When the topic of skipping stages on the Camino Francés comes up, talk will inevitably turn to the Meseta. Even admirers of this 180km stretch of the Camino de Santiago through flat, hot, shadeless fields between Burgos and León will describe the Meseta as monotonous, while detractors find it incredibly dull and boring.
If you’re considering skipping the Meseta, however, you may want to think again. Long after you return from the Camino Francés, it’s often those long days on the plains of Castile and León that stand out the most in your memory. It is the pilgrimage in its most basic yet fundamental form: nothing more than you, the trail and the deep blue sky.
Here are six reasons not to skip the Meseta on your camino adventure.
After a few days on the Meseta, you’ll likely be pining to see a tree or two or a patch of grass. But while walking through wheat field after wheat field for eight or nine straight days can be tedious at the best of times, the experience is also intriguing in its own way.
‘The landscape here has had a lasting effect on the character of the people … the broad expanses here have a certain effect on the pilgrim psyche and to skip over it is to miss out on an important stage of the journey.’Wise Pilgrim
After a rare climb, the view out over the Meseta from the top of the Alto de Mostelares after Castrojeriz is one of the most iconic vistas on the entire Camino Francés. On the few occasions you do come across shade and a pleasant spot to rest, you’ll be all the more grateful. And if you start walking before dawn to beat the heat, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular red sunrises day after day as there will invariably be nothing standing between you and the horizon.
Upon reaching León with the Meseta behind you, there’ll be a sense of relief. But weeks later, when you’re shivering in the rain while squelching through mud in the forests of Galicia, you’ll think back to the heat of the Meseta, and you might even long for it.
After walking from Frómista to Carrión de los Condes, I wrote about the dichotomy of the Meseta that was starting to present itself:
‘As we get deeper into the Spanish oven known as the Meseta, the landscape is getting more and more monotonous while the churches are getting more and more interesting.’
Although adobe is the region’s traditional building material, the sandstone of the Romanesque effortlessly blends into the earthen colours of the Meseta as if the two were designed for each other.
The crown jewel of these churches is Frómista’s 11th-century San Martín, famous for its extraordinary column capitals adorned with carvings of hundreds of humans and animals. A controversial restoration project in the early 20th century resulted in several slightly-too-perfect copies, but the more weathered originals allow you to be mesmerised by 1000 years of history swirling around you.
The Church of the White Virgin in Villalcázar de Sirga is not as celebrated as San Martín but is still a spectacular 12th-13th century Templar fortress-church. As is common in this part of Spain, different eras of art and architecture are brought together by this austere Romanesque church housing two elaborate Gothic royal tombs.
Likewise in Sahagún, where Romanesque is fused with Mudéjar – Muslim-influenced architecture in Christian Spain – to create splendid and unique churches. Leaving Sahagún under the cover of darkness in anticipation of another scorching day on the Meseta and seeing the sun’s first light illuminating the Mudéjar tower of the San Tirso church is not something I’ll soon forget.
Towns on the Meseta are few and far between compared with the rest of the Camino Francés – the famous 17km stretch with no services after Carrión de los Condes is the most obvious example – but this isolation makes them all the more fascinating. From the slender and sloping main street of Castrojeriz to the hodgepodge stone walls encircling Mansilla de las Mulas, the unique towns of the Meseta rise out of the plains and into camino lore. Some, like Lédigos, are just barely kept alive by the pilgrim traffic that passes through.
If you still have the energy after another day of searing heat on the Meseta, these towns offer plenty of attractions to explore. Apart from the churches, the San Zoilo Monastery in Carrión de los Condes, with its Plateresque cloister, is a highlight.
Mostly, though, it is the frontier atmosphere and camino spirit that makes the towns of the Meseta special. Traversing the Meseta is not easy, but braving the inhospitable conditions and reaching the end of each stage creates a sense of achievement, and a friendly albergue, a welcome meal and the conversation of pilgrims at the end of the day make it all worthwhile.
Vestiges of past ages on the Meseta can range from the last remaining corner wall of a long-forgotten building beside the trail, nondescript yet beautiful in its loneliness, to the imposing Visigothic castle visible for miles above Castrojeriz.
But the most extraordinary ruin on the Meseta – and the single most evocative place on the entire Camino Francés for me – is the monastery of San Antón, three kilometres before Castrojeriz. The monastery was founded by King Alfonso VII in 1146, although the Gothic ruins we see today date from the 14th century. In its heyday, the complex was managed by the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony and treated sick pilgrims on their way to Santiago, giving modern walkers valuable perspective and appreciation for those who came before them and the centuries-long history of the Camino de Santiago itself.
Today, the camino still leads directly underneath the monastery’s impressive archway, meaning pilgrims don’t need to deviate from the path or even break their stride to admire the site. However, pausing for a rest under the welcome shade of an adjacent tree and gazing up through the yellow-hued sandstone windows to the deep blue sky beyond will give you a greater appreciation for the beauty, atmosphere and history of the ruins.
If a brief pause at San Antón doesn’t allow for much contemplation while the bustle of pilgrim traffic continues around you, belying the peaceful nature of the monastery, there’s a ready solution: you can spend the night there under the stars, in the basic albergue inside the ruins.
San Antón is one of several special albergues on the Meseta that offer pilgrims not just a bed for the night, but an unforgettable experience. Parochial albergues such as the ones in Carrión de los Condes and Bercianos del Real Camino allow pilgrims to stay in historic convents and gain insight into the daily lives of nuns. In Castrojeriz, Albergue Ultreia has an old wine press and an underground cellar that pilgrims can explore, while pilgrims at Albergue Orion can enjoy a communal dinner with a surprising difference: Korean cuisine in the heart of the breadbasket of Spain.
Perhaps the most atmospheric of all Meseta albergues, however, is the Ermita de San Nicolás beside the trail before the historic bridge that once served as the border between Castile and León. At the Italian-run hermitage, pilgrims have their feet washed, dine by candlelight and sleep inside the 13th-century church. One of the biggest regrets I have from the Camino Francés is not staying there: we paused at the hermitage and were given a tour from an Italian hospitalera but it was too early in the day to consider spending the night.
Amid the wealth of historical treasures the Meseta contains, a reasonably modern canal wouldn’t seem – at first glance – to be of much interest to a pilgrim. But the Canal de Castilla, built in the 18th and 19th centuries, is heritage-listed in its own right and often delights the pilgrims who walk alongside it. Like many other historic sites on the camino, the canal has reinvented itself over time from a bustling navigational waterway once plied by hundreds of barges to a peaceful backwater with a largely irrigational purpose.
The canal is 207km long and has three distinct branches. On the Camino Francés, pilgrims walk alongside the Northern Branch on the stage leading into Frómista and cross it just before town, seeing different levels of the canal and understanding how the complicated locks would have functioned during the navigational era.
If this small taste of the canal whets your appetite for more, an eight-kilometre stretch of the Camino de Madrid along the Campos Branch from Medina del Rioseco is one of the most picturesque stages of that entire camino. One pilgrim loved the canal so much that he tried – unsuccessfully – to create his own ‘canal camino’ and walk from Medina del Rioseco all the way back to the Camino Francés!
Such is the mysterious hold that the Meseta has over pilgrims who are seduced by its improbable beauty and by a fascination as endless as its fields.
Are you one of them?