Camino de Santiago 9: Meseta

Burgos to Carrión, 10th – 14th April 2007

Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Guide me all my journey through.

William Williams, etc.

Before we left Emaús there was work to be done: sweeping and dusting. But before we left there was also ‘bread for the journey’ to be taken: slips of paper with a spiritual message. It was the little touches like that, and the provision of a prayer room, which made this refugio special: we felt that Marie-Noëlle cared about all the aspects of her pilgrims’ experience, physical, mental and spiritual.

We had been amused to see a ‘Hobbiton café’ as we entered Burgos on Easter day. As we left we passed through a grove of trees that was equally Tolkienesque: straight, slender trunks glowing in pale sunlight. The landscape was about to change again; for the next few weeks we would be walking on the Castilian meseta, a hot, dusty plain. We walked on and had our mid-morning refreshment in a café in Tardajos. Lizzie, a young Scottish pilgrim whom we had met the first night at Emaús, warned us not to try the albergue there. She and some others had been unceremoniously evicted for the heinous crime of sitting on a picnic bench. Mindful of this, we bought ourselves some bread in the village shop and kept going.

Shade in the heat of the day

Shade in the heat of the day

It was a hot, cloudless day. We were glad of the shade of a shelter erected over a picnic area, and the water pump under it. This being so, we were a little surprised to see a young man jogging along the path we had just abandoned. We shook our heads at his folly and ate our lunch. Twenty minutes later, he was back. This time he ducked into the shelter, pumped himself a swig from the fountain, and was off again. An odd chap, we thought.

We stuck to our own leisurely pace when we set off again, and reached Hornillos del Camino without incident. The albergue there was probably the least welcoming and the least salubrious one that we would come across. It was dirty and disorganised. We had stayed in several where one was expected to bag a bunk first and sign in later, but had never yet found one where nobody came to do the signing in at all. I ventured into the shower; it was so cold that I wished that I had had some lustful thoughts before going in, just to make the resulting penance worth it.

We escaped as soon as was decently possible, bought some snacks in the village shop, and sat on some benches watching the tractors go by. Yes, tractors. The shop also provided a sello, which was just as well: the albergue was obviously not going to oblige. It was, we decided, definitely a night to eat out. The thought of the kitchen was not enticing; the bar supplied a cheap, filling and tasty meal. When we did return to the albergue we only stayed up for as long as it took to say evening prayer.

Unwilling to stay in Hornillos for longer than necessary, we left early the next morning. It was another long, hot walk through hot, flat countryside, a day of pressing on. We passed a turning to Arroyo de San Bol, the signpost to which made much of the reputedly magic spring. The guidebook alluded to a belief that pilgrims who washed their feet in this spring would not suffer from any further problems with them on the camino. While, considering the problems Anne had already had, this might have been worth a try, we passed on. Later we met some German girls. One of them had, she said, drunk from it, and been ill. Evidently the magic water was for external use only.

Lunch in the shade of a tree

Lunch in the shade of a tree

Mindful of the injunction in the guidebook to avoid one of the Hontanas albergues, we did not linger in this next town for longer than it took to say Morning Prayer (dabbling our hands in the fountain next the church – a refreshing break). The next few kilometres were enlivened by my having a nosebleed. This wrote off most of the too-small Estella knickers, which I had taken to using as handkerchiefs after I lost my faithful blue hankie somewhere on the way to Viana. Anne thought it was very funny. We had lunch under one of the few trees large enough to provide shade, and pressed on again. We passed under a 14th century arch, which marked the ruins of the convent of Saint Antony, pressed on for another five kilometres or so, and reached the town of Castrojeriz.

The rooftops of Castrojeriz

The rooftops of Castrojeriz

Castrojeriz is a long, thin town, built in several levels around three sides of a hill. When we arrived there most of its roads were being dug up, and we were obliged to do a kind of tightrope act over a series of planks in order to avoid falling into wet cement. Having navigated this more or less successfully, we ended up at a distinctly hippyish albergue with the unlikely name ‘Casa Nostra’. It had low bunks, uneven floors, intriguing closed off areas, and free internet access. We availed ourselves of this for a while, then went for an amble around the town.

