Monthly Archives: April 2011

Days 11-16 on the Vía de la Plata


[Before Cáceres]

Just before Cáceres on the Vía de la Plata.

It’s spring it’s spring it’s spring!

Well, okay, so rainy days are spring, too, and apparently 30 degrees Celsius days are spring as well, but for the moment it’s beautifully sunny flowery springy spring.

There are a lot of people walking right now, but so far (knock on wood) I haven’t had any problems finding a bed. I’ve heard some of the albergues have had to use their overflow (very basic) accommodation, though.

Thanks to everyone for your comments. I will answer questions when I can, but this computer is insanely slow.

So … the latest installment.

Day 11: Mérida (0-plus km)

[Rain in Merida]

As soon as it started raining in Mérida, the city was awash in umbrellas.

Honestly, I spent half this day moping around. I got some Internet stuff done in the morning, which was drizzly, and then just as I was about to go out and visit ruins, it started to pour. And then everyone in the albergue seemed to be part of a couple—very nice couples, but self-sufficient, and I was lonely.

As the rain ended, I managed to make my way back to the albergue, and discovered that Sanna, with whom I’d watched that Semana Santa procession, had just arrived. It was great to see her.

[Calle John Lennon]

Somehow this wasn't a street name I was expecting to see in Spain.

And then I got talking to this American guy who was actually cycling in the other direction, but the hospitalera had let him in since starting on Holy Thursday, there was no other accommodation available in the city.

[Roman theatre]

The Roman theatre in Mérida. You can get a combined ticket that'll let you into a bunch of historic sites, including this one.

The three of us ended up hanging out in the museum (free for Semana Santa) and went out for dinner to a vegetarian restaurant.

I don’t talk about eating here much, mainly because I eat a lot of tomato and cheese sandwiches, and sometimes tortillas con patatas or something similar at a bar. But the vegetarian restaurant, Shangri-La, had possibly the best food I’ve ever had in my life.

If you happen to be in Mérida and want to get there, take the street that has the Temple of Diana and the Roman forum (shown on every tourist map) and you can’t miss it. It’s extremely blue.

Day 12: Mérida to Aljucén (17 km)

[Beer can tower]

A beer can tower in the albergue at Aljucén.

The way marking was actually quite reasonable out of Mérida from the albergue, and for the following few days. I was walking with Sanna and we got lost once by the river, but that was really our own faults.

The route went past a resort type area, but none of the bar/cafés were open. After that, it was gorgeous, with rocky terrain, trees, and the occasional herd of cattle or flock of sheep. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop to really enjoy it because of the continual drizzle.

Aljucén is a nice little town with a friendly albergue. The hospitaleras serve supper at the albergue for 7 or 10 euros, depending on whether you have the soup or not.

There was a group of new-to-me pilgrims there, and I spent the afternoon chatting with some of them. Most of what I thought of as the German group (German was their common language, even though only 1.5 of them were German—the 0.5 being Ron, who’s technically American but has lived in Germany for the last 50 years), spent much of the afternoon drinking beer from a vending machine—a novelty to me as a Canadian. Apparently it’s important to wait a while before opening the can, or it overflows when you open it.

Day 13: Aljucén to Alcuéscar (21 km)

[Sheep]

Rocks and wet sheep—what better scenery could you hope for?

This was another beautiful but rainy walk. The way marking generally remained good, though there was one gate with only a blue arrow, for some reason, which worried me a little until I noticed all the footprints. One stream crossing had stepping stones that were nearly submerged, but wading would’ve been easy enough if the water had been a little higher.

The albergue in Alcuéscar is an experience itself—it’s in a monastery that takes in the sick and destitute, and the hospitaleras served a meal to us pilgrims. It’s donativo.

Day 14: Alcuéscar to Aldea de Cano (16 km)

[Highway]

Herman the German walks into Aldea de Cano.

The scenery wasn’t as beautiful, and the Camino often ran near the highway, but the sun finally came out!

This was a rather short walking day. I spent a lot of the non-walking part washing clothes and sitting in the sun talking with Ron (the American/German man I mentioned earlier, his walking companion Keith (who’s originally English but lives in the Netherlands), and various members of a French trio of walkers.

The albergue is basic and maybe not the cleanest place ever, but it has a full kitchen and the town is quite pretty.

Day 15: Aldea de Cano to Cáceres (22 km)

[Plaza Mayor in Caceres]

The Plaza Mayor in Cáceres, from my hotel room. The tower was built by the Muslims when they ruled the city.

We had another beautiful day … at least until I got to Cáceres, when the downpour started, but I was able to hide under an awning.

[Way mark]

These cubes mark routes related to Roman history. I often followed them when there were no yellow arrows. It took me embarrassingly long to realize the yellow line on top indicates the route direction.

