Walking in Spain: From Villambistia to Atapuerca

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Distance walked: 23.6km

Elevation Gain: Approx. 300m

After breakfast in Epinosa del Camino, I pottered off into the early morning darkness. One of the sweet things about walking Camino is that the sun came up at my back every morning while I walked westwards. So, even though I may have started walking in darkness, the light gradually and gently changed as the morning wore on. Because I wasn’t facing into the sun, the change was beautifully subtle. And I developed a great tan on the backs of my legs from the sun behind me! I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but I came to relish the birdsong and changing light at the beginning of each day.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard that there were packs of vicious wild dogs outside a town called Villafranca. The rumour had travelled backwards along the trail, and I had heard it days before – from a woman I walked with on the way to Los Arcos. She gave me 2 pieces of advice:

1. Before entering the town, grab a fistful of gravel from the ground and use it to throw at the dogs, if necessary.

and

2. Don’t walk into town alone. Walk in a group of 3 people, or more.

I love dogs but I thought both pieces of advice sounded reasonable, all things considered.

Thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino route in northern Spain. I didn’t know which one she referred to. I looked at my map that morning and discovered that I would pass through Villafranca No.1, and I didn’t know whether to expect a pack of wild, vicious dogs.

I imagined a gang of them, with foaming mouths and matted hair. I imagined them covered in lice and ticks, half-starved and desperate to gorge on my innocent pilgrim blood. I’ve known my share of wicked dogs in life and they don’t generally scare me, but still, this was different. I was quite alone on the trail that morning, and my legs were very, very bare in just a pair of summer shorts. Depending on how vicious and angry they were, I thought my chances of coming away unharmed were somewhat slim. I psyched myself for the worst.

And at the same time, I wondered how a gang of vicious wild dogs were allowed patrol the camino like that, given the volume of people passing through each week. It just didn’t add up.

That morning, I passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca without major incident. Contrary to the rumours, there were no packs of wild dogs awaiting my arrival into town, or on my exit either. The highlight was the cup of coffee I stopped for, before embarking on the climb up through the mountains. There was nowhere else to stop for the next 12.4km and I needed all the sustenance I could get. I hoped to buy a takeaway sandwich (the daily infusion of baguette with chorizo) but there was no joy on that front. Even though the café bar had just received a delivery of 24 fresh, metre-long baguettes (and I should know, I saw the guy from the bakery drop them off), they declined to make me a sandwich. They explained politely, but very firmly, that sandwiches were for lunch and it was too early to serve lunch. So, they would not serve me a sandwich, even though I was one of the only customers there, and they had all the ingredients to hand. There was no way I was getting any lunch food until it was definitely lunch time.

Bureaucracy lives on!

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Looking at the photo above, I still remember the heady smell of pine trees and heather, as I walked through the morning fog. After the vineyards of Rioja and the open farmyard of previous days, the mountainy, woodland smells stood out as something different. I was somewhere new. The fog was cloying and damp, but I remained dry despite my summer shorts and bare legs. I could smell the dirt. I could hear the satisfying crunch of the gravel underfoot. I climbed slowly and steadily. Compared to previous mornings of bright sunshine and light, this particular morning felt like autumn. The weather and the smells were altogether different.

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Remembering this day brings up a mixture of memories. While I still walked through the 12km of woodland, I came across a Spanish family who walked camino together. They had the appearance of people on a day hike – small backpacks, or none at all. Tank tops and jeans. Running shoes. A mixture of ages – parents, aunts, teenage children, smaller children. They were quite a gang. They chatted loudly and their squeals broke the silence of the morning. I heard them long before I saw them.

By then, I was on my 12th day of walking and the initial sheen was starting to wear off. By then, the people who walked for only one week had already gone home. By then, the remaining pilgrims had divided between the people who walked fast, and the slower ones – like me. I sometimes felt that camino was like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. After all, the people who were strong or could walk quickly, often had their choice of hostels each day, while others got stuck for a place to sleep. Physical strength and financial resources created an unequal playing field, at times. I’d already met people who had their bags carried by bus, or who booked private accommodation days in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure that their behaviour was fair. I was in it for the long haul but it seemed to me there were certain inequalities on the trail. So, the sudden appearance of loud day-trippers hit a nerve.

