Camino Day 22 – San Martin to Astorga

We get up at 7 for breakfast, it’s not quite ready. At 7:10 or 7:15, the hospitalero opens up and gets us breakfast, and sits down in a chair near the bar. He immediately dozes off and snores gently. A guy comes in and hesitates to wake him, but he notices him and straightens up, saying “dime” with almost enough confidence to dispel the notion that he’s asleep on the job. I think the guy is delivering mail or something. Moments later, the gentle snoring starts up again.

As we start walking, it’s cold and I remember I should buy a long sleeve shirt or something. I joke that as soon as the sun is higher in the sky I’ll forget that I need it, which happens to be true.

We walk past Hospital de Orbigos, and the bridge. There’s some legend associated with this, jousting or something,  El Cid or Charlemagne, but I can’t recall it offhand.

There is a tour group or something going through, and this bridge is crowded.

We pass and are passed by the couple from our last dinner, they seem to be walking a little slower but stopping as frequently. We don’t really stop to say much more than hi.

We get coffee and sandwiches in …, and then stop again at another oasis, this one more hippyish. We’re grateful that they have healthy food – fruit and juices. We mix orange and carrot juices, eat a plum and a slice of watermelon. It’s self service, donativo, and delicious. We sit in the shade with  an Australian with white hair, who’s just started his walk from Leon. We say what a great place, and he complains “yeah, but there’s no beer here.” Later we laugh. Beer isn’t at all rare on the Camino but free juice and varieties of juice? This was the real treasure.

Getting to Astoria is a bit frustrating. We see the city from a hilltop (and stop to take a picture of a particularly nice rose) and descend. Before long we’re forced to take the stupidest pedestrian bridge I’ve ever seen to get over the railroad tracks. It is long and winding, and goes in three levels of ramps on each side. In the half hour (est.) that it takes us to cross the tracks, not a single train passes by. Then we enter what we think is Astorga, with views of the cathedral in the distance, but is actually a whole separate city. We don’t stop for coffee, (but the lesbians from the night before do) and press on, re-entering the wilderness before climbing back up into Astoria proper. Dorcinda leaves me behind again, and, rather than racing to catch up, I put headphones in and listen to three songs. Ratatat is pretty good walking music. NOW we’re tired.

In Astorga, we realize that what we thought was the Gaudi Hotel is the episcopal palace. The Gaudi Hotel is just a regular building across the street, with VIEWS of the palace. This softens the blow, from last night, of learning that the place is full up and unavailable. We head to the best restaurant in town, according to the reviews, and get lunch. It is a ridiculous place, open more or less from 1pm to 4pm, and really only serves one dish, cocino de magarato. We don’t know what this is, but seemingly every restaurant in Astorga advertises it, so we get that. Dorcinda opens the door a crack and immediately retreats. Maybe we should eat somewhere else. The patrons are fancy looking and we are ashamed of our dirt and sweat. “We’re sorry we’re so dirty ladies and gentlemen, but we didn’t have time to take a bath, we’re pilgrims!” I take the lead and enter the restaurant.

The host seats us right by the door, which allows us to stash our packs in the corner, but also, I think, offers poor advertising for anyone else who peeks into the door. I need not have worried though – soon the place is jam packed, and some of the people entering are regular folks with kids – I hold the door open for a woman struggling with a stroller, and her son follows her crawling through the doorway on hands and knees. He stands up, and his hands are filthy, making us feel less self-conscious. We’re no longer the dirtiest people in the room, thanks to a small boy who probably doesn’t know any better.

Ordering is surprisingly difficult, they talk fast and don’t offer menu or options, but we manage. Essentially, the guy asks, are you here for the thing? And I ask, can we share the thing? It’s priced per person, he says, and includes bread and wine. Vale, I say.

We are given a tub of bread and a bottle of wine. A few moments later, we get a bucket of assorted meat, boiled I guess. There are things in there I definitely would not order – a square of just fat, a joint of some kind with no meat except skin, chunks of pork boiled with the skin and hair still on, and a rubbery strip that I’m pretty sure is intestine. We start with the chorizo, which at least is a familiar kind of bad. We drink a lot of the wine to wash down the meats, and I guilt Dorcinda into eating more than she wants of this stuff. I longingly recall the juice stand, and how happy I was to eat light, fresh, vegetarian food. I shovel another bit of soft fat into my mouth. We eat more than three-quarters of our bucket, and I’m proud of us. We’re pretty full and ready to move on.

