Archive for the ‘O. MESETA’ Category

Leaving León, the pilgrim notes small changes in the landscape. The mountains across the flats are closer, there are scatterings of trees, more shape to the land.

The first towns out of León have some of the most attractive names. Virgen del Camino conjures a touch of medieval romance. Though the legend of an apparition is attached to the town, it’s mostly a modern strip flanking the N120, with the AP71 humming not far away. Its main landmark seems to be the modernist basilica begun in the late 1950’s.

Ah, the era that popularised the muumuu dress and pineapple fritters! I was there!


Along the N120, I had lunch at a bar which was quickly transformed to an organised card game after I was asked to move my plate and glass to a corner of the room. Every table was needed. No money touched those tables, and, unlike tobacco, cards don’t emit any giveaway smoke for the nostrils of any prying gov’mint men.

Animals outside of sheds and feedlots are a rarity in Spain. At last, a glimpse of livestock:

These winter tubers were being harvested in enormous quantities.

An interesting architectural feature of the trail to Astorga are the ornate silos of the region. This was probably the most striking, but there were others.

Something else that struck me was a certain freedom and eccentricity in the design of private dwellings. People did this sort of thing in new Sydney suburbs in the post-war years, enraptured by the idea of having their own cheap land to do as they liked.

This sort of suburban-frontier expression is probably a healthy thing. I don’t know why.

An old and renowned structure of these parts is the Puente de Orbigo, a bridge of extreme length which once had to span a much greater body of water. It leads to the old pilgrim town of Hospital de Orbigo, where the Knights of St. John had a major complex.

The thirteenth century bridge was scaffolded for extensive renovation when I crossed it. Who could complain?

Al-Mansur, the greatest of the Andalusian potentates, carried away the bells of Santiago de Compostela after sacking the city in 997. He took them across the previous bridge on this site on his way home to Cordoba. That’s what they say. Nobody knows why he left the tomb of James intact; some say their own fire held back the Muslim troops. (But we know who really stopped those Moors, don’t we?)

On the other side of Orbigo, I was tempted, for obvious reasons, to stay the night at this roadhouse.

Just tempted.


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The old kingdom’s device indeed displays a león, a lion, but its name means “legion”. Not a natural defensive position – if there are heights in the area, I never saw them – the town of León began as a river camp for Roman soldiers. Later it was Muslim, Visigothic, other things; and at times it was scarcely lived in.

Finally, that settlement became capital of the Kingdom of León, starting in the early Middle Ages, and in spite of shifting boundaries and shifting relations with Castile, León has since kept the look of a royal capital. To top off its importance it became a protector, patron and major hub of a certain confluence of pious tourists, called the Camino de Santiago. It’s possible that the Camino was, for centuries, the most important means of cultural exchange in Europe, and this government city was perhaps the safest and most powerful on the entire route.

León has what people used to call “tone”.

Its commerce has a very complete feel. When a shop can sell multiple varieties of pimentón in these quantities, you know you’re in a true regional centre.

Bar snacks, called pintxos in Navarre but here called tapas, make a major reappearance in León, whose reputation for tapas is very high. I can vouch. Perhaps because high-end snacks are such an expensive add-on to a business, and competition between bars is vigorous, the Leonese hospitality industry is particularly unhappy with anti-tobacco laws.


The medieval and Romanesque, of course, are heavily represented, but in such a long-busy town, expect many additions to the old. San Isidoro, built on a Roman temple, is a mix of styles and eras, but it’s a mix that works.

The Convent of San Marcos, in that very late medieval style called “silversmith”, is now a plush Parador hotel. I’d like to do an entire Camino staying in Five Star accommodation. It would put me in such a good mood, I’m sure I could pass for spiritual and enlightened.

In more modern times, but reflecting older Leonese architecture, Gaudí built the Casa de los Botines. It’s a little two-dimensional for my taste, but I’m so well disposed to Gaudí that I hardly care. If the ensemble fails, I’ll enjoy the detail. The skimpy rocket-ship towers, reflecting those grand ones seen on the cathedral, are a hoot.

