It´s 1,000 kms. from Seville to Santiago, and we are now 493 kms. along the line. But tomorrow we bring this year´s walking to an end, on arrival at Salamanca. It´s sad to be parting from the company of other pilgrims, and from our simple routine of the past four weeks: up before dawn, coffee and toast for breakfast, the same relatively few possessions stuffed away in the rucksack, along with plenty of bottles of water, and then OFF into the empty - and usually beautiful - countryside.
This morning´s was a particularly dramatic departure, from Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, with the sun coming up behind the fortress church of Santa Maria la Blanca. That was the stay where we have had the strongest feeling for being on a pilgrimage: the parish priest, Don Blas Rodriguez, has done an enormous amount not only for the people of his small parish, but also for the visibility of this Camino. We were all invited to his children´s mass at 8 last evening: he used the pilgrimage, and its international significance, as a teaching tool for his first communion class. And as many of the pilgrims who came along may never have experienced a mass before, the celebration had a double effect.
The church was in ruins when Don Blas arrived in the village: now is it not only gloriously restored, but filled with modern, wooden sculptures of enormous dynamism, including Santiago of course, and the centrepiece, the risen Christ. Blas´ home is the pilgrim Refugio, its dormitories filled with icons. What one man can achieve in a short time! Nor is he - from what we could see - subject to Mr. Darcy´s strictures: The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.
Since I was last able to sit at a computer, we have met a couple more "nationalities" - a Swede, and a man from Cape Town. The question, "Why are you doing it?" is never far from my mind, even if not articulated. The South African, a recently retired mining engineer, went to the trouble of making a Schengen Visa application in order to be able to fly into Madrid: he had picked up an Australian´s account of walking the Via de la Plata in his local library, and was taken with the challenge. No religious convictions there!
Most of those we have come across are of an age with us, perhaps a bit younger on average: are we all out to show there is a spark of life in us yet? That we are happy to substitute for the 9 to 5 life, a spell on the hallowed path from dawn to (Spanish) lunchtime, after which we collapse happily into siesta mode, before catching up with our emails in the local casa de cultura when it opens at 5?
Here we are now at the Northern extremity of Extremadura, which it has taken us more than a fortnight to cross. The villages are no longer dominated by white-painted houses: stone and adobe dwellings, with wooden first floor balconies, have replaced them.
From Carcaboso, we had our most lovely walk yet to the Arco de Cáparra - a Roman relic in the middle of nowhere. We waited (and waited) there, under the ancient arch, for a (hair-raising - when it came) lift from the owner of an off-Camino hostal. (Internot) Then, next morning, we followed blue (instead of our usual yellow) arrows to rejoin the Camino, to reach eventually the pretty little town of Aldeavueva del Camino. (Interneither - though lots of horrifying TV pictures of bull getting the better of bullfighter.) The snow-capped mountains lay ahead.
This morning, we had a shorter walk up here to Baños de Montemayor, which is at 700 metres - more climbing ahead of us! After some less than perfect nights´ sleep, we are comfortably ensconced here at Hotel Balneario, the heyday of which must have been about 1910. And we have been indulging ourselves most happily in the Roman baths next door. Very good for blisters!
Three weeks in, and we have yet to come across another person from England, apart from out nice host and hostess at Alconétar Reservoir, Stephen and Sharon, all the way from Woking. American, Argentinian, Australian, Austrian, Belgian, Danish, French, Irish, Italian fellow pilgrims have we met, as well as those from all parts of Germany, Holland and Spain, but where are the English?
I compiled this list today during our rather dreary road walk, from beautiful, walled Galisteo (with its amazing views all round) to the rather less romantic (but very hospitable) village of Carcaboso (Hostal Ciudad de Caparra much recommended). The barns are bigger and more elaborately constructed. There were frogs and bullrushes, and Caroline was Croc-ed: in other words, she eschewed her boots because of... blisters! (Dreaded word in these parts!)
A writer, having contemplated a blank piece of paper for many hours, has to be forgiven for throwing in the towel. Last night I listened to the rain beating down on our window blind, and the bus marked "Salamanca", which pulled in outside our hostal as we were leaving, suddenly became an attractive proposition.
But we were both glad we did not succumb: it´s been a great day on the Camino. The rain held off till after we arrived here in Galisteo, and for the most part it was sunny (but not too hot), with high and beautiful cloud formations. And the scenery ranged from distant views of blue remembered hills (100kms. away?) to cool pine woods and meadows carpeted in purple and yellow with wild flowers.