The waiter asks us if we want garbanzo beans, and I realize our mistake – this was just the first course. We look around and realize that no one else has eat as much of their meat bucket as we have. There’s a family of three next to us, and they eat barely half of their meat bucket. We eat beans, and then pork noodle soup, and then have dessert – a cream pudding – with digestifs and coffees.   By the end, we’ve polished off our bottle of wine while the family near us leaves about two-thirds left in the bottle. We’re embarrassed for a whole new reason – we’re barbarians, gluttons. I wonder if there’s a willy wonka like contest – whoever eats all the food put in front of them automatically becomes the new heir, the owner of the place. I imagine the wait staff swapping stories about us later – did you see those two pilgrims? They were small, but they must not have eaten all day – they polished off the entire bucket of meat!! No, no, the other will say, I’m pretty sure its because they’re Americans – everyone in that country is a competitive eater – have you seen the hot dog contest at Coney Island on TV? Strange people, those American, he’ll say, wisely shaking his head.

Stuffed to the gills, we waddle over to a nearby hotel. Dorcinda wants to treat herself for her birthday so we pay for a spa treatment. But it’s a repeat of the restaurant to some degree – we have no idea what we’re getting into. We walk to the spa, and say, we’re here for the thing. The woman at the desk says, oh, the thing? Right this way, and hands us a robe. We change into the robe and, unsure, keep our underwear on underneath. After we’re robed up, she explains, it’s basically a warm pool with air jets and showers. There is steam sauna and a dry sauna, heated chairs that I don’t know how to use, a foot washing station for pilgrims, some showers, and a oil shower car wash gauntlet thing that I don’t understand. We have one hour. We try pretty much everything, except the chairs, and some of the in-pool shower things are surprisingly strong, offering a better than expected back and shoulder massage. We dry off, put clothes over our wet underwear, and head out. I use a hair dryer for my underwear, and it works pretty well.

Next we head for a chocolate museum. Astorga used to be a big chocolate making city, at one point having more than 400 chocolate factories  in town. We struggle through a room displaying the tools for making chocolate “a brazo” and “a piedras” and between the machines and skimming descriptions in spanish, come to a very vague understanding of the process. The next room, however, has a video with English subtitles and it all starts to come together. There are also rooms displaying advertisements and packaging, chocolate presses and moulds, and a description of some of the big chocolatier families in Astorga and around Spain. At the end, we get free chocolate and dumb postcards.

Next up, we want to see the palace and the cathedral, but we’re running low on time, so we go with Gaudi.

We rush through but are impressed by the stained glass, the whimsical and functional and elegant that is Gaudi’s calling card. I think I’ve seen most of his buildings by now, but should double check that. In the basement, we see stone remnants of earlier churches – bits of worn statues, broken columns, empty stone sarcophagi. This is like the church’s knicknack drawer, I think. Stuff that serves no purpose, but once was worth something to somebody, so you’re loathe to discard it completely.

At the end of the day, we attempt to head out to a pinchos bar we’d heard of, just in the same square as our hotel, but when we get there, we’re sickened by the thought of stuffing more food or booze into our bodies. Its too bad, the square has a nice lively saturday night atmosphere. We go upstairs and write for a little before bed.

Camino Day 21- Leon to San Martin

We start off pretty slow today, forgetting to set an alarm. Dorcinda comments on how bright it is outside, and I check the clock. It’s 7:30! I jump out of bed.  We get packed and I forget my pole so we go back upstairs. It’s hidden by the curtain and I feel dumb. After an easygoing breakfast, we pass the monastery on the way out of town. Dorcinda wants to stay, she’s at 40 percent and wants convincing. But I’m at 25 percent, and we move on. We walk around a little bit and appreciate what we’re missing.

We meet Alice and her mom again outside of town. They’re traveling with an American from Tampa named Eddy. He said he saw us earlier and tried to catch up with us but couldn’t. Not before noon, buddy, I think. We’re the speedy pilgrims.

We stop for second breakfast and everyone gets OJ except Dorcinda who gets coffee. Alice says she found the special dessert mentioned in our guidebooks for this region, but she’s wrong – she’s just got regular magdalenas, bland dry cupcakes. Still, it is a sweet gesture and we are grateful. Eddy had worked on something in educational software, but he was laid off and has been traveling. We joke about both being retired. He’s  got a little over two weeks for the Camino before some volunteer home building thing in Africa, so he started in Leon. We are shocked to discover that its 12 at the end of second breakfast so we speed ahead and leave our temporary companions behind.

We walk along the roadside for a long time, and for once rue our decision not to take the scenic route. Every now and then the wind blows some foul odor into our faces.

We stop for a moment at Villadangos, which is St. John of Brierly’s recommended stopping point. We get ice cream and powerade and Doritos, just before the store closes at 3, and eat it outside the store. I notice a shirtless kid in the window and we make some snarky comment about protecting ladylike modesty. The shirtless girl, joined by her sister, in a white shirt, notice us and knock on the window. They’re maybe eight or 10 years old. Dorcinda smiled and wave and the shirtless one flips us the bird. I look down and ignore them. They knock and flip us off some more. I hope they’ll knock loud enough that their mother will notice and yell at them.  The shirtless one opens the window and yells at us. Eh! Gillipoyas! We eat our ice cream, slowly, appearing unfazed. Most places we’ve gone, people have been very welcoming of pilgrims. But not Villadangos, I guess.

