Camino de Santiago 7: Via Dolorosa

Logroño to Villafranca Montes de Oca, Palm Sunday – Good Friday – 2nd-6th April 2007

‘Let man’s Soul be a Sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other Spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our Souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West
This day, when my Soul’s form bends towards the East.
There I should see a Sun, by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget;
But that Christ on this Cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.’
Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward, John Donne

Anne, Terry, Marg and Ursula at the Logroño albergue
Anne, Terry, Marg and Ursula at the Logroño albergue

We made a quick getaway from Logroño, before daylight. It was a murky morning, raining, and the streetlamps were reflected in the wet pavements. We managed to get lost before we even found our way out of the city; a man with an umbrella pointed us back in the right direction. It was interesting, we were beginning to think, that everybody who helped us find our way was carrying an umbrella. Admittedly, most of the time that this was needed there was some degree of precipitation – but not always. The sky was becoming light as we left Logroño by way of a large park, which led to some kind of nature reserve. There was already a heavy stream of ponchoed pilgrims passing along the muddy Camino. Anne and I worked our way through all the folk songs to which we knew the words; it earned us a few funny looks, but it kept our spirits up.

The procession ploughed through what seems in my memory to have been a wilderness of mud, over a ridge edged with chainlink fence into which people had threaded sticks to form cross shapes, and down again to walk alongside a depressing main road. I was gratified to see a Veterano bull on the skyline; it was one of the two things that I had particularly hoped to see in Spain.

It rained. We were blistered, and cold, and miserable, and when we reached the village of Navarrete we stopped in Bar Los Arcos. We hadn’t been intending to stop for longer there than it would take to order and consume a hot drink apiece, but somehow, with the internet machine in the corner, the warmth inside and the rain outside, the thought of moving on became less and less tempting. The morning wore on, and it became more and more obvious that we weren’t going to be walking any further that day. We gave in and bought ourselves some boccadillos for lunch. I ordered mine in Spanish; the barmaid answered me in English. Anne ordered hers in English; the barmaid told her off. You don’t learn if you don’t try, etc.

We ended up spending most of the day in Bar Los Arcos, apart from a venture into the rain in order to find basic provisions, and a pharmacy. The pharmacist was particularly helpful, enquiring diligently of the nature of Anne’s blisters (popped or unpopped?) and, learning that they were popped, cautioning her sternly never to put Compeed on them. Why? (Those of a squeamish disposition are strongly encouraged to look away now.) Because Compeed, while providing a comfortable layer of extra ‘skin’ to cushion an unpopped blister, is sticky stuff, and, if the skin underneath is torn, will rip it away. Painfully. Having explained all this, the pharmacist supplied Anne with bandages and Betadine. The latter is a brand of iodine; we thought it all very Swallows and Amazons.

Anne in the albergue kitchen at Navarrete
Anne in the albergue kitchen at Navarrete

The albergue at Navarrete accepts pilgrims in the following order of priority: 1. Walkers of more than 20km (e.g. from Viana). 2. Walkers of less than 20km (e.g. from Logroño). 3. Cyclists. We, of course, came into the second category. At this time of year, however, it didn’t seem to matter, and we were welcomed in five minutes after opening. We spent the rest of the afternoon doing very little, other than establishing once and for all that I, unlike most pilgrims, preferred to sleep in the top bunk, and Anne preferred to sleep in the bottom one. I had no objections to leaping up and down to and from the top deck, being in possession of a healthy pair of feet, and disliked sitting up and hitting my head on the top bunk. Anne preferred a less athletic approach. This was a discovery that stood us in good stead for the rest of the journey; at the time, however, I was mostly amused. It gave the lie to the nudge-nudge wink-wink assertion that ‘sopranos prefer it on top; altos prefer it underneath’. I spent rather longer than was necessary giggling about that.

We got further the next day. We were beginning to realise that a pilgrimage, being essentially a journey from A to B rather than a tour designed to take in as many attractions and as little squalor as possible, was going to give us a cross-section of the whole country. We were going to get a representative sample. This became obvious as we approached the small town of Nájera and walked through what appeared to be a rubbish dump. There were some extremely battered armchairs perched on the brow of a hill; it was slightly surreal. So was the road sign that we passed as we crossed a road into an industrial estate: ‘pilgrims crossing’.

