El Camino de Santiago: Days 10 – 19

Part three of my Camino blog covers around 370km from Logroño to Santa Catalina over 10 days during the Holy Week/Easter period. I leave my Camino family and head off on my own, increasing my daily mileages. I head through the  Meseta, the high, flat plateau of central Spain which tests my commitment. Most days are spent walking alone, but I still manage to have a few adventures along The Way.

Day 10: Logroño to Azofra (35km)

“Mixed emotions, loss and the possibilities of new people and new adventures” (Journal Entry)

I pack quickly in the morning and am ready by 07:15, a good 30 minutes before the rest of my group will be ready. Putting my backpack on, I gently touch Robert on the shoulder and simply say, “I’m hitting the road, see you on the Camino“. He just nods and I head out of the albergue back onto the Camino. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand my intentions to leave the group and it could be seen as a bit cold, just walking away – but I’ve never been one for big goodbyes.

As I walk out of Logroño I’m hit by a very strange mix of emotions, it’s a sense of huge sadness and loss along with the same excitement and anticipation that I felt at the start of this adventure. Even though I’ve only been with the people I’ve just left for a few days the bonds we’ve made, and things we’ve talked about are stronger and more intense than most of my friends. I know that I will probably never see most, if-not-all of them again, it’s almost like a bereavement. They have disappeared out of my world, never to be seen again, (though I know I could re-join them, if I wanted to). They are now Legends of the Camino, and my stories of them will be passed up-and-down the Camino, likewise – I hope they tell stories of me to be passed up-and-down the Camino.

On my own again – the human sundial

After a couple of hours as the sun comes up, I pull myself together and decide that this is a new start for me. This is Act 2 of my Camino experience and I want things to become less structured and a bit more random. I take off my watch and put it into the bottom of my backpack, I can judge the time by my shadow – I am a human sundial!  I’ll come back to the sun and my shadow later.

The weather is glorious and there’s nothing but clear, blue skies with predicted temperatures of 25-30C for as far as I can see on the weather forecast.

There’s not as many pilgrims on the trail today and it’s pretty quiet, I stop just after noon at a supermarket in the fantastically scenic town of Nájera for supplies then head to a bar by the river for a beer. Whilst there I get chatting to a group of women from the UK at a nearby table, the Camino is like that – you just start talking to random people! They comment that I can’t possibly be carrying all my gear in my little backpack, but I assure them I am and empty the contents out explaining what each bit is and why I need it, (I actually don’t “need” a lot of the stuff). Their packs are 2-3x heavier/larger than mine, and we laugh when they tell me some of the stuff they’ve packed – one woman has a hair dryer!

Only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

My recently deceased Camino family from Logroño are planning to stop in Nájera tonight, but I’m moving-on as I’ve heard there’s an albergue in Azofra which has 2-bedroom dorms for 10€ a bed, this means I can have a room to myself for 20€. It’s a 90-minute walk and blisteringly hot. I pass a pretty Brazilian girl about halfway there sitting by the side of the trail, she says to me “I thought I was the only one crazy enough to be out here in the heat”, I tell her that I’m English and the old saying about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun”!

The Azofra albergue is nice and I get my room for 20€; after sorting everything out I head outside to the pool, (luxury) with a couple of beers. At reception I meet Huw who was in the albergue in St Jean, 9 days ago and say hello. “You must be going My Way” he says… Huw has done the Camino many times before, he’s 70 and originally from Vietnam but now lives in California.

Outside by the pool, the young Brazilian girl arrives and sits nearby. I’m wearing my Vibram Fivefingers which are my camp/evening shoes – they’re comfortable, lightweight and make a brilliant conversation starter. I ‘ve lost count of how many people I’ve met in the evening intrigued by my funny “toe shoes. Anyway – she notices my shoes and asks about them, I pick up my beer and journal and move to her table.

