Finding our Rhythm | Days 20 to 26

The days are becoming easier, the climbing, the descent, many rest breaks, a cold beer at the end of the day . . . Camino life is good. It would be great if only we could stay healthy for a moment! We are getting stronger and even with a head cold and a sprain are still hiking each day, hitting milestones along the way, meeting new people, trying new things and amazed by the kindnesses received from perfect strangers.

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September 14 | Day 20

Hontanas to Itero de la Vega

Hiked: 20.4 kilometers Weather: warm and clear People Met: 3 Time on Trail: 6h/30m

Route: We left Hontanas at 7 am and by 8:45 found ourselves passing the ruins of an old saw mill and San Miguel, a long abandoned village, and approaching the ruins of San Antón. The road runs under a series of two arches (Arco de San Antón) that at one time was the entryway into the church. The portico is still intact with beautiful carved arches. Parts of the windows and one spire are also visible. This place more than any other we had seen so far was awe-inspiring. We stopped to take dozens of photos of this amazing place.

San Antón is an ancient convent built in the 14th century and managed by the Order of Saint Anthony of Egypt, which was founded in the 11th century. The Order’s sacred symbol was the “T” shaped cross, (known as the Tau) which was used lavishly as a detail at this ancient convent.

Passing under the Arco de San Antón with its recessed alcoves (early in its history bread was left in the alcoves to feed passing pilgrims, these days pilgrims leave messages tucked into the alcove) we cruised by the old convent (Convento de Santa Clarisas) which was founded in the 14th century at the time San Antón was built. The convent is still open with a gift shop that sells the T-shaped Tau cross popular amongst pilgrims. We continued along the tree-lined road into Castrojeriz. Approaching the city we had a lovely view of the 9th century castle ruins on the hill above and the beautiful outline of 14th century, Our Lady of the Apple, to the right in the foreground. This area is by far the most beautiful we’ve seen since leaving the Navarre region.

After stopping at a café by Our Lady of the Apple for a café con leche and visiting with fellow pilgrims for a while we headed into the heart of Castrojeriz in search of a bank to withdraw some cash.

In most large towns we found bank machines with no problem, but in smaller, historic places one must work harder to find bank machines. They are easily available but signage is far less obvious as to not spoil the esthetics of these ancient cities.

So after a couple of wrong turns and passing the bank a few times, one local fellow took pity on us and pointed out the bank machine, which was right behind us!

Leaving Castrojeriz with some extra cash, we knew we had a hill to climb, but Mr. Brierley’s description was less than accurate in my mind. We assumed that we would have a hill like the others we had already climbed on the Meseta. What we faced however was a far more challenging climb. 3.4 kilometers outside of Castrojeriz is Alto Mostelares with a 110-meter altitude increase over a challenging 1050-meter long climb up with a 12% grade. Gaining the summit, we took a moment to catch our breath and inscribe our names and date (which Tracy got wrong by a day!) onto the beam of the gazebo along with the many other pilgrims who had survived the trip uphill. The descent was nearly as challenging with an 18% grade that thankfully mellowed out into a nice stretch of trail.

Leaving “Liar’s Hill” as the alto came to be called by Tracy, we stopped at Fuente del Piojo for a short break and to enjoy a cold beer offered by three local guys. They had set up a snack bar of sorts, donativo style. They had fruit, soda, beer and coffee available. Donativo style simply means that you take what you need and contribute what you can, there are albergues who operate donativo as well we stayed in one in Zabaldika. Continuing our hike we passed the Ermita de San Nicolas albergue. It is a 12th century pilgrim hospice that later added a Cisterian monastery. After restoration by an Italian Confraternity it is once again a pilgrim albergue that offers no electricity but a wonderful historic atmosphere. Our friends Doug and Stephanie (whom we met in St. Jean Pied-du-Port on our first day) stayed here and really enjoyed themselves, we opted for the modern convenience of a hot shower and continued toward our destination. [We ran into Doug and Stephanie the following day at lunch and they told us what an amazing place it was, dinner by candlelight, a traditional foot washing ritual, and spiritual retreat. They said it was an amazing experience to live in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims for a day.]  Next crossing the Puente de Itero, with its 11 arches and spanning the border between the provinces of Burgos and Palencia. We stopped at the lovely Palencia province sign for a photo or two, then headed up a lovely shaded trail along the Rio Pisuerga toward Itero de la Vega. Right as we reached the edge of town we saw a lovely little church Ermita de la Piedad, 13th century, with Jacobean motifs.

