Hold that thought of caves. There are many in the region, and some have taken on a very special importance. But we’ll come to that after we cross a mountain range, the last up-and-down till we reach the other side of Castile.
Just below those mountains, the Montes de Oca, we come to a truly ancient relic of a monastery: San Felices de Oca. This is at least ninth century, and there is talk that the founder of the region’s capital, Burgos, is buried here.
Look close and you can see that this was not just pre-Romanesque. There are fragments of what seems to be classical Roman masonry.
Before ascending the mountains, I spent the night in Villafranca just at their base. It’s a wobbly little Spanish town…
…with a striking and elegant church tower.
Ask at the first bar as you enter the town if you want a particularly good and inexpensive pension for the night. The señorita who escorted me to the casa rural just next to the bar was fairly bubbling, having spent a free morning roaming on the mountain above her town.
Next day, though I’d felt listless over the preceding short and flat stages, the mountain revived me. My body is funny that way: seems to need uphills.
This is a long but not radical ascent.
Towards the top, a memorial to execution victims of the civil war. An inscription translates: “Their death was not useless, their execution was.”
Reversing the usual formula, the history of the Spanish Civil War has been written more by the losers. In my youth, a novel or film on the subject always conferred a tragic romance on the Republican struggle. It was the original celebrity cause; and that cause was, at least, a constitutional one.
Yet I find it hard to value the aims of either side in the conflict. And how does one define a “side”? How many reasonable folk found themselves pressed to one side or the other simply because they were church-goers or moderate members of a labour movement? One Basque is Republican through liberal ideals, his Carlist neighbour is Nationalist from suspicion of the centralising tendencies of the Left. That’s why civil wars are the worst.
While I’d have to say that Franco was indeed a conservative, unlike his fascist counterparts elsewhere, his stifling traditionalism was an unlovely thing. In the same era, Europe was fortunate to find great Catholic conservative leaders in De Gasperi, Schuman and Adenauer. Sadly, the stock of such men is tiny.
We shudder knowing what Franco did to gain power, we shudder a bit less knowing what he did with that power. We don’t know what La Pasionaria and her like would have done. I’m thinking maybe the Bad Guys won…and the Even Worse Guys lost.
There was a lot of snow in Europe, but not so much in Spain this winter. Ascending the Montes de Oca, I did move above the snowline. Some of it was picturesque crust, much of it became ice, and could well have caused an accident. Progress was slow in parts, though the country became open and level.
After days of solitary walking, I was here joined by an Italian who would swiftly become one of those Camino acquaintances: you know each other for a day or two, and it feels like you were at the same primary school. He was a man who spent all his free time on pilgrimage, after attending to family, acting as hospitalero, charity volunteer in Peru, and active member of the Italian confraternity of Saint James. Curiously, he did not seem religious.
No dawdler, I can assure you, and a veteran of most pilgrim routes. He’s been brewing a plan for Rome-Jerusalem, and I don’t doubt he’ll get there. But my new companion slowed a little for me, and we were able to enjoy San Juan de Ortega together.