Via de la Plata: Day Twenty-Three

Tábara to Camarzana de Tera

Wednesday October Seven, 2020

30km   24֯C

Despite the encroaching threat of Covid that I’d gone to bed with the night before I began my departure from Tábara in high spirits. I left the hotel alone at around 8.30am, and made a leisurely journey away from the village just as the sun was beginning to climb into the sky. The route was lovely and gentle, with rolling green hills breaking up the landscape and deep red soil cushioning each step of my feet. The golden dawn light reflected warmly off of the wind turbines that bordered the path on either side of me and their rhythmic thwarmp, thwarmp, thwarmp lulled my head into a lovely state of calm. Suffice to say, I felt pretty damned good about life, the universe, and everything in between. All things considered.

Serene…

I eventually grew tired of the peaceful ambience that the Camino was laying out for me and put my headphones in to listen to one of the many podcasts I subscribe to and that I’d been neglecting as I walked. I’m not entirely sure why I chose a podcast about the upcoming 2020 U.S. election – Trump versus Biden – but I did, and it was certainly jarring. I mean, what a way to contrast the absolute glory of the Camino de Santiago with the muck and degradation of U.S. politics. I had completed one podcast and was well on my way into another (about the coming Climate Crisis no less) when Daan phoned me up. He was walking two hundred metres behind me and had spotted me in the distance. I turned, waved, and waited as he caught up to me. His timing was impeccable, as I couldn’t possibly have listened to much more news about current affairs that day, as grim and disheartening as they were in October 2020.

Instead, Daan and I yarned our way through the morning chatting about our lives prior to the Camino, and our lives even further back prior to Covid (which practically felt like ancient history after everything that had already happened that year). Life, the universe and everything else in between came up for discussion as the hours wore on in an easy flow of banter that meant the morning flew by in next to no time.

We wandered into the small village of Bercianos de Valverde with a hankering for late morning refreshments. The fields around the edge of the village were empty, as were the streets within. We zig-zagged our way between houses in search of anything that resembled a café or bar, but found nothing to satiate our needs. Eventually an elderly gentleman appeared on the street in front of us and gave us directions to the local Association. We wandered to the bar, which was (predictably) closed, and so we resigned ourselves to go without. We were just about to carry on our way however when another elderly gentleman pedalled up to the front door on his bicycle and began chattering away to Daan. As luck would have it he was one of the members of the Association, and even better was the fact that he had a set of keys that would get us inside. He insisted that we follow him so that he could make us coffee.

Daan and I followed our host up a set of stairs to a communal lounge where the locals gathered in the evenings. There was a fully stocked bar to the side of the space where an honesty system was at play. Each of the local members had their own card, which was placed in a small cubby-hole, and each drink that they took was marked off with the idea that it be paid for at a later date.

Our host headed behind the bar and offered us coffee, which threw up a small conundrum for me. I had decided to go without coffee for the duration of my Camino you see. Now, before you balk at the idea of giving up caffeine during an adventure that theoretically requires plenty of the stuff, I had a couple of solid reasons around it. I’d worked in the coffee industry for over twenty-five years at that point in my life and it had become very much a part of me. I’d also just lost my job in London, leading a large team within a wholesale coffee business. And so in a symbolic act I wanted to draw a line and put that part of my life behind me – a sort of pre and post Camino line of sorts. And so by giving up coffee, of which I usually drank three or four (or five) cups a day, I was delineating my world in a small way.

So my conundrum was this; stick to the plan of going six weeks without coffee, or acknowledge the gracious hospitality of our host and accept an espresso from him. He had opened up the building for us after all and taken time out of his day to entertain us. So, of course I caved and accepted his offer with a wide smile. The espresso itself was terrible, which is so often the case in Spain, but that was beside the point. In its pure awfulness it was still surprisingly satisfying. Two sugars later, stirred into it with vigour, and the balance between bitter and sweet in the cup was just right. I contemplated requesting another, but decided that after three and a half weeks without caffeine in my system a second espresso might just tip the balance between a pleasant buzz and a nightmarish afternoon of palpitations and nervous energy.

(I also gave up soap for the duration of my Camino, but that’s another story for another day…)

Oh caffeine, how I missed you…

Daan continued to chat to our host for close to an hour, and gained insight into village life that I never would have accessed with my remedial Spanish. It turned out that our host usually resided in Madrid, where he had two adult children living also. But since the Lockdown at the start of the year he had left the city and taken refuge in Bercianos de Valverde where he had grown up. In fact, most of the villages current inhabitants weren’t permanent residents at all. They had family roots in the village but had long since moved away to the cities as our host had. With the coming of Covid however, and the threat that it posed in the cities around Spain, they’d returned to their ancestral homes to minimise their exposure to the virus. None of them had any idea that they would remain in their splendid isolation for as long as they had been, but they were relieved to have the opportunity nonetheless.  

At its peak the village of Bercianos de Valverde had been home to 220 residents, and the land around the village had been farmed by them. In 2020 however it was home to a grand total of forty inhabitants. And of that total of forty, there was no one under the age of fifty living there. The inevitable fate of the village and the productivity of the land around it was depressing, but Bercianos de Valverde shared the same fate as huge swathes of the Hollowed-Out Spain in the 21st century.