I completely lost the way marking soon after getting into the city (and there’s a lot of city to walk through), but I just kept asking the way to the Plaza Mayor, where I was going to stay in a hotel. There is an albergue turístico, but it’s apparently 15 euros, and the room I shared with Sanna in the Pensión Carretero was only 25 between the two of us.

The entire old town in Cáceres is an historical monument, and absolutely beautiful if totally full of tourists. I spent a long time wandering its streets and visiting the occasional site.

We couldn’t find a place we wanted to eat, so Ron, Keith, Sanna and I had a gourmet picnic on a bench.

Day 16: Cáceres to Casar de Cáceres (11 km)

[Clothesline]

A window of the albergue in Casar de Cáceres.

This was actually supposed to be a 33km day, but the albergue at the Embalse de Alcántara is temporarily closed, creating a lot of problems, since it’s the only place to stay in the area. Some pilgrims took the bus ahead, but I really want to walk the whole way.

So I had a leisurely breakfast this morning with Ron and Keith, and then we wandered over to Casar de Cáceres and its cramped albergue. Tomorrow will be 36 or so kilometres.

The way marking has gone downhill again lately, in terms of yellow arrows, but I find that it works to follow the tourist board’s rocky way marks. It took me a lot of time to realize that they actually do point in a particular direction—just follow the yellow “road” drawn on top of the cube or rock.

And now Ron and Keith have been patiently waiting for me to go for dinner, and some kids want to use this library computer, so I’d better be off. More soon, I hope!

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:22 am
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Days 9-10 on the Vía de la Plata


[Roman bridge]

The Roman bridge into Mérida, which I crossed in a serious downpour.

I’ve made it to Mérida, which seems significant, I guess because it’s the first big-ish city on the route since Sevilla. Tomorrow I’ll take a rest day, wandering around the ruins.

So, let’s see….

Weather: I suppose this is a case of be careful what you wish for. The weather is definitely cooler. There’s also been a fair amount of drizzling, which wouldn’t be so bad except for the mud that’s found on some country roads. I know people talk about why it’s good to have light shoes, but I never really noticed the weight of my feet before the mud added several tons to each step. There’s also the occasional downpour, which is exciting.

Terrain: Fairly hilly, but generally much flatter than Andalusía.

Way Marking: This has gone downhill, so to speak, over the last few days. It’s generally intermittent in cities (look down—for example on the bases of park benches, or up for tiles with scallop shells on the sides of buildings), and can be quite sparse in the countryside as well, which is rather more of a problem (see below).

Pilgrims: At the moment, mainly German and French couples, over 50. I get a lot of comments on how far I’ve come to walk—it’s generally Europeans here.

Olive Trees and Grape Vines Seen: Really a lot.

Number of Signs With Pig Legs Seen: Quite a lot, especially around Monesterio.

Number of People Who Have Kindly Given Me Directions, Honked Horns in Encouragement, Etc.: Lots more. You’re all wonderful—thank you.

Blisters: Two more. I couldn’t get any band-aid type thing to stay on the first one (on my heel), so tried the if-I-ignore-it-maybe-it’ll-go-away strategy. This is not generally recommended for blisters, but seems to be working. The second developed yesterday, during my way-too-long walk (see below).

Number of Times Stopped to Root Madly Through Pack to Make Sure Haven’t Left Something Behind: I’m getting much better about this. My paranoia has shifted to missing arrows.

Number of Items Actually Lost: None, amazingly.

Number of Times Lost: Well. That would depend on your exact definition of “lost.” See below.

Day 9: La Almazara to Torremegía (34 km)

[Villafranca de los Barros]

A square in Villafranca de los Barros, before the stormclouds gathered.

Really, I’d prefer not to think about that day, but I suppose I should tell you about it anyway.

I had a lovely walk part of the way to Villafranca de los Barros with Enrique, a Spanish man who has done three weeks of Camino walking (the first two years cycling) for the last ten years. Since his family doesn’t share his love of walking, he’s currently doing the Vía de la Plata backwards with them, by car.

I managed to navigate through Villafranca de los Barros without having to ask for directions (if you don’t see an arrow, going straight ahead is your best bet).

The next albergue was in Torremegía, but the town of Almendralejo was supposed to be 17.5 km from Villafranca, just off the route. I told myself that if I was feeling awful by that point, I’d find a cheap pensión there.

I walked past countless olive trees and grapevines, their greenness nicely offset by the red of the soil (growing up in Canada and reading Anne of Green Gables, I thought only Prince Edward Island had red soil, but apparently not).

It started to drizzle. The mud clung to my boots, slowing my pace. I put on my raincoat, which also covers my backpack, and continued, stopping for a brief lunch during a pause in the rain.

I walked and walked and walked. At the beginning there were a lot of bicigrinos (cyclist pilgrims). Then there was just me, without even a passing car for company. Well, okay, and a car full of young guys. But when they call you guapa (beautiful) while you are sweaty and muddy and wet, and completely covered by a fire engine-red raincoat, you probably don’t want to stick around and chat.

