Monasterio to Fuente de Canton
Tuesday September Fifteen, 2020
A huge part of my motivation to walk the Via de La Plata was because it would take me through Extremadura.
That said, I knew next to nothing about the region, except that pigs roam freely there in the shade of oak trees and feed on fallen acorns to give their meat its distinct flavours. I was only privy to that little snippet of information because I regularly ate at an Islington restaurant that specialised in such pork products. Its menu would call to my tastebuds every few months and I would cheerfully oblige – always astounded by how flavourful the meat was. But beyond that morsel of knowledge I knew nothing more about Extremadura. Despite that I was fascinated by the idea of the region. There is something about the word itself that seems evocative in a way, as if it is almost suggesting what it is you will find there. An extremity. As if there is version of onomatopoeia at play. The name hints that it is an outlier, and that its landscape is hard and unforgiving. Empty and desolate.
There is something about the lack of fanfare for Extremadura that appeals also. For, while people take their weekends in Barcelona or Madrid, Bilbao, Valencia and Granada, or the Balearic Islands, no one is returning to work on a Monday morning exalting the charms of Extremadura. It’s always felt like one of those forgotten places on a map, seen but so rarely acknowledged, let alone visited.
And so on Day Five of my journey I got to say goodbye to Andalusia and measure my expectations of Extremadura against the real thing.
I woke early and realised I’d fallen asleep with the windows open and the blinds up – such was my state of exhaustion the night before. I lay in the dark admiring the tiniest slither of a Crescent moon that was on the rise near the horizon and stayed put for a little while longer to follow its ascent. The days route was only 24km, so I could afford to begin it a little slower than the others. And slow I was. The sun was up, and children were doing calisthenics in the schoolyard below my window before I had my pack on my back ready to leave.
It felt strange beginning my day with the world already awake around me. There were even cafes open on the streets of Monasterio and solo diners sipping on their espressos watching me wander past. As I walked on by the temptation for a heartier breakfast than bananas and nuts was strong, but it was overridden by the stronger temptation to get cracking and explore what lay ahead.
So I carried on and out into a landscape of wonderful golden fields that glowed in the morning light. Ancient stone walls fenced in each of the paddocks and created a sense of time within the landscape – you could imagine the same stone footprints having existed there for hundreds of years. Curious cows filled each of the paddocks, clustered about under oak trees, but they weren’t particularly talkative, and I was taken by the quiet once more. It was so, so quiet. Only the occasional thunk, thunk, thunk of a cowbell broke the silence. Even the funky aroma of farmland animals added delight to the occasion rather than diminishing it.
I wandered gladly for an hour or so, thankful that my relationship with the Camino was back on track after my wee blip the previous afternoon. And then it happened – exactly how it always happens in a film. You follow your path, minding your own business. The path ascends in front of you, obscuring the landscape beyond with trees and bushes. You walk and walk, and then you reach the crest of the rise and there it is…
[Queue dramatic music courtesy of John Williams]
It was laid out before me without interruption – a never-ending expanse of nothing. Just an endlessly rolling landscape devoid of trees, devoid of crops or livestock and devoid of structures. Devoid of life in general. It was hot and it was dry, and it was barren and beige, but it was unequivocally beautiful also. It really was magnificent. The moment brought a smile to my face and goosebumps to my neck. It brought my camera out of my pocket quick smart also and I went on a frenzied mission snapping photos to share with my family back home and announce to them all “I’m here. I’m in Extremadura.”
For a long while the camera didn’t leave my hand and I became the worst kind of tourist, buzzing on visual stimulations and snapping up everything in their path rather than taking it all in on a mental level. The slightly ridiculous thing was that the landscape really didn’t translate well as a static image, so lacking in contrast as it was, not to mention palette or contrast. Still, I snapped away quite gladly, astounded by the alien landscape I was seeing before me.
I eventually settled down and put my camera away once more and carried on with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. I had this landscape all to myself. This landscape that was so incredibly foreign to me that I might have been on a different planet. There wasn’t even any sound to add to the beautiful blandness of the setting. No birdsong. No animal calls or bells in the distance. Nothing to suggest life. Just an occasional breeze that rustled up a bit of audio ambience as it rushed through the grass on either side of the path.
Everything before me was everything I had hoped to encounter in my travels, without actually knowing what it was that would appear before me, if that makes any sense. There was a childish glee that was allowed to burst free in a forty-something year old male without fear of being rapidly bottled up. It served me up the sense of wonder that I had been yearning for, and I got it heaped up in abundance on my plate up there on top of the world.