I was still tetchy from the previous evening at Villambistia, and I wanted to walk alone. I wanted to walk in quiet solitude. The loud, boisterous antics of the family ahead of me was the antithesis of what I wanted. Their vibe jarred with my mood but I reasoned:

How nice: this family are spending quality time together in nature, this Sunday morning.

They could be staring at TV, or buying things they don’t need in the nearest shopping mall. Instead, they’re out here, doing this, together.

I could get on board with that.

But still, they made quite a din.

I overtook them on the trial and walked on ahead, alone. The noise followed me through the trees, through the village of Agés, and to my final destination of Atapuerca. After walking 23.6km I could go no further. I asked for a bed in one of the hostels there, and prayed for a quiet afternoon to garner some space.

As if!

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago Continues: Grañón to Villambistia

Distance walked: 22.5km IMG_0904

After a night sleeping on the floor, I left Grañón’s donation-based hostel and made my way into the early morning light.

Did I have breakfast before I left?

I honestly can’t recall, but I have a feeling that the hostel offered coffee, baguette, and jam, and that we gladly availed of the sustenance. Most of the hostels I stayed in didn’t offer breakfast of any kind, and I had to walk to the next town or village to get my morning coffee. Walking camino, you never quite know where the next coffee will present itself. You could plan to eat in a certain village miles up the road, only to find their café closed when you get there. Sundays, in particular, are a quiet day for business in Spain. You get into a pattern of gladly availing of whatever food and drink is available, when available – however modest it may be.

That morning, I passed through acres of sunflowers that gently rose their heads to the rising sun.

I walked for a while with Barb and Dave, who had also spent the previous night in Grañón. Pity that my photos came out blurry…perhaps I needed more coffee to feel fully awake, but they were all smiles, as usual! We initially met when I stayed in Orisson, back on our fist day of walking. The next morning, they saved my socks from blowing away on the side of the Pyrenees, and had since treated me to breakfasts and lunches along the way. Over the course of the 800km, our paths crossed over and back, and they generously watched out for me at every turn. IMG_0899

When I look back on my photos now, I notice that they’re there in the very first ones I took in St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking. I don’t want to spoil the ending but Barb and Dave were there on my last day, too. And they were there countless days in between, with unending support and friendship. IMG_0900

My walk from Grañón happened on a morning of brilliant sunshine and cloud-free skies. I walked most of it alone, enjoying the quiet time for idle reflection.

By then, I’d walked some 250km of my intended 800km, and I felt the effects of it.

The initial adrenalin had worn off, along with the strength and rest I had brought from home. I slept well every night on Camino but I felt quietly exhausted. Even though I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then, my body was still adjusting to walking for hours every day, in 30-something degree heat, with all my belongings on my back. (Although I have to admit, how often do we say in life, “I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then”….no wonder I was tired!)

My body wasn’t getting the recovery time that it needed.

Some days were shorter than others, which definitely helped. And yes, ever since I swapped my hiking sandals for hiking shoes, my feet hurt a lot less. That freed up a lot of energy, right there.

I was able to cover more ground every day and I was glad. I also learned how to stagger my walking so I was out of step with the people following Brierley’s book. He directs people to start at Point A and finish at Point B every day, and many pilgrims followed his suggestions to the letter. It’s an efficient plan if you want to walk 800km in 33 days. But the surging crowd created a race for beds, and I found it stressful to get wrapped up in the frenzy. Instead of following his directions, I stopped at intermediary towns and villages. In doing so, I gladly avoided the shortage of beds I’d experienced in Zubiri and Los Arcos. If I did nothing else in my first 2 weeks of walking, that small shift made a huge difference to my emotional experience.

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Church of Santa María in Belorado (with storks nesting at the top)

But still, the trail and the hostels felt busy and noisy. When I combined the crowds with my physical fatigue, my nerves began to fray.

I assumed that:

the trails felt busy,

the hostels felt crowded,

and

the bathrooms felt noisy,

because I’m an introvert.

I like people but I need lots of quiet space away from people, too. Otherwise, my batteries deplete rather quickly.

Despite my best efforts to spend my walking hours alone, I felt overwhelmed and overstretched.

Every day, I met both new and familiar faces in cafés, dinner spots, hostels, at water fountains, and out on the trail. Sometimes we’d exchange just a few words of hello. Other times, we’d walk together and chat for hours.

