A note for readers: This is the third in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review the previous articles for context, please scroll down.
Day two on the Camino San Salvador begins as do all my days, with a prayerful contemplation, a consideration of what lies ahead. I remain curiously ambivalent about whether to saunter alone today, so I’ll just leave it up to the Camino. Walking out into the morning’s dark, breezy chill, I head north along the main street. It’s not long before I see a shadowy form ahead standing with a pack at his feet.
Our walk today brings us from La Robla to the village of Buiza, some 14 kilometers away. From this last outpost before the wild landscapes of the Cantabrian Mountains are revealed, Guilherme and I will launch into the first big climb of the route. The weather is predicted to be perfect, beginning clear and cold with a warm, sunny finish in the mountain town of Poladura de la Tercia, 24 kilometers from La Robla. Our immediate plan, though, is to move quickly through the 11-kilometer valley walk to La Pola de Gordo where coffee and breakfast await. Our shared accommodation for the coming evening is a small municipal albergue where the policy is first come, first served ̶ ̶ hence our dark, early departure.
Guilherme speaks his native Portuguese and fluent Spanish, but only serviceable English. This limits our conversations to some degree, which for me makes him a great pilgrimage mate. I’d committed to making my time on the San Salvador a deeply contemplative experience, but the difficult terrain involved in the mountain sections had given me pause about going it alone. This is a route where a very long time indeed could pass before anyone might come along should I become injured or disabled. The Camino, as we pilgrims love to say, does provide.
By the time we arrive at the café in La Pola de Gordo, we’re famished. Our brisk pace has put us ahead of the expected arrival time, so in addition to pastries and a generous, filling portion of tortilla (think egg and potato quiche), we linger for a while over several café con leches. Finally, in the wordless way of pilgrimage companionship, we glance at each other, nod, shoulder our packs, and light out of town heading north.
Along the way to Buiza, we make the acquaintance of Ramon, an older pilgrim from Cadiz who is just donning his pack after taking a rest stop. He speaks only Spanish, so I’m left out of the conversation between him and Guilherme. His energy is warm and kind, but his pace is quite brisk, and he is out of sight around a bend in the road in no time. This prompts a conversation between my companion and me about our pace for the climb that lies ahead. We seem to be of the same mind, agreeing that a slow, deliberate approach will serve us best. It appears that neither of us has studied the ascent profile of the climb from Buiza, not out of avoidant fear, but out of a place of acceptance. The unknown road lies before us and we must walk it. Such is the simplicity of pilgrimage.
As we emerge from the close, lush surroundings of the valley into the town of Buiza, the landscape of the Cantabrian Mountains opens before us and we step into a new world. Pastures rise sharply from the edges of the town and lean onto the craggy rock of the peaks that surround the place. At first, the scale of it all is overwhelming. It’s just so big.
The roadway we’ve been walking gives way to a dirt track, and after we pass through a gate at the far end of town, we follow its rising, diagonal course across an immense pasture. We stop frequently throughout this early climb to look back at the ever-changing views of the valley and the town below. The midday sun is strong, the air is dry and very warm, this morning’s breezy chill now but a distant memory. I feel enveloped, held by these vast surroundings.
From here the grade launches as the path becomes a rocky, dusty affair. We continue a slow and deliberate, almost creeping pace, as a gentle, cooling breeze offsets the day’s heat and the exertion of the climb. Guilherme is ahead of me by 50 meters or so, each of us claiming our very own path, finding the perfect blend of privacy and safety. At last, my thoughts yield to the spiritual intention I’ve carried from home. While the mountains persist in revealing new heights, the climb proves relentless, and the inner shadows meet their earthly reflection of strain and discomfort. This is pilgrimage.
Next: Mountains and valleys.