Friday, 6 April 2007

The Santiago Road: The Sixth Day

Max, ready to roll

Wednesday, May 29, 2002
Castrojeriz to Sahagun 90.62 km
total for trip 544.73 km

The refugio was dark, dark, dark and not so warm. I was sound asleep when I suddenly was awoken by the sound of chanting. It was a men’s choir singing something medieval and as I began to wake up I had the strange idea that I was still asleep and the music was a dream. It
was quite beautiful but so unexpected. Our host was playing a recording to put us in the proper pilgrim frame of mind, I suppose. We all stumbled out of our beds and the few lights in the refugio were turned on as everyone–probably about eight of us–began to pack up our gear. Once that was done (I was in no mood for a cold shower as I was already cold enough), we trooped upstairs for breakfast. This was also rather monastic–a large cup of milk coffee and an apple. But you cannot really expect much for the token amount we paid for our board and I felt very much in a medieval frame of mind anyway. Everyone was quite cheerful, considering it was just after dawn, and we outside into the cold air we went.

At 6:30 am there was not much going on in Castrojeriz, needless to say. We wanted to take some photos but it was still too dark. We rode around the town in the cold morning air and headed south, where we found the ruins of the convent of San Francisco, which was, according to my guide book, “built over the former palace and gardens of Pedro el Cruel.” Now there’s a great name (although apologists tried to change it to “Pedro the Lawful”)and it turned out he was indeed a pretty nasty fellow. After betraying friends and foe equally, he ended up being murdered in 1369.

We rode back into Castrojeriz now that the light was much better and we looked at various churches, although of course at that time of day nothing was open. We were particularly impressed by the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, which was ruined but featured carved skulls to warn passers-by of death. Nearby was a fine statue of Santiago as a pilgrim, one of many we were to come across on this trip, and I took a nice picture of Max on his bicycle in front of it.

The road out of town crosses over the Río Odra on the San Miguel Bridge, which has some arches still from the 12 Century and then proceeds on what was a causeway built by the Romans across the marshy flatlands. We climbed a small hill and had a fine view of Castrojeriz behind us and ahead and to the left was the village of Castrillo de Matajudios, the birthplace of the 16th Century composer Antonio de Cabezon. But more interesting was the village of Itero del Camino, which had a charming 18th Century church, built from the rubble of the castle which had been constructed when the village was fortified in the Middle Ages to defend the wheat-rich region around it. Only a square tower remains from the castle and it was not in the best condition, albeit picturesque.

Max and I were very impressed with the wide-open vista. There were green fields on both sides of the ride, gently rolling as far as the eye could see. This wide agricultural plain was named by the Visigoths, who conquered Spain in the 5th Century, the Campi Gothorum, and it remains known today as either the Campos Góticos or the Tierra de Campos.

We passed another old village, Boabdilla del Camino, which dates back before the 10th Century at least, and rode alongside the Canal de Castilla. In the 1750s the Spanish began to construct a series of canals in the Tierra de Campos but by the time they were done five decades later railroads had supplanted water transport for heavy goods. Nonetheless, the Canal de Castilla was valuable for irrigation and power, roles which it continues to fulfill today.

We came to the outskirts of Frómista and stopped by an impressive series of locks. Although it is in the centre of the breadbasket of the Iberian Peninsula, it suffered economic decline after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and the loss of its role as an important regional market. The arrival of the canal in 1773 revived the area and it is again a prosperous agricultural centre.

There is not much remaining of old Frómista as it was mainly built in adobe since stone was scarce. However, it does boast the Iglesia de San Martín, a very striking church that was constructed beginning in 1066. It was meant to be something special on the Camino and was designed as a reduced-scale replica of the Cathedral in Jaca. The stone was brought in at great expense and the building is impressively decorated on the outside. We went inside and looked at the interior. It was rather simple but this may have been a result of later restoration. There was a nice 16th Century statue of Santiago Pelegrino to cheer us onwards.

In Frómista we saw much larger numbers of people than we had seen previously on the Camino, including several busloads of tourists. There were quite a few cyclists gathered around the church and I talked with an older couple. They were Dutch, and were riding enormous heavy black Dutch bicycles with full camping gear. To my astonishment, they had actually ridden all the way from Holland, taking more than two months already to reach Frómista. They said that it had been a pretty hard trip since it had rained more or less non-stop for about six weeks en route. They looked at my lightweight bicycle and the man voiced concerns about its durability for the Camino. I had to give them credit for their dedication, but I silently doubted if I would have been crazy enough to ride over the Roncesvalles Pass on a fifty pound bike with another fifty pounds of stuff on it.

We found a small store where we stocked up on our usual bread and cheese and fruit and drank some fruit juice while sitting on the curb. Frómista already seemed like the Big City after the places I had been through, and the road was definitely busier now. We travelled northwest now along the P980, an excellent road, passing several small villages. The traffic became quite a bit heavier as we came to Carrión de los Condes, at the intersection of P980 and the N120, an old friend we had least seen near Burgos.