We decided to stay at the Puente/Postal Fitero in a private room. After showering and laundry, hand-washing again, we settled onto the patio for our post-hike beer. Alan spotted a pilgrim pulling an interesting trailer with all her equipment. She was filming a documentary about pilgrims on Camino, all the while carrying some extremely large professional camera gear!

Sites: Ruins of the old saw mill and San Miguel; Ruins of San Antón convent and Arco de San Antón, 14th century; Convento de Santa Clarisas, 14th century; 9th century castle ruins of Castrojeriz; Our Lady of the Apple, 14th century; Ermita de San Nicolas albergue, 12th century; Puente de Itero; Ermita de la Piedad, 13th century, with Jacobean motifs

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September 15 | Day 21

Itero de la Vega to Población de Campos

Hiked: 17.7 kilometers Weather: 70° and overcast People Met: 1 Time on Trail: 5h/15m

Route: From Itero de la Vega we headed into the Terra de Campos (Land of Fields) crossing over the Canal Pisuerga just a few kilometers outside of town. This entire area is farmland interspersed with two large canals and lots of smaller raised aqueducts. The canal and aqueduct system was built in the 18th century and is still a vital source of water in some places.

From the Canal Pisuerga we traveled over dirt track through field after field of agricultural crops, many of which we could only guess at. Sunrise was spectacular lighting the fields and large vistas of the rural countryside. We met Tim as we approached a small rise, he was limping badly from an injury but still managed to outpace the two of us after visiting with us a while. For most of our journey other pilgrims outdistanced us each day, but with the luxury of time that most people didn’t have we took the opportunity to enjoy the sites before us even though we didn’t often stop for long but maintained a leisurely pace throughout the day.

Upon reaching the small town of Boadilla del Camino we took a break at a luxury albergue, En El Camino, with a beautiful landscaped patio area with a restaurant. Ordering croissant and café con leche we had breakfast on the patio enjoying the unique gazebo created by grape vines woven through the branches of a couple of apple trees. Both the vines and the trees were full of ripe fruit creating a subtle sweetness in the air and making the experience unique upon the Camino. The grounds were beautiful landscaped, dotted with one-of-a-kind pilgrim sculptures. Though the family was busy cleaning the large albergue, they took time to visit and offer their hospitality to the two of us and a few other couples who had also wandered in for breakfast. After a nice visit with the family of the albergue and our fellow pilgrims, we headed back out to the plaza in front of the albergue and took a moment to grab a few photos of the beautiful 15th century parish church, Santa María, and the medieval columna justicia (justice column) with a scallop shell motif.

A few kilometers outside of Boadilla we found ourselves walking along the magestic Canal de Castilla. Very similar to the Canal du Midi which runs through our adopted hometown in France, the Canal de Castilla was once used to move crops to market, people from town to town, but in recent years though still used as part of the aqueduct system for nearby crops has fallen into disuse for transport barges.

Just outside of Fromista along the Canal de Castilla we saw a building once used as a warehouse where barges laden with crops would pull up to be unloaded.

As we reached Fromista the neglected esclusa (lock) system was a reminder of the amazing engineering of the canal system throughout Spain and France. From a photographic standpoint, the lock system is still quite beautiful, but where we live in Carcassonne, the lock systems are still in use and a stroll along the Canal du Midi affords the opportunity to watch the system in action while enjoying the myriad of private and vacation canal barges passing by on the canal and passing through the locks.

We stopped for lunch in Fromista at a roadside café, surprised to find it was only 10:45 am we had already traveled over 14 kilometers. Fromista marked the end of stage 15 from the guidebook and phase VII of the Codex Calixtinus. It was also a major staging area in Roman times for Palmeros, pilgrims headed to the Holy Land who marked their status as pilgrims with palm leaves the way that Santiago pilgrims use the scallop shell.

