Day 4 – Bercianos Real Camino to MaDnsilla de las Mulas (26.6 km)
There is only one male toilet in the albergue in Bercianos, with only one washbasin inside the toilet cubicle and one separate shower. In order to avoid the inevitable crowding in the morning, I got up before six o’clock, completed my ablutions before the rush, had breakfast and was on the Camino at 6:30.
Bercianos is a very old town and the streets are angled and confusing, even in daylight. I left in pitch darkness but foolishly had not packed a torch for these conditions. I got lost, could not find the way-markers and there was no other pilgrim in sight that could lead the way. The result was that I drifted in the wrong direction, but by the time I had circled the town and returned to the albergue, others were there to guide me. The town’s layout is absolutely bizarre and I am convinced this had been planned on purpose. I think it was laid out in such a way so that in times of strife the enemy would become confused like I did, while the locals had a territorial advantage; there are many corners to hide behind to surprise an intruder.
I was eagerly looking forward to meeting my friend the Stickman again: he is so handsome with his long legs and ridiculously small head on his long, narrow body. However, by the time the sun rose, I had just passed El Burgo Ranero and with the sun peeping over the rooftops of the village, there was no longer the acute shallow angle. The shadow figure was short and squat and appeared at about 30° to my left instead of straight ahead – with the result that the walking sticks in the shadow ahead of me appeared to be between my legs rather than parallel to my body. Stickman and I decided to rather have another rendezvous the next time around.
On this day the longest distance between towns was thirteen kilometres, so it was again important to organise provisions. A fair distance past El Burgo I realised that my water bottle was only half full and I had to return, fill my stomach and the bottle and hit the road again.
I passed through a number of small farming villages which date back to earliest centuries and the old houses and walls were again built from mud bricks with chopped straw added as a binder. Straw was also added to the outer plaster, and when the sun is at the right angle, the plastered walls have a soft and silky sheen created by the embedded strands and the light brown colour of the clay. Again roofs of most of these buildings had collapsed, and the bare window frames were hanging on their hinges. The walls, however, although bulging with age and destruction from the elements, remained. The old, often interesting but neglected timber doors were sometimes still in place or the openings were boarded.
Severe muscle cramps had insistently disturbed my previous night’s sleep and on arrival in Sahagún I followed the advice given by Horst from Frankenthal and purchased magnesium tablets. As I mentioned before, Horst had walked for over three months and knew the routine. According to him, cramps are very common when walking long distances. He always had a supply of high strength magnesium tablets handy and offered me two which would tide me over until Sahagún, the first town with a pharmacy.
The province around here celebrated Farmers’ Day and on Plaza Mayor, where I found my tablets, fourteen vintage tractors were proudly exhibited. I had a late breakfast on one of the stone benches that lined the perimeter of the town square and which were frequented by local seniors. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the goings on until it was time to leave and explore the old town with its many churches and historic places. As previously explained, a number of these had long traditions relating to the Camino St James.
Later in the day the vintage tractors drove past with lots of spluttering and hooting and when I continued on my way again, walking over the bridge Puente Romano spanning Río Cea, I passed the nearby farmer’s market festivities. Farmers from surrounding district unions had gathered for this day, and each group member had a large triangular scarf with the name of his association around the neck. These were farming folks with weathered faces, usually short in stature, but full of fun.
There were stalls selling food, sweets and knick-knacks, clay pots hanging from ropes were smashed by blind-folded paying customers who collected the tokens the broken pots revealed. A band played and farmers manoeuvered their partners through the rhythms of the songs with great flair and enthusiasm. Some women danced together, their bosoms preventing other bodily contact and everyone had a good time.
Later, along the road to Bercianos, a procession of about 30 tractors of various makes, ages and sizes overtook me. Many had staff, calabash and a pilgrims’ shell displayed as some pilgrims on foot do, which indicated that the tractors were on their way to Santiago. A calabash is a dried pumpkin shell which was used as a water bottle in days gone by and most pictures and statues remind us of this. Almost all tractors were vintage models and some pulled wagons. One wagon resembled an old gypsy caravan, with painted door, windows with chequered curtains and a chimney above.
