The 23-kilometre trek from Santo Domingo to Belorado contrasted two worlds.
To one side ran the slick, modern national highway N-120. Its twin ribbons of factory-fresh asphalt crossed the flat, brown landscape, requiring costly overpasses to lead pilgrims from one side to the other. Cars fly through this flat land, missing the details of an agricultural economy struggling to stay afloat. I can’t claim to be an economist, but the visual evidence of small villages pockmarked with ruined buildings is everywhere. It’s not that the urban decay suddenly started after Santo Domingo. It has gradually seeped into our consciousness over the past days of walking. But here, against the monied optimism of super highways connecting city super-centres, the collapse of small rural economies is all the more apparent.
The day suitably ends in Belorado, a charming town with a matter-of-fact rural attitude.
Leaving Belorado the next morning, we pass by more ruined buildings. The trail now parts way with the highway and begins its slow climb to San Juan de Ortega, 24 kilometres away, a pleasant day of walking through fields. At least for us.
Fortunately, we had looked at our Brierley guide soon after arriving in Belorado, the night before. San Juan, our next-day’s destination, had a meagre population of 30! And there was only one albergue and one pension! On the phone, we managed to secure what was (we later found out) the last room at San Juan’s sole pension, La Henera.
San Juan de Ortega was indeed a tiny hamlet with the Camino being its sole means of support. Pilgrims poured into town that afternoon, most forced to bunk in the dormitory-style albergue, nestled in the ruins of the stone monastery. Sound romantic? It proved less than wonderful at the practical level, as fellow pilgrims later reported there was a master snorer in their midst!. By contrast, our private room in the brand new pension (within eyeshot of the albergue), was embarrassingly palatial. Dining at the one small restaurant in town was a further challenge. Its few tables were in high demand by famished walkers.
San Juan de Ortega was established in the early 1100’s with the sole purpose of assisting pilgrims on the Camino. We can thank Juan Velásquez, a local man of humble background, who set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1109, got shipwrecked on his way home and prayed to San Nicolás de Barí that, if saved, he would devote the rest of his life to helping pilgrims. It worked and Juan followed through on his promise. San Juan became his hospice in the woods and, although it garnered early patronage and grew to include a church and monastery, the hamlet constantly struggled to survive.
The Church of San Juan de Ortega was likely built by Juan in the 12th century and then added-to repeatedly through the 15th century. This is the still-functioning core of the hamlet. About it are the massive walls of the deserted monastery. We walked around the perimeter walls with their uniformly distributed punched openings, once windows looking out from a thriving hospice. And then through the few quiet streets of the hamlet with their occasional ruined home.
Juan’s promise lives on as a vulnerable counterpoint to the modern world.