Rabe to Hontanas
Up at 6:30, breakfast consisted of coffee and toast with grape and some type of jam. Nothing that Iris could or would eat. She asked for chocolate and got a powder that contained gluten. Who would have thought that hot chocolate contained wheat?
After being served a delicious jam in a small dish a group of us in three languages requested to see the jar. We could not figure out what the taste was. It was prune jam – we all agreed that it was strange, but good.
We left at 7:37, cold, tired, and with much adjustment of the straps on Iris’ backpack. We were well into the trip and she still could not get comfortable with the backpack.
By 10:00 we had walked 8.5 kilometers and stopped at Hornillos del Camino at a very small grocery. They had a bathroom that they were very gracious in letting us use. They did a brisk business with a lot of pilgrims stopping by while we were there.
We pressed on for 5 more kilometers and amongst rolling fields we could see Arroyo San Bol only about 1 kilometers to our left and some pilgrims walking in that direction. Arroyo San Bol was supposed to be a chapel and it was only a little way off the main path. It promised a natural spring said to heal sore pilgrim feet and an albergue. However, we were so tired that we didn’t even venture this little side path to see the albergue or inspect the spring. We just plodded onward.
The trails were muddy from the intermittent rain and although there were only slight undulations to the countryside I was tired from going up and down. About 6 kilometers further we were negotiating a very muddy stretch of trail. The sky was filled with fierce, threatening, dark clouds. We expected to enter Hontanas any time, but we could see to the horizon and there was nothing in the distance to indicate the town. Iris was in great pain. She was very upset and crying about her medical condition. She had not been able to go to the bathroom.
Iris said that this walk was hell and I think the universe misunderstood her Georgia accent. The cosmos heard, “this is hail” and pelted us with a swift hailstorm. God sent the hail down on us to show us what hell was really like. Hail above and mud below.
It was during this hailstorm that the contour of the land suddenly sloped downward into a small groove in the landscape. The small valley contained the town of Hontanas.
We walked into Hontanas, at 1:37 in the afternoon, having traveled almost 20 kilometers in six hours.
Although there were many towns that time has forgotten on the pilgrim trail, Hontanas seems classic. One main street sloping down into the small valley with maybe three side streets. It was like something out of the Old West. Pilgrims were already sitting at tables in the narrow streets outside the two albergues and several bars. We didn’t even check to see if the albergues were full. We needed a break from albergues.
There was a lovely small hotel, Fuente Strella, which seemed to be run by a young brother and sister (they could have been a married couple) with assistance by a couple of teenagers. They had a beautiful room with two skylights on the third floor. The room had a sloping ceiling that made for difficult standing and a shared bath next door. The entire hotel was very clean, had polished wood floors, and white walls and ceilings.
After checking in and dumping our backpacks we strolled around town. We had an ice cream and some coffee while sitting in the town square. After the coffee I gathered our boots and with a brush offered by the hotel I scrubbed the mud off of our boots in the fountain. All of the hotels and albergues made us take our boots off in the lobby; these people were nice about it.
After an excellent dinner at the hotel (I love Spain – wine always comes with the dinner) outside of the hotel and I asked the teen-aged boy and girl my question of the day.
On the hills all along the horizon for the previous two days there were modern windmills – hundreds of them. None of them were going around. I didn’t make any sense to me. There was plenty of wind. I knew that both of these teenagers both spoke a little English because I had heard them talking earlier in the day but they were shy of talking to me. I made my question understood, but they did not seem to know the answer. They asked a couple of men sitting nearby and one of them stood up and said (in Spanish, translated by the boy and girl) that the windmill project had not been completed and these were not yet hooked up to the electric grid. So I at least got one of my mysteries solved. Now if only I knew what is in the potato tortillas.
Thought #1: A field guide would have been very helpful among the rolling hills this morning because there were many birds and plants that I could only guess at:
- A yellow-bellied sparrow type bird (birders call them “little brown jobbies” – LBJs) which was probably a warbler.
- Another LBJ with a red tail.
- A blue bird (was it the same as the North American Blue Bird?).
- A magpie (black bird like a crow or raven with white).
- The call of many coo-coo – we heard a lot of them but have no idea what they look like.
- Storks – they seem to be all over the place. I’d like to know more about them.
- Distinctive wild flowers, red (perhaps poppies), blue, yellow.
Thought #2: I’m glad that I can do this trip at age 63. I have a number of body parts that could have easily broken down to such an extent that I would not have been able to continue. If I do break down before we finish I will not feel bad about myself, but I’m happy about my progress so far. Even though I have various pains on different days, I feel good.
Intruding thought #3: I would like to have more of this trip under my control: how far we hike, the breaks we take, where we stay, who we talk to, but perhaps that is just how life is – very little is under our control. I am like Sancho Panza, reacting to circumstances and what my Don Quixote desires but also making things happen for us.
In a larger sense, this all is under my control. After all, I am the one who decided to walk and under these circumstances.
Thought #4: I like to travel and do strenuous things – biking, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. However, this is a long journey. Possibly, it is too long. Maybe I would rather be home, doing shorter excursions. Maybe not. Maybe I am having fun.