Ingrid is from Brazil and we’ve crossed paths before, I’ve seen her on the trail and in the albergues. She’s also a runner, and interested in ultramarathons so we chat about that for a while and I tell her about 100-mile events I’ve done around the world. There’s a lot of Brazilians out on the Camino and I ask her why that is? She tells me about the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho  and his book “The Pilgrimage” which is an inspiration to many Brazilians to do the Camino.

After heading back to my room I get onto Google, (everywhere has WiFi in Spain) and check out Ingrid’s story – it seems to hold up, but I also come across stories of Brazilian mothers sending their daughters off to the Camino to find a husband. In fact, there are many stories of women doing the Camino hoping to snare a husband. Thinking back through my time so far on the Camino – it occurs to me that most of the people I’ve met and talked to have been women. Monique aside, who was blatantly after a man – I wonder how many of them have been sizing me-up as potential marriage material?

Day 11: Azofra to Belorado (38km)

“Some serious questions about why I am doing this” (Journal Entry)

Nothing really exciting happened during the walk into Belorado, however it was the second long, hot day of walking on my own. I remember looking at the map, and my progress across Spain and thinking “Why am I doing this?“, the end was still a long way off – at this rate I was looking at another 3 weeks of walking… I’d faced my demons about communal living and meeting new, random people – that was easy. But I couldn’t break down the rest of the trip into manageable chunks.

It’s exactly the same in running, eventually you have to forget about the end goal and focus on smaller goals, you have to be more in “the present” and not worry about the future. I’ve been in this place plenty of times, and I’ve quit plenty of times when I’ve had enough… But I was determined to see this through. There’s plenty of lines in my journal where I’ve simply written “One day at a time!” Sometimes even that’s too far, and so it becomes “One step at a time!

Somewhere in Spain?

Besides which, for now – I was in the middle of nowhere in Spain, and Burgos was my nearest escape point so I had to get there, and that was at least 2 days away so I plodded-on to the parochial albergue in Belorado. Checking-in took forever as a doddery German gentleman took forever to find everything needed by the Swiss hospitalario who kept apologising to me for the delay. Eventually the Swiss volunteer showed me to a bunk bed in a dormitory full of South Koreans, oh great – so it’s going to be an early start tomorrow is it?

Now seems like a good enough time to talk about the South Koreans, there are hundreds of them on the Camino Francés! They seem to travel in groups, all dress the same – covered head-to-toe in several layers even in the blazing sun. Wide-brimmed hats with leggings worn under their shorts and a small, seemingly inefficient stride that almost looks like marching – you can spot them a mile off! But – what really sets them apart is the time they seem to set off in the mornings, in every albergue I’ve been in they’re up at 05:00 and out by 06:00. It’s impossible to leave a dorm quietly so they wake everyone up, rustling sleeping bags, head torches, squeaking bunk beds etc. Bless them, they try to be quiet. Fortunately, my earplugs and eyemask sort most of this out.

Having said all that, they’re friendly enough – always a cheery ¡Hola, Buen Camino! and a wave, they enjoy a drink or two and cook-up a mean evening meal.

Beer in Belorado

After finishing my admin I headed into Belorado to find some food, ate in a local restaurant and then headed to a bar for a couple of beers, I said hello to Ingrid as she wandered into town later that afternoon, complementing her on a long day of walking. I think she’d decided I wasn’t husband material and seemed to have latched onto another Brazilian chap. I grabbed a bottle of wine from the bar to take out and headed back to the albergue.

The evening was spent drinking wine with the Swiss hospitalarios at the albergue talking about the Camino, ourselves and the people we’ve met. The Koreans came back around 21:00 with Kho who I’d met before, we’d all had a few drinks and Kho recognised me shouting “GEE!“, I responded “KHO” but must have pronounced it wrong as he tried to correct me saying “NO, K-H-O“… I tried several times to get it right but it obviously wasn’t working. The Swiss hospitalarios and myself spent about an hour drinking and talking with the Koreans, I’m not sure how much anyone understood of the conversation but it was fun.

