SCROLL DOWN FOR THE START OF THE TREK.
I had been debating whether to go to the north and join the Camino Frances at Asrorga or turn west and open up a trek on a new route. Both distances to Santiago were identical and it was in the town of Granja that I had to make my decision as this is where the routes split.
I had all along contemplated going to Astorga. I had walked the Camino Frances in 2011 and as this was to be my last Camino saw going there as somewhat of a Valedictory address. On the other hand, I also felt that I would forever be wondering what I had missed.
The alternative route involved longer days and fewer hostels but did open up the chance to take advantage of some differnt places to see.
This route was opened up by the Spanish Chistians of Arabic descent. Why they chose to not go to Astorga and join the Camino Frances I have no idea. It could be they had no wish to be associated with the dirty smelly hordes coming from the east who probably fought for beds and would get up at 4am to be assured of one. So, no change there then.
I stood in front of the sign. Astorga to the right and the Mozarabe to the left. I turned left and set off on a new adventure.
It takes time to get into a new book and so it was here. The first few pages have to be ploughed through before the plot reveals itself. Rough track and rougher fields soon turned into path lined with pasque flowers and views of hills covered with oak. Soon a gorge, lit brilliantly by the early morning sun appeared. Through it flowed the river Esla, under the arches of Puenta Quintos that had also caught the sun's glow.
After a few more kilometres this gave way to broad flat grit track that carved a swath through a shallow crater surrounded on all sides by the obligatory rolling wooded hills. The sun was warm and the scene idyllic. A lone farmer ploughed his field and I, having met no one all day, ploughed my lonely furrow too.
A long straight track of some two kilometres drew me towards the village Faramontanos de Tabara. Here the signage was a little confusing with green, black and white arrows causing a chaos of directions. A very elderly lady wearing a dressing gown that covered her jeans started to shout at me. The only word I could understand was Camino. Around her neck on a cord she had a whistle and some keys. I assumed the former would be used in case she got lost. She continued to berate me and even if she had put her teeth in I would never have been able to understand what she was saying. A another lady leaned out of a window and pointed towards a track, the way out of the village and back onto the Camino, which was what the other lady in her well intention verbal attack on my inability to find the way on my own was trying to tell me. I have oft learned that people have many varied ways in which they offer their help. This was once of those a occasions.
The perfect walking conditions and flat track meant I had covered the 28kms in quick time and arrived at the hostel in Tabara at mid-day. It was closed but the man in charge, Jose, let me leave my rucksack there until the place opened officially at 2pm. I took the opportunity to throw my sleeping bag on a bed. Time to explore and get some badly needed cash. The village was delight with its small intimate and green plaza. The tower on the local church had five places for storks nests every one of which was occupied.
At 2 pm I returned to the hostel. Jose explained that he would wash our clothes, cook us dinner and breakfast and that there was no charge but we could leave a donation before we left the following day. This very Interesting man was a veteran of the caminos and had decided to make his life as a host responsible for running and administering this refuge of 12 beds. He showed us the vast number of books he has had published on his passion and his dedication was a joy to behold. I was later to be told that he had injected into this refuge a feeling of security, welcome and peace. I felt every one of those. A remarkable man indeed.
And so was the meal he concocted special. A superb vegetable and noodle soup followed by a paella, also of local origins with black pudding mixed in, all washed down with local wine. After he produced spirits which I don't drink. One resembled rocket fuel and a green one which was burning its way through the glass definitely was rocket fuel. He asked me what I liked and I said champaign. He produced a bottle of that. The five of us around the table protested that it was too much while trying to rip the cork out before he changed his mind. Needless to say the evening got rather raucous.
A short 22kms walk today in weather that was cold. The sun tried its best to screw a way through but it was like trying to open a tin with a blunt opener. Small villages came and went and the rhythmical crunch of the gravel under my boot drew me ever closer to my destination.
I was, as I had been for most of this journey, the only person on this part of the Camino. There had been a knot of pilgrims that seem to arrive at Salamanca at the same time and I put this down to a rush of starters after Easter. Now, the numbers had dwindled considerably and we were down to five, and those I would lose sight of over the next few days as my faster pace would leave them behind. But walking on my own is never a problem. Others love the company and a chat, I love the peace and solitude. I reached my destination at Santa Croya de Terra, and was shown to my room containing some twenty bunks all, of which were empty. It looked like I would enjoy a peaceful night. And then a walking group of fourteen women arrived, and that was the end of that.
The first thing I noticed was when I returned to the bedroom. The contents of each ladies rucksack was spread across their bed. It looked like a Women's Institute jumble sale. Outside the clothes line began to sag with a line of shirts, a platoon of shorts and a regiment of more delicate garments. I averted my gaze whenever I walked by. They ate late in the garden next to the bedroom and asked me to tell them if they made too much noise. That was an empty gesture and as the wine flowed so the windows rattled when the sound waves from shrieks of laughter hit them.
Another apology was forthcoming, they were rising at 5.30am to continue their walk. I asked if they were going my way, thankfully they were not. 5.30 came and the alarms of a dozen mobile phones went off, all different melodies, it sounded like an orchestra warming up. Then the clap of bare feet on tiles was heard as they made for the toilet, followed by the near silent patter of socked feet. Those with stronger bladders had put their boots on and clumped fheir way there.
There was only one toilet and countless times the flush went which did nothing to improve my need to also empty that which the body no longer needed. By the time I eventually made it my face was turning purple. But do you know, I would sleep with them all again, because not one of them snored.
