Day 3 – Ledigos to Bercianos Real Camino (28 km)
In the morning I left the albergue at Ledigos shortly after six and the next two hours took me through three villages without me seeing a soul. In the first village it was still fairly dark and only the house gables and the church steeple formed a silhouetted pattern against the sky. I could see the road, but details of buildings were still obscured. Walking through this village was like tip-toeing through the dwellings of strangers and coughing or even clearing one’s throat would have felt like an intrusion. The only creature awake was a dog crossing the road in front of me.
In the next village a donkey hee-hawed his mournful morning song. Fascinating, donkeys seem to suck in the air on the “hee” and burst it out on the “haw”. Otherwise all was eerily quiet. I briefly considered having my breakfast on the steps of the church, but there was no sun yet and the stone steps looked cold. It was only when I reached the third village that I heard a tractor in the distance and one or two voices in the foreground and shortly thereafter I was happy to find a bench that looked warm and inviting.
The direction we walked on this day and for the entire Camino in Spain was due west and the path through the Meseta, a plateau that stretches roughly from a day’s walk prior to Frómista to nearly up to León, a stretch of about 140 km, was only slightly undulating. This is the grain basket of Spain and at this time of year we walked past harvested wheat fields, sometimes already ploughed over for the next season.
Being a plateau elevated at about 900 m, and with hardly any shrubs and trees around, the Meseta can be excruciatingly hot in summer and bitterly cold at night-time and in winter. In September it was pleasant to traverse, in spite of the chilly early mornings. The path on which we walked is called a senda, a gravel foot-path especially constructed by the provinces of Palencia and León for us pilgrims. It is a very orderly path, no ruts and undulations other than partly protruding pebbles, fist-sized and smaller, which are stabilizing the surface. I now know why many pilgrims wear boots, my walking shoes with their lighter soles allowed a foot massage which I would have preferred not to experience!
When tired and careless, I dragged the walking sticks forward on their wrist slings with my hands totally loose on the grip. The pebbles, however, made the sticks bounce in all directions, sometimes in front of my legs. This was quite hazardous and threatened to make me fall and break either my legs or the sticks. I wondered what would be worse, not using the sticks or having to nurse my legs – the sticks had become very important to my progress.
I was walking due west, and when the sun peeked over the eastern horizon early in the morning, a shadow of my body with walking sticks angling out on either side formed ahead of me. It reminded me of the Etruscans, who had around 600 BC controlled the region around Tuscany in Italy. During this time an Etruscan sculptor created a bronze statuette of a grossly elongated figure. It has a small head, a long body and ridiculously long legs. The cast is about forty centimetres high and only about two centimetres wide. Uta and I previously saw it in an Etruscan museum in Volterra in Tuscany where it was displayed as a very important exhibit in its purpose-made glass cabinet. The description was in Italian and we could not appreciate the meaning of this abnormally elongated figure.
I discovered that you have to walk the Camino to solve the puzzle: it is the shadow of a pilgrim walking due west and over a flat terrain, with the sun just appearing in the morning. My own shadow was proof of this. It reached ahead for a good fifty metres, displayed a very small head, (still too early in the day for me to wear a hat) on top of a very long body and even longer and grotesquely thin legs. On either side, angling out from the hips, were two very thin lines – my walking sticks. The shadow represented me in the form of a stickman and the resemblance with the figure in Volterra was absolutely startling. There is no doubt in my mind that this image is what the sculptor had cast in bronze about 2200 years ago!
In a daily routine ablutions are performed on arrival at the albergue. In the morning before leaving one splashes one’s face and brushes one’s teeth. Within a short time, providing the backpack was organised and packed correctly the previous evening, one is on the road again. Today, two hours into my walk and just after passing the third village, I sat and had my breakfast on the bench with the early sun providing warmth. It consisted of queso (cheese), pan (bread) and bananas which I had bought in Ledigos. Some pilgrims passed by and, as is the tradition, we bid each other Buen Camino. It was not long before I followed them.