While we’re sitting, another pilgrim asks us if we’re staying and we say no. He says, unfortunately, he will stay here. He was thinking of exploring the town a little, but this is pretty much it; he’s disappointed. He tells us wistfully about Hospital de Orbigos, 11km away, where he will probably stay tomorrow. They let pilgrims paint there or something, and his friends have told him its one of the best parts of the whole Camino. Dorcinda, I think, is tempted by his description and seems to consider walking 11km more. As for me, I don’t care what some rando’s friends say, 11 km is a long way to walk.

We stop at the next town, about 8km short of the recently-promised land at Orbigos, at San Martin. We get a double room for 20 euro, with two dinners and two breakfasts its 45.

At dinner, they put all four dining pilgrims together, so we chat with a lesbian couple. Sinead from Australia and ? From Estonia. We’re pretty sure we saw them outside of San Juan de Ortega, where we’d wondered if they were mother and daughter – Sinead is much larger woman, and seemed to physically be looking out for her smaller companion. They’ve been together for three years and are about to break up – Sinead is going back home but the other one is staying in Valencia. We don’t ask why they’re splitting now, and how they’re able to stay so close now, knowing that the end is near. They tell us that they took a bus ahead to avoid some unwanted attention from German admirer, a fellow pilgrim. Dorcinda and I discuss the only things we know about Estonia, some composer for her, and cybersecurity for me.

Camino Day 20 – Mansilla to Leon

On the way out of Mansilla, we meet a few familiar faces. First, Alice and her mom, who have trucked on at the same pace as us despite the fact that Alice’s mom was nursing a sore foot the last time we saw them. We talk for a while, but they’re going slowly and we stat to drift ahead.

Just then Anthony (the guy from Sydney, who we met wayyy back on Day 1) greets us and we walk with him a while, grateful for the slightly faster pace. His beard has grown in, and he’s gathered a following of three young pilgrims, walking after him like baby ducks after their momma. The three little pilgrims. The followers drift ahead, while Anthony talks to us. He says he also spent a day in Burgos, where he was surprised by a cousin. While there, he took a bus out of the city to an outdoor shop to buy new sandals, which he said are difficult to find now that the season is changing. We tell him about our awful tourist train experience. He complains about an 18 year old American who stomped and slammed doors, we complain about snoring Italians. Dorcinda thinks he’s grown more judgmental, I’m not so sure.  He doesn’t introduce us to his pack though, and when he leaves us behind to catch up with them, he immediately retakes the lead and appears to be giving orders. We speculate that, as experienced pilgrims ourselves, we could be an unwelcome disruption to the pecking order – three parents is too many for a pilgrim family.

The way into Leon, although only 18 km, is harder than we expected. The scenery is at once dispiriting and fascinating. Don’t get me wrong – it’s ugly as hell. Strip malls, construction sites, industrial zones, highways. But after weeks of walking on country roads, through small towns, in cities built for walking, this is the first stretch of the way where walking is a truly alien activity. This land was shaped for cars. It is valuable as empty space to be filled, for storage and shipping, for its proximity to the city, but is not a place for people, not a place to linger.

Leon, once we get to it, is a great place for walking, with its narrow twisty medieval streets and charming little cafe-lined plazas. Where Burgos was open, grand, and bold, Leon is cozy, ancient, charming.

In Leon, we get a fancy lunch and skip dinner, eating at Becook, which has vague but almost-universally positive reviews. The place settings advise us to BeExperience and BeVanguard. It’s a fusion place, so it’s kind of hard to describe, which accounts for the vague reviews, but it IS good.  We have octopus ceviche, scallops in thai curry sauce (we try to keep two shells, but they don’t let us), and some roast duck. And a dessert called the “Dracula” which is Coca-Cola flavored ice cream, vanilla cream, and some truly vile strawberry candies that are so dry that they stick in your teeth and make your mouth hurt no matter how much liquid or ice cream is in your mouth to counteract it. It comes with a bowl of dry ice underneath, so it smokes attractively and mysteriously.

We meet Alice again at the Cathedral and are impressed by the sight. Our guidebooks weren’t kidding about there being a lot of stained glass windows. Somewhere, I read that there are too many windows, in fact – the stonework is structurally unsound and needs to be repaired far more often than other cathedrals. It’s worth the extra effort, though.  I tear up a little bit at the beauty of the building – one side effect of the Camino is a softening of the emotions, an inclination to sentimentality. And what better place than here?

The audioguide threatens to put me to sleep within seconds of turning it on – this woman’s voice is uniquely boring, and I think I’ve heard her before – maybe at Casa Battlo? I turn it off and wander the cathedral in ignorant bliss.

The cathedral’s museum  has a couple of relics, saints I don’t recognize. They’ve got a lot of statues of St Sebastian, arrowed, and I wonder if he has some local connection.

