Thursday, 23 June 2011

Out With the Lads

Stephen and John, Road Warriors

Long time no blog. You Faithful Readers are being pushed aside. Sorry about that.
I sometimes wonder if the blog has passed its sell-by date. What do you think?

After a week of hearty Australian company I finally made a break for it. I abandoned Paddy to the
tender mercies of our Antipodian friends, and I lit out for Palacio de Godas, a rusty, dusty hamlet near Arevalo, in the heart of Valladolid province. There, with two fine Scottish pilgrims called John and Stephen, I started walking northwest on the Camino Levante.

Those two started in Valencia, where the Levante begins. They´d already been at it for three weeks when I showed up, trail-hardened veterans. They had asked me to join them for a few days, and promised to go easy on me, seeing as I am a friend of theirs. It was getting lonesome out there, I guess. Or they needed a bit of comic relief. Or a good reason to get up earlier, cover fewer kilometers in a longer time, and drink more cold, fizzy liquids. (I am good at motivating all these things, I admit.)

And so we walked. The country is rough, rolling farmland, with lots of scrub and rocks, wheat and sometimes vineyard. It is the Spain of Delibes and Cervantes -- severe. Big wide skies, black eagles, tiny towns huddled in hollows. It is not so different from our beloved Tierra de Campos, really... but it feels  more harsh there somehow. (Their wine is better. But they probably need it more.)

If you are a map person, you can trace our route:
Day 1, Arevalo to Ataquines.
Day 2: Ataquines to Medina del Campo. (there we attended a beautiful sung Mass at a parish fiesta);
Day 3: Medina to Rueda (oops! followed arrows for another camino in town! Who knew the Camino Sureste came through there? But Rueda is noted for its lovely white table wine. No complaints here, except 14 extra kilometers makes a real difference when the temperatures are hitting 36C in the afternoon...) Late afternoon we staggered into Sieta Iglesias de Trabancos, a town straight out of a spaghetti western. We stayed at the Castillian concrete version of the Bates Motel. Room decor featured lawn furniture from the San Miguel brewery, and bathroom ventilation inspired by industrial feedlots. But out in the gloaming, under the mimosas, we sipped our Fantas and found redemption. Crickets sang. A church bell rang across the drying wheat fields, and the trucks moaned out on the autopista. Inside the nicotine linoleum bar a boom-box yippy-i-ohed ranchero songs. It called the good men of Siete Iglesias up to the junction for a hand of Brisca and a shot of booze.

Day 4: We agreed to rise very early the next day, for the long haul into Toro. Not many places to stop, and a heat wave on its way. The morning was beautiful, the scenery rugged and lonely. We got a little lost, then found again... added another 2 kilometers to the 30+ on the schedule. By the time we hit 17 kilometers, the asphalt was bubbly in the streets of the last-stop village. We huddled in the shade of the local bar, and I told the guys I was calling a cab. I would take their backpacks with me ahead to Toro, check into the hotel there and ease my already-aching head.

John and Stephen did not cavil, especially when I mentioned a Gin and Tonic prize they´d set aside for the big Toro welcome. They started re-arranging their packs, to ensure they´d have water enough for the rest of the trip. But alas -- it was Blood-Draw Day at the local health center, and all three taxis listed were engaged, right up through 5 p.m. Damn. I was in for it.

It was a beautiful walk, most of the way. It tracked along the great Rio Duero, where cornfields were irrigated with elaborate earthworks and canals. We came round a bend in the road into an apparantly-abandoned village and surprised a little man standing naked in his front garden, showering under a jolly yellow watering-can. He shrieked and ran inside, and we kept right on going, pretending we´d seen nothing. And as we passed he reappeared outside the gate, wrapped in a towel, dripping onto the dirt road. "Where are you from?" he sang out. "Where did you start?" His eyes were full of fun. He told us the path split there, and the right-hand branch went through a bird sanctuary, right along the river. And lo, it turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful, scented with piñon trees, fluttering with white ibis, with water, water flowing all ´round. But it did not last.

