Carrión de los Condes to Virgen del Camino, 15th-19th April 2007
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est
The curse of Carrión pursued us into the next day as we left the town. We got an early start and, though we left in no particular hurry, I managed to leave the suncream under the bed. Of course it turned out to be a sweltering hot day, and a walk on a path with very little shelter. When we discovered the loss of the suncream Anne was rather put out, and was obliged to cover as much bare skin as possible with a combination of trousers, long-sleeved top and Buff. I don’t burn so easily, and trusted in my extremely wide-brimmed hat to keep the worst of the rays off.
The guidebook warns that ‘between Carrión and the next town Sahagún (43km) is an arid plain with little accommodation (other than refuges) except the hostal at Calzadilla de la Cueza (15km) and few bars and shops’. We were fairly well stocked with food, and had both filled our water carriers up to the maximum two litres. We found the hostal at Calzadilla easily enough, and stopped for a lemonade and a packet of crisps in the bar. It became another entry on the long list of slightly unlikely places to say Morning Prayer. Then, feeling it inappropriate to eat our own bread and cheese in someone else’s bar, we moved on to the picnic area outside for lunch.
One kilometre further on, we were at the half-way point between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Santiago – which, given that we had started two days further back from St Jean, meant that we were already more than half way there. It was an encouraging concept, particularly considering how the long, flat plain was grinding our spirits down. We plodded on to Ledigos. We approved of the Ledigos albergue, for the following reasons. Firstly, it was part of a complex comprising a bar, dormitories, kitchen and shower and loo block, complete with internet access, all built around a grassy quadrangle. Secondly, the stamp displayed a magnificent image of a knight on horseback. Thirdly, the TV in the bar was showing the Bahrain Grand Prix. Anne went straight for the shower. I went straight for the bar and a beer. I had been missing the Formula One. It seemed prudent to root for Fernando Alonso, much as I disapproved of his defection from Renault to McLaren. Actually, we had arrived too late for me to become really absorbed in the race, but it was a welcome taste of home.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and we made the most of it by doing very little. The sunshine was too good to waste, and Anne compromised between the desire to sunbathe and the reluctance to burn by swaddling herself in her sleeping bag liner and tipping her hat forward onto her face. We lounged on the grass and talked about everything and nothing, deep theological thoughts and silly fannish flights of fancy. Then we said Evening Prayer. We made up packets of instant pasta in sauce in the tiny kitchen, and ate them seated at plastic tables, with swallows dipping and darting over our heads to their nests. And then, since the bar was so near, we went for a drink before bed.
Early nights and early mornings had become routine for us. We would be in bed by nine or ten, and sleep right through. As such, it was a long time since I had seen any stars, and so, when I got up to go to the loo, and had to cross the grass to get there from the dormitory, the illuminated sky was a stunning surprise. In a small village in the centre of the plain there was little light pollution, and the night sky was a great, blue, spangled dome. I was too chilly, in T-shirt and knickers, to stand there long, but it was a moment to remember.
The next day the memory of the dehydration night at Carrión had receded far enough for me to risk a morning coffee on the road. We stopped in San Nicolás del Real Camino, which was chiefly notable for possessing a small, artificial-looking mound, bristling with chimneys, and into which several small doors were set. Hobbit-holes, we decided. Obviously. Or, in the real world, perhaps some kind of wine cellar. At the Bar Casa Barrunta we had croissants, a rare indulgence.
Between San Nicolás and Sahagún we passed into the next province of Castilla y León, a fact that might have been exciting had we not been walking alongside a peculiarly depressing stretch of motorway, and fed up with the whole region of Castilla y León to boot. It was too hot and too flat. And, as we got nearer to the city of León, we were discovering that León separatists had an irritating habit of vandalising any road sign that happened to mention Castilla. I grew up on the Welsh borders, where all the signs were bilingual, and I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. But then there was something about the region that shortened the temper. Once the camino left off running beside the motorway and went beneath it, instead, we stopped under a bridge and said Morning Prayer.
