A Break in Burgos

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Distance walked: 20km

I won’t lie, I was very glad to leave Atapuerca.

After breakfast with Barb and Dave, I walked out of the small village with them, and was glad to leave behind the crowds and noise of our busy hostel. I’d decided to find a private room in Burgos later that day and I could hardly wait!

Brierley’s guide-book says, “Familiarise yourself with the various options [for descending into the city of Burgos]…and prepare for the hard slog into the city itself – after the relative tranquility of the camino from San Juan de Ortega city life can come as something of a shock.”

Of course, I didn’t familiarise myself with the different routes.

I didn’t like to study the map in advance – I preferred to figure it out as I went along and see what the route presented. Around 6-7km outside the city, the path splits in two. To the left, is a leafy walk along the river Arlanzón, allegedly scenic and beautiful. To the right, the path skirts alongside Burgos airport, allegedly through miles of ugly concrete and industrial buildings.

Days earlier in Villambistia, a woman told me that she and her friend planned to take a city bus and skip those miles entirely.

I purposefully asked her, “If Camino is like life, is it right to “skip the ugly bits” just because you don’t like them?”

It was a thorny question to ask.

Lots of people talked about skipping bits of, or whole sections of, camino, just because those parts had a reputation for being boring or ugly. I could understand taking buses and trains because of injury or illness, but I didn’t like the trend towards an “à la carte camino”. I didn’t think “ugly” countryside was a valid reason to omit entire sections of the journey and I wanted to challenge that way of thinking.

She knew I had asked a loaded question.

I didn’t ask it just to be an ass; I just wanted to understand her thinking. My own “rules” for walking camino were rather strict and it was a novelty to hear from someone who was a lot more relaxed about it all. She presented an argument that I thought was reasoned and pragmatic, even though I didn’t share her views. But you know, it didn’t really matter either way. When it came down to it, her journey was none of my business.

Without knowing it, when I came to that junction in the trail that day on my way into Burgos, I chose the path to the right.

At the time, I just followed the yellow arrows as I saw them, and I didn’t even notice that most of the crowds around me had disappeared to the left. I was lost in my own little world, shuffling along, putting one foot in front of the other on the gravel trail. When I looked up, I realised that the expansive airport runways were to my left, behind large wire fences with warning signs all over them. For miles, I passed through industrial warehouses and concrete paths. When I looked around, there were only a handful of other pilgrims within sight. The usual crowds were nowhere to be seen.

Brierley warned me of a “hard slog into the city”, and dozens of people had told me about the ugly descent they would avoid.

In truth, those few kilometres were among my favourite of my entire camino.

How come?

Well, they were quiet. Even with the noise of airplanes and motorway traffic, the trail felt quieter than it had felt in days.

After two particularly noisy days on the trail and in hostels, those few miles gave me a break from the masses. Sure, it wasn’t the most scenic part of northern Spain but I didn’t walk Camino just for the scenery. I walked because I felt compelled to. I walked because I needed some time. And oddly enough, the grey suburbs of Burgos gave me the space and time I needed that day. I didn’t notice that it was “ugly” or difficult in any way. I was happy in my own skin and grateful for the time alone.

That experience was a lovely reminder:

Don’t listen to the scaremongering.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

If I’d listened to the people around me, I would have taken the leafy river walk, just like them. I’m sure it is beautiful but it wouldn’t have given me what I needed that day, which was alone-time and space.

If I’d listened to others, I would have taken a city bus and skipped that section entirely – but imagine what I would have missed!

There are a million ways to walk Camino. Everyone has an opinion on the “right” way and the “wrong” way, but only *you* can know what’s right and wrong for you.

It’s like life that way.

And sometimes, the “ugly bits” turn out to be surprisingly good!

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Bad Tourist: Ignoring a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In some other universe, on some other trip across northern Spain, I would have stopped off at the UNESCO world heritage site at Atapuerca. I would have enjoyed exploring this historic spot, where the archeological dig is ongoing and the human activity is more than 1,000,000 (yes, 1 million) years old. Oh yeah, and I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about how our early ancestors were cannibals!

I’m not making it up. You’ll find more info here: Archaeological Site of Atapuerca.

On my camino walk from Villambistia, I have to admit that the tourist activities of Atapuerca held no appeal.

It’s not every day that one gets to visit a site where human activity dates back a million years. And I was a tourist in Spain, so you’d think I’d have jumped at the chance to dip into the history of the area, learn a bit more, take some time out to explore the sites a bit – right?

Right….but I had *zero* interest. Honestly, you could have lined up Sean Connery, George Clooney, and Brad Bitt in a line in front of me and I would have had the same response as I did to the prehistoric caves….hmmm…..yeah……whatever! (eye roll)

Ordinarily I like to think of myself as being a bit more cultured but ordinarily, I know where I’m sleeping at night and I don’t have to spend hours walking to find such a bed. So, I have a bit more head space and generosity about exploring the sites and having fun.

