Day 1 (28/Sep/2017): Almeria to Rioja (15km)

(17/Aug/2018) Almost a year has passed since I set off on the Camino Mozarabe from Almeria to Santiago, and then to Finisterre and Muxia. My original intention was to post a daily journal on this site. But for the first two days I lacked the courage to write anything; feeling that I would probably embarrass myself by giving up the walk within a week. From Day 3, I started posting a selection of photographs and impressions to Facebook, and I told myself that I would copy those posts to this site later.

In the months since my adventure, my thoughts have often turned to the weeks that I spent walking through Spain. I kept in touch with some of the people that I met on the road and others who followed my journey online – including veteran pilgrims, Maggie Woodward and Tyson Qiu, who walked the Camino Mozarabe in the Spring, and Michel Cerdan, whose Camino de Piedras exhibition is currently touring Andalusia and Extremadura. But, somehow, I kept putting off the task of writing up Days 1 and 2 of my 2017 Camino and copying the other entries from Facebook. I’m now preparing to set off on a walk from my home in Wiltshire to Canterbury, so I can’t put this off any longer:

I woke very early on the morning of Thursday, 28/Sept at the Hotel AC Almeria; a modern chain hotel whose identical siblings in cities around the world I knew well from business trips. I felt like an imposter; dressed up as a booted and rucksack-laden pilgrim, but smelling of bath salts, and Egyptian cotton sheets. As I made my way across the lobby, I rehearsed my response to a question about my plans; I would say that I was walking to Rioja, my destination for the day without mentioning Santiago. But the receptionist was discreet and uninquisitive, noting only that I had paid for my room with loyalty points, and that there were no incidental charges.

At 6:00 AM, I stood in front of Almeria’s Cathedral; official starting point of the Camino Mozarabe. I hoped to follow the wise example of Michel d”Auzon, who, when he walked this route a few weeks before me, posted poetic daily accounts of his early morning departures; covering some distance in the cool of the morning, before the appearance of the fierce Andalusian sun. An intermittent drizzle was falling that morning, and I had a short 15km to cover, but when I felt the sun beating on my back later in the day, I was glad to have started early. I recalled Inma’s instructions; Standing with my back to the cathedral, I looked for a narrow street with the first Camino arrow on a ceramic tile. My mistake was to expect the arrow to be on the right hand side of the street…

I must have looked odd to the cleaning crew in the square, as I walked around it, peering intently at street signs for about 20 minutes. Eventually, I had the sense to look at the left side of the Calle Lope de Vega, where a ceramic tile with a yellow arrow was patiently waiting for me. With relief, I took my first Camino selfie and my first step on my journey. I think this may have triggered an obsessive desire in me to photograph all the “significant,” arrows on my journey. I hope that my companions along the way were amused rather than irritated by this habit of mine. I half-seriously told them that I was planning to turn the photos of arrows into a useless guidebook or a banal film. I fear that these ideas would “fill a much needed gap,” in the body of work about the Camino. (And just this afternoon, Uwe wrote to ask me when the film would be ready, so I suppose I must make it now).

From the Cathedral, the arrows guided me through streets where I had been sightseeing the day before; past the church of Santiago, which was not far from my hotel, the entrance to the Civil War evacuation shelters (which I hope to see on a future visit), the elegant Edeficio de las Mariposas, and the church of San Sebastian with the fat lady statue. At Avenida Federico Garcia Lorca, the route turned northwards and took me, for the first time, into unexplored territory. I followed a pedestrianised “urban park,” in the divide between two lanes of the Calle Ramba Amatisteros, away from Almeria’s commercial centre and through the residential suburbs. I wondered if this space between the two carriageways had previously been occupied by the industrial railway from the mines to the Cabel Ingles. After the first major roundabout, the street furniture became scrappier, and the architecture changed from blocks of flats to a low rise mix of petrol stations, and industrial premises. Here, town planning prioritised cars over pedestrians. Groups of students and commuters waited by the road for buses to take them into the city that I was leaving behind. I needed to develop a sense of where to look and what to look for; arrows were no longer on ceramic tiles at head height, but painted on pavements and kerb stones.