After the Cathedral, we go to the basilica, and find mass in progress. We sit, then stand, as appropriate. At the end, they invite the pilgrims up for a special prayer and a song, and we decide to do it. The priest points out that there are people who speak all different languages, and asks where people are from. He jokes gently with the spaniards – Valencianos understand Spanish, right? You’re Spanish, even though you’re from Cordoba. We are reunited with Brenda, who stared in rapt attention during the prayer.  She and her German friend Thomas follow us to a rooftop bar for a drink but the place is full up and we don’t have reservations. We decide to stay and have a drink and watch the sunset but Brenda and Thomas go to search out food. We send them to Becook.

Day 17 – Villalcazar de Sirga to Ledigos

I slept horribly. Franco the Italian was quite a snorer – I put my earplugs in and wrapped my pillow all the way around my head, but it barely helped. I also itched quite a bit. And the beds, mine included, were really squeaky.

We breakfasted with the Franco, the Dane, and the Czech women, and headed out, making good time to Carrion de Los Condes. The church here contains a scene of the 100-maiden tribute to the Moors, and the town was supposedly the scene of El Cid’s legendary revenge against the Counts of Carrion, who married, then abused, two of his daughters, stealing their dowries and leaving them tied to a tree. I finally look up El Cid, Mio Cid is literally “My Cid”, a term of endearment used by the narrator and by characters in the work.[2] The word Cid originates from Arabic sidi or sayyid (سيد), an honorific title similar to English Sir (in the medieval, courtly sense). (Wikipedia)

We see Alice again, and the Austrian smoker from last night, and join them for coffee. They leave and are replaced by the Dane and Italian. We are bored with them, and I leave to go to the bathroom – something from yesterday isn’t sitting well in my stomach. Dorcinda is annoyed with the Dane, who assumes that everyone here has traveled from some further town, and we decide to try to leave them behind. It seems impossible to him that someone could start out their day at 8 a.m. There’s nothing outrageously bad about his behavior, but a lot of little annoyances – his assumption that everyone he meets is American (similar to my obviously wrong assumption that everyone is German), his creepy eyes and smile, his annoying voice and accent, his hesitance to drink Spanish tap water, his confidence in his progress despite the fact that he’s just started in Burgos, and just a general boringness about him.  My walking stick has disappeared from the last hostel, the first time that I’d ever left it in the common area, and I buy a new one, heavy and wooden, in Carrion.

After Carrion de los Condes, we walk a desolate 17.5km stretch to the next town, broken up only by an “oasis” a little more than halfway in. We get orange soda there, but they start packing up soon after we get there, closing up shop by 1130. We walk for much of the day with Alice, who we meet just as we leave Carrion de los Condes. After the oasis, my foot starts hurting and I say I can’t walk any faster. They say that they’re okay with taking it slowly, but they quickly leave me far behind. My mind wanders to a more solitary place and I put in my headphones for the first time in more than two weeks. When they finally decide to stop and wait for them, I spurn their pity and keep walking ahead, hitting my stride now because of the music. A bit further on we meet Siming, who slows me down and talks to  me. We chat for a while, the girls catch up, and we walk again as a group. Siming is appropriately outraged at the theft of my walking stick, “Wow, that is jerk!” and I’m amused by his mangling of the word albergue.

We split up at the next town, Alice to reunite with her mother and Siming to walk ahead to the next town. Dorcinda and I get ice cream and a large bottle of water and consider staying here, as planned. But the threat of the Dane and Italian catching up spurs us on, sore feet and all, to the next town. There are only two albergues in this town, and both are just large shared rooms, no privacy available.

The road is hot and hard, and I’ve got painful new blisters when we arrive. We shower and snooze for a few minutes, wash our laundry, and dully browse the internet. This is a fancier new albergue, and we splurge for a double room (40euro) to avoid potential snorers. They have laundry and drying options, which seems luxuries. This is my favorite herbergle yet, I say. I’m too tired to write – maybe it’s because I’ve walked 17 miles on a piece of bread, a chocolate pastry, and a small ice cream. I mope about not getting more likes from Facebook posts. We are petty pilgrims today. We lounge around the bar, fiddling with our phones and not ordering anything, until 7, when we get our pilgrim dinners. It’s the best meal we’ve had for days – Dorcinda gets a pork knuckle? And I get grilled swordfish, and we’re very happy. Baked apple for desert, lentil stew for starter, and a 5 euro bottle of wine.

We’re glad to have a private room, after last night’s snore fest. But we can hear another guest snoring through the walls, and we laugh at the ridiculousness of it. It’s not intrusive, though, and we laugh ourselves to sleep.

Camino Day 19 – Calzada de Coto

We rise early, and get a decent night sleep despite the large room. I didn’t even need earplugs. As I brush my teeth the old frenchman turns off the light before entering the bathroom, thinking that the room is empty, and that he’s turning the light on as he enters. I don’t really have time to object, and he opens the door to find me glaring at him, toothbrush in my mouth. He is apologetic and I shrug it off.

