View of the ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: Helpful Friends on the Meseta

Another day on the Meseta, a desolate, flat region of Spain: my walk took me through fields and open country, where I could choose from a variety of trails while following the Camino de Santiago route, which I was hiking in fall 2014. I started at 6 am with Sylvia, a tall young woman from Hungry, and I ended the trek with her at 4:30 pm.

During the day, I met Barenger and Elise, who were from Paris. We spent quite a while together. Barenger is a tall young man, and a fast hiker, but he preferred to walk slow and steady and practice his English with me. Elise is quiet and thoughtful. As a couple, they prefer to hike alone and meet up at the end of the day. When Barenger learned that I had hiked the Appalachian Trail, a dream of his, we had plenty to talk about.

For a while, I focused on watching a few birds. Then I saw two black mice, as black as ebony, and later I practically stepped on a brown mouse! The mouse froze, terrified and shaking, as three French people stopped and pointed it out. Soon it was scurrying off!

The ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

The ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

I took a little detour to see the ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, which you can see in the photo at the top of this blog post (close-up view at left). The Roman bridge, the Roman road, and the stone floor of the church made it worth going the extra distance, a little out of the way.

Then I continued on my way along the Río Ucieza: I passed several villages and came to Villalcazar, another area for the Knights of Templar. The historic Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca is in the center of this town.

Next I came to Carrión de los Condes, a sizable medieval town. Barenger, Elise, and I sat in a tiny town square, under a tree, and Barenger helped me bandage a blister. We found a café and took a quick lunch break. I couldn’t decide whether to go on or not.

We all went on. The afternoon was a hot, tiresome walk of 17.5 kilometers, with no place to stop for water, food, or help if we needed it. There was no shade. The meseta is quite a place to walk. It is forever attacking your body and mind, and at day’s end, you feel like you have been in some sort of wreck or battle.

Eventually, our little group of pilgrims arrived in the little village of Calzadilla de la Cueza, and found beds in the albergue. Barenger and Elise were sleeping out on the meseta and invited me to join them. Reluctantly, I opted to enjoy the indoor comforts of the albergue, but I knew I would miss the one-time opportunity to sleep on the meseta. We did have dinner and spent the evening together.

The next day was another long, hot day of hiking on the meseta. At the end of the day, most of the hikers stopped in Sahagún, a larger town, and at one time a powerful, wealthy center. The Benedictine monastery here was at one time the most powerful in Spain.

I decided to walk 4 and ½ kilometers to Calzada del Coto to end the day. I came into the little village, baking in the sun, and missed the albergue. I headed out of town and saw only one sign of life, a single car.

I flagged the driver down, and he offered to take me to the bar, because the albergue was closed at that time of day. On the short ride he told me he was the mayor. We went into the bar, and the only people there were the manager of the albergue and the senora, the owner of the bar.

I thanked the mayor and he left; the albergue manager walked back to the albergue, and I sat down and had a bottle of coke. In a few minutes I had paid, and was about to walk to the albergue, when the owner took off her apron and came with me, graciously showing me right to the door of the albergue.

There was no one in the bar, no one on the street, and no cars. Unlike busy Sahagún, this was a quiet place—I was the only pilgrim in town when I arrived in the early afternoon. I knocked and the manager let me in. It was a new building, opened only a few months ago. The manager showed me around and I chose a bed. It was spotlessly clean. The manager offered to wash my clothes in a machine for a little charge, and while he was doing this, I lay on the bed and enjoyed the quietness of the place…before I knew it, I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, he had hung my clothes out to dry. I was surprised and pleased at the thoughtfulness of the manager. We sat at a kitchen table and talked; he said this was a new job for him, and he drove here from quite a distance each day. This was a job in his retirement.

At 5 pm a tiny store opened, and I picked up enough groceries for dinner and something for tomorrow. In the early evening, four more pilgrims arrived. It was the quietest albergue, in the quietest village, since I began hiking several weeks ago. It was 4.5 kilometers down the trail, and a little out of the way—and it would lead me to an adventure the next morning.

(posted March 17, 2015)