Fuente de Cantos to Zafra
Wednesday September Sixteen, 2020
The circumstances of my Camino were rather exceptional in that I’d begun it in September 2020. Just those four syllables alone – twenty twenty – are enough to trigger a cacophony of responses in us all. And what that date meant for my Camino adventure was that it had become a solo adventure, devoid of any other pilgrims to share the journey with. I had known before I began that the Via de la Plata was one of the quietest of the Spanish Caminos, and that solitude was part of the appeal of it for me in the first place. There was a certain charm in the idea of serenity that the Via might bring. But the level of isolation that became fast apparent to me in the time of Covid-19 was so much more than I could have anticipated.
For five days I had lived inside of my own head as I walked. All day. Every day. My lack of Spanish language skills excluded me from the world I found myself in. Sure, I could move through it and smell it, and taste it, but I couldn’t truly be an active participant in that world without the power of conversation. And so I felt a little like a ghost, existing on the periphery of the real world, only seen in those fleeting moments when I checked myself in to my nightly accommodation, or when I sat and ordered beer and food.
“Cerveza, por favor”.
“La cuenta, por favor”.
It is fair to say that there is very little engagement to be had in such brief exchanges.
And so, as much as I enjoy my own company and can maintain my sanity without the constant need for interaction I was nonetheless beginning to feel the pangs of loneliness as I journeyed. Those pangs came on especially strong at the end of each day when sitting and eating my dinner – still only privy to my own thoughts and not someone else’s. Dinner for me has always been about the exchange of ideas and news, and occasional gossip, which I could no longer indulge in as I dined. Making it all the harder was the fact that surrounding me while I ate each night was a terrace full of other diners engaging in those same conversations I was desperately hungry for.
Suffice to say, not seeing another soul along the way was becoming more and more difficult to swallow.
I left Fuente de Cantos as early as I possibly could, hoping to put as much distance as possible between it and myself before the sunrise (after having checked for any tell-tale signs of a bed-bug attack, of which there thankfully was none). The sleeping arrangements from the night before had soured my Camino ever so slightly and taken the shine off my thrill. Granted, I was under no illusion that every day would end at a picture-perfect postcard destination. But I was perhaps a little naive to think that I couldn’t be rattled by a hot, stuffy, and dusty room that smelt of chip-fat. There was maybe a small snob inside of me after all whose existence I didn’t want to acknowledge.
As a result Zafra had become a sort of beacon for me. It was a fairly sizable city, the first city I would encounter having left Seville six days beforehand, and so I had high hopes of it livening things up a little. I had equally high hopes of it providing another pilgrim or two, to add a new dynamic to my travels.
It was still dark when I left, but the sun came up quickly enough revealing a landscape that was as equally dry as that from the day before. It just wasn’t quite as quite as dramatic. The grass was longer however, and as the day wore on I encountered more sheep along my path. They were skittish and suspicious and weren’t interested in yarning with me whatsoever, no matter how gently I tried to approach them. Along with the sheep came hay bales – great big towers of them, like fuzzy structures emerging from the landscape.
Eventually the long grass and hay bales gave was to grape vines in a pleasant transition that I hadn’t been suspecting. After such a dry and desolate landscape I hadn’t expected to see such a water needy crop appear. Especially crops that seemed as healthy as these ones did. They added much-needed shades of green to the landscape but seemed out of place against the pale rocky soil all about. They were growing as standalone plants, separated from each other by quite some distance, and appeared almost like shrubs growing in a field – not as long and high continuous vines. I say this as a New Zealander, who is much more used to grape vines appearing within lush green landscapes and forming long neat rows of growth. But life has a way of persevering in even the harshest of conditions, and these planted grapes were no exception.
The walk on Day Six was a short one. A very leisurely 26 kilometres, which took me just over four hours to complete. I arrived in Zafra unperturbed by heat or exhaustion and found the albergue on the other side of the city very easily. It was the only pilgrim accommodation open in Zafra at the time, and I’m very glad that it had made the choice to remain available. It was a huge complex, with massive bunk rooms, high vaulted ceilings, incredible acoustics, and a wonderful patio courtyard in the rear that opened up to the sky above and provided a cool ambience for sweaty travellers. It also had the heaviest wooden door I’ve ever had to open and close, and which needed proper exertion to get momentum from. More exertion than I’d required all day.