A lot of this was a road that went up and down, but went straight, straight, straight for approximately forever.

It started pouring. I was convinced that even if I was walking at my slowest speed, I should’ve passed Almendralejo, but there was no town to be seen—nothing but hills and grapevines and olive trees and the same road going on forever. There were a few crossroads, but it was raining so hard I couldn’t get out my map to see where they were.

And there were no yellow arrows. I could live without them between intersections, but where I have options, I feel a lot better knowing I’m definitely on the right route.

There were stone blocks with coloured squares that mark the tourist office’s historic routes. It’s better not to rely on these because they sometimes deviate a lot from the Camino route, but I had no choice.

Eventually it stopped pouring. I looked at my map and realized the route doesn’t actually pass right by Almendralejo, and I was now committed to getting to Torremegía, which was actually rather a relief.

My boots, which aren’t the most waterproof boots in existence, were soaked. My legs hurt, my hips ached, and the bottoms of my feet were in serious pain. But, finally, there was Torremegía. I limped through town in the rain to the albergue turístico (I’ve heard the private one is a little odd).

In the future, I plan to avoid 30 km-plus days.

Practical information: If you look closely, you can see the Roman arch embedded in the sidewalk. If you follow it, you’ll eventually reach signs that point to various albergues.

Day 10: Torremegía to Mérida (16-plus km)

[Faded arrow]

A faded yellow arrow, which I was extremely happy to see, as it confirmed I was back on the Vía de la Plata route after my little detour.

The “plus” is because of a little scenic detour (i.e. I got really lost) first thing in the morning.

Pilgrims waiting for a bus to Mérida said I could take the highway or the other route. I attempted to take the other route. There were no arrows, but a man told me the Vía de la Plata was straight ahead, and there was one of the tourist office rocks right there.

So I walked on happily for about half an hour until I got to an intersection with no way marking at all, and which, on consulting my map, really didn’t seem to be on the Camino route at all.

I asked the only person in the area, a guy cycling with his dog. He told me I had to go back to Torremegía and get on the highway.

I vacillated. I consulted my map. I got as high as I could and looked at the route the road ahead of me took. I almost decided that discretion was the better part of valour and backtracked. But I hate going back, and according to my map, as long as I stayed between the highway and the train track I would at least be going in the right direction.

I wandered among grapevines and piles of garbage, and eventually saw people with backpacks on the highway in front of me.

The rest of the route was well enough way marked, and relatively uneventful, though it did involve very sticky mud (for those following, if it’s been rainy you might want to consider staying on the highway), and a downpour just as I reached Mérida.

The albergue is very basic, with no kitchen and only two washrooms (each with a toilet and shower). Oddly for the Camino, these are separated by sex. Equally oddly, after more than a week of unisex washrooms (one at least with a not-very-discreet shower), we tend to wait for ages to use the “correct” washroom. There’s got to be an anthropology paper in that.

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:58 am

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Days 6-8 on the Vía de la Plata


[Fuente de Cantos]

The approach to Fuente de Cantos, which is one of those towns you can see from so far away you become convinced you'll never actually arrive.

All’s going well since I last wrote. It’s actually looking like rain, here in Villafranco de los Barros (well, actually several kilometres outside in the La Almazara albergue).

Saturday and Sunday were somewhat cooler than earlier—more like really warm spring days, than serious summer (though I realize that real summer here is even hotter). Today was overcast, and it’s extremely windy.

I’m rather in the middle of nowhere, pilgrim-wise. I know of a few people who are definitely behind, and I assume a number of people I know are ahead, but so far there are no pilgrims here. That’s probably mainly because tomorrow’s walking stage is long anyway, and I’ve added to mine by staying here. Oh, well, I’ve done a few relatively short days. I’ll probably survive.

The pilgrim situations stays pretty much the same. I’ve met a few more French pilgrims, one more Dutchwoman, and a few more young pilgrims, and have heard of a Japanese man and another Canadian. There are a number of Spanish people on bicycles—some at least heading for Santiago—but I haven’t met any walking. The albergues at major stops tend to be full at night, but at the moment I don’t think walkers would have a huge problem with accommodation, since cyclists generally arrive quite late to fill up the albergues. Of course I’ve been avoiding the major stops for the last few days, so I’m not the best authority, but I have talked to a few people who are in a better position to know what’s going on.

More pilgrims seem to want to walk completely alone than on the Camino Francés, and some chose this route precisely for its supposed solitude, which isn’t much in evidence (although there are still a lot fewer pilgrims than I found on the Camino Francés even in October). Actually, I’ve had a fair bit of walking solitude pretty much by accident—I often seem to leave a bit later than everyone else, regularly get lost finding my morning arrows, and then walk slowly. So everyone else disappears up ahead.

