El Camino Frances

The Traditional Route from France

La Rioja

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Belorado through Villafranca and San Juan de Ortega to Burgos

24/25 May 1993 and 9/10/11 June 2002

This page describes a couple of the stages of the Camino which is the transition from the green farms and vineyards of Rioja to the dry farming on the meseta. There is a low mountain range to cross which, in medieval times, had a reputation for difficulty and danger. There is no longer any danger from wolves or vagabonds and the route is well signposted.

From Belorado the way follows minor roads either side of the N120 through small villages up to the crossroad town of Villafranca. There is then a steep climb out of the village and through the forest of the Montes de Oca. The path soon levels out and it becomes an easy walk along forestry tracks to the monastery at San Juan de Ortega.

1993. It was cold when we set off from the refugio and there had been an overnight frost. Our ad hoc gang now consisted of nine people, six Spaniards, two Brazilians and me, and we made our way gently uphill to Villafranca. There is a hotel here and also a bar so we gathered here for a late breakfast. We then split into smaller groups and managed to regroup in the monastery just before heavy rain began.

Oca

The hamlet of San Juan consists of a large monastery and a few houses, one of which serves as the village bar. San Juan de Ortega (Saint John of the Nettles) continued the work of Santo Domingo in assisting pilgrims to cross difficult terrain such as these mountains. The refugio is in the monastery and when I stayed there it was very basic with cold showers (very cold at an altitude of 1040m.). We were also banned from hanging out laundry and had to hope we could catch up with this in Burgos.

There was not much sightseeing to be done here in the rain so most of the transient population gathered in the bar for food and drinks. While we were here a message came for us to return to the refugio for the parish priest’s speciality. This was a heavy garlic soup cooked in two huge pans and we ate this as we talked around a smokey wood burning stove. Second helpings were available to anyone who dared.

The thunder storms continued all night and into the morning so we had a most unpleasant walk into Burgos. There is a long stretch along a main road through the industrial suburbs where we were continuously splashed by passing lorries. Our gang made a long stop in a bar to dry ourselves as best we could then continued to the cathedral.

Burgos

After having our credenciales stamped we enquired about refugios. At this time the official refugio had not been built but there was a temporary one in the local seminary. This would have meant sleeping on the floor and there were no hot showers so we split into small groups to find cheap hotel rooms and try to dry our wet clothes.

When we reassembled we did some sightseeing and went for a meal. This proved to be a rip off and the Spanish lads were most apologetic for the unfriendly reception we received in this city. Almost all places on the Camino welcome pilgrims but Burgos was an exception.

Burgos rose to importance at the beginning of the Reconquista when the Christian forces were moving south from their strongholds in the northern mountains. It became the main city of the area known as Castile because of the many castles built to defend the territory. For a while it was a buffer state between the Kingdoms of Navarre and León but gradually became the dominant force in the north of Spain.

The most famous inhabitant of Burgos is Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid). He was born near the city in about 1040 and became a prominent leader of troops for Alfonso VI of León/Castile during the Reconquista. Following a quarrel with the king he was exiled and took up posts as a mercenary leader for both Muslim and Christian rulers (not unusual in those days).

Using a joint Muslim/Christian army he exerted more and more influence over the Kingdom of Valencia and eventually ruled it himself until his death in 1099. The Christian dominance only lasted another 10 years after his death and his body was brought back to Burgos where it now lies in the cathedral.

2002. Since we had stayed the previous night in Redecilla we passed through Belorado, stopping for a late breakfast. As we crossed the river on the way out of town we met again the Swiss hospitalera who was having a short stroll along the Camino before going back to welcome the incoming pilgrims.

The walk up to Villafranca was uneventful but when we arrived we found the refugio in a very bad state. The hotel across the road had only two beds available so, after leaving the girls there, Peter and myself booked into the refugio. This seemed to be an old school or similar but the bunks were ancient and the toilet no more than a hole in the floor. It has now been replaced by a new refugio.

We cheered ourselves up by having lunch with the girls in the hotel then went back to do our laundry and dry things from the previous day’s rain. The refugio filled up and late comers were given mattresses on the floor. No one was happy with this place and the night was ruined by a couple of loud snorers.

Atapuerca

In the morning we met the girls outside the hotel at 6.15 and walked up the hill through the early morning mist. The new refugio was at the foot of the hill and it looked almost complete. We made good time and were able to stop for breakfast in San Juan before 10am.

The mist then cleared and we strolled downhill to Atapuerca to find that we had at least two hours to wait until the refugio (La Hutte) opened. There was already a small queue of pilgrims waiting at the door so we decided to move on to the next refugio. This is at Olmos de Atapuerca which is a few kilometres off the Camino so we had hopes of an uncrowded night. Olmos is a small village and the refugio backs onto the village bar where we had a beer and snacks while the refugio was being cleaned. Olmos

The refugio here is new and such a pleasant change from that in Villafranca. The 16 beds slowly filled up and the last two pilgrims were given mattresses on the floor. We had plenty of time to use the village store and cook an evening meal in the refugio then return to the friendly bar to chat to our new companions.

In caves near the village of Atapuerca were discovered the remains of the earliest human species in Europe. The first finds were made in 1994 in the Gran Dolina cave and were dated to about 800,000 years ago. Recently, (March 2008) another find was announced from the nearby Sima del Elefante cave which was over one million years old. These early humans (Homo Antecessor) are unlikely to have been direct ancestors of our species for it is generally accepted that Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and migrated to Europe about 60,000 years ago.

Burgos

Next morning we set off early to give us time to do some sightseeing and shopping in Burgos. When we reached the suburbs we took a bus to the city centre, thereby avoiding the boring drag through the industrial areas. Other pilgrims had the same idea so there were quite a few rucksacks on the bus by the time we arrived.

The weather was fine this day and we had plenty of time for sightseeing in the cathedral and around the city. Peter and I guarded the rucksacks in a bar while the girls had an intensive shopping fix before we left town to stay in the village of Rabé. Leaving town we passed the huge municipal refugio which seemed to be in wooden huts. The refugio we stayed in that night was much more pleasant.