My father had sent me, via text message, a severely condensed account of Sir John Moore’s campaign in northern Spain. Sahagún was the site of a significant battle, a victory for the British cavalry. It proved to be rather inauspicious for us… We stopped for lunch and, unwisely, decided to try a paella. Feeling on the whole uninspired by Sahagún, we moved on. We missed a fork in the camino at Calzada del Coto; one had to cross a bridge over the motorway to get there, and by the time we realised why we hadn’t come to the village yet, we couldn’t be bothered to go back. We had already crossed a lethal slip-road, and the prospect of going one step further than we had to was not enticing.We plodded on – alongside yet another motorway. We did at least have our own dedicated path, with some well-meaning trees planted alongside to provide (about fifteen years from now) some shade. It was gravel, trees on the left, and road on the right, from here to – well, we didn’t know yet. A couple of kilometres in, a pornographic magazine, weighted down with stones, flapped ineffectually in the breeze. It was unexpected… surreal… an objet trouvé… and we, frankly, didn’t care.
Ten minutes down the road Anne said, ‘So… that was a porno mag.’
Twenty minutes down the road she was feeling distinctly queasy. It seemed to be the fault of the paella rather than the porn. I checked the guidebook. The next settlement was Bercianos de Real Camino; it claimed only to be 5.5km further on from Calzada del Coto, but it was the longest 5.5km of the camino. Eventually, Anne was actually sick, and going much further seemed unwise, if it was even feasible. Fortunately, we had at least reached a shady picnic area. We reconsidered. Bercianos could not be that far away. We knew that there was a albergue there. I would go ahead and investigate, taking my own rucksack, and see if it was possible to get a taxi out for Anne. She would turn her mobile phone on, and I would let her know the situation at the other end.
It was a reasonable plan, and it worked well enough. Soon after I set out I passed a memorial to someone who had died on that spot, which was not exactly encouraging. (There are such memorials all the way along the camino. I suspect that it has as much to do with the sheer weight of traffic and the statistical likelihood of people dying anyway as any dangers inherent to the pilgrimage, although we did hear rumours, filtering westwards, about an Englishman who had died crossing the Pyrenees at about the same time that we were.) I reached the albergue to discover that there were only three beds remaining, and that any possible taxi would have to come from Sahagún, and would probably take another half hour. I called Anne. She thought that she could probably walk it, if I were to carry her rucksack.
The bed situation worried me. I had not passed any other pilgrims on the way into the village, and as far as I was aware there were none close behind us, but I did not like the proportion of spare beds to people, not with Anne so desperately in need of one. The hospitaleros were sympathetic, but could not see their way to bending the first come, first served rule. It was frustrating, but there it was. They let me leave my rucksack in the foyer, on the understanding that if, when I returned, the remaining beds were full, we would go to the hostal.
I hurried back, half-striding, half-running. I was fitter than I had been in a long time, but long-distance running was never my thing. Anne looked better than she had when I left her, and professed herself ready to give the walk a try. I donned her rucksack, and we set out together. I managed to keep her from seeing the dead pilgrim memorial; I had found it depressing, and my innards were behaving themselves. Anne did not quite get the urgency of the bed situation, and was not going to go any faster than she needed to. I kept checking over my shoulder to see if any pilgrims were gaining on us. I hadn’t passed any on my way back, but one never knew…
We made it. The remaining beds were all top bunks, but I at least was happy to have any form of bed at all. Getting Anne, in her feeble state, up the ladder (in fact, there may not even have been a ladder…) was an interesting exercise, but we managed it. The hospitaleros were wonderful. What was wrong? Could they do anything? Did she want anything? She didn’t think so; we just tucked her up and left plenty of water nearby. Meanwhile, all the other pilgrims were working together to produce a communal meal. It was heavenly: I was absolved of all responsibility for such minor details as food, and could concentrate on looking after my friend.
After supper, it was my turn to join in the singing while Anne stayed upstairs, in bed. I reflected upon the unifying power of song. Goodness knows how many nationalities were represented among the fifty-odd pilgrims, but every single one of them knew Yesterday. We had a few offerings of national songs, too, including a Basque number and a French-Canadian song. I sang My bonnie lies over the ocean. Afterwards, we retired to the prayer room for a short service. It was a peaceful end to a stressful day.
