Castilblanco de los Arroyes to Alamadén de la Plata
Sunday September Thirteen, 2020
The wonderful thing about walking a Camino for the first time is that you have no idea what’s ahead of you each day. Sure, you can read the guidebook which tells you what cafes or conveniences are along the way. You can study the topography of the days’ route as well as the likely weather conditions you’ll encounter. You can read up on the history of the towns you’ll pass through. You can do all manner of research, and yet you’ll always be surprised as the day takes shape. Not once or twice, but endlessly as you walk.
And so by Day Three a sort of manic urgency had overcome me to get the Hell out of bed and crack on with the day with as much haste as I could muster. There was a new landscape to explore, and a new destination to arrive at, and potentially new thresholds to push through – whether physical or mental. It was a strange compulsion that had overtaken me and that propelled me into the day.
Well, that propelled me until a small fizzing sound filled the air and the room went dark around me. The air-conditioner wound down with a gentle whir above me and that was that. My momentum was stopped in it’s tracks with the sun still two hours from rising. It occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn’t have plugged in my camera, battery pack and phone all into the one plug socket. It also occurred to me also that perhaps I should have readied my pack the night before and left fewer items scattered around the room that now needed to be re-discovered and packed in the dark.
Where once there would have been the potential for panic on my part, or frustration, or both, I found that a calm took over instead. C’est Ça, as the French might say. And so I worked through the options available to me in order to get cracking before daybreak and it didn’t take long to remember that I possessed a headlamp, and that I’d put it in the top of my pack for just such an occasion.
I set about repacking my bag and readying my feet for the day under the cold white light of the headlamp remaining cool, calm and collected as I did so. I really must stress that my nonchalant state surprised me, and on occasions past I would have felt quite put out by the inconvenience of it all. But by September 2020 I had five months of extraordinary circumstances up my sleeve to ready me for many more. Five months of Coronavirus, and lockdowns and uncertainty, with a job loss and relationship ended under my belt I had gotten quite used to applying a fatalistic mindset to each day. A degree of mental elasticity was required to stay the course and in just three short days of walking that mental agility had been locked in, so to speak. I had everything I needed in the world strapped to my back after all. Nothing more and nothing less. The simplicity of that can’t be understated, and a blown fuse was just a blown fuse when your life is boiled down to the 8kg of content in your backpack.
I crept downstairs in the dark past my sleeping hostess who lay dead to the world on a lazy-boy chair in the kitchen. A dog grumbled at me from somewhere beneath her feet as I fumbled about with the door latch and exited gracelessly onto the street through a too narrow door, out into the (relatively) cool morning air. I walked for the first hour in darkness along the side of a road leading out of town with my headlamp still mounted around my head. It was unbelievably peaceful, with only the occasional rooster and steady padding of my shoes on the tarmac breaking through the silence. And when the sun did finally rise it was blanketed by a thin layer of cloud that filtered the light much more than I thought it could, casting a permanent gloam over the morning. There was a downbeat calm to it that suited a Sunday morning walk.
The first 16 kilometres of the day took me along the same road I’d exited the town on and for the better part it remained mine and mine alone. Perhaps one car would pass by every half hour or so, and I waved at a grand total of one cyclist as he rode by wishing me a good day. The peak flow of traffic came much later in the morning when a group of motorcyclists dashed past me, introducing a level of rowdy noise to the day that I wasn’t accustomed to, but that soon faded off in the distance and left me with the world to myself once more.
At the 16 kilometre mark the route finally left the road and turned right into the Parque Natural Sierra Norte, a vast expanse of land given over to protected cork trees. What a fascinating product cork is – one of those items that pop up again and again in your daily life (depending on how much of a drinker you are) and yet you never stop to consider its story. But aren’t we guilty of that with most of the items we handle in our day to day lives, blissfully unaware as we are of the human and environmental exploitation often involved in them? In my hand the cork felt so soft and pliable. And, in truth, in its natural form it’s not a million miles away from the many items it’s transformed into.
