From Pamplona, I once more walked to Puente de La Reina, over the Alto del Perdón, to Estella, Los Arcos, Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, and Logroño, with its multitude of wine bars.
From Logroño I went on to Navarette, Nájera, and Santo Domingo, where I once more stayed with the nuns, as we had done in 2014. Then Belorado, and Villafranca Montes de Oca, in the beautiful grand old mansion, where the owner and his son remembered me and treated me royally.
Finally, to Atapuerca and the long gruelling walk into Burgos, around the airport and the 10 km of concrete pavement through the industrial area, until finally reaching the jewelled heart of the city.
In Burgos, I stayed in a beautiful little apartment, opposite and managed by the Pancho Bar, where we had spent a riotous evening in 2014. When I made the booking, I did not realise the connection. The owner, his two brothers and sister are the core of the staff, and their tapas are excellent.
And it was in that bar that I spent another great evening.
Burgos was to be the end of my Camino for 2016. The weather was turning distinctly colder, especially overnight, and it was time for this little bird to spread his wings and head south to a warmer climate.
But God willing, I will be back next year to walk another path across the glorious landscape of Spain.
I knew it was not going to be a good day, when I got out of bed a little too enthusiastically, and felt a sharp pain in the inside of my good knee. I struggled on the flights of steps that led up to the street behind the cathedral.
For some time, I limped along very slowly and when I finally arrived at the edge of the city, I sat down on a bench opposite a hospital, feeling quite sorry for myself. I hesitated to continue, not wanting to do any more damage to my knee. But I eventually decided to persist with the walk, and when an hour or so later the first village came into sight, I realised that the pain had stopped, without my being aware. I took it very carefully for the rest of the day.
The weather was glorious; blue sky, mild, with a soft breeze. The hills were long, but gentle. It was a perfect day for walking.
And before I knew it my objective for the day lay below: Homillos del Campo.
It was a really small village; there was one street, a church that was locked, a tiny bar and a Casa Rural, at which I was the only guest. I had the beautiful house all to myself.
I had some drinks and dinner at the bar, where I had the most delicious bowl of lentejas and an animated conversation with the owner, who was barman, chef and waiter.
And it was followed by a solid night’s sleep, to be woken in the dawn light by a wonderful chorus of bird song.
Leaving the window open at night can bring such dividends in the morning.
Homillos del Camino to Castrojeris (20km)
Tuesday, 10 April, 2012
So this morning I set off in high spirits, with no apparent repetition of yesterday’s knee pain. But the spring in my step soon disappeared when I emerged from the shelter of the village, into the teeth of a strong headwind.
And as I climbed out of the valley the wind increased in force and for the next six hours I was buffeted and jerked around like a demented puppet.
And there was absolutely no shelter whatsoever.
It was with much relief when I finally hobbled into Castrojeris, where I found a room with no problem.
And the local food and wine were excellent.
Catrojeris to Frómista (26km)
Wednesday, 11 April, 2012
I had another challenging day. Once on the open plain, one met the full force of the wind. And thirty minutes later there was a steep climb diagonally up the side of an impressive ridge. The climb was not difficult, just steep and long and led to a wide table top, before another steep descent to a landscape, flat as far as one could see.
And the wind did not relent. It roared and howled in one’s ears, like an angry Irish housewife. There was no escape; nowhere to shelter, except for two small villages en route.
And then the threatened rain started, not long after an old farmer working in his field assured me that there would be no rain that day, but the next day for sure.
For the next two hours I plodded along, accompanied by both wind and rain, until I finally arrived in Frómista, very wet and tired.
But with a comfortable room and after an excellent meal, I felt quite revived.
Frómista to Carrión de los Condes (22km)
Thursday, 12 April, 2012
So the farmer of the previous day really got his weather forecast quite wrong. According to him it should have rained, instead of turning out to be a beautiful spring day. If he ever tires of farming, he would have a job waiting for him at the BBC weather desk.
Today the path was unrelenting; straight and gently undulating for all of its 22km. It ran alongside the local road, separated from it by a ditch. The path was formed of stones sunk into sun-baked clay. Unfortunately, the stones protruded and after an hour my bad foot ached and throbbed with each step, and my good foot started to whinge in sympathy. At times El Camino can be a real test of perseverance.
From the crest of some of the slopes, one could see for two or three kilometres in either direction. That day for the first time, I noticed that the bounce had gone from the step of many pilgrims. They did not pass me cheerfully. Many limped or had their heads down, moving painfully, struggling with blisters, knees, shin splints, hips; the romance and adventure had receded and the personal struggle to keep going had taken front stage. Some will give up, perhaps returning one day in the future, with fresh enthusiasm and healthier bodies, to resume where they left off. Most will continue with their struggle all the way to Santiago de Compostella.
