In many respects the great cathedral cities of Burgess and Leon serve as bookends for the meseta on the Camino. It starts almost immediately as you leave Burgos and you “feel” that left the meseta after suffering through the long industrial entrance into, and exit from, Leon. (Technically, it would take one more day before the meseta was behind me as the pilgrim catches a final look at the broad, flat agricultural plain during the second half of the day after leaving Leon). While I enjoyed this region more than I thought I might based upon some early warnings, nonetheless there was a sameness to the relatively flat terrain with massive wheat fields and big sky. But for the occasional town or village, monotony may have developed. The last two days in the meseta illustrate this well.
After my “nero” day in Carrion, I targeted a 40 kilometer day, so I was planning to get a particularly early start, but was again locked in at the albergue until 6:30 a.m. Yet, I was still out before sunrise. The route this day is on the Via Aquitana – a restored Roman road. Yet, this stretch is one of the longest on the Camino without relief or services. The day’s walk was again more challenging from an aesthetic standpoint – a hard dirt path alongside a roadway with little scenery. The intermediate towns of Calzadilla de la Cueza, Ledigos, and Terradillos de Templarios (this town once was home to a 13th century church belonging to the Knights Templar) provided a respite from the sameness of the hike, but they seemed to be very aged and tired. Many homes and other buildings were made of only mud and straw (“mudbrick”) and, of these, many were dilapidated and many were closed, especially the churches in these towns.
“Ricky”, who I had met five days earlier when he had started his Camino in Burgos, and I past one another a few times this day as it seemed as though when I stopped for water or lunch he’d walk by and then I’d do the same. (Ricky asked we call him by that name because he knew we’d have trouble pronouncing his real, Japanese name.) We spoke little that day, but always exchanged a vigorous wave. (Who knew then that we’d walk together 5 days later and we’d finish in Santiago the same day.) I saw few other pilgrims, except a number on bicycle. The monotony of the landscape did provide a good atmosphere for solo, contemplative walking, which can be good for the soul.
With an ambitious goal that day, I walked later than most days. The sky had turned overcast, which didn’t help my impression of Sahagun (my planned destination) as I climbed uphill and crossed over train tracks into the town around 5 p.m. Somewhat like most of the towns and villages in this region, Sahagun exhibited a past that spoke of significantly more prominence and importance than the modern day.
Sahagun looked and felt old, grey, and tired. Yet, it was a most vigorous city in the medieval times. King Alfonso VI was educated there and reared the area after defeating his brother for control of the monarchy. The city was the center of development by the Benedictines of Cluny, which controlled over 100 monasteries. The town has various remnants of its past, particularly some diverse architectural styles (including significant Islamic influence from the Moors that resulted in what is now called the “Romanesque-Mudejar” style.
Arriving a little later than usual and seeking to get another early start (and a little privacy is good for the soul sometimes), I stayed in a simple hotel, named, perhaps not surprisingly, Alfonso VI.
The next day was very similar. Out early for a 37 kilometer day with the town of Mansilla de las Mulas as my targeted destination for the night. The route started out pleasantly as I crossed over a river (“Rio Cea”) on a bridge first built by Alfonso VI and walked through a grove of poplar trees, but soon the path returned to a flat, dull route on a hard dirt trail along side a road with a similar 17 kilometer section with no water or services. The guidebook does say that this stretch is “one of the best sections of Roman road in all of Spain.” Perhaps it was, but it was still flat and dull with no water or other services.
The path into Mansilla was flat, unlike the fairly typical situation where the approach is often uphill to the town or village (presumably for defense purposes in the middle ages). The entrance to the town immediately signals to the traveler that time has not been as unkind to Mansilla as it has to a large number of the meseta towns. A pretty square with statutes and a water fountain welcomes pilgrims. Remains of the 12th century fortifications can be seen here as well just beyond the square. (In fact, a walk through Mansilla reveals that over half of these ancient walls still remain.) Although it has lost five of its six 13th century churches, the town seems to have modernized with the times. Mansilla also has an excellent albergue, excellent private hostels/pensions, and some good restaurants as well as most any services (supermarkets and ATM machines) a pilgrim may need.
Having reached Mansilla, I knew I had substantially completed the meseta. It had its pros and its cons. There was beauty to the starkness and the accompanying “big sky” country and the flat terrain meant that 40 kilometer days were possible. On the other hand, time has forgotten much of the region and there was a sadness to many parts of the mudbrick villages and farming communities.
All that said, now having walked through it for 4 or 5 days, my experience in the meseta recalls another writer’s description of this region that not only do I find accurate but is said better than I could say: “The Meseta is sparsely populated. The scattered, earth-coloured villages are often camouflaged in the open plain, and only a church tower – or nowadays a grain silo — identifies their location. With mechanization of the land, many of the villages are now abandoned or inhabited only by older people, the younger set having either emigrated or moved to the large towns in the 1960s and 70s in search of work.”
The final “bookend” to the meseta is the important city of Leon. While the guidebooks tell us that Pamplona has the largest population of any of the cities along the Camino, my sense wad that Leon was certainly the largest city. But before getting a chance to see its famous Gothic cathedral and other interesting sites, I still had to cover almost 18 kilometers from Mansilla.
Once again I was out walking before the sun rose and the day was beautiful. That said, the following description of these 18 kilometers into Leon is probably all that needs to be said further:
“If you were going to skip one day on the camino, this would be it. Much ahs been done to improve the safety of the pilgrim approach to Leon, with pedestrian bridges and overpasses, but the route still involves a lot of industrial walking.”
With a good, cool morning and flat (albeit visually unappealing) terrain, I was able to arrive in Leon by noon and enjoy a half of a day off and to see much of the city.