Stage 24, Sep 29, Leon to Villar de Mazarife, 20.1km, total time 5:36hrs

I eventually managed to break the magic spell with Leon, and restart the journey not before having had a buffet breakfast in the monastery hotel. As it is well known, a discreet handling of a buffet breakfast allows some stocking of extra food for later consumption. In the meantime, the day broke into a glorious morning. The weather forecast was obstinately indicating showers for the whole day, so Lynette and I waited for the day to express clearly its intentions, before stepping out from the austere comfort of the monastery. The stage was meant to be short in preparation of a quite long one tomorrow. In contrast with the beauty of the city center, the exit from Leon was uninteresting and the trail crossed through industrial areas before resuming the old Camino path in the midst of rural farming lands.

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Villar de Mazarife is an inconspicuous small village, as usual, with no apparent signs of life. It has three hostels, and we chose the one below which seemed quite clean and with a nice inviting patio in the afternoon sunshine.

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Arriving at about 2pm, one may be concerned on what to do until dinnertime at 7pm and finally hit lights out at 10pm. Actually, the time to shower and soak then in the sun after a 5 or 6 hours walk, is never enough. Washing the laundry, some small talk here and there, a visit to the local store for fruits and other food, are simple activities that do not fail to provide inner peace and a sense of mental discipline. It’s 9 pm already, the sack has been prepared and ready to go, the alarm is set at 6am. Goodnight.

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Stage 23, Sep 28, Leon, resting day

Leon, like many other large cities along the Camino, is characterized by waves of peregrino population wandering in the city center in search of a restaurant offering freshly cooked dinner at decent hours, and waves of local citizens who fill out the streets and bars, at the time when exhausted peregrinos are ready to go to sleep. In a way it seems really a tidal wave at alternate hours: when pilgrims start arriving in the city, everyone else is nowhere to be seen, perhaps taking their siestas in some unknown places and when the hungry visitors are in the lookout for something to eat at so called standard times, most bars and restaurants are closed or serving only fast food including the ubiquitous hamburger menu. Eventually the pilgrims in small groups resort to buy a loaf of bread and return to their Albergue to prepare some bocadillos. All of a sudden at about 8pm, the tapas crowds emerge from their hideouts and fill up all the street bars for wine or beer. Dinner in regular restaurants is normally served after 9pm,  making almost impossible for the Camino travellers to skip for once the menu dinner for savouring some of the local specialties.

The fascinating aspects of this city are still in the monumental and cospicuous medieval buildings, of which the amazing Cathedral is the most prominent. No picture is able to render justice to such architectural and spiritual marvel. Most pictures I took are with in the other camera and will be posted after I am back as require downloading and some editing.

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Again the guided visit was the keynote activity of the day, besides the endless quest for a warm vegetable soup, eventually found in a small quaint place.

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Another quite amazing building in Leon is the Parador San Marco, where a key scene of the movie “The Way” was shot. This is a euro 300 per night type of hotel, and it magnificent interior is grandiose but somewhat intimidating.

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Instead the hotel booked by Lynette,through booking.com, the Hotel Real Collegiata, was indeed a pleasant surprise, being brand new but hosted in the millenary cloister of the Monastery of St. Isidoro. For euro 38 per night, you can have a superior accommodation in an historical building perfectly restored and furnished with all the amenities.

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Tomorrow we start the last part of the journey, in good spirit and renewed determination. To help the determination facing lower temperarures as we proceed westward, today I also invested in a thermal fleece at a cost of euro 9.90. Now I should have all what I need to complete the journey until the mighty Atlantic.

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Stage 23, Sep 27, Calzadilla de los Hermanillos to Mansilla de las Mulas, 24.1km, total time 5:38 hrs + bus to Leon

At the time when one believes he has done already all possible roads and in all possible conditions, here it comes the surprise of today’s stage where for 24 km there is no shelter, water, food or any other relief to the human necessities. If you forgot to stock up food, drinks and other amenities, then by the third hour you start allucinating about visions of coffee shops in the fields which once they come closer they take the shape of wheat barns, of course deserted, and the ever present wind is resounding with a creepy laughter in derision.

