Day 21 Camino – Burgos to Hornillos del Camino

Reflecting back over this summer gone I’m very aware of how much time I’ve spent outdoors. We were given such an incredible season in the UK, and now I’m scratching onto the remnants of heat as I trek through Spain. We are up on a plateau now though, and we’ll be up here for weeks. The autumn is forcing itself through, here, finally. Heavy winds are taking the leaves off the trees, bringing a chill that is at odds with the force of the sunlight. But it’s glorious.

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I left Burgos through avenues of falling leaves, and hiked back out into the countryside. I’m very much on my own again, which is a state of affairs I am mostly cultivating on purpose based on a decision I made before I even left – to whit “I’m not here to make friends.” But friends are happening by mistake as I coincide with people again and again. It’s pleasant to leave it to chance too. I still don’t know what I’ll take from this trip. It’s not my job to project forward. Right now I’m just relishing the daily mileage, and noticing as my body subtly shifts.

I’m writing this as I walk aimlessly around this little town in my espadrilles.

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All the other pilgrims are sitting together in a communal room, silent, on their phones. I’ve been exploring. There’s not much to explore and I’m not quick in the evenings. But I’ll never be back in these places. There’s too much world. So it’s right that I see them.

I just ran into my first Brits in a little wayside bar. They were drinking beer. They do a week of this Camino every year. This year it’s Burgos to Leon. I had very little to say to them, but it was a strange familiar moment hearing their accents. I didn’t relish it.

Now I’m at the church. It’s a tiny country church, essentially, but if you’re on this route you get the bling bling even in a small town. That’s the Camino rules.

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There’s a mass at 6. I might go and get some magicbread. I intend to walk a big day tomorrow so I need all the help I can get. Today’s plans for a long one were thwarted when all the alberges in the next two villages turned up already closed for the season. Just as well I rang to check. I’d have been walking all night, or paying way over the odds. Although a Halloween advert I’m in is screening in Ireland so my agent will likely have a present for me before long, God Bless them. This all means I can potentially risk not finding an alberge and covering more ground, knowing I can make the shortfall if I have to book a room.

I want to make up at least one more day from the recommended stages, not least because staying in halfway towns is usually more satisfying and cheaper than staying in the official stops.

Although saying that, this town is an official stop, and I’m in a brilliant auberge. Every bed gets its own plug socket. I can’t tell you how luxurious that feels when you’re used to leaving your phone plugged in under the sink three rooms away.

Day 20 Camino – Atapuerca to Burgos

This walk is a teacher. I am learning so much as I put the miles behind me. Learning about my body, and how my diet and my sleep patterns affect my mood and capabilities. Learning about myself as a social animal – how it takes time for me to trust and to relax, but learning how I can give myself that time. Learning about how I package data. How I store and prioritise memories. How I construct narratives. Learning when I compromise or sell myself short, when I don’t seize opportunities because of unhelpful narratives I’ve made, when I don’t allow myself to want what I want for obscure reasons. And today, learning about gratitude and the meaning of luxury.

Some friends put some money into my account. You know who you are. Thank you, you mad beautiful buggers. I spent it on something I would never justify paying for normally. A king sized room with a whirlpool bath on the third floor of the AC Hotel Burgos. I booked it last night as I lay on a sticky plastic mattress in a damp chilly hostel. I cancelled the page thrice before I went through with it. I struggle to pay for things that I know to be too expensive. But right now, it’s worth every bloody penny.

First I had to get here. That involved getting lost in the dawn out of Atapuerca before finally finding the right hill and struggling up to the top alongside the Danish guy. As soon as we got to the top he strung his hammock between two trees. “I couldn’t sleep in that shit hostel. Gonna get an hour now.” I pushed on, past vast stone circles that have been made over time by thousands of pilgrims before me.

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I had a place to go, and I was damn well gonna get to it. Just as well. The last 8 miles into Burgos are probably the least pleasant to walk so far. A huge empty airport, truck depots, big roundabouts, warehouses and filth. Lots of graffiti.