Day 12: Belorado to Burgos (51km+)

“Don’t do a massive long day like that again! Silly…” (Journal Entry)

The Koreans don’t disappoint and at 05:00 they’re on the move. I decide that resistance is pointless as my upper bunk sways as the little Korean girl on the lower bunk must be jumping around on it, (she’s not). Anyway – I get up and am quickly away at around 06:00. It’s still dark, I haven’t had breakfast and don’t have any food packed for the day but that stuff just works itself out on the Camino. Just in case, I grab a couple of packets of nasty onion-ring crisps from a vending machine in Belorado.

Ooops!

Just outside Belorado I decide that moonlight isn’t going to be enough to get me through until sunrise so grab my torch, and start following the river. After 15-20 minutes I haven’t seen a sign or yellow arrow and it doesn’t feel right. I check my map and yes, I’m sure it’s wrong so turn around and start working my way back. After a few minutes I meet one of the Korean girls from the albergue who recognises me, I tell her I think we’ve gone the wrong way but she’s got the GPS on her phone and is confident we’re going the right way. I give her the benefit of the doubt and we walk on… After another 10-15 minutes the sun is coming up and I take another look at the map, I’m SURE we’re going the wrong way now. Usually there’s signs every few yards and I haven’t seen one since leaving Belorado. We look at the GPS and map again, yes – we’re off course… After leaving Belorado we should have turned right up the road, instead we followed the river. This poor girl has followed my torch and gone about 2 miles off course. I’m a little annoyed, but what can you do, so turn around and head back to the road where the arrows are obvious, it’s now light and the exodus from Belorado is in full swing.

Even the signs mock me

It was already going to be a long day, circa 51km to Burgos – and now I’ve added another 8-9km onto that. And it was a long day. The Camino climbs up and over a mountain plateau through pine forests which are dotted with sculptures, rest areas and the occasional Camino oasis. I’d had enough by 14:00 but had booked a hostel in Burgos for the night so I was determined to get there.

The final 10km into Burgos were terrible, my left achilles suddenly flared-up  reducing me to a painful hobble. This happened on the Arizona Trail after a week-or-so, but a bit of ibuprofen sorted it out and it never troubled me again after. It was brutally hot and the walk into Burgos was urban and noisy, even though I took the scenic Rio,(River) route into the city centre all I wanted to do was find my hostel and collapse. It took ages to find my hostel but eventually I located it at around 17:30, dropped off my pack, headed straight back out to grab food and drink from the local supermarket, went back to the hostel devoured and drank everything I bought and passed out!

Day 13: Burgos Rest Day

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” (Journal Entry)

I hadn’t planned to stay in Burgos today, or take a rest day but woke up feeling like I’d been in a car crash, exhausted and completely battered… I went down to the hostel reception and asked if I could stay another night. It was no problem, (23€) so I paid and

I heard it through the grapevine

headed back to my room. But of course, I couldn’t sleep so packed-up all my dirty clothes and headed out to a launderette near the supermarket. In a scene nothing like the Levi’s 501 advert from the 80’s I stripped down to my boxer shorts and waterproof jacket and washed all my clothes while eating strawberries and drinking milk from the supermarket. The Spanish launderettes are awesome, clean, quick and cheap – there’s no need for detergent as the machines automatically dispense it. Fortunately no-one came in while I was doing my best Nick Kamen impression – apologies to anyone born after 1980 who just won’t get the reference! Here’s the video

After I’d washed my pants, (and was suitably dressed again) I walked down the river to a Lidl to try and find a USB charger as the one I’d bought seemed to have stopped working. Lidl didn’t have any but I bought a load of fresh food and went back down to the river for a picnic. Heading back I walked past a “Bazaar” which is the Spanish version of a PoundLand style shop, normally run by the Chinese. It’s one of those shops that sells EVERYTHING and I found a charger for 2€ plus a new rollerball pen as I’d used a pen up already writing my journal entries and sketching.