People were kind and receptive, and I was glad of the blossoming friendships. But despite the fact that I made connections and friends easily, I felt rather anonymous and alone. I didn’t know any of these people well enough, or long enough, to express my full experience. None of them could replace the connection I felt with Generous Husband, or my close friends from home. I’d chosen to walk camino alone. When I felt emotional and overstretched, I didn’t know who to confide in.

I didn’t want to whinge.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had to put on a certain amount of “brave face” and keep going.

At the same time, I badly needed some downtime to rest and regroup. I needed to recharge.

But every night I stayed in communal dorms, where we queued for the showers, competed for sunny space on the clothes line, and listened to each other snoring. Everywhere I went, there was chatter and noise. It started before 6am and didn’t stop until after 10pm each day. Some days I felt able to handle it but other days I felt a bit too sensitive and tired, and wondered if it was all in my head.

That is, until I heard that 2 weeks earlier, the authorities had recorded the highest ever number of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles.

That was around the same time I passed through the town, after the steep descent from the Pyrenees.

The highest number ever recorded…..wow.

The trail and the hostels felt busy then and you’ll remember, I found myself stuck for somewhere to sleep.

Even though I changed my own behaviour in the meantime, the trail still felt busy and crowded to me. I

assumed it was because I was slower than others.

I assumed the lack of training had caught up with me.

I assumed that I lacked competitive spirit, even though I never expected competition on a pilgrimage route.

But the statistics confirmed what I also knew: The Camino was exceptionally busy for that time of year.

I was relieved to know I hadn’t imagined the crowds or their impact. I was relieved to know that it wasn’t all in my head or indicative of an over-sensitive heart.

That day, I felt a bit over-wrought and I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos in the late morning or early afternoon. Brierley’s guide-book listed a donation-based parish hostel with mattresses on the floor for 30 people and I liked the idea of a quiet, low-key evening. I hoped for an afternoon nap and a night of restorative sleep.

But it wasn’t to be: it seemed life had other plans for me.

Viana: Camino Begins Again

Distance Walked: 8.8km

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After the previous day’s physical struggle to get to Los Arcos,

And the logistical issues with finding a free bed,

This day’s walk was short and sweet.

Days earlier, I had to take a taxi from Zubiri to Zabaladika, just to find a free bed. It meant ‘losing’ or ‘cheating’ on 12km of trail. I agonised over whether to go back and walk those missing kilometres but in the end, decided not to.

There was no going back: there was only forward.

So, when I ‘skipped’ another 8km days later, I was not entirely pleased. I hadn’t intended to taxi my way through the Camino. Even though I’d genuinely been stuck for a bed on both occasions, I didn’t want to get into a pattern of taking taxis. That wasn’t why I’d travelled to Spain.

A Scandinavian woman in my company was very displeased at missing those 8km. She’d spent years planning her trip and reading her guidebook in advance. She wanted to ‘do it right‘ and wanted to experience every inch of the trail for herself. She wanted to experience everything listed in the guidebook. She also wanted to ensure she stamped her Pilgrim Passport in every coffee shop or bar she stopped at along the way. Those rubber stamps of coloured ink were proof that she had walked the distance. A break in the narrative – even 8km of a break – was truly upsetting for her. So much so that she swore loudly and spent the night feeling too annoyed to join the rest of us for dinner.

I can understand her frustration, and at the same time wondered if she was so strict with herself in all areas of life. I imagine she was. She had a plan for how she wanted to experience and achieve Camino. Taking a taxi and missing any of the trail was literally intolerable.

Sometimes, life throws an unexpected curveball and our plans go out the window. What do we do? Do we dig our heels in, rigidly arguing for the plan? Or do we open our arms to the unexpected and abandon the plan in favour of the new reality?

A good friend had told me before I started: ‘You can’t prepare for Camino’. I was delighted at the time, and thought she confirmed I didn’t need any physical training. In retrospect, I think she was telling me: ‘So many unexpected things happen on Camino, whether you want them, and you can’t prepare yourself for every eventuality. The best thing you can do for yourself is go with the flow of it. Make it up as you go along, and see what happens. Be open, be flexible, and be willing to change.’

When we woke in Torres del Rio, our group of 4 people divided:

2 decided to take a taxi back to Los Arcos and pick up the trail. They wanted to cover the 8km they’d skipped the previous evening.

2 of us decided to walk onwards to Viana. We needed to re-group and take care of some errands. We also decided there was no going back.