There were days on camino when some competitive streak kicked in – one I didn’t even know I had – and securing a bed, a meal, and a shower, became my entire mission in life. It surprised me but everything else was secondary. It makes sense in a way. I mean, if I couldn’t secure a bed in Atapuerca, I would have to walk on to the next village and maybe even the next one after that. I’d have to walk in the early afternoon sunshine and it was around 100 degrees F, which felt even hotter with a full backpack on my shoulders.

So the poor prehistoric cannibals didn’t stand a chance….and it never even crossed my mind to walk 3km off trail to the UNESCO site, and then walk 3km back. I didn’t know I was so goal-orientated in life but frankly, those extra 6km weren’t bringing me any closer to Santiago so there was *no way* I was walking them! I’d walked over 270km by then and had another 520km to go. I would walk to a pharmacy, a bathroom, or a bar…but otherwise I wanted to walk only towards Santiago.

The caves would have to wait for another time.

But what about you: did you go visit the historic site when you passed through Atapuerca?

Or have you ever been somewhere and didn’t do the *must do* tourist thing for that place? Is it really a wasted opportunity or is it just something that everyone does but no one admits to?

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.

Villambistia: Stifling the Screams

This is such a small village that Brierley’s guidebook doesn’t even list the size of its population. Wikipedia tells me that according to the last census, there are 65 inhabitants.

There’s not much to say about the village of Villambistia.

Spending the night in the small village was rather depressing and difficult. Earlier in the evening, the noise of my 1-bedroom hostel was enough to make me scream, but I chose to run out of the building instead of shouting at my fellow pilgrims. I can put up with all sorts of bullshit but I will admit that there were days on camino when I was fit to kill, and that afternoon in Villambistia was one of them.

All 14 beds were taken and we were a mixture of nationalities and ages, sharing this one room. Weeks earlier, I stayed in Roncesvalles, where one of the biggest camino hostels is situated. There, I could hear the sounds of 99 other people around me but it was quieter there than it was in this 14-bed dorm in Villambistia.

Just Great.

Is it intolerant to say that the German man who walked around in only a pair of tight Speedos, shouting around the building, was an ass? Do I sound like a princess if I say that the Spanish cyclists who came in afterwards were loud and boorish, leaving pools of water across the bathroom floor and banging doors as they went?

I felt exhausted and sore, and the only restful spot available was in that shared dorm. Am I a prissy wimp if I say I felt hounded out of it because my fellow pilgrims made so much noise?

I admit I was emotional and strung out, and badly needed some private space. In Villambistia, there was none to be had. The dorm was full, the downstairs bar was full, and there was simply nowhere else to go. Even the doors of the church were locked.

Sharing a dorm with my fellow pilgrims made me cry out of sheer frustration, and I ran from them rather than scream at them. In my head, I cursed every single one of them and called them every foul-mouthed name under the sun.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t know who was “in the wrong”.

It’s possible that I was over-sensitive that afternoon and made a mountain out of a molehill, crying like a child for no good reason.

It’s also possible that some of my roommates were priggish loudmouths, who elbowed their way through life with little consideration for other people.

Which story is the real one? Which one is the truth?

The Camino forums are full of people like me, giving out about the noise and insensitivity of other pilgrims on the trail. Lots of yak, yak, yak about how shitty people can be.

And yes, people can be shitty.

And the forums are full of opposing voices too – the people who say:

You know what? It’s a pilgrimage and you’re sleeping in a public dorm for a measly €8 a night. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

It’s a valid point and I couldn’t agree more.

But does sharing a public dormitory and a bathroom give anyone the right to treat it like a shipyard? Just because we paid small money for our bed, does it mean it’s okay to spend the day shouting our lungs off and banging doors, ignoring the needs of the people around us?

I didn’t think so.

But that day in Villambistia I was in the minority.

I felt bullied out of my bed. There was no way I could rest among all that chaos and I found a shady tree to lie under instead.

I could have tackled my roommates, my fellow-pilgrims.

I could have challenged them on their antics and asked them to take their brawling conversations to the outdoor courtyard, to the downstairs bar, or to the middle of the village square. In reality, there were several public spaces available to them and any one of them would have been suitable for social chatter.

But there was only one private space available, and that was the bedroom in which I tried to rest after hours of strained walking. It was also the same room I shared with 13 other pilgrims, so I was kind of screwed.

My thinking was that a bedroom – even if it was a public dorm – was a place for rest and healing. If you want to drink beers, make Skype calls, or pull dead skin from your feet…go do it somewhere else. There were plenty of places to choose from but there was only one bedroom, one place to rest, one place to sleep. I thought:

Don’t mess with the bedroom.