There isn’t a lot of specifically pilgrim accommodation in this area, so I’ve been staying in albergues turísticos. These are kind of like paradores (beautiful old buildings turned into five-star hotels), only not quite five-star. They’re beautiful, but much less impressive buildings that have largely dorm accommodation. Anyone can stay in them, but pilgrims generally save about €5.

They’re a step up from pilgrim albergues, price-wise, but also in terms of what you get for your money. There’s soap in the bathrooms. There’s bedding on the bunk beds, so no rustling of sleeping bags. They generally give you a huge, fluffy towel —today’s came wrapped in plastic (well, they’re huge and fluffy compared to my minuscule sports towel). The last two used to be convents; the one I’m in now is a gorgeous building that used to house an oil press.

Day 6: Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos (22 km)

[Semana Santa rehearsal]

I was on a grocery run in Fuente de Cantos when I ran into a procession. Since Semana Santa hadn't started yet, and there wasn't a huge crowd, I assumed it was some sort of rehearsal.

Up until Monesterio, I’d mainly been seeing the same people each evening. We all started out on the same day, and had been walking the same stages because there weren’t a lot of options. In Monesterio, a bunch of us had dinner together to say goodbye. Netty from the Netherlands was heading home; Ip from Denmark was going to go farther the next day than the rest of us planned to walk; and his fiancée, Anni, was going ahead to Mérida to nurse her wounded feet and hope they’re capable of serious walking by the time Ip catches up to her.

(Practical note: if you’re travelling with a member of the opposite sex, a ring could come in handy in Monesterio, and having the same last name wouldn’t hurt. Apparently hotel receptionists are keen to avoid “immorality” in their hotels. One man and woman I know who were travelling together were only grudgingly permitted single beds in the same room.)

I’d left Andalusía for Extremadura on my fifth walking day, but the landscape didn’t really begin to change until the next day (see the photo at the top of this post). I’d been walking for a while with Hermione, an Englishwoman who’s actually walking from the Canary Islands to her home in England (via a ferry from Santander), when we found ourselves surrounded by rolling hills—like the English moors, Hermione said.

It was a beautiful, highway-less walking day. The somewhat cooler weather didn’t hurt, either.

I had a relaxing afternoon and evening in the albergue turístico (which is nice and has a free computer with very slow Internet), wandering around town and chatting with other pilgrims.

Day 7: Fuente de Cantos to Puebla de Sancho Pérez (21 km)

[Albergue in Puebla de Sancho Pérez]

The albergue turístico in an old monastery just outside Puebla de Sancho Pérez.

I actually passed through a town after an hour or more of walking. It was very exciting, because since the first day of walking, this was the first time I’d walked through a town, instead of stopping there for the night.

The terrain has become more what I expected on this route—partly flat, with rolling hills to keep things interesting, but no horrifically steep ascents or descents.

Most pilgrims went on to Zafra, a bigger town with more monuments and things, but I stopped just before, in Puebla de Sancho Pérez. The albergue there is about 10 minutes off the Camino, and very quiet. The hospitalero told me they mainly get German tourists, because their guidebook recommends the place.

I was sitting there writing in my journal when the hospitalero came up. I couldn’t understand everything he was saying, but he seemed to want to know if I wanted to see the Virgin.

I didn’t really understand, but I’m generally up for anything, so I followed him to what must have been the convent’s church. He led me up some stairs at the back—it felt very behind-the-scenes—to a little room where a family was looking to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus, already on a float for Semana Santa (the week before Easter, when Spanish churches parade their statues through the streets on floats). Through a big window behind us, people in the church could look up to see the statue.

[Semana Santa]

The beginning of the Semana Santa festivities. Unfortunately my camera batteries died so I couldn't photograph the whole thing.

Later, Sanna from the Netherlands and I had dinner in town, and watched the Semana Santa festivities at the main church. A bunch of people, including a lot of very excited children, led the way, wearing garments with an unfortunate resemblance to KKK uniforms, except the headgear is green. Then came the floats: one with Jesus accepting a grail-like cup from an angel, and then, after a marching band and a lot of fanfare, another Mary, this one very sad, with eyes that somehow glistened as if with tears.

Sanna and I couldn’t figure out how the floats were propelled until we peeked underneath and saw a whole crowd of people down there pushing.

Day 8: Puebla de Sancho Pérez to La Almazara (17 km)

[Los Santos de Maimonas]

Los Santos de Maimonas (I think), just after Zafra.

A short day, I know. I probably put in a few extra kilometres wandering around Zafra, though.

The way marking is still generally good, but there are fewer arrows, and they’re farther apart. In Zafra (for me at least, and do keep in mind that I have a talent for getting lost everywhere), they led me into a park, and then evaporated.

Luckily the park is in front of a tourist office, so I grabbed a map from that, compared it with my own bare-bones map, and figured out that I had to keep going straight. I dodged into the historic part of the city for fun, and navigated my way out of that.

