Zafra to Villafranca de los Barros
Thursday September Seventeen, 2020
With seven whole days of walking behind me, and nearly 180 kilometres of dusty track trod beneath my feet, I found myself on a rather lovely high upon arriving at Villafranca de los Barros. I felt quietly confident about my achievement, and a little astounded by it also. Astounded not because I had survived seven days of walking alone under the Spanish sun, but astounded because those seven days had seemingly flown by in one hot, sweaty blur. That said, I could barely remember setting off the previous Friday from Seville to Guillena, and really had to stretch my brain to remember snippets of that inaugural journey. And when I did recall elements of that day I was reminded of how green I was about the whole experience – I had had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead of me. And in many ways, even with an entire week of walking now under my belt, I was still somewhat naïve about my journey.
In setting off the previous week I had imagined my Camino to be full of wonderfully meditative moments. And within those meditative moments I imagined a flurry of epiphanies, one after the other after the other. The Via de la Plata was going to give me pause from my life and reveal to me the answers to my mysteries and a deeper understanding of my place in the world.
But of course, none of that had come to pass. The Via had certainly given me the alone time I’d imagined having, but it had given up none of the mystical secrets that I imagined I might encounter along the way. The reality was simply one sweaty, dusty, blister-filled day after another where physical needs trumped any emotional ones. Did I have enough water? Was my pack sitting on my back in the best possible position? And if not how could I redistribute the weight within to create a better gait as I walked? Had I plastered my blisters adequately, and did I need to purchase more Band-Aids in the next town? If I leave at this time will I be at my destination before the full force of the sun comes into effect? And if I have to persevere through the ferocity of the midday sun then is there a town or village before my destination that might offer some small respite?
My physical reality usurped my ability to recognise much of my emotional reality and I was reduced to the basest of acknowledgements such as hot, thirty, hungry and tired.
Villafranca de los Barros gave me my first opportunity to pause and reflect however, in a beautiful little setting that came complete with rustling green trees and near constant chiming of church bells. The days walk was only 20 kilometres, and so I considered the journey to be but a short stroll from Zafra. I began in the dark and passed my new Spanish companions at the edge of the town, sharing jovial greetings between the three of us as we set off on our way. My pace was a lot quicker than theirs and so I all too soon departed company from them.
I walked with the sun as it slowly made its way up and over the horizon, only for it to be concealed by threatening storm clouds as it rose into the sky. The clouds were heavy and dark, and so it made for a wonderfully cool walk, as well as atmospheric. Not that the idea of rain was particularly enticing to me, but it certainly seemed like the parched soil beneath my feet might appreciate a good dosing of the stuff. And the landscape certainly suggested that rain had availed itself to the earth every now and then as more and more grape vines appeared around me. They were no longer intermittent as they had been the previous day, but now appeared all around me stretching off towards the horizon, and leaving me in no doubt that I was in wine country. The leaves of each plant were nearly autumnal in their colouring, and they glowed beautifully when the sun peeked through the cloud occasionally. They were equally radiant against the gun metal grey of the storm clouds that persisted with their threat of rain on the horizon.
The clouds had clearly let go of some of their load ahead of me though, ever so briefly, and as I walked the thick dust on the track was pockmarked with giant dents where raindrops had fallen. It was quite a wonderful sight, and I wished that I’d been present to see the dust launched into the air from the force of the impact. The re-settled dust itself remained as dry as ever, leaving the craters alone to suggest that rain had recently fallen. But fallen for no good cause it would seem, as the landscape still clearly craved its presence.
By the time I arrived at Villafranca de los Barros it was only noon and the rain that had threatened all morning had not come to pass. Instead a wonderfully cool breeze arrived and blew me into town and to the local albergue. My host showed me to my room and pointed out the facilities but didn’t officially check me in as that never took place before 2pm, for reasons that eluded me. I showered and changed instead and took myself off to fill the remainder of the day with explorations.
The constant suggestion of wine all throughout the morning left me in no doubt of what I was going to drink with my lunch, and so I took myself to a bar for some white wine, as a token of my appreciation for the day’s scenery. The liquid was a treat, for so many reasons. For a start it was a welcome graduation from my default request of “Cerveza, por favor”. And it was cold, and crisp, and oh so delicious. It also opened up an opportunity for me to relax a little more than I usually might. That’s not to say I needed the alcohol to relax (I hope not anyway), but that in sitting for a moment and appreciating the qualities of the wine it also gave me the opportunity to appreciate the other details happening in my life.