That day, I felt terribly alone in my thinking and there was no one there to back me up.

My roommates were louder than me, taller than me, more boisterous than me. They took over that space like it was their own private party and I didn’t feel strong enough to push back. I also wasn’t entirely sure I was entitled to push back – I mean, maybe I was being over-sensitive and unreasonable.

Was I right to run away for a few hours while I calmed down and gathered my thoughts?

Or should I have stood up to them, demanded some privacy in the only room that could be private?

That day, I saw both sides of the argument and I thought it more reasonable to upset myself than to upset the strangers around me. As a lifelong pattern, that’s a poor way to live, so one of my camino challenges was to learn how to take better care of myself and fight harder for my own needs. You’ll be glad to know, I got a handle on that eventually.

In Villambistia though, my experience of the hostel was messy and sore. Part of me wishes I’d let off all my steam and pent-up frustration instead of bottling it all up. It would have been healthier for me than feeling isolated and exploited. I wanted to say everything to them but in the end, I said nothing.

However, I will say this:

That evening, we sat cramped in a small dining room, elbows touching, with harsh flourescent strip lighting overhead. The 2 staff did all the cooking, serving, and cleaning up, and it took more than 2 hours to get through our meal. There was nowhere else to eat and there was nowhere else to hide so we had to make small talk, and find some common ground while we ate our fried chicken and chips.

Though they drove me nuts, I was glad I didn’t scream blue murder at my roommates hours earlier.

Imagine how awkward the dinner would have been if I had?!

Welcome to Villambistia

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Villambistia, like Tosantos, is a small place. Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, Villambistia was listed as having a whopping 65 inhabitants.

The sign advertising Internet was misleading. Even though I sat inches from the router, I couldn’t get enough coverage to send a message home. A first-world problem, I know!

The walk from Tosantos was only 2km and I hoped to find a bed there for the night. My guide-book listed one hostel with only 14 beds. I may have wanted to stop there but there was no guarantee I’d get a bed. After all, I already decided to change my plans to stop off in Tosantos; I may have to change them again, too. Such is life on camino when you don’t book your accomodation in advance – every day is a guessing game. But considering I already walked 20+ km that day, I wanted to stop as soon as possible and get in from the blazing sun. I rested all my hopes on the 14-bed dorm and headed west.

Along the way, I happily bumped into two Canadian ladies I hadn’t seen in days. We first met in Zubiri, shared a dorm in Zabaldika, and lost track of each other until Logroño. Already, that felt like years ago and we had a lot to catch up on, so we chatted while we walked. Bumping into them was the sweetest part of my day, and I was glad of their warm company.

Out there in the middle of wide open farmland, hour after hour, all I could think of was this one term:

“Latifundia”

Lati-what?

Let me explain.

A lifetime ago, I studied geography and learned about how the European Union reformed agriculture across its member states. Northern Spain, for instance, was known as one of the “Bread Baskets of Europe”. Wheat and corn were grown there since Roman times and more recently, the area produced huge amounts of crops – all for profit. The area was full of commercial, large-scale farms (latifundia), which were owned by wealthy landlords. As a result, the northern half of the country was wealthy and prosperous, with well-developed road networks, markets, and industry.

So far, so good.

The southern half of the country, however, was the exact opposite. Andalusia, in particular, was riddled with small farms (minifundia), on land that was poor in quality and poor economically. The farmers themselves were tenants and peasants, working to feed their families or maybe for small profit. The holdings were small, so everything was done by hand, which made it slow and inefficient compared to activities in the north. As a result, southern Spain had poorly developed road networks and markets, and no money to speak of.

It was a tale of two countries, until the EU came along with massive amounts of funding and a plan of action.

The rest is history.

When I studied all of this a lifetime ago, I found it fascinating. Geography – both physical and social – explained the world in a practical, tangible way. I liked to hike, I liked to travel – geography gave me the backstory that no guidebook ever would.

That said, the farming practices of mainland Spain were somewhat abstract. I understood the theory perfectly: I just couldn’t relate to it in my own life.

But by the time I reached Villambistia that day in September, all I could think of, over and over, was the word “latifundia”.

All I could see around me were expansive fields full of golden wheat and straw. These were fields that followed the curves and slopes of the landscape, but had no beginning or end. These fields reached all the way to the horizon – on all sides of me. I had never seen so many golden fields all at once, especially on such a scale, and without any fencing between them. There were no boundary lines or walls to mark the beginning of one or the end of the other. The only thing that separated them was the patchwork of colour – all shades of amber and ochre, as far as I could see.

Enormous tractors and straw balers roared across the landscape. The evening hummed with the sound of engines and the clanking of iron.