From Fromista we hiked along the Senda, a type of pilgrim autopista, alongside the road and crossing two major freeways. Just as we were nearing the town of Población de Campos we passed by the Ermita de la Virgen del Socorro, 13th century, a tiny church we nearly missed as we passed. By 12:30 we had reached our destination and checked into the albergue – which had to be done at the neighboring hotel since the albergue was a converted school without a registration area. An hour later we had finished showers, laundry was washed (in the bathroom sink) and hung on the line to dry and we were enjoying use of the hotel’s outdoor courtyard and free wifi. The courtyard housed a lovely scale model of the parish church and we took a closer look while waiting for our chilled wine and beer from the hotel bar. After finishing our drinks we headed out to see the town, a small one – population of just 150.  We found a local bar that also had a small market where Tracy picked up some intensive hydrating lotion for her arms and hands, both of which were dry and itchy from so much time under the hot Spanish sun. Further down the street we found a café serving American-style hotdogs with a selection of Spanish toppings and treated ourselves to a non-pilgrim menu dinner. Sitting on the makeshift patio (on the street in front of the café) we ran into Doug and Stephanie and chatted with them for a while. A few other pilgrims we recognized stopped for a bite to eat and joined the conversation. Later still Enzo and Elena wandered over having visited the local church and grabbed a beer and table on the patio. Back at the albergue Alan and Enzo again compared guidebooks and routes for the following day. Our bunkmates that evening were Doug and Stephanie. The albergue was on the lower end as far as accommodations we had stayed in previously, definitely not as clean as some of the others. The window just above Tracy’s bed was missing a chunk of glass and between the dust and cold night air, she ended up getting sick that night.

Sites: Terra de Campos (Land of Fields); Canal Pisuerga, 18th century; En El Camino’s unique gazebo created by grape vines woven through the branches of apple trees; Church of Santa María, 15th century and the medieval columna justicia (justice column) with a scallop shell motif, 15th century; Canal de Castilla, 18th century; Esclusa (lock) system near Fromista, 18th century; Ermita de la Virgen del Socorro, 13th century

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September 16 | Day 22

Población de Campos to Carrion de los Condes

Hiked: 15.7 kilometers Weather: warm and sunny People Met: 4 Time on Trail: 4h/45m

Route: We left Población in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. We had followed the Camino out to the edge of town the night before to decide if we wanted to take the Senda or the “green trail” along the Rio Ucieza. We opted for the Senda as it had been a few days without heel pain for Tracy and looked as if there would be better options for breaks, which seemed to help keep the heel pain at bay. The Senda also offered us the option to leave earlier as the path was packed dirt, flat with markers visible in the moonlight.

We passed Revenga de Campos just a few kilometers outside of Población, but didn’t stop, and Villarmentero de Campos a few kilometers beyond Revenga, where we did stop for breakfast. We were a bit eager to reach Villalcázar de Sirga as the guidebook promised a wonderful Knights Templar church to visit stating, “If visiting churches along the way is not your thing, make an exception for this one.” As we both love sacred architecture and Alan has a fondness for the Knights Templar we both felt our excitement grow as we approached the city and the 13th century Santa María le Virgen Blanca housing the tombs of nobles and royalty and itself named a national monument of Spain. However, upon reaching the church at the top of a rather steep incline, we were so disappointed to find that it was undergoing restoration and the interior was not accessible. We did take lots of photos of the south portico but the esteemed rose windows do not look as dramatic from the exterior as they would have from the interior.

We had dropped our packs at the restaurant opposite the church in the shared plaza. After spending some time photographing the church Alan grabbed us a couple of espressos and we joined our gear at the covered table. By this time Doug and Stephanie as well as Enzo and Elena had also arrived at the plaza to see the church and we visited with each couple for a while. Tracy was thrilled when Doug and Stephanie complimented her form while hiking, stating they had been discussing it over the last few days, especially since she had only recently stopped having problems with her toes and heel.

