while Triacastela sits at some 670 meters of elevation (down from 1,293 meters in O’Cebreiro) and marks the end of the most mountainous aspects of the Camino, the hike to Sarria — the last sizable city beyond the 100 kilometer mark — descended another 230 meters. on balance. in reality, we faced a couple of steep inclines out of steep-walled valleys before we got to the gradual descending portion of the day. the rocky path was often slick with early morning rain or dew though usually not terribly slippery. on the downhill there were a few spots, however, where exposed slate or other metamorphic rock necessitated a bit of attention paid.
even though most of the Camino takes you along unpaved, rocky paths, I took more notice of stone and rock formations while in Galicia — and not just because inattention could lead to lost footing and a quick trip to rest on your bum. the fields were often protected by vertical slabs of stone, sometimes slate in what is apparently a Galician fashion. in the 12th century, at the height of the medieval Camino-boom, peregrinos frequently picked up limestone from quarries around Triacastela and carried them to kilns in the village of Castañeda, about 80 kilometers away. ultimately, the limestone was used in construction of the Catedral in Santiago; couldn’t find word on whether peregrinos carried the finished stones the remaining 40 kilometers.
as with the previous day, most of the towns on our voyage between Triacastela and Sarria are tiny, some no more than two or three houses connected to one another by narrow, uneven tracks. and we took the more heavily-traveled of the two routes between the two towns! despite their size today, many once housed hospices or churches with elaborate decoration or artwork.
it remained overcast for most of this day, though not as soggy as the previous day — a welcome change. as with other towns of notable size (at least compared to their neighbors), the suburban sprawl of Sarria came upon us quite a ways out and unceremoniously re-introduced us to an urban setting. of course, an “urban setting” in remote Galicia pales in comparison to the “urban settings” of Burgos, León, or Pamplona, where we entered urban tedium long before crossing over the outer limits of the city proper. Sarria boasts a population of just under 14,000 people and while not the most populous city in Galicia (that title goes to Santiago with just over 95,000 residents), is the most densely populated. but more on that to come …
heading out of Astorga, the terrain grew dramatically more interesting if commensurately challenging. hills! and trees! and still more fields though these were marked into smaller parcels by short, stacked-stone walls (that reminded me somewhat of Ireland). this terrain is better for grazing rather than planting and we saw more, though not many, grazing animals.
the second town we passed through out of Astorga had a distinctly remote and timeless quality to it. the houses were stout, the windows small, and some of the roofs thatched. little existed beyond the main street, which hosted three cafes and two or three casa rurales or albergues. the only water fountain was hidden behind some buildings and could only be accessed down a narrow pathway between the two. we stopped to peel an orange on a bench beside what might have been someone’s front door and saw more than a couple people pass the passage and double back when they realized their overshoot.
one of the more interesting sites on this stretch was a cafe (and possibly albergue) in the tiny town of El Ganso. unlike the previous town, it had an odd mix of modern/rustic — maintained but aging homes, presumably inhabited by aging owners without flashy young money to install the latest conveniences, and an assortment of homes being completely gutted and remodeled and re-roofed to satisfy the preferences for city-living, weekend-visiting younger owners. my cultural book indicates its one of the best places to view traditional Maragato architecture and that the main road wasn’t paved until the 1990s.
in El Ganso we stopped at a cafe called Meson Cowboy for our standard bocadilla. as we claimed a spot in the shade, we saw the Australian couple we’d dined with at the albergue in San Martin and said our hellos (we saw them again several more times though not with the consistency with which we saw the Koreans early on the Camino). at the bar we also encountered a herd of cats of various shapes, sizes, and temperaments — as well as some of the ruder German tourists we encountered on the Camino. it’s likely they were peregrinos, but they certainly behaved and carried themselves more like tourists disinclined to engage local culture. at least their presence spurred us to return to the day’s hike with a shorter-than-intended break. suppose it worked out in our favor somehow — helped us nab a room at a casa rural in Rabanal with a great view of the mountains where we chatted with a nice Canadian (?) couple at breakfast the following morning. a stark contrast and heartening reminder of all the reasons people decide to set out on the Camino.
Dartmoor was one of the most stunning places I visited while studying in London. after weeks of day-to-day metropolitan bustle, the absolute isolation of the moor was both wonderful and somewhat off-putting. it was one of our last stops before returning to London after several days of traipsing around the relatively quite countryside. southwest England in mid-to-late October isn’t high tourist season.
it took some effort to find our B&B in the dark — through the tiny village of Belstone and up a farm track — but it was worth it. my dad & I watched some Green Wing in the common room before we went up to bed and my mom had a precious encounter with one of the young children of the house who was eating “crisps” (my mom referred to them as “chips,” to which the 3-or-4-year-old replied “they’re not chips! they’re crisps!“). I always imagine Godric’s Hollow to look exactly like Belstone as it did when we stopped in at the pub to ask for directions.
the town is best known for its proximity to the Nine Maidens stone circle, which I’m sure I have a picture of somewhere though, honestly, it didn’t make as much of an impression on me as the other sites we saw walking around the moor or in comparison to the sites at Avebury and Stonehenge. in addition to the Nine Maidens, the area we walked was open grazing land for local sheep and had a variety of stone structures and walls, one of which I have marked as the “Irish Wall,” though now I couldn’t tell you why — whether it was built by Irish invaders to defend their holdings, by indigenous Britons to keep the Irish at bay, or for some other purpose.
Dartmoor has been farmed and inhabited since prehistoric times (and its possible that the characters in Bernard Cornwall’s Arthurian series traverse the moor …). the Domesday Book has record of a castle at Okehampton in 1086 and the first record of tin extraction comes from 70 years later. abandoned tin mines and farmsteads remain scattered across the moorland. today the land is a National Park though over half of it remains under private control (much of it consisting of the Forest of Dartmoor of which is owned by the Duke of Cornwall — aka Prince Charles).
recently, controversy has sprung up around mining and military training. several companies wish to mine the area for china clay but organizations seeking to preserve the environmental integrity of the moor have successfully lobbied the government to prevent projects from going forward. military use of the moor dates back to the Napoleonic War and continues to modern times; the Ministry of Defense uses as much as 11% of the northern expanse of the National Park for live-fire maneuvers. it served as partial setting in a recent episode of (Moffat’s) Sherlock. a military installation at Okehampton also served as an airbase during the Second World War.
Dartmoor is great for trekking and adventuring — that’s partly what brought us to the southwest of England (the Nine Maidens stone circle probably played a bigger role). that trek was also my first introduction to letterbox hunting, which later helped develop geocaching. letterboxing sprung up in the 19th century and coincided with the increased popularity of hill walking on the moor. our B&B hosts explained the pursuit to us before we headed out on our morning trek: people hide watertight containers all over the moor that hold unique rubber stamps and a visitor’s log book. each time you find a letterbox (whether on purpose or by accident), you use the letterbox stamp in your own record book and leave the mark of your personal stamp in the visitor’s log book. geocaching is essentially the same but uses GPS coordinates rather than older map-finding clues like compass bearings and grid references. we didn’t find any letterboxes, though we didn’t look very hard. some can prove incredibly challenging to find — which is half the fun for ardent fans of the activity.