We arrived into Viana in the late morning, and delighted at arriving early enough to secure a bed in the Albergue Municipal. After days of staying in private accommodation, we welcomed the opportunity to stay at a cheaper place – €6 for the night! The staff assigned us to different numbered beds and we made our way upstairs to find where we’d sleep.

The funniest thing about this hostel was that the dorms contained triple bunk beds.

That’s right: not double, but triple.

I’d never seen such a thing before. And as it happened, I’d been assigned a bed right in the middle of the bunk. There’d be someone sleeping above me and someone else below me.

Getting into my bed was easy enough – climb up the metal ladder on the side, and propel myself forwards and sideways at the same time – think ‘Bruce Willis jumping onto a moving truck’.

Easy!

Getting out of that same bed was altogether more complicated.

The space between my mattress and the one above me wasn’t big enough for me to sit upright. I had to sit hunched over, like Quasimodo.

From there, I wriggled along the mattress until I got to the ladder, and made my attempt to climb down, backwards. Naturally, I needed to steady myself somehow but I couldn’t grab the bed above me – there was someone in it and that was their ‘private space’. I also wanted to stabilise myself by stepping on the mattress beneath me but I couldn’t do that either – there was also someone there, and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Getting out of my bed meant I had to get both hands and both feet onto the ladder, without putting a foot or hand out-of-place, and without losing my balance. The trick? Stick my bum way out (like doing a standing half forward bend in yoga) and move quickly!

Viana was a sweet reprieve and it gave me a chance to begin my Camino again.

How so?

I bought new hiking shoes, and they transformed my feet. After days of painful tendonitis and small sprains, the shoes offered me cushioning and support. Hallelujah!

I also splashed out on an Altus poncho, as recommended on Jen’s Camino blog. The previous days’ rain made me realise that I needed something that would cover my whole body, not just my torso, and keep me dry. If I was going to walk the remaining 630km or so to Santiago, I wanted to stay dry as much as possible. My raincoat was too short, so a poncho was the most sensible alternative. I had a choice of colours: Fanta Orange or Fluorescent Lime Green. I chose the orange, and paid €45 for the privilege. It was the most hideous and most expensive poncho I’d ever known, but it had come recommended and I decided to give it a go. I found myself half wishing it would rain, just so I could get my money’s worth. And at the same time, I didn’t want it to rain at all while I walked my way across Spain.

Fickle Pilgrim wants the best of both worlds!

That evening, I joined a pilgrim mass in the Viana Iglesia de Santa María, and gave thanks for arriving in Viana safe and sound. My timing there was fortuitous – just when my sandals were really starting to give me grief, I’d arrived in a town that was large enough to have a shop for outdoor gear and footwear. Not every town on Camino has such a shop, despite the thousands of pilgrims needing gear along the way.

I’d prayed for the resources I needed to keep going and in a very practical way, my prayers, and needs, were fulfilled.

That night, my fellow pilgrim from Torres del Rio and I feasted on steak and chips, and were given a bottle of wine each with our meal. God bless the 3-course, €10 Pilgrim Menu, with baguette and wine! The pilgrims around us were jovial and in a party mood, drinking brandy and laughing loudly. I fell into bed that night feeling satisfied and fortified, in one.

There was no going back – there was only forwards.

 

 

Camino Challenge: No Beds (again)

Arriving into town and learning there were no available beds, was disheartening.

At the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day of great physical exertion, it was particularly gutting.

If, like me, you’d plan to spend the night in such a town, then the news is rather problematic.

Finding a bed doesn’t just mean having somewhere to sleep that night. Finding a bed also means:

  • You can have a shower, at last!
  • There’s somewhere you can wash and dry your laundry
  • You may have wi-fi contact or phone coverage – and let your loved ones know that you’re still alive
  • You can settle somewhere for your evening meal and a beer
  • You can relax into conversation and friendship
  • Your day’s effort is done. There is nothing to do but rest.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In everyday life, it is the equivalent of going home after a long day. Except, I was a long way from home. Life on Camino is transient and temporary, and not having a place of rest was the closest I’ve known to being homeless.

Not so much fun.

Arriving into Los Arcos only to learn that there were no available beds, was terribly disappointing. Priority 1 was to find a bed. Everything else came after that. The shower, the laundry, the dinner and drinks, were all delayed. There would be no resting until I’d secured a place to sleep.