Picking up the trail after a few photos with the clever and interactive bronze pilgrim statues at the west side of the plaza, we headed out to finish the days hike. Five kilometers later and we had reached the outskirts of Carrion de los Condes, our destination for the day. Enzo and Elena stopped at the 13th century Real Monasterio y Ermita de la Piedad run by the Madres Clarisas, however we were headed to the Santa María albergue that Barbara from Corazon Pura had suggested. Barbara had stayed here on her first Camino and said that the experience with these nuns was a high point of her journey. After waiting in an exceptionally long line and wondering if they would fill up before we reached the reception area, we were surprised to find such a modern setup. The guidebook had mentioned that the facility had no kitchen, not a problem as restaurants are easy to find in large cities, but the book failed to mention the amazing communal meal prepared by the nuns and fellow pilgrims. While waiting our turn to check-in the nuns offered refreshments and we were entertained by the male hospitaliero donating his time through his Confraternity. This guy could have been doing stand-up comedy in New York, he had everyone laughing with his comments and antics interacting with both the nuns and fellow pilgrims. He certainly made the waiting easier as everyone inside was laughing along with our resident and multi-lingual comedian, his jokes were in at least four languages that we could identify. We got ourselves checked in and showered, did laundry – machine wash/line-dry – and headed to the grocery store, Dia%, to pick up some wine as our donation toward dinner. Sitting on the back patio gave us a great view of the backside of the Iglesia de Santa María del Camino, the 12th century church was destroyed during the War of Independence in 1809, but the original frieze and façade remained intact and was reincorporated when the church was rebuilt.

It was while enjoying the nuns private garden area behind the church that we met a young man named Thom (12 years old from Austraila) who regaled us with stories of his time on the Camino and his love of the AFL, ping pong, cricket, basketball and scouts. Eventually his 9-year-old sister, Maya, joined us and we enjoyed the company of these two for several hours. Eventually their Mom, Kathryn, came looking for them and was apologizing for the kids monopolizing our time. We told her that they had been a real pleasure to visit with and that we had been enjoying ourselves immensely. She sat down and talked to Tracy for over an hour, mentioning how many times others had become frustrated with the two kids’ antics at other albergues. Tracy assured her that her children were well behaved and courteous while visiting with us. Kathryn explained that her husband had taken the two older children further ahead and that she had stayed behind an extra day with the two younger ones as Maya was healing from a sprain. Kathryn told Tracy that before getting married that she had been a nun and had worked in places all over the world until she retired from her order. She met her husband back home in Australia, he used to be a priest. Together they had four children and had taken them on holiday to some extraordinary places over the years. Kathryn also suggested a monastery in France where the chanting monks are amazing and that opens its doors to pilgrims of the faith of any age.

A little while later we went indoors to join the singing nuns and our fellow pilgrims as they played songs from around the globe and encouraged all of us to join in using the handouts provided. When the list of songs was exhausted these diminutive nuns managed to get another six or seven songs out of their rather shy audience, one or two even singing a cappella when the leader and guitar playing nun didn’t know the tune.

Following the community sing-along, we headed over to the sports store we saw advertised and found Tracy better foot-wear as she didn’t want to continue injuring her toes and heels with the hastily purchased replacements from Burgos.

After our shopping expedition, we attended mass in the beautiful church next door and stayed for the pilgrim blessing afterward. The priest doing the service was assisted by two younger priests, one of whom, his name was Dominic, was a pilgrim himself. As many of our fellow pilgrims filed out, we stayed behind a few extra minutes to light a candle for Kiara in the chapel to the right of the main altar.

Upon returning to the albergue, we had missed the seating for dinner and although they tried to accommodate us, the tiny child sized chair and table just wasn’t going to seat Alan. The nuns eventually ushered us into the kitchen to their own table where we were joined by Michael (New Jersey), a fellow Italian-American and lover of all things food. We had a wonderful dinner and really enjoyed Michael’s company.

Barbara had definitely steered us in the right direction as we really enjoyed ourselves while in Carrion de los Condes.

Sites: Santa María le Virgen Blanca, 13th century, built by the Knights Templar; Real Monasterio y Ermita de La Piedad, 13th century, run by the Madres Clarisas; Iglesia de Santa María del Camino, original frieze and façade from the 12th century

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September 17 |Day 23

Carrion de los Condes to Ledigos

Hiked: 23.5 kilometers Weather: warm and sunny People Met: 7 Time on Trail: 7h/10m

Route: Today was all about walking. We stopped frequently for breaks whenever the opportunity presented itself, but Tracy was dealing with a head cold and a warm day seemed to clear the symptoms so we hiked further than originally planned.

We took the Senda along the road, which allowed another early start time and left Carrion de los Condes in the pre-dawn hours. We reached San Ziolo a few minutes later but didn’t stop since we had just started our hike for the day. Within the hour we reached the ruins of Abadia Santa Maria de Benevivere, a former 12th century Franciscan abbey, and the start of the Via Acquitana, 11 kilometers of the original Roman road, 2,000 years old and still in use, though maintained with a loose gravel cover.