Thought #5: I have a far better understanding of where the Europeans got all those scary “dark forest” stories. Some of the woodlands we pass are thick and dark and I would be afraid to walk in them, too.
Thought #6: The hobbit’s journey of all those months with little more than a small backpack was bullshit! I’m trudging one foot in front of the other with a heavy backpack. Reality sucks.
Itero de la Vega
I keep forgetting that many places are not opened on Sunday (actually, I never even know when it is Sunday). We are starting and have no food for the day. Luckily, the only small grocery store in Hontanas opens just to catch the pilgrims leaving in the morning. We stopped and got the usual yogurt, fruit, chocolate pudding, and cheese before we left town.
It’s a whole lot easier to be empathetic about the lack of bathrooms when you need one yourself. In the rolling hills between Hontanas and Castrojeriz there were lots of other hikers and very little shelter. I had to make quick work behind the low, stone walls.
Much of the walk along was small roads. We passed Convento de San Anton which looked like a boarded up church – it is supposed to be an albergue. Since the albergues all send their pilgrims out early in the morning and close for cleaning it is difficult to tell the difference.
We got to Castrojeriz about 11:00. We made 10 kilometers in a little over two hours. Castrojeriz is a fairly large town with at least two main roads going through it and a number of albergues, also closed at this time of the morning. There was no place to use the bathroom. Outside of one albergue there was a group of people sitting around looking unfriendly.
Before leaving the town, there was an albergue above a museum. The museum had an open bathroom. In a plaza there was a grocery store, which was very small – only three people could fit in the store at a time. I bought some more supplies including our second roll of toilet paper.
Our guidebook said, “Climb to the castle for stunning views.” The castle, on a hill just to the North of the town, did look like it had stunning views, but the climb looked out of the question. One thing we never do is look for a supplementary way to burn energy.
Out of the town and walking along the flat farmland, we could see the dirt road evolve into a climb. The guidebook said, “Stiff climb up Alto de Mostelares.” It was only 110 meters high but it was indeed a stiff climb. The one lane, rutted, dirt road switched back and forth up this rise. Iris rose to the occasion. She got us to the top by either using the “50 more steps” method that we used on previous assents, or the “let’s just get to that bush with the blue flowers” method. She set manageable, short goals. I was gratified to see that none of the other pilgrims were having a good time with this climb, either.
At the top we could look back on the entire route we had walked that day, almost to Hontanas: treeless, farmland or shrubs as far as you could see in any direction with rolling hills and windmill farms on the low, surrounding hills. Blue skies spotted with white clouds and fields green with crops, grass, or shrubs. Dry, almost white dirt roads trailed through the landscape.
I took a few photos with my phone. This was the first time I had attempted to take pictures with this phone. It had only arrived the day before we left. The sun was so bright I was worried that I could not see the scene in the viewfinder, but that was not the real problem. I could not see the prompt that asked you if you wanted to save the photo. An action was required if you wanted to save the picture you just took and thus I never saved any of the photos.
There was a shelter at the top of the climb and occupying the shelter was a young American girl we had encountered off and on for a few days. She was about 19 or 20 and a loud, nonstop talker who was traveling with an older woman of undetermined origin (probably a European pilgrim).
Despite not having had a conversation with her I knew everything about her because of her nonstop talking with others: where she was born, her drugs, her sex life, why she was on the trip, how long she had to travel, where she went to school – everything. Once again, we did not strike up a conversation and she continued talking and moved on ahead of us while we rested.
The plateau was more of the same: dry, grassland.
We walked along the trail on the plateau for maybe a kilometer until we came to the equally steep, although straight, descent. Iris needed a rest and so we split up for the downhill journey. I didn’t need the rest as much as I needed to get ahead of her a little way because I knew my right toes and my knee would not be happy on this downhill. They were not. I took it slow and for some of the distance I actually walked backwards to ease the pains.
The view was spectacularly depressing: more of the same flat, slightly rolling landscape to the horizon.
The other groups of hikers, if they had not passed us on the assent, passed us on the descent or on the flat at the bottom. We had slowed our pace considerably from the morning. The good news was that the rain and snow was finally gone from our journey. The sun was out and beating down on us relentlessly: no shade on these 20 kilometers; no trees; no buildings. Since all of the pilgrims were passing us we were worried about finding any vacancies for the night. It was mid-afternoon, past the time when most pilgrims stopped for the day and we could not even see where the next town was.
I took (and saved) my best photo of the trip, here (OK, it was the only photo of the trip): Iris walking along the dry dirt road through the treeless fields extending to the horizon.
The terrain dipped slightly to reveal a bridge with a building next to it. We crossed Rio Pisuerga over the famous eleven-arched Puente de Itero and came to a church, Puente Fitero, turned into an albergue. Without a guidebook we didn’t know why the eleven-arched bridge was famous, or, why there was a church here, or anything about the river.
The albergue looked crowded and we could hear the loud talker inside and passed by to try our luck at the next town, which was one kilometer down the road. I’m not sure if “looking crowded” and a loud talker are good enough reasons to turn down a chance at a bed, but we were also out of food and with only one building in evidence there was no place to buy dinner or groceries.
