Day 21 – 7th October 2015, Castrojeriz to Fromista.
My eyes flickered open to the strains of ethereal music teasing my ear drums. For a split second I wondered whether I had slipped into another dimension or my soul had ascended to heaven during the night. Perhaps, Ultreia was actually a front for a portal to other realms! No, I was not mistaken, and I wasn’t dreaming, I really could hear “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” by Johann Sebastian Bach, gently playing in the background, while soft lighting, soothed the dormitory of sleeping pilgrims awake. “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”, is from the last movement of Bach’s Cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) and it is a choral work I know well. I had sung it in two choirs, the first at All Souls Church in Central London, where I had enjoyed four years as a second soprano, and the second in Port Moresby, where I had sung soprano in the Port Moresby Choral Society in Papua New Guinea, during a six month mission with the United Nations. It is a beautiful piece, which makes my heart soar and I remembered fondly the joy of singing together with other people. How lovely, that my Camino pilgrimage reminded me of such things!
I was impressed. The family, who runs the albergue would get an eleven out of ten from me for the wonderfully sensitive way they had decided to rouse weary pilgrims and send them on their way. Breakfast was a simple but enjoyable affair, a quiet serving of coffee, juice and tostadas. I noticed how calm the other pilgrims were at table, compared to other places where I would feel the tangible, frenetic energy of ‘pilgrim rush hour’. I concluded that Bach had weaved his special magic.
Soon I ventured out onto the streets of Castrojeriz, somewhat reluctant to leave this place. I felt a particular energy emanate from the flagstones underneath my feet as I walked along, while I followed the stone arrow markings in the pathway. Perhaps Castrojeriz, had been built along ley lines, I thought to myself. I breathed it all in and allowed my body to synchronise with its vibrations as I walked along the Camino to the end of town and upwards towards a steep climb. It was still dark but the air was clear and fresh.
I enjoyed the exertion of testing my body during the ascent of Alto de Mostelares, feeling the stretch of muscles in my legs and torso. I was surprised at how freely I could breathe and move compared to three weeks ago when I puffed and panted my way up and over the French Pyrenees. I felt immense gratitude for the way my body had adapted to the physical challenges of the walk. On top of Alto de Mostelares, I looked back over the plains and the breathtaking views just as the morning sun’s rays peeped over the horizon and embraced the coloured rags and ribbons adorning a simple cross.
It was time for a moment of quiet reflection. I thought, once more, of my mum and the purpose of my pilgrimage and offered up a prayer to the heavens. Then I turned round and wandered over to a small gathering of pilgrims who had stopped to rest a while. I spoke to a young, German pilgrim called Melissa and we took each other’s photos.
In my peripheral vision I noticed an enterprising man with a van, who provided a welcome refreshment stop. I grabbed a coffee (I seem to be getting addicted to Spanish coffee, when normally, back home in Old Blighty, I am an avid tea drinker…no surprises there I guess!). Right, well, I needed to galvanise myself for the 18% gradient downhill. I stood for as long as I could on the top of the plateau to drink in the remarkable vista on the other side of the Alto de Mostelares. The Camino route sliced through the landscape, like a sword for what seemed like miles and miles ahead into the horizon. The warmth of the sun on my face and shoulders gave me a reassuring hug as I picked up my backpack and trekking poles and gingerly set foot on the gravelly downward slope. I zig-zagged my way in a skiing sort of motion to try to lessen the impact on my knees and the forward movement at some speed felt exhilarating. Several bicigrinos hurtled down the hill at breakneck velocity and my calls of “Buen C-a-a-m-m-i-i-n-n-o-o” were lost in their side wind as they zoomed past.
I motored along and soon spotted a familiar figure ahead of me. It was Kenny, who I had met at the Casa Manolo in Hornillos del Camino, along with Mike. I fell into step with him and we talked amiably as we trundled along. I was amazed to discover that this journey was Kenny’s fourth Camino. He told me that since he recovered from a heart bypass operation several years ago, he walked his first Camino (the Camino Frances) and felt a pull to walk a Camino every year. He had also worked the Camino Portugues, a route that Brett and I hoped to walk together one day. I was in awe! I asked him what made him come back. Kenny hesitated for a moment, trying to find the words to express something that he felt very deeply. He said, he couldn’t really put his finger on it but the Camino was special, there was something about the Camino and the rhythm of walking everyday that called to his heart. After a few minutes, we caught up with his travelling companions Mike, Jim from the USA and a new addition to their happy band, Martin from Australia.
Martin introduced himself and we walked along together for a while. Martin had accompanied his friend Craig for the first couple of weeks but after Craig returned home, he decided to continue the journey and bumped into these chaps in Castrojeriz. We shared thoughts on transitions in life because we were both at a crossroads. I explained my pilgrimage as a means to cope with the loss of my mum as well as prepare for a new life including a change in career and joining my partner with the promise of exciting adventures ahead. Martin shared how he and his partner had lived and worked in the Cayman Islands for the last 15 years and had recently decided to return to the UK and buy a house. A period of travel in Central America and the Camino marked a step in this transition back to life in the UK.
I reflected how easy it had been to strike up conversations with Melissa, Kenny and Martin on this day, as easy as breathing. I had experienced just the same feeling of freedom in my previous encounters with Janey, Laurie, Silvio, Roisin, Christine, Don and the Irish ladies to name but a few. For some reason the Camino manages to strip away the masks that we wear and the pretences we bear or the barriers we put up. Our inner compass can identify kindred spirits in our fellow pilgrims, who are really friends-not-yet-met.