This time last year I bought a St. James´ shell to take with me when walking part of the Voie du Puy in S-W France: it has kept me company again this year, till today when I sat on my rucksack, forgetting it was underneath. Crack! It was not a good day for sitting: the way is marked by occasional large stone blocks with engraved outlines of the famous Roman arch of Cáparra, which we walk through on Saturday. I collapsed onto one for a rest, forgetting the rain which collected in the engraving. Then we both took another wetting, having to remove our boots to cross a swollen river: quite refreshing in fact - we should do it more often.
So, another 28kms. has been clocked up, and we are off to explore the walled town of Galisteo.
Today´s walk was a bit of a holiday within a holiday: first, it was only 14kms., and secondly our rucksacks were carried for us - the kind couple who run the place we stayed last night dropped them off, as they were driving here to do their shopping.
So, we raced along in the mild drizzle, first climbing up from the great reservoir, on the edge of which we´d stayed (amazing views!), and then gradually dipping down across more moorland-type scenery to the river below this village, Cañaveral: we crossed it on the 14th Century humpback bridge of San Benito before mounting to the village road. The main street is full of people putting up tents for a feria on Saturday. Friday is St. George´s day: I had thought he was big throughout Spain, but I was told by the barman that the feria is to celebrate 2,400 years of womanhood - with something of a shrug.
Yesterday was hot in spite of the forecast: the greater part of our walk was on the roof of the world, the track running for a long time amidst huge boulders - I have only ever seen any like them on Dartmoor. Feeling adventurous, we tried to follow an alternative route at one stage, the original Calzada Romana: a failure! It was then difficult getting back to the marked path, and our water was running low. The last 5kms. along the main road where it crosses the two big rivers which supply the reservoir were the first time we experienced the grim in pilgrimage.
The weather has been more settled today: we have put our macs away. Coming North from Cáceres, the countryside has changed. We find hardly any trees or cultivation, and great rolling landscapes. The Yorkshire Moors come to mind.
The first part of our shortish walk (11kms.), after leaving behind the Cáceres bullring, was along a main road, with more than its usual quota of dead dogs to disgust us. We were glad when a track opened out parallel to, and away from, the traffic, which we followed all the way into Casar de Cáceres. The path runs down a beautiful final half km. of gardens, with a great variety of trees, and below them roses in full bloom.
We had not booked anywhere, so followed a sign saying Casa Rural El Encarnacion, which led us slightly out of the town onto a small hill: the former farmhouse - nicely converted (but a very expensive stay) - is just by one of nine small pilgrimage chapels dotted around the town, this one dedicated to Our Lady of the Incarnation. It has rather good, modern stations of the cross.
Now we are back in Casar itself, and very much ready for something to eat. This place epitomises so many we have passed through: extremes of simplicity and poverty on the one hand, and huge infrastructure investment (housing, roads, library, tourism etc.) on the other.
Not in accordance with our (revised) plan, we are spending two nights in Cáceres - which turns out to be well worth it! A place the size of Cheltenham, Cáceres has at its core a self-contained walled city with an extraordinary richness of architecture, mainly of the 15th-17th Centuries. More churches and palaces seem to appear as you make every turn.
Last evening, we went to mass in the Cathedral (of 13th Century origins): this morning, we toured a 12th Century Arab house; and as I am writing, Caroline is at a Rembrandt etchings exhibition. The only hitch has been our hotel: the partying continued till after four this morning outside the window of our room. As a result, we are both rather short of reading matter till the Post Office opens tomorrow morning, and we can pick up our poste restante. (Luckily, the concierge has just come up with a choice of The Warden and Bleak House, left behind by previous guests.)
We walked mainly in the dry yesterday, the only serious shower coming upon us just as we happened upon a tunnel under the motorway - the second time this has occurred. Today, the rain has been more constant, so we aren´t really complaining about another rest day.
The two of us set off this morning to walk to Alcuescar, 21kms. North of where we stayed last night. We were aiming for the splendidly-named Convent of the Slaves of Mary and of the Poor, which offers individual rooms and supper (with a pilgrims´ blessing beforehand) - no charge, just a request for donations. I was looking forward to this unusual billet.
