Archive for the ‘M. THE RIOJA’ Category

After Santo Domingo, the wine country ends, and the land is flatter, more bare.

Heading to Belorado, the pilgrim enters Castile, and the province of Burgos.

Something that made me pause was this bicentennial marker, reminding the traveller that the remains of four hundred patriots lie in these fields. The Peninsular War against Napoleon was, for the Spanish, their War of Independence.

One needs to recognise that Spain, after some hesitation, tried to collaborate with Napoleon in a carve-up of Portugal. The Spanish let the French in by the front door. Just as it’s not fashionable to recall that both Russia and Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and then colluded for the first two years of WWII, similarly, Spain and France were initial collaborators in France’s entry into Iberia. Portugal had a nice fleet and a juicy empire, things very much to Spain’s taste. But Napoleon and his revolutionary liberalism were initially such a hit with the Spanish population, that he soon turned on his allies. The Emperor presumed upon the divisiveness of Spain’s races and regions as well as the crappiness of its old monarchy.

What he didn’t grasp till too late is the Spanish character. Those divisive and separatist Iberians are divided and separate for a reason. Spain’s history was never about ideals and ideas, but about impulsive struggle against the mere scent of intrusion. It started in the Asturias with a sudden and brutal rebellion against French rule, and spread almost immediately across Spain. Napoleon had managed to unite Spain…against Napoleon.

Spain’s independence, such as it was to be, would take a while. Sudden political change left it unbalanced. Napoleon was able to usher masses of experienced forces into the struggle, and it would take four or five years, and certain problems in Russia, before the allies succeeded.

Well, independence left Spain free to divide and have its own wars again, especially those weird Carlist wars. But there’s no doubting the fury and unrelenting courage of its people in a war where the term guerilla came to prominence. Spain’s a bad place to stage a fight.

Goya knew.


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The approach to Santo Domingo de la Calzada looks so straightforward now.

It was not always so. A mere thousand years back, the track was terrible and there was no accommodation. A local boy called Domingo, who wanted badly to be a Benedictine but lacked qualifications, became a hermit instead. He was not, however, just sulking in the woods. He made himself so useful to his bishop that he was finally ordained a priest.

Domingo now decided to use his muscles and bush sense for pious purposes. He chopped, cleared, gravelled, paved and built to improve this part of the Camino, till his efforts caught the eye of the Castilian monarch. Always happy to keep the Rioja Castile-friendly, King Alfonso approved the building of a church, then some houses sprouted around it.

After his death, Domingo was buried in his own church, and miracles began to occur: blindness cured, demons expelled, that sort of thing.

Eventually, Domingo was made a saint, and his church evolved to a cathedral. Here it is.


My father was very close to my two nieces. When he died, I tried to explain his passing to the younger niece as a transition to a place called the Beer River. It’s a fizzy river, warm for swimming, cold for drinking. In the Beer River, there are prawns swarming, already cooked and peeled, but nonetheless alive. The prawns enjoy being eaten. My father, as he sips beer from the river, scoops up the odd prawn for a snack…

And one day we will all join him by the Beer River.

I think my story has been forgotten by my niece, but it’s now in my head forever. It is a ridiculous and amusing fib which satisfies me greatly.

And all the books and poems I like are amusing fibs which satisfy greatly. I may talk a little about why I like them, but it is mostly just blundering talk. Art and literature are like the Camino itself: I don’t really know how and why, and the effort of knowing and explaining dilutes the experience.

Why am I saying all this?

Because Santo Domingo de la Calzada is the setting for a tale that is repeated with variations by thousands, possibly millions of pilgrims, as well as by people in the Rioja and beyond. Nobody takes it seriously, yet, if ever there was an amusing fib which satisfies beyond understanding, it is the Tale of the Cock and Hen.

You haven’t heard it? Just do a search on the web and you’ll find dozens of versions. Or talk to any pilgrim.

A hen and rooster are often kept caged in the cathedral, but the place was closed when I passed.

The most famous pastry of the town is the ahorcadito, or hanged man, which is a reference to the legend. And, of course, they bake lots of these, called Milagros del Santo, or Miracles of the Saint:

The tale? You want my version?