Pilgrim crossing
Pilgrim crossing

I liked Nájera. It had a supermarket that was still open when we got to it, allowing us to purchase cotton wool for Anne’s feet, a bar with a pinball machine and, of course, a stork. I was not nearly as good at pinball as I had remembered. We found Terry, Marg and Ursula, our friends from Estella, and Los Arcos. They, it transpired, had stayed at Ventosa, a village we had passed through earlier that day. We did not stay long in Nájera, however; it was a pleasant afternoon, and we pressed on to Azofra. The 5km walk would have been like a stroll along English country lanes, had it not been for the fact that vineyards rather than green fields lined the path. The sudden appearance of several young men on motorcycles was a little alarming, but might just as well have happened in England.

The entire population of Azofra could probably have been accommodated in the municipal albergue where we – and Marg, Terry, and Ursula, not to mention Brantz, our friend from the Pyrenees – ended up. It was a large building in a small village, and had the air of a swimming bath about it: all tiled floors and stainless steel door fittings. We revelled in the luxury of having a room to ourselves; it was so small that it was difficult to sit on either bed if the door was open, but it was still an exciting novelty. Anne revelled in it to the extent that she felt moved to have a nap; I, meanwhile, went out in search of food. I raided the village’s two shops and came away with the wherewithal to make a decent tomato pasta dish, not to mention a bottle of wine filled straight from the cask.

A common failing of albergues is the lack of the one kitchen implement that in the ordinary way would be essential to the completion of the meal. At Azofra it was the can opener that was missing. My tomatoes were canned, and their can had no ring-pull. I was not, however, going to let a little thing like that stop me, and I attacked the top of the can with a pair of kitchen scissors until I had made a hole large enough to get the tomatoes out. Anne was rather alarmed. ‘Roland is fierce, and Oliver is wise.’ Terry commented that I was obviously a very independent-minded person. I was able to continue making supper, and I had not sustained any injury, so I was quite happy. More hilarity ensued when I opened the wine bottle. I did, thankfully, have a corkscrew, but the cork was in no mind to cooperate. It broke in two. I tried to get the corkscrew into the bottom half, but only succeeded in pushing it into the bottle which, being fully, squirted wine over me and the work surface. Still, it was good wine. After all, we were in La Rioja.

Anne and Brantz at Azofra
Anne and Brantz at Azofra

The next day’s walk was a painful one. We set off into steady, penetrating drizzle. I did not like wet days; my top half always remained dry, but my bottom half was invariably soaked. Anne’s feet were still playing up, and as we passed through Cirueña (which was, so far as we could see, a building site), over the brow of the hill, and started down the other side, we got slower and slower, and pilgrim after pilgrim overtook us. It was a dispiriting process. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill we had resolved to stop at the next opportunity.

The next opportunity was Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and its suburbs seemed to go on for ever. So did its residential sector. When we eventually found a bar we walked in, ordered hot drinks, and worked out our next move: not to move. According to the guidebook, we had walked 15km from Azofra, which was quite respectable. It was only just lunchtime, so we found a restaurant – yet another establishment called Los Arcos – with a pilgrim menu, and settled down to a three course meal. In between courses I did my best to translate the story of Santo Domingo, as told in a little book of Camino legends that I had bought in Pamplona. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a German family, a father, a mother, and Hugonell, their son, and they set out on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They stayed at an inn in the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and while they were there the innkeeper’s daughter fell madly in love with the son of the family. Hugonell, a virtuous young man, repulsed her advances, and the girl was soon as mad with humiliation as she had previously been mad for love. Before the family was able to leave the town she had her revenge: planting a precious silver cup in his luggage, she accused him of theft. The luggage was searched; the cup was found; the boy was arrested and sentenced to death. They hanged him.

His grieving parents, not knowing what else to do, left the next day, and continued on the long walk to Santiago. They reached it, and turned around to walk back to their home in Germany. They reached Santo Domingo de la Calzada a second time, and once again stayed there for the night. That night his mother could not sleep; she heard her son calling to her, over and over, telling her that he was not dead, that he hung on the gallows still alive, that she must come and get him down.

In the morning, when her husband woke, she told him what she had heard and, though he could hardly believe her, he agreed to go with her to the magistrate and, with her, to tell him what had been heard. The magistrate was not best pleased to see them; he was just sitting down to eat.

‘Cut him down from the gallows? You must be joking! Your son,’ he said, gesturing at the roast poultry on his table, ‘is about as alive as these two chickens here.’

