Back to the Camino and my beautiful winter walk between Villafranca and St Juan de Ortego: Mount Carnero, the third and final hill after Villafranca, was less special and at its summit we had to traverse a long and wide clearing which forestry vehicles had left totally rutted. Walking became uncomfortable and strenuous, but fortunately the ground was frozen. Nevertheless, at one point I broke through snow-covered ice and water seeped into my boots.
After descending Alto Carnero, I reached the historic village of St Juan de Ortega where interesting events have been recorded. St Juan was a disciple of Santo Domingo, following in his footsteps by building infrastructure and serving pilgrims on the way to Santiago. The mountains and valleys which we had now left behind were inhospitable in earlier times and presented perfect hiding places for robbers and other undesirables. This may have been one of the reasons why San Juan founded in 1150 the Augustine Monastery.
Next to the monastery he built a Romanesque church with a unique feature. At each equinox the rays of the setting sun fall onto the Virgin Mary in the scene of the annunciation and it is believed that through this, and with the help of San Juan’s spirit, fertility can be miraculously restored.
According to legend, Queen Isabella of Castile visited this church in 1477. She prayed to the Virgin Mary and San Juan for relief of her infertility. Her wish was granted and she conceived a child. She was grateful and subsequently enhanced the church, and this is what we see today.
By now I was hungry and in a bar close by I ordered scrambled eggs, jam on toast and obviously the obligatory café grande con leche. It was not long before Noelia arrived and ordered a baguette and café. She was the first pilgrim I saw since leaving the albergue in Belorado, which means that for hours there had been no distractions. During winter the albergue in San Juan was closed and so the next available accommodation was 3.6 km further on in the small village named Agés. A fire in an open fireplace ‘thawed’ us before we pressed on.
The hostel in Agés is housed in an old stone building which was recently renovated in a most luxurious way. The rooms were small, had only three double bunks, and a separate modern bathroom.
Apart from the albergue, the proprietors also owned a public bar where they offered laundry facilities. The bar was some distance from the albergue and when the few clothes you have are being washed and tumble dried, crossing about 200 m between the albergue and the bar while wearing the minimum in freezing conditions is a challenge and not recommended!
In the evening the friendly proprietors prepared a wonderful dinner for the seven of us: Noelia, Xavi (who joined our small group in Logroño), a German-speaking pilgrim from Slovenia who we had not seen before, two cyclists from Argentina and Spain and Eric who had been ahead of us ever since Santo Domingo and whom we had now caught up with unexpectedly.