The sun is hiding behind the clouds, but you will see it break through as soon as you cross the bridge in Itero de Vega and enter the next province – Palencia. Following the yellow way-markings leave Hontanas. A field track runs parallel to the local road to Castrojeriz marked. The Camino climbs up for a few minutes on the hillside. The trail is muddy; it is raining, and the wind is blowing into your face. It is really cool, just a bit remote – hills to your left, hills to your right, in front of you, behind you, no people, no animals, no plants; at the most if you are lucky you might be bitten on the arm by a mosquito.
Convento de San Anton (at 5.50 km), now impressive ruins of a monastery that used to care for those suffering from St Anthony’s fire. This horrible medieval illness decimated the European population between the 9th and 14th centuries. It manifested as painful seizures, hallucinations and gangrene. People suffering from St Anthony’s fire lost limbs and lived in everlasting physical and mental pain. The origin of the illness was not found until the 17th century when a French doctor rightly identified St Anthony’s fire as ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that can infect and grow in grains. If the grains are not separated from the ergot, then bread made from them will be a source of illness. In the Middle Ages, people didn’t see a reason to purify cereal, especially in poorer parts of Europe. As a consequence, the outbreak of the illness killed whole villages and towns.
In the 11th century on the initiative of a French nobleman, the Pope set up an Order whose mission was to look after those suffering from ergot poisoning. The Frenchman did this to give his thanksgiving to St Anthony the Great for the miraculous cure of his son. The new Order known as the Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony was very successful in bringing the sick back to health, probably because they fed them well with ergot-free products. When the source of St Anthony’s fire was finally found, and the illness vanished, the Order was dissolved.
Castrojeriz. A former collegiate church, Santa Maria de la Manzano houses the grave of Queen Eleanor of Castile, imprisoned and killed in Castrojeriz castle in the 14th century. However, the temple’s treasure is a stone polychrome statue of Mary, praised in the famous 13th century songs written by King Alfonso X. The church originally belonged to the Knights Templars.
The road from Castrojeriz to Itero de la Vega is pretty amazing. First, on leaving the town, you will cross a Roman road built on arches. Then you have to negotiate a steep elevation to get to the top of the hill. From then on you will cycle on the almost flat terrain. Again, many kilometres with no people, no buildings, just open space and sky stretching out and above your head. The landscape is a bit surrealistic, that’s why an event one late autumn of 2010 blended in with the surroundings – cycling I saw a group of 20 smiling Spaniards, non-pilgrims, who all of the sudden formed into two rows and while I was passing crossed wooden sticks above my head. You know, one of those close encounters of the third kind.
The bridge over the river Pisuerga is a border between two Castile and Leon provinces – Burgos and Palencia.
Boadilla del Camino. The first thing you will see there is Fuente Viejo, a well with a wheel that provides very tasty water. However, the pride and joy of the town is the Gothic gibbet funded by the inhabitants in the 15th century as a symbol of autonomy and independence from the then lord of Castrojeritz, given to the town by the King. The gibbet is over 12 meters high and is richly decorated with scallops, as well animal and floral motives. It is a well-known fact that it is much nicer to be hanged on pretty gallows.
Outside Boadilla del Camino the landscape changes dramatically – now you are cycling along the bank of the canal, which is very refreshing after 47 kilometres of desert. A path overshadowed with trees goes alongside lazily flowing water – the track between Boadilla and Fromista is undeniably the most picturesque part of the Camino in the Province of Palencia.
Fromista. The Queen of Navarre Mayor of Castile (to whose family we owe two other fantastic monuments – Cathedral in Jaca and Church of Saint Isidore in Leon) ordered the construction of the church and monastery (the monastery no longer exists). She wanted the church to be splendid and employed architects who had previously worked in Jaca. The Queen didn’t spare any expenses, bringing not only artists but also the special limestone that church is built from. Saint Martin de Tours, like its Jaca’s prototype, has an octagonal cupola, a clearly separated roof covering the main and side naves and a series of impressive capitals and corbels, the latter in both the interior and exterior of the church. Corbels in the shapes of humans, animals, and mythological and fantastic figures support the roofs of the temple.
The church in its death throes underwent restoration work at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. The main conservator decided to remove all the post-Romanesque additions. Unfortunately, the conservation itself was made in the style typical for this era. As a consequence, the church looks as good as new which obviously doesn’t impress modern Art Historians and while remaining an excellent example of pure, mostly authentic Romanesque architecture it looks like it was built in the 19th century.
The gravelled path between Fromista and Carrion de los Condes is specially prepared for pilgrims. It is parallel to the tarmac road and additionally flanked by pillars. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this path; I understand the idea behind the posts, they are supposed to be pretty, and yes, they are. But everything comes with a price – the pillars have shells and are quite close to one another, which, means you slow down every time you pass one – in the other words every 20 meters. Anyway, gravel is not so cool to cycle on compared to tarmac so after 500 meters you are going to give up and with a general feeling of embarrassment, switch to the road. Just to make you feel better I have to say that pillars make the walker’s life difficult too as you can’t walk and talk with another person without risking catching your rucksack on a post. As I stressed before the pillars were put up to look pretty.
Villalcazar de Sierga and another national monument, the Church of Santa Maria de la Blanca. I have to admit that unaware of the history of the church I was severely disappointed when I saw it for the first time. How could that shapeless building with its austere interior possibly be regarded as such a significant monument? To find the answer we have to go back to 1157 when King Sancho III (whose wife Blanche of Navarre’s beautiful tomb you saw in Najera) asked the Templars to guard the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The Knights put up in Villalcazar where they built a huge fortified complex consisting of a church, cloister, tower, stables and a pilgrim’s hospice. Unfortunately, almost everything was lost during and in the aftermath of the earthquake in the middle of the 18th century. That’s why the church is so shapeless; it’s seven-meters-long west side collapsed burying the praised by pilgrims Portal of the Angels. What you can see today is vaguely forty percent of the original medieval structure.
Carrion de los Condes (52,30 km from Hontanas). In the Middle Ages Carrion was the most important town in Tierra de Campos and an obligatory stop for pilgrims going to Santiago. It used to have 14 hospices which cared well for the weary wayfarers. Although the town has since lost its political significance, many pilgrims still decide to stay overnight in Carrion.
As a major town on the Camino, it used to have many medieval monuments. In the following centuries almost, all of them were converted and today don’t have great artistic value except for two – the façade of the Church of Saint James and the former Monastery of San Zoilo. Both of them are truly amazing.