Camino de Santiago: 2 – from la Meseta to Santiago

Apr 14, 2014

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Please read part 1, to get the full history.

Below: The beginning of la Meseta.

With all of this going on, walking was no longer the most important part of the day, though the pace was kept the same. It become a totally different experience than the one I anticipated. From, roughly, the second week until the third, there is what is called the Meseta – the flat part of the Camino, between Burgos and Léon.

Convent ot San Antón – Castrojeriz This was the residence of the Antonianos order, devoted to tending to the pilgrims. The remains of this church stand at the entrance to this village which welcomes them through its famous arch. The two arches on a raised portico were built in the 16th century, protected the entrance to the church.

It is unprotected, doesn’t feature many shades or hostels but, most of all, it’s flat, There is no curve, no hill to distract the eyes and the mind. On some days, we start on the same straight line we finish. Often it was windy, cold, rainy, and sometimes even hailing.

On the worst day, we did only 18 km. Woke up under a layer of snow, got a little sun in the morning, but it started raining before lunch. Still, wet from the previous day, we decided to put a halt on it before lunchtime, arriving to a hostel, which seemed to be closed. Besides, it was totally uninteresting. Hadn’t it been the only within a huge mile range, we would have picked another one.

Castrojeriz, as seen from the Alto de Mostelares.

As we were losing thrust, a lady opened the door and pointed us to the dorm. As we asked for what was for lunch, she put a sorrowful expression and said: “I only have smoked meat.” If she said “stones” we’d still answer – “It is ok!” – as we desperately need some heat, to dry our shoes and feet.

Canal de Castilla – Fromista.

After a warm shower and changing clothes we proceeded to the restaurant area, being the only ones on site. Soon, she brought a steaming pan, full of pork meat, potatoes and vegetables. The meat was tender and moist, not overly fat, with a smoky touch. I’m not such a lover of pork meat and still I ate until physically possible, so good it was. That’s the best memory of the Meseta.

Below: two views from the endless plateau, near Terradillos de los Templarios.

The other one was its finish. Reaching Léon, getting the group all together again (we separated each other at the Meseta, as some weren’t unable to keep the pace, while others made it even faster). That was the time for celebration, Cañas and tapas, but also to prepare for the last part of the Camino, which was Bierzo, and then, Galicia. Some of us, me included, wanted a total rest, so we booked in a small fancy hotel, for a change.

Some of our group, by Leon cathedral.

It was pricy, but the idea of having our own room, smooth and fragrant sheets, comfortable pillows, and a private bathroom with tub, was too tempting. Funny how something you take for granted at home, can become an exquisite pleasure. That’s how we learn to value things and be thankful.

In contrast, the worst hostel experience at the next city – Astorga – when we got bed bugs, and it was totally disgusting. The city, however, was pleasing. Being Sunday, we also ran into a local celebration, with trumpet bands playing, and had the chance to try the local comfort food: the Cocido maragato, which is a titanic meat and chick pea stew. Restaurants serve them in a way that you will be full for the whole day, or even longer: First, they present a plate of stewed pork meat and sausages, then chickpeas, and finally meat and cabbage soup. You’ll be lucky if you survive past the meat dish. We did it until the end and still ordered dessert!

Being photobombed, in Leon’s main square.

In Bierzo, soon after lies the highest point of the whole trail (I believe the Pyrenees aren’t taken into account), 1.500 metres above sea level – la Cruz de Fierro (Iron Cross). People are supposed to bring a stone from home, and throw it to the cross – I didn’t. Had enough of weight to carry and, in fact, mailed some less needed stuff and souvenirs home, from the post office in Léon.

The weather (which hadn’t been great on the previous weeks), deteriorated even further, with strong winds and showers. In Foncebadón, the Domus Dei parish hostel was a nice and warm refuge among the storm, where we stayed for the night.

Church tower, at Rabanal del Camino.

Others chose Manjarín, further ahead, which, on the next morning, seemed even more desolated than it shows on travel guides. There was something electric and spooky on the day light, filtered by the clouds and fog, reflected on the green pastures and ruins – as if aliens were to land and reclaim that piece of land.

There is one and only hostel (and inhabited house) in the village. If was abandoned mid XX century and only on the 90’s the hostel was re-opened.

In Ponferrada, weather became more endurable, though (as the group grew bigger) it was hard to find a proper dining place. Most of the afternoon was spent visiting the Templar castle.

We were still welcomed in Galicia with a huge storm. O Cebreiro, the first village in the province, was almost totally closed, and there was no way to stay there for long or get any decent shots.

Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), between Foncebadón and Manjarín. It is 5 feet high, and the cross is a replica of the original preserved in the Museo de los Caminos in Astorga. People bring stones from home, and leave them there, but I didn’t fully grasp the symbolism of it.

From then on, we started to feel spring. Sometimes it still rained, but green kind of changed tone, and flowers blossomed. Maybe it was also the sense of proximity to our destination.

Me in Manjarín, among the wind and rain.

The arrival to Molinaseca, still in El Bierzo.

