DAY 23: Industrial Nature
With the rising sun starting to assert its dominance over the coastal city below, we started our walk heading down the hill from the campgrounds and made our passage through the outer eastern suburbs of Gijon, on what was a lazy Sunday morning. By the time we had made our way into the heart of the belly of this Asturian metropolis, we were already 5 km into our walk for the day, and the pangs of hunger were calling out from my belly, urging my parents and brother to stop at a cafeteria for breakfast. We had our usual serving of bocadillos of tortilla española, which is your regular Spanish Potato Omelette, only that it’s slapped between two thick slices of what looks like a baguette, but has much more substance to the bread.
We walked on and soon made our way out of the labyrinth of the city streets, criss-crossing the urban sprawl and headed to the beach as we noticed the coast appear on our right. We took the opportunity to walk out to the beautiful long curving beach and while it was still early on a Sunday morning, it was teaming with residents walking up and down its sandy passage, as well as a stream of young people, still dressed in their clothes from the previous night, making their way home from what must have been a heavy night’s partying.
Gijon was buzzing and it’s no surprise that it is the largest city in the Asturias, with over 275,000 residents. Its long history of events has shaped its development. The recent past saw the Civil War destroyed large portions of the city which had to be rebuilt, but it also has a much deeper historical significance, stretching back to the eighth century with the Pelayo (Peligius) King of the Asturias, who reconquered the Iberian Peninsular taking it back from the Moors. As we made our way to the west of the city, which also seemed to be a revitalised epicurean gathering point for the people, near the port, we noticed in the Plaza del Marqués the foreboding statue of Pelayo keeping watch over the city.
We had already been walking two hours by now, and it seemed as we made our way into the western suburbs of the city that it was never ending and the heat was starting to make its presence felt. We stopped again at a small shop by the side of the busy road to purchase a half of a refreshingly cold maraschino coloured watermelon that Dad and I devoured on the bus stand bench right out the front of the shop. I was thinking that while this melon was exquisite in quenching my thirst and revitalising me, that we still had a long way to go and that we were not making great progress today. We also took the opportunity to purchase a large swathe of the artisan homemade Asturian apple tart and almond cake. Mum and Lalika ate their tart right there while I saved mine for later.
We headed further west, and as we did, the urban ebbed away and gave way to the industrial nature of the landscape in a rather rapid manner. The contrast was stark as we criss-crossed railway tracks and headed under highways to notice huge factory complexes and what seemed to be coal storage and processing facilities right next to the railway infrastructure. The freeway was buzzing with cars below us as we started an ascent that would last the better part of the rest of the hot sunny day.It was here, as we finally left behind Gijon that we struck up the beginnings of a long conversation with two other fellow Camino walkers: upbeat native Chicagoan Melissa and the quiet yet pensive Polish girl Ola.
Now as we finally broke free of the industrial, nature reaffirmed itself. We temporarily surged ahead of Melissa, Ola and their group of friends to enter a world of reminiscence. Looking around at our surroundings I seriously didn’t know where I was. “Australia or Spain?!” I questioned as I stared in shock at the dry sweet smelling Eucalyptus trees that covered every inch of the dusty path in front of me. Ferns, entirely reminiscent of Melbourne’s Dandenong mountains, strayed out from their roots, and the harsh sun rays of Spain had the exact same sting of an Australian summer!
I half expected Skippy the bush kangaroo or Blinky Bill the koala to jump out and perform their individual theme songs. We sat down on the dry grass for a few minutes and closed our eyes to laugh. Australia and Spain, two places with extremely special places in our hearts, joined together by the nature of the land. In more ways than one we felt like we had returned home.
In previous entries, I had expressed that when walking the Camino, how walking just 200 metres in the wrong direction or out of your way, can completely mess with your head and demoralise you to the point of sapping your energy completely and utterly. This was one of those days when we should have ignored our desire to keep the walk shorter and take the opportunity to walk that 500 meters extra out of our way. Maybe it was the Eucalyptus high we were on, because as we emerged from the forest, we noticed a sign showing a detour. We thought it was another questionable accommodation advertisement trying to take us off our track and not having a guide book, we were unaware that in avoiding this trail, we were actually walking around and missing out on experiencing seeing a 5000-year-old Dolmen, still preserved in its original state.
