From: Chilham, Kent, UK, October 31, 2016
About: Atapuerca to Burgos, September 25-27, 2016.
Burgos was a big beautiful surprise. A blessing.
The blessing begins with the decision to walk a labyrinth on the windblown high plain just above Atapuerca. Ever since we entered the Atapuerca valley, we had been puzzling about the discovery of 1,000,000 years of human habitation in this location. Plus, it is Sunday, and because we couldn’t stay at our hotel, we couldn’t go to mass at the little country church across from our hotel. Instead, we would make our way to Burgos, over the steep climb of El Alto del Cruz.
The climb is steep and rocky, with head-sized boulders tussled about. Every step has to be managed. We—and the two Italian mountain bikers who had to dismount and push their bikes---pick our way up, stone by stone, step by step, climbing the equivalent of 2000 rounded and uneven stairs. The surroundings are beautiful, but it is hard, hard work.
On top, we can see in all directions. A sign proclaims “This is the best view of the whole Camino.” It may well be. We can see Burgos in the distance, nestled in a lush river valley. To the right, there’s a ridge of wind turbans. Behind us lie the long limestone ridges where humans have lived continuously for a million years. To our left, tilting sharply away, a series of linked canyons, brown and gray on top but lined with trees below.
The bikers jump on their bikes and speed off, hoping, I’m sure, that the way down will not be as rugged as the way up. There’s giant cross, decorated with peregrino prayers in the form of stones, prayer cards, ribbons and shoes. We stop to mark the apex with a little prayer.
Out of the corner of my eye, about 50 meters to the south of the standing cross, I spot what looks like a stone medicine wheel. It’s not. It’s a spiral labyrinth composed of 2 foot pathways passing through 8 or so turns to a circular center, in which stones form a Celtic cross.
“Let’s walk it!” I proclaim. Wes doesn’t want to do it. “Why add more steps?” he protests. But I start. Soon he joins me.
I move through the spiral, sometimes facing a sharp wind, sometimes the blazing sun, sometimes looking at the shining city, sometimes at the ancient and nurturing caves. Round and round the spiral we go in faster and tighter circles, more and more aware of the infinite and infinitesimal turnings of life and the divine.
Creating, growing, sharing, ending. The maiden, the mother, the crone; the creator, the incarnate, the spirit; fire, earth, wind and water, always present, always changing, moving through the minute breaths of my life and within the circles and circles and circles of human presence in this spot, beyond this spot, beyond and within this time. Through time, in time, within time, in the palpable presence of the creator, the creating, and the creation. Amen.
When I meet Wes in the center, we grab and hold each other, moved beyond words.
The way down passes a series of ridges, most of which are open range for grazing cattle. We are still jubilant from our time in the spiral, and following a rocky two track. Ahead a couple of dozen placid cattle (big horns, humped and wattled like Brahma) munch on the thin and wispy grass. There’s a few calves and few steers. One young steer is standing in the track. I figure I will shoo him off if need be. A pair of young hikers, male and female, either Italian or Spanish, and urban by their clothes and haircuts, are walking up quickly behind us. The steer is still on the road ahead of us. I’m not concerned. Nor is the young castrated bull. But the young woman behind me is. She cries out, almost in a panic, “Señora! Gardete!”
At her screech, the steer bolts to the right, she and her partner dash off the path to the left, then rush away from the danger of loose cows. Wes and I look at each other, “What was that about?” Did she think we were about to be gored? Couldn’t they tell a steer from a bull? Who’s afraid of domestic cattle anyway? Certainly not this daughter of a county agent.
We keep walking down and down into various steep canyons. At one tiny isolated village, we stop for water, exchange a few words with some Italians resting their sore feet in a small stream and drink from a fuente that has been running since Roman times. My feet are hurting as well.
As we come to another big downhill, into a small town nestled in a steep valley, we see an ad for a new albergue. We start the debate. Should we stay or go? Well, it is Sunday, and we try to take a day of rest on Sundays. We have already come 10 miles. It’s still 15 miles into Burgos. This is the last chance to stay before town. My feet hurt. It’s Sunday. I don’t want to go into a city when everything is closed. All right. Let’s stay.