Somehow, though, before Alcuescar, we must have missed a turning, as we found ourselves well past the village before we realised. Bother. The next place was 10kms. further on, and there was nowhere whatsoever which offered places to stay. So we ended up walking 6kms. further still, to Aldea del Cano, the place we had booked into for tomorrow night: there was no reply to my calls, so we were left hoping there would be room tonight.
Then the rain came, but luckily with the wind blowing us along towards our destination. And like most of our walking so far, the terrain was not difficult, with no great ascents (or descents). There was room for us at the casa rural, we were much relieved to find, and with warm radiators to dry our stuff.
In the earlier part of the day, we had walked through more lovely wild flower meadows and wooded areas - holm oaks, olives, figs (no cherries!). We crossed a couple of Roman bridges, and passed Roman milestones, to remind us where we were.
Still, you know when you have walked 37kms. and Caroline and I are ready for supper!
We have now reached the Northernmost village in Badajoz, 237km. from our starting point in Seville. Tomorrow we shall be halfway to Salamanca.
Though the sky was overcast as we left Mérida, the heavens did not open till just before we were due to pass underneath the A-66 motorway, which was a fortuitous shelter. Between the development surrounding the Proserpina (sic) reservoir on the North side of Mérida (we got lost there), and the A-66, we might have been on another planet: our sandy track percolated through the best wildflower meadows so far, and a holm oak-dotted, rock-strewn landscape.
We were tired after our day off in Mérida yesterday, not that we did a lot of walking round the town (the main sights are in quite a concentrated area): breaking the rhythm of everyday walking is what makes it hard when you resume: we have resolved to avoid days off from now on.
Here, we are staying in a room above the Roman Baths (Aqua Libera). It was a joy to sink into them - there are three (of different temperatures) - when we arrived. We are the only guests, so it feels rather exclusive. The house guard dog is asleep in a box behind where I am sitting, in the office of the owners.
This is the Roman bridge over the Rio Guadiana at Mérida - 800 metres long. We crossed it at the end of today's easy 16km walk from Torremejia.
Easy, because it was much cooler this morning, and indeed spotting with rain, the first since we left England a fortnight ago nearly. Happily, we finished our day's walking before the downpour this afternoon, which has interfered rather with our visits to the extensive Roman remains here. We spent a little time in the amazing museum, before a text came from Thomas: he had just arrived from Lisbon to meet us (bearing cakes).
By 7.30 this morning, we were drinking our coffee at the bar at the end of our road, where we had met up once again with our new Amsterdam friends, Gerard and Franca. We had been chatting to the village priest together, after last night's 8.30 mass in the church: it's next to the sparkling new Albergue, opened only yesterday.
Gerard, at breakfast: "I was brought up in a family with a strict Protestant tradition: I missed the opportunity you Catholics have to get rid of your guilt. And your capacity to celebrate. Too much heavy organ music in our churches! Calvin must have been the greatest hater the world has known." And so ensued a great conversation about truth!
This is the sort of thing that happens all the time on the Camino, even at breakfast time.
We are now back on schedule, having arrived here in Torremejia before lunch. We used our day in hand to make a slight detour to the city of Almendralejo, so as to give ourselves two shorter days instead of one longer one. It would have been too long: this has been the most unchanging and relentless stage of our journey so far.
The tracks, mainly sand-surfaced, are straight and level, all footprints pointing in one direction, between huge vineyards and olive groves. There is no sign of habitation between the places where we stay, and the only other humans we have seen have been burly, raisin-faced Spaniards on their little tractors, either kicking up the dust on our track, or beavering away, harrowing the soil between their rows of vines. Even from early yesterday (Sunday) they went to work.
On neither day did we have a sight of any other pilgrims, which made it seem more than ever a cultivated but elemental desert. The contrast when we arrived suddenly in Almendralejo yesterday was remarkable. As Caroline put it, this is a very grown up place: population, more than 23,000, with some fine public buildings, and literally dozens of shops exhibiting a variety of exotic fashion items - Spanish and beyond. We had seen nothing like it since Seville.
Shaking the dust of Almendralejo off our feet at sunrise this morning, we wondered how a Transition Almendralejo might start to get off the ground: it seems everything arrives there (or leaves it, in the case of wine) in a huge trailer truck: all the lorry and car drivers chuck their rubbish out into the roadside: buildings no longer needed for some industrial purpose are merely abandoned. The motorway rushes past the outskirts.
