Villa de los Barros to Mérida
Friday September Eighteen
My journal entry for Day Eight of the Via de la Plata began with a capitalised WOW.
And I really mean WOW.
For so many reasons I arrived in Merida riding on a high. I was soaked to the bone, sloshing about in squelching shoes, covered in mud, physically and mentally exhausted and desperate to put myself in a horizontal position. But I was riding a wonderful high, nonetheless, and life had never felt better.
The day kicked off at 7:00am, to try and make the most of the cool morning air. With 45 kilometres ahead of me I wanted to put as much of the trek behind me while the day was still fresh and pleasantly temperate. Villa de los Barros was still fast asleep as I prepped my pack and my feet for the day, and only the church bells accompanied me out of the town as I began my walk. The town receded behind me in less than five minutes, meaning that the local streetlamps disappeared with it and left me out in open countryside, under a pitch black sky. I had readied my headtorch on my forehead for the open country that lay beyond the town, but as I fiddled with the On/Off button over and over again I came to the realisation that the lamp was going to be trouble. I opened it up and played with the batteries. I wiggled and jiggled it. I tapped it firmly and I tapped it softly. But the damned thing refused to give me light.
I looked at the blackness ahead of me, well aware that the sun would not rise for another hour and ten minutes and that my pitch-black view would remain that way for some time to come. There was a split second where I considered taking myself back to the albergue and putting myself into bed again until some light had slipped into the sky, but it was a fleeting thought and I put one foot in front of the other instead in a very well-practiced fashion and continued on into the dark void ahead of me.
The unseen path created a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings, as if some primordial switch had been flicked inside of my brain. It was trying to tell me that such darkness could only equate to danger – BE ALERT it was trying to say. But the primitive warning system that was millennia out of date was overrun by a sense of elation instead – elation that I should be privy to such a volume of darkness in my otherwise very modern lifetime. I was struck with a sense of pure joy that I was there, out on an open plain, with no light available to me except from the billions of stars that danced across the sky above me. Oh, stars and lightning. Directly ahead of me in the north came another occasional light source in the form of flashes of white light that lit up a voluminous mass of cloud resting on the horizon. The storm was clearly a sizable one, but from such a massive distance it couldn’t provide any element of threat, just another opportunity for wonder to compliment the stars above.
The path was straight and level ahead of me, and the yellow arrows that marked the path of the Via de la Plata were still somehow luminous without the assistance of light. The journey was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and wait patiently until morning light began to slip into the sky. As it did so the silhouette of a range of hills appeared to the east, slowly taking shape as the sun continued to climb. And all the time the landscape was silent – only the crunching of the gravel beneath my feet and my breathing offered up anything audible.
The storm disappeared into the distance as the sun rose higher in the sky. Its welcome presence revealed a landscape of vineyards and a continuing series of peaks to the East of the path as well as dead ahead. The peaks ahead were where I was headed, and the track didn’t deviate much from its dead straight direction for the next few hours, such was the simplicity of an old Roman road. Straight as a nail and, dare I say it, a little monotonous to boot.
There was no variation to be seen in the landscape – none for as far as the eye could see – and so I partook in the slightly guilty pleasure of music and put my headphones on. The coast was clear, and I sung to my heart’s content, my lungs bursting at the ferocity of my singing. This was no shower sing-along, mind you. Throughout a shower sing-along there’s still an element of self-consciousness courtesy of neighbours or housemates or loved ones. No, this was a full-throttle assault on my vocal cords as I bellowed along to some of my favourite tunes. It would have been a full-throttled assault on the eardrums of anyone unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity also – but that, of course, was the beauty of such solitude.
My singing came to an abrupt halt though when a figure appeared in the distance ahead of me. The silhouette didn’t seem to be that of a farmer and appeared to me to be a fellow pilgrim, but getting closer and closer to me, at some speed. I realised the reason for the rapid appearance of the figure soon enough – it was coming towards me, rather than walking away from me. The figure eventually became female, and sure enough it was a fellow peregrino – a German woman who had begun her Camino in Merida and was walking in reverse towards Seville. She had left Torremeíja a few hours beforehand and was already keen to know how much further along Villa de los Barros was for her. I assured her that it was plain sailing and that the town itself was lovely.
We chatted for a little longer, which was a delightful occasion, having not seen another living soul all morning – and not having had an actual conversation with another human for at least a week. The relief to talk was surely plastered all over my face. She told me she was planning to stay in Spain for as long as it took her to become fluent in Spanish, and the Via was a perfect opportunity to put herself amongst communities where defaulting to English (let alone German) wasn’t an option. We wished each other luck and headed off in opposite directions, leaving ourselves alone on the path once more.