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I stopped for lunch and watched the Korean Supergroup file past my window. Not as far ahead as I thought I was clearly. As I passed the cathedral, there they were with a queue of pilgrims outside the municipal hostel. I sashayed past and a little further on, into reception at this lovely hotel. The bemused receptionist stamped my credencial. I staggered into my huge room, immediately threw all my clothes all over the place, grabbed a €2.50 beer from the minibar and slipped into the whirlpool bath. Now I’m on the bed with conditioned hair and beard, pumped full of endorphins, mildly upset about the fact that I draw the line at using their laundry service (they charge by the item.) I’m going to have to put some clothes on and go to the laundrette. But that’s fair enough. I need to check out the cathedral too while I’m here…


Outside the laundrette a young man is playing the didgeridoo while he waits for his clothes.

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Inside an angry Spaniard is folding things at me. He resents anyone in his space. You can see the didge is pissing him off too. I mean – the guy can’t play yet. But that’s how you learn. We aren’t all Mozart.

I’m lost in a vague amusement at myself and at the absurdity of my decisions. Twenty days in. If I’ve got this right I’m halfway to Santiago. I’ll need to do some hard days, but I know I can now. I’m learning. And I think the investment of time is part of that path to better self knowledge.

I wish these clothes would hurry up though. I want to see the sights, and hang out in my sexy room.

Day 19 Camino -Villafranca Montes de Oca to Atapuerca

This morning I woke before dawn, just like 60 people did in this village 82 years ago. I walked up the hill out of town like they did. The mist was down and the trail was dark. I had to have portable illumination to see the way clearly. I used a maglight.

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They would’ve had torches. The torches would’ve been held by unsmiling silent young men. About an hour until dawn. It was very dark. An hour uphill through mist. An hour uphill to the summit. I walked in the footsteps of these liberal minded men. This path was the Camino then, as well. Maybe a pilgrim would’ve stood aside as this crowd came up the hill, wondering as they told their rosary. Did all sixty even come up at once? It is hard to think about it. As the mist began to clear and the fingers of dawn broke the darkness and brought the day I arrived at their destination. A cold silent hilltop far from the town. A shallow grave. Were they blindfolded? I don’t know. Did they dig the grave themselves? Very possibly. Because of ideas. Because of a conflict of ideology. Because General Franco chose a swift and decisive means of preventing threats to his dictatorship. These sixty people were shot for their liberal ideas, in this cold forsaken place in the morning mist. Shot by men who returned to their families. Maybe played with their daughters. Maybe read them a goodnight story, turning the pages with their trigger finger.

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A monument stands here now. “Their deaths will not be useless – their execution was useless.” We can only hope. But again, extremism is becoming mainstream. “Justified”.

It just takes another scared little boy in the right position going “It’s the kind people. They’re the real threat. The ones that think humans are just humans and that ignore the structures we have created to attribute relative measurable value to them. Human worth has to be measurable! We know this because we have constructed our patented human values measuring scale. Those people in the next village think our scale is arbitrary andn it just reflects our birth priorities, but they don’t count because the scale tells us they aren’t important.” And then the cold eyed frightened young men come with guns. This is just 60 people. The liberals from one village in Spain. Ideas have killed so many people – and liberalism vs fascism  is a big one still – on and on forever because these two worldviews cannot be reconciled. Protect vs welcome. I sit here in my espadrilles thinking “Why can’t we just all get along, man?”

