Stories that take you on a journey

Camino Francés – Physical stage – Part 3/3

The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

Day Thirteen:  Villafranca Montes de Oca to Atapuerca (El Palomar de Atapuerca)

The morning sky, streaks of pink, slate-blue and gold moving towards the village church spire greet me when I opened our bedroom windows. It was our penultimate day of what many call the Camino Francés physical stage. I loved the way the word “penultimate” rolled off my tongue, the excitement of completion and the trepidation of “what’s next.” I reached out of the window, turned right towards the Camino path, the golden sky, a walkers delight.

Yesterday, I got my first blister or what my Camino family term my first “Camino badge.” Its been as they said a dream run. Blisters are tricky, out on those dusty tracks it’s easy for them to become infected. Even though the walk to Atapuerca is only 18.3 km, it’s going to be hot, with a full backpack it’s highly likely that I’ll end up with a cluster of blisters. I opt instead to transfer some gear into my IKEA foldable backpack and get it ported to the Albergue Ingrid, and I booked last night.

We started the day with a 220m climb up to Alto Mojapán on an open track through a forest of pines and ancient oak trees. The pathway banks of bracken like ferns reminded me of home. We stopped at the Monumento de los Caídos, a symbolic gesture to Spain’s civil war and marked the graves of those executed. The air was heavy; grief and loss mingled with my gratitude for been born in a different century.

The smooth white path gave way to ochre clay track. It had a layer of pebbles and stones. I moved over to the left, hoping to find flat earth, to stop my feet from rolling and aggravating my blister. To distract me from the pain, I concentrated on spotting clumps of heather and out of season poppies. The track descended and ascended sharply up to Alto Pedraja, where we were greeted by fluorescent coloured totem poles and log seats. Wild mushrooms sprouting through the undergrowth were guarded by Regional warning signs stating it’s an offence to pick them. We continued, dropping down into the hamlet of San Juan de Ortega. The tarmac a short-lived but welcome respite from the rocky terrain. Then it’s back into pine and scrubland, which levels out into a wide-open space. We approached a stone circle. Nearby a large oak-tree and my first sighting of the ancient parish of Agés; another reminder that we were walking in the footsteps of mediaeval pilgrims. Ingrid walked the circle while I took photos.

Atapuerca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a live archaeological dig site and is home to the earliest known human remains. I stopped at one of the raw stones; the one that marks the remains of a 20-year-old man. We walked on into a village, which straddled either side of a back road. Then lost ourselves in a labyrinth of passages and lanes. A local confirmed our thinking that the house in the corner of one of those passageways was our Albergue.

After the daily drill, we made our way to a nearby park, where we thought we’d spied a café. It was instead a tienda. We bought some supplies, asked where we might get lunch, preferably a salad. They insisted that we visit a nearby restaurant, stating it was the only place to go. The Comosapiens Restaurante sign on a brick wall with two tiny windows hugging the back road was unassuming and uninviting; we continued down the road. Only to turn around a minute later. Lunch was a set three-course menu. Not wanting a big lunch, we asked if we each settle on two-courses. The Hospitalier said, yes. We’d accidentally entered food heaven. Homemade butter and the best bread I had eaten in Spain. I ordered a glass of red wine, the tomato and mozzarella cheese salad, and the goat’s cheese and roast vegetable salad. Ingrid had puy lentil soup and dessert. She was a little concerned that we had left the Camino and gone into holiday mode.

After lunch, we went across to the Municipal Albergue met up with other Camino friends, including Regina. One couple Tony and Julie (Canada) and I had been at Orisson. Although we’d never really met, I kept seeing them on the Way stopped at little cafes, eating. I asked Tony if they’d also like to join us for dinner. It was a great night, more delicious food, including desert and lots of wine.

Day Fourteen:  Atapuerca to Burgos (Hotel Norte y Londres)

On the way out of town, we met Rob, an English guy, looking for lay-medical opinions on his blistered foot. I turned away after I saw blisters growing like mushrooms on top of the compeed patches he’d used. The pain and damage walking 23.1 km into Burgos with a heavy backpack on those feet compare to driving on a burst tyre. Rob thankfully was considering taking the bus.

A bit further on, we turned left by a sports paddock and headed up onto the Sierra Atapuerca. The gradually climb morphs into a steep volcanic rocky path. My blister throbbed, as I navigated the jagged rocks, precariously inching my way toward the summit, I’m praying Rob took the bus. A wooden cross, at the peak. Cruz de Matagrande, with its mound of stones, took Ingrid by surprise. She thought it was Cruz de Ferro, the sacred site where pilgrims place a symbol of their burdens; generally stone or rock.

It’s a steady descent down to the hamlet of Cardeñuela Riopico, where we leave behind the earth tracks. The asphalt country road led us into the village of Orbanjea, our café and rest stop. We meandered on, past houses with high gates and fences, past open paddocks and up over the motorway. Up ahead is a critical junction, an eleven-kilometre trudge through industrial landscape versus three nearly four kilometres around the airport, followed by a walk alongside a river, that appeared to stretch into the city centre. We stopped by a driveway lined with coloured recycling bins, searched for Camino arrows, to ensure we would be on the right track. We couldn’t find any Camino signs. I got my map out of the pack – convinced this was the way. Thankfully, another pilgrim arrived; he had GPS and confirmed that it was the way. The dusty pathway that hugged the hurricane wired perimeter of the airport was monotonous; however, the walk through the park into Burgos was lively and beautiful. As we got closer to Burgos, we kept looking for the cathedral spire. Leaving the park, we were both surprised by a seemingly long walk through the inner-suburbs. We were relieved to cross the Rio Arianzón and enter the old town finally.

