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Monday, 26 November 2012

El Camino de Santiago Levante: My First Two Day Trip plus Route & Accommodation info.

Destinations - Higueruela, Hoya Gonzalo and Chinchilla:

Well, I did it - I completed my first two day walk - total of just under 46km, although approximately 4 of those I did skip by using the car - because they were on main roads and not pleasant with the dogs.  I don't mind short stretches but there were quite a few on the first day that were not such nice walking and it was a little gloomy - although I do have my fluorescent vest with me for rain and fog etc.  There were other quieter, short stretches of road where I walked and the dogs had a lift.  There aren't many sections like this along the route but I think that there is one further north where many Pilgrims apparently take a taxi or bus to skip a lengthy stretch of new road.  Having said this, as with the last walk, there do seem to be newer diversions along country pathways that mean it is still possible to walk off road - there was another on this section of my Camino, although it did add on another 1.5km and I had already scheduled quite a challenging 27km day.  It might not seem like a big difference but I do prefer to stick to around 20km as an average as this is comfortable and, it being late autumn, the days are much shorter and one has a to be a little more on a schedule if fitting a longer walking day into a shorter number of daylight hours.  This was the main reason why I was less unhappy about skipping a few km of roadwork.  

Map from the guidebook, showing the
current Camino re-routing outside of
Hoya Gonzalo
As you can see from the pictures - again the scenery did not let us down and at one time we met an enormous herd of sheep - bells clanging - making their way off to the pine woodlands to our left.  We followed them for a short distance, but long after we had left them behind we could still hear the music of their bells.  I have shared a little video which captures that wonderful sound.  Akina was great (after all she is very used to Hammuo and his sheep and goats) but the two sheep dogs with the herd did make their way toward her and the shepherd came to get them and call them back to his sheep.  We set off from our pick up point of last time - Casas del Hondo, and headed out toward Higueruela (16km) where I had booked accommodation for the night although I was going to walk on to Hoya Gonzalo, a further 11km on from Higueruela.  As we reached the road (B-2) we saw a sign for the Ruta Vera Cruz.

"In 1998, the Vera Cruz catholic shrine, in Caravaca de la Cruz, was granted the celebration of a jubilee year in perpetuity. It is the fifth place to achieve this, after Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Santo Toribio de Liébana. From the 13th century to the present day, several routes take pilgrims through Murcia up to the shrine which is the object of the devotion. The Way of the Apostle is the one that starts in Cartagena and gets to Caravaca de la Cruz, crossing Murcia city."  For more information, to find out what to see on the route and how to go about walking it, go to:

There is no accommodation listed in the guidebook for Hoya Gonzalo, but searching on the web a place called Casa Don Gonzalo comes up time and again.  I tried to book but it was already full and they recommended that I call the Ayuntamiento for the municipal albergue.  This albergue is not mentioned in the guidebook, so it maybe recent - however, the number of the Ayuntamiento is listed but was not working on any of the days I called.  It seemed to have been changed, but everywhere I looked, including on their website, in the guidebook and in information sent to me by the very helpful Casa Don Gonzalo, it was the same number.  To skip ahead in the story, when I got to the town hall I actually asked them if they could write down their number - and it was still the same one that was not working!  I did try to explain this - but I think this got lost in translation.  The gentleman did write down another number which may be more specifically to help those on the Camino and an out of hours number - I will include it here and you can try it!  Let me know if you have any good results or find out more information and I will update this page.  The numbers are as follows:

Hoya Gonzalo Ayuntamiento: 967 287 666 and the other number given 680 760 317.  

On the sign at the entrance of Higueruela, there is a list of accommodation and I found during these two days that each town had a list of their accommodation and for the next towns on the route.  I am including them here though because when you travel at a weekend, things can be busier and book up in advance.  Also, you don't want to arrive and find yourself without a bed for the night.  When you are tired and just want a hot bath or shower, you don't always want to chase around for accommodation and from my experience of Hoya Gonzalo, it appeared from searching everything I could find on the internet that there was "zero" other accommodation in the town.  I did not think this would be true once I arrived, and I was right, but I did not want to chance finding myself homeless for the night!  Also, as Casa Don Gonzalo was fully booked (for the next two weekends) I was not confident that this small town would have any accommodation for me at short notice.  

