In this post, I share with you a series of photos taken in Calzadilla de la Cueza, Spain, on the Camino de Santiago. Model: Kimberly
As the Melbourne weather turns cold and dark, each day I grow more nostalgic for the Camino de Santiago. As I sit on public transportation to and from different parts of the city, I remember what it is to walk these distances. Watching daily life go by from my window seat, I’ve begun to idealize unpleasant parts of the camino: the dehydration and urges to barf, the sticky air and desolate landscape of Palencia, the sexist elderly men and the competitive middle-aged pilgrims.
The constant flow of traffic and people in Melbourne makes me forget that a place like Calzadilla de la Cueza exists. Calzadilla de la Cueza, a place generously called a town, is one of the many tiny locals pilgrims pass through on the French route of the Camino de Santiago. According to the last census, it has a population of 52 people. I’m almost certain that the suburban subdivision I grew up in has more residents than that.
In the article El Camino De Santiago: 8 Things That (Almost) All Small Spanish Towns Had In Common, I explain the phenomenon of affecting small towns along camino: mass migration to urban centers in the 1960s and 1970s and the transformation to large scale agriculture and industrialization. One might even link this to the loss of small town life, the irreversible changes that would change rural Spanish life forever.
But passing through Calzadilla de la Cueza, it’s clear that small town life still exists. And is it small. The eerie, silent streets would be the perfect setting for a horror film. Our arrival to the town was even set up perfectly as such: We walked all day through the hottest part of the day, struggling through a 17km stretch of Palencia’s least beautiful landscape. A hour before reaching the town, both Kimberly and I had run out of water. I was having flashbacks of throwing up at the finish line of the Formentera 8k. No one else was on the trail with us. One lonely farmer in a tractor saw us and waved, but that was around 3 hours prior to reaching it. Just before we might have fainted, we got a glimpse of the top of a church. It was a sign that would give us strength to continue walking.
Upon arrival, we were like limp pasta, at the mercy of whoever would find us there. The first thing we noticed was the absolute quiet. The quiet which was interrupted by my screaming to finding a middle-aged man that we had met two days prior. Luckily for us, there weren’t murderous villains lurking in the abandoned houses. Instead, we found two competing albergues – one with a pool – and new and familiar faces.
Resting long enough to find the energy to take a look around the town before it got dark, we left the comfort of the poolside of the albergue and into the streets of the ghost town. The first person we encountered was an elderly man. He stood at the foot of a door, a cane in his right hand. He saw Kimberly and I walking down the street with a camera. He stared. We waved. He stared. We greeted him: “Hola, que tal? como esta usted señor?”
He stared. “This is weird,” I said to Kimberly. We felt unwelcome, like his attitude towards us was slathered with an air of distrust. As we got closer to him, our irrational paranoia dissipated. He was deaf. He couldn’t understand what we were saying.
We continued walking and still feeling a creepy vibe, we examined the old windows, the straw mortar that kept the buildings intact and the seemingly unnecessary broken street signs. There is something inescapably frightening about walking past abandoned houses, ruble, meowing cats and creaking doors.
The town still had a schoolhouse. A place that must have been filled with farmers’ children years ago, before the mass urban migration.
Walking down a side street from the main road, we were surprised to come across a middle-aged man. He was short and balding. The type of man that might wear a silver chain around his neck and carries his phone in a carrying case attached to his belt. He was washing a car outside of his house, which turned out to be his parent’s. Just as we were speaking with him a teenager walking a dog passed us. Where did all these people suddenly come from?
He lived in Carrion de los Condes, the closest “big town” nearby. He had left years ago. “There is no opportunity here,” he told us. His parents still live in the town, and he often comes back to see them. He reflected on how the camino used to be a very different concept. His early memories of pilgrims were far and few between, often devout Catholics whose presence were special occasions that prompted festivities and ceremonies with the local priest.
He told us about a man a couple of years ago who was accused of raping a female pilgrim. When it came time for the trial, the woman didn’t show up. “No one knows what happened there,” he explained. No one took sides, but it did change the way locals viewed the increasing numbers of pilgrims from around the world. The event sparked a general distrust, just as Kimberly and I had suspected. Today, the camino is commercial, no longer a place where exhausted and hungry pilgrims can knock on a locals’ door and be fed and housed in heartwarming hospitality.
The camino has changed, and so has rural life in Northern Spain. But some things, like the town of Calzadilla de la Cueza, haven’t changed at all. Depending on the way you look at it, of course.
Want to read more about the Camino de Santiago? Check out these articles:
That article that caused lots of uproar: Leon’s separatist movement
How much fun is peeing outside on the camino
If you didn’t pee outside, you still enjoyed the experience because of these fun bathroom signs