Carrión de los Condes has quite a long and interesting history, having been occupied at various times by the Romans, the Visigoth and the Muslims, the last arriving around 713. During the Middle Ages it was one of the wealthiest and most important towns in north central Spain. The town appears in the epic about El Cid, a famous general from whom the Kings of Spain still trace their descent, and was described as the home of a nest of villainous counts who married and mistreated the Cid’s daughters. Hence the “de los Condes,” which means “of the Counts.”

The town features numerous examples of Castilian Romanesque architecture and we rode slowly by the Iglesia de Santa Mariá del Camino and the Iglesia de Santiago before crossing the Río Carríon, which was totally dry, over an impressive arched bridge before passing an old monastery, the Monasterio de San Zoila, founded in the 10th Century and which owned most of the town by the 13th. After a long decline, it was turned into a parador, one of the luxury hotels to be found in historic Spanish towns and villages.

We rode out of Carrión de los Condes and rather than follow N120 we decided to stick to the original pilgrims’ route, a path over crushed reddish gravel. The weather had been excellent but now we found ourselves in a treeless, desolate plain, with grain fields lining both sides of the Camino and the sun beating down ferociously. It was around 2:30 pm, the hottest time of the day, and as we rolled down the dusty road I felt sorry for the pilgrims on foot. For us the hard road, perhaps 30 kms, would be a reasonable ride but on foot it would take a good part of the day.

In addition to pilgrims on foot, we passed a French couple with a donkey, loaded up with their gear. I felt pretty confident on the loose gravel, but Max was slowing down so I said that I would cruise on ahead. I stopped for a cold drink at Calzadilla de la Cueza and waited for Max. As we continued, the road became paved again and I picked up the tempo a bit. I told him that I would go on to Sahagún, our next planned stop, and make sure that we had two places reserved before the walkers arrived instead of facing the situation we did in Castrogeriz. With my thin tires I was much faster on pavement than he was, and so I set off.

It was here that I discovered what European Union money can do. I was back on the N120, which was quite magnificent here. It was four lanes wide, with a green space dividing the directions and absolutely no traffic of any kind. I rode perhaps 15 kms on the freshly-paved stretch and was not passed by a single vehicle. I could not understand this since the road was clearly designed for heavy traffic but then I looked to the north and saw, perhaps 3 kms away, a limited access highway with lots of trucks on it. I was very grateful to the taxpayers of the EU who had funded two different roads going in the same direction and provided me with my own private highway, for at least a few hours.

I rolled happily into Sahagún, hot and sweaty but pleased with our progress. I found the signs directing me to the refugio quite easily but everything was locked up and would be for another hour. There was a rather modern statute of a pilgrim out front and I leaned my bike against the wall and read for a while until the door was unlocked and I could go in and reserve our spaces. Being so early, I was able to go and have a shower and find some good spots for us.

The refugio was the former Iglesia de la Trinidad and had been converted to become a gigantic dormitory. After locking up the bike on the ground floor and taking off the panniers, I walked up a big set of steps with several landings and found myself in a large room with a very high, vaulted ceiling and beds everywhere. There was a kitchen area as well as a few showers but it all seemed a bit cramped.

After my shower I waited for Max to arrive and a large number of pilgrims came in, hot and dusty from their long walk. The showers raised the humidity in the place and then some of the pilgrims, who I am certain were Danish, began to cook and the wretched smell of frying pork filled the whole place.

Max was pleased that I had booked us in but very soon after his arrival the place looked totally full. There were probably 200-250 beds and all were taken. After he cleaned up we went outside and looked around Sahagún, finding a grocery store and not much else, although the town was fairly large.

We sat in front of the refugio, wrote our postcards and chatted for a while. Max was missing his girlfriend in Barcelona and anxious to get to Santiago pretty quickly whereas I was starting to realize that as I became stronger and stronger each day on the bike I was covering distance much faster than I had planned. If I kept up the current rate of speed, I would arrive in Santiago much too early since I had a bus reservation for a particular day in order to get back to Bayonne for my flight home to Berlin. I decided that I would spend the next day in León and he was planning to ride through, so we planned to go as far as León together and then split up. This happens a lot on the Camino; I had already travelled with a Frenchman, a German, a Belgian and now an Argentinian.

Sleeping was not a great success. The pilgrims who were walking were always dead tired at the end of the day, even when it was not as hot as it was today. By 9 pm everyone was sweating on top of their bunks, the smell of greasy pork in the air, and as the first pilgrims fell asleep the snoring began. At first this caused some laughter from those still awake but we soon realized that the effect was amplified by the high arched ceiling and eventually the noise of the snoring began deafening. I had not planned on this but I began to realize that the refugios, while really cheap and part of the Camino experience, were perhaps not really for me. I would take my chances in León the next day and see what other accommodation I might find.

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