I was just over a week into walking Camino and this was the second evening I’d arrived too late for a bed. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first experience of it here: A Day of Ups and Downs.

Certainly, the volume of people walking Camino in the past few years has sky-rocketed. I read somewhere recently that a few years ago there were 35,000 – 45,000 people walking the route each year.

In 2013, those numbers had risen to over 200,000.

Of course, that kind of increase puts pressure on everything – accommodation, water supply, waste disposal, cafés – you name it. I didn’t take it personally that I was left without a bed. If those numbers are true then it’s likely on a given day that someone gets stuck for a place to sleep – why shouldn’t it be me?

Still, getting stuck for a place to sleep (twice) coincided with pushing my body extra hard, on days that were very hot. I did wonder if there was a correlation there, and maybe something to be learned from it all.

The four of us went from hostel to hostel across Los Arcos and everywhere the message was the same:

No room at the inn.

At the last hostel, the staff confirmed that not only were all the beds taken, but every inch of floor space was full too. There wasn’t enough room to take in a stray cat.

Before I’d even had time to think: “What now?” my fellow-pilgrim from Australia said one word:

Taxi.

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. She said it with absolute confidence and conviction. She spoke it clearly and immediately. She had created a plan. She spoke for all of us.

Ordering a taxi was entirely practical:

We had to get a bed

We had to go to another town

There was no way we were able to walk it

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I was thrilled that she did.

Quick as a flash, the hostel-owner jumped into her mini-van parked outside the front door, and ushered us in. We had no idea where she planned to bring us, but we also didn’t really care. I trusted her local expertise and knowledge, and felt confident that she’d help us figure out a place to stay. Plus, I felt relieved that I could hand over this task to someone more knowledgeable than me.

Complete surrender.

I was thankful too that we were in a group. Not only did it equate to a cheaper taxi fare for each of us, but it meant that she would take our request seriously. It can be easy to turn away one solitary pilgrim. It’s harder to ignore a group of them.

Just as it is in life, there is strength in numbers.

After a few minutes of driving, she stopped at the first albergue and found it was full.

She stopped at the second and found they had space. Yay.

Until the guy stamped my Pilgrim Passport, I didn’t know where we were. It tells me that I was in Torres del Rio, some 8km outside Los Arcos. Those were 8km I didn’t walk, and would have to decide on the next morning.

Our albergue held a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, with bedding and bathrooms upstairs. They even had a swimming pool! The bar was loud with metal and punk music, with medieval-looking armour and crossbows on the walls. The courtyard in front was full of people drinking beer in the cool evening shade. They didn’t wear quick-drying sports gear or zip-off hiking pants, but instead, were covered in black clothes, with lots of tattoos and chains.

My guess? They weren’t pilgrims 🙂

How great we were getting to “mix with the locals” a bit!

And like an old woman, I found myself thinking: I hope they’re not going to stay out here all night making noise!

That evening, I filled my belly with paella, delighted to take a break from baguette. I felt profoundly grateful for my bed. I shared an open dorm with the 3 women, in a room with low ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and very few bunks. I slept like a rock, and when I woke the next morning, I hadn’t changed position at all. I’d heard snoring and people going to the bathroom but I had been so tired, I hadn’t stirred an inch.

But here’s a thing:

The hostel was privately owned, and they told us that some of the beds in the dorm were reserved. When we arrived at 6pm there was no sign of our roommates but we presumed they’d show up later. By 9pm the beds were still empty. Given that the hostels had a “lights out” rule for 10pm, these pilgrims were cutting it fine.

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered the beds were still empty. They had never been slept in at all.

6 pilgrims had reserved beds in a private hostel and for whatever reason, didn’t show up.

By the time the staff realised this, it was too late in the day to accept replacement pilgrims.

I wondered:

How many people like us, had arrived in Los Arcos to find there were no available beds?

How many of them took a taxi – alone or in groups – to Torres del Rio and were told that there were no beds there either?

And how many of them would ever guess that upstairs there were 6 available beds, with clean sheets, lying empty all night?

How many of them had to travel further, when what they needed was available right in front of our eyes?

Yes, 200,000 people on Camino puts pressure on services. But making private reservations and not keeping them has an impact too. I’m pretty sure there were pilgrims who could have used those beds that night but were never given a look-in.

It was a sort of Camino Capitalism.

Not cool.