Signs at the beginning of each town
This is where having a back up vehicle proved invaluable - because I was able to book accommodation in Higueruela and then travel back there for the night.  The next morning, I got a lift back to Hoya Gonzalo and could start early at just after 07.30, thus getting in a good start and the chance to witness a beautiful sunrise.

When you get to Higueruela you need to go to "La Posada" even if you are not staying there as they hold the Ayuntamiento's official Camion sello.  We at first went to the Ayuntamiento and they explained we must go to La Posada, and because we said we wanted the town hall stamp, they thought we did not understand their Spanish or English.  When we got to La Posada, all was revealed of course and the staff are most helpful.  You will easily find La Posada as it is mentioned on the signboard you pass when you walk through the town - there is also a sign for an Albergue for Peregrinos - so it is likely that there is now one here - although not yet listed in the guidebook.

La Posada know their Camino and are set up for Peregrinos.  I would thoroughly recommend staying here because for 25 Euros (single - a double is 40) you get a warm, clean and comfortable room with the chance to wash and dry things.  There is aircon should you need it, a TV, a towel rail and a bath!  Wonderful for soaking the aching muscles.  The food is warm and nourishing and they will make you a bocadillo to take with you the next day if you are up and out early.  Once you have your keycard you can access the hostel over 24 hours - convenient and perfect, so you can come and go as you please and you also don't have to find how to get out in the morning.  The 25 Euros does include breakfast but when I stayed it was only available from 09.30 - a tad late.  The staff are also aware of any Camino changes and brought me a map of the new route out of Albacete as the big new autovia is being put in right over the Camino.  This is the same road I keep criss crossing on my journey.  I will attempt to mark this for future Levante walkers in my next blog.

Hermit caves??
Ploughed Camino!
Leaving Higueruela you pass these kind of "cave" doors that look like hermit caves.  I have no idea and could not easily find anything on the web.  Anyway, they seem too be cut too "regular and door like" to be natural features of erosion but of course I may be wrong!  Once off the main road (a quiet one) the Camino runs parallel
Between Higueruela and Hoya Gonzalo
 with it but up on a high plain with stunning views.  The walking is easy although I am sure it would be a huge challenge in the wind as it is so open!  There is a reason that there are so many windmills here of course!  Kaishi was with me for this second stage of the day's walk and the sun had come out.  We caught some wind/sun burn - although fortunately mild - and it reminded me again to make sure I had sunscreen at hand at all times.  At one point the way had been ploughed over, but the signage was good and you could see the next one ahead and where to aim for across the furrows!

The marker that is easy to miss
The Camino is that green strip
The Camino after the sign - not
an obvious dirt road like the
one you will have been walking
High up and overlooking the farm where we were headed we had lunch and took a breather.  We were due to walk another stretch of highway once we reached the farm and made our way around the little chapel there so I was mentally preparing myself.  As we came down into the farm there were a number of loose dogs of all sizes but Kaishi totally ignored them.  It seemed a little strange as we entered the farm that there were no yellow arrows and something did not seem "right".  I checked the map and it indicated that we should be going "right next to" the little chapel which was standing far to our right.  I turned back and there in a little dip was the marker.  If you are walking on the track, which naturally takes you into the farm (Oncebreros), you will miss it because the road is very clear and easy to follow and you stroll confidently along - but in fact the Camino becomes a little green grassy lane for a few meters and is not at all obvious as the path unless you see the sign.  The map seems to indicate that you used to enter the farm and then pass the chapel with it on your left, go behind it and then walk along the main road.  Now you pass in front of the chapel and it will be on your right.
The farm you "don't" walk to!!

The chapel
This new path will then direct you along a lane which then brings you out onto the main road.  At this point you do not turn left along the road but will in fact cross it and head up to another farm which is marked as Oncebreros Arriba on the map.  It is well marked and signed all the way to Hoya Gonzalo but is about 1.5km further than the old road way.  It does mean that you will not have to walk along the road.