I tend to rush stories, and nearly always cut them off before the end with: “You can guess the rest.” But here goes.

A German couple and their lusty young son were passing through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on pilgrimage. At the inn where they stayed, the son was approached amorously by one of the maids. He rejected her advances. If you are post-modern or whatever, you’ll deduce that the young man was gay or impotent. A hard-headed revisionist might claim that the maid was less than appealing, because that’s what sex-on-a-plate is like in real life. But I say the boy was a virtuous pilgrim, and there’s an end to it!

The spiteful maid concealed some of the inn’s silverware in the boy’s luggage. When the family was departing the next morning, she denounced him to the authorities, who searched his stuff and found the objects presumed stolen.

Rather than going through some dreary counselling or community service rigmarole, the authorities promptly hanged the youth and, as was the custom, left his body hanging on the gibbet.

The grieving parents could do nothing but piously continue their pilgrimage to Santiago.

Now, in the fourteenth century, Ryan Air services were limited to say the least. If you walked to Santiago, you walked back. So it was that the two Germans passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada some months later. They were at first dismayed to see the body of their son still hanging on the gibbet. Dismay then became wonder when the body spoke to them, explaining that he was still alive, because Santo Domingo – or was it Saint James? – had been supporting his legs.

The parents rushed round to see the governor, who was dining on two birds at the time. They told him of the marvel they had witnessed and begged him to release their son. The governor paused his eating and said:  “Your son is as alive as this hen and this rooster upon which I am dining. And I will only release your son when this hen and this rooster regrow their feathers and fly up from my plate.”

And you really can guess the rest!

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Can anybody come out to play?

So many pilgrims remark on the brand new ghost town of Ciriñuela. Golf course and club, elaborate sports complex, numerous apartments and terraced houses. Just a couple of parked cars…

And no people.

This is Spain in la crisis. A whole new town, destined to be some kind of retirement oasis, or maybe a dormitory suburb for…for Burgos? Maybe the English were keen when the pound was strong? Improve your swing among the vines of the Rioja?


Apart from Ciriñuela, the hike from Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada is scenic, through country that still has some shape to it, though it’s starting to look like meseta in parts.

Some curiosities along the track. A hops industry.

Outside Azofra, a pilgrim town since the twelfth century at least, is a special waymarker called a picota. It may also have been the spot where lawbreakers were taken for punishment or execution. On a winter’s morning, it certainly has a penal look.

Some of the action of Spain’s second national epic, of much less interest than the Poem of the Cid, occurs in towns around here. Authored by a grateful monk in the twelfth century, it concerns the life of Fernán González, a tenth century count of Castile…and generous patron of monasteries. It serves the purpose of legitimising Visigothic Castile as Spain’s political and spiritual centre. Those Moors and Navarese are put in their place, as is the king of Leon. If there’s a lesson in any of this, it’s to look after the journalists of your era. Louis IX looked after the guys who could write about him, now he’s a saint. Charles Martel, saviour of Europe, was rotten to the monks and has had nothing but bad PR since. As Sir Les Patterson says: “Sling the journos!”

Well, the town we come to next is the scene of a tale far more interesting than Fernán’s. It still ruffles feathers.

Really. Feathers!

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On the approach to Nájera, we first pass by the German version of a Spanish poem written further along on the same wall. (It was the original work of a priest, Eugenio Garibay Baños.) I rather like it. Not too deep-and-cheesy at all, it lists all the major attractions of the Way, and ends by saying that we don’t know the reason for any of it…but the Big Guy does. Seems about right.

Nájera doesn’t seem like a big town from the map in my Miam Miam Dodo. In fact, it’s substantial, with most services and a lovely old quarter across the river. Behind this quarter is a kind of many-pored cerro or cliff-face which explains the town’s historic defensive role, as well as its bird population. To my surprise, pigeon shooting was occurring before sunset, very close in to the town. I thought only Queenslanders behaved like that!

