Dark clouds are gathering over Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The city is waking up with a collective hangover. The last survivors of yesterday’s Fiesta are roaming the streets, mumbling ‘Buen Camino’ with double tongues. Just outside town, we cross the Rio Oja, which gave its name to the Rioja region. The bridge is an 18th century reconstruction of Santo Domingo’s original. The neo-romanesque chapel next to it is pretty unique. Legend goes that pilgrims used to pray here for a safe passage, each time the water was running high. So much for trusting civil engineering, eh.
The Camino flirts again with the noisy N120. Trucks flash by as we work ourselves through the muddy trail. Yeah, it’s gonna be one of the those days. The Eskimos have 20 words for snow, I have 50 for rain. Today, there’s ‘sticky rain’ - those microscopic drops we always take for granted. Somehow they seem to soak you more than showers. I can’t wait for that hot cuppa coffee in the next village.
Nothing much has changed in Viloria de Rioja, since the birth of Saint Dominic de la Calzade in 1019 here. The medieval farmhouses look more German than Spanish. It must be the typical ‘Fachwerk’ facades, made of wooden beams and plasterwork. The parish church looks like a barn. A chaotic mixture of beams, walls and roofs; like the building grew organically.
I break the monotony of the road by chatting to Patrick, a popular Italian pilgrim who looks like a surfer. Patrick speaks 5 languages, making up for all his countrymen who speak none. It’s his second Camino and he’s not too happy with the growing number of pilgrims. We’re joined by Ernesto, my Camino doppelgänger. Conversation comes and goes. Somehow, we all like to walk in solitude. The next, notable place is called Belorado. The Iglesia de Santa María is covered with stork nests. The charming historic town is overlooked by a limestone outcrop with a ruined castle and more holes than a block of Emmental. Back in the days, hermits had their cribs cut into the rock. Some of them are now pimped with modern windows. How the times have changed.
We finally reach Tosantos, the traditional end point of this stage. The albergue looks inviting. Should I stay or should I go now? Many other pilgrims are asking the same question. Staying here is a sure bet. The albergue still has beds. Too bad the surrounding is so dull, with the N120 right around the corner. If we carry on, we might find more appealing areas but will we find free beds? That is the question. I decide to break the ice: “OK, I’ll continue. I have good legs today.” Ernesto is in doubts. One of the other pilgrims digs out a guidebook and quickly checks what’s lying ahead. The next villages are 2, 4 and 7 kilometres ahead, with plenty of hostels. We should be safe. We decide to move on. The guidebook-pilgrim is called Morten. He’s from Denmark and makes great conversation. Soon, the kilometres are flying as the 3 of us march on like the 3 Musketeers. All for one ...
Ernesto still didn’t forgive me for the monster march to Pamplona. “You always make us walk extra miles.” he whines “You own us a beer.” That’s not a bad idea. We walk into the first bar: the Casa de los Deseos, a beautiful renovated farmhouse with typical Fachwerk, right before Villambistia. Another pilgrim, the extremely fit Sultan from Hungary, walks in. The 3 Musketeers have found their d’Artagnan. The sun is joining us too as we later pass the beautiful church of Villambistia. The totally deserted Espinosa del Camino is next, a total cul-de-sac. “Walk on!” we scream in choir.
We finally reach Villafranca Montes de Oca, the last village before the endless forest of Alto de la Pedraja. Bad news: the albergue Municipal is closed. Weird. Good we have Ernesto to talk to the locals. They keep sending us to a 3 star hotel: San Anton Abad, on a hill next to the church. The place looks extremely fancy. Seriously? Can this be the albergue? “Si’” answers the woman at the reception “It’s right on the other side.” Hallelujah! 5 euros and a stamp in our credential later, she walks us to our quarters, a series of brand new pavilions. It doesn’t get better than this. Hi five Saint James!
More good news. Donatella, an Italian nurse walking the camino, enters our dorm. She is revered like a Saint. Before taking her shower, she always takes care of the pilgrims. Ernesto gets his blisters stitched. Donatella raises her eyebrows when she sees the loose skin on my feet. A little tissue with disinfectant should do. Today we even have a second nurse: Betty from the UK, who works on IR and specialises in stab wounds. She has her own reasons for walking the Camino with her fiancé. “When everyday, you see people coming in with horrible injuries, you truly start appreciating life.” Amen.
From Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Villafranca Montes de Oca is an easy 35 km walk.
Where to Sleep & Eat?
Albergue San Anton Abad - Calle Hospital, in the same building as the 3 star hotel, behind the church - +34 947 582 149 - Open: March 15-Nov 15 - 5 euros. Top facilities. Modern comfort. One of the best albergues along the Camino. Has a cosy bar with mediocre WIFI. A good pilgrim’s meal is served in the restaurant of the 3 star hotel. 10 euro.
Bar Pension Jomer is right around the corner for cigarettes, snacks and good WIFI. Also offers beds.