Though the villages were small and appeared poor, I passed countless BMWs and Mercedes cars that day. Or rather, they passed me, as they whizzed by on the roads around the village. Spanking new, gleaming in the sunshine, with tinted windows and growling engines….this was no ordinary, poor little village.

*This* was latifundia in action.

I was relieved to secure a bed in the 14-bed dorm, and delighted that the 2 Canadian women had chosen to stay there too. Otherwise, the evening might have been one of my loneliest.

The village had just one café bar, and it doubled-up as my albergue for the evening. On the ground floor, the bar consisted of Formica-topped tables and brightly-lit slot machines. Those tables were cluttered with shelled nuts, bottled beer, and ashtrays filled with cigarettes. The room was neither inviting nor charming.

The wall-mounted TV showed Saturday sport, and the small room was filled with men – most of them 60 years and upwards, in oversized cotton shirts and polyester blend pants – yelling loudly at the screen. The blackboard menu offered 3 types of sandwich to choose from, and the ones already on display were surrounded by flies.  We were the only pilgrims in the village and stood out like sore thumbs, but were glad they had available beds. It saved us from having to walk further that day.

Upstairs, the dormitory extension was clean, modern, and newly built. The wooden bunk beds were probably the most sturdy on all of Camino, which meant they were quiet and comfortable. Small blessings.

The remaining 11 beds filled up over the next few hours. Each time a new pilgrim arrived, the hubbub began again.

The sounds from the shouting locals wafted upwards on the wind.

Backstage in the kitchen, pots and pans banged and clanged.

Pilgrims shouted back and forth between the bathroom, the bedroom, the washing line, the bar.

Bags rustled,

Doors banged in the crosswind,

Pockets were zipped and unzipped,

Things were knocked over, retrieved, and knocked over again.

Every new pilgrim followed the same pattern – shower, wash their clothes in the sink, eat some lunch, unpack and re-pack the bag…

It took hours for the room to settle.

I don’t mind saying it, but I ran out of there like my ass was on fire to find a quieter corner a few hours. One thing I really missed on camino was my own front door – and the boundary it creates in my life. No matter how demanding or crazy my day is, I get to go home, close the front door behind me, and keep the world at bay. That small gesture is a way of claiming some space. The front door is a dividing line between safety and storm. I love having one.

But on camino, I didn’t have a front door. I didn’t get to draw a dividing line between myself and the crowds around me. Every day, I was at the mercy of random strangers and their behaviours, as we competed for bathrooms, dormitories, washing line spaces, sandwiches, coffees, wi-fi, space, quiet, time, and energy. Of course, most of the time, my fellow-pilgrims were considerate, accommodating, and kind. But that afternoon, my new roomies banged and shouted their way around the hostel as though it were a shipyard. It pushed a few buttons.

My two new friends had gone for a walk by themselves so I was alone in a noisy hostel and an even noisier bar. I would have liked a drink but felt intimidated by the crowd downstairs. There was nothing else in the village – nothing to see, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. There were no corner shops, no amenities, no other “hub”. Even the doors of the 17th century church were locked. For miles around, there were fields of wheat and corn, but not a lot else.

I was surrounded by people but felt isolated and alone.

I was surrounded by open space but felt trapped in this nondescript village.

(You’ll be glad to know that this wasn’t a running theme for my entire camino. I’ll admit, the first two weeks or so were really intense between the crowds, noise, and the push/pull on my energy, but I did figure out a better way of being. By the time I arrived in Santiago, I was a different woman! Still, those early days were rather mixed, as I figured out my own way of walking camino and I think it’s only fair to mention it…)

I sat in dappled shade under a horse-chestnut tree, and closed my eyes. Even though I didn’t sleep, I got some rest and took some time to decompress. The sounds of farm life carried on the breeze, and my nose picked up the smells of the land. On the surface, it was a beautiful evening in autumnal Spain, and I was lucky to have it. Inwardly, I just wanted to survive the evening and get out the other side, hoping I would stay somewhere better the next day.

Fingers crossed!

 

Spain: Walking from La Rioja to Castilla y León

Crossing from the La Rioja region into Castilla y León….

I love that the Camino signage changes from region to region….

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And I love that the water fountains along the way are so ornately rustic:

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Brierley’s guidebook tells me that “Castilla y León is the largest autonomous region in Spain with an area… 11 times the size of the region of Madrid but with a population of only 2.5 million (less than half that of Madrid).

You will spend over 50% of your time travelling through 3 of its 9 separate provinces Burgos, Palencia and León. It contains the incomparable Meseta the predominately flat table or plateau region that makes up a third of the Iberian peninsular…

Cereal crops cerales hold sway here, mainly wheat but with oats on the poorer land and some sheep and goats grazing on the hillier parts. It is a sparsely populated arid region, primarily flat with gently rolling hills. However, the seemingly endless horizons are broken up with delightful villages seemingly unaffected by the speed of modern life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.