I had to scratch the end of my backpack to find some remnants of a chocolate bar to get me some energy. By right the previous night dinner at the Casa de Cura Hostal in Calzadilla, was probably the best peregrino meal I had ever. Leo, the owner, served a superlative potato and zucchini soup and a succulent roast beef with a delicious sauce I could not waste. The company around the table of 12, was varied and the usual interesting conversation complemented the pleasant evening. The crowd comprised 2 Spanish, 3 Australian, 2 American, 2 Canadian, 2 German and one Italian/Singaporean. Key topic was competition in the spirit of the Camino. One way or another everyone had gone through a similar pattern by entering the first stages of the Camino with a competitive approach with others. I was no less and I suffered my consequences. Others were crumbling after three or four stages being unable to cope with the real discipline of the Camino, which is every day, rain or shine you wake up and walk for 6 hours. While competition and your stamina can sustain your enthusiasm for one or two stages, at the end the body will resent of the continuous effort and the resulting imbalance. Walking must be enjoying and loving any moment of it more than anything else, and cannot be constrained only on terms of performance. One can only do their best to ensure total harmony of the effort with the capability to enjoy it and be open to the positive side of things. If the balance is broken then we call it stress and a source of most diseases. How to apply this concept to the work life? If competition is necessary to improve one self and therefore one’s best, when is the inflexion point where competition is becoming negative? The answer lies in the many more stones will have to stomp upon along the way, we concluded.

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The small rural city on Mansilla is showing off the horizon yet still 8km distant.

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I have been told to take a bus from Mansilla to Leon to cutoff all the industrial suburbs. Fortunately the bus leaves after one hour, so an excellent timing to reach Leon today and check in in an hotel for two day to get some rest. Leon is a great city with an important history and surely I can spare one day for intellectual enjoyment. Also, my friend Lynette from Singapore is joining me to finish the last part of the Camino from Leon to Santiago and Finisterre. She will bring me new and warmer clothes from home. I am happy to see her, only wish she can cope with the relative hardship of the Camino carrying her backpack and living the simple pilgrim’s life.

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Stage 22, Sep 26, Terranillo de los Templarios to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, 26.9km, total time 6:25 hrs

It’s about time to make a point on where I stand with the overall plan. I am on the road since 23 days and completed 528.5 km to date. By looking back, I am the first to be amazed about the progress done so far. Looking forward, there are 360 km to Santiago plus 95 km to continue on to Finisterre, for a total of 455 km to go. I am just a bit short of the targeted 1000 km, likely due to the section I had to use the taxi after the leg injury. It comes as a bit of disappointment, bit this goes along with the acceptance ofp changes in the spirit of the Camino.

The day started on a positive note with a starry sky and practically no wind. Even though I was comfortable in bed, I forced me out at 6:45am to start the new day with renewed energy. The temperature has been hovering around 3 degrees up to until 8:30 when finally the sun started to perform his daily job and gradually the blood and life started circulation again happily in my veins.

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Along the way I met again Peter, the Australian from Melbourne, with whom I shared once a room and the cost of a load of laundry. We chatted for a while, and I learned he lives in a cottage in central Victoria, with no electricity.

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Later on at the hostel there was an interesting discussion on whether the Camino is particularly appealing for solitary people, with odd personalities. The extensive loneliness that can be experienced on the road, while can be frightening for some who eventually choose to join with a companion or friend from home, for most is just the way to be, likely not so different from the lifestyle they have at home. Peter has done the camino twice: last year to commemorate the passing of his father after cremation on Ireland, this year he’s doing it again for himself. Another 29 year old boy from Sydney, is doing the Camino to find his bearings in life, after quitting his job in May and the passing of his mother. He openly admits that eventually he looks for a girlfriend and settle down here. If one has the heart to listen to all the stories, may truly appreciate the effort if all these lost souls to tie the many loose ends of their existences to start anew. There is a great deal of respect in approaching all these broken lives, who at the same time want to share their motivations, but are also reserved in talking to perfect strangers. The Camino creates though the thread to link one another in a strong fabric of human solidariety and love.

