Day 29 (26/Oct/2017): Campanario to Don Benito (28km?)

I startled writing this in the centre of bustling Don Benito; the pint-sized capital of the Altas Vegas del Guadiana district of Extremadura, with a juicy solomillo of pork, salty pimentos and a plate of cheese in front of me: Youngsters all over town are dressed in Halloween costumes. Half the city appears to be taking a walk on Calle Groizard, meeting and chatting with friends and neighbours.
On this journey, I’ve been the recipient of many acts of hospitality; friendly waves and salutations from people that I pass, thoughtful and generous support from members of the Camino associations. That’s why it comes as a rude surprise to interact with someone less caring. That’s how I felt about my landlord at the Pension Malay yesterday. He spoke too fast for me to follow, and seemed to be in a hurry to collect my money, show me how to lock up, and get back to his business. He didn’t bring a stamp for my pilgrim’s passport and told me, with a vague wave, to get it stamped at the local police station. After settling into my room I washed my clothes and hung them to dry under the air conditioner before going out for a less than wonderful dinner, served by a waiter who forgot to bring me a knife and fork… never mind.
During the night, I had a strange dream about finding an enormous, hinged, iron, key in my rucksack. It came from an albergue toward the start of my Camino – and now I would have to go all the way back to return it. I woke and realised that I needed to walk back into Campanario in the morning to get a stamp in my credencial, before continuing along the Camino. I decided to see if I could get a stamp from Bar Estrella, whose owner had been so friendly. (Why did my dream include a “hinged key”? I think my mind was mixing up the landlord’s instructions on locking up with some stories that Michel had told me about wooden locks on Berber homes in the High Atlas Mountains).
At 7:00am, I strapped my right foot into the orthopaedic gizmo that I’d bought in Córdoba and packed my rucksack. I wondered how this might affect my gait and figured that a short walk without a rucksack would be a good way to try it out. I left my things in the room and went back towards the centro urbano of Campanario. On my way, I noticed a bar called “Coconuts” was open, but kept going. When I reached the main square, I found that Estrellla wasn’t yet open, so I made my way back to Coconuts, ordered a cafe con leche, and helped myself to one of the biscuits that the owner put in baskets on the counter for all his customers – No toasted slices here. The owner was happy to stamp my credencial, and a couple of the regulars took an interest in the other stamps that I have collected. With that cleared up, I picked up my things from my room and started down the road in the early daylight, past an attractive brick building that may once have been a flour mill and onto the track to Magacela.
Still concerned that I might have mental barriers holding me back, I considered ways to motivate myself. Perhaps I should push myself to catch up with the “very cute” Spanish peregrina that the owner of Bar Estrella mentioned. I think she might be the same girl that the Norwegian walkers mentioned to me back in Santa Cruz. At that moment I was struck with the thought that the best way to ensure that I would catch up with her would be to take a bus and get ahead; wait for her to walk past rather than struggle to catch up – and then come back later to “do” the bit of Camino that I had missed. What difference would it make? And this is the problem with creating extrinsic incentives and artificial “carrots” to motivate inherently lazy humans. They will always look for a way to game the system. I realised that my reward for walking the Camino should be walking the Camino. And besides, the “muy guapa,” peregrina is clearly a Camino Mozarabe joke, perpetrated by veterans at the expense of rookies like me, who haven’t worked out that there are no guapa peregrinas ahead on this road; just a long conga-line of bearded old farts and retired couples that stretches as far as Santiago.
Fortunately, this stretch of the Camino provided many stimulating diversions to keep me engaged. Soon after I left Campanario, I was able to see the white buildings of Magacela, covering one side of a steep hill. And then, suddenly, I realised that a large cowshed that I was approaching was, in fact, the awning above an archeological site – the excavated ruins of a C5th B.C. fortified building, known as La Mata. An archeology student in charge of the site tried to explain to me that the people who built this were not “Tartessian” but “post-oriental” (i.e. after contact with Phoenecian culture?) people. And this is not pre-history, but proto-history … You need a protographic memory to handle this stuff.
I spent some time exploring and was delighted to be able to go all the way into the site without ever encountering a roped off area or a souvenir store – although the cowshed itself is inevitably obtrusive.
I left La Mata and walked past rocky, red, ploughed fields and noticed a small, sugarloaf-shaped, burial mound; Silbury hill in miniature. Here I met a farmer who shouted from the other side of the field. At first I thought he was telling me off for photographing his co-worker in the tractor, but it turned out that he just wanted me to stop for a chat. He carried a sack over his shoulder and a broad smile on his face, laughing frequently as we talked:
“Are you enjoying your Camino?”
