Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Santiago Road: The Fourth Day

Above San Millán

Monday, May 27, 2002
Logroño to Santo Domingo de Calzada 67.92 km,
total for trip 319.29 km

My experience coming into both Pamplona and Logroño was that the outskirts of large Spanish cities are really dreadful and no pleasure to cycle. This was confirmed when I left Logroño and, successfully following the signs taking me in the correct direction, I soon found myself riding the shoulder of a limited-access highway, completely illegal in Spain. Even worse, I was riding into a headwind and the road seemed only to go up. This continued for an interminable 11 kms. Just before it ended, I regained my composure by having breakfast at a highway rest stop but was glad that I was able to get onto the smaller N 120 road soon afterwards. On the highway, I had been passed by a number of police cars but they seemed to be escorting buses and paid me no attention.

I followed the N 120, which was not a terribly interesting road and then soon found myself riding with the three Asturians again but we did not speak a lot because of the effort of fighting the wind. I parted company from them again when I turned south near Nájera. My guidebook suggested that I should go to San Millán de la Cogolla where the monastery was a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as the route ran along quiet country streets I thought this detour would be worthwhile. However, even though the hills made it a bit more difficult than I had expected, the massive headwind slowed my speed down to almost nothing. When I rode through the town of Cardenas, I actually rode downhill in one of my lowest gears, usually reserved for going up mountains. And the wind howled so much I could hardly hear anything.

By the time I reached San Millán I was quite tired, even though it was only about 18 kms from the N 120. There was a little road behind the village that was supposed to take me to San Millán de Suso where the famous 6th Century hermit San Millán was born, and where he died a century later. But the road went uphill with much more enthusiasm than I could muster. It did give me a view over the village and past the monastery to the impressive mountains behind. There was even snow on one of the peaks, San Lorenzo. I took some pictures and decided to roll down into the village and look around. This was San Millán de Yuso. No confusion here.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered all the buses, and their police escorts, that had overtaken me on the highway had occupied the entire village. The story was that the EU Ministers of Public Works were meeting in Spain and were making a visit to San Millán. The Spanish unions of public servants had organized the buses for a political rally and now the streets of the little village where totally jammed with office workers with signs. They were in a good mood, however, so I was not very worried. I locked the bike up to a post and began to walk. With all the demonstrators, it was a bit difficult to walk through the streets to the monastery. And the village only seemed to have two streets altogether. But when I finally did make it there, I found the monastery surrounded by armed police who were obviously the ministerial escort. So much for my detour.

The monastery in the village became a going concern in the late 11th Century when the upper monastery was deserted and the relics of San Millán brought down from the hill. Under the Benedictine Order the monastery grew and was rebuilt between the 16th and 18th Centuries. It looks massive for such a small village and was perhaps too much in the end. The Benedictines moved out in the 19th Century but other monks have more recently returned to inhabit the building. My guidebook refers to the “interminably long guided tour” so perhaps I did have something to thank the EU Ministers for after all.

After having some bread and cheese and a lot of water, I prepared to ride into the hellish wind again. The scenery was wonderful, but difficult to enjoy and I moved up and down the hills at a snail’s pace. I crawled through Villar de Torre and then soon after saw a big sign marking the location of an 11th Century convent. “Well, that’s what I am here for!,” I thought, and turned eastwards, out of the wind at last.

A short ride of 5 kms took me to Cañas where a Cistercian convent had been founded in 1170. It had flourished through the Middle Ages–apparently St. Francis of Assisi had stayed there on his pilgrimage--but then fell into ruin. It was restored after 1945 and reoccupied. It was my luck that it was time to restore it again or something since most of the building was surrounded by scaffolding. Nothing in sight was open and it did not look as if tourists were abundant. I had the feeling I was the only person in Spain.

Turning west again, the short 5 kms became a very long ride into the wind. I was in gently rolling green farmland, but it all looked a bit desolate. There were no houses and almost no trees. It was so tiring for me to ride up a tiny hill near Manzanares that I actually got off the bike and walked for a few minutes to get my breath back. It was embarrassing to think that I had crossed the Pyrenees without too much trouble yet was crushed by this molehill.

The road now ran downhill and soon I was on the outskirts of a real town, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I passed a carwash. And some warehouses. And then I was on an ancient street of a town that really owes its existence to the Camino de Santiago.

Until the engineer-monk St. Dominic arrived, there was nothing much here on the banks of the River Oja. The Camino, passing from Nájera through swamps and forests was exposed to bandits and was considered one of the most dangerous stretches for pilgrims. Domingo García, born in the area around 1019, had been a shepherd but turned to the monastic life. He did poorly in his studies at San Millán and was not allowed to continue, so he chose the life of a hermit instead. After a time in the forests along the Oja, he turned to assisting pilgrims and improving their travel conditions. Beginning with improvements to the local roads, he went on build a famous 24-arch stone bridge over the Oja and a small village grew up around a hospice he organized in an old ruined fort.