Once the trees thinned out, and the river took a bend away from us, we were back out in the sun in a blasted landscape of gravel quarries and scrub oak, skinny dogs tied to tractor-tires, warm water, and no breeze, no shade.  For many miles Toro could be seen, standing brave atop a bluff across the river. Cruel, it was. A mileage sign on the distant highway said "Toro 6." I thought I might cry. Then I told myself I might be hallucinating by now. My head pounded, my stomach was nauseated. I told Santiago he better get on the case, because I have treated plenty of pilgs myself for heat exhaustion. I know what that looks like. And I knew I was there.

I felt terrible and a little scared, but I was still, fundamentally, happy to be there. I was with people I love in a land I love, doing something I believe in, pushing my limits... maybe a bit too hard. I was not really there to walk that camino, much as I enjoy a good hike. I was there to hang out with my friends. And when your friends are long-distance hikers, you sign up for this. 

The last three kilometers into Toro are a showcase of Roman foundations and pavements, and finally a spectacular Roman bridge across the deep Duero valley. I wish I´d enjoyed it more. I promised myself I will go back someday. And the last, 17-percent grade haul up that bluff onto the ramparts? It was a picture of two men very patiently waiting while a Woman Of a Certain Age reeled from one patch of shade to the next, all the way up, making cooling sounds, whispering softly of gin-and-tonics, ice pops, showers...
the Roman bridge and road into Toro

And soon we were at the splendid 3-star hotel that dear Stephen had booked ahead -- lolling in bathtubs, sipping refreshing beverages, napping in crisp sheets. Soon I was back to my vibrant and scintillating self again, albeit a little burnt on the edges. I managed to take a walk round the old town, and had a quick little tasting of the new 2010 jovenes. (Toro is my favorite wine town in all of Spain, you know!)

And so, scrubbed and re-hydrated, we dined on the terrace, with a breathtaking view of the day´s achievement. We agreed it was a very fine few days on the trail, with all manner of topics discussed, problems solved, and plots hatched, even. We ching-chinged our glasses of Cañus Verus Crianza. And we called it a day.


Anonymous said...

ooooooh don't like the heat, but love the sound of the crisp sheets and linking drinks after a long slug up the rock...thank you for doing it for, k

Laura said...

Your stories, your spirit, your friends, your writing - these are all gifts that you share with your readers. Don't stop.

Anonymous said...

It's so good to read this Rebekah and get more news of the Great Adventure. So many memories, especially of that heat! Thanks for walking and sharing.

Have a blog break if you need it.


Annie said...

Don't stop writing, Rebecca... your blog is wonderful, your writing is something we look forward to.

Glad you made it to the 5-Star - heat exhaustion is no fun at all!

Dulcinea said...

Rebekah, Your blogs are a breath of fresh air and life would be so dreary without them. Do not abandon us, the faceless - your devoted followers - in favour of the Facebookers!

Anonymous said...

I love your blogs. You see things that others don't (or at least don't until you remind them of what they saw) and you tell of your experiences with humour and honesty; they are spiritual but also funny, ghastly, unexpected, and very human. Take a holiday if you must but p lease don't stop !

ksam said...

LOL! The most perfect description of those steep grades in the heat! A feeling I know oh so well. Thanks for the sharing.

FrereRabit said...

Hi Reb! Glad to see you have been walking with "Johnny Walker". John must be fun to walk with. I've only had the pleasure of his company dining out in London. I am very interested to know more about the Camino de Levante, as that is my local point of departure if I was to walk from home with the donkeys some time in the future when they are ready for the road.

Is John writing a guide to this one for the CSJ? said...

thanks for the good words.
The Amigos del Camino of Valencia have a pretty good guide out there already, translated into English by CSJ star Laurie Dennett. Watch out for that fork in Medina del Campo, though. Go LEFT for Levante, right for Sureste!