Delighted to have found a breakfast option that opened at 6am, I was up and moving down Najera’s quiet streets toward the cafe. It was dark and the only things I encountered were a few cats and a large trash truck turning onto the bridge. The emptiness brought a beautiful silence and the cool morning air felt invigorating. The contrast between the narrow, medieval streets and their modern shops and amenities was not anachronistic in the least; old and new blended in a rich fabric of time, tradition, and progress.
Alas, the cafe was not open when I arrived so I found an outside table and sat down to work on my iPad. Twenty five minutes later, the morning crew showed up and I was able to enter the warmth of the cafe and get the day in gear with a coffee. This particular cafe seemed to be the choice of the police as multiple groups passed through for the next couple of hours. Around 7:00, the pilgrims began to show, most stopping for a quick coffee before moving on their Way.
One American pilgrim came through and asked for a cafe con leche; as I overheard his attempt at Spanish, I grimaced and hoped that my words came out better in my own efforts. There was something so jarring in his tone and pronunciation that it felt like fingernails on a chalkboard and I understood why I might be getting winces from the natives for my efforts. For some reason, he sat down across the aisle facing me and proceeded to assault his croissant with a vigor and noise that pushed me to the edge of my Christianity. As I gritted my teeth through his breakfast, wishing I had brought my headphones, I realized that not all crosses on the Camino came in the form of a 20 pound backpack.
Sally and I enjoyed a nice breakfast at the Hotel of Dukes. She was delighted to see that they offered toast and butter – a true indulgence that brought joy to the morning. We ate our breakfast and watched the news talking about the sentencing of the politicians who led a referendum for Catalan independence from Spain. We have been blissfully detached from world news and the protests and violence in Barcelona were jarring. i was reminded of how fragile can be the institutions and freedoms we hold dear and remembered that Spain is less than 35 years out from the dictatorship it lived under for almost 40 years.
Heading out of Najera, we enjoyed the cool air, clear blue skies, and wonderful views of the monastery and rock walls rising behind the buildings at this end of the town. The Monasterio commanded the entire western edge of Najera as we climbed out of town and onto the Way. We dressed more warmly today but were already removing layers by the top of the first hill. Ahead of us, the path weaved up and around the hills into the vineyards beyond.
Moving up toward Azofra, we passed a couple who we had seen the night before at the Church of Santa Cruz. They spoke little English but were friendly and moving along at their own pace. We have seen a number of couples on the Camino and it is always curious to see the dynamics – generally independent and apart from the broader groups. Watching this couple ahead of us, I noticed them holding hands and occasionally sneaking a kiss as they walked slowly along – oblivious to all but themselves and the moment they shared. I thought back to the the comment of the American woman on Camino tour: “You must have a strong marriage to walk that distance together.” On our first night in Orrison, I shared that we saw the Camino as a way to grow together – a way to make our marriage stronger. It did not occur to me that marital strength would be necessary to endure so much focused time together. It has been 14 days since we left the United States and I’m happy to say that we’re still holding hands (and occasionally sneaking a kiss).
After Azofra, the wind kicked up and we literally walked uphill against if for the next 14 km. The flies that had annoyed us so persistently, disappeared and were replaced with the unrelenting beating brought by the wind. I’ve never paid much attention to wind speeds but I can now say that a 20 mile per hour sustained headwind is exhausting, mental and physically. There was little shade or shelter as we walked among the fields on a rocky path. We climbed a steep hill to a plateau and found a small park to rest. We huddled behind our backpacks trying to give us a bit of reprieve from the wind. Ahead, we saw a large gold course and collection of apartment-type homes arrayed in some kind of master planned community – Cirueña.
I had read that this community was basically a ghost town brought-on by the housing crisis. Walking along the empty streets lined by new homes, a massive community area with pool and playground, windows full of “for sale” signs, and no signs of life evoked feelings of Mad Max, I Am Legend, Terminator, and any number of post-apocalyptic movies. Even more bizarre was how well everything appeared to be maintained. Homies of all sizes – hundreds of them – all seemed empty. On the other side of this community was a small village and a cafe. We sat for Coke and talked with a local who spoke excellent English. He explained that the community we just passed was full in the summer time and that many Spaniards have multiple homes – family homes, homes in the city where they work, and vacation homes. The area did not strike me as a vacation mecca but I could see it being a cooler option to areas that got hot in the summertime.
From here, we had a light 5 km walk to Santo Domingo, famous for having chickens in its Cathedral – a tradition stemming from the curious legend of a young German pilgrim, his hanging, and miraculous survival. There was a nice picnic area overlooking the town and we were able to look over the entire area from above. La Rioja’s vineyards had given way to open plains spread over undulating hills and we surveyed the harvested fields for miles in all directions.
In Santo Domingo de Calzada, we checked into Hostel San Miguel where we were greeted by a very kind proprietress who warmly welcomed us and proceeded to map out all of the interesting things we might want to see and do while in Santo Domingo. We walked across the street for our afternoon beer (it was now about 5pm) and planned our evening and strategy for tomorrow. We were in the bar for nearly two hours and then explored the area including a bell and clock museums, a renovated pilgrims hospital turned into a hotel, and waited for evening Mass at 8pm.
We waited outside of the Cathedral de Santo Domingo de Calzada for Mass to begin. Tonight was the dedication of a new entrance door, carved to celebrate the story of the prodigal son. The priest explained the story of the door and its completion then invited everyone in for Mass. The Cathedral was very large, very beautiful, and very distinct. The altar was centered in the church with the altarpiece consuming a large cavernous space directly to its left.
Good day. Long day. Sally’s blisters are still healing but the Compeed has been nearly miraculous in helping facilitate the process. We are settling into a rhythm and the physical demands are getting more and more manageable. The familiar aches are less concerning as we watch them fade with rest. It is easy to become consumed with new aches and we try to balance being alert to injury with being obsessed about the discomforts.
Tomorrow, we will leave La Rioja and enter Castilla y Leon as we make our way to Belorado. We have now completed 213.1 Km (132 miles). It does not seem like much on the big map but we are starting to see some progress.