One of the pleasures of walking the Camino is the chance to see a slice of Spain at close quarters – I might say one of the privileges actually, since we mustn’t forget we are guests in this country, and the people we come across may not automatically think that having tens of thousands of pilgrims tramping through their towns and villages every year is a good thing. In some villages, the Camino is an important part of the economy, but by no means everywhere.

We have seen aspects of the strength of the economy of modern Spain. Today’s route from Santo Domingo to Belorado runs alongside the busy N120 for quite a lot of the way – not the most scenic – and there are plenty of big lorries and big cars about their business. The centres of the two main cities we have walked through so far, Pamplona and Logrono, looked smart. But change is evident elsewhere: there are several derelict factories on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, for instance, and rural depopulation is clearly an issue here as in the UK and France, for instance.

Four things in the last few days have given an insight into aspects of modern Spain.

The approach to the village of Cirinuela yesterday morning did look a bit odd – we had been walking for several kilometres through a rural landscape, where the olive groves and Rioja vineyards had given way to ploughed fields with the harvest now gathered in. Ahead of us were rows of modern houses, of pretty uniform design, with no apparent signs of life – cars, people in the garden, or whatever. But we were into siesta time, so didn’t think any more of it until after lunch, when we explored some more. As far as we could see, Cirinuela is a ghost town, except that it has never been occupied, so there aren't any ghosts of previous residents to come back and haunt the place.

I’d read about how the financial crash had meant that some speculative building had left unsold houses on the hands of the developers. But I really hadn’t expected to see a whole new village, with its own road sign from a new roundabout, empty: park with nobody in, children’s playground with no children, block after block with Vende signs – For Sale.

The second thing was also to do with housing. Viana is a small town near the city of Logrono. Walking into it you can again see the new housing on the outskirts, near what is obviously the old town on the hill. Here the housing is occupied: the population has grown from 3,400 in 2001 to 4,200 in 2018. Spain’s population has grown rapidly over recent decades – Viana has clearly played its part. The villages we saw today haven’t.

The third thing was rather different. The Cafeteria Buen Camino in Los Arcos is a small place, with a couple of tables inside and a couple of dozen in the square outside. On Sunday evening (22 September 2019) it was full of people: with some locals putting the world to rights over a glass or two of wine, and dozens of pilgrims walking the Camino and needing to refuel for the next day. There was one waiter outside and one person behind the bar, both working really hard, keeping us all fed and watered – think of the sort of pace worked by bar staff in the interval of a play or concert, but kept up for two hours or more. The following morning, the cafe opened at 6.30 to feed the pilgrims cafe con leche and croissants before the day’s march began. One guy behind the bar – thankfully a different guy but again working really hard. But Spain has high unemployment. Is something in their labour laws or practices stopping them bringing in extra people, even from a nearby town, to help out for the peaks? Especially given that the peaks are predictable, since you know roughly how many pilgrims are pouring down the Camino in fairly set stages.

Finally, we walked past lots of Rioja grapes. Presumably the harvest hasn’t come round yet, because the only grape picking seemed to be the odd single tractor pouring a few bucket loads into a hopper for onward transportation. Last year (2018) we were in Champagne country during the harvest and there were vans from Poland and Portugal parked up with people out among the vines bringing in the precious harvest. Maybe that’s yet to come in La Rioja.