St. Dominic was long in his grave when a legend became attached to him in the 12th Century. An innocent German pilgrim who rejected the local innkeeper’s daughter’s advances was framed for theft and hanged. A month later his family arrived to collect his body from the gibbet and were astonished to see that he was still alive and in good spirits, due to the intervention of St. James or, in other versions, St. Dominic. The family rushed to the presiding magistrate was eating his dinner and told him that their son was still alive. Gesturing at his meal, he scoffed and said that the son was as alive as his roasted chickens. Whereupon the chickens reassembled themselves, feathers and all and flew off cackling. A pair of white chickens are kept in a coop in the cathedral and there were some being kept at the hostel I stayed in that evening. The town coat-of-arms also bears white chickens proudly upon it.

Bustling Santo Domingo

Until I arrived in Santo Domingo, I was not aware that the pilgrimage route had made significant changes to any cityscape. The town was clearly built along an east-west axis as I did not have to deviate from the Camino as I rode directly into town. The town, with its sand-coloured buildings and quiet streets, was appealing enough that I considered quitting for the day although I had not even ridden 70 kms. But the wind had made the ride so arduous (not to mention the morale-sapping highway out of Logroño) that I thought I would allow myself the luxury of stopping in mid-afternoon and doing nothing. I was dirty and windblown and exhausted and felt enough like a genuine pilgrim for one day.

As I was thinking these thoughts and riding gently down the main street, protected from the wind by the low buildings, I saw a refugio sign on the left and pulled over to a large building that appeared to be a convent. Leaning the bike against the wall and putting myself into a slightly better appearance, I approached the Nun On Duty at the window and asked if there were any beds for the night. Unfortunately, the refugio was full, to my surprise given the early time of day, but I thanked her anyway and decided to think up an alternative. There was a fountain and a courtyard, so I sat down and took out some bread and cheese and made a sandwich.

A moment later, I was delighted to see the three Asturians ride into town. I had parted from them near Nájera earlier in the day and I am certain that they did not have much fun grinding into the wind with their heavily-burdened bicycles. They pulled off the road and joined me and we chatted in our limited mutual vocabulary.

The refugio

They planned to press ahead as there was still lots of light but I had had enough. After we parted, I rode down the street a little further and discovered a second refugio, a large old building from the mid-19th Century on the right side. There would be space here for me, I was pleased to learn, and I had my pass stamped.

I unloaded the bicycle and set up my sleeping bag and panniers next to my bed. Then I got back on the Marinoni and rode back out of town the way I had come to the car wash. Luckily I had enough small change that I could use the car wash and rinse off my poor bicycle, dusty where it was not spattered with mud and, uh, agricultural detritus, to be delicate. For inexperienced cyclists reading this, a high-pressure hose works very well, but should be used with great care on a bicycle as aiming it at the hubs or bottom bracket could blow out all the grease in the bearings, resulting in a short and expensive ride the next day. But a few minutes’ work suffice to bring back Signore Marinoni to his sparkling best self. Without the burdens of the panniers and handlebar bag, the bicycle felt so fleet and responsive and we joyfully zipped back to the refugio at racing speed. After a welcome shower and an attempt to do my laundry, I was refreshed and relaxed and ready to look at the town. The heat of the afternoon had passed as we moved into early evening and the weather was much nicer. And the wind had thankfully died down.

The cathedral

Well, there is not a whole lot to see in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. There is an impressive cathedral, built in differing styles from 13th Century Romanesque to Baroque. St. Dominic had built the first church on the site and the current building has gone through several cycles of decay and restoration. Strangely, the tower of the cathedral stands alone across the street, unattached to the principal building. Nearby is the impressive hospice which replaced St. Dominic’s basic original structure in the 15th Century and served pilgrims for a further 300 years before falling into disrepair. It has been rebuilt as part of the Spanish national parador system of luxury hotels.

Around the corner was what looked like the city hall on a large open square. The demonstrators that I had seen at San Millán were here as well to protest the EU Ministers, but I avoided them and headed in the other direction. This gave me a chance to find a grocery store, where I stocked up on the inevitable bread and cheese and chocolate, along with a few big bottles of mineral water and some fruit. I even found postcards of Santo Domingo and spent the evening writing them out. I also chatted with other pilgrims, including a husband-and-wife team from Germany, and talked at some length with Max, a young Argentinian living in Barcelona. He was riding a mountain bike and not adverse to some company on the road, so we decided to head out together the next day.

The hostel gradually filled up with hikers and more cyclists but it was not uncomfortable and, exhausted as I was, I had an excellent night’s sleep for a change.

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