Fat, unfit and fifty on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino francés

Through the vineyards of Navarra and la Rioja and into Castile

May 19 - May 25: Logrono - Navarrete - Najera - Santo Domingo - Belorado - Villafranca - Burgos

Thanks to everyone for their messages (received in Castrojeriz, the next internet stop) - itīs nice to know thereīs some sane people out there, compared to all the pilgrims, who I have concluded are all essentially mad (that should include me). I think all the people are really beginning to get to me, since leaving Burgos itīs been like walking along the M4 on a busy Friday, only the routeīs clogged with people rather than vehicles. I have found most of the pilgrims either totally exhausting in that they bombard you with strongly held views at complete variance to your own (most recent example yesterday a mad Irishman totally anti-USA/Bush/Iraq/Blair and convinced the greenhouse effect and global warming is so far advanced that there is scarcely time for the Roman Catholic church and Pope to implode (at least that seemed to be the gist of yesterdays tirade). Iīve made sure Iīm in a different albergue to him today and went for lunch to a bar frequented only by the local workman, so have been trying to get a respite from people.

The other problem with 99.9% of the other peregrinos is their aversion to fresh air at night. When you have 20 people squashed into a relatively small space and the weather is getting warmer open windows in my opinion are essential, but as soon as I open one someone else comes along and closes it. Last night I just put my rucksack on the windowsill and wedged the window open and took great pleasure in the middle of the night of opening another window wide to create a cool through draft. And the weather has just turned to summer temperatures so the cool night air is essential to sleep for me.

For the most part the other pilgrims are like ships passing in the night and occasionally you see someone from earlier on the Camino or keep pace for a few days, but then get out of sync so itīs possible to avoid anyone really undesirable with any luck (especially those with smelly feet or heavy snorers!).

Well thatīs enough of other pilgims. (What a terribly unChristian tirade against my fellow man!)

Thursday May 19 - Logrono - Navarrete

Navarra windfarm
I think I signed off swiftly last time in the middle of La Rioja. It was curiously reassuring reaching an area I knew so well, just starting to recognise place names, mountains, wind farms as I approached Logroņo. I meant to mention last time that coming through Navarra they have the little stone shelters scattered around the fields like in Rioja, but in Navarra they are square with corbelled roofs and doors so low youīd have to crawl in on hands and knees or bent double, even the short Spaniards. I hoped to see close to some of the Rioja beehive shaped shelters, but the only ones I came close to were modern tourist ones at picnic sites, which look OK from a kilometre away but are clearly not genuine construction when you reach them.
I reached Navarrete, found the albergue, met up with the Finnish couple, whose names I at last learnt, Jukka and Paula. They are some of the few pilgrims, whose company I have genuinely enjoyed and they invited me to share their meal that evening, which was the last time I saw them on the Camino sadly, as they kept hopping backwards and forwards alternating the Camino with other bits of siteseeing, so we never coincided for the rest of the time, though I think there were occasions when we can only have been a few miles apart.

Sello Navarrete

The albergue at Navarrete was one of those that didn't open till quite late in the afternoon and had to wait till 3.30 until we could finally sign, by which time a long queue had formed. I knew you had to have walked further than from Logrono, or you weren't allowed to stay, but I wasn't prepared for the 'welcome' we received. We found two unsmiling Italian hospitaleros in charge who appeared to run it like a fascist prison camp. They demanded to know whether you had walked all the way or taken the bus - it was like being cross-examined by the secret police. So I lied - I'm sure they knew I was lying, but didn't accuse me openly. It was the one place (so far) that I have really felt unwelcome and was pleased to leave early the next morning. (And this is written up as a five star hostel in the guide!)

I did a bit of sightseeing around Navarrete, as when we had been digging round here we had always headed for the alfererias seeking pottery and never properly looked round the town.

Friday May 20 - Navarrete - Najera - Azofra

I was pleased to set off the next morning at 6.25 am in th ecool and the fog - could scarcely see the old the old gothic portico that now forms the entrance to the cemetery on the edge of the town. The country was now dominated by grape vines for all the dayīs walking (and much of th enext). It was interesting that there were loads of gypsies working out in the vineyards and i think they must be employed at this time of year to do some sort of preliminary pruning of the vines. There were also small groups of other people being driven out into the vineyards, who looked more affluent, but doing the same thing as the gypsies but probably have paid vast sums for honour to attend some course on 'how to tend your vineyard' - at least that is what it looked like.