Serenaded by fellow pilgrims at Casa Nostra

Serenaded by fellow pilgrims at Casa Nostra

Anne’s run of bad luck with regard to her bank card continued when a hole-in-the-wall refused to give it back; we were obliged to go into the shop to which it was attached and produce ID in order to retrieve it. The episode probably said more about Anne’s card than Castrojeriz; we had no issues with the rest of the town. Indeed, we passed a very pleasant evening in La Taberna, which had a most impressive sello. When we returned to Casa Nostra we found that a group of Spanish pilgrims had initiated a sing-song, in which we joined enthusiastically and, it must be admitted, somewhat alcoholically.

The path out of Castrojeriz

The path out of Castrojeriz

Leaving Castrojeriz was a little daunting: the camino goes straight up a very steep hill. We gritted our teeth and set to it. At the top we met Lizzie again, exchanging names for the first time. (Previously, she had been ‘the Scottish girl’ to us, and we had been ‘the hat girls’ to her.) She always knew when we were coming, she said, because of the noise of our walking poles ‘like very aggressive knitting’. We walked with her for a while, and passed over the border into Palencia, the next province of Castilla y León.

Entering Palencia

Entering Palencia

After the excitement of that impressive incline, Palencia proved to be flat and boring. It was also hot. We stopped in a bar at Itero de la Vega, and then walked on to Boadilla del Camino, which had a welcome shady picnic area. While Anne ate her lunch, I found that I needed the loo urgently, so traipsed around the village. The municipal albergue was shut, and I couldn’t find a bar; eventually I came to an exceedingly swish private albergue. I used their loo, and bought myself an ice cream to salve my conscience. (It was a rather nice lemon flavoured Cornetto; why don’t we get them in England?) The day got hotter still, but most of that afternoon’s walk was alongside a canal, so a cooling breeze came off the water and saved us from heatstroke.

The canal at Frómista

The canal at Frómista

We wound up in Frómista, in a albergue which, despite its lack of kitchen, seemed a palace after the crumbling yet charming Casa Nostra, and the simply crumbling dump at Hornillos. It was just as well: both of us needed showers badly. We then decided that we were feeling sufficiently cultured to go and inspect the church of San Martín, and we were glad we did.

The church of San Martín at Frómista

The church of San Martín at Frómista

Built in 1066, restored at the beginning of the 20th century, deconsecrated and now open to the public (€0.70 for pilgrims, complete with a sello for the pilgrim record) it is decorated with (apparently; we didn’t count them) 315 exquisitely carved figures around the outside. Consecrated or deconsecrated, it felt very peaceful. Afterwards, eating out by necessity, we remembered how nice fried eggs were, and what a long time it had been since we had last had them at Atapuerca, so each ordered a plato combinado at the Hotel San Martín. A group of young German pilgrims sang Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson in the albergue yard.

To make up for the lack of a kitchen, the albergue provided breakfast, including very good coffee. It was, it turned out, a little too good. The walk from Frómista to Carrión de los Condes (where we intended to stop for the night) was another long, hot one. We walked alongside the river for a little while, and got confused by the directions in the guidebook. We wanted to take the road route, but that seemed to run next the river. The road route should have taken us to Revenga; the river route, to Villaviejo. Walking next the river, we ended up in Revenga, where we stopped in a bar for Mattins and a cold drink.

Pilgrim statue in the square at Revenga

Pilgrim statue in the square at Revenga

Now we walked alongside the road on a dusty gravel track marked out by concrete bollards marked with scallop shells. We drank a lot of water, and, by the time we reached Villalcázar de Sirga, finding a lavatory was the priority. And of course politeness meant that one of us had to order a drink while the other went to the loo, rendering confusion worse confounded in the bladder area, and then reverse the process when the first came out again. The loo at this bar seemed to be terminally blocked, and had a cutesy relief picture of a girl relieving herself on the door. It was an irritating sort of place.