Our host eventually walked us back down the stairs and out of the Association. Outside the front door on the street a cluster of locals had gathered to, I imagine, discuss our presence inside of the building. They greeted us enthusiastically with broad smiles and wished us a happy Camino as we re-strapped our packs to our backs and carried on our journey. Our host walked alongside us, wheeling his bicycle alongside, still chatting away with Daan as we went. The conversation had a sombre tone to it, and Daan was relieved when our host finally said his farewells at a bridge that formed the boundary of the village. We waved him goodbye before Daan retold the man’s account of life in Madrid throughout the early stages of the pandemic, and just how overwhelmed the city’s health infrastructure had become. Indeed, how overwhelmed the city’s population had become also. His decision to take shelter away from his children and friends in his family’s village had not been taken lightly, but he considered himself blessed to have such an opportunity in the first place.   

Still such a satisfying memory…

We continued along our path, through a landscape consisting of more rolling hills, more dusty paths and flies. So many damned flies. Swarms of them in fact. They buzzed about our heads in thick masses, in the way that flies buzz around the heads of cartoon characters when the implication is that they’re smelly or dirty. Our new companions were persistent in their presence and came at our eyes and our mouths in a never ending assault that had us cursing and flailing our arms about wildly. They cohabited our personal space for a good couple of kilometres before they disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared.

An undiscovered world… The entrance of one of many wine cellars built into hills.

More wine cellars appeared along the side of the path, dug as they were into the sides of the hills. Small wooden doors led the way, but were locked up for the better part. One door stood opened, and Daan called inside in the hopes of discovering an occupant as we both really wanted to explore the layout of the cellars (not to mention the contents), but to no avail unfortunately. And so we carried on.

In the next village, Santa Croya de Tera, a man pulled up alongside us on his bicycle with a basket full of apples strapped to its front. He didn’t hesitate in offering us a couple of the apples each, which we gladly accepted. We thanked him as he pedalled off down the road. The gesture was sweet, and so wonderfully wholesome also. At the next village, Santa Marta de Tera, we stopped for a spot of lunch and more zero percent beer, which was to become a staple of our afternoon dining experiences in the weeks to come. We ate and drank with gusto, and were offered free candy from a jar as we left. I was happy to receive a long red strap of liquorice and chewed away on it gladly as we set off out into the sun once more.

The final seven kilometres of the day were painless and constituted nothing more than a leisurely stroll along flat terrain that had been planted out in row after row of fast growing trees. The tall trunks and autumn coloured foliage provided wonderful shade in the late afternoon sun, and added to the sense of ease that came with the remainder of the afternoon. When we weren’t surrounded by trees we were instead surrounded by fields of ripening vegetables, streams and large ponds.  

The strange satisfaction of symmetry when there really ought to be none…

We stepped away from the Via and headed towards Camarzana de Tera, which was a few kilometres off the Camino proper. There we found our accommodation for the night – Hotel Juan Manuel. It was a large hotel come Truck Stop, with a restaurant beneath it and a busy Repsol service station alongside it, all in the (seeming) middle of nowhere. From the outside it didn’t look like much, and I silently questioned Daan’s choice of abode. If anything its immidiate appearance suggested that the rooms within were charged by the hour as opposed to by the night. But how wrong I was.  

We were checked in by friendly staff and headed upstairs to our sizable rooms. I showered and headed back downstairs to the restaurant where cold (alcoholic) beer and complimentary tapas joined my daily journal writing exercise. From the front terrace I watched the world go by in the form of fast cars and large trucks. The service station hosted a constant stream of vehicles and provided the busiest hive of activity that I’d seen in a couple of days. It provided a strange connection to the real world also – where people went about their days completing mundane chores such as filling a car with fuel. Truck drivers came and went from the bar, as did a group of hunters and a series of conspicuous couples that didn’t entirely put to rest my initial thought that the hotel charged rooms out by the hour…

Cheers…

Daan joined me for more beer, as did Brian, who had been in Tabara with us the night before also. At 8pm we were shown through to a huge dining room lit with the cold glare of fluorescents from above. We sat in our plastic chairs at our plastic tables and were shown the substantial menu of the day. It had been written up on a whiteboard that was subsequently wheeled around the room from table to table as each set of guests ordered. Once more my suppositions got the better of me and I expected something dire to come from the unseen kitchen, but Gosh, how wrong I was again. The meal was incredible, especially the Fish Soup that I would gladly have eaten a double or even triple portion of.

After dinner the three of us returned back to the terrace outdoors and tucked into a few more cold beers before finishing the night off with brandy. The brandy was new to me as an after-dinner beverage, but it was how Brian finished each of his evenings and so Daan and I followed suit. Suffice to say it was a much more suitable beverage than beer to be sipping on while sitting outside in the chill night air. Granted, brandy didn’t quite synch up with our Truck Stop setting, but we felt classy nonetheless. The banter came easy with the liquor in our bellies, and one turned into three or four… I honestly couldn’t tell you the real amount that we drank, suffice to say that we took ourselves off to bed much, much later in the evening than we might have otherwise. And when we went we climbed the staircase with much heavier heads than usual. But for the sake of great banter, and even better company, I wasn’t going to begrudge the inevitably heavy head that would greet me the following morning.

But that was for another day also.

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