Carcabosa to Aldeanueva del Camino,
Saturday September Twenty-Six, 2020
The journey from Carcabosa to Aldeanueva del Camino was always going to be the big one for me. It was the day I had stuck in my mind during all of the months that I was imagining the reality of my Camino. The reason that my fourteenth day of walking was so much at the front of my mind was that it was always meant to be the longest day on the Via de la Plata. At close to forty kilometres it was the benchmark day that I applied to all of my training in the weeks and months before my departure. My regimen began around April 2020, with a couple of 10km walks each week through the deserted streets of London. The global Lockdown was still a very fresh concept at that point, and the scale of what was to come could only be imagined. It was a strange new world that we all found ourselves in, both physically and mentally.
The idea of sitting around doing very little never sat well with me, and so for the sake of my sanity I would leave my apartment each day and walk. Just walk. There was very rarely a distinct destination in mind, just a sense that today I might go east towards the Hackney marshes, or perhaps west towards Kensington Gardens, or maybe south to the River Thames. Anyone familiar with London will know that it is an exceptionally walkable city, as flat and as green as it is. And so walk I did, for ten kilometres at a time. And then fifteen kilometres. Eventually I made it to twenty kilometres, and by then I was certain I would eventually lose my job and subsequently have the opportunity to leave London behind and walk the Via.
At that point I had researched my journey enough to know that the distance between Carcabosa and Aldeanueva del Camino was the longest distance I was likely to encounter along the way. And so from week to week I kept moving closer and closer to that distance in my walking adventures around the streets of London. And what adventures they were, with the heart of the city emptied out and with no other soul but mine to be seen or heard. You’ve all seen many a film where the lone survivor of an apocalyptic event wanders about a desolate city trying to make sense of their new reality. Well, that lone survivor was me. I just didn’t have the threat of a Zombie hoard to fill me with dread. Instead, I wandered about with an increasing sense of wonder at such a novelty.
And so my journey to Aldeanueva del Camino, and the forty kilometres that it entailed, had been playing on my mind for a long time before I set off that morning. The reality was that I’d already exceeded that distance much earlier on in my Camino when I’d doubled down on my way to Merida and skipped Torremeíja. By passing through that grim little town I’d managed to achieve a forty-five kilometre day. Still, the journey to Aldeanueva del Camino was significant also for the reason that it would take me to Cáparra, the symbolic heart of the Via de la Plata. It also quite literally provides the symbol of the Via, in the form of the four-sided Roman archway that still remains standing over 1,000 years after the settlement was abandoned.
I was happy to leave Carcabosa and its grimy little hostel as early as possible and so I hit the road at 7:00am in the pitch-black of the early morning. I was glad to be in possession of a still functioning head torch as it was definitely needed that day before first light. The path seemed darker than at any other time I’d walked it before, and the paths were windier and more potholed also, with alternative paths veering off from it unexpectedly. The morning was eerily quiet also, except for the occasional angry barks of dogs off in the distance who were somehow able to hear my soft steps over the gravel from miles away. I felt uncomfortable and on edge as I walked and gave myself the creeps by imagining that I might have the misfortune of running into someone else along the way in the dark. Do you recall that spooky mindset you’d sometimes lapse into as a child? Convinced as you are that there’s a monster in your closest, or an ogre beneath your bed? Well, on my way from Carcabosa I was convinced that the ghost of a long dead priest would appear on the path ahead of me…
A grown man, aged 43, with the overactive imagination of a four year old.
Suffice to say I was relieved when the morning gloom finally settled in and revealed a not so haunted landscape of farmland around me. The morning journey was a painless one. In fact, it was a positively joyous one. The morning light, when it finally arose properly, was so lovely and golden and I took my sweet time enjoying it. I sat for a small break against a Camino marker and was approached by two donkeys who were happy to make friends with me. They loitered about me and let me scratch at their necks and their noses. But as soon as I pulled out my selfie stick to try and get a photo of us all together they both bolted. Clearly they’d been on the receiving end of a forceful stick before, which broke my heart a little. Even with the selfie stick put back into my backpack they remained wary of me and would not let me get close to them again.
All around me the landscape ebbed and flowed with peaks and troughs, and a gently meandering path that made its way through stone fenced paddocks. Up ahead was another range of hills that added another element of scale to the horizon, and all about me were vast fields of recently harvested crops. There was a chilly wind that whipped about all morning though, incessantly so, and I left my windbreaker on for the better part as a result. I could certainly feel the local climate changing the further North I travelled. Something about the promise of an Autumnal change appealed to me, with colder nights and the comfort of a bed at the end of the day heightened by the chill.
Cáparra seemed to arrive before me in next to no time and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly time had passed throughout the morning. It had been such a pleasant and effortless walk throughout. But along with Cáparra came people. A whole swathe of them, as if from out of nowhere. The sudden appearance of other human beings shook me a little, and took me quite a few moments to process. Children ran about the place unaccompanied by parents, while couples sauntered about and families took group photos in front of the famous Roman archway. In my head I had imagined my visit to the ancient Roman site to be yet another solitary occasion, roaming about the ruins and having them all to myself. But no, Cáparra had other fans also. Great volumes of them. And they’d all arrived by car from places unknown. I should have expected as much. It was a Saturday morning after all, and it seemed fitting that the ruins should be such a family friendly weekend destination.
