Archive for the ‘N. BURGOS REGION’ Category

The Camino next follows the river out of Burgos. So, a snap of the cathedral from the south:

We’re now on the Ruta del Cid, though not for much. It’s the long tourist trail connecting his birthplace just north of Burgos to the lands of his destierro, and to Valencia, where he finally ruled and died.

It’s not long till I’m in countryside, with mainly level walking now. I’m on my own again: Agostino and Manu, lacking the dawdler gene, have bolted ahead at the rate of thirty to forty per day.

Tardajos was my first resting spot. It’s been Celt, it’s been Roman. It was part of the defensive line established by early counts of Castile. I loved it because it was one of the first truly antique villages I’d come to since France. Tardajos wasn’t a mix of old and new, it was old.

Here at the well where I paused to drink, an elderly gentleman insisted on attaching a little Marian medal to my Kathmandu pack. When I told him that a tiny plastic medal held by just a thread would just fall off, he disagreed and insisted that it would hold.

He was right. The little medal is still in place, as I write from the Australian bush.

And by the end of that day, I would need whatever good influences it could invoke.


So it’s on to the meseta, that huge plateau of north-central Spain whose monotony and climatic challenges have always been an indispensable ingredient of the Camino. For a while that day, the meseta merely charmed.

Further along, an eerie experience. The day was windless, the insects had gone for the winter, and there were no people or vehicles to be heard. Just one bird singing, in the perfectly still weather.

The bird stopped singing. I stopped moving. For the first time in my life, or as well as I can remember, I could hear no sound in the daytime. Nothing.

That was the meseta’s first trick. There would be more.


Destination for the day was Hornillos del Camino, which gave me a solid twenty plus kilometres. On reaching the town, which is advertised as having a couple of albergues and other options as well, I found nothing open.

There was a bar for enquiries…closed. A couple of guys chucking roof tiles on to the street were too happy to bark that nothing was open. An older gentleman I met in the street sent me to a place where I could obtain keys and information. It was a demolition site.

I asked a couple more people about accommodation in the town, they seemed impatient, even a touch hostile, as if they’d been asked all this before.

I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 and this was the winter. I could go on enquiring and searching. Or I could head for the next town, more than ten kilometres away…

So I shook the dust of Hornillos from my garments, salted its fields, burnt its houses, slaughtered its first-born, laid a millennial curse on all its generations, and headed off for Hontanas.

Or part of the above.


The weather is holding, the windmills are still, but the air is getting more and more icy.  I start to look across the fields for little stands of trees, in case I have to camp out the night. But that means a long tramp across mud, only to find that the trees are too scraggly and small.

After ten kilometres, I know I’m on the right track, but there’s no sign of a town in the distance. I take comfort from the name of the town, Hontanas. Maybe it’s in a sudden dip or hollow. But how do you hide a whole town?

The sun withdrew its warmth an hour ago. Now the light is fading. And how do you hide a whole town in a dip or hollow? The sun…

And suddenly, in its dip or hollow, like Brigadoon from the mist, Hontanas appears.

In no time at all I’m quaffing sopa de ajo in a warm bar.

And the little plastic medal – o clemens, o pia! – is still dangling pluckily from my pack.


Read Full Post »

…didn’t build these walls.

As far as I know, these stones were laid by order of the first count of Castile, in 884 AD. He’s the same count who’s said to be buried in that little ruin of San Felices, the one we passed before the Montes de Oca.

That’s a couple of centuries before El Cid. Yet when one visits Burgos, one is encouraged to visit “El Cid’s Fortress”. We know he lived in the late eleventh century, and was born near Burgos. He would have spent time here, in the service of his Castilian sovereigns, the first of whom made Burgos the royal seat of both Castile and Leon.

He and his wife, Ximena, have their tombs in Burgos Cathedral…but are their remains there? Probably.

What matters is the legend. The story of a soldier who made his sovereign swear he was innocent of killing his own brother. A general who fought single combats, thus becoming a Campeador, a champion. A popular leader, who like Belisarius, fell victim to the jealousy and insecurity of his sovereign. And the man who reversed the Muslim tide and held Valencia as a Christian city, ruling in his own right.

Historically true? Oh, please!

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, El Cid, has been well served by story. Whether he was a freebooter or truly léal or – which is more likely – a mix of both, it’s the stories that matter. And El Cid has been well served in this regard.

The Poem of El Cid is Spain’s national epic; though the language is a bit hard to follow, it’s clearly Castilian. Verses from the epic are inscribed in stone along the River Arlanzón.

Beau comme Le Cid. As fine as Le Cid. It used to be a common term of praise in France. It referred not to Rodrigo, but to Pierre Corneille’s play, first published in 1636. Concerned with the amorous and family conflicts of El Cid and Ximena, it was an enormous hit, considered an artistic pinnacle, and it made the name of El Cid synonymous with honour and romance for new generations. (To swoon over the actual play, it helps to be 17th century French.)

Just when we were about to forget Rodrigo, Hollywood made one of its best ever spectacles, combining many of the heroic aspects of his life with his romantic problems. Charlton Heston’s Yankee Protestant Cid is probably closer to the actual Visigothic Rodrigo than many Latin peoples would like to think. Yet the real star is the quality spectacle laid on by a well-practiced Hollywood, which had learned how to use every hair on every head of that “cast of thousands”.

And when Spanish people, especially those on the right, express a yearning for ideal leadership, they will cry out for a Cid Campeador. When they feel they have found a champion or political hero, he is Mio Cid Campeador.


Burgos is another great town for a rest day. Its historic centre is largely traffic free, full of architectural and historical interest, the bars and restaurants are thronged. I’ve got a thing about Spain’s regional centres, haven’t I?

And who’s that still directing the traffic near the river?