It is interesting to note here that the rock used for paving the original Roman road had to be brought in from outside the region – an estimated 100,000 tons just for the substrata to raise the surface above the flood plain. The building of this road is believed responsible for the remains of Roman villas and other remains that have been found in the area, probably from use during the construction of the road.

We found that even though the original road has been covered in a new surface that in many places the large number of pilgrims had left some places bare to the original substrata, always interesting, but not always comfortable to walk on!

We passed the marker for the Hospital Blanco, another ancient pilgrim site, though all that remains is the marker. Further along we happened upon a make-shift café in the middle of a cornfield. At first we didn’t stop and had gone another 100 feet or so when we decided that a café in a cornfield was not to be missed, so we turned around and headed back for a break and a bite to eat.

Leaving the Cornfield Café, we ran into two sisters from New Zealand. Sue kept us laughing for a good 20 minutes while lamenting that her sister was trying to kill her. “She’s trying to kill me, I think. She’s planning to walk me to death!” These two older gals were hysterically funny and we enjoyed their company anytime we saw them.

Stopping a while later at a small picnic area with a nice shaded patio we took a few photos of some of the Camino poetic art on the cinder block walls of the rest area.

We made Caldadilla de la Cueza and stopped at a restaurant along the path for a cold drink and a restroom stop. We met a very nice lady, Tammy (Cody, WY) who was a lot of fun to visit with while we were taking our much-needed break. She was pleased to learn that we had been to Cody while visiting Tracy’s aunt and uncle’s place in Clark and that we had been to the Bill Cody museum and to dinner at the Irma Hotel, once owned by Bill Cody.

After finishing our drinks and getting back out on the trail we opted for the Senda route along familiar N-120 highway. After a kilometer or so on the Senda we passed the ruins of Santa Maria de las Tiendas, a 12th century monastery administered by the Knights of Saint James. Unfortunately not much remains.

We kept hoping to run into ruins like those in San Anton, but most places had been reduced to foundation stones and not much else, occasionally we would see a wall or chimney, but nothing like the remains of San Anton.

After crossing the Rio Cueza we climbed a smaller hill, traveling along the edge of the escarpment until we descended into Ledigos, our destination for the day. In Ledigos we found the El Palomar (the only albergue in town) and thought ourselves lucky to get a bed after nearly an hour of waiting. Apparently, they had one person checking in pilgrims like us who just came to the door but another person had been taking reservations so they weren’t sure how many beds were available as they didn’t know how many of those with reservations had already checked in. Our friends Susan and Karen (the sisters from New Zealand), got a lovely room with a private bath. Enzo and Elena as well as the two of us found bunks in the dormitory. Our bunkmates were Julie and Mari (Germany) students on break from university.

We went through our usual end of day routine, hand-washing with a cold-water only outdoor sink and line-drying the clothes. We spent a few minutes posting our progress to FaceBook then sat out in the courtyard updating our journals and enjoying our post-hike beer. Tracy wandered over to the pool in the yard behind the albergue and soaked her feet and legs in the cool water while visiting with Elena and Terry (San Diego, CA).

We weren’t sure at first what to expect for dinner. When we asked about the pilgrim menu we expected to receive a list of choices, but the bartender just nodded and asked for our names for the dining room list. Alan asked again about the menu and was finally told “soup and chops.” So initially our expectations weren’t very high when we found a table and invited Susan and Karen to join us at the table for four. However, “soup and chops” didn’t do the chef any justice. Dinner that night was delicious, lamp chops that were two inches thick and a wonderful vegetable soup that was thick enough to be considered a stew, warm bread, cheese, wine and ice cream for dessert.

It was in a near food coma that we hit our bunks that night. To happy and too full to  care about the one young lady across the room that kept insisting she had seen a bed bug and she knew “exactly” what they looked like because she had researched them on the Internet before leaving home.