Anne was feeling much better the next day, and joined everyone else for a communal breakfast. We left Bercianos de Real Camino in better spirits than we had when we arrived. Anne’s stomach was fine; her foot, however, was not. In the next village, El Burgo Ranero, we stopped to see if the pharmacy could do anything about that. It couldn’t, not when we arrived, because it was shut. Visitors to El Burgo Ranero should beware of the dirty old man who wishes to show them the church. I’m just saying. It’s not a very interesting church. We encountered the dirty old man, got away from him, and went to the pharmacy. They didn’t seem to know what was wrong with Anne’s foot there, but measured her up and provided her with a kind of elastic bandage.
All afternoon we walked along a hot, dusty plain, parallel to the railway line. There was no shade between the designated rest areas, and, as for somewhere to go for a discreet wee, forget it. We passed what was surely the most pointlessly vandalised sign on the route: a notification regarding the railway from León to Palencia, from which the ‘Palencia’ had been imperfectly erased. This was more irritating than it should have been, given that it had nothing to do with us whatsoever. A few hundred yards further on we came across a little pond. I went in search of frogs; as at Los Arcos, I could hear them croaking and splashing, but never saw one.
We saw more hobbit holes as we entered Reliegos, which cheered us up. The albergue there was adequate, with a large, well-equipped kitchen. The showers were cold, even after we had turned on the gas water heater, but we coped. The shop in the village sold jam in portion-sized packs – a welcome luxury. We bought enough to last for a few days, along with some shampoo (used not only for hair, but for bodies and clothes as well, once the specialist multi-purpose liquid soap had run out) and the ingredients for that night’s supper: pasta with sweetcorn and tuna. Lizzie turned up at the albergue and we spent a while gossiping before bed.
Anne and I were approaching León with a vague feeling of dread. We did not have a good record when it came to cities, on the whole: we remembered the fiasco with Anne’s bank card in Pamplona, the non-existent buses to Logroño, and how horribly lost we had got in Burgos. It would be a good plan to approach León early in the day, we thought, so that we would have plenty of time to find our way in, see the sights, and be out the other side before nightfall.
This being so, we set out the next day with the strong resolution not to reach León. We stopped for our morning tea and coffee in Mansilla de las Mulas, and indulged in some slightly extravagant pastries. From Mansilla we were on a track parallel to N601 for part of the way, according to the guidebook. I don’t remember it at all, but I have annotated the book: ‘& jolly nasty it is too’. Evidently I have blanked it from my memory. I do remember the next town, Puente la Villarente. We were amused to see that the hostal mentioned in the guidebook was slap bang next to ‘Club Kiss’, and disappointed that the splendid twenty-arched bridge was ruined by having the road built too near it.
After that we pressed on through the heat, and found Lizzie eating her lunch in the shade of a large shed. We joined her, and, when we were all finished, continued to Arcahueja. Here we found Bar La Torre, which the guidebook told us was actually 1.5km further on, but we were not going to complain about that. The bar owner had branched out into catering for the pilgrimage trade by converting one room of his hostal into a albergue style dormitory. Anne and I considered that this, six or seven kilometres from León, was an ideal place to stop. Lizzie was less sure, but booked in with us anyway. We flopped down in the cool. I had no intention of moving any further than downstairs, but Lizzie was feeling guilty. She decided that she ought to move on and make León that day. Even I, with my Protestant Walk Ethic, thought that this was remarkably dedicated, but we wished her luck. It was the last we were to see of her.