“Very much. This is a beautiful area.”
“No. No. It’s not beautiful at all. Where are you from?”
“From England.”
“Ah. England is beautiful. And the land is better.”
“Well I can see that there are many rocks. It’s hard. But look, you have all the prehistoric sites.”
“Ah. Prehistory. Did you visit La Mata back there?”
“Yes. It’s very interesting.”
“Yeah. Doesn’t interest me at all.”
I looked back towardthe ruins and saw the Spanish couple from the albergue in Castuera. They had, it seems, walked past the ruins without stopping. I waved and waited for them to catch up, but they stopped to take photographs of each other and it struck me that they might prefer to walk alone so I carried on. I didn’t see them again.
On arrival in Magacela, I was greeted by the local postman, making deliveries in his yellow uniform. I asked if there was a bar in the pueblo, since I had eaten only a biscuit that morning. He pointed up the steep slope and told me that the only bar was at the top. At that moment an enthusiastically gesticulating neighbour got our attention. He was pointing out the yellow arrow that showed the Camino route to be perpendicular to the road up the hill. For once, it seemed, the Camino would not take me past the church and town hall, but would skirt the town. To some degree, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to climb the hill, but I needed some food.
“Well there’s a bakery that way,” said the neighbour. That sounded excellent and the postman kindly offered to walk with me and show me the way. He took me past the first houses and pointed me down a street that was just off the Camino route: “Once you pass that building with the red roof, you’ll see the shop.” But then a builder coming in the opposite direction with a large bottle of Amstel under his arm turned me around and pointed me back to the Camino route:
“No. No. I’m not trying to follow the Camino. I need to visit the bakery first.”
“Don’t listen to the him. The bakery is up there, past the square. Do you want some beer?”
“No thanks. I haven’t eaten breakfast yet.”
“Suit yourself, then. The bakery is over there.”
Sure enough, his directions took me to one of the smartest bakeries I’ve ever visited, with weighted bags and pulleys that automatically closed its solid, wooden doors. I bought a whole meal loaf, a chocolate sausage roll, and a cold can of drink to eat in the plaza.
Of course, after eating, I followed the yellow arrows, which took me all the way up around the village, up the hill, and past the bar, where I had a beer and a tapa.
If I ever write a story set in rural Spain, my pueblo will feature a postman who, following a concussion, suffers amnesia and loss of sense of direction. The villagers, to enable him to keep his job, set up a clearing house at the bar – redistributing the mail items that he leaves at the wrong addresses. It’s a bit Captain Corelli, I know. But nobody can tell me that it isn’t true to life.
Magacela takes its name from the Moorish name for the town – “Umm Gazala”. I believe that Gazala is “gazelle,” because that’s what the driver that I hired in Marrakesh told me when I saw it on the side of a bus. Gazala seems to be a major tour company there. I mentioned that I had a colleague called Michael Gazala and from then on, he would point at the tour buses and joke that it was “another of Michael’s buses.” It quickly became tiresome.
After admiring the views at the top of Magacela, I decided to press on without visiting the Castillo. The route took me along a track toward La Haba. The sheep in the fields were huddling , to get some relief from the sun, which was beating down quite fiercely. I later saw that the temperature reached 29C. On the track, I startled a rabbit, which jumped into the grass to escape me. . It must have been sick; it moved slowly, and I managed to stroke its ears before it hopped away to the other side of the fence.
More fields and occasional olive groves before I reached La Haba, a small town whose more illustrious past is evident from the heraldic shields in stone on the walls of some buildings. I had another beer and tapa here – some salty goats cheese.
I walked past La Haba’s smart-looking albergue, feeling confident that I could go the distance to Don Benito. My right foot seemed to be doing fine with the air cushion under the arch. My left foot, which had been so well behaved until then, decided to produce a small blister in a bid for attention. But otherwise, I felt great. I made it to the city of Don Benito, which was buzzing with activity. I sat in the plaza espana, in front of the church of Santiago and arranged to stay at Hostal Galicia. In the early evening, I took my clothes to the Vaporati laundrette, where a delightful employee offered to transfer my load to a drier, giving me a full hour to look around, do some shopping, get some recommendations for dinner, and enjoy an ice cream.
I’m trying to decide my plan for the remaining distance to Merida. The distance should be walkable in two days, but there is no accommodation at the halfway point. So one day will be very short and the other, rather long. Unless I sleep for a night under the stars like Ladislaw, or split the thing into three short days. I’ll play it by ear and see how my legs and feet feel when I get to Santa Amalia today. It’s time I got going – I didn’t finish this account last night, so I’ve used some valuable, morning, walking time to write it up.

Categories: 2017 Camino Mozarabe (Almeria to Finisterre)

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