We could actually see the roofs of the town in the distance over the flat fields. This was either uplifting or depressing depending upon your point of view. A couple who had passed us earlier were hiking back from the town to Puente Fitero but they spoke no English so we could not ask if they turned back due to lack of accommodations in the town.
At the edge of town there was an albergue with a few pilgrims hanging around outside and I talked to the bartender and the price was inexpensive but Iris didn’t like the looks of the man and we continued after using the bathroom. Despite being worried about finding vacancies, we had now passed two places to stay. We were tired and hot. The words “self destructive behavior” kept whispering in my ears.
The town itself was a curvy lattice of two or three streets in one direction and maybe ten cross streets. On what looked like the main street we came to another albergue just chock full of people and they were no help in finding other accommodations. A few doors down the bar was open but nobody spoke English and they were not able to give us directions to another albergue. (When I say us, I mean me, Sancho Panza. I was the one going into these places and interact with other humans.)
We stumbled on the main town square with benches and a large church, which took up one entire side of the square. In the belfry of the church was a magnificent stork nest that was occupied with a family. There was a group of ten or fifteen people sitting around the plaza eating lunch out of their day-packs (it was 3:30 in the afternoon – clearly we were still off the Spanish schedule). We took our packs off and sat on the benches looking tired and lost.
I noticed, in the low, flat building across from the church a small sign indicating that this was the municipal albergue (Plaza de la Iglesia). With all these people sitting outside I could not imagine them having availability, but I went to check. The building was open but empty. A large room with twenty single beds (not bunks) was completely unoccupied. Perplexed, I stood in the doorway of the building for a few minutes puzzling on what to do next.
A young lady who was part of the group eating lunch came over and in hesitant English explained that the sign on the interior door said the lady would be back in a few minutes. The signed looked permanent, so I doubted its accuracy. I also questioned whether I understood the woman correctly.
After I stopped being so tired, I realized that the group in the plaza was actually very friendly, and they offered us something to eat, which we politely refused. They tried to engage us in pleasant conversation, but due to the language difficulties this got nowhere.
The group finished their lunch and walked out of the plaza. It was clear they were Camino pilgrims (the dangling shells are a giveaway) but here in the middle of nowhere with a large hike before and after this town it was unclear to me where they were going with just day packs.
Iris was in pain and needed the bathroom so I saw no reason to wait on a bench in the plaza and we went inside, chose two of the beds and found the bathrooms.
After about 30 minutes an elderly lady with a couple of young kids came by and charged us 5 euros each a night and showed us the two bathrooms, the courtyard where we could eat or dry clothes on a line, the kitchen and the Internet.
We had the place to ourselves for the night.
I walked back to two bars trying to find something to eat – no luck except candy bars. Each bar had a soccer game on and a good-sized crowd so I figured there was something going on (there was, the playoffs leading to the selection of Spain’s team to enter the World Cup the next month).
I noticed the house martins that made their mud nests under the eves of the houses and then zoomed around the town either singly or in groups like mad drag racers looking for insects. It seemed like everyone was looking for something to eat.
After Iris rested, she and I walked around town and a woman looked down from a balcony and asked something of Iris in Spanish which we did not understand. Two young German women who were staying in one of the other albergues talked to her and she yelled down at her husband to open up the store below. The German women explained that the store was usually closed on Sunday but the woman would open up for us.
We bought a fair amount of fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and water not knowing when the next chance might be and returned to our kitchen and Iris prepared a great meal which we ate in the sunny courtyard.
While Iris made dinner I did laundry so that it could be hanging out to dry and since it stayed bright and sunny well past 9:00. By moving laundry around with the sun we were able to get it dried. Being the only pilgrims in the place gave us uncontested use of the facilities. This made dinner and laundry far easier than it would have been with a crowd.
With the good weather, the bright light, the lack of a crowd, and the quiet atmosphere I took advantage of the peace to look at some brochures. I tried to figure out where we were and what we were doing.
Although “what am I doing here” seemed to be my main question, I don’t think I was going to find an answer to that, so I concentrated on the questions of a geographic or historical nature that I developed in the past few days.
On the Internet I found out that El Cid is a Spanish national hero (possibly explaining the large statue in Burgos) and that the Song of Roland is the earliest existing French manuscript of literature. Roland and company apparently crossed the Pyrenees to drive the Moors out of Spain explaining why he was stepping through the mountains before us.
Early French literature led me to early Spanish literature. Cervante’s novel, Don Quixote is one of the first works of western literature. It is one of the first “quest” fables; long before Frodo or Mad Max. I decided that I was performing Sancho Panza very well on our little expedition: finding the answers, smoothing the path, interacting with humans. Now, if I only had a donkey.
We had walked 21 kilometers today, the first half in two hours and the second half in four hours. Despite worries about not finding accommodations we were staying by ourselves in a dorm built for twenty people for a cost of 5 Euros. Despite being out of food and everything closed except the bars we bought food and made a great dinner. We were now dry and warm for the first time in nine days and all of our clothes were washed.
What was there to stress about?