Oh, that helped with the hydration too.
There was this great theory (possibly mine) that sleeping out under the stars would be a romantic way to see the sunset. It would also make a refreshing change from sleeping in a stuffy albergue! So once we reached Carrión (having already walked 35km that day) we stocked up on chocolate, fruit and a box of vino tinto, walked another 7km into wheat fields then climbed up high onto the top of a stack of straw bales. And waited.
So far the theory was working out. But as we sipped wine from the box and waited for the last glimpse of the sun, the wind howled around us and the temperature plummeted.
There’s no denying the sunset was spectacular but by the time there was only a red glow on the horizon there was absolutely no warmth up on the exposed bales, even wearing all our clothes inside our summer sleeping bags. We were shivering and it was only 8.30pm. A long sub zero night was looming.
So we climbed down, I wrapped my sleeping bag round my shoulders and we limped towards that glow in the sky for 10 long, cold kilometers, all the way west, along the original Roman road to Caldadilla de la Cueza.
It was 10.30pm when we finally saw the lights of the town. I’d been on the road for 17 hours, albeit with several (over)long rests. We hadn’t faced wolves or robbers or any of the other dangers that haunted the Medieval pilgrims but we had got a hint of real discomfort on the way.
It had been an adventure though. It had been worth it.
A bright harvest moon back lit the dramatic convent ruins of San Antón. It was 5.30am and a stunning photo op – if only my camera battery wasn’t dead.
Then it was just 2½ km to Castrojerez for coffee and tostada. We filled our water bottles at a fuente at the end of the long narrow town and plodded steadily to the top of the 900ft hill of Mostelares and scrambled steeply down again. The walking was easy then, for some of us at least. Many feet were a terrible mess of serious deep blisters by now, others had tendon injuries and had to opt out for a few days.
Many of us stopped that night just another 10km further on at the oasis which was the En El Camino albergue in Boadilla del Camino. There was a peoaceful green courtyard garden here, ice cream, a pool for weary feet and a selection of beds in different corners of the outbuildings. Ada and I found places in real beds (not bunks!) up a rickety ladder near Irish John, pooled our resources and used a proper washing machine then relaxed in the garden until a lighthearted dinner (with delicious fish – a departure from the usual menu) with speed walking/talking Italians and Canadians.
Ada and I decided to leave early. We set our alarms for 5am.
So there we were, boots off, savouring an orange and slugging water on the wide open meseta. The road was empty, the early afternoon sun hot and high in the cloudless sky. There was plenty of time to rest and take stock before making the final push for the town of Hontanas, deep in the heart of the wheat fields.
And then they appeared: hordes of them on the horizon, surprisingly clean-looking, determined pilgrims in groups of a dozen or more walking at a furious pace. We sat and gaped at first then eventually realized the limited bed spaces would be rapidly filling up so laced up our boots and quickly followed the crowds.
We discovered later that buses from Burgos had been seen depositing loads of 30 or more walkers at a time on nearby roads. From there it was a quick walk into Hontanas, a few beers and a cheap bed for the night on a super short 24 hour long “pilgrimage”! We secured some of the last beds in town then sat at a table in the square for the rest of the afternoon, massaging tired feet and watching more and more friends arrive. Soon the table had expanded to welcome pals we hadn’t seen in a week or more.
It was time to rehydrate on beer, share stories and eat well.
Many of the “essential packing” lists I consulted before leaving for Spain recommended taking clothes pegs or large safety pins. I ignored them all, figuring I’d get by without the extra few grams of weight and oh, how I came to envy people their pegs! I could only drape my essential laundry over the wires with a serious risk that it would be blown into the dust.
And at Tardajos I was late in getting my laundry done. The fierce drying heat of the sun had faded by the time I had hung it out so had to leave the next morning wearing wet socks and underwear. Not a great start to the day.
It had been another entertaining evening though. An old, long-bearded, pilgrim called Pedro (who referred to himself as Bin Laden) hung around the dusty outdoor bar area with his dog for a few hours. He had done the Camino nine times, he said, walking both ways. Eventually, after tipping a tin of dog food onto a newspaper for the young lab, he set off into the night.
In the morning it was time to set out on to the glorious meseta for five days of vast open spaces, searing heat, little shade and spectacular walking.
Many people had written about hating this stage of the road. I was sure pretty soon that I was going to love it.
I’d promised my feet this was going to be a rest day but I don’t think they entirely believed me.
Sightseeing was top of the agenda, specifically Burgos Cathedral which dominates the centre of the city. It’s one of Spain’s biggest, a magnificent gothic building modelled on Notre Dame in Paris but with a lot of add-on chapels paid for by local bigwigs over the ages which make it look a bit lumpy and squat from the outside.
Inside it’s grand, lavish and impressive and I sat for a long time in a pew, writing my journal and reflecting on what medieval pilgrims would have made of this place as they walked towards it and entered through the grand doors.
The art and architecture created to glorify God is ornate and spectacular. I wondered however if stopping here fortified pilgrims as much as a simple, intimate parish church like Grañón? And if (as I did) they sat in this vast space in their humble clothes and questioned the significance of such opulence after the glorious solitude of the mountains, the dust of the road and making do with very little but the pack on their backs? Or if they were totally overawed and even more inspired to continue their journey to Santiago after stopping to worship in these surroundings?
My feet were itchy. I collected my backpack from the luggage store in the Cathedral Office, changed back into my boots, applied some sun cream and put on my hat. It was 4pm, late in the day to be setting out, but my camino buddy had saved me a bunk in Tardajos just 10km away and I was ready to leave the noise of the city streets and be within striking distance of the fabled Meseta the following morning.
Once through the suburbs, I had the path all to myself and didn’t see another pilgrim in the two hours it took to walk to Tardajos. But I found a message scribbled in the sand that made me smile and hurried me on my way.
There would be a large cervesa waiting at the albergue for sure.
Trudging over three wooded hills didn’t look like a fun start to the morning but Tasmanian Devil Scott made my day by calling out and offering me a cup of coffee from his brew on the last summit, near the Monumento de los Caídos, the simple monument to the fallen fighters of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. I wouldn’t see Scott for another couple of weeks, till we bumped into one another on my last evening in Santiago.
I walked alone then, through villages and along the edge of busy roads, passing the prehistoric Atapuerca caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site where human remains dating back 900,000 years had been discovered. I promised myself I’d return some day then headed off the road and climbed a long rough track all the way up to Cruicero, The Cross, at a bare, rocky 3510ft with a view to the faraway city of Burgos. I drank the last of my water here then plodded wearily on.
Walking through the endless, deserted industrial estates and the perimeter of Burgos airport where there was no shade or water fountains was a grim experience and I was sorely tempted by a shout from across the road from Brian and Elaine, ensconced in a bar, but knew I’d struggle to ever start again if I stopped. Finally, entering the city gates, I found the welcome sign of the scallop shells inlaid in the cobbles leading to the Municipal Hostel where friends had arranged to gather, only to find it was “completo”. Full.
It’s hard to walk for 12 hours focused on a goal only to have it snatched away at a reception desk as you stand there, dripping in sweat, with an aching, exhausted body. But “the Camino provides” and, as always, after a shower we had a great evening, easily summoning the energy to limp the streets, check out a few bars and sit down to a good meal (the strange custardy dessert notwithstanding) before crashing.
It had been a big day.