I walked to Los Santos de Maimonas with Marcos, a young German guy who’s having some serious foot problems, since he was forced to buy new hiking boots a few days ago after his old ones fell apart. The tourist information guy in Los Santos was very helpful, mapping out a route through town for me that passed the post office and a supermarket.

I was also able to see the church. As I understand it, churches along this route are usually closed, but during Semana Santa there often seem to be people around readying floats, and they don’t seem to mind the occasional pilgrim wandering inside.

(Practical information for Los Santos de Maimona: there are washrooms in the same building as the tourist information centre, and a fuente on the square by the church—you can find both by following the yellow arrows. The arrows are another matter. They’re generally painted on the side of the curb, so look down by your feet, and you should be okay.)

The walking today was fine—lots of flowers, olive trees and grape vines. For my own aesthetic sensibilities, of course, I’d prefer stone fences to mesh and barbed wire, and no electric wires (they rather interfere with the view). If someone would move the highway and railroad, it would be even better.

What I really want is the medieval view without the medieval inconveniences (bandits, battles, horrific roads, manure piles, etc.). Unfortunately (or probably fortunately, when you get right down to it), the world doesn’t revolve around my desires.

And really, the walking is great just as it is.

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If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:25 am
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Days 1-5 on the Via de la Plata


[Daisies and pilgrim]

Soon after Guillena, on Day 2.

Well, here I am in Monesterio, on the Internet thanks to today’s major Camino angel: the young guy behind the bar at my hotel (there’s no albergue here), who has let me use his laptop. Finding Internet is rather a challenge since Sevilla, and hasn’t exactly been a first priority.

So … I hardly know where to start. Let me give you an overview.

Weather: Beautiful early in the morning; very hot by late morning; horrifically hot by the afternoon (though quite nice in the shade, of which there is unfortunately not enough).

Terrain: Not nearly as bad as, say, the Chemin du Puy, but considerably hillier than my guidebook led me to believe. There have been a couple of hills that could compare with, say, the descent into and ascent out of Conques on the Chemin du Puy, or the climb to O Cebreiro on the Camino Francés.

Way Marking: Generally excellent. They’ve even put arrows quite frequently along long straight stretches, which is wonderful for paranoid people like me, who start to worry that we’ve missed a turn-off if we haven’t seen a yellow arrow in the last five minutes.

Pilgrims: So far I’ve met one Frenchwoman, one Austrian, two Danes, six Norwegians (but they were all together), one Dutchwoman, one woman from Australia, one Englishwoman (who’s actually heading for Santander), one Italian, and approximately five hundred Germans. Well, not quite. There are three of us under 40 (maybe even under 50). There are probably slightly more men than women. More than half are going all the way to Santiago this time.

Of course, I haven’t met a huge cross-section of pilgrims yet, since at the beginning most people do the same stages. So far the albergues have a number of people in them, but aren’t actually full.

Oak Trees Seen: Approximately five million.

Number of People Who Have Kindly Given Me Directions, Honked Horns in Encouragement, Etc.: A lot. Thank you all.

Languages Spoken: English and Spanish, of course, and French and a little bit of German. At one point I was translating from Spanish to English for a German guy, even though my Spanish isn’t wonderful, and he doesn’t speak very good English.

Blisters: Two—both on my hands, from the beautiful walking stick I picked up yesterday.

Blisters Narrowly Averted By Prompt Application of Anti-Blister Bandages: Two (I hope—one is still a little iffy).

Number of Times Stopped to Root Madly Through Pack to Make Sure Haven’t Left Something Behind: Too many to count.

Number of Items Actually Lost: One—a pen.

Number of Photos Taken: Lots.

Slowest Pilgrim Around: That would be me. Not only do I walk slowly, but I’m constantly stopping to apply sunscreen (I always forget to do this before leaving), dig through my pack, find anti-blister pads, take photos, etc. And then I seem to be among the last to leave, so by the time I reach my destination people who started 15 kilometres are passing me, faces red and determined. They never seem to want to stop and talk.

Day 1: Sevilla to Guillena (about 23 km)

[Camas]

I lost the arrows for the first time at this traffic circle in Camas. A man selling lottery tickets kindly sent me in the right direction, to the road on the left side of the church.

I stayed at Triana Backpackers, which is a beautiful place and has a pilgrim discount and provides pilgrim credentials. But because it’s not pilgrims-only there are people coming and going at all hours, which makes it rather noisy. I highly recommend earplugs.

I never did find that elusive first arrow by the cathedral (though I did, as I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear, find my hat).

I made my way from the cathedral to Triana, where I’d seen an arrow, and had only one problem following the arrows after that—and that was in a town, where I could easily ask for help.

There’s a lot of highway walking, and the route goes through the towns of Camas and Santiponce. After that, it veers off onto a country road with a few hills.

Then it’s straight, straight, straight along the shade-less road. And just when you think you’re about to arrive in town, the road veers off to the right. Never fear! You’re really almost there. There’s just that tricky stream to ford first.