The finding and losing of companions is a distinctive feature of the Camino. Unless one falls in by chance with someone who walks at precisely more or less one’s own pace, and happens to get on with them, the Camino is an unmitigated sequence of meetings and farewells – but not farewells, because it takes a while to realise that one has seen the last of the person with whom one had been coinciding all week. We had got ahead of Claire. Terry, Marg and Ursula had skipped ahead too far for us to catch them up. Meeting Marvin more than once was extremely unlikely, given his pace, and yet it had happened – but was hardly going to happen again. Now we were losing Lizzie, and we didn’t know it yet. We spent the next week or so hoping that we would catch her up…
The afternoon was spent peaceably enough in and out of the bar, getting used to the concept of tapas coming free with drinks, catching up with our diaries, and napping. One more lone pilgrim turned up; we were obliged to move our washing so that he could get to a bunk. We ate over the bar – I braved the seafood soup, which was in fact very good – and had further profound conversations over dinner. At last I found the elusive final rhyme for the It’s a long way to Tipperary filk that had been in my head for the past week:
It’s a long way to Santiago,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Santiago,
Where the censer swings just so.
It’s a long, long way to Santiago
But we’ll keep right on!
The next day we were up well before our alarm, and away around eight. We found a pleasant picnic area next a small church; the tower was, predictably, inhabited by a pair of storks. On the approach to León, the camino runs parallel to a hideous main road and over a footbridge. We had already been feeling somewhat dubious about León, and the ten-tonne trucks were not improving matters. Still, we made it into the city and promptly got lost. The guidebook claimed that there was a ‘helpful information kiosk’ somewhere; we couldn’t find it. We did find a couple of policemen, who did their best, but we remained lost. Eventually, after wandering despondently through some irrelevant suburbs, I found a bus stop with a half-decent map affixed. While it told us more about the bus routes than topography, enough of the major streets were labelled for us to be able to identify where we were, thanks to the memorable street names (Avenida de Antibioticos and Avenida Doctor Fleming) and from that we made our way to the city centre. We ended up approching it from the wrong direction, but approaching it at all was good enough for us, and, pausing only to marvel at a vanload of potatoes (we hadn’t seen any in Spain thus far) we made a beeline for a café on the riverbank and ordered two cold lemonades.
We then got lost again, looking for the cathedral. Had we come in the right way we would have passed it, but as it was we found that following the waymarkings backwards was no easier than following them forwards into the city had been. Just as we were getting thoroughly hot and cross, we found it. Even better, entry was free, and they had a sello. The latter was small and smudgy, but was, none the less, a sello. The cathedral was, we admitted sulkily, impressive. ‘Certainly not lacking in windows,’ Anne remarked, and in this respect it was an improvement on the many gloomy brick box-like churches we had seen – even if the colour scheme was somewhat reminiscent of a five-year-old’s effort with a packet of felt pens.
All the same, we were not really in the mood to appreciate fine Gothic architecture, so, having raided the nearest gift shop for fabric badges, we set off to look for an ice cream instead. We found some in dulce de leche flavour, which I found hilarious for reasons vaguely connected to having watched Guys and Dolls far too many times. (‘This would be an excellent way of encouraging children to drink milk!’) I felt impelled to buy some, but Anne had a sorbet. I still had to track down the post office and pick up the letter that should have been at Burgos. This proved easier than I had thought, and, with the aid of my little yellow dictionary, I emerged from the post office bearing two sides of news from home, which (once I got around to reading it) was extremely cheering.
The next challenge of the day was to find lunch, which by this time was well overdue. We walked for miles (or so it seemed) to find a supermarket, and then a few more weary yards (or metres, I suppose, in Spain) to a bench in a leafy garden next the river. We did not approve of León, and we had yet to find our way out the other side. I unzipped my trousers at the knee – after all, there was no sense in making myself hotter and crosser than I already was – and discovered to my delight that the trousers and the detachable legs bore little tabs to aid reattachment, red for the left leg and green for the right. Port and starboard!
We decided that, after all, we would not go too far out of the city that day. It was too hot, and Anne’s feet were being particularly troublesome. We would follow the camino until we were safely out of León, and then we would stop and attempt to recover. So, stopping at a couple of bars along the way for restorative drinks of lemonade, we plodded on to Virgen del Camino. This was an uninspiring suburb; its albergue, however, was everything we needed at the end of a trying day. White blossoms drifted down onto a wide lawn; the building was clean and spacious. The kitchen served our purposes, though it was a little short on pans. We didn’t care. There was enough to make dinner, and it was good enough for us.