At breakfast, the old french pilgrims jealously guard the good bread, leaving us with just pan cruciente, which is excruciatingly dry no matter how much jam we slather on it. The coffee is drip, and bad. Dorcinda leaves ahead of me, and before I follow her, I say goodbye to the hospitalera. She follows me to the doorway and I wave again. She seems hesitant about something. Dorcinda tells me later that she wanted to hug me – she had said earlier, while I was in the bathroom, that she hugs all the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

We walk 6km? to breakfast and we see two old cyclists. They passed us on the way in and are impressed that we caught up so quickly. We also see one man from our hostel. These are the only pilgrims, the only PEOPLE,  we would see for most of the day, starting a long lonely stretch of 18km between towns. We load up with a relatively luxurious breakfast – coffee, eggs and either chorizo or bacon.

The day, as predicted, is hot. We walk for a long way on paved highway, and wonder where the roman road begins. We see few signs of life, no pilgrims or cyclists, few cars, even. There is a train in the distance.

Eventually we meet the Roman road, and it is hard going. The rocks are big and uneven. Despite the exhortations of the book of John, I do not feel particularly connected with antiquity. I feel connected with the heat of the sun on my neck, the sweat on my back, the pain in my feet. We stop at every shady spot – few and far between – to drink water and stay hydrated, and I nearly finish my bottle, which is something I’m loathe to do. This is as remote and difficult as the 17.5km stretch a few days ago, without the company of Alice to speed the time, and without the break of an oasis to sell us cold drinks half way.

Finally, mercifully, we see Reliegos ahead. In town, we buy smoothies, the first calories since breakfast so many hours and miles ago. It’s wonderful. We debate about whether to move on or to stay for a while and decide to press on. The next stop is Mansilla de las Mulas, and it puts us at 32km for the day.

We stop at the second hostel we see, a pleasant and clean looking place called Gaia. It’s cheap too, just 5 euro each. We settle in, and I see a bed bug. I report it to the hospitalera, who is distressed and apologetic. She kills the bug and sprays mattresses. We spend an hour hemming and hawing and researching bed bugs, but decide to leave and stay at the hotel nearby instead.

In Mansilla, we wander around town for a bit. We find an old alley with a door through the old city walls. Just beyond there’s a little meadow and some trees. Just inside the door, there’s a spent box of Don Simon wine. I haven’t seen the stuff since my Martos days, when I was well acquainted with the cheapest types of alcohol that I could afford with my low-paid part-time teaching work. Not a bad place for a bum to get pissed on boxed wine, I think. We seek out a place to eat. Our guidebook and a shopkeeper who sold us cookies both recommend La Curiosa, but the kitchen there doesn’t open until 9, and that won’t do. We consider the bar next to La Curiosa, which charms us with the sound of a slightly off-key piano, played casually by one of the patrons. The woman at La Curiosa recommended Las Delicias, though, and she doesn’t steer us wrong. We get a decent menu, and I get drunk on the bottle of wine they give us to share. No writing tonight.

Our feet have new or worsening blisters. I decide to lance the blood blister on my foot, and it seems to go pretty well.

Camino Day 18 – Ledigos to Calzada de Coto

Today is a short, unmemorable day. It is characterized first by a proliferation of flies, second by heat, and third by a burgeoning blister that stops me early.

I say “early” but we stop at 2pm, which is our usual goal, and after 21.7 km, which isn’t far off our planned pace. It’s also consistent with the goals we’d set forth a few days ago, when we’d planned to end in Sahagun – we end instead at the next town, 4km on, after we’d decided to press a little further than planned the day before.

We get sort of a late start, and eat breakfast at our hostel, rather than walking the 3km ahead to the next town as usual. We meet up with Alice again in the morning, and walk with her for a while until we catch up with her mom, who, today, is moving quite slowly. We talk about the baked apple we had for dessert the night before, and Alice says that her mom has often made it, sometimes with walnut and honey in the core. Dorcinda asks the mom whether she treats the apple in any way when not removing the core, or just sticks it in the oven. I always remove the core and put nuts and honey in, she says, contradicting Alice’s earlier statement. Alice rolls her eyes. As we leave town, they stop to adjust something and we leave them behind.

We make  it  to Sahagun and almost immediately, the hard pavement starts to hurt my feet. It’s funny, I’ve done almost all my life’s walking on pavement, but I dread it on this trip. We buy some tea tree oil at a pharmacy, which the woman at the counter recommends for repelling bed bugs. She says it also works for blisters and itches, so I’m eager to try it despite the unpleasant smell.  We decide for a larger lunch in Sahagun, but the place only offers a menu, so we eat TOO much. Worse, we’re beset by flies and bees, and the experience is really unpleasant. I thought we’d be used to flies by now but they are just relentless here. Dorcinda leaves half her chicken uneaten. I now hate this town, and have no interest in visintg the tourist stuff of old nunneries and templar buildings.