The walk was beautiful today and I’ve stopped early. I stopped before I had to, for the first time in ages. I hit Atapuerca. It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, with Ice Age cave paintings and human remains dating back 800,000 years. I’ve booked a tour. It’s in Spanish. The guy kept on telling me “it’s in Spanish. You don’t speak Spanish.” I told him “me looky looky think think. Understanding some wordy. Okay be me yes yes thanky.” He still didn’t really get why I was so keen to go…


I see his point to an extent. My feet were freezing and it was a guy standing by a wall talking for ages in Spanish. I occasionally asked the Mexican pilgrim “what’s he saying?” and got “They used to trap animals here. The rest is shit jokes.” Reminds me of when I used to tour guide on the boats. But these ancient humans used to eat each other. Maybe the ones who thought the mammoth leg was better eating than the mammoth flank. The perverts. They deserve to be eaten with their incorrect leggy ideals. So we’ll eat them even though it gives us degenerative brain diseases. Because flank is better. It always has been. I haven’t had leg and I don’t need to cos I know. Kill ’em. Leggy twats. Bury them in a shallow grave.

Day 18 Camino – Grañón to Villafranca Montes de Oca

On a typical day on the path you’ll pass the same people multiple times. Everyone has their pace, but everyone stops from time to time. Maybe for a photo, a stone in a shoe, a blister inspection, a water refill. I stop every morning for half an hour. I stopped this evening to make a little water cup for a kitten that was clearly hungry and thirsty but way too scared of me to come when I was there. I left her some cheese too. When people pass they say “Buen Camino” That’s the default. It’s what the internet tells us to say. I don’t like it much. It’s used so automatically that it has lost all meaning. Like “Have a nice day!” It’s fine from someone not walking Camino to someone who is. But I’m after something a bit more engaged.

The Codex Calixtinus is a twelfth century Lonely Planet Guide for The Camino. It tells you which rivers will kill your horse, where you are likely to get jumped by robbers who are dressed up as pilgrims. It tells you which cities are important, where the dead saints are buried, where to eat. It’s a mine of superhelpful very very out of date information. Right now I’m approaching Burgos: “This country is full of royal treasure, of gold and silver, fabrics and the strongest horses, and flush with bread, wine, fish, milk and honey. It is however lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.” There we go. Forewarned is forearmed. They paint good murals:

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But their graffiti needs work:

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The Codex Calixtinus has solved the “Buen Camino” saccharine problem for me. “Ultreya,” it suggests as a pilgrim greeting. “Ultreya et suseia – Santiago”. This has the immediate advantage of being ancient and being born on this path. It’s also much deeper than “Have a nice Camino.” It means a mixture of things. “Onwards!” and simultaneously “Go beyond!” Stretch your usual boundaries, physically and mentally. The journey doesn’t end in Santiago. Go beyond. The response “et suseia” is “and upwards!” To the heights. To the gods! To the height of what you can be! Ultreya et suseia, Santiago.

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I’ve been trying it as I go. Mostly my enthusiastic “Ultreya” is met with a pause, and then an efficiently morphed “Buen Camino” from someone who is not native Spanish but pretending. “Buen Camino” also kind of means “Go away and leave me alone, I’m doing the basics. You’ve had human contact. Now exit my space.” But I keep trying. “Ultreya!”

Sometimes people have come upon me later and asked me about it. “What was that you said?” It’s written on all the monuments to the dead pilgrims – heart attacks or road accidents mostly. I can refer to them. Onwards! Inwards! Up and beyond!

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Once, gloriously, there was a high five moment. I said “Ultreya,” to the hairy good looking Spanish guy who passed. Beaming he responded “et suseia” and then we both simultaneously said “Santiago!” We didn’t high five. We should have. But we both wanted to make out like it was just an ordinary moment. Because it really really ought to be. It’s just BETTER than obediently mouthing Spanish niceties whilst walking past graffiti saying “This is not Spain.”

It’s mostly road flanking at the moment, this bit of the way. We trudge in a strung out line past grapes and sunflowers and fallow fields on the left and past trucks and trucks and trucks on the right. Ever west. This isn’t France where it was maize and cows and goats and sheep. There is very little livestock here. It’s mostly just grapes, which I’m not complaining about. Yum.