As you walk this section, you may also start to feel like you are a very long way out of Hoya Gonzalo because you don't get to see it until the very last minute as you descend a little into the town.  It is a very small place and it is hidden in a small dip in the gently rolling landscape of the plain.  The tracks go on and on and it feels like it may never end - or it did to me!  I was for the first time feeling tired!  It reminded me of people walking in a dessert where they just go round and round in circles and never get out!  Not the landscape of course, but just the fact that the views were so big and there appeared to be no end to our path.  The landscape is littered with yet more windmills and in the distance I could hear what sounded like bombs or big guns!  This reminded me of many years ago when I lived as a child and then teenager on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England!  All was to be revealed the next day (!)

Kaishi supervises the stretches on
the Camino!
Just loved this view from above
Hoya Gonzalo with a "strange"
stone hut... soon to be explained
I am very fortunate in having known some great gym instructors and physios who have given me many good stretching exercises (thank you Claire, Amy, Tina and Yolande in RSA!) - so when my back started to feel sore and the muscles ached I decided to take a short break and do some stretching and wow what a difference it made!  I felt totally refreshed and could walk again with energy.  I advise anyone walking the Camino to visit a physio and get a pre-walk tune up (!) and then take some stretches with you on the walk and do them during the walk when you stop and after a nice hot shower or bath at night before going to sleep.  Start the mornings (especially when it is cold) in warm clothes and at a sensible but brisk pace - but not fast so that tired and cold muscles will struggle.  Learn what pace you can go all day - because going too slow is just as tiring as going too fast!

Ayuntamiento of Hoya Gonzalo
The special gentleman of the Ayuntamiento - he and a
colleague opened up specially for us on Saturday
afternoon and switched off the alarms - just to stamp my
passport!  100% Excellent service - thank you Hoya
Finally, at the end of our long day and heading past 15.30, we made it into Hoya Gonzalo.  What a joy to reach one's destination, but at the same time slight concern as the place seemed totally deserted.  Voices could be heard deep within the bars, but the town itself seemed even more quiet than usual at this time of the afternoon.  I did not hold out much hope of a stamp and wondered how I would get one on a Sunday at 07.30 in the morning, the next day of my walk!  I met Michael at the car and Kaishi dropped off to sleep, and we headed back to one of the bars where we ordered a welcome cold beer.  I asked if the bar had a sello: "No".  End of story!  I did not ask further, the matter did not seem up for discussion and Michael and I could hardly hear each other over the loud voices of all the men in the bar.  No other women.  Initially the barman had directed me to the toilets (Aseos) not understanding my pronunciation of "sello"!  Amusing - but not quite what I was after.

Town sign with one of
the strange stone huts
And finally - the answer as to what those huts are!
We drank up and headed out and at this point, the same barman smiled, came over and said he'd show us where we could get a stamp!  Maybe he had had second thoughts, or maybe he was just the type who is abrupt but was thinking about how to help - anyway, he directed us to the "Bar Marin" with a very nice lady and a very BIG sello who stamped my passport.  I was delighted and headed back to the bar.  At this point the same barman came up to us again and flagged us down - he had found yet another gentleman (in fact two) who were from the Ayuntamiento and they really wanted to stamp my passport and they seemed very proud of the Camino passing through Hoya Gonzalo.  In fact they have a page about it on their website if you want to take a look:
Fun scarecrow I saw as I entered
Hoya Gonzalo - striding out across
his field!!

They have also built a special cross outside the town as a Camino marker.  On the website there is a photograph of it surrounded by snow!  Fortunately for us, it was a warmer morning walking up past this cross on our way out of Hoya Gonzalo.  The dogs and I all had our photos taken by it before heading on upwards over the plain toward Chinchilla.