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Stage 21, Sep 25, Carrion de los Condes to Terranillo de los Templarios, 26.4km, total time 6:34hrs.

I had it all wrong. The idea that Spain is a sunny country does not hold true. Or at least the Spain I am walking through is not. After two days of a fierce wind tempest, the expectation was surely a cloudy day but at least a bit less windy.

I pulled out all the clothes I have and wore them all,  in layers, including two hoods under the hat. Reality as usual was much worse. At 6am, the streets of Carrion were deserted as expected but already swept by a merciless cold wind blowing at impressive speed. To make things worse, it blew coming from the West so against my direction.

For a moment, I figured out the reason for having drafted the pilgrim icon like a man leaning forward and hanging on his long walking stick. The reason is the implacable wind. How could I ignore the ubiquitous wind turbines in the land of Don Quixote and the windmills? For sure the massive investments in sourcing eolic power is not driven for once by a political reason. The wind is the real inhabitant of the mesetas and whoever (like me, and probably another couple of thousand pilgrims) is not ready for it can have a not so pleasant experience. Particularly so like today when it kept blowing no stop for all the 6 hours I was on the road, and continued until late bringing eventually some serious rain showers. The blessing has been that it started raining when I was finally well under cover in the Auberge, and after having taken a steaming hot shower and lying in bed under a pile of blankets. Oh, the happiness of the simple basic things has no equals.

Along the road, the cold reached all the bones and joints. The fingers were numb and it took me always a lot of determination to take out my hands from the rain jacket pockets even for taking out a paper towel to blow my nose. I also did not want to pee fearing that the wind would have blown all my private parts into pieces.

Every hour or so a police patrol passed along the unpaved road with two truce policemen looking out. I was not sure whether their mission was to help pilgrims in anguish, or shoot down the crippled and incapacitated ones.

I took no pictures today as I had a lot to do to fight the self-pity and the desire to quit at once. Despite all these demons to keep at bay, I completed the stage to the end. The sole concession to my human nature was to enter in the first bar found open after 4 hours of uninterrupted walk under the described conditions and wolf down a huge portion of mushroom tortilla with two chorizo sausages. Actually I felt better, and considered also that I skipped dinner last night and also breakfast since I was not in the mood to eat at 6 am. I should take into account that the reserve of energy of the fat in my body is not the one that gets immediately utilized. That is, I could probably die for exhaustion, but still round and fat.

Here is a self portrait when I finally managed to fumble my fingers on the shutter.

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Stage 20, Sep 24, Fromista to Carrion de los Condes, 20.1km, total time 5:20 hrs

Peter, a self-professed hermit walker from Germany, in a time span of 2 hours, uttered no more than 20 words. However he showed me how to start with meditational walking. It’s about finding the point of balance between pacing the walk and the breath: rhythmically inhale for two full steps, exhale for other two steps and so on. Focus for 5 km to a moving point below the road surface and about 1 step ahead. Once you have done the first 5 km, then move the focus point to 5 to 10 steps ahead. If the mind got distracted or starts wandering, then go back to shorten your focal point.

Today the itinerary was dull enough to start practicing. Tomorrow morning the first stretch is 17 km long with no villages or stops. If I master the technique today, I thought, tomorrow I will have a powerful tool to condition my mind. Fact was that it is a lot more difficult than it seems. Assuming you can keep a light mind with the short distance focus, a total different story is to maintain the mind focused when you have many more external factors with the perception range of your senses. First of all you become very sensitive to all sounds around you: the birds, the wind, the storming of the trees, the distant barking of an annoyed dog. The awareness of other walkers on the road becomes
unbearable: the mind immediately switches to check the other person, whether he or she have been met before, whether they want to engage in a conversation, and ultimately what to say in response to the usual: “Buen Camino!”. How difficult is to keep our own center regardless of external conditions! The meditation trial was disastrous, but I am determined to practice more tomorrow.

