Alamadén de la Plata to Monasterio, via El Real de la Jara
Monday September Fourteen, 2020
There will always come a day walking the Camino when you weaken a little and let unhelpful notions creep inside of your head to take up valuable space. These notions might come as a result of fatigue, an injury or negative experience, or simply complacency. But when they eventually arrive they rattle about so loudly in your head that it takes all manner of reserve energy to reverse their trajectory and finally subdue them before they settle in and reshape your whole Camino experience.
My fourth day of walking was certainly a day of two halves, in that it began in a state of what can best be described as euphoria but was later interrupted by those pesky creeping notions of doubt and, dare I say it, despair.
The path out of Alamadén de la Plata took me directly into farmland and so I held off on leaving the village until there was a glimmer of light in the sky, lest I end the day before it began in a ditch with a twisted ankle or broken appendage. And to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t have left any earlier anyway as the process of binding my toes and feet with cotton wool and band aids seemed to take an age, as much as I’d have liked to think I had the process fine-tuned. The ongoing issue was that each new day produced an array of new blisters to taunt me, and so my fine-tuned bandaging sequence needed daily amendments made to it.
I stepped outside and into a lovely fuzzy haze of joy, brought on in equal parts by the cool of the morning air and the rather misplaced aroma of caramelised nuts hanging about within it. The source of the fragrance certainly had nothing to do with confectionery, but instead it was a strange alchemy of the straw and other vegetation around me. I couldn’t quite form a theory on why it should smell like caramelised nuts, but at the same time I wasn’t really too concerned. I was too blissed out on the aroma, sitting snugly within in the early morning chill, and the tiniest sliver of sunlight that was beginning to creep over the horizon.
I met sheep almost immediately, and then goats and numerous pigs in quick succession. They were all curious as to whether or not I was bringing food for them so early in the day. I greeted them individually and apologised that I wasn’t the bearer of their morning meal, but I assured them nonetheless that someone would be following shortly with food, not knowing whether this was true or not.
My next animal encounter was with a rather energetic (and large) dog who came bounding towards me from out of the trees in the distance. His stride didn’t falter, and he went straight for my calves, nipping at them with his teeth as I continued to walk. Now, I can confidently say that I’m a dog person, and that my rapport with dogs is usually healthy and immediate. But Spanish dogs flummox me and never quite behave how I anticipate them to. My new canine friend being a perfect example. And while I wanted to believe that his carefully placed nips were simply playful I couldn’t shake the idea that with any more force he could do some serious damage to me. So I kept walking, hoping that he would tire of his efforts, only for him to rear up on his hind legs and meet me face to face with his front paws now trying to rest on my shoulders.
Again, in any normal situation I would play along and enjoy the play, but something about the energy of this massive furry interloper had me unnerved. I wished at that point that I’d been travelling with walking sticks, so as to give them a quick wave and ward him off, but alas I had forgone them. It was then that he returned to all fours and took my shorts in his jaw and began pulling them down towards my knees. I wanted to imagine that the scenario was somehow cute, and that with hindsight I’d find it rather humorous that a dog had tried to undress me. But in the moment all notions of hilarity eluded me and his refusal to let go of my shorts seemed like it might escalate even further still. How on earth was I going to free myself from his grasp?
I continued walking, awkwardly I might add, until I reached a gate and what I presume to be the edge of his property. At this point he simply let go of my shorts, turned, and returned promptly to the trees from where he’d appeared, leaving me to my own devices once more. So that was that. I had to imagine that his actions were simply warning shots to the unwelcome peregrino who dared infringe upon his territory.
I continued on, moving from one farm boundary to the next, all growing olives and oaks and raising great big black pigs watched me pass with indifference. They were massive beasts – all Jabba the Hutt-esque in their ample size and their sloth. I tried to strike up conversations with each of them as I passed, but none of them seemed particularly interested. I was not about to hold grudges however as I was certain that none of them were long for this world. I had more luck making friends with the occasional horse instead. They were more than happy to peer over their fences at me and whinny or neigh a greeting.
The path rolled up and down and all around, so that every corner turned revealed something new and unexpected. The dips and climbs settled down towards mid-morning leaving a lovely wide flat path that led me to El Real de la Jara. As I turned another of many corners the vista revealed to me the village in full sunlight with its 14th century fortification sat atop the hill beyond it, overseeing its proceedings. I wandered through what was a sleepy little village (apparently sleepy is the universal description of a Spanish village) where both albergues were closed due to Covid-19. It was only 10.30am, and I had already walked a very pleasant 14km of my 34km day, so I resolved to climb the hill beyond the village and explore the Mudejar castle before continuing on to Monasterio… a trifling 20km further along. I mean, what’s another 20km?