The first village visible, but not actually on the camino was Sotes (Where we had stayed one of the year's we were digging here) and I realised how far it was from the excavation being not far out of Navarrete. There were a few detours I ignored as they are starting to build a new motorway/dual carriageway from Logroņo to Najera (and maybe beyond). I have decided to be the black sheep of the Camino and ignore some of the directions when I can see there is an easier route - even if it does mean a few vehicles having to slow down.

I passed Ventosa, where we used to go to the bar when staying at Sotes during the dig, but I didnīt investigate whether it was open as I wanted to get to Najera while it was still cool. From Ventosa the path went up over the Alto de Anton from where you could look across the Najerilla valley - picking out Cerromolino (possibly even making out one of the scars of our excavation trenches), Najera down in the bottom of the valley, but more prominent the village of Tricio (former Roman town and source of the best red peppers in the country). Although Najera was visible it was still a long 6-7 kms to reach it, taking a brief break in a new beehive stone shelter at a picnic area marking the legendary site of a battle between the Christian Roldan and the Syrian ruler of Najera (a descendant of Goliath): I wonīt go into detail of the legend as there are variants, suffice to say that Roldan won and drove the Moors from Najera (the ancient capital of Navarra).

I finally made it to Najera, went to one of the little bars we used to frequent off the Camino, so not crowded with pilgrims and had an excellent bocadillo of salchichas and green peppers. I was glad I went to the internet cafe in Najera earlier as I found the one at the refugio at Azofra v. expensive internet access. The couple of hours respite in the coolmeant I managed to cover the last 6 Kms here in about 1.5 hrs in spite of the heat. Itīs after 8.30pm and it is still hot, so I am planning another early getaway. I left at 6.25 this morning and intend to to do the same again tomorrow. If it stays like this Iīll find it impossible to walk after 2 pm or even earlier. I am now managing about 20 km a day, which is an improvement on 10-12 km. I think Iīve done about 300 km now.

Najera looking north to the church of Sa Maria and the Cordillera cantabrica in the background
Sello Azofra albergue > The refugio here is very new, with rooms of 2 beds only. The really peculiar thing about it was that it only had hot water - so on a boiling day, when I was dying for a cold shower the only choice was scalding hot water! I ended up sharing with "a mad Spanish woman" (as the notes scrawled in my guide record) who thought she was suffering from sunstroke and preceded to sleep from arrival to departure only arising from bed to shut the window! She was doing the Camino for the 4th time, - enough said, I think.

Azofra is very very small village, which has seen better days from the shields of the nobility on some of the houses and the only thing to see is the old church of Nuestra Seņora de los Angeles, where the pilgrim's hostel used to be in a tiny building attached and looked after by the parish, but now replaced by the modern one. I went to one of the bars for supper, where the landlady recomended her albondigas (meat balls) - clearly a specialiality and home made. They were good but far more than I could eat, but so she didn't think I didn't like them I asked her to make me a bocadillo which kept me going all the next day!

Sello Azofra Iglesia

Saturday May 21 - Azofra - Santo Domingo de la Calzada - Granon - Recedilla del Camino

The next day I set off early again (6.30) heading for Santo Domingo de la Calzada. It remained fairly cool fortunately as now the country has returned to open rolling fields of cereals, with little shelter or shade from the sun. But it wasn't long before it started to warm up again, especially on the uphill stretch to Cirueņa. The camino passed close to this and another village, but not through them, but it was forced into a detour for a new golf course and housing development near Cirueņa. It has been very noticeable the amount of new development through Navarra and Rioja compared with the derlict and abandoned villages of Aragon and again in Castile, that Iīm in now (as I write). There are very clear divides between the wealthy and the poor provinces.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada
Having seen Santo Domingo on a day off I didnīt feel the need for sightseeing but did go into the cathedral briefly and checked that the chickens were still there (you should be able to find out the story by doing a search on Google of the townīs name or try Rio Oja milagro for a version in Spanish). The main thing I had to remember was new bootlaces (successful this time), get a rain cape and send my heavy waterproof coat home to lighten the load. I also manage to find a pair of ear-rings of miniature shells, my only concession to carrying the symbol. I then carried on to Graņon, with the day now humid & warm and driven to soak my scarf in a muddy arroyo and drape round my neck to be cooled by the breeze created by the passing lorries on the N120.