The noise, the chaos of being in a bustling tourist city, was overwhelming. My head was turning left then right taking in the shops and the people. Ingrid reminded me to keep looking for the Camino signs, as they would lead us to the cathedral. We were going directly to the cathedral, have a celebration drink and lunch then go our separate ways. I was staying in Burgos for two nights, Ingrid only one night.

The cathedral, at first sight, bought back memories of fairy-tale stories of kingdoms ruled by cruel Kings and Queens. While they experienced royal splendour, their people lived in poverty. From this advantage point, just up from the Municipal Albergue the architecture suggested majestic, malevolent grandeur.

After lunch, we retraced our steps back down to Plaza Alonso Martinez opposite my hotel. We said farewell, headed off to our hotels. I’d spotted a brand new lavenderia opposite the Municipal Albergue. I was keen to return there with all my dirty washing; which left me with a merino dress and a set of underwear. Once I’d loaded up the washing machine, I went down to the bar opposite the Albergue and joined Kristy, Stefan from Bulgari and their mates for a drink. Forty minutes later, I returned to the lavendria to transfer my washing into drier.

When I returned to the hotel, I asked the receptionist for a hair salon recommendation. I was a bit over the shampoo cum soap bar and needed to get my hair washed and conditioned. It was my Camino friend Jennifer that planted this idea. Ironically as I left the salon and stopped to decide which way to go, our paths crossed. We went off together to explore Burgos and find a tapas bar. We drank vino Tinto and ate delicious tapas to celebrate our Camino milestone.

Day Fifteen:  Burgos – rest day (Hotel Norte y Londres)

It was still dark when I woke up. The room echoed with the sound of hotel room doors, opening and closing. It was so cold last night that I sent my family messages fully clothed and under the bed covers. Lisa messaged back, “I see the hotel still have the same bedspreads!!” At that moment in time, luxury was the simple act of rolling over and going back to sleep. Plus a bathroom, and not having to pack up my belongings.

I wandered through the sleepy streets of Burgos, getting my bearings while searching for a local café. I walked past a household goods shop, made a mental note to return and restock my toiletries. Due to my obsession with weight, the travel-size toiletries I bought with me were almost empty. Upon reaching Acro San Maria, a gateway into the old city, I found my local café. Two well-dressed gentlemen stood at the bar drinking coffee. I found a table, by the window, ordered freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and a croissant. It was a great spot to watch Burgos come to life.

Retracing my footsteps, I went back to the store. On a whim, I also purchased a notebook; perhaps it was the graphic of the two feet on the cover, or a desire to start recording my journey. As I walked back to the hotel to drop off my purchases, I began to fret about the increased weight.

Leaving the hotel for a second time, I walked up past the Municipal Albergue; pilgrims had already arrived, their backpacks lined up against the outer wall, ensuring that they would have a bed for the night. A credencial (pilgrim passport) establish a walkers status as a pilgrim and enables them to stay one night at designated Albergues. If you want to avoid checking out and then walking around waiting for check-in on your rest day, it’s advisable to book into a hotel or hostal.

I was heading back to the cathedral. I wanted to soak up its gothic architecture, which had captivated my imagination. The mediaeval houses, which surround the cathedral, attract both pilgrims, tourists and locals. I’m pleased to read that it’s also a World Heritage site. I finally make my way down the stairs into a large square and located the entrance doorway. Inside crowds of people, with handsets, received a history lesson while marvelling at ceilings and statutes. I paid the entrance fee, receiving an English speaking handset. Even now looking at my photographs, I’m overwhelmed by the opulence of the rooms that I walked through. At once, breathtakingly beautiful and an extravagance that I had a tough time comprehending. Thirty minutes later, I’m on sensory overload and hungry. Given it’s a rest day, I retrace my footsteps back towards the hotel, and in search of the restaurant, Lisa said she’d eaten the best-ever confit duck.

Outside the cathedral, I took a photo of the Camino Francés route to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve walked over 286 km in fourteen days, an average of 20.43 km per day. The restaurants ink-blue walls, gold plated hanging lights, a happy sun-face etching staring at me, felt like the perfect place to celebrate. I ordered an entrée of boletus mushrooms, shavings of truffle and egg yolk, these were the mushrooms I saw on the way to Atapuerca. Plus a main; the duck confit and potatoes, as recommended by Lisa.

Eleonore, Camino friend from Orisson, and I had arranged to meet in my hotel lobby at 5:45 pm to go out for tapas and drinks. She was a day behind me, having taken a rest day in Pamplona. We wandered around the neighbourhood, before settling on a tapas bar. One of Eleonore’s walking buddies also joined us. It was a great night.

I set my alarm for 6:30 am. My original itinerary was based on a 10 km walk out of Burgos, mainly to get me out of sync with the Brierley stages. However, I was feeling fit and excited about the next stage; the Meseta. The hotel receptionist had helped me book accommodation for the next night. I was able to book the following night, Castrojeriz, on Just before jumping into bed, I hung out of my bedroom window and took some photos of the square.


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