"Paths are made by those who walk on them" was the title of an early essay by Fr. Thomas Cullinan, and these are the luxurious thoughts of a couple pounding the Via de la Plata and so keeping open an historic route to a long-treasured spiritual centre: its values seem more than ever needed in a world like that of Almendralejo.
This has been a good day! Both of us are feeling much better for the two days´ rest, and a night of luxury - from which we dragged ourselves away at 7.15 this morning, without staying to enjoy the legendary Parador breakfast. "Are we staying in any more Pandoras?" asked Caroline casually, to which the answer has to be, "Yes and No".
Last night, outside our window, the paseo was in full swing till well past our bedtime; but this morning, as we walked out of town by the light of the waning moon, the only sound to accompany the click of my sticks was birdsong. A long but gentle climb up an earth track brought us to a sudden - had we not read about it in the guidebook - view over the pretty old village of Los Santos de Maimona. There we found breakfast at Rosa´s bar. Fortified, and making our way back to the Camino, we immediately met up with two of our Dutch friends. Piet and Henny don´t believe in rest days: they seem to spend their entire retirement on one or another Camino; and it turns out they only drink bottled water, so perhaps there´s a lesson for us!
The way was very easy all through to our destination, Villafranca de los Barros, where we arrived at our B&B (Casa Perin) at 1.30. After a pause for wash and brush up, and a look into the church just opposite, where a boistrous wedding was going on - some of the smartly-dressed guests popping out for a cigarette or to chat on their mobiles - we sought lunch: this turned out to be our first Spanish fish (rather good too), in a place called Los Gemelos.
In my halting Spanish, I told the waiter that it had been hot on the Camino today (22), to which I think his reply was: "You ought to be here in the Summer, when it´s 40 degrees!"
Our path was undulating, but without any steepness, and passed between enormous groves of olive and almond trees. Some of the olives were biblically old, as in my photograph (which also shows one of the many San Isidro hermitages, built after his body was taken from Seville all the way to Leon, a huge journey! - so much for no photographs on Extremadura computers!) and some only just planted. [Agnes would say, this sentence needs breaking up.] In between many of the olives were vines, looking so clipped back as never to be likely to produce grapes. Yet everywhere we have been offered the local wine, and - when we´ve felt up to it - enjoyed it.
Nearer to Villafranca we have seen much more industrial wine-growing activities - alongside other industry too, with huge factories and smokestacks. The contrast between them, in the distance, and the ancient olive trees, in the foreground, is remarkable.
Caroline has been most excited to find (for the first time here) orchids of many hues, some even growing bravely in between our tracks. Irises too have flourished all along the way.
So, with the sun shining uninterruptedly, but with a pleasant breeze in our face, we have been very happy to be back on our walk - and to be a day ahead of schedule. Caroline: "I don´t yet feel that I´m on a pilgrimage." Henny: "But it makes you clear in the head."
This has to be our smartest B&B en route for Compostela! The Zafra Parador sits in the castle of the Dukes of Feria, and is quite as grand as it sounds (though our room is in a modern annexe). Not that we have done anything to earn such luxury, as we resorted to the bus to get us here in Zafra, a day ahead of schedule. Neither of us was feeling much like walking today after spending most of yesterday in bed: Caroline is still pretty ropey.
But we enjoyed a quiet saunter round this pretty mini-Seville this morning. Many lovely squares, and richly decorated churches: we were lucky to get a private guided tour of the former Hospital de Santiago, now some sort of institution.
The huge landscapes we could see from the bus made me realise why walkers are urged to take plenty of water over the two days we have skipped. There are more such days ahead!
And just as well it is (a rest day)! Caroline and I were feeling so well last night after our fith day of walking; but we have succumbed simultaneously and with identical symptoms either to sunstroke, or to some food/water which didna agree with us. Sparing you the gory details, the bath room at Hotel Moya, Monesterio was in full-time use during the night. ("Still too much information," I'm told.)
This morning I have staggered to the town centre, on the shady side of the street, in the interests of imparting to you, dear blog readers, this essential piece of intelligence.