The wine gave me an opportunity to pause, and to properly reflect for the first time during those initial seven days.
And I think that is what had been missing throughout the previous week – moments of pause. I was in the habit of arriving at each location and securing myself a bed for the night. I would shower and then I would sleep, and only then would I usually venture out to explore to find food for myself. Food that I now viewed as fuel first and foremost, rather than as something to be enjoyed and savoured. Was I consuming enough proteins and sugars and carbohydrates in each meal? Would a meal at this time be enough to sustain me through to that time?
My life had become all about practicalities, and not enough about the niceties.
And so with wine in hand I finally had the opportunity to look back across the previous seven days and appreciate what it was that I had achieved. Seven days of solid walking, with nearly a fifth of my journey now complete, and a smile back on my face after the small blip that was Fuente de Cantos. I felt strong still, and capable, and despite the lack of company and conversation I hadn’t regressed into some feral, isolated version of myself.
Mostly I felt fortunate that such an experience was available to me, at a time when much of the world was hunkered down in enforced Lockdowns and very much feeling the full effects of loneliness and isolation. I felt fortunate that I was healthy enough physically and mentally to undertake such a journey. And I even felt fortunate that I’d been made redundant from my job in the first place, and that my lack of employment had provided such an opportunity to explore the world at such an intimate level. There certainly had never been another time in my life when I’d have the luxury of six weeks up my sleeve to meander across the Spanish landscape to complete a 1,000km trek.
My glass of wine turned in to two, and then because I was enjoying its wonderful crisp and delicious qualities so much I indulged in a third. That’s when I decided it was time to indulge in a siesta, despite the short distance of the day. The mid-afternoon heat and the alcohol put me to sleep fairly promptly and I awoke just as the day was cooling off once more to give the town a second attempt at exploration.
I was still in my jovial mood and took myself to a bar and I sat and watched the world go by from a terrace with large mugs of beer. The dark clouds had gathered over Villafranca de los Barros and the wind was whipping about at the trees, and the temperature had dropped significantly. So much so that I can confidently claim to have been cold as I sat outside drinking my beer. Neighbourhood dogs kept me company, sniffing about at my feet on the hunt for any dropped salty snacks that came with the beer. They were sorely disappointed as I’d made certain that every last morsel arrived in my mouth, and not on the ground. They sniffed about with ongoing optimism, nonetheless.
I called it quits on alcohol in anticipation of the following day and went in search of a meal instead. I say meal, but I was really thinking of it as an opportunity to refuel. The following day was going to be the magnum opus of my journey so far. I was hoping to push through to Merida, the capital of Extremadura, and skip the usual stop at Torremejía. As a result it would be a hefty 45 kilometre day, and it would allow me to pause in Merida for the weekend to explore. Explore and relax. Relax and potentially even reset.
In Merida I wanted to make the most of its ample Roman history, but I also wanted to mooch and absolutely zone-out and rest my body. Rest my brain. Rest my expectations also. I wanted an opportunity to ultimately take stock of the week that was behind me, more than I’d been able to achieve over a few glasses of wine that afternoon. And hopefully, with some more reflection on my side, I could approach the second week of my Camino in a somewhat different light. Not that there had been anything wrong with the week that was – it had been thrilling on so many levels. But in the weeks ahead of me I wanted to feel like I had left more of myself behind me and reconciled some of the threads in my head that don’t always seems to knit together as neatly as we would like them to. I wanted to set some intentions along the way also, and ask myself some meatier questions, with the hope of finding some answers within the solitude that I’d been served up in abundance.
Ultimately I felt like I wanted more bang for my buck, and that with a week under my belt I was somehow wasting precious time in not having answers and epiphanies and contentedness already.
I was impatient for some sort of Camino nirvana.
There was a hope that in subjecting myself to a 45 kilometre day, under a September sun along an old Roman road, I would gain something other than a small sense of accomplishment. There was a hope that by Merida I might experience some sort of fantastical Camino nirvana.
I took myself to bed as soon as I’d finished eating and travelled off to sleep with high hopes of the sorts of trials and tribulations that might provoke revelations and reawakening.