6/2 – history /diary By mid-morning I arrived at Sahagún, which was one of the earliest settlements on the Camino, dating back to the early Middle Ages. According to historic records Charlemagne is associated with its development. It was also one of the first and most typical ecclesiastical pilgrims’ centres, catering for pilgrims when it was recorded that the Catholic Church had already set up a great number of facilities, including hospitals and hostels. Alfonso VI, King of León, Castile and Galicia with all his wives are buried here in the Benedictine Convent de Santa Cruz, which unfortunately was closed when I arrived. I would have liked to visit his resting place. King Alfonso VI was also called ‘Alfonso the Brave’, probably because he had recaptured Toledo from the Moors in 1085 and proclaimed himself Emperor of Spain after this remarkable feat. The Moors had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711 and generally maintained a civil relationship with their Spanish Christian subjects. Alfonso also had a cordial relationship with the Moors. He admired their way of life, the knowledge they possessed and the culture they practiced and was acutely aware of the many benefits the Muslim invaders had brought into his life and to his country.
Uta and I had previously toured through parts of the Iberian Peninsula including Andalusia in southern Spain, where Moorish architecture can be seen in abundance. Moorish influences are also found on the Camino and, in the process of writing this journal, I read about Islamic and Arabic history, culture and practices. The vast palaces, such as the Alhambra in Granada or the mosque of Cordoba with its 856 jasper, onyx, marble and granite columns, demonstrate the skills applied by Muslims as early as 1100 years ago. There is no Christian structure of remotely similar sophistication dating back this far in history. These elegant and vast buildings with their intricate detailing prove the knowledge, sense of beauty and extraordinary skills available at the time and, although very different in style, the sophistication might be compared to that presented by the Greeks and Romans. We cannot ignore the fact that central Europe and obviously also America (the western world) has a far younger civilization compared to the Middle East and at the time of Alfonso the Brave, architecture in the Christian world was stark and life in all aspects was basic. Islam is at present a somehow negative and controversial topic, but the positive influences that Arabia in those early days had and still has on the West cannot be ignored or underestimated. Societies
In ancient times, the region to which more advanced human social structures and a form of organised religious worshipping can be attributed to on a larger scale, is termed the Fertile Crescent. It describes a territorial arch comprising the first kingdoms with governing structures rather than tribal rules. The initial governed nations were the 6000 year old kingdoms of Mesopotamia and later Assyria. Both are situated adjacent to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which provided essential irrigation for farming. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that in these valleys the first hunter-gatherers settled in a more permanent way, giving rise to first forms of domestication which commenced around 10000 years ago. This region is also referred to as the Cradle of Humanity. Today this area is known as Iraq, with Bagdad as its capital and the ruins of the 4000 year old city of Babylon, a major cultural and political center in Mesopotamian times, are to be found here.
Upper Egypt with the River Nile had its first dynasty around 5000 years ago and formed the southern part of the crescent, and central to the crescent- shaped fertile region lies the Levant with the River Jordan. The Levant stretches along the east coast of the Mediterranean and reaches from Turkey to Egypt. It was occupied by the Phoenicians, who ruled here from around 3500 years ago. It is consequently not surprising that more sophisticated life structures had their origins in the Middle East. Other civilisations with marked influence on humanity were the Chinese, situated along the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys and tracing back about 3700 years. India, along the Indus River valley, was established a few hundred years later.
Rising to an ever more advanced culture and with even greater importance regarding influences on Europe was Greece, which borders onto the Middle East and which is now regarded as a western country. If we take, as is generally the practice of historians, the date of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC as reference, Greek culture commenced 2800 years ago. It lasted until 323 BC – the year Alexander the Great died. Apart from conquering other countries in the Middle East, Alexander also defeated Mesopotamia and the period of Greek colonization that followed is defined as the Hellenic period. During these times an exchange of Greek culture with that of countries in the Middle East took place.
From 146 BC the Roman Empire, after dominating Greek territories, ultimately spread from the Persian Empire (Iran today) right up to Spain, France and England in the West. When Rome eventually became corrupt and lost its moral compass — the fate of all civilizations, probably even our own — the empire collapsed, but much of its architecture, literature, art, science and mathematics which had developed during more than a thousand years was preserved in middle eastern centres, including Babylon.