Sites: ruins of Abadia Santa Maria de Benevivere, 12th century Franciscan abbey; Via Acquitana, original Roman road, 2,000 years old; Cornfield Café; site of Hospital Blanco; Camino poetic art, Caldadilla de la Cueza; ruins of Monasterio Santa Maria de las Tiendas, a hospice in the 12th century administered by the Knights of St. James

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September 18 | Day 24

Ledigos to Bercianos del Real Camino

Hiked: 26.4 kilometers Weather: warm and clear People Met: 0 Time on Trail: too long

Route: Today was about milestones. Our first was upon reaching the city of Terradillos de los Templarios, where were stopped for breakfast at the albergue, Terradillos del Templarios. The city of Terradillos de los Templarios is the recognized center of the Camino Frances. The second was upon reaching the historic center of the Camino just before the city of Sahagun. The third milestone was after reaching our destination of Bercianos del Real Camino after our longest hiking day of 26.4 kilometers (16.5 miles). That said it was a very, very long day.

Leaving Ledigos we reached the albergue in Terradillos de los Templarios in about 45 minutes and enjoyed a nice breakfast and hot café con leche. We asked one of the hospitalieros to take a photo of us with the large, red Cross of Saint James in the front courtyard before we left.

We continued along the Senda following the N-120 through Terra de Campos, stopping for breaks in Moratinos for a cold drink at a local café with an interesting clock on the wall, and in San Nicolas del Real Camino for an espresso. San Nicolas has a past linked to the Templar Knights and a lovely parish church, Iglesia de San Nicolas Obispo, built in the same clay brick as most of the other buildings in town. The church, according to the guidebook, houses a lovely Baroque altarpiece, but was in the process of a roof repair so we were not able to go inside.

About a kilometer before the historic center of the Camino we crossed from the province of Palencia into that of Leon.

Taking the traditional path rather than shorter option along the Senda, we crossed the busy N-120 to a dirt track that lead us to Virgen del Puente which spans the Rio Valderaduey. The river is about 100 yards from the church, Ermita Virgen del Puente (Our Lady of the Bridge), with 12th century Romanesque foundations. Unfortunately the church was not open so we didn’t get to see the interior.

Just a few hundreds yards past the church, which sits in a poplar grove, is the monument to the historic center of the Camino de Santiago. We stopped here for the requisite photos, then continued along the path which followed the N-120 into Sahagun.

Entering Sahagun we walked by the bullring, but the 20-foot tall solid walls didn’t allow for even a peek inside. We crossed over railway tracks via the bridge at street level and entered into the historic district and found a café near the Cluny municipal albergue. The Cluny albergue is made of brick and houses its pilgrims on the floor above the Iglesia de la Trindad, which I believe is housed inside. We opted to stop early for lunch as the day had warmed considerably. While waiting for our order a young, homeless man dressed as a pilgrim came and sat at our table. Alan ordered him a drink and a bite to eat and we shared a meal with him while he told us a rather odd story of how he came to be a “forever pilgrim” due to a broken heart. He also showed us the new boots that God had left for him outside the albergue. After asking Alan a half dozen times if he loved and cherished his wife (Tracy) to which he replied, “Of course.” The odd man bid us a “Buen Camino” and wandered off. We speculated for a minute on whether God had left the boots or another pilgrim who hadn’t meant them as a gift. Either way, we figured Sahagun was a large town and probably had a sporting goods store if the boots were not divinely sent.

Sahagun is another of the towns along the Camino which has existed for a long time and has welcomed pilgrims from its infancy. Rumor has it that Charlemagne himself frequented the area and the town, but we’ve found that a lot of the older cities lay claim to Charlemagne, he spent a fair amount of time in Spain and probably stopped in towns on a regular basis. The guidebook claims that the foundations of the city actually predate its Roman inhabitants. Cool.

Next to the Cluny albergue is the beautiful Arco San Benito, which is all that remains of the 10th century abbey with the same name. Nearby is where the Madrid Route (Camino de Madrid) joins the Camino Frances.

We didn’t take time to visit all of the churches in the large city, but continued out of the city over the Puente Canto, originally Roman but reconstructed in both the 11th and the 16th centuries. Just beyond the bridge is a nice trail shaded by poplar trees, the area is known as “the copse of Charlemagne’s lances” – irrefutable proof that Charlemagne stayed here? Maybe.

