At breakfast this morning, I finally got my chance to use one of the Spanish toasters that I first saw at the start of my journey (Huerneja, I think?). It’s just the ticket for a sliced roll with only one flat face. So this is what Sting was looking for in New York…
I left Aljucen shortly after 8am, exchanging greetings with the customers of the cafe, where I’d enjoyed a 7.50 Euro set meal yesterday evening (inc. drink & bread) and smiled at the metal bird of prey perched on the roof of a breeze-block wall.
Most of the walk today was on a good, sandy, Roman road. What a difference it makes! After 36km, my feet still feel fine, and the main obstacle to going further was the setting sun rather than the aches and pains. I was physically tired in a good way. The Via de la Plata road was built on top of existing prehistoric trails, but the Romans made many improvements. They understood the materials to ensure a stable road surface. They used their Roman arches to build many bridges that survive to this day. And they marked distances with milestones that I saw towards the end of today’s walk. Having good roads lets you move your armies around quickly and control large areas. However, it can make you vulnerable. When the Moors invaded, they were able to advance into the Visigoth Kingdom along the via de la Plata in some kind of C8th blitzkrieg.
I spent some time last year interviewing people who are responsible for roads in the UK – learning as much about road maintenance as I ever want to know. On my walk today, I wondered if we knew how the romans managed all of that. We can see what super engineers they were with their arches and concrete, but how sophisticated was their competitive tendering and supplier relationship management? There’s a very boring PhD for someone on that topic, I’m sure.
One of the few stretches of hard road walking was just as I was leaving Aljucen. At the point where I turned off the road, I could see two abandoned petrol stations, directly facing each other across the road. I guess they had fought each other into extinction, like two cats of Kilkenny, for the paltry revenue that they could gain on such a quiet road. On one of them, a graffiti artist had left his tag: “ASKY.” The same tag was in a more creative script on a nearby wall … and I came across another specimen when I reached Alcuescar, 20km later. Normally, I’m not a fan of this kind of graffiti. It combines the maturity of a toddler who has just learned to scrawl the shape of his name but isn’t yet literate with the instinct of a dog to mark its territory by making it stink. I was grateful to ASKY, though, because the buildings that he had chosen to tag were already eyesores and his scribbles gave me a valuable reminder to ask WHY. Why were there two huge petrol stations on a stretch of road that sees a handful of cars per hour? Did this road lose a lot of traffic to some new highway? I doubted it, since the vehicles all had to cross a Roman bridge that has never been reinforced to accommodate heavy traffic. What kind of business plan, formulated by which people sitting far from the reality of this road led to this?
Fortunately, the track soon took me into a more pleasant environment. On either side were holm oak meadows and massive, lichen-covered, creating interesting shadows in the morning sun. Lichen covered some trees too, giving the branches a creepy, Halloweeny, green tinge. I saw some trees with trunks that had been painted red (surely it’s not natural?) after the bark had been removed. And I wondered whether this was to rid them of some parasite? Or whether the bark has some use?
Later, I came across a stone that looked like a rabbit. What a shame!Had I come across it before I said hello to the men outside the cafe, I might have exclaimed “Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!” and earned good luck for the month of November. Rather than digging it up to sell for a fortune on eBay, I left it there for future walkers to enjoy.
I wondered if I might see lots of pata negra pigs today because of the large number of holm oak trees. In fact I saw far more cows, and very few pata negra pigs. In one field, though, I observed a couple pigs in full piggy gallop, making for one particular tree. I wondered if they had some clever way of communicating, like bees that dance to inform their hive about rich pickings, but I guess they just noticed that their friend under that tree seemed to be having a feast.
Since Merida, when I joined the Via de la Plata, I’ve felt that I’m on a much more developed pilgrim route. One example of that is the signage – In addition to the many concrete cubes (with colour coded plaques to indicate whether it’s a Roman road or just the Camino – or a Roman road which is not part of the Camino), there are also some very detailed and interesting information panels. Some thought has gone into this way-finding system. Each panel shows the position in relation to the rest of the Camino as well as a detailed local map with landmarks and photographs of significant buildings etc. But all this is only useful if the panels are in the right place – a couple of hours after leaving Aljucen, I found one that placed me about 30km further north.
At the outskirts of alcuescar, I came across a confusing mess of signs pointing left and right. Fortunately I had been warned that this had come about because the owner of a private in was trying to entice pilgrims to come to his business, rather than going into the town. It’s amusing to me that I’m now on a route where the pilgrim Euro is worth competing over – unlike the motorist Euro at Aljucen. That can be a good thing because there are few economic opportunities in this part of Spain. But I have seen how the “backpacker dollar” can wreck places in south east Asia. As a group, we’re not culturally sensitive and, frankly, we often have bad taste. When we’re the only game in town we can ruin the very thing that we’ve come to see.
My friends had also warned me about the albergue in alcuescar. Actually, I received mixed reports. The Dutch “reverse walkers” that I met in Aljucen thought it was nice to be invited to mass and to tour the charity that is run by a religious order. Other people found the rules and restrictions oppressive. I decided to give it a miss. I was feeling good about the walk and kept going.
The next 15km or so took me along more Roman road with beautiful surroundings. I passed another lake, where I found families picnicking, wading birds, and fish with their bodies sticking out of the water as they lay in shallow water, gobbling up tasty treats that, I assume, they were shaking out of the mud.
The days are shorter now so I enjoyed the evening sun as I reached the small town of Aldea de Cano. The town was buzzing with activity, which I discovered was related to the fiesta that they had just celebrated. So no open shops… I collected the keys to the albergue from the Las Vegas restaurant and paid my 6 Euro fee for the night. I’m the only pilgrim in this huge barn of an albergue with signs in four languages to tell me how to use the washing machine. Dinner at the Las Vegas was fine – 8 Euro for the pilgrim menu. I fell exhausted into a deep sleep as I was writing this last night. Finishing it up now at 7:30am on 2/Nov. Must get going now. I want to reach Caceres by early afternoon and take a look around. It’s about 21km up the road.