Sign in Santo Domingo "No-one follows the paths of the past if not to enlighten the present"
I was initially planning to stay at Graņon the night. But after sitting in one of the squares snacking on yesterday's albondigas and chatting to one of the locals for a while I decided the next place Recidilla del Camino was on the cards. So after a coffee and the requisite visit to the church (mainly 16th-17th century with a very decorative Barroque retablo covered in gold, but also a Romanesque font brought from the old church), I crossed over from La Rioja into the province of Burgos. Along this stretch one had a good view across the mountains of the cordillera Cantabrica to ones right (north ) and the Sierra de Demanda to the left. So managed about 24 kms today.

Sello Recedilla del Camino

Traditional buildings in Navarra
Recidilla was a fairly poor little village with a lot of buildings in serious disrepair, though there were a few new ones going up. What particularly struck me was the variety of building materials, with stone ground floors, timber framed upper floors, with adobe or mud brick infill, sometimes very thin mud brick, and more recent repairs using various types of brick. Somewhere I saw concrete blocks made to the precise shape and size of mud bricks and mud bricks set in hard cement, so the joints were still fine, but the the bricks were receding and weathering away. The same sort of building materials remained prevelant over the next couple of days.
The pilgrim's hostel in Recedilla was a new build attached to the local bar, which was full of cigarette smoke and locals when I arrived. They also provided an evening meal here for all the pilgrim's in a separate dining room. I had a chance here to leaf through the book recording all the pilgrims who had stayed with their nationalities. British/English were definitely the minority with an average of 1 a month, compared to innumerable French and Germans, frequent Spanish, a superisingly large number of French Canadians, and decreasingly Italians, Brazilians (surprising number from Brazil considering how far away it is), and a smattering of Irish, Dutch, Scandinavians, Australians and Americans.

Village buildings in Villamayor (or was it Tosantos?)

That evening being Saturday there was a mass on in the church and it was clearly a special celebration, and I later established it was the feastday of Aurora del Rosario (ŋOur Lady of the Rosary?). Mass was preceded by the saying of the rosary - I had forgotten how repetive this activity is, even though all the congregation and priest had it down to a very swift fine art to get through it quickly. This was then followed by a shortened version of mass. I expect that there was going to be a procession after mass on Sunday as there was a statue of Mary in a fine white and gold robe, surrounded by flowers, clearly waiting to be paraded round town.

Sunday May 22 - Fiesta de la Aurora del Rosario

Recedilla del Camino - Viloria - Belorado - Tosantos - Villafranca-Montes de Oca

There was an almost identical statue sitting in the church at Belorado, the next town I reached on Sunday morning after a 5.30 start from Recidilla. It was rather surreal walking the first hour in darkness, but the track was whitish and easily followed till it got light round about 6.30, when I reached Viloria de Rioja, the birthplace of Santo Domingo, who built bridges, hostels and generally improved things for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. It is a very peaceful time to be walking with just the dawn chorus for company. Apart from a little old Spaniard at the next village of Villamayor del Rio who thought he was in with a chance of getting a kiss!

Sello Villafranca Montes de Oca
It hadnīt occurred to me that it was Sunday till I reached Belorado at 8.45 desperate for breakfast to find the town silent and closed. Fortunately there was a bar open in the main square full of pilgrims. I had about an hourīs break there chatting over several coffees and tostada to an American builder, about the houses and construction techniques etc. One of the few pilgrimīs Iīve had an interesting conversation with (as opposed to lecture from a soap-box).

From there I headed through a number of small villages - Tosantos, Villambistia - where there was big church, but mass was in progress as I passed so didn't go in. I arrived at Villafranca Montes de Oca at about 1 pm. The village has the main road running through the middle of it and lorries thundering through at well over the speed limit as they come down the Montes de Oca. You were really taking your life in your hands trying to get to the shop or the bar (which wasnīt worth it as it closed for the day at 2.30 pm and the service was surly). I walked round the village, but there wasn't a great deal to see, so spent the time washing clothes and resting and making tea having obtained milk from the shop.