Feel like arguing with Mio Cid Campeador? Feel lucky? Well do you, punk?

Read Full Post »

You wonder what it’s doing here, between the Mountains of Oca to the east and that enormous stretch of meseta to the west.

Australian cities in places like this usually serve big mining operations. Otherwise, we build our towns for maritime access or as agricultural centres. But Burgos is the scarred bastion of many wars, as well as the hub of perennial overland trade. And it lies on the Camino de Santiago, of course.

It’s seen every war, tugged between Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Castile, Aragon, Leon. Burgos served as capital of Castile for a bit. The Peninsular wars came here, as did the Carlist and Succession conflicts. And it was Franco’s stronghold, so it was briefly a sort of capital again, after 1938.

And near Burgos was born Spain’s national hero. A warrior, of course, he lies, with his famous wife, in Burgos’ cathedral. I like the odd heroic legend, so I won’t bother taking a revisionist view, particularly because it would be just as foggy as the legend in this case. More about that later.

Even in the Roman era, Burgos area was a crossroads. Leaving aside the theory that the Camino existed as a Celtic rite of passage before Christianity, Burgos was a hub of the ancient Ruta de la Lana, or “wool way”, connecting the south with the Bay of Biscay. Stretching things a bit more, maybe when those prehistoric people started to leave their caves at Atapuerca, Burgos with its river and defensive heights was a natural place for human expansion. It was certainly close.

So with development and trade and work in mind, I was happy to do what some pilgrims complain about, and walk with my companions through the extensive poligono, or industrial estate, that leads to the historic centre. Let me not be a prissy avoidnik. A modern industrial smudge on Way of Saint James is a welcome ingredient in the experience, just like the Celtic trinket shops of O Cebreiro or the thundering autopista flanking the trail along the meseta.

Anyway, not only did we strike a particularly good tradies’ cafe for our lunch, but the approach to Burgos had some nice surprises.

But then you enter the casco antiguo, the old city.

And then you see it.

My squeezy little Fuji Finepix won’t do it justice. I may have to follow the example of  KiwiNomad and acquire something more substantial to do justice to the exterior of Burgos Cathedral. It is the most thrilling Gothic exterior I have seen, maybe the most thrilling exterior. As fine as the interior is, it’s the outside that punches the spirit the way Gothic was meant to do.

Happily, further along the Camino, in another great regional city, there is a Gothic interior which spirit-punches just as hard. But we’re not there yet.


Read Full Post »

Saint John of Ortega was another of those chop-wood-carry-water saints like his friend, Domingo de la Calzada. It’s said that the two local boys worked together on the church and monastery that bear John’s name: the ravishing San Juan de Ortega. It was closed for the season when Agostino and I wanted to look inside. So a couple of snaps of its lovely, clean exterior on a radiant day. Ahhh…

Here we were joined by a new friend, Camino-style. His name was Manu, and he’d simply walked out of his front door somewhere in Spain – Zaragoza, I think – and become a pilgrim. He’d lost girlfriend and job, and walked because he was finding it hard to rest or do anything else but walk. A heavy chest infection, alarming to me, less so to Agostino, was not stopping Manu. People can find friends and acceptance so quickly on the Camino. Mind you, a pilgrim who can walk through the snows of Navarre and can then face a gale or furnace on the meseta is likely to have a little character. Some grit, as it were. (If that sounds like implied self-praise, remember that I go slower and softer than any other pilgrim I’ve encountered.) Manu was problem-ridden and close to breakdown. But he was one of us.

Over and over on the track, I found myself hanging out happily with my opposites. My last acquaintance, at Fisterra, was a bearded French sorcerer. Hardly my type, but he was a gritty bearded French sorcerer. One of us.

It’s just the Camino, okay?


A slight descent from the Montes de Oca brings one to Atapuerca. My friends weren’t too keen to linger, so I only got glimpses of the area containing the earliest known European dwellings, not just of humans but of hominids. The karst country around Atapuerca offered many caves which were ideal for people and sort-of people to go about their business. The people have been dated back about 350,000, the hominids, Neanderthal predecessors, to between 800,000 and 1.2 million years!

Read Full Post »

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.

Ciao, Agostino!

Read Full Post »

Spain’s oldest documented market-fair was conceded to Belorado by a King of Aragon who was top-dog for a while in the early twelfth century. I’m guessing it was first held here, near the Church of Santa Maria and the once thriving judería, or Jewish quarter.

The town, often favoured in its early days, was granted a citadel which doubled as a royal wedding present to none other than Rodrigo Diáz de Vivar…El Cid! That’s a remnant of the fortifications looming behind the church. Between citadel and church are some caves associated with local saints. I should have gone exploring, but my mind, as ever, was drifting to food as I reached Belorado.

A closer look at the citadel.

A fine, sweeping Plaza Mayor, where the market is now held.

In the fourteenth century, Belorado sided with Pedro the Cruel, who was favourable to the town, and especially to its Jewish population. After Pedro’s defeat and death, the new dynasty took a contrary view. Taxes and humiliations, especially for the Jews, meant certain decline – though Simon Ruiz Embito, the great merchant banker, was born here in the sixteenth century, probably of a family of conversos.

So, with the deliberate withering of  Belorado, Spain again displayed its historical lose-lose approach to Jews, and to the emergence of a middle class.


Out on the main road, there are numerous leathergoods businesses. Not practical wear for pilgrims, but the prices and quality reflect the country’s reputation for artisanship in leather. I wonder if tanneries lined the river here in centuries past.

The most intriguing sight of all comes after leaving the town, on the road to Tosantos. There are more caves and a chapel integrated with the cave system. Eight hundred years ago a lady hermit lived here, and the chapel bears the name Virgén de la Peña.

Should have explored more, but I was probably thinking about…well, you know…

Read Full Post »