It’s the second of two streams that need to be crossed—I managed the first easily enough with the help of a stick I grabbed off the ground (I hadn’t yet found my wonderful walking stick). The second was trickier to get down to, but an Englishwoman braved the very steep bank, and directed the rest of us to a gap between a fence and a wall of cacti, from where we could slide down the bank and cross without too many problems.

The new municipal albergue is quite nice, with a full kitchen (reasonably well-equipped) and a wonderful hospitalera.

Day 2: Guillena to Castilblanco de los Arroyos (18 km)

[Pump]

The pump in the middle of nowhere.

Apparently you’re supposed to ford the river on the way out of town. I followed the arrows instead, and ended up with a not-great but tolerable highway walk, until I could turn off onto a much more rural road, when the walking got much nicer.

The scenery here isn’t postcard-pretty, and it’s certainly not what you expect from a walk in rural Europe, but the scrubby trees and hills have been growing on me, and the flowers provide welcome bits of colour.

I was told there’s no water on this stage, but there actually was some halfway through (but I wouldn’t count on it not being dry). I couldn’t resist following a sign that said “Water” in several languages, and found a pump in a field surrounded by flowers. Of course I dumped out some of my water and refilled it, just because pump water is so much more exciting than tap water.

The problem with having no towns along each day’s walk (as it’s been for the last few days) is that it’s hard to tell how far you’ve walked. I never know if I have five kilometres to go, or 15.

In this case, you cross a road about four kilometres before town. I found some pilgrims sitting in the shade there, and we walked in together.

I’d heard the albergue might not be great. I found it to be quite basic (and lacking in plates, cutlery, etc) but perfectly fine. Marcos, a young German guy, and I even managed to cook dinner, while he gave me German lessons and I helped him out with his Spanish.

Day 3: Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata (30-ish km)

[Descending]

The descent into Almadén de la Plata.

Yes, that’s right. Thirty kilometres. And I lived to tell the tale.

The first 16-ish are along a never-ending highway.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an extremely nice highway, as highways go, through the countryside with about two vehicles per hour. The problem is that it doesn’t end. The arrows go on and on and on until you think surely you’ve done the whole 30 kilometres. But it just keeps going.

For anyone who’s planning to do this route, here’s information I wish I had. There are kilometre signs along the way, counting down to who-knows-where. The first I noticed was at kilometre 15. The entrance to the park, where you turn off the highway, is at kilometre four. Maybe this won’t help you, but I find it helps to know exactly when something is going to end.

The park is some kind of nature park—but it’s not nature as we understand it in North America. The trees are very cultivated. It’s nice, though, in that scrubby sort of way. The problem being that it is currently ridiculously hot and 30 kilometres is a long way for us lesser mortals, and this section stretches on and on and on as well.

I used chocolate to keep myself going.

Eventually there is a hill, by the shell of a house, and the scenery changes a bit. Then you come to a place where I narrowly avoided getting lost (and my Danish friends did get lost)—you have to go through a gate, and walk through a herd of cows.

Then there’s that hill, the worst one I’ve encountered so far. It is extremely steep, and littered with small stones. I’d met up with the Danes, who were no longer lost, by this point, and we puffed up the hill, too exhausted to really enjoy the lookout point at the top. Luckily I’d dug through a pile of chopped-down trees a few hours ago and found my stick. I was definitely happy to have it for that hill.

There was one sight we did really enjoy: Almadén de la Plata, where we would spend the night, which was just down an equally steep descent.

The albergue there was basic but fine. It was just nice to stop walking, really.

If you’re looking for a bar, I’d really recommend La Espuela. There was a Menú del Día for eight euros, and the owner’s constant refrain was, “If the pilgrims are happy, I am happy!” The food was great (as a vegetarian in Spain I am a connoisseur of tortillas con patatas—potato omelettes—and this one was quite good). The owner also brought us tapas and a sweet alcoholic drink of some sort for free.

Day 4: Almadén de la Plata to El Real de la Jara (14-16 km)

[Pigs]

Pigs, right on the Vía de la Plata route.

This was my favourite walking day so far—partly because of the distance, of course. I took the hilly route instead of the highway route, and kept going through the nature park, which was beautiful. The pig farms, with the black pigs of the region rooting around right on the route, provided slightly surreal entertainment. And there was no real highway walking at all.

I was going to stay at the municipal albergue at the entrance to town, but it turned out everyone I knew was at the private one farther into town, so I went there, too. It was a little odd—there was no real separation between pilgrim quarters and the family house, and there was no kitchen at all.

I climbed up to the castle, but it’s been rebuilt, so lacks the atmosphere or proper ruins.

Day 5: El Real de la Jara to Monesterio (22 km)

[Castle]

Just outside El Real de la Jara: proper castle ruins. Note the stepping stones for crossing the water, the pilgrim information plaque, and, beside it, the cube that marks the old Roman road.