The building is now a private bank, and an unfortunate security guy spends his life shooing away tourists like me who try to peek at the interior. If you think it’s silly, I won’t argue. I saw one tourist frankly screw up her face at the too-flat and too-busy frontal view of  this major Leonese attraction.

Gaudí. We’ll see him again in Astorga.


I’ll speak of the cathedral and the Gothic without pretending to expertise. There is so much to be known about this most freakish and expensive of artistic movements, yet I never want to delve or look too closely. Gothic may have balance, or lack it; may succeed as a harmony, or may not. These are important elements. Taste, as a Renaissance and modern notion, is not a central issue: if it were, there would be no Gothic.

For Gothic is celestial bad taste.

Gothic is for emotion and drama and entertainment. The exterior of Leon’s cathedral, belonging to an era and style where lightness and illumination had come to matter more, does not have the mobility and muscularity of Burgos’ cathedral.

But step inside.

Light, colour and upthrust. A guardian spirit has pulled a lever: that’s the best way I can describe the emotion on entering. I tried entering and leaving several times, to see if the lever worked reliably. It does.

You don’t wander in a forest, as you may in Chartres. Nor are you in an ecclesiastical complex, which is the feeling in Siena or Burgos. Here it is one single sensation in one single, if partitioned, space.

Of course, there are the wombs. The niches for huddling.

But always the light.

My God, it’s almost in good taste!


The cathedral has a cloister, and I wasn’t going to miss a cloister, was I?

It’s a weighty fourteenth century affair, and good for a few laps.

There were more things to see in Burgos, and of greater interest than my cloister. In particular, one should not miss the “Sixtine Chapel of Romanesque”, the Royal Pantheon within San Isidoro…but I did miss it.

I love cloisters, and that’s that. They relax me greatly while distracting me quietly. And when I saw what I am about to show you, I forgave, thinking it to be some practical and temporary structure placed there for restoration work, perhaps to shelter staff or store expensive machinery.

No, it was a permanent structure and exhibition. The luvvies were here!

On leaving the cloister I went to the ticket office, thanked the staff, and said what a fine cloister they had. Then, very meekly, I enquired how long the coloured plastic thing had been there, and how much longer the coloured plastic thing would be there. They answered squirmingly. (Shut up WP Spell-Corrector!). And that was all.

I don’t do indignation. However…

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Travelling in Spain, never be surprised by any of the flavours of separatism, however odd. As you move west along the meseta, you’ll start seeing slogans calling for a separate León. A dialect that few speak or care about lives on in political graffitti.

Whether they want separation from Spain or just Castile is an individual or mood thing. (No-one seems to want out of the EU yet, but when snouts start bumping the hard bottom of that capacious Euro-trough…)

The funniest slogan occurs much further along, in the Bierzo region. There the sentiment is anti-León. The slogan’s message: if León gets its separation from Castile, the Bierzo want out of León. Of course, by the time you get to the Bierzo, there is Galician graffitti objecting to the use of Spanish. And so it goes on. One gets the hang.


I’m always interested in wild food. These carobs, with sweet, smokey tar around their seeds, could be a good emergency resort.

But it was a cold and drizzly morning, and only a mound of pastries with cafe con leche would satisfy. So it was over the well known bridge of Puente Villarente…

…where I found an especially fine cafe, thronged for the weekend.

A word on Spanish bar-life.


That sums it up. Spanish snacking and drinking and chat all happen together in countless bars across the country. They are not places for gorging or swilling. A coffee or ice-cream is sold in the same manner and context as strong alcohol. Bars are for everyone, and everyone has a bar, or more than one bar. By everyone, I mean that Spanish bars are not for men, or women, or the young, or the old. They are for the humanity of Spain. The snacking scene, which is probably strongest in Basque centres like San Sebastian, is a rich branch of world cuisine – and that’s quite apart from normal meals!