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The sun is still shining. That’s a blessing. And we will go onwards and we will go upwards, and some of us will fall off and others will not. It inevitably starts to feel like a community when the same faces come staggering into the hostels at the end of every day wondering what’s in store for our tired bodies this time. I just told a noisy table full of Americans that I didn’t want to join them, earning the nickname “Antisocial Joe”. It’s affectionately given but it’s also a tactic by the group to absorb the loner. I’ll probably have to go do the basics. I might be flanking them for a few days.

Everybody ends every day walking like very very old men, slowly and deliberately showering, massaging our feet, swearing a bit, getting some wine, and looking at the maps for the next day. Finally I’m ahead of the Korean supergroup, and the predominant language is Spanish. I have a small nucleus of French people who I chat to. And that big pile of Americans. I haven’t met a Brit on the path yet. I wonder if I will. I wonder if I want to – too familiar perhaps. We will see. Meantime, Ultreya!

Day 17 Camino – Najera to Grañón

Grañón is described in the guide book as a town where “they like to party.” I’m sitting outside a bar opposite the church, in the evening sun. There’s a piano and guitars just … scattered around for pilgrims. Steve is currently hitting the piano beautifully. He’s the guy who was singing hymns the other day. Earnest hard working Steve. He’s a beautiful human. I’m glad I’ve coincided with him and Cody, these pleasant talented ex US army guys again.

Another extra long walk today, and I’m glad to get distance from where I slept last night. I left that place with my immune system in tatters. A superhostel, packed with flesh, all in one room, very little space, brimming with all the transferable human nastiness you can imagine. No hot showers in the flooded bathroom. I stood at the edge of a cold trickle and swore copiously as I cupped and sloshed cold water on my tired limbs. It was something between a concentration camp and an army barracks where nobody shares a language. Someone repeatedly almost suffocated themselves noisily in their dreams all night right by me. There are probably bugs when you do actually sleep, and certainly horrific smells when you don’t.

My blepharitis came back overnight. Suddenly again my eyelids are red and trying to stick together. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold as well. I found a pharmacist in Santo Domingo and stocked up on vitamins and they actually let me have the antibiotic eye drops I need rather than just fobbing me off with some sort of palliative crap like the pharmacists in the UK did for a whole year until I took a course of antibiotics for an unrelated issue and it cleared up immediately. Bastards.

I also got myself weighed. I’m 12 stone 3.3 recurring. I have no idea if that’s good or bad but it’s lower than I remember and it’s infinite.

Another long hard road today. The path goes through Cirueña. Cirueña is a warning to us all. It sits on top of a hill, not far from the bustling town of Santo Domingo de Calzada. There’s an 18 hole golf course that actually still functions. The rest of the town is a dead monument to greed and optimism.

I remember family friends in the late nineties and early noughties, evangelising about Spanish property. It was a bubble. This is what their hubris created. Cirueña. And many other places like Cirueña. The streets are immaculate for all the feet that will never fall. There are huge playparks for all the children that will never be born here. There are beautifully landscaped totally pointless empty blocks of flats and empty houses. Thousands and thousands of empty beds across Spain. They could be used to house people who have nowhere to live but they’ll be kept by private owners believing it might come back. Everything here is empty, and desperately and visibly for sale for too much. Not even the pilgrims can sleep in this new town. Empty dead houses that nobody has ever slept in that will sit empty until they collapse because whoever invested everything in them was never interested in bringing gradual money through work or fostering community. They bought into the big shiny flip twist bucks bucks bucks dream. No cars on the roads. No sound at all but the crickets and the birds. Dead town. Dead hopes. Dead end.

If you want a retreat, buy a house up here in the dead hills and pretend you live in post apocalyptic Richmond. Although there’s no point asking. The remaining landlords are probably HODLING. They still think they can make some of their losses back… Maybe in fifty years there’ll be life again in these hollow tenements. An artistic community perhaps? But for now it’s just a sad folly. It’s funny how these get rich quick schemes so often do the opposite. My dad used to say “If everyone starts saying you have to buy something, just hope you’ve already got some and sell it immediately.” Devil take the hindmost. Pop.