Chozas - Information taken from
The very quiet streets of Hoya
The building of dry stone structures is a millennia old human activity, requiring only the presence of suitable local materials and the strength and eye to interlock the rocks in to place. In the foothills of the Sierra de los Filabres one of the most abundant rocks are schists containing quartzite, whose flat structure lend itself particularly well to dry stone construction techniques. As well as walling and terracing it has been used in the building of huts, known variously as chozas, covachas or cotijillos in the region. The harsh weather conditions that can occur in the mountains - low temperatures, high winds and storms of winter and the heat of summer - require that there is a place of respite in the barren landscape for farmers and shepherds. The huts may also be used for storage and larger ones may even contain hearths and room to enable an overnight stay. 

  The refuges blend perfectly into the landscape being constructed from the very materials upon which they sit and because of this they exert an extremely low impact on the environment. They require no transport of building materials in to the area and none of the most spare of resources in the Filabres - water. No tools are required and the only skill needed is the ability to select the correct shape and size of stone to fit the requirement at each step. Many huts would have been constructed by agricultural workers themselves, although at one time there were ribaceros, men who were able to earn a living building dry stone structures.
The Choza I passed on my trail near Hoya Gonzalo early
on day 2 of my first two day walk
  Land use in the Filabres reached a peak in the early 1900's, but the second half of the century saw a dramatic de-population which has resulted in the decay of many of the dry stone structures and a subsequent loss in the ability of the hills to retain water and in turn fertility. It is with regard to this decay that I thought an attempt should be made to document those huts that remain and I hope that this website, as a small contribution, can also help engender a respect for the heritage of these small buildings which are easily overlooked amongst the range of grander architecture. 

My cosy room at La Posada
Route planning in the bar of
La Posada
Michael dropped me at La Posada and while I had a hot bath and got a couple of hours sleep, he hung out with the dogs and had a couple of hours reading and listening to his audiobook.  I am VERY grateful to my support crew (crew of 1 man and 4 dogs!) and to Michael's dedication of sleeping with snoring canines!
First Course: delicious and warming soup in La Posada

We had kitted out the car with a thick duvet, comfy pillow and a duvet/mattress thing to go on top of the dog's mattress/bed.  We also put in fleece blankets and a sari for a curtain but he did not need the extra blanket.  Sasha, our little visitor, curled up in the footwell of the car on her bed and the big girls lay with M in the back of the vehicle.  They found themselves a little pull in off the side of a quiet road in an oak woodland and I think would have slept better if the acorns hadn't kept falling on the roof all night!

For the next trip I have also found a torch that works as a lamp as well and have invested in a large rain cape, just in case there needs to be a trip outside in wet weather - it will fit over all clothes and even the top of a backpack!

We had supper together and I had ordered bocadillos for both of us for the next day.  We planned our swap points for the next day and logged our locations on the maps - both paper and Google and marked everything on the GPS.  Having filled the dog's lidded container with water - M headed off to his camp and I to bed, setting the alarm for 06.50 so that I had time to roll up my new sleeping bag which I was trying out for the first time.  The rooms are warm, but after a long day the muscles are cold and tired, so I used it as an extra duvet and had the most wonderful snug night!  Thank you to Uzzy for the lovely, lovely sleeping bag!

Day 2: Hoya Gonzalo to Chinchilla

Sunrise over Hoya Gonzalo
We set off at just after 07.30 and Michael came with me to give the other dogs a walk before they headed to our meeting place.  As usual I took Akina for the first leg as it can be longer and also because Kaishi had done the last stretch the day before and so she could have a bit more of an easy morning.

We soon came across the marker cross for the Camino, constructed in 2008.  It's a lovely cross and we had our photos taken on it - thankfully not in the snow!  The local towns have also adopted marking the way with posts, a green marker and shield, the red and white GR route marker and the blue sign with the gold scallop shell.   