The bar, not Velasquez, is Spain’s greatest cultural legacy: an institution that would improve the rest of us so quickly, could we but absorb it, or at least its spirit.

With the new anti-tobacco legislation, this culture has come under threat, but will likely survive. Though it suits me, as a lifelong abstainer, to be free of smoke, I’m aware that tobacco has supported a commerce which truly deserves its description as a culture. Many bewildered Spaniards now point to the northern countries where anti-tobacco legislation originated, and to the northern tradición vikingo of swilling, violence and puritanical licensing laws. And Spaniards can only shake their heads.

The new laws were brought into force in the heart of the winter, something all too typical of the now hated Zapatero government. With people unable to step outside to smoke, cafe life wilted in many parts, but all were affected in some degree. I’ve loathed smoking all my life, yet I can only wish the Great Spanish Bar well in these trials.

And while I’m opinionating…

One now gets asked, after travelling anywhere these days: “How was the coffee?”

I can only say that the coffee in Spain, like everywhere, is mostly poor because it’s mostly over-extracted. It is not as bad as coffee in France, but the French, just as they are the masters of presenting coffee, are the global masters of wrecking coffee. They pay little attention to grind, and no attention to tamping, so that French coffee achieves a level of over-extraction and foulness unique in Europe.

Even in Italy these days, you are better off asking for a ristretto, instead of just caffé or espresso. Now that modern pressure machines are everywhere, adequate coffee is at the fingertips of everyone; and yet, in spite of intense training and barista courses, nearly everyone who makes a coffee continues to extract long after the grounds have yielded all their delicious and healthful liquor. Over-extraction is almost universal, and, if I want a perfect shot, I’m more likely to get it in a non-ethnic inner-Sydney cafe where strict attention is always paid to the basics. It’s not a matter of cost or resources. You just cannot persuade people that there is no benefit or economy in continuing to extract.

Anyone who doubts should try the following. Get a stove-top caffetiera – most people have a cheap aluminium one lying around – and proceed to make coffee in the usual way. When less than half the liquor has come through, pour it off. Taste. It will be very dark and strong. If it’s too strong for you, add some fresh hot water. It will be delicious.

Now taste the lighter coloured liquor which has continued to pump through the caffetiera. You will want to spit it. And that’s the pestilential, alkaloidal muck we all drink, in the belief that it’s making the coffee longer or stronger.

If you have a press-pot, try a slightly coarser grind and pour water at 80C or even less over the coffee, obliquely not directly, and without agitation. Let a crust form for a few minutes then press down very gently. There’ll be the inevitable rancidity from the uncleanable mesh of the head, but otherwise the result should be delicious and should convince.

End this over-extraction!


I would be in León by the end of the day, but weather was limiting enjoyment. At a certain point I was joined by a young Italian called Daniele, and together we walked the approach to the city.

Daniele was a specialist tradesman, an athletic type from near Bergamo, and often competed with an athletic father in strenuous hikes and cycling events. In spite of this physicality, he was full of ideas and curiosity. At 21, he didn’t think the Camino should be reserved for those of advanced age; nor was he intending to spend his youth consolidating finances.

The voluble young bergamasco was ideal company in the miserable weather. When I mentioned my conversation in Castrojeriz with the neighbour of Reinhold Messner, Daniele was ready with a climbing hero from his own neighbourhood, far better than Messner. Messner, in fact, wouldn’t go anywhere without backup from Daniele’s neighbour. As for the folk of Alto Adige, Messner’s region…Sono tedeschi! They’re Germans!

Hopeless as the cause may seem, there exists a kind of European unity, but it’s not headquartered in Brussels or Strasbourg. Its offices are spread out along thin lines across the different lands, following the direction of the Milky Way.

And, quite suddenly that afternoon, I found myself gaping at one of those offices.

