The Little Yellow Arrow

~ Camino de Santiago part 1: from Burgos to Calzadilla de la Cueza ~

We came to Madrid late on the evening we left Morocco and successfully navigated to a backpacker hostel in the old part of town aptly named ‘The Way’ (no association with the Camino). We pulled ourselves out of bed the following morning and caught a bus to Burgos, choosing to bring our bodies back up to speed by
Burgos Cathedral
sleeping en route. Burgos seemed a ghost town upon our arrival. Making our way to the cathedral, we saw nothing but closed shops and a few pedestrians with which to share the afternoon. Siesta; we had forgotten all about the Spanish custom of an afternoon rest and were shocked at how institutionalized it seemed. After visiting a local cafĂ© and asking after the bookshop, we learned of our folly and were directed to the municipal albergue. These hostels were established for the sole use of pilgrims traveling to Santiago. This one is rather large and modern, maintained by The Friends of the Camino in cooperation with the City of Burgos. The albergue’s hospitalero (warden) issued us the credentials that would be required to stay in pilgrim hostels along the way and directed us to our beds. Bare mattresses in two of the hundreds of bunked beds that lined a cavernous hall were assigned to us. The room smelled of sweat and fatigue, a scent that would become as much a part of us as it had the pilgrims who occupied our room. They had been walking toward Santiago for weeks now and deserved the right to stink.

We left our bags in the albergue and made our way back to the bookshop at 5:00 that evening, the time that siesta was coming to an end. B suggested that we purchase a guidebook and I agreed given our earlier confusion. Who knows what other cultural institutions may confound us in the future? The guide book would prove to be one of the best decisions we made on this journey. After the bookshop we picked up a few provisions from a grocer and headed back to the hostel for some sleep. Fatigue was still heavy on our heads and we were eager to start on the Camino as early as possible.

The Meseta
Rising before the sun, we had a small breakfast of bread and cheese before walking out into Burgos. We planned on getting to the bank the moment they opened in order to exchange money and walk out of town. This saw us on the Camino around 8:30 as the air was just starting to warm up. Our first day of walking was peaceful. The game was to find the little yellow arrows that marked out the path through urban and rural landscapes. We started talking with a few other pilgrims under one such arrow in the small village of Rabe de las Calzados and kept company over the last few kilometers to Hornillos del Camino, our destination for the night. Rain met us on our way into Hornillos and we left our friends behind in our haste to make the albergue. We arrived damp and cold yet relieved to find the small stone municipal hostel heated with a warm fire. Removing my shoes revealed the first blister of our walk, owed to breaking in a new pair of trail runners. A luke warm shower became an immense source of comfort and afterwards I threaded the blister to drain. Across a cobbled street we enjoyed our first three-course menu del dia (meal of the day) as the rain continued outside, returning to find two of our new acquaintances from the day’s walk at the albergue. We shared stories as the rain faded to mist and all fell into a well earned sleep early in the evening.

Our muscles awoke screaming and stiff. The payment for our first 21 kilometers was made with each step as we forced ourselves to strap on our packs and step out into the morning after a breakfast of coffee and bread. Our walking pace slowed to a crawl and we stopped at the town of Hontanas after only 10 kilometers of torture. Our packs were too heavy, we both agreed to shed weight to help our muscles cope and began the process of picking through our possessions. I decided to leave my tent and a few articles of clothing behind to drop about five pounds. The guide book reassured my faith in accommodations and autumn nights of northern Spain made the prospect of sleeping outside less than appealing. The tent was an obvious choice and perhaps some pilgrim would make use of it during the Summer months.

Ruins of Convento de
San Anton (XVIth cen.)
We opted for a private albergue in Hontanas called El Puntido. The hostel boasted a lively bar which filled with pilgrims shortly before dinner was to be served. A couple of women that we met earlier in the day who had visited Zambia years ago invited us to dine with their group. The Camino sometimes forms companies of travelers who walk together, dine together, and talk together; a walking companionship. Most of these companions hailed from America and had started at St. Jean Pied du-Port, the most popular trail head of the Camino Frances. Only a few had started on their way to Santiago further along as we had. Several of the members boasted of dwindling materialism and of the spiritual growth already experienced over the past two weeks. One went so far as to declare his wallet, passport, and smart phone to be all he had concerns over losing these days. He eyed me warily when I suggested the only thing worth the worry on a walk are ones own shoes. He stopped listening and began discussing his distaste for a group of pilgrims a day ahead to the companion on his left. Simple African wisdom wasn't receiving any welcome from him.

