“Plastic pilgrims!” sneers Morten as we pass a bunch of faux-pilgrims waiting for the bus in Villafranca. Ernesto and me top it off with an extra sarcastic “Buen Camino!” Unable to find a decent breakfast place, we return to the cafeteria of the albergue to stuff ourselves with sugary waffles, supermarket croissants and coffee. We better stock up calories as it’s 12 km till the next village.
The forest of Alto de la Pedraja is a nice challenge. The weather is miserable, the wide trail is soaked. Even the trees look sad, like we’re walking through a cheap Ed Wood horror set. For hours we fight through an endless mud-fest. Yesterday we were a happy bunch. Now each man is locked in his own thoughts as if trying to find the real self. We are together alone, walking 10 meters apart, granting each other some space. It’s a Camino ritual. Mornings are mostly spent in silence. Small talk and jokes are traditionally reserved for the afternoon, when the finish line comes in sight. Meanwhile, it keeps drizzling. Our rain hoods are pulled low over our eyes as we cross the muddy hills of the dark forest.
We’re all too happy to reach the monastery of San Juan de Ortega. The late romanesque church - built by Saint John of Ortega, a sidekick of Domingo de la Calzada, around 1422 - is a pleasant surprise. We all enter at once. None of us claims to be religious, but deep down we’re all praying for a safe passage. The nearby bar provides a hot cuppa and quick bite. Time for a quick evaluation. The plan is to get as close to Burgos as possible, so tomorrow we’ll only have a few hours of walking, leaving the whole afternoon free. “I am not sure I can make it” sighs Morten. He didn’t digest yesterday’s marathon march well and struggles with lower back pain.
Hardly 3.5 km further, in Agés we seek shelter in the Municipal for a well deserved lunch. The village, a collection of farm houses with wooden beam facades, is even charming in the rain. The Albergue looks good and still has beds. We manage to convince our Danish friend to call it quits here. We hate to leave him behind but it’s the right thing to do.
We quickly pass Atapuerca, 2.6 km down the road, the traditional end of the stage 13. We are only 20 km away from Burgos, every mile we walk today is a mile less tomorrow. We pass a set of erected stones, like Stonehenge in amateur version. Atapuerca turns out to be a Unesco heritage site, containing the oldest human fossil records in Europe. Sounds interesting but it’s another 3 km back and forward to the archeological park. On the Camino, the last thing you need is a detour. We better save our energy. Right after the village comes a nasty, steep hill. I’m happy to reach the iron cross on the top. From here, we can see a green lunar landscape with one big city on the horizon: Burgos.
We slowly descent into a giant crater, hiding the deserted village of Villaval. There’s no sign of Cardenuela Riopico where we hope to find a bed. I’m starting to doubt. Did we take a wrong turn? Or worse: did we pass it? There’s no way we can make it to Burgos. I don’t want another Pamplona marathon walk. Ernesto speaks the unspeakable: “How about taking the bus?” I rather die, amigo.
Imagine our relief when we see a painted old bus, advertising the nearby Via Minera hostel. And our surprise when the village pops up after a curve. Do we take the Municipal or do we upgrade ourselves to the bus ad place? Our tired feet decide for us and walk in autopilot to the nearest Via Minera. In summer this place must be heaven, but right now, the empty pool makes a rather sad impression. The beds in the dorm are nice and we quickly catch up with fellow pilgrims streaming in. Many walked all the way from Tosantos and look totally exhausted: “Everything in Agés and Atapuerca was Completo” they complain. It seems Morten got lucky.
Later I join the patron of Via Minera on a shopping trip to a nearby bakery in Villafria. He must be doing 120 km/h with his Jeep. After 10 days of walking, this feels like Warp speed. Meanwhile, the man takes reservations on his phone. In every curve we risk a fatal crash. I pray to St. James and every Saint known to man. The owner laughs and says in broken English: “From here to Santiago? Me, jeep: 4 hours. You, walk: 4 weeks haha. You guys: Loco!” It certainly makes you think about speed and distances. As we race back to the albergue, I realise that tomorrow I’ll have to walk this part again. Now it takes us 5 minutes, tomorrow it will take me 2 hours. Loco.
- Villafranca Montes de Oca to Cardenuela Riopico is a challenging 25 km march.
- Albergue Via Minera - Calle La Iglesia 1 - Cardenuela Riopico - +34 652 941 647 - Open Mar-Oct, 2 to 8 pm. 24 beds, 8 euro. Double room: 40 euro. Basic breakfast: 2 euro. Outstanding pilgrim’s meal: 9 euro. Spacious dorm, warm ambiance, little swimming pool, modern bathrooms. Animated ambiance with plenty of Cerveza in the evening.