Todays stage was 39 kms over very steep, up and down, mountainous terrain! Fortunately, there was an alternative, which broke it up into smaller stages, mostly over flatter terrain, except for the third and final stage. The total of the alternative was 47 kms!!! I chose the latter!
I had thought to do the first two shorter stages in two days, the first being 9 km and the second being 12 km, in accord with my plan for gentle stages. I set off from Castro del Rio around 8.00am and reached Espejo (again, at the top of a hill!) around 11.30am. I had a break, took my boots off, and ordered entrepanes (literally, “between bread”, which I thought would be a sandwich, but which turned out to be a slab of meat in a bread roll about the size of a small dinner plate!). It was too early to stop, so well fortified after my bigger than expected meal, I collected a stamp to prove that I had been there, and bravely continued on my way.
I walked through the heat of the day, from about 12.00 to 3.30. My constant companion (my shadow) was with me. I have become fond of him as a companion. He keeps exactly the same pace as me. He stops when I stop. He goes faster when I go faster. He slows down when I slow down. He sticks to me, like, well, like a shadow! He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t judge. He is the ideal companion.
But at one stage, my “constant companion” suddenly became “inconstant” and deserted me. I didn’t mind really, as he and I together were being overshadowed by someone even greater. I remembered the ancient Hebrews, who wrote of their journey in the following way: “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night.” (Ex 13:21) It was the same for me. I enjoyed being overshadowed during the hot afternoon! However, I do concede that the “pillar of cloud” was also very inconstant, and the Lord mostly led me by the “pillar of fire” (the sun) during most of the hot part of the afternoon!
At one stage I had a minor heart attack, when I reached a stream and could find no camino arrows where I expected them. I remembered the guide book had said to turn right at a power line. When I looked around a power line was behind me! I dreaded the thought of returning back up the very long, slow descent I had just come down. I re-checked my guide. I hadn’t seen any sign to turn. So after calming my anxiety, reckoned I must be on the right track, noted that the power lines stalked around the horizon and the intended power line turn might be ahead rather than behind, so in hope more than certainty, I set off …. and a few hundred metres later found a camino arrow! I nearly bent down and kissed it, except that the energy I would have spent in bowing down to worship a stone and getting up again was needed for locomotion, not devotion, so I gave it a blessing and continued, relieved and happy, along my way!
Three hours after setting out, as I came out of the rural area onto the main road close to my destination of Santa Cruz, a man in an agricultural service vehicle was attending to a farmer on a tractor. I asked in my best Spanish, “agua?” (water?). I still had some in my camel pack, but didn’t know how much. I had walked through the heat of the day, so guessed the supply was low. (I remembered my brother, John, who had a reputation for calculating the petrol in the tank to the furthest, last possible filling station, and grieved for my loss! On the one occasion when I was with him and we ran out near Alice Springs, he sent his son, Peter, to get a lift into town, buy a gerry can, fill it with petrol and bring it back to us. But Peter wasn’t here with me to get a fresh supply of water!) The young man looked in his vehicle and offered to drive me to the local town, clearly visible just half a kilometre down the main road. Ironically, this time I declined! I wanted to walk. A small victory of brawn over brain (soon regretted, that last half kilometre was the longest of the day, and mostly uphill!). “A small step for (hu)mankind, A GIANT LEAP FOR PILGRIM PAT!!”
However, the young man offered me a bottle with half a litre of water, “por usted, for you”, he insisted. I accepted gratefully. Their work done, when he and the farmer were out of sight, I lifted the bottle and guzzled the lot! At least now I knew I would not be dehydrated!
Incidentally, when I arrived in Cordoba, I took a suck on the camel pack and it was empty! This had happened to on two previous days as well. Hence, I am mindful about conserving water and avoiding dehydration. I really did need that “guzzle” when I had arrived on the main road.
I thought of it later. It was almost comic, a scene from a B-grade spagetti western, a man emerging from the bush, crying “agua, agua” (“water, water”).
I arrived in the very small town of Santa Cruz about 3.30pm, having walked 21 kms for the day. That first beer was really great! And the second was just as good! I also received my “stamp”, proof that I had been in Santa Cruz.
When I entered the data of the third stage (26 km up and down steep mountains) into the pilgrim noviciate/acclimatization/self-care program the computer said “No!”. You can imagine how desperately reluctant I was to accede, so I caught the bus into Cordoba. The bus stop was just outside the bar and the bus left in 15 minutes. I was surprised how easy and flat the last 20 km road trip was, but was glad that I was not walking up and down the highlands further west.
In the bus station in Cordoba, I met the Spanish couple with whom I had shared the albergue the night before in Castro del Rio. They had left a half hour before me, arrived in Santa Cruz a couple of hours before me, and had also caught the bus. They were catching a train home to Valencia, in accord with their own plans.
In Cordoba, i walked to the old city, carrying my back pack, as penance for having caught the bus! It took a long time to find accommodation. As I walked around the streets, I was surprised to meet Geoff, the 75 year old Dutch pilgrim whom I had met at the bookends of Day 3. When I had a rest day in Alcala la Real, he had walked, and continued walking. He had walked from Santa Cruz that day, and confirmed how difficult a stage it had been. He pointed me to accommodation at the Youth Hostel (another “angel” along the way!”). We later shared drinks before bed.
The first shower after two days was GREAT!!
Later, i visited the Friends of the Camino in Cordoba, who meet every Thursday night (another reason for getting here today). They assured me that Holy Week would not be a problem for the pilgrims, that there would be places to stay and restaurants open for meals. They also assured me that for some of the longer stages in the coming weeks, there are arrangements in place for albergue managers to collect and drop off pilgrims at strategic locations, so the distances are broken up and are not as devilish as they appear in the guide.
Tomorrow and the day after I explore Cordoba, seat of the Ummayad Caliphate, fabled city of Christian-Muslim-Jewish covivencia (living together) in centuries past.