In the tenth century, when Pamplona fell to the Muslims, the Christian sovereign transferred his seat to Nájera. Hence there is a royal monastery and episcopal seat, though most of it was constructed much later in the fifteenth century. By that time, Nájera was part of Castile, and the Castilian monarch was careful to grant it the apelativo Most Noble and Most Loyal…which was his way of saying: You’re not Navarre any more!

Like another former capital, Lectoure, which we passed along the Le Puy route, it’s got the buzz of a city in small town format. I did not take a rest day in Nájera – not like me, I know! – but next time I surely will.

Bacalao in the open air market.

This, alone, is grounds for a rest day!

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Heading out of Navarrete, you know it’s the Rioja: snowy hills, with vines on the slopes and flats. Does any region in the world have such a concentration of wine grapes?

Along the track, a lovely Romanesque portal now serves as entry to the cemetery.

When Pedro the Cruel lost his crown of Castile to his bastard brother, he sought help from England’s warrior-prince, Edward. That famous battle of Nájera – when the Hundred Years War did an invitation bout in Spain – was fought closer in to Navarrete. Was it here that those Anglo-Gascons found some high ground for their victory?

Or was it here?

After the big win, Pedro the Cruel  – though in some ways an enlightened type – proceeded to earn his nickname amongst the people of Nájera. Typically of the Hundred Years War, honour would alternate with baseness: Pedro and his chivalry-freak ally, the Black Prince, quarrelled over money. Pedro had done a deal with the Prince for help in winning back his throne of Castile…then told his ally the check was in the mail.

The Black Prince left Spain in a huff, and the fight for the crown of Castile started again, fatally for Pedro.

So pay those bills!


Before Nájera, a monument to Roland. It’s a stone hut shaped like a Frankish helmet, and commemorates Roland’s fight with the giant Ferragut, nearby at Alesón.

The period between Charlemagne and Edward, the Black Prince, is almost as long as that between Edward and the modern pilgrim. It’s an old track, isn’t it?

Here’s the story.

Charlemagne and his paladins were in the neighbourhood when word got out that a Syrian giant was hanging about the town of Alesón. A muslim Syrian giant!

One after the other, the paladins challenged Ferragut the Giant to single combat. All Ferragut had to do was pick up his opponents and carry them into the local jail. (Ransom value of a paladin was probably the size of a Leo Messi or Ronaldo contract.)

Finally it was Roland’s turn to face Ferragut, and through various brutal turns, involving deception, prayers and cruelty to horses, the fight was stalemated. A truce was called for the night, then, after a big day’s combat, another truce for the second night. Roland chivalrously placed a stone pillow under the giant’s head while he slept.

When the giant had rested enough, Roland engaged him in ecumenical discussion, doing his best to explain such things as the Trinity and Immaculate Conception. Ferragut did his best to understand, and, in return, volunteered the information that he could only be killed by a stab to the navel.

It was decided that whoever won the next fight had the best god…or triple god, since Ferragut just couldn’t get with the Trinity thing.

Of course, the outcome was a victory for Roland, by a stab to the navel, and…

…and I don’t know what else to say!

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Getting out of Logroño is a bit troublesome, since waymarking often dies away in such urbanisations and is replaced by proud road shields announcing the Camino as patrimony rather than indicating exact direction.

But a real delight awaits the pilgrim emerging from the city: the Park of the Grajera, with a very long promenade between hills and flanked in parts by wetland. The locals themselves use it heavily for strolls, biking, running. In another part of the complex is a very large golf course, and there are also other recreation and refeshment facilities.

The ducks love the Grajera, and so do I. Every town should have this.

And in case you forget that it’s a Spanish park…


A short stage to Navarrete, to help me recover from rosquilla overdose.

Bleak hills, skeletal trees and bare vines along the way.

On the outskirts of Navarrete, yet another reminder of the scale of pilgrimage in past times: the remains of the Hospital and Albergue of St. John d’Acre. (To the bubble writer who defaced this monument, let me say that you have indeed achieved a kind of immortality…as a wanker.)

Close to here was fought that famous battle of the Hundred Years War, when The Black Prince and John of Gaunt, allied with Pedro the Cruel, defeated the French-Castilian army commanded by the illustrious Du Guesclin, who was too smart to be confident of the win, but had to fight. It was a typical battle and victory of the era: expensive and pointless.