For those who persist, the reward will be theirs.
Carrion de los Condes to Calcidilla de la Cueza (17km)
Friday, 13 April, 2012
When I awoke the next morning and looked out the window, the sky was clear and turning blue. And when I left the village the sun was shining and there was not a cloud to be seen. It was another perfect day for walking. And the birds were singing their heads off, oblivious of my presence. I could have almost touched some of them, as they clung to solitary branches by the path. They seemed to have no fear of pilgrims.
But the wind had slept in that morning, and when aroused felt quite guilty, and started rushing hither and thither, bumping into everything it encountered. And the nosey clouds rushed over from the horizon to see what was happening. So what had promised to be a gentle stroll, became another head down leaning forward sort of day.
It was with some relief that the tiny village of Calcidilla de la Cueza finally came into view.
Calcidilla de la Cueza to Sahagún de Campos (23km)
Saturday, 14 April, 2012
Walking against the never ceasing wind across the seemingly vast plain was almost hypnotic. One could walk for hours, but seem to be remaining on the spot; a feature on the horizon remains what it was when the day started; a feature on the horizon.
And yet one knew that there were villages between here and there, but where were they? By then one of them should have been in sight. And on one plodded until suddenly, with no prior warning, there it was, a little village nestling below in a hollow in the plain.
As one descended, the wind continued its frenetic rush above, as if it had more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere; to the mighty wind an insignificant little village was not worth the expending of time and energy to descend. And I made my way down to the welcome shelter of the village bar and a coffee and a slice of tortilla, with a chunk of bread. And so once revived, I ascended once more to the fray.
And when mid-afternoon arrived, I stopped at the first village with accommodation; by then I will usually have reached my limit for the day.
And so for day after day the routine repeats, the wind continues to buffet everything in its path. Occasionally it rains.
And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I have been moving across the map of Spain.
Sahagún to El Burgo Ranero (18km)
Sunday, 15 April, 2012
Sahagún reached it greatest splendour during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1047-1109), as evidenced by a plethora of ancient buildings. In the 14th century, it housed a university.
On the way out of Sahagún, one crosses a Roman bridge over the river Cea.
El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas (19km)
Monday, 16 April, 2012
I always like to leave the curtains open when I go to bed, so that I can awaken to first light, but it is not often that I can lie in bed and watch the rising sun. I remember once witnessing the rising of a huge orange sun as I crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early morning,when I had set out on one of my crazy marathon walks. In El Burgo Ranero I woke to the rising sun and I did not have to move a muscle to see it, apart from my eye lids.
And I felt incredibly at peace, totally relaxed, a feeling that I only once before recall experiencing, and that was when I was having a stroke. It apparently happens when the logical side of the brain switches off and the sensual side becomes dominant.
I wondered if I will feel so peaceful when I have another stroke. My sight was fine and all I had to do was to raise both my arms to be reassured. But I felt no panic whatsoever and lay without moving, enjoying the sensations. Eventually the logical side woke up. I raised my arms and another day began.
I walked relaxed all day, past a huge wading bird, past yet another wayside memorial for a pilgrimage fatality – I have lost count as to how many memorials I have seen.
Another helping of tortilla and a beer served by an attractive girl in pink top and tight pants saw me through to the ancient village of Mansilla de las Mulas.
Mansilla de las Mulas to Léon (19km)
Tuesday, 17 April, 2012
The first view of Léon was rather deceiving. It looked as if I was almost there.
But there remained much more than an hour of suburbs and city streets before arriving at the central plaza, with its magnificent cathedral.
It was a choice of either an easy day of 13 km to Navarette or 29 km to Nájera. Now my average pace of about 4 km per hour may seem rather pedestrian to athletic types, but believe me, with boots and backpack, over undulating terrain, on mud, rocks and occasional asphalt, 4-5 km per hour is what most people achieve.
Of course there are the rather irritating exceptions, going as far and as fast as they can each day, taking no time to ‘smell the birds or hear the flowers’. To them contemplation and inner peace are for the wimps.
On the Camino, most villages and every town had hospitals, that treated the sick and the injured pilgrims. Some of the hospitals still operate, some have been converted to other functions, and many are in ruin.
After a relatively easy day of walking, I arrived in Navarette, and had no problem in finding a room. The village was not exactly crowded.
And I spent a long and laid-back afternoon in the Bar Deportivo, eating tapas, sipping on glasses of local wine, and tapping away at my notebook. I was blissfully relaxed.
The athletic jocks don’t seem to know what they are missing.