The flat straight path across the meseta

The flat straight path across the meseta

We had a look around the church, too; it was massive, and claimed to be a national monument. We didn’t actually think all that much of it. It was huge, yes, but not really terribly interesting, just big and gloomy. What was more exciting was the souvenir shop across the square: it sold pin badges in the shape of storks. This called for another relaxation of the no-tourist-tat rule; we hadn’t seen any like this before, and might not again. I pinned mine straight into my hat, where it remained for the rest of the journey, battered by rain and sun until the pin rusted in and the paint began to wash off.

On to Carrión de los Condes, on another gravel path next the main road. The hospitalera at Carrión spoke very fast Spanish, and was next to incomprehensible, but we managed to get ourselves signed in and went off to explore the town. It was a good-sized settlement with what they call ‘all the facilities’; these included a very well-stocked supermarket. We bought ourselves a feast. Olives, crisps, bread, cheese, a gigantic, multi-fingered Kitkat… Upon returning to the albergue, I suddenly had an urge to drink ridiculous quantities of water; we decided that I was probably dehydrated. I was packed off to bed, where I listened enviously to the gathering singing Taizé songs downstairs. Meanwhile, I chatted to an American gentleman by the name of Marvin, an acquaintance from Castrojeriz chiefly notable for walking insanely far each day. I also reflected on how silly it is to sleep in the top bunk when one has consumed several litres of water. There was a lot of getting up, getting down, and going…

Giant KitKat

Giant KitKat

We concluded, the next morning, that it was the fault of the coffee that I’d had at breakfast – it was, after all, a very large mug, and I don’t take milk. We also decided that a rest day was in order. Lizzie joined us in this; she had picked up a tummy bug of some sort and was feeling distinctly out of sorts. The three of us repaired to the nearest bar to discuss our next move. I assume that I was restrained from drinking coffee, but can’t imagine what I may have consumed as an alternative. I do remember commenting on the bizarre nature of the anime being shown on the bar’s television; it was, perhaps, a good thing that we couldn’t understand the audio.

There were at least two other refugios in the town. One of them was closed for refurbishment; we had seen the sign on the way into town. We resolved to wait until the other one was likely to be open and then try to talk our way into it. Feeling remarkably sprightly after the previous night’s misadventures, I volunteered to go out in search of the ‘Private Albergue, Espiritu Santo‘.

I found many things. I found the park and the bridge and the post office. I walked down several streets twice, and back up other ones. Eventually I found the convent of the Espiritu Santo, which looked open and welcoming, so I set off back to the bar to collect Anne and Lizzie. Together we made our way to the convent and explained our predicament. The fact that we had already stayed one night in Carrión did not seem to worry the nun who signed us in and stamped our credenciales. She pointed out the image of the dove on the stamp, flapping her hands to emphasise the point (an action that Anne and I both found immoderately amusing for private reasons) and explaining that it symbolised the Holy Spirit. We liked this place already.

The dormitories were well-lit and spacious, and had proper beds rather than bunks. The décor had something of the seventies about it, but it would have been churlish to complain about that, when things were so comfortable. A poster on the wall said, SER SINCERO Y COHERENTE, ME HACE PERSONA AUTENTICA. It made a lot of sense to me. Lizzie went straight to bed; Anne and I admired the storks’ nest on the bell tower (we knew this was a good place!) did our laundry in the sinks outside, and left it to dry in the sun.

Now that I knew the location of the post office, it made sense to make use of it. I gathered together some bits and pieces for which I had no further use – unsent postcards, the collection of cloth badges thus far – and packed them into a Spanish postal package. I also managed to include some perfectly good stamps and a pen, which was not particularly clever, and was to puzzle my father when he opened the parcel at the other end.

We returned to the albergue and did very little for the rest of the day. There was free internet access and clean showers. We made use of them. The place was beginning to fill up with other pilgrims, not that this was in any way a problem. There was plenty of room for everybody. The only thing that Espiritu Santo really lacked was a kitchen; people ate their evening meals at the table in the middle of the dormitory, and there was, of course, no tin opener. A German pilgrim borrowed my penknife to attack her tin of sardines, and made no impression on it. She tried with her own, and broke it. It was definitely one of those days. We decided that an early bedtime was the only way to deal with it. Tomorrow was another day.