Dinner with the walking companions was a strange one. A filmmaker seeking to find the motives behind modern pilgrimage prayed alone, two young women speaking only to him, and trying to explain Peace Corps to a French Canadian proved futile. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to a large Dutchman named Bert who spoke little and drank much. In the subtle ways often prompted by gatherings of this sort we had chosen each other and created our own conversation of a more frivolous topic. We discussed fish farming and wine over a couple of bottles of the house vino tinto, laughing about the cultural faux-pas that we had committed. Perhaps the most honest man at the table, Bert’s thirst surpassed my own and I left him to his cups late in the evening.

Iglesia de San Juan (XVIth cen).
B and I had already decided to walk another 10 kilometers to Castrojeriz to allow our muscles to rest and our experience with the walking companions made this option more attractive. Seasoned pilgrims short on time, they would continue on for at least a further 15 kilometers that day and although I enjoyed dinner with Bert, B and I both felt that we would rather walk alone. We spent the day hiking through the bleak meseta, a desolate rocky landscape, and arrived at Castrojeriz early in the afternoon. The municipal albergue had an atmosphere akin to an art gallery perched atop the village civic building. Castrojeriz crumbles into the mesesta hills; ancient steps and alleyways are largely abandoned throughout the day and one can literally hear the medieval buildings collapsing brick by brick. We ate a fantastic meal at a local restaurant flying the Brazilian flag and walked around the solemn squares of this quite town. Castrojeriz is famous for its garlic (and the food was indeed exceptional) but the local 16th century church (Iglesia de San Juan) was the real attraction. The humble church demonstrated an interesting meeting of Gothic with earlier styles, namely a Renaissance fountain, and an interesting pentagram window looked to the West. High above the village rests the ruins of a 9th century castle reduced by time to a few simple stones. The entire village has a mystical air and a voice that seemed to ask us to stay for just one more night.

Entering the Castilla y Leon region
We met a few pilgrims over breakfast the following morning in good humor and found ourselves in a cadre of walkers hiking up a great slope within the first few kilometers of the day. Climbing up and over the hill led us out of the Meseta region and into Castilla y Leon region and the fertile farmland beyond. Known as the Tierra de Campos, this area contrasted sharply with the bleak landscape behind us. Crops were being harvested from golden fields as we crossed streams and rivers in this relatively flat landscape. B and I met our friends from the morning 25 kilometers later when we reached Fromista. Dogged from the long walk, we dropped off our backpacks and showered before going out to explore the town.

Iglesia de San Martin (XIth cen.)
Fromista seemed considerably bigger than the villages that we had visited so far. The town, built upon an association with the Camino and the rich agricultural lands surrounding, is frequently visited today for the 11th century Iglesia de San Martin. Consecrated in 1066 A.D., the church is a pristine example of the Romanesque loaded with intricate corbels detailing figures from the bible and elsewhere. The church has been de-consecrated and now acts as a national monument and museum but the powerful atmosphere within the church remains to this day. We set out the next day with stiff muscles but we felt capable, with less pain in our legs than that morning in Hornillos and made our way slowly across the farmland of Palencia.

Santa Maria la Virgin Blanca (XIIIth cen.)
Villalcazar de Sirga
The rain came just before we reached Villalcazar de Sirga. The Camino led us through a thin stretch of woodland along the river Ucieza and the clouds graciously waited until we joined asphalt heading into town. One of our friends from Castrojeriz, an Italian named Philipe, met us as we blundered around the main square looking for the municipal albergue. We eventually found our way to the hostel with little help from the locals. The hospitalero was a short gray haired man named Miguel who spoke no English whatsoever and was visibly intoxicated. Miguel suffered from a deformity on his right hand that left him with a thumb and forefinger “claw” in the place of five fingers yet he wielded his pen without fumble as he reviewed our credentials and issued the stamp of the establishment. Philipe managed to translate a bit, using the similarities between Italian and Spanish, and Miguel showed us to our accommodation.