My host was wonderfully effervescent as I introduced myself, in stark contrast to the proprietors I’d encountered back in Fuente de Cantos. Effervescent and oh so chatty. I explained that my Spanish was very poor and apologised, but she waved me off, assured me that my Spanish was fine and preceded to show me around the hostel in full throttle español. As we went she gestured wildly at this and that and nodded at me constantly to prove that I understood what she was saying. Suffice to say I appreciated her confidence.
I found myself alone again in a giant room, with four empty bunk beds about me. I made the assumption that the complex had once been a monastery and convinced myself that I would encounter the ghost of a capuchin monk at some point throughout the night. I think that little fantasy resulted solely from the choice of décor in the room though and was inspired by the capuchin brown colouring of the bedspreads on the bunks. I can’t say that the shade was very tasteful, let alone particularly pleasing to the eye, but I’m sure it’s very functional as a colour in an establishment that would otherwise be bustling with dusty, sweaty pilgrims.
I showered and removed the mornings dust from my body before heading out for lunch, which was another Menu del Dia, and gosh it was a good one. The starter was a generous portion of potato and calamari soup, but flavoured and coloured with a heap of paprika that created a luminous glow within the white bowl. It was a delicious dish, but also an ample one, and I would’ve been quite content with that alone. But there was more, of course. The main dish was pork because… Well, because this was Extremadura after all, and it’s simply what you order from the menu. There was a mustard sauce laid out over the top of the meat, with caramelised sugar laid out over the top of that. It seemed like a completely unnecessary embellishment, considering the incredible quality of the pork itself, but it was welcomed, nonetheless. It was the first time that I’d encountered anything as frivolous as a sauce on my plate since beginning my Camino, and it proved to be the last also. Dessert was a cheesecake, which I had ordered imagining that it might be the San Sebastian variety I’d fallen in love with back in Barcelona before beginning my journey. But Alas, it was just simple old cheesecake. Still delicious regardless.
I made my way back to the albergue and climbed onto my bed to partake in a wonderfully long siesta – my belly and my head content. When I awoke the day had cooled off a little and so I ventured back out onto the streets of Zafra to explore. There was a rocky outcrop on the edge of the town that I had spied on my way in and I wanted to try and get some photos of it as the sun set that evening. I had imagined on the walk in that it might be rather picturesque. And it was. I meandered through the maze-like streets to try and find the best vantage point for my photo and very quickly found myself out of the town itself and back in farming country. I found the view that I was looking for, and timed it perfectly to boot, arriving just as the sun began to creep behind the rocky formation. I considered my day complete at that point and began to return to the albergue through narrow alleys and timeless public squares just as Zafra itself seemed to be finally waking up for the day.
I was still incredibly full after my very hearty lunch and so decided against dinner, but stocked up on fruit and nuts and water for the following day at a nearby supermarket before heaving open the comically large wooden doors of the albergue. Beyond the foyer and somewhere deep within the complex I could hear the toing and froing of banter that wasn’t coming from my host. I imagined fellow peregrinos, finally, and quickly dumped the supermarket produce on my bed and went searching for potential company.
In the courtyard I discovered a Spanish couple, a little older than me, chatting gladly away over their dinner. I greeted them enthusiastically, and they me, but the proceedings came to an abrupt standstill when we had to acknowledge how poor my Spanish was and their English likewise. Nonetheless, it was a nice little burst of backwards and forwards while it lasted. And it was reassuring in a certain way to know that I was no longer the only pilgrim on this journey. The path wasn’t mine and mine alone any longer. There were others appreciating its beauty and its challenges besides myself.
I sat at a table in the courtyard and snacked on some fruit before I turned myself in to bed. I didn’t need the sustenance of the food at all, still heavy bellied from my lunch, but I did need the sustenance of company no matter how limited it was. Simply hearing other voices echoing through the building and knowing that they were sharing the Camino with me was enough of a reassurance for me to feel a little more connected and a little less lonely. Even if our ongoing dialogue only ever involved a greeting and a smile it was enough to bolster my spirits.
We wished each other good night and I went off to my room satisfied with my day. The only thing that could make it any better would be the appearance of a ghostly monk in the night who happened to be fluent in English.