Yesterday was our longest walk so far: it was a game of two halves (a bit like Man. U. v. Bayern in the evening: oh dear!). In the morning, we strolled along a delightful farm track, holm oaks thickly scattered in the surrounding pastures, and not a soul to be seen. The peace was shattered when we came across a shiny new motorway service station, where we had lunch, in the company of those driving three large lorries marked "English National Ballet". From then on, the path ran parallel to the road, rising remorselessly. The fresh wind raised the dust, but kept us deceptively cool - I think that was what did it for us in the night.
Hope to return to the fray very shortly. But disappointingly no computers we are likely to be able to use in Extremadura, where now we are, will let you upload photographs! Or so the nice lady with perfect English has just informed me. How dull! [Photograph added after reaching home.]
I always forget how much later it gets light in the West of Spain. We were advised to leave early on our walks, but it´s been not only cold but dark when we´ve done so, even though it warms up considerably by midday.
Here we are anyway, safely arrived at El Real de la Jara, our last stop in Andalucia, before we cross tomorrow into Extremadura. "For a thinking man there is no such thing as a wilderness," says one of Turgenev´s characters. Well, yesterday, and still more today there´s been hardly any habitation in sight either day, and no people apart from a handful of us walkers. Black pigs run wild; goats, beautiful brown, horned cattle with bells, horses (and a mule), sheep, birds of many feathers, not to mention frogs and tadpoles galore. Then there´s the flowers, which - especially yesterday - were of all colours. (Today, we have climbed higher, so fewer were out.)
But only at the end of today´s walk, that´s after four days on the Camino, did I really start to realise that it´s not a race; and so why not sit by a babbling stream and bathe our feet? After all, Spaniards lunch late, and there will still be somebody there with at least a sandwich at 3.30.
I´m glad to say Caroline is (so far) enjoying it all as much as I am (and neither of us has so far succumbed to blisters). "A far cry from Leckhampton Hill," as she says.
Time to go and have our pilgrim passport stamped at the pretty church round the corner from our B&B.
Today, we saw this lovely invitation to deviate a hundred yards from our Camino in order to help ourselves to water from a source used for the cattle. Its installer is the third angel we have encountered: yesterday we were passing a very scruffy, shacky dwelling, surrounded by a high wire fence and much rubbish: we waved to the owner and his family, who were having a barbecue outside, and were invited to pause for beer, olives and a pork sandwich - just as we were feeling at our lowest in the afternoon heat. Then, this morning, a kind Bavarian headmaster gave us a lift over the three kilometres from our rather overrated farmhouse hotel near Guillena to the point where we had left the path to get to it yesterday evening: a great relief not to have to retrace our steps along that main road!
Today´s walk to Castilblanco de los Arroyos was lovely, through orange groves and olive groves, with cows, horses, a variety of birdlife and even more splendid wildflowers than yesterday. The only plague has been bikers, who don't realise how inaudible they are to walkers; but then it is a holiday weekend.
Caroline is already in bed and asleep, feeling pleasantly exhausted: it´s odd, not having had the opportunity to go to mass on Easter Day, but then we´ve been celebrating the resurrection brilliantly in the open air.
Here is Caroline, baptising her new boots in one of the rivers we had to cross today, all swollen by the terrific rains that Andalucia has had this Spring. The other side of which is the proliferation of wild flowers.
Happily, today has been fine: what clouds we have seen were nice and high, and there was a little breeze to prevent us getting too hot. That´s just as well, as it´s a dusty old track from the Seville outskirts, with no shade.
We´re staying in a hotel made from a converted farmhouse, just outside the rather nondescript town of Guillena, and were very pleased to be able to sink into a bath on our arrival here. Although we avoided the worst of suburban Seville by catching the recommended town bus, we then spent an enthralling hour walking round the remains of the Roman city of Italica: by when Caroline made the mistake of wondering whether we had finished our walking for the day; but a sharp tap with my Leki [stick] and large coffee [carrot] combined to get her back on her feet. And soon it was me that was wilting.
Holy Week in Seville is something rather different (from Cheltenham anyway): at 5 a.m. yesterday morning, I was standing outside our hotel watching 500 black clothed and hooded men with candles process past in silence, followed by an enormous float with a full-size statue of Christ carrying his cross on it (carried itself by a team of 35 willing slaves, in the dark underneath it): this and more than 50 similar progresses have been surging through central Seville all week, watched by silent and respectful crowds of thousands: an amazing tradition, preserved with vitality, and giving hope to those of us depressed by clerical scandals.