Because I wanted to dedicate some time to explore as many of the Roman wonders as I could in Merida I figured I could push on through to my destination in one day, rather than break the journey up in Torremeíja as was usually the case. My arrival in Torremeíja just before noon marked a 27 kilometre trek, and so the additional 14 kilometres to Merida seemed like a doddle to me in comparison. Sure, there were billowing rain clouds behind me in the south that crept closer and closer throughout the morning, but I felt impervious to their threat. No rain had fallen on me the day before after all, despite ongoing suggestions to the contrary. My over-confidence proved to be misplaced…
My spirits were high when I wandered into Torremeíja, and they remained high knowing that I would not be staying long in this grim little corner of the world. I don’t mean to sound unnecessarily negative, but what little there was of the town suggested a bleakness that I was only too happy to maintain a passing awareness of. Even the typically relaxed Spanish decorum seemed to be missing here and I felt cold stares sizing me up as I wandered along the main street. Was this the result of Covid fear, or was this hard little town simply hard on its residents also?
I stopped at a small cafe to refuel and ordered a cheese and tomato bocadillo and fresh orange juice. Conversations stopped as I stepped onto the terrace and I wondered if maybe I should perhaps skip the idea of lunch and carry on through without it. I ignored the strange amount of consideration I was receiving and settled down at a table to relieve my feet of their shoes and socks. I figured that if I was already a figure of curiosity then I may as well earn it with such an uncouth action as baring my feet. They each appreciated the opportunity to breath after an almost non-stop morning of walking and I hung my socks up over a rail to dry them in the sun – adding to the performance I thought the gawkers were looking for.
Satisfied that I’d made the right decision not to stay in the town for the night, I ate greedily and redressed my feet before readying my pack once more on my bag. The storm clouds had gathered a little closer behind me in the South but with Merida so close it seemed silly to worry about them. And so I set off in an excitable mood. Excited about the idea of completing something close to a 45 kilometre day as well as the satisfaction of ticking that particular box. Call it ego. I told myself it was a good practice run for many of the longer days that lay ahead of me on the Via, and that once I had today out of the way the rest of the Via would seem like a day at the beach.
I was excited too at the promise of a weekend amongst the Roman ruins in Mérida, but I was equally motivated by the promise of a small luxury in the form of accommodation at a high-end hotel in the centre of the city. I had made a reservation at a fancy-pants hotel where I hoped to soak in a hot tub and starfish in an oversized bed for the weekend. It was a small treat for me, and not an expensive one either. The final nicety that made me commit to the decision was the fact that the room cost only a third of what it might have done in a pre-Covid world.
So the second part of the day began, and it began in high spirits. A main road led me away from Torremeíja, but not fast enough away to help me stay ahead of the long threatening clouds that finally caught up with me, only 15 minutes outside of the town. At first they only gave up the odd heavy drop. Constant enough to be noticed, but nothing too nasty to instil any real sense of concern. I put my camera away in my backpack anyway, just to be safe, and pulled out my pack’s waterproof cover for the first time – not sure how waterproof it actually was (it turns out it did a pretty fine job, considering the volume of rain that eventually landed on me).
Within minutes the rain had settled, and it was worth acknowledging to myself that I’d get wet, so as not to let the fact upset me in any way. I was wearing a light wind-jacket, but hadn’t invested in a poncho as I was pretty certain I wouldn’t see much rain until much later on my travels. But rain it did, and rain, and rain and rain. I felt damp very quickly, but it was manageable, and while it came down in a horizontal fashion it was no great deal. But as each huge truck roared past me along the highway the spray they sent up into the air from the tarmac came at me from all directions and ensured that every last inch of me was soon soaked. I pictured myself from a distance – a sodden wretch that flinched ever so slightly as each truck zoomed by in a mist of muddy spray. But even that image was a reason for amusement and I still had a smile on my face as the path led me away from the highway and back into farmland.
By now the rain had been falling consistently for some time and the once dusty path that had been my near constant companion for the past eight days had turned to sludge beneath my feet. Every footstep went one of two ways. It either landed and skidded out in front of me with the slick of the wet soil, or it landed and stuck in a thick, gloopy, clay-like substance. Either option meant that my shoes were soon covered in muck and were now an arduous weight to lift with each step. I do believe that if I’d weighed each shoe there and then there’d be well over a kilogram of mud on each.
