I have entered the much feared Meseta, the high plateau covering most of central Spain. 160 km of desolate roads through Nothingness are awaiting me. Mostly treeless and windblown, the Meseta is freezing cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. I’m lucky to pass by in spring, when green crops cover the otherwise arid landscape. Many cerveza-fueled pilgrims skip this part altogether, fearing its monotony. I am in the other camp. I embrace the confrontation and the solitude of these majestic landscapes. My shadow is my only companion. I am left with the sound of my boots, the wind, the birds. I have finally regained my pre-Pamplona fast pace. That shadow better be quick.
I'm walking for miles through an endless green ocean. On the way to Hornillos del Camino, I have a magic encounter with another Meseta icon. A flock of sheep is quickly crossing the trail. In fall, large herds roam all the way south, now in spring, they are returning north to graze the fresh grasslands. The shepherd doesn’t return my greeting. I am nothing but a trespasser in a land where flock of sheep own ancient ‘rights of way’. Many miles later, I scroll into Hontanas, one of the most iconic Camino villages, well hidden in a green valley. It’s around noon and most albergues already have the ‘Completo’ sign. I see disappointed pilgrims shopping for beds. Villages and hostels are rather sparse in the Meseta. I better sort out my accommodation for the next couple of days. I know, it kinda sucks the adventure out of the Camino. But a reserved bed is still warmer than an unreserved floor.
I’m having a quick bite before crossing the final stretch to San Anton Monastery. Yesterday, we met a man who invited us to his home, next to the ruins. I’m not sure what to expect. Royal crests decorate two giant arches, holding richly ornamented archivolts. A unique, off-the-grid hostel is sitting inside the 14th century ruins. “In the evening we only have candles” explains the Dutch hospitalero “There’s no hot water. But we have a warm atmosphere.” It’s a tempting offer for romantic souls like me. Too bad I’m expected next door.
A dog is barking madly and a weird smell of sour milk hits me when I walk into Angel’s home. My host warmly welcomes me and shows me the ‘habitacion’: 4 bare staple beds in an empty room. A plastic container with ‘exotic plants’ is standing in front of a barred window. Ola! We decide to relax outside, in the courtyard of the messy farm, overlooking a collapsed aviary. Angel (pronounce: An-Hell) has recycled some wooden cable reels into makeshift terrace furniture. We’re trying to make some conversation, but he only speaks a few words of English and French. It was my Spanish speaking companion Elodie who accepted his invitation yesterday. This morning she kindly told me: “There's no need to walk together. We can meet at San Anton.” Her phone is switched off. Did she chicken out? Or was I just very, very naive?
A few backpacks are standing next to the house. “They're fake. Only paper inside” explains Angel “It’s a trick. When pilgrims see the packs, they aren’t scared to come here.” Did I just walk into the claws of the local psychopath? It’s too late to leave now. Even if I force quit, all the albergues will be full. My mind starts playing tricks on me. Especially when Angel closes the gate. Is there an escape route? Can I jump that fence? Fight my way out? I’m all too relieved when Elodie finally shows up. At least, I’m no longer alone with Cannibal Bill.
Angel cooks up some strange milk powder mixture - explaining the funny smell in the house - and we get to bottle feed some little lams in a dirty stable. Very pastoral. It’s slowly getting dark and temperatures start to nose dive. I see Elodie talking for hours on the phone. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “I shouldn’t have told my boyfriend. He’s freaking out.” she confesses “He thinks I’m crazy, spending the night here with 2 total strangers.” TWO strangers? I just got promoted to potential rapist number 2. I thought I was the paranoid one here. “Let’s look at this rationally, shall we?” I try, mostly to convince myself. “You know my name. You have Angel’s number. And your boyfriend knows your whereabouts. What are we gonna do?” I smile. But in my mind, I can see the headlines of tomorrow’s papers: ‘2 Pilgrims Missing. Murder mystery on the Camino.’
Meanwhile, our host has prepared a lovely meal: perfectly grilled Dorade with baked potatoes. For the next hours, we’re laughing tears at Angel’s jokes told in a crazy potpourri of Spanglishfrench. We are served like kings and feel kinda guilty for misjudging our host. His hospitality is out of this world. But let’s check that bedroom door anyway. Great. It can be only be locked from inside, not outside. I’ll get to live another night. If I survive Elodie’s horrible snoring. Gosh, she’s the real killer in the house.
Beware, this is the first Meseta stage. A large pack of pilgrims will be walking from Burgos. There are around 110 beds in Hornillos del Camino, 130 in Hontanas, 140 in Castrojeriz. These villages are all 10 km apart, there's no such things as quickly checking the next albergue. Do the math and plan well. Swallow your ego, make a reservation if you can. Many of my friends had to sleep on the floor. On a positive note, these are some of the most beautiful villages of the Camino. Hontanas is cute, Castrojeriz simply out of this world.
As spoken before, the Hospital Peregrinos inside San Anton Monastery is a wet dream for hopeless romantics. Off-the-grid, candle light, 12 beds, open May-Sept from 8.00 to 22.00, Donativo.
You can also try your luck next door, at Angel's farm (metal gate, right after the giant arches). 4 beds. Sleep, food, drinks, smokes and plenty of rock 'n roll for just 10 euro. Gracias Amigo.