The first half of the walk is beautiful, along an almost traffic-free country lane. The hermitage where San Isidoro’s remains rested on their way north was a real disappointment, though—covered in graffiti and surrounded by highway.

After that, there’s intermittent highway walking, before the arrows lead onto a side road. Then there’s a hill, which isn’t horribly steep but just never seems to end. The good news is that when you reach the top, you’re almost in Monesterio.

There’s no albergue here. I bumped into some German pilgrims I’d never met before and we found the Hostal Extremadura. It was full, but there’s a place nearby that’s associated with the Bar Extremadura that has rooms.

So Edith from Germany and I are sharing a hotel room. It has an en suite with a proper shower! And towels! And real blankets! Pure luxury, and all for 15 euros.

And That’s It

Anyway, I should probably give Wonderful Bar Guy back his computer. He keeps telling me it’s okay to use it, but I’ve been here for quite a while. This probably isn’t as edited as usual—sorry, but I don’t have my proofreader here and am feeling weirdly shaky from the heat or the coffee or something.

If you have any questions about this stage, please feel free to ask, either in the comments or through my contact page. I’ll try to answer the next time I find Internet access.

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:59 am
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Summer in Sevilla


[Sevilla cathedral]

The cathedral, with the Giralda tower (originally part of the mosque that once stood on the cathedral site, but added to by Christians) on the far right side.

I’m finally in Spain!

I got seriously spoiled on the way here—I was picked up and dropped off at airports and taken to see interesting things, and of course got to have a great time seeing friends around Toronto and near London. Lots of thanks to Kelsey, Sarah, Kenneth and Bob (and of course to Analisa here in Spain). It was great to see you.

It’s summer here in Sevilla, or might as well be. Of course, having visited Granada in August, I realize this isn’t what it’s actually like here in summer, but it’s respectable summer weather for a lot of the rest of the world. According to a sign I saw, it was 26 degrees Celsius. Not quite, I have to admit, the walking weather I was expecting.

I got off to an excellent start yesterday evening after I arrived, getting lost twice on my way to my albergue. This obviously bodes well for the next 1000 kilometres.

[Santiago]

Santiago, on the cathedral.

Really, I can’t even find the first yellow arrow that’s supposed to guide me from the cathedral, although I’m quite proud of myself for locating the figure of Santiago on the outside of the cathedral, a task that took approximately forever. I knew the statue was on the west side of the cathedral, so I looked on my map, and figured out which side that should be. Then I paced up and down in front of that (rather long) side, but there was no Santiago Peregrino to be seen.

That was around lunchtime. I went back in the evening, and finally realized my map must not be oriented traditionally, with south at the top. The sun, which was pretty near the horizon by that point, was, of course, a better indicator. Once I’d finally realized that, I found Santiago in a group with 23 other religious figures above a major entrance, looking very prayerful and serious.

To celebrate, I got some lemon ice cream, quite possibly the best ice cream ever, which I haven’t had since I visited Granada nine years ago. Then I tried to find the yellow arrow that is supposedly on a street light across from the Santiago the statue.

All I could see were stickers with yellow arrows that look like lightning bolts, which can be found on just about every lamppost on the street. I suspect they have more to do with the power lines on the top of the lampposts than they do with the Vía de la Plata. I hope I’m wrong. It would be seriously embarrassing to get lost in the first two minutes.

Luckily, I have seen my one and only yellow arrow so far a little farther along the route, so if all else fails I’ll cross the Puente de Isabel II into Triana (where I’m actually staying) and take it from there.

I’ve seen several pilgrims, but I have yet to meet any.

“Are there any other people here walking the Camino?” I asked the receptionist last night as she showed me around my albergue.

“The pilgrims are all in your room,” she said. “We put you together so you can talk to each other.”

Which sounds nice, but this was after 11 p.m., so all the good pilgrims were asleep. I saw one this morning in the erratic light from a flashlight, but others were still asleep and we all left the room at different times, so there was no chance to talk.

[Juderia]

A sign in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, reminding visitors that it was Sevilla's Jewish Quarter before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

I saw a few other pilgrim-looking people around town (the backpacks with the scallop shells tend to give them away) but since I was more of a tourist-looking person at the time none of them so much as glanced twice at me.

Later I thought I was talking with another pilgrim. Since he came into my dorm room and threw himself on a bed I figured he must be a pilgrim.

He was a young guy from Brazil, he told me in rapid-fire Spanish I sort of understood. He kept going on about “amor” and “passión”—from what I gathered he was in love with someone in Portugal.

But when I asked him, in my bare-bones Spanish, if he was a pilgrim, he didn’t know what I was talking about.

A little later, he started to laugh long and loudly over nothing I could see. So it’s probably just as well he’s not a pilgrim.

[Alcazar staircase]

A staircase in the Alcazar palace.

