Zamora to Fontillas de Castro
Monday October Five, 2020
Zamora is full of a number of architectural wonders, museums and sites of historical significance. Like Merida and Salamanca before it, it promised to entertain my little brain for any number of hours. Except that I was visiting Zamora on a Monday, so it couldn’t, because nothing was open…
I had overlooked the little foible of Spanish culture whereby places of historical significance close on random days of the week for no other good reason than because they can. So as penance for not doing my research online earlier I spent the morning wandering around Zamora’s historically significant sites and admiring them from the outside instead. Suffice to say, the experience wasn’t as satisfying as it might have been. But with that small adventure completed I returned to the Guest House and repacked my backpack before setting off once more on my day’s journey.
It was noon when I departed, and gosh did it feel strange leaving so late in the day. There was an element of feeling like a naughty school-child attached to it all. It was strange also to be walking through the city so vibrant as it was with human activity. And stranger also to have so much attention garnered upon me and my Peregrino Chic by my fellow pedestrians. In leaving so early in the morning as I usually did I missed the hustle and the bustle of the streets. But today I couldn’t ignore it. Nor could I ignore the ample attention that was coming my way? Was I simply a novelty because there were so few pilgrims travelling the Via in 2020? Or was there an anxiety in those stares, and were the locals looking upon this outsider as a potential Covid threat?
My mind had climbed up and over, and through and around these thoughts on many occasions throughout my Camino. And in conversations with other pilgrims also we had often discussed the perception of pilgrims still travelling along the Via de la Plata during a global pandemic. Were we really as welcome as we were made to feel? Or were we viewed as being reckless and irresponsible by wandering the length of the country? At no point had I encountered any hostility or ill-will, and in actual fact the temperament in most places had been incredibly welcoming. But the conundrum still played on my mind nonetheless.
Leaving Zamora was a tiresome affair and it seemed to take forever to make my way through the city and then beyond it. The journey felt like it was made up of a never ending vista of grimy industrial estates, one after another, that were laid out endlessly just to taunt me. And when I finally did hit farmland the route never properly shied away from the highway, which stayed ever-present in the distance all the way through to Fontillas de Castro. Other than the highway and the occasional railway line that required crossing the landscape was largely featureless, and endless dry fields surrounded me once more as I walked. Surprise, surprise.
At least the weather had improved and gone was the wind and the rain from the previous few day. I was dressed once more in shorts and a tee-shirt, although there were the occasional moments when I thought I could do with a jacket also, such was the nippiness of the breeze when it whipped itself around me. It was nice to be dressed lightly once more, without the additional rustling of trouser legs or flapping of ponchos. Even my pack was slightly lighter as had I posted exactly 1.2 kilogrammes of unused bits and bobs back to friends in Barcelona earlier that morning. Now, I know that 1.2 kilogrammes doesn’t seem like a lot of weight, but considering I’d added at least three or four kilogrammes to my pack weight since beginning my journey it was a necessary step to take. The weight mostly consisted of underwear, socks and tee-shirts that hadn’t seen the light of day since I’d set off from Seville three weeks prior. Which goes to prove that no matter how lightly you pack for the Via, you can always go lighter still.
Despite my light attire and the new lightness of my pack I still managed to slip into something of a cranky-pants mood during the course of the day. I couldn’t explain where it was coming for, nor did I wish to overanalyse it and try to pinpoint its source. I just noted that it was there, but gave it as little credence as I could. To stifle the tedium I gave myself plenty of opportunities to sit and rest and dry out my feet. Or perhaps I wasn’t stifling the tedium at all. Perhaps I was just succumbing to the stroppy impulses of my inner five-year-old by stopping fast and refusing to continue any further until I’d had my fair share of reward. And come to think of it, I did do a lot of snacking during those breaks that day, and most of those snacks were full of sugary goodness.
The day livened up considerably during the last few kilometres as I made my way into Fontanillas de Castro. I’d just taken another break from walking when I turned a corner and saw a large decrepit structure to the left of me. It was about 200m off of the Camino proper and I eyed it up with a great deal of hesitation. I was so over walking at that point and was keen to just reach my destination and settle in for the day. But the closer I got to the ruins the more intrigued I became, and so followed a small track away from the Camino towards them. What I discovered was Castrotorafe, a twelth century fortification that now lay in ruins beside an empty looking river that ran towards a large water reservoir. The whole site was vast, and really rather impressive, even in its ruined state. There was actually very little left of the original structure, just some walls jutting out of the ground and the remains of the base of a tower. But even considering how little there was left you could still get a sense of the scale of what had once been there.
