In 1994, the remains of an 800,000-year-old European were found here. In 2007, archaeologists uncovered a 1.2-million-year-old jawbone, thought to belong to the oldest hominid in Europe, an ancestor to Homo sapiens and Neanderthal man. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the archaeological work continues.
I climb out of Atapuerca to summit the hill and start not only the descent, but the passage through the city of Burgos. It is my least favourite section of the Camino. Burgos centre is pleasant enough but the outskirts are a mess. Graffiti covers walls, stray cats and dogs roam, derelict buildings crumble and litter catches the wind. It is difficult to navigate. I went wrong ten years ago and make the same mistake this year.
There are two variants on my map. My chosen route, which follows the true El Camino of old, entails a hair-raising dash across a busy main road, albeit with an island of safety in the middle. I don’t recommend it.
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Leaving Burgos my surroundings improve slightly. There’s a nice country track for a while but the Camino veers back near to the railway and motorway, under bridges and dusty roadworks. It isn’t until a pilgrim reaches the haven of Tardajos that they breathe a sigh of relief, now back to wide open spaces and the occasional village, water fountains and peace. I know I don’t paint an attractive picture of the Burgos section but you can’t walk for 500 miles through a civilised country such as Spain without passing through some undesirable parts.
After Burgos and up to the city of Leon is a stretch known as the Meseta, a 100-mile-long section with little to cast an appreciative eye over save corn fields. The Camino often runs in a dead straight line, it gets hot with little shade, and the only company is the crunch of your footsteps. However, many love the section. The wide open expanses, the challenge and the freedom I relish.