As so often seems to happen at the end of a long trip, the places we visited in our last weeks of traveling fell behind more quickly than we wanted. This wasn’t helped by the succession of quick stops we made as we headed toward Burgos in the Castile region of northern Spain, where we hoped to see Anne-Claire’s host family.
We traveled north from Porto with the vague goal of getting to Santiago. Two trains, a cross-border cab ride with a tri-lingual taxi driver later, and a short hike from the train station, we arrived in the bursting endpoint of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Our original intention had been to hike a few days on the Portuguese Camino, but backpacks laden with too much port and cured meat discouraged us from hitting the trail.
Santiago was pleasant enough, beautiful in fact, with its winding streets and sprawling cathedral. But not having done the hike, I felt more like a spectator as most of the folks in the town’s streets – many of them with
Reflections of Molinaseca
bandaged knees and taped-up feet from 500 km or more of hiking – were basking in the catharsis of their journeys’ end. Still, it didn’t stop us from bellying up for some delicious food and beer.
The next day took us to Molinaseca, a charming little town on the Camino that Anne-Claire and her dad had both fell in love with on their hike a few years ago. We spent the afternoon napping at the river on the edge of town that greets pilgrims as they trek toward Santiago. If you know Sycamore Pool in Chico in Lower Bidwell Park, it’s sort of like a miniature version of that. At some point, the
townspeople paved part of the bottom of the river and built walls along the banks to make a nice swimming area. Many pilgrims can barely keep their shoes on long enough to cross the stone bridge before they plunge into the icy water.
From Molinaseca, we took a bus to Burgos, now home to a Disneyland-like town center with another sprawling Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) begun in 1221. From there, we took another bus into the countryside, through streets in tiny villages that didn’t look big enough for a Smart Car, let alone a full-size motor coach.
Our destination was one of these small towns, a place called Castrillo de Murcia, where Anne-Claire’s host mother Amablé (who we’d seen in Aix-en-Provence in June) was born. Like many of the town’s residents, she moved away for work and to raise a family, but she returns every summer, when the population swells from a winter-low of 100 to about 500 in the summertime. Built around a hillside, with a skyward-reaching church at its axis, the village feels like a permanent block party. Folks mostly rest during the heat of the day in their houses built of chilly stone, but at night, kids fill the streets of the walled center, playing (as their parents do) well into the night.
Once again, we were treated to meal after meal of fantastic Spanish dishes. The first night, we sampled morcilla de Burgos, a local blood sausage made with rice, onions and salt. Lunch the next day repeated a favorite meal I’d had in quite a few countries on this trip – lamb and fried potatoes. This time, Amablé’s partner Michel cooked the steaks over a wood fire in the fireplace he built in their courtyard.
Michel has this insatiable curiosity that’s led him to pick up Spanish (he’s French by birth) and English in the last five years, and he loves to tinker (called ‘bricoler’ in French). Amablé’s mother’s house (where we stayed) is littered with small improvement projects he’s done over the years to the hundreds-of-years-old structure. Little would tip you off that he’s 70 years old, apart from the thick shock of white hair on his head that shows no signs of thinning. He and I took a 25-30-km bike ride through the countryside and through a handful of small towns that sit on the Camino de Santiago, which Michel has biked twice. He has plans to pedal along the route from Castrillo de Murcia to Molinaseca this September.
We rode up a short hill to a plateau that afforded us unimpeded views of the wheat and wind farms that stretch across the rolling hills in every direction. We each rode bikes Michel had salvaged from the trash and fixed to usable condition for just these types of rides.
After coming down the other side of the plateau, we happened on these spectacular church ruins in San Antón just outside Castrojeriz, which boasts its own specatular ruined fortress perched on a hill high above the town, a vestige of the protection once needed from Moorish invaders. The church in San Antón now houses a hostel for pilgrims on the Camino, but standing inside the roofless walls, you get the sense of what a grand cathedral this must have once been. Huge buttresses arc right over the roadway, supporting now-imagined walls that must have soared. Later that night, we drove out here with Amablé and Anne-Claire to see the church in even more splendid light.
Before dinner that night, Michel took me to the family’s cave, which Amablé’s father and his friend had carved out of the thick bedrock decades ago. True to his French roots, Michel brings a few dozen bottles of his favorite French wine with him every summer, and he stores it, along with vegetables in this chilly cellar with a green door and an almost-comically huge key.
Given the hospitality they’d shown us not once but twice on our journey, it was tough to say goodbye the next morning. Amablé is pretty good with farewells, perhaps thanks to the practice that hosting 9 or 10 students over the years has given her. A few touches of cheek to cheek and we were off in Michel’s car as he drove us to the bus station in Burgos.
Still traveling guidebook-less, we wanted to head toward Pamplona and then up through the Pyrenees to see another of Anne-Claire’s host families back in France.