Some Weary Walking: Villatuerta to Los Arcos

Distance walked: 24.8km

My longest day’s walking so far.

The stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos was a sort of “make or break” day of walking.

The first half of the day was rather delightful. I stopped in Estella to buy new sunglasses and replace the pair I’d already broken. Helpful Husband will tell you this is a relatively common occurrence in life. I also bought some sort of anti-inflammatory cream for my aching feet. In my rudimentary Spanish, the pharmacy staff were endlessly patient and obliging. No doubt, they see thousands of limping, hobbling, sunburnt pilgrims like me passing through town every year, with little or no Spanish, but with immediate medical needs. This sunny morning, all I could do was point at my feet and say “Owwww” a lot. The three women stood behind the counter in their white coats, looking a little dubious.

Here we go, another pilgrim with sore feet and no Spanish.

Of course my feet hurt: that was to be expected. But specifically where, and how badly, and why?

Had I pulled something?

Had I stepped on something?

Had I fallen, strained, twisted, or sprained?

Oh, those were questions I couldn’t even begin to answer!

Already, I’d met people who were rubbing ibuprofen creams and gels into their legs, and popping ibuprofen pills to keep inflammation at bay. I didn’t like the idea of medicating myself to the point of numbness, but I looked at their pill-popping with a sort of starry-eyed fascination: the drugs looked good. And lots of people were able to walk faster than me, and go farther than me, so maybe if I drugged up I too would start making some headway. I thought the drugs could give me a speedy Camino.

So, when I was handed a tube of arnica cream I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I think I am in more pain than this. I’m really not sure this stuff is strong enough. But I was too shy to say “Ibuprofen” and instead, accepted the arnica cream with gratitude. I decided I’d give it a go. If it didn’t work, there’d be another pharmacy somewhere else within a couple of days walk.

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Lovely Estella

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For those who don’t know, about 3km outside of Estella, the Bodegas Irache has a famous wine fountain for pilgrims.

I didn’t know it was there, either.

My friends who’d walked Camino before me had mentioned something about free wine on tap, but I’d never thought to ask them where it was. A week into the trip, I’d stopped reading the text in my Brierley guidebook and only looked at the maps – mostly to confirm how far I’d have to walk for a coffee, a sandwich, and a bed. The rest of the details, I reasoned, would unfurl along the way.

So, what a delight then to find myself walking through vineyards at 9:30 in the morning, and to bump into Barb and Dave outside the gates of this famous fountain. I didn’t know to expect it that particular day, and certainly not at that hour of the morning. If anything, I probably expected a medieval, wooden wine barrel with a simple tap on the end, but what we found was altogether more commercial, with its stainless steel tap and a large museum next door. It’s a self-serve operation and the wine wasn’t that bad. While pilgrims are encouraged to drink in moderation, I could have easily poured out my bottle of water and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Imagine the hangover though, walking around in 30-something degree heat, and drinking wine along the way?! It would have certainly taken my mind off my aching feet 🙂

Looking at the website now, I’m informed there’s “a web cam pointing at the fountain where you can see pilgrims in real time.” I wonder if anyone spotted us that particular morning, huddled around, giggling and fidgeting as we lined up for our free vino. It felt like we were back at school again, skipping class, smoking behind the sheds, and doing something wonderfully bold. What a sweet novelty, and a very welcome break from talking about beds, feet, and kilometres covered.

Just over 6km later, I reached the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. If you look at the map, you’ll see it has a population of 150, and 2 albergues – one with space enough for 22 people, the other with space enough for 25. You’ll also see that to walk from there to Los Arcos is another 10+ kilometres and there is nothing along the way – nowhere to stop for coffee, a bed, or a get-out clause.

When you plan your walking for the day, this kind of thing becomes very relevant.

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By the time I reached the village, the sun had really started to swelter and I was beginning to flag. I had walked only 13.3km but the heat made those kilometres seem like more than they were. On top of that, my feet were getting the better of me. I thought I couldn’t really do much about them. Walking in hiking sandals had been great in many ways – the sandals gave my feet the space they needed to swell, without restriction. The sandals also helped regulate the temperature so they didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and I hadn’t developed any blisters.

So far, so good.