The hunters were out, or rather one hunter, who we did not see at first, and Kaishi and Ndzilo chased a poor unsuspecting rabbit to him!  I am not sure that the outcome for the rabbit was a good one!  We leashed the dogs for a while, but when we saw no one else we could let them run free for a while to burn off some wonderful playful energy.  At a point above a farm and where we saw two trees silhouetted in the distance, we parted company - M returning to the vehicle to make his way to our meeting point and Akina and I continuing on our way.  
Now one of my favourite pictures!
M and the dogs about to head back
to the car
The morning was just one of those perfect days - the air fresh and the early light making everything glow and feel vibrant.  The walk makes one feel truly alive and the sunlight was at just the right intensity to bring out the colours in everything around us.  The browns and reds of the earth contrasting with the occasional greens in the fields or of the patches of woodland were almost unreal at times.  I tried to capture this in photos (included here) but of course, they just do not do it justice and it can't capture the scale or the smell of fresh air.    
View from inside one of
the Chozas - and yes, they
are cosy and draught free!
The morning walk was only 17.5km today and across mostly easy terrain, undulating landscape with long gentle up slopes and down.  We breakfasted by a single tree and watched a farmer ploughing a field, which was huge because he would disappear over the ridge ahead of us and be gone some time before returning to us.  He waved as we headed along the Camino and in the distance we could hear more sheep bells but they were too far away to hear.  It's astonishing how well they carry on the breeze!  In fact they penetrate the hearing more than the distant cars on the main autovia which every now and again made an appearance in the distance as it too climbed up and down the undulating plain.

I knew our meeting point was ahead because as usual Akina's keen nose raised into the wind and she started to bob up and down trying to catch the scent of her friends, Michael and the car.  In the distance I caught sight of Michael on the trail and sent Akina to him - to "go find Michael" and she ran with glee, turning occasionally to check it was OK.  Before long the others heard me call them and they came at full speed to us - what a delight!  Being polite dogs they all paused and waited for the others to sniff before launching headlong again toward me.  Once we met the car I could see what the noises of "bombing and big guns" had been the day before - there was a military installation running across the top of a scarp - maybe somewhat like Salisbury Plain!

Finally as we neared Chinchilla the sun came out into a full blaze and it grew really hot!  A marker told us that we only had 3km more to go and then we could have a nice lunch and celebrate completing our first two day with an ice cold beer which reminded me for a moment of that iconic moment in movie history in Ice Cold in Alex!  For those who don't know the movie or the moment that I mean - you can relive it on YouTube:

The beer would be even more welcome after the climb up the short hill into Chinchilla.  When we reached the top, Kaishi has her Ice Cold in Alex moment with a fold out bowl of water!  By the time I had packed my shirt
away and finished a drink myself she was asleep!

I knew then that the two days had been quite and experience for the dogs too - it's not often that you can tire out a Rhodesian Ridgeback!  She woke with a start when I called her to leave with me and we walked the last steps into Chinchilla with the Moorish Castle dominating the hillside above us.  It's quite a fortress and I hope we get the chance to visit next time.  We also had a real "Don Quixote" windmill - a change from the tall electricity generators we had met across the plains over the last few walks.

As with Hoya Gonzalo and Higueruela there were signs as you enter Chinchilla on the Camino listing some of the history and also the accommodation.  Again, because the list is much longer than that of the guidebook, I am including it here so that others might benefit from it if they are looking for places to stay.

The impressive castle of Chinchilla de Montearagón

Perfect companions to welcome us to our "Ice Cold in Alex"
beer at the Emporium
The bar we chose was called "The Emporium" and is on the road into Chinchilla if you stay on the upper level where the signs are.  You can travel in on the lower road but you will have to climb up again toward the castle and to pick up the yellow arrows.  This route takes you with the tiled shells and then the arrows toward the castle.  The Guardia Civil will be on your left just before The Emporium and they are friendly and willing stampers of Pilgrim Passports!  Even on a Sunday - which it was.  The Emporium was friendly although quiet and very kindly offered to cook us a kind of tapas version of all their local dishes so that we could try them all - and for the price of the weekend Menu del Diario.  It was a great experience and some of the dishes very tasty - others, interesting but maybe not quite to our taste, but very welcome and flavoursome all the same.

Once satisfied and full we plodded back to the car to make our journey home.  And what a sight met us - four dogs, flat out and not even the energy to raise a head to greet us!  Never has this happened before - and they were like that all the way back to Chella!

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