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Day 16 Camino – Logroño to Nájera

Something clicks in my left foot when I articulate it and Nick the blister brings new wonders daily. My right foot is mostly numb on the underside and I think there’s a blister coming on the sole which will be … unpleasant. My right Achilles tendon is deeply unhappy with me but has calmed down a bit since last week when I thought it might be gearing up to snap. My bum is tight which can only be a good thing. The sides of my hips are moaning, my thighs are beginning to look at their contract. My calves … they’re my calves. They don’t care  They have always been impenetrable blocks of muscle. I scream if you massage them. They carry me.

Mostly it’s feet. The dull pain in the bottom of my feet – the bits where there’s still feeling. This didn’t stop me waddling to the bar for a glass of remarkable crianza for €1. There’s a different relationship with a good glass of wine at the end of a day here. It goes into your muscles. It lessens the pain. And it helps you sleep in a room full of grunting stinking wandering people. It’s an earnt luxury and not an obliviating habit. I’m glad I didn’t go with my initial instinct of walking this route sober. It’d be wretched. I’ve never failed to wake up before dawn and it helps me make peace with these crowded auberges, which I still hate.

What the hell am I doing this for? You may ask. I’m trying to work it out myself. I’ve always been a fan of ordeal medicine. It’s the same tendency that sees me spewing into a bucket all night while someone plays didgeridoo, letting someone scrape frog poison onto a burn in my arm so I can cry-shout-purge for twenty minutes, put painful berry stuff in my eyes because it hurts. “It has no medicinal value. It just hurts.” “I know. Do it.”

This is an ancient rite, this pilgrimage. The path is narrow. It’s hard and long.

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Different people take different things from it and do it in different ways for varying reasons. I now see no harm in people cutting stages out, taking taxis, sending their luggage ahead. Why not? I’m not doing that yet because I’m stubborn and I’ve got my ascetic thing going on. But I might have to soon. And they can do what they like. This is mostly just about you, every day, doing this as best you can. If I can walk the whole way without damaging myself I will. If I have to cheat, so be it.

The spiritual history is undeniable here. The stones resonate with prayer. There is power in shared articulated hope, in shared pain, in simultaneous wonder. When people breathe together they can do the impossible. When people pray together, in whatever form that prayer takes, that prayer has power. It’s why I’ve been mentioning my chanting in this blog more often. It’s become a big part of my day. Sitting in the morning watching the pilgrims pass, blessing their journey and hoping for mine, and that of my friends. Connecting with a universal flow and breath through “Nam myo ho renge kyo”  

Whatever we connect to when we meditate, be it the universe, God, our untapped inner strength – we connect to something and it gives us clarity and strength. I’m getting on very well with devout Christians and confirmed atheists. Everyone respects that we are all here on a journey experiencing similar difficulty together. For some of us it is worse than for others.

There’s a lovely Croatian guy I met who has already given himself shin splints so badly he had to get a cab yesterday and book a physiotherapist today instead of walking. That’s part of his journey. He will come out stronger and knowing his body better. In the hostel today the guy in the bed next to me can’t use his legs anymore until he’s slept. There’s nothing left in them. I left him flat out and went to get my wine. I’m lucky. I have a decent working knowledge of my body. If this clicking becomes a popping I might have to change something. But I’ve been going a week longer than most of these people. I’m not falling apart. Sleep rebuilds.

I didn’t know it but starting in Lourdes has given me a weird kind of kudos in the hostels too. I got a bottom bunk near a power socket out of the volunteer running the place. She likes it when people have been at it a while. She knew I’d need the bottom bunk. And I do. I’ll likely be asleep in an hour if I can find food. And it’s ten past seven.

