Day 17: Atapuerca to Burgos – Beauty breaking the stone of my heart

Gorgeous. Enchanting. Beautiful. Stunning. Magical.

Any of these words could describe the best of my days on the Camino. Yet none of them really scratch the surface. Because a good writer is supposed to “show, not tell,” I’ll try my best to describe this superlative day, among my very favorites on the Camino.

It was early and not yet bright as we prepared to leave the albergue in Atapuerca. I laced up my shoes on the outdoor patio while the girls were getting ready. While I waited, I took a short stroll alone down a side street that ended in a pasture, and was treated to a front row seat of the early morning sunrise. The air was alive with birdsong in every direction. The dark blue sky seemed huge above me. On the horizon, the clouds lay in swaths of deep purple and pink, shot through with slivers of gold from below.

Stopping at the town’s cafe for breakfast, I ordered a pastry called a raqueta — figure-8 loops of puff pastry filled with creamy puddles of vanilla custard. Before the owner served it to me, she brushed the flaky edges with fresh honey. With a cup of cafe con leche, I was in heaven.

Atapuerca, Spain at dawn
Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain at dawn — Photo credit

The sun rose, the earth warmed, and the day unfolded like magic. Along the way, we met up with Meg from London – who I’d only briefly met in Navarette. As our little group spread out to each one’s own pace, Meg and I walked side by side, talking about our respective businesses, our dreams, and some of the struggles we’d experienced in life.

Meg was the first native English speaker I’d walked with so far and I relished sharing nuanced humor and discovering the many ways our personal journeys resembled the other’s. As the miles clicked by, we laughed and talked about about soulful things. I felt like I’d met someone I’d known my whole life. I felt especially blessed by her company because she’d been intentionally walking the Camino alone.

Finding my rock

As you walk the Camino, you spend a fair amount of time looking down at the ground — on alert for uneven spots, or seeking out that elusive, meandering ground-down path among the cobbles that makes walking just a little easier. Ever since I arrived, I’d regretted not bringing a rock from home to place it at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross). As I walked, I’d been on the lookout for just the right one.

The Camino path (and gravel)
The Camino path (and gravel) — Photo credit

I walked right past my rock going 2 miles an hour, saw it, and crunched back several steps through the gravel to retrieve it. It was my just-right rock: Fist sized and angular in the shape of a heart. But it wasn’t the kind soft and curvy kind you’d give to a sweetheart. This rock and I knew each other, for it resembled the shape of the heart inside my heart — hardened and tough as stone. Impervious.

As much as it frightened me, I wanted my heart to break. I wanted to abandon this hard-heartedness on the Camino so that I could open up to generosity and love all around me. For a while, I carried this chunk of granite in my hand, and then it traveled with me many miles in the top pouch of my pack.

I would discover in the days ahead what would come of my intention.

Up and over

While the previous day’s walk had numerous hills, today we encountered one large hill. The path ascended to a wide, grassy green plateau with a few shade trees growing like fringe at the distant edges. This spacious flat spot felt like another “thin place” — an altar where magic takes place. Meg and I talked about the energy of the areas in and around Agés and Atapuerca, sensing that something palpable and healing was present.

Just when the day couldn’t seem more magical or soul-nourishing, we discovered a labyrinth made of hand-laid cobblestones on this plateau. Labyrinths are meditation tools that mirror pilgrimage — a microcosm of intention, simplicity, and movement. As I pondered how it came to be here, the sun shone down warmly on the top of this world and gave me a sense of inner strength and utter happiness.

Labyrinth on the Camino
Labyrinth on the Camino — Photo credit

And through

Descending the other side of the plateau, we encountered the outskirts of Burgos — with its airport and chain link fences, increasing street noise, and hard pavement walkways. Despite these things, my spirit still soared.

At the suggestion of some friends, we took the alternate scenic route into Burgos and were treated to tree-lined avenues and a river burbling alongside the manicured path. Everyone was out, families and grandparents strolled along, wishing us Buen Camino as we passed.

The scenic/alternate route into Burgos
The scenic/alternate route into Burgos — Photo credit

Then, one by one, members of our group peeled off to find refuge on her own, all agreeing to meet up later outside the cathedral. I too could feel myself running out of steam before arriving into the town. In need of a meal and a restroom, it was just Katrin and I left to navigate the city (a task neither of us relished) and find a not-too-expensive hotel.

Unfortunately, the one we’d chosen out of the guidebook was out of business and we didn’t discover this until we’d walked there. Tired, hungry, and footsore, the two of us sat on a bench in the shade across the street and tried to regroup.

Not a moment later, a kind Spanish pilgrim on her way home from a section hike approached us and started a conversation. When we explained our dilemma, pointing at the paper-covered windows, she informed us about a lovely hotel in the heart of the city that has a special price for pilgrims. For 25€ each, we got a great room, thanks to this lovely Camino angel.

Delights abound

After a long, hot shower (I was getting spoiled!), Katrin and I met up with Meg, Muriel, and Marisela to tour the famous Gothic cathedral in Burgos. Others have described it in much more compelling detail, but I would say it was both detailed and massive. I’m glad I saw it.

Cathedral plaza in Burgos
Cathedral plaza in Burgos — Photo credit

Afterwards in the evening light, the five of us sat at a table on the Cathedral plaza and had a festive meal sharing calamari, whole shrimp, and an ensalada mixta with all the trimmings. We toasted Marisela, who was leaving the Camino to spend time with family and would return later in the month to complete the walk. After sharing so much of the journey, I was sad to see her go and happy to have shared so much.

We walked around looking for ice cream after dinner and I felt someone grab my arm — it was Lies!

I could not have been more shocked to see her smiling and healthy! She’d looked so sickly when we last saw her in Navarette and, she told us, had been admitted to the hospital for pneumonia for three days. On release, she was told not to continue with the Camino and was making plans to return to Belgium. Despite her sadness, I was thrilled to know that she was well again and delighted to spend time with her on this day of days.

After ice cream, we moved to another cafe on the plaza, now a larger group. The evening lingered on as we drank wine and talked. Despite the bittersweet departures, I look back on this day with such contentment and happiness. My final memory of the day is of Katrin, Lies, and I walking back to our hotels at dusk, arms linked, and singing songs among the people of Burgos.

A gorgeous, enchanting, beautiful, stunning, magical day. Perhaps my stone heart was already beginning to crack. Very likely, in fact.

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