No sooner had I arrived then a man approached me on the path talking at me enthusiastically. He had rightly assumed that I spoke English and launched into an energetic soliloquy about the site. He wanted me to know how very important Cáparra was, which I was already in no doubt of. I nodded and shook my head, and uttered the occasional expression of interest at him, but all the while I simply wanted to be alone to appreciate the milestone moment that my arrival signified. He very kindly offered to take my photo beside the arches and then left me to explore the ruins. I felt a little ungrateful that I couldn’t appreciate his enthusiasm in sharing the significance of Cáparra with me, and I was still flustered by the sheer volume of people around me that I passed beneath the arches without actually letting the significance of the moment sink in.
This was the day that I’d been looking forward to for so many months. And it was the day that I’d put so much preparation into – both physically and mentally. It was the longest day of my Camino, with nothing between point A and point B, except Cáparra and a couple of vending machines (which weren’t operational anyway because of Covid). This was the symbolic heart of the Via de la Plata, and I’d gone and lost the moment in all of the suddenness that had occurred. I made my way to the amphitheatre to reset my brain and ate my lunch in the sun while giving my poor feet some time to breathe. I took off my shoes and socks and chowed down on fruit and nuts in the most public of spaces that I’d yet to stop and rest. It felt odd to be so publicly visible as a pilgrim and I drew the curious attention of a rowdy bunch of children running about in the amphitheatre roleplaying scenes from two thousand years ago. Even the proximity of the very full carpark seemed like such a strange notion to me. All of these people would zoom off soon enough to abodes that might take them a matter of minutes or hours to arrive at. But those same abodes would take me days to reach by foot.
I managed to park all of my mental flurries and put my shoes and socks back on to go and properly explore the ruins. The crowds had died down a little more by then, and so my head calmed down in unison. I wandered about to take in the scale of the town, and to imagine what it may have looked like two thousand years beforehand. I have to admit though that my imagination failed me terribly and I needed to rely on the artists renditions to get any sense of what had existed before. Satisfied that I had properly appreciated and respected the ruined town I returned to the four columned archways and made sure to properly appreciate them as I passed beneath them once more.
I left Cáparra a little reluctantly. After so much anticipation I felt unprepared to leave it behind me. I loitered about beneath the arches for as long as I could, but when another throng of visitors began to approach I said my goodbyes and finally turned to carry on with my Camino.
The journey away from the ruins provided a fantastic distraction from my small sorrow and took me along an amazing country path, bordered on each side by high hedges and trees. The track proceeded to head downwards, and then up again, in a perfectly straight line towards a range of hills on the horizon. It was another of many tiny joys that had brought a wee grin to my face that day. So much of the landscape seemed to me to be more like a painting, or a film set, than it did real. It all just seemed so perfectly representative of Spain, and the Camino in particular. You couldn’t have thrown me any more cliches about the Spanish landscape that afternoon if you’d tried. Everything was already accounted for, in living colour and so perfectly represented.
By the end of the afternoon my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. And fair enough also. Although not an exceptionally hot day at twenty four degrees it had still been a notably long day. I hobbled into Aldeanueva del Camino with weary feet, glad for the sight of the small town. The citizens were all still tucked away inside their dwellings and enjoying their siestas as I wandered through the empty lanes and made my way towards the albergue. I phoned the number on the locked door to announce my arrival and was greeted five minutes later by my hostess. She pointed to a marked spot on the floor in the foyer where I was expected to stand and then proceeded to circle me with a mister that contained sanitiser. I tried not to smirk as she sprayed me all over, taking particular attention to my backpack and my shoes. The sight would surely have seemed ludicrous to anyone watching. But hey, 2020 had already been so full of surprises that one more foible might hardly be noticed.
I was handed an oversized garbage bag to place my pack into and then led upstairs to my room for the night. My hostess showed me to one of two large bunkrooms – both empty of any other occupants. I was destined to spend the night in the albergue on my own once more, while my fellow peregrinos broke up the long day by staying at a Truck Stop a little bit off the Via. How quickly having company those past three nights had become normal to me once more. And how strange it seemed all of a sudden to be alone once again.
Nothing was yet open in Aldeanueva del Camino, except for a petrol station on the edge of town, so I made the fifteen minute walk to it to top up on water and some nuts for the following day’s journey. As I wandered back to the albergue I searched the streets for a promising restaurant that might provide me with a well-earned dinner later that evening. Alas, there seemed to be only one restaurant in the town itself, and it didn’t open until 9pm. By which time I was certain to be fast asleep.
I took comfort instead in the vending machine provided in the albergue. It refused to accept any of my notes, and so I managed to scrounge up enough coins to provide me with a ready-made meal of beans and chorizo, that came to a grand total of €2.80. I pricked the plastic lid and eagerly watched as the meal rotated around and around in the microwave until it was ready. I shouldn’t have been surprised that only one piece of chorizo made it into the dish, such was the low, low cost of it, but I have to admit to being a little disappointed, nonetheless. I overcame that disappointment however by treating myself to two cans of ice-cold Estrella beer from the adjacent vending machine that cost me €1 a pop.
I carried my feast upstairs with me to my bunk and devoured it in an instant, mostly able to ignore the piping hot temperature of the beans. The ice-cold beer came in handy when the temperature did become unbearable to the sides and tip of my tongue. Dessert was a blackened banana that had somehow been missed during the course of the day, and to top it all off I pulled out my phone and logged into Netflix for an indulgent evening of television viewing. I say indulgent, but I’m pretty sure I only saw thirty minutes of a show before I was fast asleep, and quite likely snoring like a trooper.
But there it was. My peak Via day. The day I’d been anticipating since the very start of my Camino. The day I’d been working towards since I first considered walking the Via de la Plata all those months before back in London. Everything from that point forward felt to me to like an extra special treat – an embellishment to everything that I’d already achieved. And that felt great.