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As I walked by the watchful gaze of Pablo Payo Pérez (honored as the Mesonero Mayor del Camino de Santiago, in 1990 by la Asociación Internacional de Amigos del Camino de Santiago) sitting a permanent and rather statuesque guard over the Mesón Villalcázar (a well-preserved medieval inn) I was once more starting out on the road alone. If I could use any word to characterize this stretch of the Camino it would be “solitary” with “exhausting” and “numbing” coming in second and third, respectively.
At first I was quite excited by the prospect of walking the Via Aquitana, the Roman road that connected this area with the town of Astorga. It is also called La Calzada Romana (the Roman Road). My knowledge of Roman history only deepened my desire to walk this road and I set off, quite happily in fact, to walk and dream about the Roman past in Hispania. My route would first take me through the town of Carrión de los Condes and after that a further 5 kilometers would put me on the Via Aquitana! The route, at first, was not so solitary because it paralleled the Carretera Autónomica P- 980 highway and I did see the odd Peregrino now and then.
Carrión de los Condes (pop. 2,300) occupies a strategic position in this once volatile border region and the Romans – always having a keen eye for the strategic – had a settlement on the bluff to the north of the city called Lacobriga. The Visigoths were followed by the Muslims who in around 813 occupied the town – their castle being on the site of the present-day Iglesia de Belén. It was the 11th century that brought the town into prominence effectively making it the capital of much of the tierra de campos and coming under the ruling of the Leónese Beni-Gómez family, the Condes de Carrión. Santa María de Carrión (as the town was known then), during the Middle Ages was one of the wealthiest and most powerful towns in northern Spain. At its height, the town’s 13 parishes supported a population of 10,000 and 14 pilgrim hospices. The wealth of the town came primarily from agriculture followed by the development of the pilgrimage road. Carrión was popular with French pilgrims because of the legend that Charlemagne camped here (much like our George Washington slept here…) during his war to gain control of the road from the Muslims.
As a powerful town it was not lacking in intrigue – the most juicy bits involving the Spanish national hero El Cid. Alfonso VI of León – called “El Bravo” – after losing the battle of Golpejera on January 12th, 1072 (and having broken a truce) here against his brother Sancho II of Castilla allegedly had conspired to have Sancho murdered on the ramparts of the city of Zamora. El Cid who had fought for Sancho (it was El Cid that led them to victory) knew that Sancho had mercifully had Alfonso exiled rather than killed, was not pleased and maintained an irrevocable hostility against Alfonso. El Cid, according to the epic El Poema de mío Cid was even less pleased with the malicious Condes of Carrión who had married his daughters and then mistreated them. This mistreatment – not a wise move by los Condes – led to the enmity of El Cid and the premature death of Los Condes. It also led to the city being dishonorably called Carrión de Los Condes as it continues to be called right to this day.
My conduct in Carrión de los Condes was demonstrably more honorable as my first stop was the 12th century Iglesia de Santa María del Camino. The church is famous for the depiction of the frightening annual “tribute” of 100 maidens demanded by the conquering Muslims. Legend has it that Alfonso VI sought refuge here after the battle of Golpejera.
I had also wanted to see the 12th century Iglesia de Santiago but I could not enter it. Either it was closed or there was some other entrance that I did not see. Although destroyed during the War of Independence in 1809 against the French, the facade (one of the masterpieces of Castilian Romanesque monumental sculpture) and frieze (both magnificent) were left intact by the 1845 reconstruction. It also has an image of Santiago Matamoros.
I settled on replenishing my food and water supplies before leaving Carrión and here I made a mistake. I had the bright idea that rather than stocking up with water I would fill my bottle and reservoir with a Gatorade type drink so that I would be hydrated better and might avoid a drop in my blood sugar. I wanted to be ready because I knew that the next 16 kilometers would be grueling and devoid of shade. On the Calzada Romana I was to pay for this later.
Just outside of the town and just over the bridge that takes one over the río Carrión is the beautiful Real Monasterio de San Zoilo. A miracle is said to have taken place here:
a blind pilgrim was brought to the monastery to sleep and rest, but instead he stood vigil before the relics of the church. When morning came he found his sight restored.
The monastery is a national monument and has been restored as a private hotel. Parts of it have Romanesque elements that date from the 11th century while there are beautiful Plasteresque cloisters that were greatly influenced by the Renaissance. The infamous Counts of Carrión remains have been laid to rest here. The monastery has an interesting history and at its peak it administered over 7 hospices. Founded in the 10th century by Conde Gómez-Diaz and his wife Teresa it was first dedicated the St. John the Baptist. It was renamed in 1047 after the relics of the Cordoban martyr were brought there. In 1076 it was given to Cluny and was the second most important Cluniac monastery in Castilla after Sahagún. The Benedictines of Valladolid restored and enlarged the monastery and lastly the Jesuits established a school there. Alas, I did not see any of its treasures but I will definitely do so next time!
My walk after passing by the monastery became very, very solitary and exhausting. It was incredibly hot that day and I can count the people that I saw on one hand and they were mostly cyclists. La Calzada Romana had been gravelled over and while not difficult to walk it was mind-numbingly straight and boring. The road underneath the gravel had survived for over 2000 years! It goes through a section of bogland that is devoid of any stone for building and the Romans had to bring over 100,000 tons of rock just for the substrata to raise the surface above the winter flood levels. Every single ton of rocks was brought here from somewhere else!! How they did this is beyond me. I was imagining the soldiers of a Roman legion marching through this desolate and marshy area (indeed I imagined that I was one of those legionnaires!) and how hard it must of been.
When I reached the Fuente del Hospitalejo Picnic Area there was an ice cream truck on the side of the road and the vendor was the only person I spoke to on the whole Calzada Romana! I took advantage of the shade and picnic table to eat my lunch but soon had a splitting headache that was caused by the Gatorade-like drink I had in my bottles. The headache was intense and when coupled with the heat was not how I wanted to walk but I had to continue on (what choice did I have?) another 10 kilometers to Calzadilla de la Cueza (pop. 52 as of 2012).
I managed to finally arrive at my destination and gratefully found a place to stay at the Hostal Camino Real. While resting and writing in the lounge I ran into Aryanne, a Dutch Peregrina that I had met three times before, most recently in Hornillos. We greeted each other and had dinner together with another Peregrina. I was glad to have survived the day!