Castle of Ponferrada – Building started early XIII century, by Templar Knights.. With more than 8000 m2, it was one of the largest fortresses in the Spanish Middle Ages.

O Cebreiro, marking the entrance on Galicia.

The famous, centenary, chestnut tree, in Ramil.

The Monastery of San Xulián de Samos was another highlight of the whole trip. There were two main paths to Sarria, and some among the group picked the other one, as it was slightly shorter. I couldn’t possibly miss the visit: I have an unpayable debt with the Benedictine Order, as other monastery in Portugal (Singeverga) had become “home” for some weeks, to finish my PhD. At the time, library was of great help, and so it was the community of monks, providing me both the information, serenity and shelter.

Watch the images from Samos Monastery, below:

The visit was guided by a kind and talkative monk, which showed us the various phases of construction, the history, the way of living, and even some of its treasures, all with a touch of humour.

Espigueiro – a traditional granary, meant to keep the corn dry and

We could imagine those walls full of men willing to learn and share the secrets of Philosophy, throughout the centuries. Personally, I felt a bit sad that such discipline lost the meditative, ascetic, and respectful component, and became a matter of light debates among drunk and high youngster students. At the end, there was hand made chocolate on sale, and it was really tasty!

Sarria was the first Galician city we came across. I remember the warm sunlight, hitting the trees near the river; the hostel was the most beautiful and well decorated we stayed in the whole Camino; but most of all, I remember the gastronomy. Lunch was mainly seafood, and included the famous Pulpo a la gallega – Octopus, Galician style, meaning, boiled in salted water and sprinkled with salt, olive oil and paprika. It goes along with bread or boiled potatoes, and used to be served in street markets for people to lunch after a morning shopping. (We did it also, a few days later). Dinner was, probably the finest – we went to Hotel Roma and, among other delicacies, I remember the superb partridges. Service wasn’t fast, but that was to be expected as it was totally full and we didn’t had a reservation. It was well worth the waiting, though.

Back to the road, we realised that suddenly there were far more pilgrims than before. Apparently, people do a small weekend-friendly version of the Camino, starting in Sarria, to Santiago. There were school kids with their teachers, families and groups of friends. We could easily identify those ones from the pilgrims coming from France: they were noisier, the clothing was shiny, the body postures, shapes and expressions were completely different. We were like quietly but steadily, hovering, while they were jumping all over the place. We had passed the barrier of pain, both physically and emotionally. They were still full of anxieties. It happened to me quite often to run out of water and think… “It’s only ten kilometres more; I’ll drink then”. And it was no issue, whatsoever. Those guys could’t spend five minutes without a drink or an energy bar.

That made us realise how much we had been transformed by the Camino – in and out – for the previous three weeks. Having seen each others almost every day, we didn’t notice the differences, but among this wave of pilgrims, it was clearly seen. I tried not to be judgemental. After all, a single day in the Camino would be better than none.

Portomarín, near the Belesar reservoir was interesting, mostly because of its Romanesque Church – it had been dismantled, brick by brick, from its original place, and rebuilt, like a lego puzzle, uphill, so it was preserved from the water when the reservoir was built. Never realised before that such a thing was even possible.

Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy), marks the place where the pilgrims had the first view of Santiago church towers. It is, however, still 3 km away from the city centre.

The last history worth of notice, was the arrival itself. We had stayed in Arzua, with the intention of doing a short stage, resting in Pedrouzo. We arrived there, it was less than midday. Walked around the village. At this time there was just two of us – me and Slava, a young pediatrist from Belarus. We looked at each other and thought: are we really staying here? Certainly not. It was “only” twenty kilometres to Santiago. “Let’s do it! With luck we’re still on time for lunch!”

So we did, arriving shortly past two o’clock. Around 40 kilometres, on top of 28 days non stop, with our backpacks and a few souvenirs. Some of our group were already there, but most arrived after one or two days. We attended the mass with “botafumeiro” (the gigantic, swinging, incense burner) all together and had dinner on a big esplanade. At the time it was about 30 of us, all cheerful, all full of experiences, and all transformed.

Watch the gallery from Santiago Catedral (including the “botafumeiro”, and the Apostle’s tomb), below:

Some of us went to Finisterre, either by bus or by walking. (I chose the Bus version. Not because it was physically too challenging to walk, but because the purpose of my pilgrimage was over, it wouldn’t make sense to carry it further. It is hard to get into the pace, in the Camino but, for some, it is even harder to get out of it. “Home”, with all this duties and obligations, acquires a new meaning, and it’s not necessary a pleasant one. Some people never get out of the Camino. They keep walk it back and forward, taking advantage of the cheap accommodation and, eventually, perish there. I heard some first hand stories, along the way, that got me sad as, traditionally, a wandering soul is a lost one.

As I took the bus back to Lisbon, I wasn’t too happy to return, but understood that all cycles must reach their natural end. Soon, it would be the end of the “living in Europe” cycle for me. In Bali, Indonesia, where I live now, I’m geographically far away from the Camino, but I believe it will always be part of me. Often I wondered if it would make sense to do it again… Many people do, but, so far, I think the purpose of such an experience is completed. Many more Caminos will lay ahead of us.

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