Wednesday 28 March 2007

The Santiago Road: The Fifth Day

Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Santo Domingo de Calzada to Castrojeriz
134.82 km, total for trip 454.11 km

After getting up early and getting our bikes ready, Max and I decided to head off for the next town for breakfast. He is riding a mountain bike with a fair amount of baggage and even though he is much younger than I am I do not have any trouble keeping up with him on the Marinoni. We roll smoothly along our road, the N120, and chat when we can in a mixture of English and Spanish. The little town of Grañon is off to our left but it looks pretty inconsequential and we do not expect to find any place to eat there.

Belorado is a much more substantial place, with a large square in the centre of town. The town has a long history, having been settled in Roman times, and was a strategic location on the border between Castile and Rioja. It once was an important centre for the tanning industry but it did not look especially prosperous as we rolled into town. But we were able to find a café and sat outside, enjoying our coffee and sandwiches and the sunshine. Afterwards, we walked around the deserted square and looked at the Iglesia de San Pedro, which looked much newer than most of the churches we had seen during our ride. This was not surprising as it was rebuilt in the 17th Century, making it a comparatively modern structure!

Pilgrims walking

The road began to climb gently once we left Belorado and crossed the Tirón River, passing through the villages of Tosanto and Espinosa del Camino. The walking trail for the pilgrims ran parallel to us, sometimes right next to the road, sometimes off in the distance. There was more traffic than I would have liked on this route and almost all of it was big transport trucks.

At Villafranca de Montes de Oca we took a break in a parking lot next to the Iglesia de Santiago, which was built in 1800, replacing another old structure. Although the town was once quite an important stopping point on the Camino, almost nothing is left to look at. The castle, the hospital–just ruins now. The town only has about 200 residents, so when we left the population dropped significantly.

The landscape here is scrubby, rolling hills, with pine and oak trees. Apparently, pilgrims could not locate any landmarks around here and the historical accounts describe them getting lost, and also talk of the wild animals and thieves. It was here that an uprising against the Republic government took place in July 1936, with horrific slaughter, and large numbers of bodies were dumped in the area. A small monument marks the murder of men from Burgos.

I was a lot more concerned about the trucks since the shoulder was not very wide and the flow of traffic was quite steady. After an enjoyable but brief descent the road began to climb steadily for 4-5 kms and with some effort, not having climbed very much since Roncesvalles, I made it up to the top and waited for Max. We had reached the Puerto de la Pedraja which, at 1150 m, divides the watersheds of the Ebro, which flows to the Mediterranean and the Duero, which heads to Portugal and empties into the Atlantic.

We continued along the N120 for another 10 kms or so and turned off the busy road at Santovenia de Oca, heading northwest. We found ourselves once again in deserted countryside, under blue skies with yellow rapeseed blossoms on both sides of the ride. In Atapuerca we saw a lovely 15th C. church, dedicated to San Martín, and rode around the little village, finding a comfortable spot near the church where we ate our bread and cheese. It looked as if it could be a scene from the medieval high time of the pilgrimage, until we noticed a sign for an Internet café!

Atapuerca was one of the earliest town to be taken by the Reconquista, and by 750 there was a significant Christian population. The Camino continues along the top of the limestone Atapuerca Massif and you get an excellent view of the vast flat plains ahead, and a panoramic view of Burgos off to the west.

Our rural road joined the N1 and I was apprehensive that we would have very heavy traffic going into Burgos but this was not the case as thanks to EU money a divided highway could be seen in the distance and it was where all the cars were. We were not on the Camino as it crossed fields going into Burgos but we had an excellent ride along the smooth pavement of the empty road. It was getting very hot as we entered Burgos.

Views of Burgos

Burgos was totally deserted as we rode along the river and into the Plaza Mayor. The sun was blazing down as we came up to the huge white cathedral, whose first stone was laid in 1221. The structure, which only took a mere 23 years to build, continued to be enlarged for the next five centuries. We got off of our bikes and walked around a bit, looking also at the nearby chapels, also all white with soaring arches. Then, because it was so hot–Burgos citizens have a saying about their weather: “nine months of winter, three months of hell”-- we wandered off for ice cream.

Since everything was locked up as tight as a drum in Burgos and we felt pretty good, Max and I decided to continue riding westwards. In retrospect, we should have stayed a day in Burgos and looked at all of the old buildings as it is the city along the Camino that has the most art. At one point in the 15th Century, the city had no fewer than 32 pilgrim hospices. In any event, we rode off along the banks of the Río Arlanzón towards more adventure. We stopped briefly at a large refugio where there were some other cyclists that Max had ridden with previously and we chatted with them but we thought it was too early in the day to stop.

I had foreseen the next difficulty when I was plotting the route at home: the road out of Burgos quickly becomes a limited access highway and I already had enough experience with riding on one of these to last for the trip. I had plotted a route that ran fairly close to the original Camino but would take us a bit to the north. We took a minor road that soon turned into fine gravel and then dust as it led us through Hornillos del Camino. There were a few spots where the gravel was so loose we had to push the bikes for short distances, but we were in good spirits in spite of the heat. The landscape was very open and while there were few trees it was quite scenic. In spite of the thinner (25 mm) tires on my bike I had no difficulty staying with Max on his mountain bike but if the path would have deteriorated further I would have had problems. As it was, we had a real feel, out on the dusty track in the empty countryside, of what it must have been like for the pilgrims of old.


We came to the village of Iglesia and had a nice paved road again. Max was tiring and we had some large climbs ahead and I waited on top for a while near Castellanos de Castro. It was nearly 6 pm and the air was cooling nicely. The sun’s rays had become a soft gold colour, and I took some photos to take advantage of the light.

Max eventually rolled up and then we enjoyed the best section of the trip so far, a 13 km gentle downhill on an excellent empty paved road that let us coast and admire the scenery. To the right was the village of Hontanos, but we ignored the refugio sign and continued onwards.

We came to San Antón, and admired the ruins of what had been a monastery and a hospital, established in 1146 but the remains date mainly from three centuries later. There is a wonderful archway spanning the Camino, and when pilgrims arrived too late to enter the hospice they would sleep underneath this. Each evening the monks laid out food for them in niches in the wall. But now only a warm wind blew and the rest is silence.

Soon our destination for the night, Castrojeriz, came into view. It was quite spectacular, and the road led past a fortified hill. In its heyday the town boasted five churches and seven pilgrim hospices. The castle overlooking the town is actually pre-Roman in origin; Visigoths built on the site later and subsequently it was battled over by Muslims and Christians.

Our host in Castrogeriz

We followed the sign to the refugio, which was fairly high up in town and required some more climbing, but when we got there we discovered it was packed with pilgrims and there was no place for us. In fact, one of the women staying there was quite unpleasant about it. On the way up, I had noticed a sign for another refugio. We returned there and the jolly man running the place said there was space for us. I think he may have been a farmer and was renting out space–at 5 Euros each!–for a bit of extra income. It was quite small but Max and I found a room with two beds and unpacked out stuff. Several other pilgrims arrived soon afterwards but I think we were only about seven in all, unlike the big place up the hill. The shower was cold (really cold, actually) but after our 130 km of riding in the heat and the dust this did not matter so much. After getting cleaned up, we shared our bread and cheese and water and then it was lights out. We all slept the sleep of the just.