When I reached the dusty ex-urb of Huercal de Almerai, I was treated to a panoramic view of the desert ahead in the reddish glow of the rising sun; a scene that belonged in one of the Spaghetti Western movies that were filmed in this region. Among the warehouses and garages, I spotted a cafe that looked almost like the set of a cowboy film, with wagon wheels above the gate and signs in an old-West typeface. I rightly guessed that this might be my last chance to get refreshment on this stage, so I stopped here for a coffee and the first of the many tostadas that sustained me across Spain; a firmly Spanish menu in a joint straight out of the Wild West. The ladies and gents facilities had silhouettes on the doors; a can can dancer on one and Clint Eastwood’s profile on the other.

Huercal is a more than half way to Rioja, but the section after this felt like the greater part of this stage of the Camino. After passing through an elaborately graffitied bridge, I emerged onto the bed of the Rio Andarax. The novelty of walking on the dry bed of a wide river was some compensation for the difficulty presented by the various surfaces. In damp, sandy, areas, my feet were sucked down. More pebbly sections responded like treadmills with a movement that counteracted my efforts to advance. In places where the rocks were large and round, I placed each step carefully to keep my balance. This was my first outing with walking poles. I found them invaluable for the added stability that they gave me. I was also happy to be wearing boots that held my ankles firmly.

The pools between the ridges that I was walking on looked very uninviting; composed of a dark and murky liquid with its surface broken by black algae and whitish foam. They gave off a strong smell of ammonia, which made it hard for me to believe that this river irrigated the many citrus orchards on either bank. I was carrying a water bottle with a filter that claimed to render any water source drinkable, but I had a feeling that whatever liquid lay in those pools might have melted the bottle itself. My progress slowed, and I felt as though the sun would crush me into the stony riverbed. Fortunately, the Camino angels had gone to town with huge, bold, arrows on the walls and debris of the river. They stood out like beacons in the landscape, enticing me forward.

In the early afternoon I reached an arrow that pointed up a concrete slope to the right, away from the riverbed and past  two angry dogs in a garden. I sat on a wall to drink some water and I heard live music; a marching band? football supporters? I realised that this meant that I had reached the village of Rioja and I was delighted. I still doubted my ability to handle the longer, more challenging stages ahead, but I had proved to myself that I could follow arrows. The day had been hard, but rewarding.

I lifted myself off the wall and walked the short distance to the entrance of the town, which was decorated for a Fiesta. Strings of decorative lights hung from the lampposts. A crowd was swaying to the music of a band in front of the town hall. If this is how I was received after my first stage, I told myself, I couldn’t wait to see the party that was waiting for me in Santiago. When the band moved on, I introduced myself as a pilgrim at the Ayuntamento. A staff member gave me a glass of cold water and went to call Manuella, the lady responsible for the Albergue. She took me there and explained the arrangements. In common with many of the Albergues on the Camino Mozarabe, it is donativo. Each pilgrim leaves a monetary donation in a box to support the costs of running the facility. The value of the donation is up to the individual.

The Rioja albergue is at the site of Rioja’s municipal swimming pool. Facilities include a kitchen, good showers with shampoo, a library, and two dormitories with blue-plastic covered mattresses on new bunk beds. I’m not sure if the pool is open to the public these days. It seemed like it hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Nonetheless, I slid slowly into the murky green water and swam a few lengths without coming across any submerged shopping trolleys. An awning over the poolside terrace gave me a perfect spot to do some stretching, using a yoga mat and cushion that I carried with me for the first few days of my walk. (By the end of the third day, I decided that the therapeutic benefits of a good stretch were outweighed by the effort required to carry that kit). I also unblocked the laundry sink that was on the terrace (clogged with a previous guest’s cigarette butts) and washed my clothes. They dried in no time, in the hot, dry, breeze.

In the early evening, I walked up the Main Street and found a tiny bakery, where I bought meat and cheese pasties and some crisps to eat the next day. It felt odd to be buying a British supermarket “Meal Deal,” in Andalusia, but that’s what the shop had . For dinner, I ordered randomly from a menu on a blackboard at the bar opposite the town hall, and wound up with a salad and a morcilla blood sausage. At about 10pm, the second act of the Fiesta started in a square behind the bar. Families started arriving to enjoy the fairground rides with their young children, I bought a waffle and strolled back to the albergue. The pilgrim’s schedule is often at odds with Spain’s late-night way of life, Fortunately, the albergue was far enough from the fiesta for the noise to be a pleasant hum in the distance. I fell into a deep sleep as soon as I got into my silk liner.

Categories: 2017 Camino Mozarabe (Almeria to Finisterre)

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