Leaving Sahagun hiking along a suburb area with a fairly nice track, we ran back into the Senda about 45 minutes later. Rejoining the path along the Senda, we opted to stay on the Real Camino Frances rather than taking the Via Romana as there was a midway point albergue on the Real Camino Frances if we tired and wanted to stop or we could continue and hike a 33 kilometer day; the Via Romana had only one option it would mean a minimum of a 30 kilometer day. We were having a strong day, but wanted the option to stop in Bercianos if we wanted to shorten the day to 26.4 kilometers.

Thankfully we chose wisely as our energy started winding down shortly after making the decision. Reaching Bercianos del Real Camino still took us another two hours, though in all honesty it felt a lot longer. The Senda is pleasant, a gravel path that runs beside the road, but this section of it was lined with trees about every 25 feet or so and seemed to go on and on. Tracy made several comments about feeling like it was taking forever even though we could see the spire of the Virgen del Perales in the distance it just seemed to move further and further away the longer we walked. Tracy was quickly loosing her civility as the heel pain returned at about kilometer 26 for the day. Alan finally turned to her and said, this is starting to feel like a bad B-movie about hell, breaking the tension and restoring her mood.

Finally reaching Bercianos del Real Camino we didn’t even worry about a place to stay, but stopped at the first place with seating. Alan told her to order a couple of drinks and put her feet up and that he’d be right back. Tracy walked far enough toward the bar to say “Dos cervezas, por favor” and sat down. The bartender brought the drinks and a bowl of puffy, cheesy things laughing, “hard day?” “Yep!” was the only conversation. Alan arrived a few minutes later sans backpack with a room key in his hands to a private room – woohoo!

After enjoying the refreshing drink, shaded patio and chatting with a few fellow pilgrims also having a cold drink we headed back to the hotel to shower, do laundry and for Tracy to get off her feet for a while after getting to shower in the dark. The bathrooms were shared and just across the hall from our room, however the light switch was on the wall in the hallway, not in the bathroom. While she was in the shower someone walked by and flipped the switch off! Resting in our room a while later, we heard some odd clanging sounds and Tracy grabbed her iPhone and looked out the window. Surprised by the first window screen we’ve ever encountered in Europe, she took photos of the large flock of sheep being herded by the hotel on the street below. At the front, just a guy with a stick leading about 300 sheep to the pasture entrance at the end of the block. However, the rear of the flock was brought up by two donkeys, apparently they have no need of sheepdogs in Bercianos!

We had a light dinner in the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel and went to bed early.

Sites: Iglesia de San Nicolas Obispo; Virgen del Puente; Ermita Virgen del Puente, (Our Lady of the Bridge), 12th century Romanesque foundations; Sahagun bullring – exterior only; Cluny municipal albergue; Arco San Benito, 10th century ruins of San Benito Abbey; Puente Canto, Roman origins but rebuit in 11th and 16th centuries; Copse of Charlemagne’s Lances; flock of sheep with sheepherding donkeys

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September 19 | Day 25

Bercianos del Real Camino to El Burgo Ranero

Hiked: 7.6 kilometers Weather: cool and clear People Met: 0 Time on Trail: 2h/30m

Route: Today was all about sleep, and how much Tracy really needed it. We left Bercianos with the intention of reaching Mansilla de las Mulas, but after the first hour as we crept along the Senda we both realized that Tracy was not going to last the day. Though we enjoyed the beautiful harvest moon that set right at sunrise, by the time we reached El Burgo Ranero for breakfast Tracy called it a done day.

We finished eating and followed the signs to the hotel, the albergue wouldn’t be open for hours yet, and Alan secured us a room.

While Tracy relaxed with a warm bath (there was an actual tub in the room), Alan went in search of something for her headcold. By the time Alan returned Tracy was already in bed. Taking the medication, she immediately closed her eyes and slept for 6 straight hours.

Alan had twisted his ankle the day before and headed back to the pharmacy for an ace bandage, finding the disposable style in the farmacia with the help of the pharmacist.

After Tracy awoke, we had a late lunch and she immediately returned to bed and slept another 4 hours or so. Later that evening we had dinner in the hotel restaurant and Tracy immediately returned to the room and back to bed.

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September 20 | Day 26

El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas

Hiked: 18.8 kilometers Weather: warm and clear People Met: 1 Time on Trail: 7h/10m

Route: After a full day of rest, cold medication and breakfast we headed back out on the trail. Tracy could have used another day of rest, but was feeling much better after the day in bed so we decided to press on. There would be places to stop later in the day, but nothing for the first 12.7 kilometers along the Senda. We set a slow but steady pace and left El Burgo Ranero about 7:30 am.

