Cruz de Ferro – a poignant moment

As the sun came up beneath an overcast sky, we set off from Rabanal del Camino en route to Cruz de Ferro.

Rabanal del Camino

The track mostly followed the road, and at one point we heard an extraordinary noise, like the breathing of a mechanical dragon or perhaps an ancient Bolton and Watt steam engine. What appeared was a strange white mad-max-style vehicle driven by two blokes in hi-vis vests as the machine drove down the centre of the road applying bursts of paint to form the dashed white centre line. Then for several hundred metres, we could smell only the paint.

Line painter

Behind came a slow van that stopped periodically to see how quickly the paint was drying. I tried to imagine the life of a Spanish council worker whose sole job was to just to watch paint drying. I hoped he was a budding philosopher, or perhaps a popular singer by night.

The rocks on the path interrupted my reverie and I was reminded of the one in my pocket, and thought solemnly about the Cruz de Ferro and what it meant for me.

There was a wooden cross at the entrance to Foncebadon – on it was a sign in four languages asking people not to place rocks on it. Perhaps some people have been mistaking it for the Cruz de Ferro.

Foncebadon

At Foncebadon we stopped for eggs on toast and coffee – protein to sustain us for a long day.

The town was largely derelict aside from a couple of Albergues – one claiming to be a Druid Albergue. But its fortunes have been linked to the Camino since at least the C12th. It had its own pilgrim hospital, hospice and church built by the hermit Gaucelmo. The ruins of these are still visible as you leave the village. After shrinking to its last two inhabitants, Foncebadon is experiencing something of a revival thanks entirely to the resurgence of the Camino in recent years.

Foncebadon

We walked on. At one point someone had strung a rope across the path with many smaller ropes dangling down like a giant fly curtain. I wryly thought they were trying to keep the flies from reaching the high country – it was more likely to discourage wayward cows.

Path to Cruz de Ferro

At length, the Cruz de Ferro came into view. We were beaten by a large contingent of Italian cyclists, who spent their time noisily trying to take selfies or posing for group ‘victory’ shots. They carried on despite others trying to have a solemn moment.

The tradition of the rock dates back in history, and there are differing versions of how the ritual began. Essentially the idea is that you bring a rock from home, to symbolise the burden of your sins or your psychological burden. You would carry it on the Camino as a reminder of your purpose, and it would be your Camino burden. You would then place your rock or significant object at the foot of the cross to symbolise unburdening yourself from your past transgressions.

Cruz de Ferro

I took my chance during a lull, and said a short silent prayer (not the one scripted for the Martin Sheen movie). Placing the rock (my Camino burden) at Cruz de Ferro was a poignant and personal moment, and just as I had placed the rock, I had a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a grinning Italian cyclist wanting me to take his photo. With a Zen-like realisation, I knew that that too was a Camino lesson.

Cruz de Ferro

I resisted the urge to crush their phone beneath a large rock, then shrugged. It’s their Camino too, whatever meaning this place has for them. So I smiled and took their photo and wished them a ‘Buen Camino’ – and meant it.

The Camino is different for everyone and in a way I was grateful to be distracted from my burden – after all, hadn’t I just let it go at the foot of the cross?

It was a strange and slightly surreal moment, but I did feel lighter for it, and so for me, it was a timely reminder not to dwell on the past when there are people in the present who need me – if only to take their souvenir ‘selfie’.

The cross is said to have been erected on the site of a Roman altar to the god Mercury, or perhaps a place of early Celtic worship – no-one really knows. The iron cross was erected in the 11th century by Gaucelmo, who was the abbot and founder of the monastery at Foncebadon. The current cross is a replica of the original now held in the pilgrim’s museum at Astorga. Some say the cross may originally have been erected to mark the path in Winter when the snow is deep. Whatever its origin, it is today a place of contemplation and a chance for pilgrims to pause and look within themselves and consider the purpose of their own Camino.

A chapel dedicated to St James was built in the Holy Year of 1982. A pilgrim sat in its shade to take a moment of reflection, perhaps waiting for the Italian peleton to resume their ride.

Chapel of St James

I also took a look around and found that a human sundial had been erected – it wasn’t in my guide – but I thought it a good way for people to consider their place in time and space by making them the gnomon or shadow pointer in a large sundial.

Cruz de Ferro sundial

There were instructions in English – although, with complete cloud cover and a heavy mist, it was difficult to get a proper shadow. The instructions stated:

  1. Place you in the central rectangle, put your heels on the centre line and move you more to the north or south depending on the month. The respective times for each 12 months of the year are recorded in the central rectangle. Your shadow will indicate in this way the true solar time (H.S.V.) Look Fig 1.

  2. To know the official time you should do the followin[sic] thing: add 1 hour in winter and 2 in summer. In addition, it is necessary to add the value of the equation M of the figure 2 (which is indicated in minutes).