A Dolmen is a megalithic structure often made up of three or more very large stones. While they are thought to be tombs or burial structures, there is some controversy and a number of thoughts on what they were actually used for. Nevertheless, by the time we had walked past this and found out from other Caminoers what this was, it was in the realms of the Camino past, and there was no going back, so we walked on. If you are interested, there is a video here of this 5000-year-old Dolmen.
A loud whooshing noise like a tea kettle singing broke us out of our trance. “That sounds like the tea’s ready!” I joked.
“Or a bomb,” Lalika answered.
As if on cue, a deafening bang exploded into the sky with extreme velocity and the intense shock knocked me sideways. I looked accusingly at my brother as I got up, but he looked just as spooked as I. Another spray of red, shot into the air and detonated in silence. It took 3 seconds for the sound to reach us but this time the thunderous crash left us more curious than worried. We withdrew out of the Eucalyptus forest and descended into a village glinting in the distance like a desert flower. This small civilisation seemed to be from where the racket was coming from. As we entered the main street with the hubbub now at ear drum bursting point, we were greeted by a surprising sight – Villagers dressed in traditional Spanish costumes celebrating in the form of a festival. Colours danced through the air as little girls twirled lightly, skirts flying in flower formations. A band of golden trumpets and cantaloupe coloured drums followed behind the procession, adding to the hullabaloo of the rocket-like-fireworks flying into the air. We later found out that July 19th was the Fiestas de la Magdalena, and it was a wonderful impromptu experience to see the village’s cultural heritage being celebrated.
Passing a large field where a celebratory lunch was being set up, we passed by Melissa and OIa again who called out to one of their French friends in front of us. “Mon Dieu!” he cried, his face contorting irritatedly when they suggested a small break. “We just stopped before!”
We continued onwards, out of the valley of Carreño and Santa Eulalia del Valle, and into a large sunburnt grassy plane, no shade and no sign of any civilisation for miles to come. We wandered through what looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, racing to try and find a shady place to rest.
Our chance came when 5 kilometres (3.1 Miles) down the dusty road we came across a tiny white station house, whose front two rooms had been converted into a dodgy makeshift cafe that catered to pilgrims. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, though placed in a strategic position, right along the Camino path. Run by a lone woman who kindly gave us free ice water, we sat down and enjoyed the lunch we had lugged from Gijon.
As the hottest part of the day swept through the burnt tops of trees, we headed back out into the sweltering wind, entering Spain’s industrial heart. Our end destination of Aviles loomed before us but standing in between us and the Albergue were 7 kilometres of poisonous vapours, deadly exhaust fumes and a toxic fog of pollution. I could feel the air quality worsening with every step that we took closer to Aviles, my face turning lighter shades of yellow as we passed the harmful factories, zombie-like junkyards, grisly manufacturing complexes and the dead countryside that looked as if it had been burnt alive. This is the industrial nature of man’s progress. A horrific testament to the cost of our supposed post-industrial civilisations. As we walked on, what shocked me more were the homes, kindergartens, schools, all in such close proximity of this bleak and polluted earth. My heart leapt into my throat in empathy for the people who have to live here and for the precious land that was once pristine.
We would later find out that most Pilgrims did not walk this toxic wasteland stretch, opting instead to take the bus as it also had a reputation for being an unsafe place taking you through unsavoury urban sprawls. Yet when we finally reached Aviles, a spluttering mess of sweat and coughing, we were immensely surprised to find an attractive historic town centre, which surrounded a charming botanical garden. (though it was the only green for miles around)
We found our way to the Albergue with the help of a kind man and entered a courtyard that reminded me of my mother’s stories of staying in a refugee camp in Austria when they had left Transylvania in the Communist era; though her stories described what was a much nicer looking camp. The Hospitalier and her assistant were incredibly helpful and went out of their way to make us feel welcomed. Instead of being placed in the huge dorm room that held 72 beds, we were led into a small family room that held only 8. Our roommates turned out to be a friendly Spanish family with two teenagers. They were also doing the Camino but by cycling it rather than walking. We had a great time chatting with all of them before dipping out to get some dinner.
Tired of the regular Peregrino Menus whose only vegetarian options were mixed salad, chips, fried eggs and pasta with tomato sauce (fare that we had been eating for two weeks now) we began jumping for joy when we spotted a tucked away Gyros restaurant selling one of our favourite meals – Falafels! After a dessert of watermelon sorbet, we returned to our haven for the night and closed our eyes, blocking out any thoughts and images of the exhaust fume fires that raged all night around us.