We pass Alice and her mom again on the way out of town, and they’re unsure how far they’ll go, because her mom’s feet are hurting. We say we’re going at least to the next town, but my feet won’t cooperate either, and that’s as far as we go. I think its 4km. Just before the turn off, we stop to drink water and a pilgrim from the group ahead comes back a few paces to speak with us. Where are you going? He asks, in broken english, despite his red hair and pale skin (I’d assumed he was Irish or American). We say we’re not sure, and he warns us earnestly against taking the fork to the right up ahead. “There is a town there, but that is not The Way.” We smile and thank him and ignore his advice, stopping at the town 800m away rather than trying to press on 8km along the traditional route.

The hostel is one of those one big room types, so we pray for few snorers and pick our bunks. After showers and laundry, we head to the bar to write. And we share a menu. But the flies are thick here as well, both inside and out, and it’s incredibly distracting. I finish the wine from the menu and keep writing while Dorcinda tries to Skype Luke.

As I finish writing, I catch a glimpse of the news, where they discuss record temperatures across Spain for September, and say that tomorrow will be hotter than today, which was 94 degrees. They speak rapidly, but two of the interviewees use the word “fatal” and one says “mortal” when describing the heat. Oh joy.

Camino Day 16 – Itero de la Vega to Villalcazar de Sirga

We wake up early, and Dorcinda is happy to have a good night’s sleep. Happy, that is, until I point out two bedbugs in our room. One is crawling the wall and the other is in her crazy-town book, which she grabbed form the hostel bookshelf for some light reading. We check out bags and clothing, and dread the itchiness we fear will appear soon. We warn two of the other inhabitants of our hostel, and hit the road. One guy, from China via Berlin, seems a little too unconcerned for our liking, and the other, a German woman, immediately deflates, and tells us about a friend of hers who had to cut her Camino short because she got bedbugs and the itching was so bad. While we warn the Chinese guy, Siming, the last inhabitant of the hostel shushes us, annoyed at the noise. We leave her to her fate. We’re depressed and nervous.

Sheep block our way out of town momentarily, but we climb up off the path a little and wait for them to pass.

Our spirits are brightened somewhat by the appearance of two pilgrims walking the opposite direction. One has a huge white pack of some kind. Dorcinda speculates that it must be heavy, and I joke that it may be cotton candy. It’s not far off – its a huge white Teddy Bear. The pilgrims give us some coffee, denotivo, and I give 25  cents, the only coins I have left. They have made the trip to Finisterre and are walking all the way back to Barcelona. They met a week ago, and the primary partner, the guy with the bear, invites us to like his Facebook page, El Oso Perigroso, a mashup of pilgrim (peregrino) and dangerous (peligroso).

We eat breakfast at a hostel in the next town, where we get egg sandwiches, pretty big. (Is this where the douchey hospitalero corrected me for asking for “el contrasena” while making nice with all the people who didn’t even try to speak spanish?) I am amused by two very posh sounding old british women. How the one woman said with disappointment “They have no bananas here. I checked.”

In Fromista, we try to find a pharmacy and an ATM. We get some cash, but are the pharmacy is closed for Sunday, and no magical urchin appears to point out an open one as in Viana. The tourist office suggests we try the Centro de Salud – otherwise, the nearest pharmacy is out 19km away. The Centro de Salud offers  consulting for pilgrims, but only between 9 am and 10 am and between 6pm and 8pm. It’s 11. We ring the bell at the energency room and the guy doesn’t have much help to offer us.

We sit and drink coffee and read snippets from an English translation of the Codex Calixtinus. There’s a lot of writing  describing the churches, and the lives of the saints, but precious little about the route. What IS there, though, is hilarious and judgmental. Most of the water and food available in Spain is, apparently, instantly lethal, though the writer doesn’t say how he tested this opinion. He hates most of the Spanish – the Basques especially, whose language is “incomprehensible” and whose toll collectors are “truly vicious.”

From the Codex: “They come at pilgrims with weapons, and demand an exorbitant fee. If you refuse to pay, they’ll beat you up and take the money, even intrusively frisking you to get it. These people are forest savages. Their hard faces and strange language strike terror into the heart.”

The Codex complains that the tax collectors go after pilgrims and anyone else, even though they’re supposed to only charge merchants, and often grab double what’s allowed, and urges kings and bishops to excommunicate, rather than pardon, the offenders, writing  if any bishop decides to pardon them, either because he feels it’s his Christian duty or because he’s been paid off, he should be kicked out of the church.” The pass over the Pyreness is beautiful, and you feel like you can reach up and touch the sky, but in the old days, “the pagan Navarrese and Basques would not only rob pilgrims to Santiago, but mount them like donkeys and then murder them,” according to the book.

The Navarrese come in for similar condemnation, and the write says “Navarrese eating and drinking habits are disgusting” and “their language sounds so raw, it’s like hearing a dog bark.”