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Grim weather in flat terrain justifies compressing two days of walking into one post.

The country west from Sahagún has its historic touches, including the Canto bridge at the start; and, near Bercianos del Real Camino, an enormous but isolated ermita, afloat in a mud Sargasso.

As a courtesy to pilgrims…

We should never have built that Tower of Babel.

Even better if you know some French.

There are many lagoons in this region, due to a solid clay-pan which is making possible an ambitious irrigation scheme, as well as encouraging much birdlife. In a wet winter, however, you don’t do much lingering here, even if you can find a seat.


Here are some buildings in El Burgo Ranero and Mansilla de las Mulas. They all have something interesting in common.

And we shouldn’t omit that famous crazy bar in Reliegos, where nobody seems to care what you pay or what you scrawl, and where the new anti-tobacco laws are so scrupulously ignored.

These, like most structures in the region, are made of mud.

I got keen on mud-brick and adobe when visiting a friend in our local aboriginal nursing home, which is something of a showpiece. Some mud-brick cottages for independent living have been built on the capacious grounds. When I visited my friend it was a bitter winter’s evening, yet the cottage was not cold. Nor was there any vibration or transmission of noise. He assured me that the cottage was cool in summer.

I here offer no enviro-message, no familiar cant about sustainability. Mud has to be mined and worked, and the specialised labour, special foundations and transport of materials mean that even on the meseta some people find it preferable to use modern materials. Adobe is durable, but unsuitable for geologically unstable areas.

So it’s personal! I love the stuff because it’s comfortable and huggy, and because something so good is in endless supply. I never stay long where people are talking about scarcity; and when you look across that vast meseta it’s hard to believe in any peak-adobe theories. It’ll be there whenever humans turn their eyes and hands to it.

A lady I chatted with in Mansilla was explaining how many buildings that seem to be of concrete or other materials are just faced adobe. She pulled off a little chunk of a neighbour’s house to show me. That’s the other thing about adobe: it’s valuable without being at all precious. It can last hundreds of years, or it can fall apart and go back to being mud. Patching and alteration are simple affairs, even if they require solid understanding of the material.

It was also explained to me that, because of its porousness and active qualities, good adobe is not so prone to mould and odours as one might suspect. I’m guessing much would depend on the builder’s skill; the clay component, which is high in these parts; and on the straw and other fillers/reinforcers. I’m trying my hardest not to glamorise…but check this out. It could be new work, a patch-up, a facing removal job, or some cleaned-up bricks pulled from a wreck. Please tell me more if you know, pilgrims.


Mansilla de las Mulas is worth a stroll. It was near a Roman way, though that energetic Hispano-Italian, Trajan, had his very straight road a bit away from the present town. (A second local lady I chatted with was of the opinion that the way was indeed through Mansillas: the line had been broken by later developments. However, she was a particularly proud local. The evidence consists of the purported but disputed remains of a Roman bridge. Everyone in this world wants to be Irish or Roman, oppressed or oppressor, for some reason!)

After the wars against the Moors, the town was not only repopulated but very strongly fortified: to do with the strategic nature of the Esla River and its bridge here at Mansilla.

Clearly, the twelfth century fortifications weren’t of mud. You can’t have everything.

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With the weather clearing and snow all about, who wouldn’t walk briskly?

Time, of course, for a cafe con leche in the bar of San Nicolás del Real Camino.

Here I got chatting with some locals about the previous night’s match, and Spanish futbol in general. They described the mood when their nation won the World Cup some months before. There was jubilation such as nobody could remember. And the emotion here in Castile was identical  to what was felt on the streets of Barcelona, of Bilbao. There were Basques and Catalans in that Spanish team – in fact, they were a particularly region-diverse bunch – but for one blazing moment everyone was Spanish.


The day’s destination was Sahagún, a fairly big town I’d visited in snow and darkness the night before with Patrick to watch the game.