Burgos Cathedral

Burgos is a nice city and the Cathedral very impressive so I spent a few hours wandering around, watching the pilgrims arrive. Without my backpack I could blend in as a tourist and not have to greet everyone with a “Buen Camino” – something which was becoming a little wearing by now. I spent an hour-or-so sketching then retired to a cafe for a couple of beers and some food before heading back to the supermarket to buy snacks for the next day of walking.

My journal notes point out that the Spanish locals all seem fit, slim and healthy. It’s the pilgrims who look unhealthy, and it’s true. Walk around any Spanish city and (in general) the locals look fit – compared to walking around Cardiff, London or any other UK city where a large proportion of people look overweight and unfit. I found it quite interesting…

Day 14: Burgos to Hontanas (31.5km)

“Here in Hontanas I watch the tracks of planes cross the sky. It hits me that it’s 2 weeks since I was on one of those planes” (Journal Entry)

After a day off I feel much better and more positive about the rest of this journey so head out of town early, just before dawn. If I leave it too long I might talk myself into escaping on the train/bus to the airport as there’s still a long way to go.

A new pattern to my days is starting to emerge, at the start of the day there’s a steady stream of pilgrims leaving the albergues from 06:00-08:00. I spend the first few hours passing people, then seem to lose everyone after a couple of hours until, towards the end of the walking day when I  start picking up groups again. It’s Day 14 and no-one has passed me on the trail yet. I pass everyone, hundreds of pilgrims every day – and each one I acknowledge depending on how I feel and how sociable they appear. It might me the standard “Buen Camino“, “Hola“, “Buenas Dias/Tardes” or simply a wave – but I try to acknowledge everyone. It’s tiring though when you want to be alone with your thoughts, but that’s the Camino Francés for you.

Ironically, in the mornings I want to be alone with my thoughts and that’s when the Camino is the busiest. I perk-up a bit later, when the sun has warmed-me-up, I’ve had my coffee and the magic of the Camino has dragged my mood upwards but, by then there’s normally no-one around. You can always find someone to talk to though, especially in the evenings – and even more-so as an eligible bachelor without a ring on his finger.

Today I stop for coffee and am writing in my journal when an Irish/Spanish couple come into the cafe and ask if I’m keeping a journal of my Camino. I say – yes, otherwise I’d forget all this stuff, (and that’s incredibly true – all of these blog memories are triggered from notes made, I’d have forgotten most of it otherwise!) They are hospitalarios in the local albergue and I spend a good 30 minutes chatting to them about the Camino before heading back out onto the trail.

Hontanas albergue

My destination today is Hontanas and I get there early at around 13:00 without much to do for the rest of the day. It’s a sleepy little town and takes about 10 minutes to walk around so I do my best to kill some time but eventually give-in to the lure of the bar and spend most of the rest of the day sitting around drinking and eating. Later-on Andres from Germany arrives and joins me for a few drinks and Ingrid also arrives with a young group so there’s quite a party in the little courtyard. I don’t remember much about the evening so it must have been fun….?

Day 15: Hontanas to Poblacíon (38km)

“Have started to think about Santiago, will I continue or stop there?” (Journal Entry)

Hontanas is a popular stop so there’s lots of people heading West before dawn and I slowly have to pass them for the first couple of hours. I pass Ingrid shortly after leaving town with a wave and overhear her start telling her young friends “He runs 100 miles….” before she’s out of earshot. I wonder what my Legend will become? Will people whisper about this “Guy” who’s running the whole Camino in 5 days? It’s almost worth going back to the start to find out!

Just before sunrise I pass the grumpy Italians from the night in Roncesvalles nearly 2 weeks ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. I bid them a “Buen Camino” and get a grunted response. No change there then, never mind – I won’t see them again so they join everyone else in my Camino graveyard for the deceased I’ll never see or hear from again.

