The latest (retro) installment of my walk across Spain with J’Nell on the Camino de Santiago …
Tosantos to Atapuerca
I’ve come to love the tiny Spanish towns, with their austere beauty and simplicity. Just like Grañón and Ventosa, I could have spent a week in Tosantos relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. But the Camino is all about moving forward, and J’Nell and I had a big walk ahead.
Burgos was two days away, and since it was a big city where we planned to spend two nights and get a much needed rest, the goal was to get as close as possible. Smart planning for tomorrow, but on this day it meant several big hills, a long hike through the forest, and a trek down into a valley over very rocky trails … close to 17 miles on my blisters.
Thankfully the morning began with with gorgeous colors in the sky and mostly flat trails until we reached Villafranca. There we had breakfast with Caroline (early 20s from Massachusetts, super nice, who we walked with earlier) and Charles and Caroline (cool spouses in their 50s from the UK we met the day before). I’ve said it before, but connecting with wonderful people like them is what makes the Camino so special.
Villafranca was a good spot to rest, as the next part of the hike featured a steep ascent into the forest and then an abundance of ups and downs for hours. Trees and hills were constants, and after a while I thought they would never end. Luckily there was a nice rest stop built into a wide clearing in the forest, and after 30 minutes off our feet, we trudged onward out of the timberline to San Juan de Ortega.
It was now past noon and hot, so we stopped for another break for a beer with a view of the church. The café was crowded, there were lots of people in the town, and during most of the walk we were surrounded by plenty of pilgrims. But since San Juan Ortega is a major stopping point in the book, we were hoping we would have quality alone time for the rest of the day.
Leaving town we got that solitude. It was enjoyable having the trail to ourselves, and I figured we would have plenty of options to stay in Atapuerca. In fact, there was a cool town before that (Ages) we bypassed since we were so confident in finding lodging.
We arrived in Atapuerca around 3:45 pm and took photos of the stone markers which commemorate (I think, nothing was in English) the archeological site there that is still yielding important historical treasures. Next was finding a place to stay, and after seeing the municipal albergue booked, we went from place to place with no luck. The town was very small, and with the next stop on the Camino a few hours down the road, things looked bleak.
In the book it said the restaurant Palomar also had rooms, and it was our last hope. I poked my head into it to find two gentlemen eating their lunch. One got up to greet me warmly and give me the bad news they were full. He could have just went back to his plate of food, but instead made some calls to help; he not only found us a room, he drove us up a hill (one we had already walked earlier) to the place. It ended up being a private room in a small, clean house we shared with 2 other pilgrims. We were so grateful and appreciative of his kindness.
Atapuerca to Burgos
Nearly all the places you walk through or to on the Camino are varying degrees of small. With a population of over 175,000, Burgos would be one of only 5 proper cities we would experience during our trek. From Atapuerca we had about 11 miles to reach it. We looked forward to the modern hotel that awaited us, a full day of not walking since we booked two nights, and doing laundry in machines instead of a sink.
The morning began with fog drifting and the sun blazing through it. Yesterday we climbed quite high, so with today’s manageable hill we reached an altitude of 3,537 feet. Going up we met a gentleman from Holland who had been walking since leaving his front door two days after retiring! He zoomed past me after we chatted, crested the summit, and I never saw him again.
At the top we saw a group of German pilgrims holding morning mass and singing by a cross. Instantly I began to think of the residents of Whoville getting together on Christmas morning even though all their presents were stolen by the Grinch. It was a beautiful sight.
Continuing west we reached the other side of the mountain, high up with the clouds and the drifting fog. Yes, we could also see an industrial smokestack belching cloud like plumes, which we would eventually walk past, but you gotta choose what to focus on. I chose nature.
After walking down into a small town we then came upon a highway with cars whipping by too fast. We were now deep in Burgos’ urban sprawl. Luckily we had done our homework, because there was a place where you could continue onward along the highway (the more direct route), or get on a natural path. Thankfully J’Nell saw the marker on the road, and we were both in agreement to walk longer to get away from the cars. Though it wasn’t scenic and took you around an airport, it was a great decision.
Hours later and after following a pleasant river park, we would finally arrive in the lovely town of Burgos. Our hotel room had a view of the city’s famous cathedral, and after relaxing and showering, we would head in that direction.
We waited through siesta time (where most restaurants don’t serve food) with beers, and we finally found an open kitchen. It wasn’t until hours after the sunset that Burgos came alive with a nighttime buzz of restaurants, bars, and music. After walking all day on the Camino, it was bedtime for us. Kind of a bummer, but we were too tired to get any Fear of Missing Out. On the Camino sleep is your friend.
The next day we would enjoy staying put in Burgos to tour the city. The cathedral was a highlight, the best church I had seen so far, and we had seen many gems. This one dated back to 1221, and as gorgeous as it is from the street, with its 15th Century spires looming over the city, stepping inside the church is a must. The interior is so chock full of amazing architecture and art, it would take years to examine them all. One highlight is a da Vinci oil painting, where the subject (Santa Maria Magdalena) looks like she could be a cousin of the Mona Lisa.
Another of my favorite places in Burgos was the Human Evolution Museum. It tells the story of the excavation of Atapuerca (the town we had just stayed in), where in the 1970s archeologists found remains of the earliest human ancestors to live in Europe (400,000 years old). Then in 2007 they discovered in the same caves bones of our caveman family that are 1.2 million years old!
Trying to wrap my brain around the enormity of human evolution was too much. But it made me think of all the beautiful churches I had seen on the Camino, the oldest of which had been built in year 1000 or later. Very impressive those structures are still standing, but to think of how long our species (and ancestors) have been wandering around this planet, there is some perspective to have.
I would take those thoughts with me as we left Burgos and walked west on the last day of September.