We turned and continued on our way, taking in the breathtaking views before the descent. But perhaps that is enough for one post…

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On to Villamayor del Rio – and some thoughts on the Camino

The air was thick, stuffy and heavy with humanity as I woke around 0230am. 26 bunks, all full, and only two small windows slightly ajar. There was no air movement. I forced myself to settle in a bid to conform to the 07.00am rule. Several people snored, making for quite a pilgrim chorus.

At 04.00am the first phone alarm went. Gradually the sounds of creaks and slithering sleeping bags trying to slip from view were followed by successive light-wedges as one-by-one the pilgrims began to bump out their bags and prepare for early departure. At 06.00am we did the same.

dawn pilgrim

Soon we set off at a good pace, sticks clacking against the pavement, we headed out of town. As the street lamps stopped we set our headlamps and went in search of Camino arrows to guide our way.

We followed one path as indicated and soon came to a junction with no markers. We re-traced our steps back to the bridge and found our correct diversion on a narrow path that led down beside the bridge and away from the road.

Sunrise, as I looked back at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, was amazing. We stopped. Soon we encountered a cross with a couple of benches where we rested for a few minutes.

Cruz de los Valiantes

There was a sign:

Cruz de los Valientes
Esta cruz recuerda una disputa medieval entre Santo Domingo de la Calzada y Grañón por la propiedad de una dehesa. Hoy, olvidadas esas antiguas demandes, hermana a ambas localidades.”

The English translation comes out something like:

Cross of the Braves
This cross recalls a medieval dispute between Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón for the ownership of a pasture. Today, forgotten those old ladies, sister to both localities.

The terrain was mostly fine gravel path and some road patches as we wound our way through rolling hay fields.

rolling farmland

On the underpass to a freeway there were giant Camino shell symbols.

Camino underpass

At Grañon we stopped for breakfast and coffee in a bar opposite the church – there was a guitar and two chairs raised on a platform as though for regular music sessions. Pretty sure this is the place our Camino friend Bernadette from Australia had told us about.

Grañon

Grañon

 

Redecilla del Camino was next, and as we entered the town we noticed an old cross on a bollard – it turned out to be the judicial marker for the town – marking the land boundary at the start of the main street.

Redecilla del Camino

The church – Iglesia de la Vergen de la Calle – proved fascinating. The C17th-C18th rococo decorations were quite spectacular

Iglesia de la Vergen de la Calle

But there was more. Off to one side near the entrance was a C10th baptismal font – something many people will have just walked past as it was in an alcove off to one side. But it was quite an extraordinary piece! It is said that Saint  Dominic (Santo Domingo de la Calzada) was baptised here in this exact font.

Iglesia de la Vergen de la Calle

And the organ was a triumph of Art Nouveau design

Iglesia de la Vergen de la Calle

Soon, however, it was time to move on. The trail markers often held discarded shoes or boots – too often with major name labels, like Puma or Adidas. In some cases it was wear, or they caused blisters…

shoe marker

In other cases the sole had become delaminated from the shoe or boot, making an otherwise good boot unwearable.

boots

We stopped at a rest area in Viloria de la Rioja for some lunch – a bocadillo and some fruit.

Viloria de la Rioja

While there, a group of French pilgrims arrived, looking around for a table. I welcomed them in my basic French and they came over to join us. The French pilgrims often keep to themselves, but meeting them part way in their language quickly breaks down the barriers, and they were soon offering to share their food and wine with us, before we parted company and headed on through the village.

Viloria de la Rioja

Then it was on to Villamayor del Rio, just 50km from Burgos. It lies on the Velorio River – hence its name Mansion on the River – from an ancient tradition which celebrates the river as a source of good fortune. Perhaps an ancient pagan tradition as life-giver.

On the approach we noticed caves in the cliffs behind – perhaps a hermitage – they certainly looked as though they had been occupied at some point, hundreds of years ago.

Villamayor del Rio

We found an albergue off to the side of the town, and we headed over to claim a bed, before walking back into the town for dinner, then returning to rest.

Villamayor del Rio

There is time to think on the Camino, and we discussed how the Camino might have changed us. What lessons have we learned thus far?

Firstly, each day brings something special. It may be the birds and wildlife, the architecture or the views. Above all, it is  the small things – the little kindnesses, the simplicity of life on the Camino, and how we weigh ourselves down with stuff, both physical and mental. But most of all, the people, the sense of community on the road. I wonder if the Camino simply attracts a particular kind of person – altruistic, thoughtful, and with a taste for vino tinto…

The Camino is a social leveller – everyone is there with a backpack, two changes of lightweight quick-dry clothing and nothing extraneous – perhaps with the exception of the woman bringing her crochet and an extra blanket, or the person with over a kilo of medicines for all contingencies – but aside from that, there is no room for status markers, so each person encounters each other at the most basic level.