Alien shadow at sunrise

There’s not many notes from the walk today, and no photos so it’s time to talk about the sun and my shadow! The Camino Francés is almost always heading due West, this means the sun rises behind you and chases you all day before setting in front. You can judge the time by your shadow, it starts long and alien at sunrise and then gets shorter and shorter as the day wears on before finally ending up behind you. You really get to know “your shadow” after days, and days on the Camino. I’m sure there’s lots of metaphors about “chasing your shadow”, and “it being your only friend”. I spent hours, and hours just walking and looking at my shadow on this trip.

The other effect of walking West every day is you cultivate a tan on any exposed skin on your back and left side, this results in the “Camino Tan”. Bright red calves, left arms and backs of necks are commonplace – especially now as the weather is getting hotter and hotter and we hit the Meseta, the high plateau in Spain.

This is me – apparently?

My destination today is a little albergue just outside the main town of Frómista in a place called Poblacíon, my theory being that by staying outside the main choke points it’ll be quieter and less crowded in the morning. It’s a pretty basic albergue, but for 5€ you can’t complain – despite there being no hot water. After paying at the local hotel I head back to the albergue to be greeted by a group of South Koreans, (not the same ones as in Belorado). They seem happy to see me and one of the Korean girls offers me the bunk underneath her. There are other free bunks but the place is semi-occupied so I decide “better the devil you know” and accept, afterwards I see a sign saying “PLEASE LEAVE THE LOW BEDS TO THE ELDER PEOPLE” and wonder if this is the reason for the offer?

The Korean girl tells me her name is John(?) and she’s from South Korea, (I’d never have guessed!) and we go and sit outside and share a couple of beers. I ask why the Camino is so popular in South Korea and she tells me that pilgrimage is popular in South Korea, and the Camino was made famous by a Paulo Coelho book called “The Pilgrimage” which was translated into Korean. Aha – that’s the second time I’ve heard Paulo Coelho mentioned. I ask her, (half-joking) if she’s out here looking for a husband – but John is here with her husband so I figure I’m pretty safe.

A bit later two American girls arrive and I point them in the direction of the hotel where you have to pay for the albergue. After they’ve paid, showered and sorted everything out they join me outside and I suggest we head down to the hotel bar for a drink and they seem to be up for that. Molly and Kendra are cousins from Boston and we have a decent chat over a couple of beers about hiking in the USA and the Camino. I tell them about the Koreans, (who they call “Team Korea”) and their early morning starts, they haven’t experienced the 05:00 Korean alarm yet – but I assure them that they won’t need to worry about oversleeping tomorrow.

There’s a little bar/shop in town that doesn’t open until 18:00, Molly and Kendra head there shortly after it opens then back to the hotel for dinner. I decide to let them have dinner by themselves and head to the shop/bar a bit later for dinner on my own, conducting an entire conversation in Spanish with the owner. He tells me tomorrow is Good Friday and a “Feast Day” which means most places will be closed. When I get back to the albergue the Koreans have cooked-up a massive meal, I have no idea where they got all the ingredients from as the shop only seemed to sell beer, wine and crisps! It looked and smelt amazing.

I go back to the hotel bar and have a couple of beers before heading back to the albergue for an early night, after all Team Korea are early risers!

Day 16: Poblacíon to Saint Nicolas (49km)

“Things are slowly starting to make sense” (Journal Entry)

Team Korea let me down and don’t start getting up until a very reasonable 06:30 by which time I’m ready to get up anyway. I slip away quietly just before 07:00 and hit the Camino.

