Thursday, October 15, 2009

Causeways and Canals

The 18-mile stage from Castrojeriz to Fromista begins with the ascent up Mulekiller Hill, although there is some debate whether it was the steep ascent out of town or the equally steep descent back onto the plain down a path strewn with loose rocks that did in the most donkeys. (Yes, there’s a difference, with the consensus being that donkeys are better than mules for the Camino, both temperamentally and physically. See, e.g., T. Moore, Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago (2005). But that’s the name of the hill.)
Immediately beyond that, the Camino crosses another former marsh, this time on an elevated Roman causeway (see picture). Now those Romans knew how to build things. If they’d just built their pipes with something less toxic than lead, we’d probably still be speaking Latin.
On across another drab, dun-brown stretch of the meseta, buoyed only by the internet-sourced promise of an oasis restaurante in Itero de la Vega, only 13 miles away. As we approached the promised land, anticipation gave way to dread. It would be closed. Or dismal. Or whatever. Hungry pilgrims are pessimists.
But the En el Camino Restaurante lived up to its billing. Startlingly well-watered lawns and plantings, a small swimming pool, even an idiosyncratic statue of Saint James with the town’s inevitable Romanesque church in the background. And Eduardo, the latest and most successful of a series of Spanish would-be leading men. The predecessors had been immediately dismissed by the women with nicknames such as Adonis and Apollo. But Eduardo, with his warm limpid eyes, two-day beard and soft line of accented patter initially won rave reviews. Even one of the men allowed that he was “smooth without the slime.” Fortunately, the food was excellent (garlic soup here) and cheap. Because Eduardo, alas, slightly outlived his welcome, with a few too many shoulder pats and arch inquiries, “What else can I do for you?” Doubtless he cuts a broad swath with a less critical audience.
With only a few miles left into Fromista, we soon came alongside the remarkable Canal de Castilla, a lengthy public works project constructed in the eighteenth century, way before the Erie Canal or even George Washington’s ill-fated Potowmack Canal. Still filled with water, and bordered by reeds, the Canal de Castilla offered an improbable contrast to the meseta landscape (see second picture).
Fromista itself has two great Romanesque churches, the museumlike San Martin renovated to an arid perfection, and San Pedro’s, engagingly unrenovated and the town church. Luckily, I was able to complete my visit to San Pedro just as townspeople were filing in for a large funeral.