Monday May 23 Villafranca - San Juan de Ortega - Atapuerca - Burgos

I was able to start the day with a cup of tea for a change before setting off. The path started off going straight up the hillside, so it was like going up a Welsh hillfort at 7am. Although there was an initial steep climb, it was nothing like as bad as leaving Ruesta. Once again though we were heading up into the cloud and through oak woodland, with heather and broom in flower and occasional bluebells. Once up on top it was straightforward, the oaks turning into conifer plantation and by this time above the cloud so it was sunny and clear. Fortunately there was a cool breeze so not too hot. It was in fact rather like a walk in the New Forest as the landscape was similar, with areas of heathland between the woods and plantations. These were rounded, flat topped Montes, not pointy Sierras, so once you were up on top you wereīt really aware of being high up and it was generally fairly flat and easy-going. Part way along the track there was an old battered English car, with an Englishman providing refreshment for pilgrims aparrently in the middle of nowhere, though it was probably no great distance from the main road.

San Juan de Ortega

Sierra de Atapuerca
Eventually the ground started to fall gently and we reached San Juan de Ortega, which consists almost exclusively of church, remains of monastery, albergue and bar. San Juan was a contemporary of Santo Domingo and both were 'engineer' saints responsible for improving roads and building bridges to make things easier for pilgrims. The church was Romanesque at its core but 'improvedīand added to by Isabella la Catolica, who embellished the saints tomb. There were a series of small carvings around the tomb illustrating the saints life, which I was sitting perusing, when I suddenly realised one of them was of the Saint in earnest conversation with Barry masquerading as a pilgrim (remember the Danebury photo caption competion?) I could so easily have missed it and was very chuffed to see the original (even sent a P.C. to Barry of it!).

From San Juan de O. the Camino carried on through a mixture of woodland and open grazing land, passing through the village of Atapuerca, but not making a detour to the excavations. The village has put up a monument That will have to wait for a trip by car. The Camino went over the Sierra de Atapuerca (not mountains, more like chalk downland), but in fact an area of low karst limestone upland with scattered areas of oak woodland, quite alot of bare limestone and an array of wild flowers. It was a very beautiful landscape under a pure blue sky.

San Juan de Ortega, church, monastery, albergue and bar

Atapuerca monument
The path came down off these hills to wind through a number of small villages - it was now very hot and the forecast for the next day was for full blown summer temperatures. My intention had been to stop at a refugio in one of these villages, but there were no shops in any of these and I had discovered en route an unexpected and urgent need to get to shops for female supplies. I ended up doing 29 Km only to discover the village supposed to have shops no longer had any - however at that moment a bus turned up for Burgos, so I took it to cover the last 10 km to civilisation (and what would have been the most unpleasant walking conditions alongside the main road through the industrial estates). Having bought essential supplies, there was still nearly 2 km to do to the refugio, which I crawled into at 6 pm. Forced myself to wash some clothes and was really grateful I still had a small carton of milk to make some tea before I collapsed into bed. Fortunately I had seen Burgos before having been given a guided tour by Maria Cruz, who was brought up in Burgos and married in the Cathedral.

Unfortunately that trek was just too far and my feet and boots are back to square one. I had been managing c. 25 kms for a few days without too much difficulty and felt I was making real progress. The last 2 days since Burgos Iīve managed 20 km each day, but it has been really hard going. The combination of really hot weather, the way I have been feeling (not my best) and the constant throng of pilgrims en route since leaving Burgos and the albergues all full to overflowing has made me feel I want to give it all up. However after spending last night in Hornillos, I made it to Casatrojeriz today. En route this morning, when I was feeling pretty ghastly, I was promising myself I would jump on the first bus to Leon and go and have some peace, quiet and cool at the house. However I know if I do that before I reach Leon, I will probably not come back to where I left off to continue. Burgos city gate

Sello Burgos
So Iīm feeling a bit better now than earlier today and Iīll see how things go tomorrow. It would be nice if the weather could cool a little as the Camino is now crossing the plains of Castile - rather like Salisbury Plain in landscape but massive in extent covered by endless expanses of cereals, with not a tree as far as the eye can see, just stone clearance cairns dotted here and there.

So Iīll leave you with the cliff-hanger, will I make it or wonīt I? May be itīs time to buy some trainers and throw away the boots!

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