Today is Good Friday, and I’m a bit apprehensive about what will be open on the Camino over the Easter period. It’s a deeply religious area and there’s very little open on Sundays – so have no idea what will be open on these big feast days, (as they call them). I am now deep into the Meseta which is a flat, boring, hot section of the Camino – it’s over 200km long and a lot of people skip it, taking a bus or train through it. I also have to contend with a notorious 17km section where there is no water, shops, towns and very little shade. In ultrarunning standards that’s nothing and a 2-3 hour walk but a lot of people seemed scared and intimidated by it.

deuter – definitely a German

I’ve been playing a game with myself called “guess the nationality” as I passing people, (no-one had overtaken me yet). After 2 weeks you could generally tell the nationality of people by their clothes, gait and most importantly – backpack! The Germans, (and there were A LOT of them) mainly had deuter packs, the Spaniards were Quechua, (Decathlon), Yanks – Osprey etc… Hey, it kept me amused! As I passed someone, if they seemed sociable, (and I was feeling sociable) I’d ask if I could guess their nationality!

So, just before this 17km section I passed a man and woman. He had a “Gregory” pack on and she had a “Lowe Alpine” pack. After my customary “Buen Camino” I asked the lady if I could guess her nationality, Lowe Alpine was generally an American pack so I went with that. Her partner virtually exploded at me barking “SHE’S FRENCH! AND WHAT NATIONALITY AM I?” A bit taken aback by this outburst I responded – “Well, you’re obviously English” as his accent had given it away. Clearly not happy I was overtaking him he then said “How far are you walking each day?” proudly adding, “we’re doing 35-40km each day” as if I couldn’t possibly top that. I replied, “I don’t know 30-50km I suppose, today will be 50km”. Well – that shut him up and I moved quickly onwards and they soon faded into the distance behind me!

A couple of km into the “no water” section I then overtook another couple – this time a woman from London and a German, (deuter backpack) who I got chatting to, I think she said “Hi, we were just talking about death” as I passed! Shortly after we met the German excused himself and dropped away. The woman however seemed eager to chat and despite my pace obviously being too fast for her kept up. We spent an increasingly bizarre couple of hours walking through this exposed, flat section… She told me she had been in a bookshop wondering what to do with her life when a Camino guidebook fell off a shelf before her feet, it was a sign! She’d become convinced the Spanish authorities had placed speakers along the Camino playing birdsong because “Where were all the birds?“. She was also convinced there were people hiding in the bushes along the Camino spying on us. I began to understand why the German bloke had legged it now! Eventually my pace was too much for her and she said she needed to stop for a while, I told her I had a long way to go and needed to keep moving and swiftly legged it, burying her in my Camino graveyard deep underground!

A pilgrim statue

Well, after all that excitement the rest of the day was quite uneventful until near the end of the day when I got to my planned destination. All the albergues were full – it was Good Friday and this is, apparently, peak time for the Camino. Continuing-on I passed two girls, Molly and Kendra! They’d taken the bus through the 17km section so had leapfrogged-me. Apparently there was space at an albergue a couple of km up the road so we all checked-in there grabbing the last free beds. Shortly afterwards a group of 4 lads from the UK arrived also seeking beds but were told that there was “no room at the inn”. Fortunately for them the town of Shagún was 8km away and there was plenty of accommodation there. The lads looked like they’d had a long day, having walked half the distance I had – but they stopped for a beer before heading off to find a bed in Shagún.

It was a really nice, private albergue, hot showers and washing machines and I had dinner with Molly, Kendra and a chap from Brazil called Antonio who Molly and Kendra had met before, I told him about Ingrid and he seemed genuinely sad not to have met her. I told him she couldn’t be far behind if he slowed down a bit.

Day 17: Saint Nicolas to Manzilla (45km)

“Tough day mentally – boring trail and not much to focus on” (Journal Entry)

Another day on the Meseta and one that I found really challenging. 7-8 hours of walking through the dull, flat, open plains of Spain. I left the albergue just before dawn again saying goodbye to Molly and Kendra who assured me that I wouldn’t see them again at my pace, (RIP).

The Camino had now taken-on a new challenge for me, to finish it… All too often I start something and quit when I’ve had enough, or when whatever I’m doing has satisfied the itch that needs scratching. Well, by now the Camino had answered some questions in my head and I could have left it there, returned home and got on with my life quite happily. And I thought about it, a lot… It would have been really easy. But I was sure the Camino had more to offer me so I set myself the new challenge which was to complete the walk to Santiago and then, possibly on to Muxía. As the pilgrim cry goes “Ultreya!”, meaning “Beyond!”.