“These are an undeveloped people, with different customs and characteristics than other races,” the book continues. “They’re malicious, dark, hostile-looking types, crooked, perverse, treacherous, corrupt and untrustworthy, obsessed with sex and booze, steeped in violence, wild, savage, condemned and rejected, sour, horrible, and squabbling. They are badness and nastiness personified, utterly lacking in any good qualities. They’re as bad as the Getes and the Saracens, and they despise us French. If they could, a Basque or Navarrese would kill a Frenchman for a cent.

In some places, like Vizcaya and Alava, when they get warmed up, the men and women show off their private parts to each other. The Navarrese also have sex with their farm animals. And it’s said that they put a lock on the backsides of their mules and horses so that nobody except themselves can have at them. Moreover, they kiss lasciviously the vaginas of women and of mules. Everybody with sense slams the Navarrese.”

Burgos is “full of royal treasure, of gold and silver, fabrics and the strongest horses, and flush with bread, wine, fish, milk and honey. It is however lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.” Galicians are “more like us French people than other Spanish savages, but nevertheless they can be hot-tempered and litigious.” What an open minded book!

We visited two churches in Fromista, and one nice church in Villalcazar de Sirga. In Fromista, we pray for relief from bed bugs, Dorcinda, praying rather more thoroughly than me. I emote “San Martin, help us with the bed bugs. Santiago help us with the bed bugs. Jesus, help us with the bed bugs.” Before I get embarrassed about kneeling at a tourist  spot and stand up to take photos like everyone else. It’s a pretty fine church, after all. Our guidebook calls it “one of the finest examples of pure Romanesque in Spain.” The other church, San Pedro, offers a “more prayerful atmosphere,” and is slightly less impressive. It also has free guitar music on Wednesdays.

The tourist office, besides offering useless advice and some maps and postcards, also has a LOT of free copies of the same garbage book that Dorcinda read the night before. We’ve seen it as well in San Bol, so every stop since Burgos. It’s Hercolubus or Red Planet, written in 1998, and it warns hysterically of a giant red planet on a collision course with Earth, as punishment for humanity’s sinful ways.

The book begins: “Humanity is spellbound by the predictions of the falsely called ‘scientists,’ who do nothing but fill Humanity with lies. Scientists distort the truth.”

And  it gets worse from there.  This is trash of the highest order, this is poison in written form. And they’ve got 100 copies to give away at a local government office!

On the way to Villalcazar, we meet up with the Danish man from San Bol, and he walks with us a while. We find out that his hobby is racing vintage cars, throughout Denmark, Sweden and Norway. I’m hot and tired, so Dorcinda carries most of the conversation.

We stop at the municipal albergue in Villalcazar, which is donativo. We check halfheartedly for bed bugs, and decide merely to switch beds than move hostels after discovering potentially disturbing signs of bugs. Downstairs, Siming, a pilgrim we met on the road earlier (from China via Germany where he’s a student) comes in and asks for cold water. I translate. The hospitalero gives him a huge bottle of water. He donates. Dorcinda chats with him a while and I try to figure out the hot water for a shower. A grumpy old Canadian woman comes in, and she’s pathetic and desperate, looking for her friends who are obviously not here. She complains about how far she’s walked and how she couldn’t possibly walk to another hostel to find them. We shrug. We’re pilgrims, lady. Then she wonders what albergue they could be at, and she thinks of asking the hospitalero who’s sitting patiently, ignoring our conversation in English. But how can I ask him that?? She cries in desperation. I roll my eyes, thinking, maybe learn Spanish, and ask the hospitalero. There’s another albergue and it’s literally right around the corner. “But how will I find it? I’ve walked so far.” I reiterate that it’s LITERALLY around the corner. I leave the room and wash my laundry to avoid any more interaction with her.

Later the hospitalero gives Siming a new pole that a man at the end of his Camino had left behind, and a lift to Carrion de los Condes. He leaves more money in the box, and the hopstialero says its unnecessary. Siming says he doesn’t know how else to say thank you. The hospitalero doesn’t understand. I translate. The hospitalero instructs Siming: “Gracias.” I’m disappointed in Siming for hitching a ride. I still believe that walking is the way to go. He was on his third day, starting in Burgos, and seemed to be going strong over the last two days in which we saw him.

We seek out the bar to write, and avoid sitting outside, where we spy the Danish man. We don’t want to be drawn into conversation. We made that mistake with Steve once, and neither of us got anything done.

Inside, however, we’re disappointed to learn that the kitchen is closed until 7 (it’s 6, and we haven’t eaten since breakfast), and to find a rowdy crowd of old men playing some game with stones on the table. I think its poker, and the stones are just chips for betting. One man has a staccato bleat of a laugh and its incredibly loud and annoying. I wonder if one of the sheep from this morning has followed us to the bar. Another man, his throat ruined by cigarettes, interjects occasionally, frightening us with a menacing rasp that would put any Hollywood villain to shame.  We snack and wait for the fancy place to open at 9 – its a restored medieval inn.

