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)
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)
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.
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 (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.