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  • Jamie Shannon

The Spanish Heartland. Castilla Y Leon and the high plateau

Yesterday was a tough one, what with the heat and all. No doubt about it. Opening my eyes today, I prayed for a little cloud, maybe some wind perhaps. Dare I say, I would have been happy with some rain, anything but that stifling heat that sucked the life out of me the last few days. Peering out from my tent though, I saw mist. Not unusual at half six in the morning but a good sign nonetheless.

On the outskirts of Burgos, there began a gravel strewn cycle/walking path than ran alongside the main highway and so I took to this like a fish to water. There were quite a few walkers knocking about. The one’s holding sticks and rucksacks and so they were obviously on a multi-day walk. Either that or they all had bad knees. I concluded it was the former of the two as I read in a book later on that they were following a 750km pilgrim trail that criss-crosses the northern sphere of the country.

If you are wondering what I do with my bike when I’m in a city and fancy walking around without (hardly) anybody staring at me, I’ll tell you. I generally take out my water sacks from my small rucksack and pack in here all my electronics and put my camera in its bag over my shoulder. I then fasten the lock through the holders of the two front pannier bags, and if I’m not feeling 100% happy, I’ll throw on a couple of dirty socks for good measure. I’ll usually stick it right outside a café or in any other well peopled place. Job done and has worked thus far.

I don’t know how but I lost my shades somewhere in the city and so on the way out, I stopped at a gas station to see if I could find some more. The only ones available were in the style Arnold Schwarzenegger wore in Terminator three and were around 15 Euro’s. I left shade – less.

It was a steady climb out of the city but the sun, which was directly overhead, was just killing my eyes. So much so I had to cycle with my head facing the ground. Never a good idea when cycling but there was little traffic and I wasn’t listening to my music.

With the day being a whole lot cooler than yesterday, I made my way south east again, passing through small villages along the way. It was at one of these in Mazuela, that I saw these strange little hobbit houses built into the rock-face. Either they were very small homes indeed or they were some kind of tomb. Either way they were all very odd. Having walked around the village, I got back on my bike and cycled on, whilst at the same time being barked at by a disgruntled dog. Always dogs, every day, bloody dogs.

I eventually came to another village, Santa Maria del Campo, where I was actually chased out of town by one of the vicious little shits. On my way through, it started barking at me whilst two old ladies sat on their doorstep and watched. A half hour later, I decided to take the same route out again so I would find my way back to the highway with ease and this is when it decided to give chase. It ran over from the other side of the road barking at me with some ferocity, baring it’s little fangs with vengeance. When your adrenaline kicks in, they say you go into either a fight or flight mode. I chose the second one; I peddled as hard and as fast as my legs could take me, kicking out at it at the same time and within a hundred metre’s or so it gave in. Fucking little shit’s.

A little later, I saw the most amazing little town set high up on the cliff face. Upon seeing this, I obviously went back to take a closer look. Palenzuela it was called. It was like something out of another world. I left my bicycle by the river at the bottom and walked up into the maze of streets. Every person I saw was above the age of fifty and so I felt my bike was quite safe down at the bottom. Everyone seemed to know everybody else and they all stopped and chatted when they saw one another or sat down on a wall or whatever was available and chatted some more. Very different to the countries and towns I have passed through in previous countries for sure.

The light was fading fast thus after a while, I made my way back down to where my bike stood which was being watched over by five ladies. I cycled on in the vain hope of finding somewhere suitable to camp. I passed field after field with no tree’s or bushes in sight. I still hadn’t cooked dinner and so I was contemplating simply cycling up to a farmstead and asking if I could camp on their property. With hardly any Spanish to call upon, I decided against this and eventually found the tiniest of places just by the road with a couple of bushes for cover. It wasn't the most ideal of places to sleep.

I felt so exposed in the morning that I didn’t even stay long enough to make some coffee and opted instead to get going as soon as possible and to make my breakfast later. This was a wise decision looking back as the light was simply beautiful, casting heavy, golden shadows across the surrounding fields and the strange small buildings that dotted the road side.