Spain, Gaul and England were influenced by the Roman conquest, as is evident by the many historical structures still admired today in these areas, but for the Teutonic people east of the River Rhine and the Celts further south, primitive tribal life was still the norm. In the Iberian Peninsula, Visigoths from the North unseated the Romans and established a new kingdom. A more influential ‘European’ nation, however, hardly commenced until after the Roman Empire had collapsed in chaos in the 5th century AD.
The Christian Church, directed by the Pope in Rome, established itself as the new unifying force that followed this collapse. The Roman Catholic Church essentially stabilized Europe and built monasteries as it gained influence. These acted as cultural and ‘industrial’ centres and in this way the church gained significant influence and authority.
By the end of the 8th century Frankish Kingdoms embarked on consolidating Gaul and Germanic settlements between the Atlantic Ocean in the West to roughly present day Berlin in the East and to Italy in the South. Prior to this, Europe had developed no culture or civilisation of note.
7/2 – history To trace Islam and its importance on Spain and the West we need to track a little of its history. The Prophet Muhammad was born in AD 652 in the city of Medina on the Arabian Peninsula. He became extremely influential and Islam spread like wildfire in all directions, and in a short time the size of the Islamic Empire surpassed that of the Romans. One of the last regions they conquered in the 8th century was the Iberian Peninsula and the Moors named these occupied territories Al-Andalus. The Islamic Empire thus stretched from Pakistan and western parts of China for a distance of roughly 7500 km to the West.
In the year AD 762 Baghdad became the new capital of the Islamic world and it inherited the centuries old scholastic property of Babylon and many other cities of the Middle East. On settling in Andalusia, migrating Islamic as well as Jewish subjects brought this wisdom to the West. Cordoba, Barcelona and Toledo grew into major intellectual centres in Spain where, apart from many other subjects, science and the pursuit of scientific analysis as well as the numeric and decimal systems that we still apply today, were introduced to Europe. During long periods of peace eastern culture and intellectual exchange flourished in unison between scholars of Arabic, Jewish and Christian backgrounds. Eastern wisdom was held in high esteem and books and documents related to the various subjects in antiquity were valued, studied, collected and translated into Spanish and Latin.
Eastern practices were also introduced to ‘Europe’ through the Knights Templar, who conquered the Levant and Jerusalem in 1099. On their return they described the magnificence and sophistication they had witnessed there, including agricultural irrigation methods, water works, sewerage systems and many other inventions unknown in the West at the time. This is also where the Knights Templar got to know about sophisticated banking and financing systems, including the use of letters of credit, which allowed Christian travellers to draw money from any Templar stronghold in Europe and the Orient.
It is through Islamic and Jewish influences that the eyes of Europe were literally opened to advanced knowledge and sophistication not seen before. Lifestyles in the east by far surpassed the austere and limited existence fostered by the Roman Catholic Church with its staunchly Christian religious outlook.
Changes gradually manifested in western countries and during the ‘medieval’ renaissance in the 12th century a major transformation regarding outlook and philosophy took place in Gothic Europe. These changes came about extensively due to the exposure to the knowledge from the Islamic world. The trend accelerated in the 15th century, spurred on by the Italian Renaissance and the return to classical Greek and Roman sentiments. From this point onwards secular science, art and literature became progressively more important to Europe and the Roman Catholic Church lost a significant part of its dominance.
In time Christian forces in Spain re-conquered their former territories from the Moors, and in 1492 the Christian Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella seized their last remaining enclave around the fortified city of Granada with the Alhambra castle – the long held magnificent seat of Muslim rulers.
Eventually the Catholic Church felt obliged to cleanse the Iberian Peninsula of non-Christians and persecuted Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition. This resulted in fanatic hostility and conservatism which forced its negative mark on Spain for centuries to come.