Navarrete has a few handsome features. I liked this arcade…but I’m biased when it comes to arcades and cloisters.

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There’s a skimpy forest on the way out of Viana and out of Navarre. It just looks like a bad haircut on its small nob of ground, but enjoy it. As you cross through the vines of the Rioja then pass on to the meseta you won’t be seeing many more trees.

Maybe this is a good point at which to explain my own way of getting along. Excuse the frequent use of the first person – though, since the Obama autobiography, the smart set say it’s now a stylistic merit, much less evasive than all those indefinite and passive constructions.

So many accounts of the Camino concern fatigue and difficulty, physical suffering, hard nights in crowded albergues, tough schedules…before a triumphant, exhilarating conclusion in Santiago.

Back when there was little choice but to do big miles and overcome pain and exhaustion, pilgrims did it very hard. I understand the desire of many people to reproduce a little of that spirit. One couple I encountered at dinner on the Camino Portugues showed me an extract from the John Brierley guide where the author collapses at the foot of a crucifix, arms outstretched as if he himself were crucified by fatigue. When asked for my opinion of the extract, I could only shrug and shovel another mouthful of food.

It’s not that I don’t get it, or that I don’t approve of it. I just don’t do it. It’s like smoking or growing face hair. It just never occurs to me to do it.

I travel in cool weather because I can’t handle heat and crowds. Being what you might call a sociable solitary, I love walking, chatting and eating with people, but can’t handle dormitory conditions and, above all, snoring. I’m too embarrassed to make my own noises at night in shared accommodation. I don’t like leaving early because I’m not madrugador by nature and because I don’t have far to go each day.

I don’t get all that tired, because I rest a lot and eat a lot. I only carry extra weight so I can have extra comforts at night and on waking…especially many varieties of tea prepared on my trusty Trangia Mini.

I wear oversize shoes with Superfeet insoles, silk liners which are kept a little greasy, and thick hikers. Saves me the pain of blisters and the trouble of applying lotions.

I leave Australia for around ninety days. I thus have time for everything, including double rest days, and even staggered triples (eg two rest days in Ponferrada, then two in Cacabeles, just a few kilometres away.)

The only proviso: it helps to be a bit fit and capable of covering thirty kilometres, even if you never do it. The need arose for me twice between Pamplona and Santiago, as I’ll describe further on.

I mostly stay in modest hotels and pensions, though I had a couple of truly joyful nights in albergues which I’ll also describe, along with their wonderful hospitaleros, who are the key to a good stay. If only the human species was not given to snoring, I’d love to do more albergues, eat improvised dinners and engage in silly before-bed talk about Templar curses or the Mayan calendar. But people snore!

When I get to Santiago, I don’t feel much, and don’t expect to feel much. Why would I? I’ve been fairly loafing.

But I am of good cheer.

So, that’s how I walk my Camino.


Today we leave Navarre and enter the Rioja, a name instantly associated with wine. Indeed, it is carpeted with vines, but the first striking sight along the Camino in this region is its capital, Logroño.

The regional centres of Spain tend to be fun. Just the right size, and thronged with bar-goers and promenaders of all ages. My favourite of all is Pontevedra, along the Camino Portugues, but Logroño will do nicely for a rest and some gorging.

It’s on the Ebro, spanned by a famous stone bridge, it’s full of handsome architecture…and it’s a place for serious eating. Taperias and restaurants are full even in winter, and there is at least one pulperia, a forestaste of Galicia.

My favourite feature is experienced on leaving the city along the Camino. For now, here’s a photo gallery, which includes the famous rosquillas, donuts with an odd aniseed icing for which I acquired a taste.

Replicas of The Burghers of Calais were on display in the plaza outside the cathedral. I feel it’s a distortion or false economy to scatter the figures about the place, rather than group them as intended.

Still, some Rodins in the winter drizzle were a fine sight.

There was also a replica of The Thinker, keeping his distance from those smelly losers surrendering their city.

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