I felt privileged to be there and an awareness snuck up on me of just how fortunate I was to have such a WOW moment in my life, especially at a time when the world seemed to be imploding on itself. I think too it was my first moment where the incredibly special nature of a Camino occurred to me – the ability to step away from the world we’ve become overly familiar with, to the point of mundanity, and step into a world that expects entirely new characteristics from us.
My strides were long and bouncy as I moved across this wonderfully exotic world, and soon enough I began to cry, while more goosebumps zipped along my arms and spine and up my neck. I was having a moment of pure joy – so completely visceral that I won’t begin to attempt forming it into words on a page. Suffice to say that it really was exceptional.
I had made it to Extremadura. I was frickin’ walking across the top of the world in Extremadura.
My euphoria continued and carried me effortlessly across the landscape to Fuente de Canton, which is where the day turned, and took the shine off my high.
The hotel I had been assured was still open wasn’t, which was a shame not only because I was well and truly ready for a rest, but because the old utility building it was built within was beautiful. It wasn’t the end of the world though as there was one other option available to me in town, and so I took myself there instead.
I opened the door to the bar beneath the Guest House and stepped into a wild west saloon at high noon with every head turning to size up the interloper. After a few cursory glances they decided I was harmless and went about their business, including the woman behind the bar. She seemed happy to acknowledge every space within the bar except for the small space that I existed within. After a number of uncomfortable moments trying to get her attention a man appeared at the end of the bar and waved impatiently for me to follow him. He led me silently from the bar and to a dining room that had not received any love for many long decades, then up a set of darkened stairs to a long corridor where the guest rooms were.
He unlocked one for me, still mute, and pointed at the bed and the basin. Then he turned and led me down the corridor to the bathroom where he pointed at the toilet and the shower. And then he disappeared back down the stairs leaving me to my own devices. I returned to the stuffy room and opened the window for air but was greeted instead by the noisy rattle of the extractor vent from the downstairs kitchen and a meaty waft of culinary delights being deep fried below. I turned on the tap in the basin to freshen up and waiting for the water to run clear, which didn’t eventuate, and so I headed back downstairs again to explore Fuente de Canton in the hope of having some joy returned to me.
Suffice to say the town did not deliver, and so I bought some fruit, bread, cheese, and chorizo and succumbed to my room where I had a picnic on top of the bed. It squeaked angrily with every small movement made and had an air about it that it might possibly be a haven for bedbugs. But I retired to it nonetheless for my siesta staring up at the high vaulted ceiling of the room and trying to evoke notions of it seeming like a monks cell, as opposed to that of a prisoner.
When the day finally cooled I dared to return to the streets and explore my culinary options. I knew I didn’t want to eat in the bar below as my palate and nostrils had already been assaulted by its delights courtesy of the extractor vent. And so I took myself instead to a restaurant up the road where I was greeted like an old friend by the matriarch of the venue. I sat on the terrace outside and she proceeded to scrub my table down conscientiously (and slightly theatrically) with sanitiser. She rattled off the Menu de Día to me at a lightning pace and I scrambled for the words that I recognised and ordered them. Salad, and pork, and flan. They were fast becoming my staples, but in every case they were tasty, vaguely nutritious, and most importantly satisfying.
The sun eventually disappeared and as the evening cooled some more the terrace filled up with locals, giving Fuente de Canton a slightly more hospitable air. I took what I could get, but still resigned myself to an early night so that I could leave as early as possible the following morning. I asked for the bill, which was brought to me by the woman’s husband. I wanted to reacquaint with my bed while he wanted to quiz me on my travels and my life story. When I mentioned that I was from New Zealand his eyes filled with wonder. Yes, I am a long way from home, I agreed as he insisted I wait one moment before I leave. He wanted to bring me something.
A minute later he appeared with a bottle and a shot glass and poured me a dark coloured digestive before disappearing once more. I took and sip and was equally delighted as I was intrigued – I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that I was tasting. It reminded me a lot of Frangelico, but much less sweet. When he returned to the terrace I grabbed his attention and asked what I was drinking. We fumbled about backwards and forwards with nonsensical words until I finally got the gist of his description – it was an acorn liquor. And if I drank enough of it (which I was certainly inclined to do) perhaps I’d end up tasting similar to the free roaming pigs of which Extremadura is famous for.
I finished my portion of the delicious drop and returned to my room a lot less morose than how I’d exited it. His small gesture had brought the wonder of the day back into focus for me, for which I was grateful. The bed squeaked rowdily as I climbed into it and the extractor fan from the kitchen below was still hard at work. It was hot and it was sticky, and my body ached all over, but I’d returned to Happy nonetheless. I was in Extremadura after all, and I had to take the good with the not-so-good. It was a package deal after all. And some extremes in mood were only fitting for a place that provided extremes of everything else.