Cultures come and go, and many of us today perceive the Islamic world to be less important and more violent than the Christian West. We tend to overlook staunch western practices and cruel events in the past as well as the intellectual debt we owe Islam. It is a fair suggestion that this beneficial transfer of knowledge could only have manifested in peaceful periods under Muslim rule when dialogue and co-operation were made possible
One of many Lion motives
Embedded into the walls of the Procession Passage
Babylon, and later Baghdad, were in their time the most significant capitals of the world and archaeologists have uncovered countless treasures at these sites. One of these is the Ishtar gate and the walls of the procession which, with their lion motifs, formed the grand entrance into Babylon. At the beginning of the 20th century these treasures were dismantled by German archaeologists and shipped to Berlin, where they are now displayed in the Pergamon Museum.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 it was reported that US forces levelled a vast area of Babylon to create landing sites for helicopters and parking lots for heavy vehicles. In the process they caused irreparable destruction to remaining parts of the Ishtar Gate, including nine moulded brick figures of dragons. They also destroyed 2,600-year-old brick pavements and scattered archaeological fragments without a trace of appreciation.
In medieval times the town of Sahagún had a cordial relationship with the Moors and a charming legend refers to this: King Alfonso played chess with Ibn Ammar, a confidante of the Caliph in Seville. They agreed that, should Alfonso win, he would receive the most beautiful Arabic chess table with its carved figures of intricate designs as a gift. If he lost, he promised not to attack Seville. Alfonso lost and Seville was spared the siege. This seems to have been the spirit during the early times of Muslim conflict. It also demonstrates that Alfonso had great respect for the people from the east. One of the king’s mistresses was Zaida of Seville, a beautiful Muslim princess. The historian Abu Bakr Ibn al Sayraff writes that for a while Alfonso abandoned Christianity for Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion still practiced in parts of present-day Iran. On the other hand, the historian also infers that Alfonso had carnal relations with his own sister Urraca. He repented and was absolved after undertaking a pilgrimage to Santiago and other holy sites as penance.
8/2 – diary After my exploration of Sahagún, the walk on my third day was tough. In the morning I started in Ledigos and I continued all the way to Bercianos Real Camino – a total distance of twenty eight kilometres for the day. With me still being a rookie in this venture it was quite an endurance and, as I had spent three hours sightseeing in Sahagún, I had to walk over ten kilometres during the hottest time of the day. The heat sapped my energies, and not even my walking sticks and many pep talks to my legs prevented a hard slog in the end.
The albergue in Bercianos is a 16th century stone-bricked double-storey building with solid beams and half-timber visible from the inside– not on the outside as we commonly see it in certain parts of Europe. It is now run under very unique hostel conditions, organised by a church and run by volunteers. At my visit these were three ex-Camino pilgrims, including a female hositalera from Canada, who made communication straightforward for a change.
The cost for accommodation and meals consisted of a donation made freely by pilgrims according to their conscience and pocket. For dinner in the evening about forty people gathered, all squeezed into a small dining room. Food was cooked by those helpful pilgrims who still had energy. The variety and sophistication of the meal was dependent on donations received the previous day. We first had a salad and then a vegetable soup ladled out of a huge pot. That’s all that could be bought from the accumulated money. A few bottles of wine were also shared, which no doubt loosened tongues and helped with socialising. The soup was very tasty and the company boisterous and animated. French was the predominant language spoken, which obviously caused me problems. Despite this, the ladies that surrounded me made sure that I did not miss out on food and wine!
Afterwards, cleaning and washing up was done by those previously not involved in the cooking process. This took place in the clothes-washing sink outside the building, using the light that fell through the dining room window where dishes were passed in and out.
I did not cook, so guess who stood at the wash trough? Others dried my plates before returning them to the kitchen. The atmosphere was fantastic, despite the menial labour.
My bed in this albergue was one of the best available – one is allocated a bed number corresponding to the position of one’s arrival and mine was number thirty three out of a total of forty. Some beds were sagging like hammocks; others were rasping and rattling and making every conceivable noise as their occupants tossed and turned. It was quite something: I have never before slept in such a restless environment.