Worth mentioning was the visit to the templar church of Santa Maria de Villalcazar de Sirca with a magnificent retablo and conserving the remains of ancient royalty of Spain. Villalcazar has been a famous pilgrim stop since the XII century when it became a commandery of the Knights Templar. A few historical buildings now hosting auberges and restaurants, are giving the place an out of this world feeling.

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The last stretch of road along the highway could not be suitable for further meditation. Another improvised healer in Burgos sentenced that walking diseases happen because our walking posture is wrong. I interrogated my faithful shadow to check on my posture. One good thing about walking westward is that your shadow is proceeding you and is there for you to talk to as a travel companion. In the mornings is long and slender. The head is far away and seems not so available for sharing, but around midday is comes is chubbier and closer. Then the shadow is telling the truth: my posture is horrible. I walk like a cowboy with spread legs and oscillating sideways at every step. Even my reading spectacles hanging from the neck are a sort of endless pendulum. The “healer” suggested then: “close your legs, and narrow the side gap between your feet, keep your core muscles contracted all the time, and stretch the spine”. I have so many things to correct for tomorrow’s stage now!

In Carrion not so many things to do. There are pilgrims everywhere. Mostly old, and sad. I do not want to mingle and hear stale stories again tonight, so I checked in at an Hostal, a sort of lower grade hotel with individual rooms with a private bathroom. The lady at the desk is offering me a room with three beds, and want euro 40 to keep it for me only. I only offered her euro 20 for a shared accomodation hoping that other pilgrims would not sign in for a shared room. Anyway the señora assured me that she would have offered the other two beds only to chicas (girls). And in facts after a short while a soft knocking at the door introduced the promised two chicas: two grandmothers from Texas!

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Stage 19, Sep 23, Castrojeriz to Fromista, 24.8km, total time 6:47 hrs.

There are inexplicable situations that happen I believe only when you are in peace with yourself and willing to open to the outer world.

This morning I started early as I wanted to test my leg over a longer distance. So at 6, I pushed me out of the Albergue. I still do not understand why some other people need hours to get ready in the morning. The usual subdued noise on the dormitory, but still noise by all means, started at about 5, and at 6 still everyone was moving around like zombies, between the bed, the washrooms and makeshift kitchen trying to prepare breakfast with horrible coffee and stale biscuits. Besides the lower extremities, food poisoning or in general stomach ache, is what pilgrims complain about the most. For sure avoiding to have breakfast in municipal hostels, is the first precaution for an enduring well being. Actually after all this while, even the menu de los peregrinos at dinner, it’s getting a bit boring with too much food with little variety and  lot of bread. Sorry for digression.

I take normally 15′ to get ready having prepared the backpack the night before. Just need to meditate a little on the bowl, wash hands and face, brush the teeth, fold the sheet liner, hang the scallop shell to the backpack, tie the shoes and I am ready.

If the skies are clear as there were this morning, the solace of being surrounded by such field of stars, is beating all back thoughts of a bit more sleep. Compostela is deriving its name from campus stellae, i.e field of stars, and ancient pilgrims were able to orientate themselves at night following the Milky Way.

My headlight was projecting a small cone of light on the gravel road. All the rest was silent, magic, and mysterious. All of a sudden, I heard some little steps behind me, and fearing the worse, I turned immediately, flooding with light a small Korean lady that trailed me respectfully three steps behind. She had no light and was trying to walk in my shadow to share the light. I offered her to walk in front of me instead, so that she could see better any obstacles or loose stones on the road. She shyly agreed and we almost found out immediately that we had no common language to communicate extensively. We walked in this fashion and in total silence until day break almost 1.5 hours later. Once at the top of what I think was a Meseta, she turned and indicating the stars, she named a few of them using the Latin name. That was quite odd but I was nonetheless pleased with exchange. Much later, at a picnic area, she came to me smiling thankfully and offering me an apple. I was so touched by this simple gesture and the rest of the day continued in a different light. Her name is Kwan Hae Sook.

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At Itero de la Vega, an Albergue managed by an Italian fraternity was another special encounter. The simple and high spiritual place is hosted in an hermitage, and has no electricity or running water. The guests are given candles and the simple dinner is also shared in the main church hallway.

