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Few would guess that the Meseta would end up being our favorite stretch of the Camino so far. The vast swaths of flat countryside gave us easy (though long) walking and opportunities to walk side-by-side on the wider-than-usual gravel paths.
Though the gravel paths are blessedly wide, we've come to see the physical challenge of walking on gravel all day. The bottoms of our feet, though accustomed to long walks, become tender by afternoon and every oddly shaped piece of gravel can be felt even through the thick soles of our boots. Larger chunks of gravel turn the ankles just a bit, eventually making them ache. As we walk we begin to pay close attention to where we plant our individual steps, avoiding larger rocks or uneven ground to skip the annoying and constant tenderness that are part of every day's walk. Our big choices in the day are whether to walk in the ruts at the left or right side of the road or to walk in the middle which sometimes offers more even footing. Mundane thoughts like these are what occupy pilgrims' minds through the day.
At one point our plus-50 walkers held a song competition with the under-50 walkers based on who could think up song lyrics faster. When one group sang one line of a song the other group had to the count of "5" to come up with a pop song of their own that included one word from the previous song. Our competition lasted nearly all morning before the plus-50's won with the '70's song, "Muskrat Love" of Captain and Tennille. "Love" had been used long ago, but no could figure out anything that related to "Muskrat," so that did it. That meant that the plus-50's were each treated to a San Miguel by the younger crowd. One of the few benefits of being older. Cheers.
|Ruins of Convento San Anton and the Camino|
which passes through.
After our evening in Hontanas we walked in admiration and amazement through the ruins of the Convento de San Anton, who buttresses straddled our narrow road. Afterward our now bronzed and thickly-muscled cyber pilgrim legs carried us easily to Fromista via the delightful town of Castrojeriz. This moon-shaped village is wrapped around a castle-topped hill which is a landmark for many miles. After Castrojeriz is the one large hill of the Meseta, an easily-climbed rise that once would've given us pause but now pales in comparison to the Pyrenees after St. Jean or the Alto del Perdon after Pamplona. Before settling into the albergue at Fromista we marveled at the 11th century Iglesia de San Martin and its amazing tiny sculptures at the eaves outside and its intricate columnar capitals inside.
Carrion de los Condes was our next stop. Here we faced a tough decision about whether to stay at the albergue or spend the extra cyber-dollars and stay at the plush Real Monasterio de San Zoilo. Since this is a cyber pilgrimage and our cyber pilgrimage credit card bills need never be paid we decided to opt for grandeur and our group enjoyed the cloisters and crannies of this restored medieval monastery, once one of the larger monasteries in Spain.
We next set our sights on Terradillos de los Templarios, a city whose name and history attach it to the Knights Templar of the Middle Ages. Now the town has only distant echoes of knights and swords. Instead it is a nearly deserted village, baked in the sun and quiet but for stray dogs and a few grandmothers on old chairs in shady doorsteps.
|Tiny town of Templarillos, long removed from its|
past with the Knights Templar.
After a comfortable stay in the family-owned albergue, complete with teenage kids and mom cooking our dinner, we headed through Sahagun (one of the Meseta's larger towns and the halfway point of our Camino) for an overnight at Bercianos del Camino Real.
Meseta days began to blend into each other as the names of towns grow confused in our minds, but after Bercianos our last night on the Meseta-proper was in Mansilla de las Mulas. Some say the Meseta actually ends in Astorga, but Mansilla is the last little town before Leon and it would be our final opportunity to enjoy the life of a tiny Meseta village on this Camino.
What is tiny village life like on the Meseta? I'm glad you asked. When we pilgrims arrive in a village at about 3:00 and settle into the albergue, we shower, wash our clothes, and then head "out" to see what the town offers. In a town like Mansilla there are two bars and not much else. So we walk along the street, passing adobe-style buildings on either side until we arrive at the bar. At this time of day the bar is filled with grizzled-looking elderly men playing either dominoes or cards and smoking cigarettes. As though of a single mind when we walk in all the men immediately stop what they're doing to gawk at the strangers (us). In an instant they realize we're just another bunch of pilgrims and they go back to their noisy games. After a beer or two (just one for our temperate pastor) we head back to the albergue to check on our laundry. Dinnertime is not until after 8:00 (sometimes much later in Spain) and as we walk to the bar (which is also a restaurant) we see grandmothers on chairs watching the pilgrim parade go by, waving at us shyly from their wooden door-front perches. We pass a dozen men who are bowling on the lawn. No one in this town is under 60 years old. All of them are having a grand time in community games and outdoor activities that are likely how they've spent the evening together since they were children. As we watch these economically-poor Spaniards enjoying life outdoors in this ancient town we realize how impoverished we rich Americans are. We have houses or apartments that would be the envy of any of these people, but they have a sense of community that does not exist in our TV-anesthetized culture.
Our Mansilla albergue has a "bird problem," meaning that a couple of bird pairs are nesting inside the albergue among the pilgrims. As a result we can't close the windows since that'd separate the birds from their nests, so we leave the windows open through the night, duck down when we feel the rush of wings over our heads, and step carefully around the small bird exhaust piles that gather up between cleanings by the hospitaleros.
Before bed that night we walk out to a dirt pile just below the ruins of a church where hundreds of birds have made their nests and we watch the sun go down over the next day's destination: the beautiful city of Leon, one of Spain's true treasures. The Meseta and its long, hot, flat walks is now behind us. Soon Leon will pamper us with its comforts and throw us out onto its steep mountain climbs, the last major mountains in our cyber pilgrimage.