The path had become some sort of obstacle course on an army training exercise and I stumbled about from left to right and back again, trying to find firm ground beneath my feet. Trying and failing. The entire landscape had soaked up the vast quantities of water and softened into an unrecognisable terrain. I made a mental note to add walking sticks to my list on new acquisitions, alongside the new poncho that was keenly missed that afternoon.
I had the misplaced idea in my head that my situation was as bad as it could be, and I was quietly satisfied at how good humoured I still was considering the grubby, sodden state of me. But then the rain surprised me and came down harder still. Almost painfully so. I was wet to the core already, so the increased volume didn’t necessarily bother me, but parts of the track had now become impromptu streams, with water gushing about beneath my feet and adding a new type of terrain to navigate. Then came a blinding flash of white light, followed almost immediately by the deafening roar of thunder that seemed to vibrate through my sodden core. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so close to a lightning strike, and I’d gladly never be that close again.
I thought that that was surely the most dramatic that the weather could get, but ten minutes later I found myself under an apple tree looking out at a world that seemed to be as much water as it was land and air. I had never seen such a volume of water fall from the sky before. Even the leaves of the tree were no match for it, and I was still being tormented by a heavy stream of the stuff through the thick foliage. I took the opportunity to take my phone tentatively from my pack to check in on my destination. According to Google Maps my hotel was only twenty-five minutes away, which seemed ludicrous to me considering I was still deep in farmland. But the information was reassuring, nonetheless. I could endure anything for twenty-five minutes.
And so I stepped back out into the fray, no longer minding my steps as each was going to land in either mud or a torrent of water. I wondered how on earth I was going to get my shoes dry again, even with a two day break ahead of me. They would need some love, that was for sure. I considered myself lucky that in eight days of walking this was the only time the weather had provided a real challenge to me, and I considered myself lucky that the ratio had been so kind. I tried to imagine what I might encounter up ahead in the days and weeks to come, and whether or not the Spanish climate could offer up anything dramatic enough to stop me in my tracks. I figured that if I could tolerate the sheer volume of water falling from the sky that afternoon then I could endure just about anything.
Merida did indeed appear within the prescribed twenty-five minutes, as if from nowhere. The rain stopped right on cue and there was the Guardiana river, and the Puente Romano, and water absolutely everywhere. Water rushing along footpaths and over the edges of gutters. Water falling in great torrents from beneath bridges and in great fat drops from trees. The volume of the stuff on the ground had at least given me an opportunity to clean the mud from my shoes, but I was still an absolute sight to behold as I strolled into the foyer of the hotel, leaving great puddles everywhere I stepped. I certainly didn’t look like the type of clientele the hotel would normally welcome on a Friday afternoon, but the staff humoured me nonetheless as I dripped all over the floor, the check-in desk and all of their requisite paperwork.
As soon as my backpack left my shoulders in the room I climbed into the shower, still fully clothed – shoes and all. I proceeded to warm myself to the core under a generous stream of hot water while cleaning the muck from my skin, clothes, and shoes. Ten minutes later with my clothes and shoes cleaned off I was finally undressed and enjoying the shower for what it was, rather than as a makeshift laundromat. Within another ten minutes the remainder of the very stylish hotel room looked like a laundromat with damp items of clothing hanging here, there, and everywhere.
I saw blue sky and sunshine through the window and so decided to forego my bath and headed downstairs to the town square for beer instead. With only flip-flops to wear on my feet as I headed back outside it was a nippy excursion for liquid refreshment, and so it was a brief excursion also. I promptly headed back upstairs to my room to finally hold myself to the promise of a nice hot bath. Suffice to say it was well received and my joints appreciated the opportunity to soak in a horizontal position. As the water cooled I topped up with more hot water, again and again, until I worried myself that I could potentially fall asleep where I rested. And so I took my relieved body to bed finally, just as the rain started falling once more, and lay down with the rain hitting hard against the window – feeling ever so chuffed with my achievement.
My brain remained too full of adrenalin from the days’ trek though and sleep didn’t come to me, as much as my body was craving it. Adrenalin and a big surge of satisfaction also. Satisfaction that I’d covered so many kilometres in one day, and that my feet had survived to tell the tale. Satisfaction also that despite the biblical volume of rain the heavens had chucked down upon me I had remained in good humour, even managing to smile at the ridiculous state of me. Satisfaction too that my broken headlamp had allowed me to appreciate the morning’s darkness so fully, not to mention the stars above and the lightning filled horizon beyond.
I lay on the bed and contemplated my suddenly very unfamiliar life. And I couldn’t have been any happier.
I knew very well there and then that I was a very, very lucky human being.