I think the lady manager of the hostel had understood my trauma and she gave me a free breakfast before I set off.
My destination was Rionegro Del Puente 28kms away. The initial part of the walk was uninspiring along woodland, past gravel pits and alongside unkempt fields. But after leaving the village of Calzadilla de Tara things changed.
A gravel track lined with not thousands but tens of thousand of white flowers that led to the reservoir de Nuestra Señora de Argavanzal. The dam keeping in the water was lined on either side with street lamps standing sentinel like for its entire length. It seemed a bit excessive until I noticed how narrow the road as and that the verge was concrete block 75cms high.
Shortly after I was diverted onto a narrow asphalt track that bordered the reservoir. It was magical. The sun was warm in a sky where only the vapour trails of long gone aircraft interrupted the blue. Either side of the track a profusion of red, yellow purple and white flowers surrounded trees dripping with pale green lichen that looked older than time itself. Small blue butterflies flitted with me and lizards scampered across the trail.
To my left a range of small hills was reflected in the water which was alive with little expanding ringlets of waves made by fish catching their lunch.
It was three kilometres of heavan. At the end of the trail a sign lying drunkenly by a bridge reminded me of why I was there.
Immediately on leaving this little Eden I entered the village of Villar de Farnon, 75 percent of which appeared to be tumbling down.
The only sign of life was a dog that had secumbed to the heat and was lying in what passed for the main square.
So there I was a dog, an Englishman and the midday sun. I think someone wrote a song about that once. I made for the tiny church of San Pedro to sit in the porch and have lunch. On reaching the church I noticed some well worn steps that demanded to be climbed. They led to the tower where two external bells were suspended on weathered yokes. They were fascinating peices of art and I got a bonus with the views across the village roofs.
I sat for lunch and watched a swarm of bees squabbling as they sought to build a nest in the tiles above the porch. The dog arrived and watched me eat and then licked out the pots that I had finished before loping off into the shade of the long grass. As I made my way out of the village I came across a town hall in a small white building. Outside in a glass case secure to the wall were all manner of important notices all duly stamped to indicate their authenticity. I thought it was a lot of fuss to go to in a village where the only inhabitant seemed to be a dog.
On leaving the village I came across a house where a sign indicated I could get drink. I shouted but no one came. I later learned that the house was owned by a pilgrim friendly South African. So call in when you are passing, I am sure he will be pleased to see you.
Within the hour I arrived at my destination. I manouverd my way around a gaggle of fly fishermen and was soon once more ensconced in an aubergue for the night, a delightful building that had recently been renovated. As first arrival I got to chose the bed and by the time others arrived I was showered and shaved and ready to go to the bar, use their wifi and FaceTime my wife. It had been another glorious day on the camino, and I even had time to explore the local church with its fabulous cupola and a vary scary tumolo with a skeleton on the top.
One other thing the town boasted was the most eccentric town clock I had yet come across. It rang a very loud electronic Westminster chime on the quarter hour and the clock face was always ten minutes slow. The tower from which this slightly odd sound emanated was only about thirty metres from my dormitory which was on the second floor of the building. Needless to say, I got no sleep till gone midnight.
If yesterday was the day for enjoying the wonders of nature then today was given over to enjoying the isolated villages the lay scattered along the route. The intial track out of town was crossed with deep ruts and they only thing it had going for it was that it was taking me closer to my final destination. With it being Sunday the shops were closed but the garages were not and I was able to buy a sandwich for lunch. After passing through the town of Monbuey things improved. Valdemerilla was the first on the list. In this area all the church bells are open to the elements and not secured in towers. It could be cost, of course, but it could also be to ensure that the peel is heard across the fields and outlying areas. The bells in this little village were approached not by set of ancient steps but by a cast iron circular starecase. There was a chain across the bottom steps but not sufficiently places that it could not be stepped over. There was a bit of swaying as I went round and round but the view was worth it and I could see that these bells, in the church of San Lorenzo, were renewed in 2005.
Cerdinella was the next hamlet. Here I lost the arrows and called to a lady who was driven by the call of the bells to mass, for which she was late. 'Camino' I shouted, for she was some distance away. 'Si, Si', she replied, quickening her step in case there was a follow up question. I went to the church, found the arrows and all was well with my world, and I hoped, with hers after she has paid her devotions.
In San Salvador de Palazuelos it was the day for planting and families were involved. The strongest pushed the petrol driven tilling machine and the remainder of the family followed planting the seed. Replace the machine with a horse and nothing would have changed here for hundreds of years.
On the way out I came across this very ornate cemetery, wonder what a plot there costs?
Entrepenas was the penultimate village which signalled its view of life and religion by the trinity of crosses I passed on entry. I decided to eat my petrol station sandwiches here and refill my water bottle from the ancient fountain. Sitting on a stone step and leaning against a wooden and ancient house that looked as if two more termite lunches would see it collapse, I felt at peace. I was walking, as I had been most days, completely alone. It might have been the warm sun, or the fact that I was enjoying my simple lunch. I felt fitter than I had for years. The meandering lanes and countryside that connected these villages had not changed in centuries, and as far as I was concerned, at that moment, there was no other world outside the boundaries of these isolated, and rarely visited hamlets.
Reality, as it is wont to do, reared its head. I was heading towards the hills and one of them, in a few days time had my name on it. It was like walking down a Scorpion's back, the sting was going to be in the tail.