Upon leaving the great cathedral city of Burgos, the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago enters a region known as the “meseta.” I had read about it in Camino guidebooks, and I had heard about the meseta – both from people who completed the Way and from Spanish pilgrims familiar with this part of their country. For many this region is thought to be the most challenging on the Camino – not because of any physical challenge relating to the severity of the terrain (such as climbing through the Pyrenees), but as a result of the mental challenge relating to the monotony of the topography.
“Meseta” is simply the Spanish word for “plateau.” Meseta refers to the high, plains of central Spain. While the meseta occupies a large portion of central and northern Spain, my walk on the Camino was in the northern part, just below the Cantabrian Mountains, just west of the Pyrenees and extending across most of the northern edge of Spain to Galicia in the far northwest. One well-written website about Spain describes the meseta as follows:
Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. During the growing season, the northern Meseta shimmers golden with cereal crops and then retreats to a dusty dryness, while in the southern half vineyards, rows of olive trees and the saffron-producing crocus carpet the otherwise barren plateau. Flocks of sheep roam large stretches of the Meseta, moving south along ancient rights of way (“las cañadas”) in the fall and returning north in the late spring.
This region is largely known as “Castile” politically or “Castilla Y Leon,” which is the largest autonomous political subdivision in Spain. It plays a critical if not dominant part in the history of the Iberian Peninsula and the evolution of what is now the country of Spain. The region is home of the Castilian language, which we know today as “Spanish.” The northern part of the meseta historically is dominated by landmarks, villages, monuments, and other remnants of both Roman history (as gold was discovered in the mountains just to the north, which was mined and transported for the empire) and the Reconquita (as Christians retook the land for the Moors/Muslims). El Cid – one of Spain’s national heroes – and Don Quioxte – the protagonist from one of Spain’s most influential works of fiction – are from the meseta region.
I was prepared for boring, flat and open vistas. When thought of from a negative perspective, this landscape lacked definition or interesting landforms. With endless fields of wheat, the colors were dominated by basic, vibrant hues (blue sky, white clouds and green fields) with little variation or nuance. From a positive perspective, the meseta recalls American landscapes like Montana and its “big sky” with brilliant cloud formations against a spectacular blue background and grounded by a verdant, green base. Yet, the “warnings” I had received to prepare for long, flat, straight pathways near roads, led me to develop a plan to reduce my time in these area. While I was averaging 20 to 30 kilometers a day, I determined that if I could add 10 km a day, I could turn 5 days in the meseta into four days. Physically I figured that the flatter terrain would also make it easier to press for longer daily walks.
I started my assault on the meseta by leaving Burgos before sunrise. As I approached and then walked right next to and past the cathedral on my way west out of town, I watched the moon as to hung between the cathedral’s tall, Gothic spires. I had hoped to be hiking by 6:00 a.m., but the albergue was locked down (and we were locked in) until 6:30 a.m. After passing by the cathedral in the limited morning light, I started looking for yellow arrows to show me the way out of the city on the Camino. Just a head of me I saw a woman (“Carmen”) glancing around, like me, for some indication as to which streets and what turns to take to leave the town and enter the meseta.
I caught up to Carmen (who is from the southeast of Spain) and we worked together to find “the way.” A few minutes later we ran into “Lynn” from British Columbia and the three of us headed out into the broad landscape as the sun was rising. (Little did I know then, on Day 12 of my journey, that despite separating and reacquainting various times, the three of us would walk the final 20k together into Santiago 17 days later. But – that is the way of the Camino.)
The first 11 k of the meseta lived up to its reputation. We met “Ricky” from Japan on his first day the Camino – he started that morning in Burgos, which reminds that not everyone starts in St. Jean. Many Spaniards start in Pamplona or Burgos or Leon. In Puenta La Reina (on my fourth night) I had dinner with Frank from Austria who had actually started his walk – his Camino – in Austria. A few nights later I would bunk with friends from Holland that started in Holland and walked the entire way over three years – this year they were finishing the last third and planning to arrive in Santiago about the time I planned to do so. (I would see Ricky many more times over the next 17 days and – amazingly – would see him too in Santiago. Again, that is the way of the Camino.)
The hiking was comparatively easy. Good conversation (see previous post) provided considerable interest, where the landscape offered little. As predicted, Day 1 in the meseta was a long haul, made challenging mostly because of the sameness of the steps. Carmen enjoyed our conversation, at least in part, because she said she could practice her English with a Canadian and an American. Our destination was a small town named “Hontanas.” As I began to tire I was slightly distressed because I knew we had gone over 30 kilometers, but I could not yet see the village. We only “found” the town when we were right upon it because it sits low, almost below – protected from – the plain.
Late in the day we neared the tiny hamlet of San Bol. We were tempted to stop, take off our packs, rest and drop our hot, dusty feet in the fountain there to test the pilgrim legend that such a soaking in this special fountain cures the weary traveller of all foot pain. Yet, when we saw that it involved a detour – even though it was just a half of a kilometer – we marched on because our destination was less than 4k ahead. Tired and ready to stop, we eased ourselves down into the town that had been all but hidden from us. Carmen headed for the municipal albergue and I went to the private one across the street. We met later for a celebratory cervesa (beer).
My albergue that night would prove to be the nicest pilgrim hostel of the trip. It was relatively new, so everything was clean and worked well. The shower was roomy with a changing area plenty of hot water and no timer shutting off the flow every three minutes. This hostel featured a beautiful courtyard with large picnic table where I met Frida from Germany, Jen from Australia, and David from Denver. That evening I joined Jen and Frida around a large dining room table to enjoy a large “family-style” paella with other new friends from Arizona, Holland, France, and Florida.