I don’t have any photos and only limited notes from the day, so I guess I didn’t meet any more crazy/grumpy/angry/horny people during the day of walking. I do however remember being given a whole bottle of wine with my meal at the local cafe, and chatting to people in the albergue in the evening though don’t think there was really anything special about the conversations.

Day 18: Manzilla to Mazarife (40km)

“A good day today – is this the turning point in my Camino?” (Journal Entry)

It’s Easter Sunday, and I have to walk through León today… It’s one of the biggest cities in Spain and the Camino takes me right past the Cathedral where I suspect there might be a little bit of activity. It takes a couple of hours to walk into León and I stop for a coffee and tortilla at around 10:00. After finishing-up I head back onto the Camino, following the ever-present yellow arrows and scallop shell markings through the city and start getting nearer to the Cathedral, until it’s just around the corner and I walk straight into a massive procession and thousands of people crowded into the square in front of the Cathedral.

Easter Madness in León

You can’t move, the crowds are 10-deep so actually seeing anything is almost impossible. It appears that there’s hundreds of people dressed in multi-coloured pointy-hoods carrying crosses, floats and other religious paraphernalia.  The hooded masses are pretty sinister, it looks like a Ku-Klux-Klan convention where they’ve had a bad wash-day that’s turned their robes different colours. After looking it up online, it appears that this procession in León is huge and I was very lucky to see it. After doing some research it appears that the hood, or Capirote is a mark of a person serving punishment and goes back to the inquisition. The colour of the hood determines the nature of the punishment, red hoods indicate execution – not sure I saw many of them! These days it’s the symbol of the Catholic penant… So there you go – history lesson over!

León is nice enough, but I’m not stopping here so move fairly quickly through the city taking a detour to avoid the procession and pop out of the other side of the city where I have a couple of route options. A long, boring road walk or a slightly longer countryside walk to a little village called Mazarife. Obviously I decide to go for the scenic route as I’ve had enough of the traffic and noise of the city in León.

It’s a good 3 hour walk to Mazarife and I head straight for the albergue Tio Pepe which my guide book recommends and sort out a bed. I get an upper bunk in a 4-bed dormitory and while sorting stuff out meet Bernard who’s also in the room. Bernard is from my home town of Walsall and used to teach at a school near to the one I went to throughout my “O” and “A” level years in the 1980’s Small world…

Dinner isn’t until 19:00 so I wander around the town, (it doesn’t take long) and find a shop to buy a couple of beers from. I ask the shopkeeper what time he opens tomorrow and he tells me that he’s going drinking tonight so will be closed tomorrow morning… Well – actually, he makes the universal sign of drinking, wobbles around a bit then makes the universal sign of sleeping while making a snoring sound. I understand though and we laugh.

Dinner is with Bernard in the albergue, one of the problems of constantly meeting new people is that you have the same conversation over and over again! What do you do? Why are you walking the Camino? etc, etc, etc… I start to think that it might be fun to market myself with a bit of “fake news”, tell people I’m a gay hairdresser from Brighton, or maybe a lapsed monk looking regain his faith but – after consideration think this might backfire on me, so I decide to stick with the truth!

Day 19: Mazarife to Santa Catalina (38km)

“I’m talking to myself a lot today, am I finally going mad?” (Journal Entry)

I’m not sure who is sleeping in the bunk below me, but he’s moving around which is shaking my upper bunk, it’s like being on a boat. And then – at about 05:00 he starts farting… God knows what he’s been eating but it’s horrible – being on the upper bunk you first hear it, then a few seconds later the smell hits you as it wafts upwards. At around 06:30 he gets up – it’s an elderly French man that I hadn’t met the day before. Bernard tells me to put the light on as we’re all awake now so I do, pack quickly and get back onto the Camino. I’m not in a good mood after a bad nights sleep – in fact the disturbed sleep of the last 2 weeks is slowly grinding me down, I promise myself a nice, single room tonight if I can find one.