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The meseta landscape is feared by most as being barren, inhabited or with scarce villages. However it has a sort of natural dignity and so far the most inducive to enable meditation while walking alone. Contrary to what it seems, it looks as this desolate land cultivated mostly as wheatfields and sunflowers (unfortunately all dried up already), is connected to an universal and ethernal wisdom. Having accepted to slow down to a lower pace, I found out a new connection between my breathing cycles, the gust of the wind sweeping the land incessantly, and the pace. All this is harmony and sheer happiness. I keep torturing my middle fingers to continue the esoteric healing process and I am at peace.

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An unknown hand wrote: “Love is the way; the Way is love”. Today I finally believe I can understand it’s meaning.

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Stage 18, Sep 22, Burgos to Castrojeriz, 12.3km (+ 28.9km by taxi), total time 3:51 hrs

I woke up all of a sudden, with my unconscious self reminding me to take the pills at 6am. The leg was a bit stiff but somewhat more manageable. The affected area was also cooler at the touch. Well relieved I went forward to activate plan B, which was to take a cab to about midway through and walk the remaining 10km or so. Plan A was to walk all the way, and Plan C to call it a quit.

In Burgos, Maria Luisa from Seville told me: “There is no race, no prize to be won, find your own pace and do not be affected by the pace of others. The right people to keep you company are the ones that will show up again during the Camino, not the ones you want to emulate.”

I treasured the advice, and managed to walk with a renewed purpose and made it to Castrojeriz, with no significant issues.

The key issue is to reach the destination before 2 pm at the latest, failing which you may need to confront a “full house” sign. This explains the urgency of the early risers to have enough time to make it with no delays. In different circumstances I’d rather to ditch the plan, and stop for the night wherever I am by 2pm. Noted for my next Camino adventure.

I will post pictures from this stage the next time hoping on a more reliable network connection. Hasta la vista, compañeros!

Stage 17, Sep 21, Burgos, no km, no time

Surely not a wasted day. There is so much to see and to do in Burgos, that the day was gone in a whiff. Keynote activities were the quest for a decent breakfast in a location kissed by the morning sun and a wifi hotspot with a decent bandwidth. The main tourist areas are provided with free Wi-Fi connections (you need to register though) but with such a tiny flow of bandwidth that only competes with the even tinier water flow of the showers in some Albergue. To finish up a 5′ Skype conversation with my wife, it took more than 30′ where most of the exchanges were: “Hello, can you hear me, can you hear me?”. Anyway not a major issue all things added up (literal translation into English of the Italian expression: tutto sommato). I had to check out the Albergue at 8am, leave the backpack there, and to check in again at noon. So I had 4 hours to kill and apart from the breakfast and the various fragments of Skype calls, I decided to pay a respectful guided visit to the gothic cathedral.

The visit costs euro 7, one third of my daily allowance,  but surely was worth of it. Apart from hosting the remains of “El Cid Campeador”, knight and hero of Burgos who was instrumental in the war against the Ottoman Empire in the eleventh century, it also hosts incredible artistic masterpieces. Three hours were absorbed easily in touring the massive cathedral with two cloisters and incredible architectural hazards. It was build to rival the French gothic cathedrals of Reims, Amiens and Paris, and master gothic architects from Colon were invited to grant Spain with a place of honor among the other European cities if the Holy Roman Empire.

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At the end of the visit, the time was just  ready for the check-in at the albergue. Already a long line was forming of the anxious pilgrims that left the previous starting point at 5am in fear of not finding a place to sleep. By right the albergues open at noon and by 3pm in best cases are already full. This one in particular can host 460 people, and this will give an idea of the enormous influx of pilgrims even in this relative low seasonal part of the year. Anyway after about one hour I managed to settle down in my new small quarter for the night.