The entire complex sat high on the edge of the river, overlooking its domain, and I scurried about through the tall grass growing high within the walls hoping to discover more and more of the place. It was wild to think that such a large settlement once existed behind these walls and beyond. In its time it was clearly a very important base for defence, trade and commerce, and it would’ve attracted a considerable community around it. Its relevance had waned from the 17th century however, and now all that was left were a few stones, a few crumpled walls and the remnants of a once mighty tower. It had been so important to so many people once upon time, for so many reasons, and now it was nothing but debris in a field surrounded by cereal crops.
All good things must come to an end I guess.
I felt incredibly privileged to have visited Castrotorafe though. It was one of those very pleasant surprises that just happens to appear in your life to delight you and fill you with wonder. And to think, I had almost passed it by and written it off as an unnecessary distraction from my goal of arriving at Fontanillas de Castro. As fatigued and unmotivated as I had been up until that point I was all of a sudden filled with wonder and awe at this once great site. I felt like a child again, on my own Indiana Jones styled adventure traipsing through a long forgotten city. It really was a thrill to explore. I left it begrudgingly, wanting many more hours up my sleeve to discover its nooks and crannies. But the sun was getting low, and my energy even lower. Besides, my feet were well and truly ready to call it a day.
I wandered into the village at about 6:00pm, just in time for the sun to cast great long shadows across the landscape. It was certainly a magical time of day to be arriving at my destination, with a beautiful golden light glowing over everything. I had never been out on the Via so late in the day, but it felt good to see it from a different perspective, so to speak. I was quite used to the long shadows cast by the sun, and it’s wonderful warm hues over the landscape, but that had always been courtesy of dawn light rather than dusk light. The air was cooling quickly around me also as I stepped into the village, and something about ending the journey at the same time as the day was ending seemed fitting. Fitting and satisfying. It gave the moment more of a sense of arrival.
I was greeted at the albergue by an Englishman, which I had not expected. He chatted animatedly at me and it took me some time to find my stride within the conversation, having been stuck inside of my own head for the entire day. He was joined by a Basset Hound and a kitten, both of which were as welcoming as my host. He was incredibly enthusiastic about my arrival, and Daan’s subsequent arrival about an hour later. I got the slightest impression that it had been a while since he had had company at the albergue, and his florid musings were a result of him missing the companionship that was otherwise dime a dozen during a typical year. But 2020 certainly wasn’t that…
Dinner was a pleasantly early affair, at a very grim little bar about five minutes’ walk outside of the village. It was perched on the side of what was once the major traffic artery, but it had been superseded by a flashier highway whose traffic we could make out on the horizon as we walked through the evening gloom towards the bar. For every house we walked past with a light on there seemed to be half a dozen that sat in darkness. Abandoned and decrepit. It gave our short walk a slightly sinister air. A sinister air that wasn’t helped by the fact that the bar was set beside a long disused service station. The kind of service station that has its place in many a horror film. The whole ambience of Fontanillas de Castro felt a little off, and it wasn’t even 8pm but I was already looking forward to being gone from it as early as possible the following morning.
We took dinner in the dimly lit bar, rather than in the empty dining room with its harsh overhead strip lighting. It was simple fare, made all the more enjoyable by cold beer and Daan’s fine company. We rattled off our thoughts on the day, as well as our thoughts for the days ahead. Together we had a similar idea about the daily durations we were prepared to walk, as well as which locations we were pencilled in to stop at. So it seemed that Daan would remain company for some time to come, which I certainly wasn’t complaining about. Not only was it still a treat to share cold beer and hearty food over good conversation at the end of the day, but Daan’s lively energy and charisma provided a wonderful source of motivation throughout. There was great joy in wrapping up the day with constant banter, rather than wrapping up the day with just more of my own thoughts rattling about in my head.
We finished our meal and called it a day earlier than we might have otherwise. Daan’s mantra of “Just one more” from two nights prior was not sung in Fontanillas de Castro, and we were both quite keen to put it behind us. Besides, the following day was going to be another long one at thirty-six kilometres, with the temperature creeping back up into the mid-twenties. So we had planned an early departure the following morning as we chatted over dinner. I looked forward to hitting the road with company in the morning, but before then I needed a decent chunk of sleep behind me to help me reset and recharge.
I climbed into bed with visions of Castrotorafe still in my head, and my imagination running wild with thoughts about the thousands of lives that had once called it home. It had once been an epicentre of life, and now it was just a series of fallen stones surrounded by fields of grain and the occasional cow. There was something humbling in that, and I closed my eyes feeling very, very small in the grand scheme of things. Small, but perfectly content that I had this insignificant amount of time available to me on this planet in the first place.