None shall pass!

The walk takes me through the very pretty town of Hospital De Órbigo with a bridge that, (legend has it) was guarded by a knight who challenged people who wanted to pass to a duel. It reminds me of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail sketch with the Black Knight and amuses me for a good hour-or-so as I replay the scene in my head.

After Hospital there’s another route choice and of course I take the scenic, hillier route. Halfway up the hill I pass a girl walking slowly and offer my standard “Buen Camino”, before realising it’s Rosita from Brazil who I met back at the start of the Camino Francés! She’s taken the bus across the Meseta, (clever girl) and picked-up the Camino again in Hospital. Rosita has done the Camino several times so she’s not bothered about missing the Meseta, shes’s going to walk to Muxía after Santiago to compensate. We chat for a little while and I move ahead again as normal, she’s staying in Astorga tonight and I’ll be well beyond that.

Astorga isn’t actually that far away and I’m nearly there by midday, however – just outside the city limits there’s what looks like a theme park ride, as I get closer it appears to be a railway bridge, but the weirdest bridge I’ve ever seen. The ramps are very long and shallow leading up to the crossing over the railway, as I get closer I can’t believe I have to go over it – there must be a quicker and easier way to cross the railway? But no… There isn’t… This bridge is insane, it takes ages to zig-zag up to the crossing and then back down. On the way down I notice some graffiti that says, (something like)

Peace and love to everyone on the Camino and in the world – except for the designer of this ******* bridge who deserves to burn in hell

Crazy Astorga bridge

It makes me laugh out loud, and just as I get to the end some American girls who I passed a while back arrive at the ramp on the other side, all I hear are incredulous cries of “WHAT?“and “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!

Later I found out that this bridge was commissioned especially for bicycle users of the Camino so they could get over the railway, however a few hundred yards after this there’s a massive steep climb into Astorga that you’d be pushing your bike up anyway.

Astorga is another large city and it’s lunchtime when I get there so I find a supermarket and buy some food then head to outside the Cathedral and people-watch while eating my picnic. It’s about 10km to my planned stop so I pack-up and ship out afterwards and get into Santa Catalina at around 14:00

Straight away I find an albergue and the owner says “¿Albergue?” to me, I respond with “¿Tienes un habitacion individual por favor?” – do you have a room please? He does – 25€ which sounds like a bargain to me so I snap it up. I’ve been in albergues for nearly 3 weeks, and am well under-budget and ahead of schedule. I think this might be the way forward from now.

It’s lovely and peaceful in Santa Catalina and later on I get talking to a group from Latvia, Switzerland and the USA in the bar and end up having dinner with them. I don’t think any of them want to marry me which is nice, though the conversation turns dangerously towards politics for a while, Trump, Brexit etc… But I think we manage to get away without any arguements, phew… Religion and Politics are dangerous topics – especially with new friends after a few glasses of wine.

It’s been a long stretch through the Meseta but I can now see mountains again in the distance and will soon reach the highest point on the Camino Francés. Then it’s into Galicia and onto Santiago which is 5-6 days away.

Continued in Part 4: Days 20-26

NOTE: As I read, and re-read these blogs I notice I regularly switch between the present and past tense! My blogs are generally written in the present tense, and that’s because I write as if if I’m re-living the experience as an active participant instead of a passive observer, something Gonzo journalism taught me a long time ago. Occasionally though, I slip into past tense – it’s not deliberate but I write almost automatically – this stuff just flows out of me and it seems fake to stifle and correct. So I let it go… If you don’t like it, go and find some cats on YouTube – I don’t care 🙂

Finally, some progress!

 

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One Response to El Camino de Santiago: Days 10 – 19

  1. Pingback: El Camino de Santiago: Days 3 – 10 | More than Mawson

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