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It is incredible how talking about feet and related parts is the key subject of conversation with other pilgrims. With no modesty, everyone seems quite proud to take off the socks and enumerate the blisters, calluses and other amenities of that sort. Even more incredible is the level of attention received by the occasional listener, who in turn also takes off his or her own socks and compares the gravity of the injuries. Quite common is also the distribution of wisdom in terms of most appropriate remedies, such as self inflicting a pain below the middle finger nail, to help out the pain on the feet (this one is also mentioned in Coelho’s Pilgrimage book) or blocking the blood circulation also on the middle finger with a tight rubber band. It seems that most issues are connected the middle finger! To my particular case, my audience nodded in consensus to a suggestion from a Danish lady, reassuring me that I should have wrapped the leg with fresh green leaves to suck off the infection. Honestly this last remedy I did not try, but I had some good time with the middle finger.

One way or another, the heat in the affected areas has cooled down quite significantly (miracolusly ?) and I feel confident of restarting tomorrow with a short walk of 10 km. I will take a cab to take me midway to the next destination. I am sure that on the occurrence also medieval pilgrims would have climbed on an oxen cart…..

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Stage 17, …., part 2

The walk from St.Juan started with all sort of good feelings, which in reality were mostly a representation of my desire than of reality.

As usual, when I woke up at 6am, half of the dormitory was half gone already and the other half (except me of course) was busy with packing and repacking their belongings. I thought of  indulge in some laziness and let everybody out to enjoy the luxury of the toilet for me only. Also I wanted to rest as long as possible to ensure that the pain in the leg could soften. With my surprise, it felt very good and strong. Just a small hint of pain in certain foot twists, but I ingnored it believing that I could just proceed avoiding that particular movements. That was the first delusion.

The second was the outdoors temperature, which was highly overestimated. The dormitory was indeed quite cold, but given the previous glorious afternoon sunshine, I expected something like 13 degrees. When I finally packed and stepped outside at about 7:30am, the thermometer on the Albergue’s wall indicated 3 degrees! I was totally ignoring that St.Juan is 1080 meters high! The stars were bright in the clear morning air and giving a certain solemnity in leaving that tiny conglomerate of human dwellings along the road into the pitch dark. Given that Spain is on the same time zone as Central Europe, the sun rises this time of the year at 8:30am and the benefic warm rays do not become such before 9:45, at least at that altitude.

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Maybe, in the effort to generate some internal heat, I may have accelerated the pace over the guard level, and by reaching Atapuerca, some 8 km past St.Juan, I sensed that the leg pain was far than healed but still quite bearable.

Is worth to mention that Atapuerca is the site of quite remarkable anthropological findings, where the ancestors of prehistoric settlements of humanoids were discovered and now is filed as an UNESCO site. The remains date over 90,000 years ago, and have ascertained that those early European ancestors, were cannibals. This may explain why it took so long and endless wars, for Europe to become an united entity, and to some respects, we are not there yet.

Longing for a breakfast stop, I entered in one of the many pilgrims’ bar y tenda along the way. Tenda stays for grocery shop, where I bought a bocadillo (sandwich), tomatoes and a peach, my usual diet for lunch.

With a refill of energy fuel I reached after a short while the summit of the Cruceiro, where I left thanksgiving stones in memory of my parents and also for my in-laws for having given life to my beloved wife. Nearby, as a contribution to a spiral-shaped spontaneous giant sculpture, I also left down a few well-wishing stones for some of my friends.

The city of Burgos appeared in the distance with its relevant contribution of noise and pollution.

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After a short while, the leg started burning internally very intensely and I had to reduce the speed considerably. The approach to Burgos is endless and very tedious and to make it more pleasant I chose the approach via the river.

For the last 7km, I was in agony and very concerned on the reason of the pain. The ankle and the lower right leg was now visibly swollen in comparison.

Once arrived in the Albergue, I managed to take a shower, wash my laundry with the help of Maria from Andorra, and than hop on a taxi to the nearest medical center.

Thanks God, I took with me the Italian Health Card that covers emergencies in the whole Europe territory.

In less than half hour, and without spending an Euro cent,  I have been visited and diagnosed with a tendinitis and inflammation of the nearby tissues. Prognosis: medications for 8 days and 3 days of rest!

Take it easy, I said to myself and decided to be reasonable and stay in Burgos one more day. Tomorrow will check any improvement and eventually decide what to do.