For nearly 13 kilometers we enjoyed the crunch of gravel and the occasional vehicle as we marched along the Senda, at about the midway point we passed a picnic area and stopped for a moment to let Tracy rest, visiting with some of the other pilgrims taking a break. Thankfully the route today was nearly flat making it easier for Tracy who was not at full strength and for Alan who was dealing with a slight sprain.

A few kilometers or so after the picnic area we passed through a tunnel and a few kilometers after that we had reached Reliegos.

In Reliegos we stopped for lunch and were able to get off our feet for a moment. Still following the Senda, we left Reliegos and headed to Mansilla de las Mulas, another 6.1 kilometers away. We did really enjoy the hobbity-homes in Reliegos, each has it’s own unique design and décor, the doors are incredibly tiny but we didn’t realize what they were until later when we read the guidebook. They are not hobbity-homes but bodegas, a type of wine cellar, though we continued to call them hobbity-homes because they were so tiny.

The last 6 kilometers of the day were great for Tracy, she spent the time visiting with Terry whom she met a few days back. They hiked side-by-side for over an hour in animated conversation. Alan’s last 6 kilometers were not nearly as much fun. Terry’s hiking partner was her friend, Judy (Atlanta, GA), an artist who had recently broke up with her boyfriend. By the time we reached the El Jardin, the first albergue in town and as part of our daily routine, we always headed for the first albergue on the list in the guidebook, if they had room we would stay and if they didn’t we headed to the next one, we didn’t like to backtrack if it could be avoided. The day had warmed considerably and we ordered a cold drink before inquiring about accommodations. While we sat on the covered patio with our cold drinks, Alan made Tracy promise to never again leave him alone with a distraught, recently single female. Giving him her immediate promise to never do it again, Tracy laughed out loud. Just the idea of her husband, a former cop and retired college professor and capable of discussing nearly any topic, having to deal with a strange woman’s break up disaster detail by detail for a few hours, especially when the woman herself was the one who did the breaking up, was just too comical.

Finishing our drinks we inquired about accommodations only to find that the private albergue was full due to reservations. We thanked them for their assistance and grabbing our gear, headed out to find the next albergue. The town itself had several more than were actually in the guidebook, but we headed to the municipal albergue at the opposite side of town.

Upon arrival we were ushered into a small reception area where another couple was being checked in and waited for the hospitaliero to finish.

It is important to note here that while in Spain we found the same attention to clientele as we have seen elsewhere in Europe. The person working behind the desk will give the person they are serving their full attention for as long as it takes to see to their needs, they do not rush, they do not prioritize, when it is your turn regardless of how many people are behind you, you will receive the same amazing service. Please be patient.

When he had asked his partner to show the other couple to the dorm to find their bunks, he turned to us and asked us to wait for a minute. He went and talked to another person, we think it may have been his supervisor. A while later he came back and asked for us to be patient as they were full in the dormitory and were trying to find room for us. Meanwhile another couple of older ladies had also found their way to the albergue, he asked them to wait as well. Realizing the two ladies waiting behind us were exhausted, we had already decided that if they only had two beds that we would go look for another albergue or hotel and let the other two ladies have the space. When the hospitaliero returned he took the two older ladies in first and had them escorted to the dormitory, they had found a couple of younger people who were happy to sleep on a mattress on the floor and give their bunks to the older ladies. The hospitaliero had asked another lady to escort us to our beds for the night. She took us to a private room with its own bath, explaining that it was her room and that she was happy to give it up for the night and spend the night at her parents’ house who lived in town. We were floored by her kindness. When we looked at each other we knew we would have to say it was okay if she wanted to stay in her own room, but before we could say anything she told us it was no bother and was happy to do it, and besides she said, “I like my parents!”

After we had run through our end of day routine and finished laundry and had found our post-hike bar – excellent sangria today, we saw her taking off towards her parents and were grateful for the opportunity to thank her again. She rewarded us with a big smile and repeated that she was happy to do it, adding, “Denada.”

We ate dinner at the sangria bar and were happy to find that his menu didn’t include the regular pilgrim menu, but did include great cold pasta salads and hot soups.

See a complete list of our day-to-day Camino experiences.

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