Yeah, so that’s where I mentally went wrong. I allowed complacency to slip into the equation and let myself overlook the reality of the Spanish sun in September. I also overlooked the fact that 20km is still a fairly sizable distance, as well as the reality that from day to day the terrain on the Camino changes – and what gentle undulations I had experienced that morning might not be what that afternoon’s terrain entailed. Planning ahead and studying the topography before each day would obviously be a sound practice to partake in. But I had neglected to take even a remedial level of preparation because, well, with three days of walking already under my belt I was clearly an expert at all this Camino stuff…
I left El Real de la Jara in high spirits and was farewelled by a lovely horse on the edge of the village. My mood picked up even more upon the discovery of yet another ruined castle on the outskirts of the village, all Lord of the Rings-like in its decrepit grandeur. But by that point the sun had made its way high into the sky and all of the morning’s lovely shade had disappeared, meaning that I was now walking through largely open fields in the full glare of the sun. The path remained relatively flat, but it was made up of loose stones and large chunks of gravel, creating a sensation of constantly sliding, as you would on a slippery surface. So for each step forward I took my foot somehow seemed to slide back towards its origin every time it landed. It was a strange sensation, and certainly not one conducive to damp toes and damp feet rubbing around inside of damp socks, inside of moist shoes.
I persevered though, believing that the 20km to Monasterio would be a doddle. But alas, as the track continued on an on, and on and on, there came a new rubbing sensation beneath the ball of my right foot. And that rubbing gripped at my consciousness and would not let go. It consumed me, and I was starting to make my way to a dark place when a highway appeared before me, offering a Repsol service station and some respite at the edge of a large spaghetti junction. My Camelbak was freshly dry, but I still had 750ml of water in a canteen, so I opted for an ice-cold Fanta that I glugged down in one gulp on the forecourt of the station. Yeah, so there was another error on my part, but a lesson learned most importantly. The chilly temperature of the Fanta stabbed about at my chest, and the sugar content messed around with my gut. So after the few seconds of pure bliss gulping it back I was left back out on the road under the baking sun feeling gross and angsty. And still oh so bloody obsessed with my new blister.
All of my many points of reference (my Camino guidebook, Google Maps, Maps.me) told me I had another 9km until I arrived at Monasterio and, again, my head convinced me that it would be a walk in the park. During my many walks around London throughout Lockdown I was averaging a distance of 7km an hour, and so 7km per hour is what stuck in my head as I began the homestretch towards Monasterio. But the Via de la Plata was not London and I wasn’t just carrying a day-bag with the bare basics of phone, wallet, water, and protein bars inside. No, I had the better part of 10 kilogrammes on my back.
The reality was that I was doing little more than 5km an hour at that point, and so the 9km to Monasterio was realistically going to take me another two hours of walking. Certainly not the hour and a bit that my head kept defaulting to. But I’m a stubborn bugger like that, and I had trouble reconciling the facts as I continued walking, and walking, and walking, with that new blister becoming more and more biting as each kilometre passed.
The path now took me alongside a motorway, which was suitable for even, steady steps. And all the while it was climbing. Slowly, but surely…. But by now it was well past 1:00pm and the sun was high in the sky and baring down on me and my empty Camelbak. The tarmac beneath my feet was radiating its heat back at me from below also and my mood was heading towards that dark place again where negative Nancy voices begin to take up too much of the conversation.
I exited the motorway and onto another gravel track where I did an inexplicable thing and told myself that because the path had changed I was close to my destination. It makes little sense in hindsight, but at the time I did a little mental leap of joy in my head and said to myself “This is it”. Well, I wasn’t even close. But because I had told myself Monasterio was just around the next corner I became more and more frustrated with Monasterio itself when it refused to reveal itself to me. Not at that first corner, nor any of the subsequent corners. It had to be close, but all around me were empty valleys and the occasional farm shed. And all the while I kept climbing, and climbing, on great chunks of gravel that drew constant attention to my very angry feet.
So my day that had begun so joyously and carefree with its farmyard animals and meandering path was coming to a close in a quiet rage under an unforgiving sun. I stopped in my tracks and threw my toys, dropping my backpack from my back in a huff and retreating to the shade of a tree in a state of despair – trying to talk myself out of it somehow. I had two small mouthfuls of water left in my tank and I really didn’t want to squander that precious resource if my destination was still miles away. I cursed the can of Fanta and its shiny orange branding that distracted me from purchasing the much more valuable commodity of water.
I had to admit that I was wrong, as painful as that was, and I finally accepted that Monasterio wasn’t just around the corner. It took all of my rapidly failing energy to convince myself to look at Google maps to see just how wrong I was. And yes, I was very wrong – there was still another 3 kilometres to go. Not the best news, certainly, but at least I could be realistic about the situation and so kept my last mouthfuls of water firmly contained in the tank and made off with blinds determination to reach my bed for the night.
I vaguely remember seeing Monasterio on the horizon at long, long last, but I can’t remember my reaction, such was my mania at that point late in the day. In fact I can’t remember much of the final 45 minutes, consumed as I was with one intention and one intention only – the albergue. I remember another Repsol service station at the entrance to the town and downing a litre of water almost before the automatic doors had slid closed behind me. And I remember a burst of anguish when realizing that my albergue for the night was still another 1.5km away in behind the town centre. But I also remember the sheer force of will driving me on and on, and on some more, and then crumbling into a heap at the closed doors of the albergue.
At least this albergue was open, and I didn’t have to wait long for a lovely woman to come and let me in. She spoke no English and I no Spanish, so I didn’t have to persevere through any small talk as she checked me in for the night, stamped my passport and showed me the amenities. I tore my shoes and socks off and made my way into the shower fully clothed where I sat scrubbing the day’s dust off of me in a foetal position. I may have even shed a couple of tears of relief as I wiggled my now free toes about under the stream of cold water and quietly thanked Monasterio for eventually making my acquaintance.