One learns that modern life is cluttered with stuff, and the reality is that we don’t need much stuff. A roof, food, good company and a life of the mind. Oh yeah, and a couple of changes of clothes. Modern living is full of things. And our stuff reflects our state of mind – perhaps some of it is noise to dampen the pace of modern living, but whether your stuff is organised or messy, the Camino reminds us that most of it is just clutter. There is something quite liberating about that.

Walk, eat, sleep, repeat. It is the rhythm of the Camino.

Sometimes we were criticised for carrying a camera, an ipad and even a smart phone. I can see what they were getting at. Some people cannot leave work at work, and so they are not on the Camino when they are on the Camino. But I think that such technology can be used appropriately to enrich and enhance the experience of the present.

The camera taught me to see things I would never previously have noticed – including the spectacular sunrises. The ipad enabled me to record much of the experience for future reference, and to enable others back home to share something of the experience – and perhaps inspire others to undertake such an adventure.

As for the phone – it proved indispensible for booking accommodation, for checking the weather, and to reassure us that we were on the path, or to guide us gently back to the Way. All of which was about being more, not less, present on the Camino.

But of course everyone will have their own view and that is what this process is all about. We all walk our own Camino.

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INDEX – If you wish to follow our journey from the beginning, or jump in to any of the Camino posts,
here is a link to the index page – which can also be found in the navigation bar at the top of this blog

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Logroño – city of farewells

We arose late to a quick non-breakfast at the Albergue and left at 0800am. The weather was kind – overcast and not too hot.

Dawn

 

Second breakfast was in a picnic area outside the Ermita de la Trinidad de Cuevas beneath a grove of trees. The hermitage was built on the site of an early pilgrim hospice run by the Trinitarian nuns. Then we headed up the path through low meadows – reputed to be notorious for witches’ covens here in the 16th century. It seems they had good taste and picked all the most picturesque spots! I suspect the rich soil provided a good variety of medicinal herbs, but between them and the Gypsies, one could easily envisage an earlier time when people were more superstitious and had less grasp of the scientific basis for traditional herbal medicines. This, with a profound suspicion of strangers, could well have led to tales of witchcraft and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition.

Ermita vergen de la cueva

We didn’t find witches, but we did notice the Romany Gypsy encampment off the side of the path. A dog came over to investigate us, but obviously found us non-threatening and uninteresting. That said, we decided not to hang around for too long, and put some distance between us and the camp.

near Logrono

We passed vineyards as the path took us through a rolling landscape. At times we were on a well made fine gravel path, at times next to a busy road. We could see towns in the distance.

Logrono

Soon, we found ourselves passing through what appeared to be a well-maintained park, where we rested on a bench, and found a water fountain.

water fountain

Ahead lay stairs at the top of which was a pilgrim information office – a tourism advice bureau – where we found a leaflet about accommodation and a map. And we arrived in the old part of Logroño around 11.30 – we had made good time.

Logroño – the name rolls around the tongue like the aftertaste of olive oil, or a well-rounded wine from La Rioja. It begins at the tip of the tongue, then to the back of the tongue for the ‘g’, on to the front to roll the ‘r’, then settles in the middle of the tongue for the ‘nyo’ sound. It really fills the mouth like a good paella.

Logrono

We met up with Camino friends, and arranged to meet up later. Then set off to find our accommodation at a hostel, before heading back to the main square.

There we found a trash-and-treasure/car boot sale market and some street performers – some doing a kind of morris dancing cross-over with breakdance. The sticks looked lethal, and the dancers took turns into and out of the formations – it was quite mesmerising and very entertaining.

Later we met up with Jack and Dekel again and had a great discussion about science fiction. We had a great discussion, well into the late evening. We are conscious that we are moving almost half the speed of most other pilgrims – not a concern yet but it means our community is moving on. Today we became the final tail-end Charlies of our Camino companions. It is a strange feeling knowing that those with whom we’ve had deep conversations over the past few days have left and we are unlikely ever to see them again.

The cathedral bells rang out across the square – it seems we are never far from the bells, the bells…

It is clear that we are entering a more prosperous part of Spain – La Rioja – and Logroño is definitely more prosperous than Pamplona, which is in Basque country. La Rioja is one of Spain’s prime wine-growing districts and the quality of the local wine has improved markedly!

We decided on a rest day and a chance to reduce the weight in our packs. We laid out all our absolutely essential items and found almost 2kg each of absolute essentials that we actually could do without quite happily. The local Correo (post office) was happy to post our 3.9kg box to Santiago for a modest fee.

Thus lightened, we now hope to be in better shape to make more ground with our packs – but we will still not push too hard as there is still 630km to go and we intend to make it all the way.

Off to Ventosa tomorrow – about 20km with lighter packs, now down below 8kg each including water and camera. We’ll see how we go.

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INDEX – If you wish to follow our journey from the beginning, or jump in to any of the Camino posts,
here is a link to the index page – which can also be found in the navigation bar at the top of this blog

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