And at that, the roast cockerel and the roast hen leapt up from the table and, flapping and squawking flew out of the window and away.

The magistrate, still less pleased, had little choice but to go to the gallows with the executed man’s parents. He ordered that Hugonell be cut down from the gallows and returned to them, dead or alive, he didn’t much care which.

And indeed when Hugonell was cut down from the gallows he was quickly seen to be alive. When his parents, rejoicing yet fearful, asked him how this could possibly have happened, he explained that he had prayed to Santo Domingo and that the saint had preserved him from death. The family, reunited at last, went on their way, and to this day the people of the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada have kept a white cockerel and a white hen in the cathedral to the end that the miracle might always be remembered.

Santo Domingo, with the chickens (and bonus mattresses for accommodating extra pilgrims), at the town albergue
Santo Domingo, with the chickens (and bonus mattresses for accommodating extra pilgrims), at the town albergue

We came across various versions of this. Some of them put the resolution before the parents leave Santo Domingo, which is the more likely explanation. I don’t know much about hanging; I suppose it might be just about possible for someone to survive overnight and be taken down alive in the morning. But that wouldn’t be so miraculous, would it? We also found that the miracle was attributed to different saints: Saint James or the Virgin Mary were offered as alternatives. Anne, the mediaeval historian, made sense of this: in the early days, when the Camino was not yet popular, and a miracle was a sure way of attracting attention, the importance of Saint James would have been emphasised. As the town grew up around the bridge (calzada means ’causeway’) built by Santo Domingo, the local saint would take precedence. Finally, when the Cistercians, who tended to be keen on the mother of God, moved in, they would have transferred the miracle to Mary.

Later in the afternoon, after we had booked ourselves into the albergue, said Evening Prayer, and discussed the Thirty-Nine Articles, we went to the cathedral and saw the chickens for ourselves. They live in what must be one of the oldest chicken coops in the world, and crow without regard to who might be at prayer, or celebrating Mass, or anything. We were impressed with the cathedral: not only did it let us in for €1 on production of credencial, but it also had a beautiful east end, a tower on the other side of the square, choir stalls adorned with saints, a traffic jam of Good Friday floats, and, of course, live chickens. We looked around a display of religious art; a very gilded representation of the Holy Generations (Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child, in decreasing size) sticks in my mind. We had intended to return later for pilgrim mass, but did not get round to it.

The cathedral's independently minded spire
The cathedral’s independently minded spire

The albergue was also impressive; an ancient, higgledy piggledy building. The internet machine was located incongruously in the front porch, behind the gigantic iron-studded door, lit by a huge chandelier. Spare mattresses were stacked up in one room, while the dormitories themselves were neatly separated into cubicles with waist-high wooden partitions. Of course these did nothing for the snoring; but we had worked out that if we went to bed before everyone else, we would usually drop off before the serious snorers got started.

New technology in an ancient building
New technology in an ancient building

Before we left Santo Domingo de la Calzada we stopped by the post office to buy some stamps. No such luck; it was Maundy Thursday and the post office was closed. We made the best of it and walked on 6km to Grañón, crossing Santo Domingo’s bridge. Santo Domingo himself is perhaps less famous than the legend of the German pilgrims, but as I walked the Camino I found his story resonating more and more deeply with me.

Domingo believed that he had a calling to the religious life. No monastery, however, would accept him as a novice, though he asked several to take him in. Eventually he gave up and went to live by himself as a hermit in the forest. Probably he sulked a lot at first – he wasn’t a saint yet – but as time went by he noticed that there was something that he could do. Pilgrims were passing through the region where he lived, and they needed places to stay and roads to walk on. Some of them fell sick, and there was no hospital. Domingo saw that something needed to be done, and so he did it. He built a hospital and a bridge; he paved roads; and he founded the town that bears his name. He had a vocation, but it didn’t manifest itself in the way that he had expected when he was knocking at the monastery doors.

The albergue at Grañón is in the church bell tower. We had no intention of staying there overnight, but another pilgrim encouraged us to go in anyway. The warden was friendly, offering us tea and inviting us to sit down next the fire. We would very much have liked to stay there; quite apart from the appropriateness of being in an upper room on Maundy Thursday, it was a friendly place with comfortable chairs, and books. Marco, whom we’d met in the albergue at Navarrete appeared just as we’d sat down with our tea, and got out his guitar and strummed away. We decided that, since we liked Grañón so much, we could justify going to the bar opposite specifically to acquire a stamp in our credenciales, despite our resolution not to behave like tourists and try to get a souvenir of every little place we passed through.