There wasn’t any sign of active industry that Sunday morning as I meandered along the path beside thousands of cork trees. But there were tell-tale indications of production scattered all along the track in the form of cork chunks that I imagined had leapt off the back of a truck as it passed by. I collected the odd piece here and there for my pack, remembering that cork is good for cramp – in the lore of old wives’ tales at least. I would put it aside with my cotton as a potential resource for ills. The trees themselves certainly showed signs of past industry and the bark had been peeled from their trunks in a surprisingly precise fashion, revealing a smooth surface beneath that glowed an amazingly vibrant ochre colour.
(At this point I need to add an aside about ochre and just how familiar one becomes with it on the Via de la Plata, even after only three days. For such an underrated colour it really takes on a life of its own in the Andalusian landscape and I feel like it needs an entire lexicon of additional descriptors to do it justice. Its hue changes radically also in the different lights of the day and it some lights it almost glows. You’ll learn to admire and appreciate it, I promise.)
The path meandered up and down and around and around and I quite lost my bearings as to which direction I was travelling in after a while. It was a wonderfully gentle amble, without care or concern, and over a decidedly firm track also that had none of the large loose gravel of Day Two. Suffice to say my feet were happier about that. The gentle shape of the route encouraged me to stop every now and then also, something I had not found myself inclined to do over the previous two days. I was all about the destination on Days One and Two, mostly I think because I was anxious about finding accommodation at each stop. At that point during the Spanish lockdown only twenty percent of albergues were open along the Via de la Plata, leaving me with the nearly daily task of securing alternative accommodation. But on Day Three I was less worried about what bed I would find ahead of me and took my time instead, regularly offloading the pack from my back and stopping to soak up the silence. And oh what silence there was. No traffic or industry, and no farmland noises of any description. There was not even birdsong, which I found quite odd in such a pristine setting. It felt a little unnatural to be so aurally deprived when surrounded by so much beauty, because in my head the two went hand in hand, but apparently not so.
The cork trees gave way to eucalyptus somewhere late in the morning and then the eucalyptus gave way to open expanses of grassland, and then returned back to cork trees. And then the gentle amble ended abruptly with a steep rise ahead of me that demanded it be scaled. I knew it was coming, having been forewarned about it in my guidebook, but even though I’d anticipated it I still wasn’t ready for just how jarring the change in gradient would be. But I huffed and I puffed, and I staggered on up towards the summit ahead of me, gagging and gasping for air, and mindful of the fact that this last rise signalled an end to the days journey. The climb was only about 100m in length, but by the sight and sound of me at the top of it you’d have thought I’d endured 1,000m of such climbing. It took it out of me, well and truly, but it was the first and last moment where I pondered to myself if I had the strength and endurance to complete the 1,000km distance.
Once I made it to the top the views were obviously worth every gasping breath. Before me was a vista that gave me a wonderful sense of how far I’d travelled that day, and the reward in that made up for the pain in my chest and the ache in my feet. It was at that point that the sun finally revealed itself from behind its thin veil and removed the gloaming light from the landscape and revealed blue sky and the promise of a hot, hot, hot afternoon.
Turning back to the path revealed to me my destination, Alamadén de la Plata, a white-washed village resting at the bottom of the valley before me. The descent was as equally steep as my ascent had been, but with the added enjoyment of being able to gaze out into the world before me, rather than down at my climbing feet. The village glowed white in the early afternoon sun, surrounded as it was my equally luminous fields that radiated a golden hue in the same light. It was not the first nor the last time that the landscape of the Via seemed to have been painted for a child’s fairy tale book. The dull clink, clink, clink of a cowbell joined me on my descent, except this cowbell was tired around the neck of a goat – one of many, mooching about in the bushes beside me. The next sound was of the church bells below, chiming away melodically as if to greet my arrival. It was all very pastural, and I couldn’t help but arrive with a smile on my face.
The albergue in Alamadén de la Plata was also closed, a theme I was to get very used to, and so I settled on a guest house in the centre of the village where the staff welcomed me warmly and took me upstairs to yet another air-conditioned room. I showered the days dust from my skin and clothes before returning downstairs for the pilgrim’s lunch, consisting of ice-cold gazpacho, a mountain of pork ribs and a caramel flan covered in whipped cream. All for the remarkably low cost €9. It was a fitting feast for my travels, and I finished it all off by climbing back upstairs to partake in an equally well-deserved air-conditioned siesta.