In the albergue complex, the first thing we see are a group of Canadians drinking beer and soaking their feet in a small blue wading pool. In the reception room, we are greeted by a frenetic and slightly off kilter young man, whose speech impediment and habit of repeating sentence fragments makes the exchange of keys, passports, and information quite difficult.
At last we are in our room: hardly bigger than closet, and painted bright orange, the double bed barely fits. There’s no closet, no other furniture—and yet it costs nearly as much as last night’s beautiful and elegant room.
We have time to kill. We visit with the other walkers, and watch the interactions of the family who built this complex. Jaime, the young man who waited on us, receives a tongue lashing from his father for helping us. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asks over and over. I want to intervene and say it was fine, but don’t. A little while later, two teenage males come up from the village and begin teasing Jaime, calling his name over and over, then sending him her and there on bogus errands. This is an old and sick sport with them.
Later that night, at the communal dinner, I find myself angry when one of the Canadians starts making fun of his interactions with Jaime. Only the young Argentinian, who has attached himself to the Canadian trio, laughs at the mockery. Thank goodness, it ends. Jaime and his mother expertly serve the 20 people at the table. Canadians, Americans, French, Korean, Austrian, Polish, Argentinian, and Germans soon devour the huge bowls of salad, roast chicken, and potatoes.
The next morning, most are up before dawn, wolf down a pre-packaged and cold breakfast, and are off with headlights to walk in the dark. All the talk is who is going to stay an extra day in Burgos. Not us, we insist. We are already running a bit late.
As we set out, we are joined by a young American woman, walking in short shorts, tennis shoes, and knee brace. She tells us she has been walking 35 kilometers a day, but is having a lot of trouble with her feet and knees. She is thinking of taking a day in Burgos. We ask why she is moving so fast and she doesn’t have an answer. Why wouldn’t someone move as fast as they can?
We part ways at a junction. The way following the river is slightly longer. The other continues down the side of a busy highway. We watch her power off down the highway, walking fast, though slightly limping.
But who am I to judge, given the rotten state of my feet. I had my boots repaired a few days back in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I have the unfortunate habit of walking on the outside of my feet and destroying shoes at a phenomenal rate. My great old Salomon hiking boots had reached the tipping point and were putting dangerous and painful stress on my hips, knees, and feet. I got new heels and insoles put on these old boots, but it didn’t work. Every step hurts. No combination of socks helps. I try the old insoles, the new insoles, both insoles. Nothing works.
We follow the alternate route alongside the River, which runs for about 6 kilometres before dropping us in the middle of the city. At first, it is heavily wooded with tall trees and heavy undergrowth. As the trail progresses, it slowly becomes a paved path in a groomed park.
About 10 miles into our walk into Burgos, I stop at the high tension light post, pull off my boots, stuff them into my pack, and walk the remaining miles in my sandals.
There are people of every age out walking. Some are toting briefcases and taking their lunch breaks. Knots of women in dress skirts and sneakers pace by in earnest conversation. We pass many seniors walking in couples or small same gender groupings, moms with strollers, and numerous dogwalkers and their fussy, small dogs. Nearly all smile and wish us “Buen Camino.”
We are struck by the difference in our river walk into Burgos and the one into Pamplona. Here, people are strolling and visiting. There are few bicyclists and even fewer aggressive exercisers panting and sweating their way down the path. Is it because it is a Monday? Or is it a change in the culture?
When we leave the river walk and cross into the modern city, we notice two things. At the small café bar where we stop for a quick bite, the prices are ½ what we typically paid on the Camino… and the people are extraordinarily friendly to us. In the Camino bubble, because of the never ending crush of foreign pilgrims and the seven day a week demands of the hiking season, café workers can be a bit….perfunctory. They just don’t have the energy to engage with all the strangers who bellow commands in English at them. Here, we are a novelty, and the short-haired, long-nosed, big-bellied host is tickled to bring us little bits of this-and-that (olives, noodles, mushrooms) to add to our beers and bocadillos.