The problem was, they didn’t offer my feet a huge amount of support. Every step took a lot of flexing and gripping. I had an image of someone playing the piano, with their fingers stretching wide across the keyboard, flexing and reaching for the keys. My feet were doing something similar. On uneven ground, my feet had to flex to stay secure within the sandal, and then flex again to keep the sandal secure on the earth. I couldn’t afford to slip around, fall over, or lose my grip, especially on steep descents. So, apart from the fact that I’d scaled the Pyrenees and covered over 100km already (in their own right, those were great achievements for my poor paws), my feet were working extremely hard to stay secure in my choice of footwear. A pair of boots or hiking shoes would have done the work for me. But in my case, my feet were having to do all the work.

All the muscles in my feet were crying out for a break. I had pain:

across the tops of my feet

across my toes

up the backs of my heels

along my arches

and

on the undersides of both feet

Every step hurt, and the wise choice would have been to stop walking for the day, get a bed, and rest up for the afternoon.

I didn’t really consider it.

I stopped in the village and happily had a picnic with Barb and Dave, who generously shared fat, ripe tomatoes and crusty, fresh baguette with me. I bought a tin of tuna, swimming in olive oil, and dropped the whole tin onto the fresh bread. The combination of salty fish, juicy tomatoes, crusty bread, dripping in oil makes me salivate even now – that was probably one of the most delicious sandwiches I ate on all of Camino. We sat in the shade of the church, chatting and musing about life, relationships, and the road ahead. They’d booked into a private B&B for the night so had an afternoon of leisure awaiting them. I could have joined them and stopped walking for the day. At that hour, there were still available beds in one of the albergues, and I could have taken the afternoon to wash my clothes, have a nap, enjoy the cool shade, and join my friends for a beer.

I did consider it, but I didn’t give it enough consideration.

Instead, I decided to push ahead. I thought:

“Another 10km to Los Arcos is fine. It’s not that far. I’ll be there in 2-3 hours.”

And I strapped on my backpack, waved goodbye to Dave and Barb, and headed west.

This is what awaited me:

IMG_0855

The day was searing hot. Unbearably so.

About  half an hour outside the village I looked at the path ahead and couldn’t see a single person. I turned to look at the path behind me and it looked the very same. In every direction, I was alone and exposed to the relentless heat. Everyone else had already stopped walking for the day, or had stopped in the shade for a beer. They had done the right thing, while I felt like I was crossing the Sahara. There were no animals, there were no houses, and there was very little shade. I had a belly full of high-carb, high-protein food, and plenty of water, but I thought about turning back to the village.

Something in me said: This is madness.

Some other part of me said: No, there’s no going back. If you’re going to spend time walking, at least walk forwards.

So I kept going.

Damn Ego!

The minutes turned into hours as I trudged along in the heat, with increasingly sore feet, and making very slow progress. Fool, fool, fool, I should have turned back.

Eventually, three women caught up with me and it turned out, we knew each other from our night in Zabaldika. I was delighted to bump into them again and they kept me company on the long walk in the heat. By the time they’d passed through the previous village, the albergues were full and there was (seemingly) nowhere to stay. That’s how they’d decided to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos. Days later, I met a woman who came to the village even later that afternoon after walking 40-something kilometres, only to be told the same story. For her, walking the 10km to Los Arcos was unfeasible so she asked the locals for their advice.

Someone said: I have a spare garage: you can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d secured beds in the hostel said: We have camping mats and I don’t need them tonight: you’re welcome to use them.

And so, this woman joined 14 other pilgrims who’d made it as far as Villamayor de Monjardín, but couldn’t go any further, and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She admitted it wasn’t very comfortable and it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but they were safe and dry. She said it beat trying to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos.

I hadn’t walked even half the distance she’d walked that day but I could only agree: those 10km nearly broke me.

Mental note to self: Buy hiking shoes at the next available opportunity.

Arriving into town, I was beyond weary. Bumping into Kevin and Liz was a nice surprise but they confirmed what we already feared: all the albergues were full.

I bumped into a sprightly 70-year old from Australia whom I hadn’t seen in days and all she said was, “You’re late!

I didn’t realise it was a race.

I didn’t realise there was a timer on my every move.

I’d just spent 9 hours trying to walk some 25km and my feet were beyond repair – I didn’t appreciate her throwaway comment.

Still, we had bigger matters to tend to. The four of us walked from one albergue to the next, only to find that all of them were full. They’d even put down mats on the floors to accommodate extra pilgrims. There wasn’t space to budge.

Again, there was no room at any of the inns.

What would we do?

(And are my blog posts too long?)