Even apart from pilgrim-watching and Santiago-locating, I’ve had a busy day. Since the Roman ruins at Italica will be closed tomorrow, I took the bus out to see them (they were old).

And I wandered around the Barrio de Santa Cruz, which used to be the Jewish Quarter (it was quaint and crowded), had lunch with Analisa (she was a lot of fun to get lost with) visited the cathedral (it was enormous, and enormously full of tourists), climbed the Giralda (it was tall), and stopped by the Alcázar (it was beautiful).

Then I became convinced I had lost my sweater, and despite the sweaty weather, panicked. I figure it’s not a real trip if you don’t have something to panic about.

As it turns out, the sweater is here, and I am here and very ready to start walking.

Only 21 kilometres tomorrow—practically nothing. After all, I’ve done the occasional ten-kilometre walk. And it’s not like the sun is going to be beating down on me like some fiery furnace or anything like that.

Speaking of which, it’s panic time again. I haven’t seen my hat since I left home.

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:59 pm
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Stones on the Camino: A Photo Essay


[Stones in the Pyrenees]

On the Route Napoleón in the Pyrenees.

One of the constants of my walk along the Camino de Santiago was the presence of stones.

They were in the walls of many of the buildings I slept in and the the old churches I visited. In some places, they made up the walls that lined the trail. Sometimes the stones were the road itself, in the form of gravel or cobblestones.

Then there were stones people left—often in heaps on crosses and memorials to fallen pilgrims, and sometimes near way marks. Occasionally they were piled into little towers (Inukshuks, as we’d say here in Canada), or assembled into arrows on the ground.

And of course there was the pile at the Cruz de Ferro. The tradition of bringing a stone from home to leave there may be a recent one, but every tradition has to start somewhere.

Especially in France, where I walked alone more, I’d sometimes pick up a stone and hold it in my hand as I walked. I’d leave it at the next pile of rocks I came across—usually on or around a wayside cross.

[Stones in the wall]

Stones in the wall of the lovely Gîte Dubarry, on a farm between Nogaro and Aire-sur-L'Adour.

It seemed like the right thing to do, though I’m not really sure why.

In part, I suppose, it was because the other stones were there already. People had left them in the past and would leave more in the future. Leaving my own stones made me part of that.

There’s something about stones.

We use them to mark graves. Some of the earliest altars were stones piled on top of each other in sacred places. And of course there’s Stonehenge, and the Easter Island moai, and so many other examples of sacred art or architecture, built up or hewn from stone.

In Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the other temples in the area are all that remain of a once-thriving city because only sacred structures could be built with stones. And when all the wood buildings turned back into jungle, the stones remained.

[Cross and rocks on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

On the Chemin du Puy, between Bessuéjouls and Estaing.

Maybe it’s the seeming immortality of stones that makes them sacred. Compared with living things, they seem to last forever.

And so we use them, perhaps, to represent the eternal.

Or maybe not. I don’t really know. I just know they were there, and they mattered.

I couldn’t take any with me, for obvious reasons, so I did the next best thing: I took photos. Here are some of my Camino stones.

[Stone walls on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

On the Chemin du Puy, between Chapelle de Bastide and Nasbinals.

[On the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

Markers on the Chemin du Puy. A) A wayside cross between Chapelle de Bastide and Nasbinals. B) A modern pilgrim sculpture on the way into Aubrac. The inscription reads (in my translation from the French): "In the silence and the solitude, we hear no more than the essentials."

[Way mark on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

A Chemin du Puy (GR-65) way mark, with stones.

[Bible verse]

People also left notes, poems and Bible verses in piles of stones. This one was around a cross just past Labastide-Marnhac on the Chemin du Puy.

[Roman mosaics]

A Roman mosaic at the Villa Gallo-Romaine at Séviac, just off the Chemin du Puy. The gîte d'étape was right at the historic site, so I got to wander around the ruins in the morning before any tourists arrived.

[Cross and rocks on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques]

Past Uhart-Mixe on the Chemin du Puy, with the Pyrenees in the background.

[The Route Napoleón]

On the Route Napoleón in the Pyrenees.

[Arrow and rock piles on the Camino Francés]

Stones on the Camino Francés. A) Before Villatuerta. B) Between Navarrete and Ventosa.

[Pilgrims and arrow on the Camino Francés]

Pilgrims between Castrojeriz and Itero de la Vega.

[Arrow]

Before Astorga.

[Cruz de Ferro]

The Cruz de Ferro.

[Sonya at 100 km]

Sonya at the 100 km marker.

[Stone hermitage near Ferreiros]

Stone hermitage near Ferreiros where pilgrims leave messages.

[Galicia on the Camino Francés]

Walking in Galicia on the Camino Francés.

[Plaza del Obradoiro]

Pilgrims in the Plaza del Obradoiro, in front of the Santiago cathedral.

[Finisterre]

Finisterre.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:35 pm
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