The restaurant never opens, so we snack some more at the bar. I’m on a roll in journaling, but Dorcinda pulls me outside so we can eat and view the sunset. Almost immediately, however, she starts chatting with an old German guy and we join his table. Then she goes inside to pay and seems to take a while, so I hear the same conversation, repeated this time in German between the old guy (Reiner?) and a younger, cigarette smoking Austrian woman. I stopped writing for this? We unenthusiastically make plans to meet the Italian and Dane for breakfast at our hostel.

At night, one of the two women who were dozing when we arrived is walking around in her underwear. Soon enough, the Italian is also. When its time for lights out, the underwear woman, sounding Russian, insists that the lights be turned off (turns out she’s hungarian, I think?). The Italian says yes, but at 10. It’s already 10:10.

Just before lights out, the Canadian banshee returns. She’s wandering the square outside, pathetically yelling  “Hello? Hello? Is somebody there?” I roll my eyes again, but go downstairs to see what she wants. She’s gone by the time I get there. I have little sympathy or concern however – out hostel’s door is wide open, so she could have just come in the front door if she was in as dire straits as her cries indicated. What a pill.


Camino Day 14 – Burgos to San Bol

We’re a full day behind St. John’s recommended pace, because of our stay in Burgos, so, feeling strong, we blow past his recommended stopping point of Hornillos del Camino and press on another 5.6 km to San Bol, a hostel in the middle of nowhere.

So far, the tales of the Meseta are overblown. Brenda, Jeff, Maddie and Steve all considered it to be a dire wasteland – Jeff and Maddie bussed ahead to avoid it and Brenda called it the “missteppa”, and spoke as though it were some great trial she must overcome alone. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s flat. Yes, there’s little to no shade. But it doesn’t not that different from the rest of Spain, not much different from a stretch outside of Zubiri. Not that different, from Martos, even, where I taught elementary school English a few years back.

On the way, we meet up with Zoltan, who cheerfully informs us that he’s feeling not quite so ill. We walk for a while, the second pilgrim to join us for a lengthy walk, after Steve. Dorcinda tries to talk to him about German folk music, and he says he likes electronica and more modern hip hop and indie music. He talks about getting this name from a Hungarian father and growing up without knowing him and how now he regards his dad as somewhere between a friend and a stranger, but not like a relative. He makes it to Hornillos de Camino and we press on the San Bol.

Just before San Bol, I feel an irrational panic begin to set in at the number of pilgrims we see ahead of us and around us. San Bol only has 12 beds, and we really don’t want to walk any further if we don’t have to. At a hilltop, we see an English guy with a parasol, and he’s loaned it out to a young Korean woman, who smiles beamingly from its shade. The maybe-Brazilian woman who’s been walking at the same pace as us since Burgos stops to talk to them, but we merely say hi and move on. We figure the last one to San Bol is a rotten egg, and we’re not gonna get heatstroke gabbing with some random Englishman in the hot sun. So long, suckers. We see the hostel across a field, and consider the possibility that someone behind us could cut across the field rather than walking the circuitous route around on the main road. Fortunately, no one else is as focused on the goal and no one cuts us off.

At San Bol, the hospitalera only speaks Spanish and is relieved that I understand her. She notices me translating for Dorcinda, and I explain, yo traduzco, y ella  paga. For once Dorcinda has cash and I don’t. It’s a white lie but it gets a smile out of her, and she says, of course, because she’s the big sister! She asks me to explain some hostel rules to the other guests. It’s relatively early, so we sit to write for a while after showering and washing laundry. Outside there is a cold, stream-fed pool where we soak our feet.

At dinner, only six of us eat – me and Dorcinda, a 25-year old Korean woman, two 40-50ish men from Denmark and Italy, and a 75-year-old Frenchman. I am mystified that the others – including two Dutch girls who were here long ahead of us – don’t eat. They must have brought food with them because there is literally nothing else around for miles. The dinner conversation is in stilted English, the only common language among us. The Frenchman jokes that we’re like monks, eating in silence. He’s excited at first that all different nationalities are represented, but then is disappointed that almost no one speaks French or Spanish (I’m the most fluent at either, which is pretty sad. I can confidently say “je voudrais le fromage” but not much else).

I explain that the last one to leave has to lock up and bring the key to the hostel in the next town. We talk about distances and how far we intend to go. Michel reminds us that the Camino is not a race. That’s the kind of attitude that will get you stuck with the job of locking the albergue door and walking the key to the next town, Michel.

I can tell that Michel is a talker and is frustrated by his inability to join in during dinner. Me and the young Korean sit with him a while, and let him regale us with tales of his rugby days. He was a player and helped organize tours for his French team. He’s played all around Asia and especially islands there in New Zealand, India, Tahiti, even Borneo.  It’s hard to understand him, since he’s speaking broken English and occasionally slipping back into French. He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s doing this. He also doesn’t seem to hear or respond to questions or asides, and I can only really understand about one word in three. Its tedious, but he appreciates it and we go to bed happy.