Sahagún had an interesting medieval history, involving a centuries-long struggle between the powerful Cluniac monastery and the vibrant city’s prospering burgeses. New wealth was being generated by the latter, yet power lay with the abbot of San Facundo y Primitivo, who had holdings and influence far beyond the city. The monastery became so illustrious that it was known as the “Spanish Cluny”. For such a monastery to be independent of local authority and pressure was in line with Cluniac ideas of reform and renewal. Yet the emergence of a secular middle class has always been a challenge and a puzzle for Spanish society. The revolts against the power of San Facundo y Primitivo were several and violent.

Some of the monastery still stands.

Superb Romanesque survives here in Sahagún.

Another view of the same Church, San Tirso, displaying its mudéjar, or Moorish, elements.

And more fine mudéjar, San Lorenzo.


Sahagún was also the scene of a dramatic cavalry charge in the Napoleonic Wars. The British cavalry broke the French, and it proved to be a turning point in the war. Though the British were soon forced to retreat to the coast, they had opened up a front. That enabled the Spanish forces to regroup against Napoleon after their early losses in the war.


Sahagún’s patron, Saint John of Sahagún, was a fifteenth century local boy who passed on to Salamanca to perform his miracles, gain sanctity. A few generations later, another local boy would pass on to Salamanca for his university studies, and then on to the New World for the remaining sixty years of his long life.

He was a man born just seven years after Columbus’ arrival in the New World, a Franciscan friar who was a witness to the dismantling of Aztec civilisation and the establishment of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico. His beliefs were orthodox, his fundamental role was evangelical. Thus he remained dogmatically opposed to what he regarded as the paganism and idolatry of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

One may well ask how such a man, born in 1499 on the meseta, could become one of the world’s first and greatest ethnographers. The explanation is twofold. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún had very great scholarship and an even greater heart.

He left an enormous opus, thousands of pages, on the culture, rituals, language, and all that could be known of the indigenous people of Mexico. No detail was too slight. It was knowledge gained hard and physically, by travel, interview and observation over the decades, and it was based on nagging curiosity and deep respect.

He also aspired to forge an educated indigenous class. Instead, he lived to experience the sanctified plunder and centralising intolerance of the new colonial power – which even finished by banning Bernardino’s own translation of the Bible into Nahuatl. The humane and pro-indigenous approach of Bernardino and other Franciscans in New Spain lost out. And had such an approach prevailed, it could not have preserved the Aztecs from the physical diseases that soon swept so many away.

What Bernardino left was an example of true scholarship which, in these days of the facile statistic and the computer model, is almost too hard to live up to.

Because true scholarship takes massive guts.

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Heading west from Carrión de los Condes, you don’t look for the picturesque. It’s not here. This is a seriously Roman Road. It just connects places.

This part of the Camino is a different kind of experience. The Cartesian line suits the extremes. Meditative types can proceed without distractions, groups who want to sing and chatter without having to fix on much at all can treat it as a pilgrim superpista, if that’s a word. For the common daydreamer and dawdler, it’s not ideal. I would have preferred company or perspective.

Soon the weather helped to occupy my mind.

In these conditions, on the meseta, don’t wait for the weather to arrive before putting on rainwear, pack-covers and the like. The combination of wet and cold can deprive fingers of their simplest functions. A zip or even even a press-stud may be impossible to manage. And if the wind is sending the rain horizontal, you may not even get to the stage of zips and studs.

I know. I found out. Here.


There would be no more photos for that day. Weather forced an early stop in Calzadilla de la Cueza.

Next day, rain and cold made it hard to linger. The intriguingly named Terradillos de los Templarios was passed without investigation. The pilgrim albergue is named for Jacques de Molay. The last Grand Master of the Templars passed through Spain when he was lobbying for reconquest of the Holy Lands. Maybe he stopped here on Templar property? Maybe it’s just a nifty promo.