Navarrete to Nájera (16km)
Tuesday, 3 April, 2012
Normally I set my alarm for 07h00 and wake up before it rings, by 06h30 at the latest, to hit the road early. That night I decided that the alarm was no longer required, and consequently slept in and woke up at 08h50, to find rain dripping on the window sill, and little visible, apart from some cars parked in the plaza below.
And all day it rained, never heavy, but with that persistent drizzle that chills, and somehow percolates ones supposedly rain resistant clothing. I arrived in Najera feeling thoroughly miserable: cold, wet, chilled through. And to cap it all, I had some difficulty in finding a vacant room.
But with persistence and asking several people, I was eventually directed to a very comfortable room, with a very reasonable price, in a back street under the cliffs. The house was owned by two very charming men of rather obvious sexuality.
With snow flurries forecast for that day and the next ten, I had to recognise that I was poorly equipped for such conditions. So I went back into the town, and by pure luck I stumbled upon a little shop that had a waterproof jacket with a fleece lining, and at €38 seemed to me a bargain. And the old lady who sold it to me was delightful. I had fun talking to her.
Nájera To Santo Domingo De La Calzada (20km)
Wednesday, 4 April, 2012
So at 07h45 this morning, complete with my new jacket, my fleece, tracksters and hat, I emerged from the hotel, ready and prepared for whatever nature would throw at me. Despite the ominous forecast of the night before, to my surprise it was quite mild, and the fog and rain had been replaced by a beautiful spring morning. Weather forecasters can make fortune tellers and economists seem quite professional.
Within ten minutes and partly up the first hill, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my fleece. Another ten minutes and off came the jacket and the pack was noticeably heavier. Before the top of the long incline, off came tracksters, of course requiring removal and replacement of boots. Now I was comfortable, but cursing the weightier pack.
At the top of the hill, once removed from the shelter of the valley, the wind felt quite cold, and before long back on went the fleece and jacket, but my legs remained bare – it was too much hassle to fiddle with boots.
And for much of the day the dressing and undressing was repeated, depending on the state of the wind and sun. I felt like a male model at a fashion show. If I were ever to master mincing and pouting, I could have a new career as an aging clothes horse.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Beldorado (23km)
Thursday, 5 April, 2012
When walking across Spain, one thing struck me; there were enormous swathes of cultivated land, but no farmhouses to be seen, the reason being that the farmers live in the villages and commute out to their farmland. This seemed to me as an imminently preferable arrangement, in that it gives much more social opportunities for the farmers’ wives and children, and brings added life to the villages.
Until I eventually arrived in Burgos, this region gave me the impression of being rather left behind: remote, overlooked, forgotten. Yet the people were some of the most kind and friendly that I have ever come across. They reminded of Ulster country people: willing, honest, modest, with few pretensions.
Beldorado to San Juan de Ortega (26km)
Friday, 6 April, 2012
Once past Villafranca Montes de Oca, the path climbed to a plateau and for kilometre after kilometre there was nothing to be seen, except forest. It had rained heavily the night before and one had to trudge through thick clinging mud.
In the Middle Ages the area was quite remote and it had the reputation of being dangerous for pilgrims; they were preyed on by bands of thieves and robbers. The pilgrims had no resource to banks and ATMs; they carried their money on their person and were quite vulnerable, unless escorted by volunteer knights.
At one point the path passed a monument erected by the relatives of the 300 people shot by supporters of General France, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It was a grim reminder that not so long ago, the country was very divided. Some would say that it still is.
Eventually the path descended into a valley and there I spent the night in the tiny village of San Juan de Ortega.
San Juan de Ortega to Villafría (17km)
Saturday, 7 April, 2012
When I set out next morning, the sun was shining, but soon darks clouds moved in and it turned much colder. Then the rain started and it continued to rain heavily all the remainder of the day.
On the outskirts of Atapuerca, I passed the archaological complex, where some of the oldest remains of man had been discovered, during the excavation of a railway cutting in 1976. The site contains evidence of continuous human occupation since over one million years.
After Atapuerca, the path climbed up to the Sierra and the rain turned to snow.
On the descent from the Sierra, the snow turned back to heavy rain, and it continued relentlessly. The long trudge around Burgos airport on the edge of the asphalt road was quite dispiriting, and I decided to stay at the first hotel I came across, enabling me to change into dry clothes and dry my wet gear.
Villafría to Burgos (8km)
Sunday 8 April, 2014
And finally Burgos; kilometre after kilometre of industrial area, before arriving at the well preserved heart of the old city – a jewel of parks, plazas, churches, overseen by the magnificent cathedral.
And the narrow streets, with their bars and restaurants, were filled with Easter Sunday celebrants.
