the day we walked through Villafranca Montes de Oca we finally got chatting to a very social American couple from Virginia; it seemed they’d gotten the skinny on all the English-speaking peregrinos in our band and were, as we came to appreciate, very friendly conversationalists. they were also some of the first people we encountered who had their bags (containing the bulk of their luggage) transported from their starting point to their destination each day and only carried small daypacks with snacks, water, directions, whatever. whether their lighter packs or their general level of fitness, once we fell into conversation (and step) with them, we rather booked it to our half-way point for the day. maybe we would have made Villafranca by 11:00a.m. anyway, but the time certainly felt like it flew by.
founded by the Romans (and perhaps before by Iron Age settlers as early as 700 B.C.E.) the sizable town of Auca (home to bishops the first of whom was purportedly named by Santiago himself) was partially destroyed during the Muslim invasion of the 8th century. the town never recovered its former power and glory and now the busy N-120 bisects it, carrying all manner of lorries past at top speeds.
we stopped for food at the first cafe which our guidebook referred to as a “truck stop” where drivers fueled up before heading through the Puerto de la Pedraja. the hills divide two river watersheds — that of the Ebro (flowing into the Mediterranean) and the Duero (flowing into the Atlantic). the cafe where we rested contained, among other things, dried pork legs hanging from the ceiling, ready for slicing up for a bocadillo de jamon. once rested and noshed, we climbed up into the eponymous Montes de Oca — desolate and hilly scrub land covering the surrounding countryside. the Camino is well marked now but, as there are few distinguishing landscape features, previous peregrinos routinely got turned around. they proved easy prey for bandits (and wild animals) that roamed the hills.