Pilgrims, especially, like a bit of Templar talk. I try not to indulge. Although you can’t tell me that those ultra-discreet Knights of Malta in their black suits and black cars, their expressionless faces clapped in fat black sunglasses, cruising the streets of hollowed-out Siena, aren’t really Templars….whoops! There I go!

At least I don’t have a theory on the Mayan calendar.


Moratinos was my destination, and a welcome one. A participant in the Santiago forum for English speakers, Rebekah, lives there with her partner Patrick. They have often accommodated pilgrims, though I think that’s been a courteous stop-gap on their part. There is now adequate pilgrim accommodation elsewhere in Moratinos. I dare say they’ll go on being helpful to pilgrims.

Rebekah’s website is called Big Fun in a Tiny Pueblo. There you can also link to “Patrick’s Acerbic Blog”.

Rebekah was away when I stayed, but I spent the night there in Patrick’s company, as well as catching the Barcelona-Arsenal match in a bar in Sahagún. Sadly, it was to be an unexpected win for those ill-bred Gunners.

Another surprise: Patrick, who has been in journalism and publishing, was a friend of the late Jeffrey Bernard. I used to follow Bernard’s column, Low Life, in the Spectator during the nineties. It was an ailing boozer’s own account of his progress toward death. If you are wondering how that might be entertaining, you will wonder even more that the column was the basis for a successful play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Peter O’Toole first played Bernard, which might give you some clue to the character. This quote from his writing might give further insight:

I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.

I was able to squeeze an anecdote or two from Patrick, and I hope he gets round to a more complete account on his blog.

When I woke the next morning, the meseta had turned as white as Jeffrey Bernard’s complexion.

But this dawdler and pilgrim was far from unwell. My thanks to Patrick and to Rebekah.

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It was still winter as I progressed to the middle of the meseta. Steel skies and mud, with snow to come at Moratinos. It’s hard on the body, but Spain has its great remedy in cold climes and seasons. It’s referred to as Sopa Castellana or Sopa de Ajo, and varies a lot. Essentially, it’s garlic soup. At its simplest, garlic is boiled in water, pimentón and salt are added, then chopped stale bread.

Some variations: the garlic is fried in olive oil, but very gently, and the pimentón gets a very light fry as well. Chorizo and other meats are sometimes added. Instead of water, stock can be used. Eggs may be poached in it before serving, or even beaten and added once the starch of the bread has thickened the brew, so that the egg mix makes nice threads.

I’m now back in the Australian late autumn, it’s unseasonably cold and, for some reason, I’m being racked by allergies. But now that I’m an old hand from the meseta, I know just what to do. Here’s dinner.

I’ve done the beaten egg trick for this lot. Remember to let the soup get thick and starchy from the bread, or the egg will go grainy.


Along the trail from Fromista, one of Spain’s more important Gothic constructions, Saint Mary’s in Villalcazar de Sirga.

At today’s destination, Carrión de los Condes, you would have eaten plenty of chicken soup, or Jewish penicillin, in the early Middle Ages. For a while, the town was majority Jewish, though even before the big dispersion of the fifteenth century, there were persecutions. The early counts of Castile were interested in the taxes they could exact from living Jews, and protection was their policy.

Long before all that, Carrión was an important stop on a major Roman Way. The Via Aquitana is remembered here.

On entering the town, a young Korean lady tried to let me past, but I would have none of it. (Must learn the Korean for: The dawdler overtakes nobody!)

These Korean Catholics are a problem for me. They often go on pilgrimage without training, something to do with trusting Saint James. (I trust him too, but don’t trust him to be nice.) Anyway, Korean ladies on the Camino fancy themselves as dawdlers, and have to be watched.

The town’s Church of Santiago is celebrated for the carvings on its twelfth century facade.

To leave the town one crosses the Carrión River.

Before the city limits is the Monastery of San Zoilo, now a hotel, I think. It dates from the eleventh century, but this splendid facade was added, obviously, in a much later age.

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