I also pondered on the meaning of a crossroads in our life journeys. I remembered some sound advice I received from an inspiring career coach a few years ago, when I wanted to return to humanitarian aid work after a four year period of managing urban regeneration initiatives in inner-city London. I doubted my ability to make the change. He told me to view a crossroads as a place of increase. Yes it is perfectly natural to feel nervous or unsettled, but a crossroads holds nothing to fear. The ‘increase’ may not necessarily mean material or monetary wealth but a period of personal growth in response to new environments and challenges.
A streak of black in front of my eyes brought me out of my reverie. A small and lithe black cat crossed the path in front of us. A good omen, and perhaps, like Bach the cat would weave some magic. I bent down to tickle him and introduce myself. At once I began to hear the song “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees”from the musical “Cats” in my head. This song is based on a poem by T.S. Elliot and I can’t resist including a couple of verses here:
He is quiet and small, he is black
From his ears to the tip of his tail;
He can creep through the tiniest crack,
He can walk on the narrowest rail.
He can pick any card from a pack,
He is equally cunning with dice;
He is always deceiving you into believing
That he’s only hunting for mice.
He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish-paste;
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it is merely misplaced–
You have seen it one moment, and then it is gawn!
But you’ll find it next week lying out on the lawn.
And we all say: Oh!
Well I never!
Was there ever
A Cat so clever
As Magical Mr. Mistoffelees!
Ultreia! I digress, I felt the urge to walk on alone for a while and soon meandered past the Fuente del Piojo towards the picturesque Ermita de San Nicholas by the side of the road. The dark doorway beckoned me inside, where I was delighted to find a large wooden table laid out with hot drinks and biscuits, a visitors book and a pilgrim stamp. Pilgrims can stay in simple accommodation at the back. I think there is only room for about four people and the pilgrims, who stay there make refreshments to welcome others who break their journey for a few moments. The atmosphere inside was very peaceful. To one end of the hermitage I noticed a narrow, arched window, underneath which stood a colourful triptych and a single lit candle. This scene captivated me and I was drawn towards it. I felt compelled to stand in front of it in silent reverence, tears welling up in my eyes. I reflected on the mystery of faith, which evokes a magic all of its own.
I poured myself a coffee, signed the visitors book, got a stamp for my pilgrim passport then wandered outside to enjoy the sunshine. A few minutes later Chris and Charlotte arrived so I stopped to chat for a short while before resuming my walk. A little way along the road I came to a bridge, the Puente de Itero, where I halted to admire the view and soak up the energy from the river. The trees were turning colour to their autumn mantle.
Over the bridge I turned right to the village of Itero de la Vega, which marked the crossing from the Province of Burgos to that of Palencia. I pressed onwards to the Tierra de Campos, (‘Land of Fields’) a rather beige looking stretch of the Camino, where the grasslands and low hills looked tired, dried out and sadly, quite monotone. Still, I enjoyed the forward motion with a gentle breeze in my face. I could feel the sun getting stronger so took a rest stop in the little square in Boadilla del Camino and finished the rest of my baguette I had bought in Castrojeriz. I thought I had found a lovely, quiet stop next to the foundation but oh no, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh and a screech of brakes heralded the arrival of a group of Spanish, lycra-clad bicigrinos buzzing with testosterone. I wonder what the collective noun for them would be? A ‘peloton of cyclists’ doesn’t really cover it, mmm no how about a ‘blast of bicigrinos’? That’s more like it. I caught sight of Martin and Mike and waved to them. Apparently they were looking for Jim and Kenny who had stopped in a bar. I wished the bicigrinos the usual “Buen Camino” and went on my way.
The next stretch of the Camino was completely different. I entered a beautiful avenue of trees. Their vivid green and yellow leaves and swaying trunks lifted my spirits. I heard them whispering in the breeze. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to speak the language of the trees? I didn’t feel alone. Their refreshing shade boosted my energy for the final stretch towards my destination for the day.
Soon I could see the town of Fromista in the distance, I was nearly there! First I had to cross over some lock gates of the Canal de Castilla. The locks were huge, compared to the canal locks in my home village of Long Itchington, where I would often take a stroll. The sun was beating down on me at this point. I bumped into Olaf, the other side of the locks and we walked together into town and then parted company to find our respective places to stay. My friend Laurie, who sent me messages from further along the Camino, had tipped me off about a lovely Hostal, called Hostal Camino de Santiago in the centre of town so I headed there. Sure enough, I was able to book a single room with shared bathroom for a very good price! I know these days social media can be distracting from real, on the ground interactions, but on the Camino it can have its advantages such as keeping in touch with members of your pilgrim family and sharing top tips in real time, that sometimes the Brierley guidebooks miss.
My legs were aching and buzzing after all of that walking so I tried a tip my friend Fiona passed on to me from a military friend of hers. I lay on the bed and put my feet and legs up against the wall for 30 mins. It was oddly relaxing and restorative but also helped to drain fluid away. Later on, after a soak in the bath, yes a real tub, I explored the town and hunted down my evening meal.
I walked up and down a few times but most restaurants were not serving dinner until 8pm or later and I was ravenous! Not to worry, the Hotel San Martin looked busy and had a pilgrim menu. I ventured inside and spotted my friends Mary, Una and Mary, who immediately clocked me and waved me over to their table. I joined them and another lady called Henrietta and ordered the trout. We had a laugh, sharing stories over glasses of wine. It was a truly joyful occasion and I revelled in the camaraderie pilgrims share. A couple of hours later, I wandered back to my digs in the dark and felt the chilly evening breeze. Yes, I thought to myself, the season is changing.
Peace, love and light,