Shortly after leaving Grañón we left the region of La Rioja and passed into Castilla y León. Had it not been for the ten foot high sign we would not have noticed; the border falls between two otherwise identical fields. We trudged on another four kilometres to Redecilla de Camino and, because it was raining, sheltered under the eaves of the tourist information office to eat our lunch. Cyclists came and went like half term in an Enid Blyton school story. One of them had a Buff patterned with camino seashells; Anne, who already had a perfectly good blue paisley Buff, was slightly jealous. It continued to rain, and we thought that we might as well stop for the day, having been compelled to go further than we had meant the day before. We found the albergue and were shown into a very cold dormitory; fortunately blankets were provided.

We took naps, and then had a wander around this first village in Castile. Its main point of interest according to the guidebook is the church of the Virgen de la Calle, and, specifically, its Romanesque font. We went in and admired the font, and were quietly horrified by the sheer amount of gilt elsewhere, but the real attraction of Redecilla was the tiny little shop inside the bar. (The bar, incidentally, was on the wrong side of a horrible road, but we needed food, and crossed it without accident.) The proprietor unlocked it especially for us, sold us a bar of chocolate and a tin of sardines, and locked it up again.

When we returned to the albergue it was full of Scouts. We had no specific objection to Scouts, but these ones were somewhat on the loud side. We avoided them, cooked our evening meal in a very large saucepan in a very small kitchen, and discussed such theological matters as were worrying us over pasta with sardines. Then we said Evening Prayer and went to bed, feeling distinctly old, well before the Scouts.

On Good Friday morning we made an early start, and failed to resist the temptation to sing Tom Lehrer’s Be Prepared as we marched along. The resulting frivolity and abandon may have contributed to my falling off a stepping stone into the stream and getting my feet wet; however, it didn’t get any further than the outer layer of my boots, and they dried soon enough. Following the waymarkings took us into Viloria de la Rioja, birthplace of Santo Domingo; a dingy place. We did not linger there, but continued to Belorado, a village that charmed me by having a bell tower with no fewer than four storks’ nests on it. Heloise had warned me against the refugio there (“Dickensian… cramped with lethal stairs”); we had deliberately avoided any walking schedule that would have put Belorado towards the end of a day. In fact, when we got there it was That Time Of The Morning, so we stopped for our customary hot drinks (tea, black, no sugar, for Anne, and coffee, ditto, for me) in a bar which had at least two novelty clocks on every wall and which was showing one of the Lassie films on one of the three TVs. The other two were playing completely different things, and whatever it was that was coming over the sound system corresponded with none of them.

Storks on the bell tower at Belorado
Storks on the bell tower at Belorado

Mindful of the fact that certain establishments were a little uncooperative on holy days (the Santo Domingo post office, for example) we were worried that no shops would be open, but we found a bakery where we were able to buy a long loaf of bread, and counted ourselves lucky. We left Belorado, but had to stop again before we were well out of it: blisters again. As always, however, Anne gamely limped on. We added to our bread purchase with yet another tin of sardines, this one from a service station. Five kilometres to Tosantos; we saw in the distance what appeared to be a church cut into the cliff. We never discovered whether this was in fact what it was, or, if not, what it actually was. Having charged through a small hamlet with little regard to its identity, I was suddenly hit by an irrational fear that it might have been Espinosa del Camino. It may or may not have been; either way, we continued more slowly to Villafranca Montes de Oca, where we arrived just too late for lunch at Bar Alba. Boccadillos were still being served, however; we did not go hungry.

While we were waiting for sellos at the albergue Terry, Marg and Ursula appeared once again. We were pleased to see them, but sad to hear that they were planning to take the train on for a bit when they reached Burgos; Terry and Marg’s plane left rather too early for them to walk all the way, so they would jump ahead to León. Ursula was probably going to go with them. This being so, we would lose them after Burgos. It is in the nature of the Camino to find and lose companions all the way along, but it was rather dispiriting for a parting to be as definite as this one was going to be.

Another Evening Prayer, another albergue kitchen, another meal. I went straight off to sleep that night; Anne was kept awake by what she swears was Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Oddly appropriate for Good Friday.

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