Santa Maria la Virgin Blanca (XIIIth cen.)
Villalcazar de Sirga
B found herself in the kitchen with Miguel after she made inquiries into local restaurants and found that the hospitalero could manage a chopping knife as deftly as a pen. I joined them in the kitchen as Miguel poured glasses of wine and rambled in Spanish, pausing every so often to look us over and say “no tu comprendes” in open acknowledgement that we had no idea what he was talking about. I found Philipe downstairs on my way to replenish our wine and invited the Italian to join us. Philipe brought his friend who he had met in town, a Hungarian pilgrim, for dinner along and helped translate some of what Miguel was trying to tell us through his own broken Spanish. The hospitalero claimed to be a member of the Knights Templar (an order long extinct with strong ties to the Way), known for his hot blood, and charged with defending pilgrims on the Camino. He continued in this line throughout the evening in spite of our sporadic attempts to go to bed, preparing more food for supper and producing a bottle of strong grappa (a bootleg distillation of fermented grape-skins) which he drank like water. His infatuation with the Knights Templar turned out to be based around photographing female pilgrims in templar armor and holding a sword for an album kept at the albergue. He showed Philipe and B his collection once the grappa had taken hold. His request for a new photo failed to translate and B politely declined his request. Miguel directed his attention to the other female pilgrim staying the night for a moment before giving up. We all retired late in the evening convinced that Miguel had gone a little insane from living alone in the albergue.

St. James in Villalcazar de Sirga
Miguel roused us at 6:00 the following morning by blaring Gregorian chants through the hostel and clamoring together a breakfast of coffee and cheese. The hospitalero issued both B and I a certificate of an oath to uphold the Templar code (he had administered the oath the previous night) and sent us on our way. Feeling worse for the wear after a night spent carousing with the templar, we walked a mere 6 kilometers before checking into the pilgrim accommodations at the Convent of Santa Clara in Carrion de los Condes.

View from our cell window in the monastery
The modern convent exist in the ruins of buildings dating back to the 12th century. It is said that St. Francis of Assisi stayed in this pilgrim’s “hospital” on his way to Santiago. The accommodations for pilgrims today are excellent. B and I were able to get the rest that we needed and re-supply for the stretch ahead. Carrion de los Condes has a rich history stretching back to an influential position during the Muslim occupation of Spain. It was the one-time financial capitol of the Tierra de Campos region, ruled by the counts of Carrion. These leaders met an unfortunate end at the hands of El Cid, after allegedly abusing the warlord’s daughters, and are buried at the nearby Monastery of San Zoilo. We were fortunate to have enough time after our short walk to thoroughly explore this medieval gem before retiring to our cell early in the evening.

Start of the Via Aquitana
We left town early in the morning, well rested and supplied for the desolate stretch ahead. Only 17 kilometers lay between us and Calzadilla de la Cueza, our destination, but there would be no opportunity for re-supply or water once we reached the old roman road known as the Via Aquitana (Calzada Romana). The day proved to be unseasonably warm as we made our way through unending farm land. Arriving in the afternoon, we found Calzadilla de la Cueza to be little more than an outpost among the fields. Every Spanish village has a bar, thankfully, and we found the food and accommodations most welcome. Laying in my bunk at night as pilgrims snored around us, I felt like we knew how we were doing; perhaps not what we were doing, but the means had become clear. Still green, we were starting to find a pace on this ancient road. Our backpacks didn’t seem as heavy anymore and our Spanish was improving exponentially. I fell asleep ready to follow the little yellow arrows around the next bend, wherever that may lead.

Yellow arrow waymarking the route through Rabe de la Calzados
Lunch in the ruins of the monastery of San Bol
Castrojeriz font

Iglesia de San Martin (XIth cen.), Fromista
Welcome to Carrion de los Condes
St. James in Carrion de los Condes

Iglesia de Santa Maria de Camion (XIIth cen.), Carrion de los Condes

Walking the Via Aquitana

No comments:

Post a Comment