The landscape became ever more barren as the day wore on. Scrub-land replaced fields and sand replaced the soil and so it really felt I was in the middle of nowhere and gave me a feeling of isolation that I really haven't had yet. It was quite moving and made me feel a little heroic in a way because I was on my own and crossing it on my bike.

I found a sleepy little village a little later and decided to head on into a bar to down a much needed beer. It really did look very quiet from the outside, but upon stepping through the door, I was greeted by the most rapturous of scenes; laughing, shouting and the general hustle and bustle of a late night bar in a city. It was siesta time!

The back tyre that I had been keeping inflated for the previous three days with frequent blasts of my pump, had by now given way completely and I decided to actually fix it on the way out of town. As I was fixing it, a man came out from one of the flats and offered to help me. I said I was fine and that it was a minor problem but he came back out with 5 litres of water, two yogurts, a can of fish and a bottle of san Miguel for me. Wonderful I thought. We tried to have a conversation which proved quite difficult and before long I was on my way again. He testified that Salamanca, the city I was now headed for, was indeed as wonderful as I had been led to believe.

Not realising what day it was, I found Vallodolid very much deserted the following day with it being Sunday, and cursed myself for not picking up some groceries earlier on in the day at a village shop. Everywhere was closed and I didn't have very much food left in my bags. I had some mushrooms and onions and a little cous cous left but that surely wasn't enough for later and so. I elected to buy a couple of giant baguette's and make some croutons with them for dinner alongside the cous cous later.

The rest of the day was spent cycling through mostly flat, uninspiring terrain in the baking sun. I don't really have much to report other than figuring out how to use my tripod as a sort of sun shade. It consisted of stretching my ground sheet from my bike and clipping it onto my tripod which stood a metre away. Thus, I had my own sun screen when I really needed it.

At Madrigal de las altas torres, I found a restaurant that were happy to replenish my water and so headed directly west and onto Salamanca whilst at the same time looking around for any kind of dis-used building or group of trees that could provide me with some shelter for the night. It was not to be however. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to speak of. Fields covered every available patch of land right up to the roads edge. I cycled on and on in the hope of a miracle but the only thing I saw was a crumbling old house set back about 1km across one of the fields in the distance.

Having reached it, I put my tent up in between the ruins and the field of maize, and upon getting in and thinking I could now make my dinner, saw a large ants nest directly in front of my 'door'. God damn it, can I not have anything? I decided this just wouldn't do and so took out the tent pegs and pulled the tent a few metres.

I woke the following morning, and the entire outer sheet was covered in the little buggers. They had somehow managed to find their way into all three of my bags outside and also into my tent through one of the many holes that now covered it. They were crawling over my sleeping bag, I found them inside my sugar, floating in the coffee I had made. They were everywhere and it proved fruitless to try to kill them as they would simply multiply anyway no matter what I would do.

I cycled the remaining 45 km's to Salamanca and was mightily pleased to be nearing the city I had heard so much about. At some points, I couldn't contain my excitement what with the thought of an actual bed, some proper conversation, a shower and a cold beer. These thoughts kept me going against the wind which was blowing directly against me all morning and which made me exhausted by the time I actually reached the outskirts of the city.

It didn't look too special on the surface but as I neared the centre and the old town became visible, I was simply gobsmacked at the beauty of it all. It was and still is astonishing, unbelievable. Too many adjectives perhaps but I just can't describe. Reminds me of Venice a little too.

Having camped for the previous six nights and passed though the sparsely populated Spanish countryside with little or no conversation, I could have talked to anyone and indeed I did. I walked over to three guys sat on a bench and said "you look like friendly people" and they were. I asked if they knew of a good hostel or pension to stay at but they said they were only their for one day. They were German and spoke very good English and so I sat down next to them to have a chat over a beer.

A little later, I did find a nice hostel but they really shouldn't sell shots of tequila for 50 cents as strange things can and do happen.

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