(21/Aug/2018) I woke to my alarm before dawn at the Rioja albergue. Being the only guest, I was able to turn on the lights and ready myself rather chaotically for my first full-length stage of the Camino; Get dressed, pack rucksack, unpack rucksack and search for sunscreen, apply sunscreen, get dressed, pack rucksack, put socks on, take socks off, unpack rucksack, search for Compeed anti-blister stick, apply Compeed, put socks on, repack rucksack… I made a mental note to get better at this routine before I found myself sharing a room with other pilgrims.
I ate a meat pasty that I’d bought at the bakery the previous night and ventured out. Even before dawn, I felt warm in my shorts and a T-shirt. The path to the albergue, lined with trees that had been alive with chirping birdsong the previous day, was profoundly silent. The town, which had been fizzing with the excitement that Debussy portrayed in his orchestral image of Spain “Le matin d’un jour de fête,” was sleeping calmly. I turned right at the Ayuntamento and switched on my headlamp as I walked up the main street, both to alert the few vehicles on the road to my presence and to enable me to see arrows. Even in daylight, navigating out of towns can be tricky, because the Camino associations take a more considerate (to the residents), and low-key approach to way marking. When I realised that I had gone too far without seeing an arrow, I checked the map on my phone, retraced my steps, and found the little sticker on the back of a road sign.
There were no cars on the narrow road, but I encountered a pre-dawn runner, coming in the opposite direction. We passed each other without a word. I lacked the confidence to claim fellowship with this nocturnal, traveller, and perhaps he was upset that my headlamp had wrecked his night vision. As the sun rose, I caught glimpses of the orange groves by the Andarax.
In the town of Santa Fe de Mondujar, I rested on a bench under the spectacular, modern, twin-span, rail and road, bridge. Here I found a wall with some paintings by local schoolchildren, and a tap to refill my water bottle; a surprisingly pleasant spot in a space dominated by the massive, concrete, structure. As I sat there, I watched an elderly man climb the hill and cross over the bridges without pause, his fitness putting me to shame. I greeted a lady who came out to relax on the next bench. She said something about the sunshine. Although I didn’t have enough Spanish at this point on my journey to carry on a conversation, I felt pleased to have a moment of connection with her.
Although it was still early, I could feel the power of the sun steadily increasing. I prised myself out of my seat and donned my rucksack and walking poles. When I reached the top of the hill, I was rewarded with a view of the sun, piercing a large, metal, sculpture in the form of one of the regions helios symbols. (Another common symbol throughout the Almeria region is the prehistoric “Indalo,” an image of a man with outstretched arms and an arc over his head). To my surprise, rather than crossing the bridge. the camino route left the road and put me on a footpath that offered stunning views over the landscape of the Alpujarra; Western Europe’s only true desert. Inspired by Beau Gest, I improvised a neck protector with the triangular cloth, that I’d received from the Almeria Camino association, I tied two corners to the shoulder straps of my rucksack and tucked the third corner under the back of my cap. The climbs and descents over the hills were tiring in midday heat, but the path was good and the scenery, with glimpses of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance, was wonderful. I didn’t see any buildings or towns until I reached the hills above Alhabia.
From above, the terra-cotta roofs and white walls of Alhabia impressed me, and as I walked into the town, I was delighted by the narrow streets and elegant buildings, including the Baroque church of San Juan Evangelista. The main square seemed like a perfect spot to rest with a cool drink. I took a seat under the awning in front of the Cafeteria Cerveceria with a view of the town hall and the church across the square. I was on the point of falling in love with Alhabia, but the spell was about to be broken. The lunchtime menu was limited to tostadas (which sounded to me like “tota,” in the surly waiter’s Andalusian accent), and the pâté tostada turned out to be a mean little affair, served with a couple of foil-topped plastic packets of pâte. A group of men at the next table shouted at everything, and making fun of a lame cat that limped across the square. And a long, scratchy, recording emanated from the church; starting with chimes, some sort of sermon, some prayers, and a reedy-voiced Ave Maria, which abruptly stopped in mid-verse. When I stood up after my meal, I felt a pinch and realised that my upper thighs were chafing, as a result of the sweat and the friction as I walked. I ought to have put on dry underwear and bought talcum powder Alhabias Farmacia (it’s one of the grand buildings, apparently). But so great was my urge to leave that I strode out of town without thinking.
My heart sank when I reached the end of town and saw that the walk from Alhabia to Alboloduy is on the dry bed of the Rio Nacimiento. Even without the chafing, this last section of the stage would have been hard work. I gritted my teeth and kept moving. At the small towns of Alsodux and Santa Cruz de Marchena which are situated on the banks of the Nacimiento, I stopped only to fill my water bottle and take a photograph. Each town had a sunbleached tourist information panel with information about its heritage and famous buildings, but I didn’t want to explore. I was relieved when I reached Alboloduy, my destination for the day at about 3pm. The town centre was deserted and the last employee at the Ayuntamento was about to lock up. She very kindly offered to walk me up to the Casa Rural that I had reserved the night before. Like many of the albergues between here and Granada, it was right at the top of the town. From there, the town looked spectacular; white buildings clustered in a bowl with a severe looking mountain in the background. When we got there, she pulled the key from a hiding place and let me in. It’s fortunate that she did, because it turned out that the owners (a German/Spanish couple) had an emergency and were unable to come to check me in until after late that evening.
After showering and washing my clothes, I walked across the bridge over the river to eat at a roadside restaurant. Unlike the businesses in the town, it stayed open all day. Despite my still rudimentary Spanish, I found a way to order a delicious meal. I described the experience on Facebook as follows:
How to order at an Andalusian roadside restaurante with no written menu:
Wait until the waitress says a word that you recognise and repeat it. It limits me somewhat, but the results are good: Salmorejo, salad, grilled chicken and chips, pudding with cream, and a coffee. (And two bottles of sparkling water – All for 11.50 Euros)
I could hear the sounds of people splashing around in the municipal pool across town, but I was too exhausted to check it out. When the supermarket opened in the late afternoon, I made my last trip of the day down the hill to buy provisions and talcum powder. I made a note of the location of the arrows pointing out of town and then I hiked back up the hill on rubbery legs. For the next few weeks I survived the hot climate with a regime of “sunscreen where the sun shines and talcum powder where it doesn’t.” I’m pleased to say that it worked.