When we cross a Romanesque bridge, the modern city disappears and we are in the midst of a prosperous 16th century city. We are lucky to find a room on the fourth floor of lovely old hotel, overlooking one of the many busy cobblestone plazas.
We immediately set out to explore the old city, passing back and forth from the river walk to various squares, stopping for coffee or wine under enormous, but newly shaved sycamore trees. All along the marble esplanade of the river walk, there are stands of carefully manicured topiary. At one café, just beside the 10 foot tall statue of El Cid on his horse, and just around the corner from the marble arches leading to the cathedral square, we drink red wine and feel like we are in a small, romantic, sophisticated…and friendly corner of Paris. A lone accordion player sits beneath the arches. We laugh when the first song he plays is “Hello Dolly!” Of course, we sing along, “You’re looking swell, Dolly! I call tell Dolly, you’re still growing, you’re still going, you’re still gro..wing strong.”
(English language music---especially American pop music—has been omnipresent in Spain. The bus driver in Logroño played Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cook, the bars pump out Beyoncé and Adele, old men a tiny Spanish village played an unrecognizable loteria card game while listening to “Move like Mick Jagger.” And how could we forget the night we were serenaded by the world’s worst cover band with their endless catalog of massacred American pop-music?)
|The Golden Cathedral of Burgos|
We couldn’t visit either of our desired destinations, the Burgos Cathedral and the Museum of Human Evolution. We weren’t willing to pay the tourist price for admission to the cathedral. If we presented our pilgrim credentials, which were back in our room, the price would be halved. And the museum was closed on Monday. Darn.
This city has a tremendous pride of place. It is clean and well-kept. We walk the narrow cobblestone streets, peering at the tiny specialized shops and wondering how a shop that only sells socks can survive. The scale is small, the service personal, and the specialization intense.
So we wander the streets, and tend to several restocking chores, replacing some foot and pain medicine, buying socks, toothpaste, and support hose. Between their rotten English and my awful Spanish, we communicate just enough to make the transactions.
Wes has great fun taking pictures of all the statues in this city of sculptures.
Every few hundred
yards, there’s another lifesize bronze statue of someone at work or play. Wes gets picture taken with a statue of
|Near the Museum of Human Evolution|
Well... after our long, beautiful river walk, followed by the delightful walk around the many plazas, shopping calles, and sculpture-strewn streets, we are more than a little intrigued. When the alarm rings at 7 AM on Tuesday, Wes says to me still in bed, still half asleep. “I think we should stay here another day.” I roll over, barely awake, and say, “Me too.”
On that extra day, we take an audio tour of the exquisite cathedral, during which it is presented as a giant piece of art. It is a complex structure with at least 20 side chapels; but only two remain in use for prayer and worship. During the tour, I experience equal parts of frustration at the egregious commercialization, awed contemplation of human achievement, and the sudden surprise of recognizing architecture as Christian pedagogy for non-literate congregants.
The Museum of Human Evolution deepens and extends those thoughts. In 1979, when the railroad was excavating a cut for a new track, they accidently uncovered a cave containing human and animal remains. Careful analysis showed it was adjacent to a sinkhole into which animals regularly fell and died, and which provided these ancient humans ( homo antecessor, a new species) a perfect habitat: food, shelter, clothing with little effort. Homo neanderthal, habilis, and sapiens stayed in this valley, leaving a record of tools and technology, learning and transformation from the Stone Age to the present, unmatched anywhere outside the Great Rift Valley of Africa.
The museum examines evolution from multiple viewpoints. At the end of many hours, we have contemplated changes in culture, in DNA, in tool building, and in agriculture. We are overstimulated and exhausted…and happy.
Leaving Burgos the next day is difficult. As we wander our way out of town, Wes is still taking pictures of the sculptures, and my feet are still hurting. Just as we reach the edge of town, Wes stops to take a another sculpture photo, this time of a woman in a wheelchair. I sit at a bench, pull off my beloved but now ruined boots and leave them there, the new insoles poking out the top like sorry little flags.
I walk into the hot, dry, flat meseta in sandals and hope for the best.