Just before I left for Spain in March, I had read a book called La Sombra del Viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It was set in Barcelona and events that took place during the Spanish Civil War were central to the plot.
One of the central characters in the book went by the alias of Laín Caubert. Now I have a very good friend called Laín Burgos-Lovéce, who is from Santiago de Chile, and our friendship dates back to Caracas in the late 1970s. In all those years I have never come across another Laín, until that book. The name is apparently quite rare today.
Fast forward by a month and I was staying in Burgos. I had just checked into a small hotel and when I left the hotel to explore the surroundings, I noted the street names, in case I got lost. The street that I was staying on was called Calle de Laín Calvo. In Spanish ‘calvo‘ means bald, and that would certainly be an accurate description of my friend Laín today.
So were Laín + Burgos + Camino de Santiago just a coincidence?
Perhaps it was a very positive sign that I was on the right path. I have no idea of where the path might lead, but I suspect that if I keep my mind open, I will come across more signs.
James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and together with his brother John, was one of the first disciples of Jesus. Legend states that after the crucifixion of Jesus, he went to Spain to preach and convert. Later he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and subsequently he returned to Judea. He died there in 44AD, decapitated under the orders of Herod Agrippa, the then King of the Jews. After his death, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where he was buried at a place somewhere inland.
The legend claims that in 813 his tomb was discovered in the town of Iria Flavia – today known as Padrón. Bishop Theodomira of Iria was informed, and after he told King Alfonso II of the discovery, the remains were moved to Compostela, for ostensibly political and religious reasons. A basilica was built over the tomb, and over the centuries this building evolved to the current cathedral.
By the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela had become an important destination for Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins. It ranks equal with the other two important Christian pilgrimage destinations – Jerusalem and Rome.
In the early days of the pilgrimages to Santiago, much of Spain and Portugal was still under the control of the Muslim Moors, who were not finally defeated until 1492. In that era, the majority of the pilgrims were French.
For pilgrims, their route started from their door. They would make their way to the nearest town or city and join other pilgrims, for there was safety in numbers. One of the major staging posts was Paris and the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie, close to Nôtre-Dame, on the north side of the Seine. Today only the church tower remains. And Le Puy-en-Velay was the main gathering point for pilgrims from the south and east.
As trickles form a stream, before joining to a tributary, and finally flowing into the main river, the pilgrims converged on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for what was the most convenient crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. From there they went on to Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and finally to Santiago de Compostela. And along the route hospitals and hostels sprang up, many of which still exist today.
With the exception of recent years, undertaking the pilgrimage was not without risk. Not only were pilgrims liable to be attacked and robbed by bandits, but disease was rife, and many died on the way. Indeed, even today, though the route is quite safe and secure, there are still casualties, mainly due to physical exertion or from exhaustion in the prevalent heat of the summer months. One can observe many crosses and memorials by the path.
And one must not forget that in all but modern times, the pilgrimage was only half completed upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela; there were no buses, trains and planes to take one home, and the arduous outward journey had to be repeated in reverse.
During periods of war or plague, the number of pilgrims would have been greatly reduced, although some would have persisted, by taking the more challenging northern route that follows the coast.
Formerly the pilgrimage was undertaken for purely religious reasons, but for most people today, it has evolved to being a leisure activity. Modern pilgrims may be participating for the physical challenge, for the exercise, the fresh air, the experience, the opportunity for solitude, to meet other like-minded people, or for a host of other reasons. Some may complete the journey from end to end in one go, while others, who may have limited time or resources, progress in sections over a period of years.
Although most people complete the pilgrimage on foot, there is an increasing number of cyclists, and I even saw some people running from village to village. There were several accompanied by a dog and I was even passed by a couple on horseback.
Not everyone carries their possessions on their back. There are many who contract a specialist tourist agency to reserve accommodation along the route, and arrange for their bags to be transported from place to place. And at the other end of the scale there are the low-cost options of the albergues, with dormitories and the local restaurants with their ‘cheap and cheerful’ three-course pilgrim menu. As one Spanish family told me – ‘It can be a quite inexpensive holiday’.
Are many participating for purely religious reasons? I suspect that these days they are very much in the minority. And perhaps this is reflected in the fact that, apart from being open during their occasional mass, most churches and chapels in the villages are shuttered and locked.
Does the crypt under the cathedral in Santiago actually contain the remains of Saint James? Until the tomb is opened or x-rayed to reveal a decapitated skeleton, and I suspect that the Church will remain reluctant to ever give permission, it will have to remain a matter of individual faith.
But does the veracity of the legend really matter? Every year thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and all nationalities walk for weeks for hundreds of miles across a beautiful landscape in all weathers. That is surely no bad thing.
And if some of them benefit spiritually, that’s their bonus.