The pilgrims’ emblem on the Camino Francés has always been the shell of scallops that grow along the Atlantic coast in great abundance. It was formerly pinned to the front of the wide-brimmed hat worn in those days and identified the bearer as a pilgrim. He was respected by inhabitants on the way, and many provided assistance, shelter or food to those in need. Occasionally even robbers were inclined to respect the shell bearers and left them unmolested. Unfortunately there were also false pilgrims, pretending to be on the way to Santiago when actually scrounging about.
Today the shell is proudly carried by its owners on the back of the rucksack, and the wide-brimmed hat of former times is now often replaced by more stylish headgear, which more often than not provides less shade and in most cases is less suited to bear a scallop shell. Just as I have my ideas (my private philosophies) about not being eligible to sleep in an albergue unless I have completed a day’s walk, I also have my notions about my eligibility to display the shell. I believe it is an honour for those who walk all the way from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. Since my walk only started in Frómista, I did not display one.
During my time spent on the farmers’ market I met a young Polish pilgrim. It turned out that she lived about 100 km south-west of Gdansk, my birthplace. She was about twenty years old, an energetic and fast hiker, always smiling and walking alone, like most of us. We crossed paths many times along the way and I admired her enthusiasm.
Pilgrims come from many European countries, but mainly from Spain, France and Germany. However, I also met pilgrims from Australia, Japan, China and several from Canada, and I, of course, am from South Africa. The dedication of the pilgrims is absolutely astounding and we can thank St James for this. Maybe we can also call him a pilgrim; he came all the way from Jerusalem, although referring to him as an evangelist is more correct. Legend has it that the apostle visited Galicia about AD 40, approximately seven years after Christ’s crucifixion. His aim was to convert the very spiritually inclined tribes of Celtic origin from their pagan beliefs to Christianity. His efforts were only partially successful and he returned to Jerusalem, where he was later beheaded by the Romans. His disciples, legend tells us, then placed his body into a stone coffin, which was shipped back to Galicia, the place he was very fond of and had dedicated himself to.
Some folklores describe his return to Spain in an even more colourful and dramatic way; their saying is that after his death he was placed into a stone boat-like coffin that miraculously drifted all the way from Jerusalem to Spain. The Roman authorities of Murcia in Galicia forbade a Christian burial and the sarcophagus was lost in the turmoil of the times until in the year 813 a Shepherd was “guided” by a “bright star” to a cave in which he discovered St James’s remains. Others believe that he was buried near Jerusalem, where he is still supposed to rest.
The Catholic bishop Theodemar in Galicia saw an opportunity to attract the faithful. He seized the moment and created a holy place called SANT IAGO (St James in Spanish), found in the COMPOS (a field) of the STELA (bright star) which is the origin of SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA. The church had a dominant hand in promoting this holy place and thus established a pilgrimage tradition that still lives on today. It greatly benefitted not only the local Catholic Church, but no doubt also the coffers of the Vatican as well as the countless pilgrims like myself. Initially only a few pilgrims were brave enough to make their way through inhospitable and dangerous countryside to reach Santiago. The journey took months to complete and afterwards pilgrims had to manage the long way back home again. Roman roads existed in many parts, minor paths were probably less accessible and the route was fraught with danger. In addition, many pilgrims succumbed to devastating diseases and other hardships. Our walk is far more organised and civilised today; it is in comparison like a walk in the park.
I met a Frenchman from Versailles towards the end of the thirteen kilometre stretch just before Reliegos and shared my lunch with him – jamon (ham), queso (cheese) and some very small and dangerously hard ciabattas. For the past four years he had walked stretches of the Camino and he aimed to continue in this way whenever his obligations permitted this. In the afternoon I joined Anna from Barcelona on the endless last stretch to Mansilla. The church spire of this village was visible from afar and seemed to retreat with every step we took. Anna had walked this route before and assured me that there were no foul tricks involved – this is just a tedious six kilometre stretch for tired bodies.
Part of the nineteen kilometres walk on the following day between Mansilla de las Mulas and León would take us through unpleasant industrial districts and I had seen signs advertising a bus service that would ferry pilgrims to the edge of historic León, avoiding the tedious modern city outskirts. When I suggested this alternative to Anna she was horrified. The idea made her gasp; she was quite taken aback by the thought. No real pilgrim would ever contemplate doing such a thing!
In the evening, after arriving in Mansilla de las Mulas, I tried to email to my family but again with no success. Even a French pilgrim typing merrily next to me could not assist.