Industrial path today, often by roads. Sun hard, path straight. Factories making it possible for me to have amazing things but poisoning the water. Much less tissue paper surprisingly. And the prize for the blingingest altar goes to Navarette. You pay a euro to light it up. I paid but I still had to rush the photo as there was a devout guy behind me fretting at the tourist blocking his prayer.

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Unfortunately it doesn’t play gangsta rap when you pay. It should. It really should.

Day 15 Camino – Sansol to Logroño

Logroño. The capital of Rioja. I arrived here in a rainstorm. It’s a Sunday though, which is luxury day. So I booked an Airbnb with a door and a king sized bed. Tonight I’ll go for tapas and rioja.

Right now I’m in a sarong and thermal leggings in a launderette, washing everything I have. I took off my trousers and shirt and pants like that guy in the Levi advert. Everything is in the machine. I’ll be here for a while, but there are vending machines selling coffee and no overexcited older women like the ad.

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If the music was better I’d be fine. They’re playing modern versions of eighties ballads in Spanish.

This morning I got out even earlier than usual. I walked through pitch darkness and it felt magical knowing the dawn was coming.

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I couldn’t work out how I’d managed to get out so early. I’d dispensed with some part of my morning ritual. But what? “Who knows”, I thought. “It can’t be important”, I thought.

An hour into the walk, two hours before the next town, my body urgently reminded me of what I’d forgotten. Oh shit. Literally.

Thankfully it wasn’t an open part of the trail, and it was quiet. I clambered up to the side of the path, got behind some trees and reminded myself practically not to overlook that particular few minutes of my morning ritual again. I returned to the path much lighter and with a sealed plastic bag full of tissues that I was very aware of until I finally found a bin. But… but I carried those tissues until I found that bin…

Every inch of the side of this pilgrim trail is littered with other people’s discarded used tissue paper. It’s really noticeable, thoroughly offensive and entirely preventable.

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“Hi pilgrim. Here you are, on this ancient trail, having a meditative time. I was here too, pilgrim. I was here before you, having a meditative time. Then I squatted down and had another sort of meditative time. I’ve left the tissues. Why? Well because I’m an idiot, of course. No amount of meditative time will fix that. I want you to contemplate how much of a useless human I am. I want you to think of me, of us and our effluent. I want you to be horrified by how many of us there are, the thoughtless ones. The world is overrun by us. Even here on thoughtful-road-central.”

Seriously. Tissues everywhere. If you can’t carry your own tissue until you reach a bin there’s something seriously wrong with you. If you’re sorting your internal crap out on this trail sort that callous/squeamish shit out first. Yeah maybe it biodegrades over about five years if there’s enough rain. But meantime everyone who comes after you has to contemplate you and your bodily secretions. Stop it. Grrr.

Ok so there are some pretty naïve types here. There were three delightful young American GodJocks last night. One of them passed me earlier today singing hymns beautifully. He’s walking with his imaginary friend. As the rain started I found myself isolated and took a leaf out of his book. It’s amazing how many lyrics I remember from those unhappy mornings at boarding school. “Onward Christian Soldiers!” The poor animals of La Rioja have been regaled with enthusiastic half-remembered marching hymns littered with equally enthusiastic commentary. “And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green NO OF COURSE NOT.” It devolved into showtunes as the rain got heavier and only petered out as i found myself in the suburbs, dripping and wretched, and started walking alongside people again. 150,000 population here. I had no idea it was going to be another big town so soon.

It can’t rain much heavier than it did today. The wind was busy too. If that’s the worst it’s got then I’ve packed well enough. My thermals came into play and I was glad of them. I’m coming to like my highly organised carefully packed sack of everything. I’m starting to value the few little things I carry that aren’t strictly necessary. And I’m especially looking forward to tapas treat night tonight.

I’ve moved from the laundrette to my cheap Airbnb, with a door I can close. Sunday luxury. I’m heading into town now for that tapas and rioja. Wish I could call a friend to join me. But there’s always the inside of my head. And Jesus…

I’m starting to feel like I’ve been solitary too long. Yap yap yap.