Saturday, November 11, 2006

Big Yellow Arrow

Waymarking along the Camino Frances is everywhere, but bear in mind that it's rarely official and people will add a big yellow arrow to take you slightly off course to go through their village or past their bar.

Cyclists should aslo take extra care. Some fruiendly yellow arrows take you to inaccessible spots. Now and again you'll see a bike drawn next to an arrow, which means it's the one you should follow. Never rely on them 100% and be sure to take a good quality Michelin or similar map with you to keep you on course.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

A constant in European summer cycling pilgrimages for me has been miles and miles of sunflowers. They invariably signify that it's too hot and you're miles from the next village, so my advice is if you find yourself heading into sunflower country, check you have plenty of water and don't forget to reapply your sunscreen!

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Outside Santiago Cathedral

Here we are outside the Cathedral at Santiago. It's big and it's busy. I'm the one with the bike in the pink top.

I found the Cathedral experience a little overwhelming after three weeks of quiet villages and hilltop chruches.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

After the Camino - What next?

One question that always comes up after the Camino de Santiago, well, after recovery from the Camino, is what shall I do next? The experience is a wonderful one, and people want to continue their learning journey.

For me the next pilgrimage was along the Via Francigena to Rome, a wonderful trip through Tuscan hills and packed with churches and art work.

A pilgrimage to Jerusalem would complete the trio, but it's not a very practical option. Two chubby women travelling alone and in Lycra are more likely to cause an international incident in Syria than find a nice hostel for the night.

Our next trip was to follow 'The Way of Saint Martin' along the Loire to Tours. I've yet to dream up a new adventure, and would welcome your suggestions for mediaeval pilgrimage routes, in Europe or beyond.

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Day 14 - Palas de Rei - Santiago de Compostella

On the road to Santiago and I’m super excited. It’s a really weird feeling, although it’s hilly I haven’t much felt it, I’ve been counting off the kilometres. We’ll do 63 today to get there. When the road counters get to 100 we’ve made it.

I was outraged this morning, there were a group of ‘walkers’ gathered outside a bar all with backpacks, staffs and scallop shells, bustling us along and very determinedly not moving out of our way as we tried to park the bikes. It was certainly not the friendly ‘Buen Camino’ welcome we’d had every other morning at breakfast. Then we found out why they were so keen to stay in position, they were queuing for the bus to Santiago! I was overtaken by murderous rage - my first burst since the trip began. These folk took priority over us at refuges, yet were a coach party!

We both feel less trusting here, there’s less camaraderie as there are more day trippers and they are far less friendly. We are getting plenty of ‘hoots’ of support from returning minibuses of pilgrims, mostly with ugly, mangled looking feet sticking out of the windows.

As we got closer I got faster! I was really excited but had a weird sense of it being the end of something. We were just 12km out, only as far as Leamington. Unfortunately the road became motorway so we had to go off onto a different track. This got annoying in places where the day trippers walked six abreast, blocking the road completely.

Other, tired looking pilgrims were happy and helpful. The road was very hilly and I had to walk quite a few sections. At one point cheery Spanish walkers cheered us on in a Tour de France stylee, but I couldn’t keep it up and they passed me on foot. After over taking me three times one ran up behind me and pushed me up the hill, much to the amusement of his buddies and Lou.

The closer to Santiago we got the weirder it felt with tourists cramming the path. We got to Monte de Gozo, the recommended overnight stop before Santiago – it was hideous. We’d expected some form of monastery, but it called itself a vacation city and had blocks and blocks of dormitories, along with restaurants, cafés, shops and a launderette, blasting out Celtic music. Any ‘real’ alburgue would not stand for the noise during the day!

We couldn’t get out of there fast enough, we went on down a series of steps where we saw fresh horse poo and joked about Tonto from Rabanal. Entering Santiago I just felt plain scared as there was traffic all over the place and no yellow arrows to guide our way. We got lost and really struggled to get into town. The guidebook was worse than useless, so eventually we just cycled in the direction that the statue of Santiago faced, and that brought us into the old town.

The town was jam packed, and I found it quite intimidating. Eventually we found our way to the Cathedral and as we parked up our bikes Tonto arrived! His mate recognised us first, to much laughter, and a curious cycling mime. Tonto was loving the attention, and was more interested in getting his photo taken than letting his horse have a drink, so the horse got stroppy.

We went into the Cathedral – big mistake! It was noisy with hundreds of tourists, accompanying tour guides and camera flashes. The coin operated electric candles were unappealing and we decided to get our Compostela and get out. We joined the queue, assuming it to be for pilgrims. It wasn’t until I asked the person in front if it was for our ‘credencials’ that she explained, “No, it was to hug and kiss a statue of Santiago” – bite me! Other people were queuing to kiss the other little statues and have their photos taken doing it. It was all so awful. I really thought I might cry! We came all this way just to be part of a circus.

We went to the pilgrims office and joined a queue of tired, smelly, battered looking people with faded, stained clothes and absurd tan lines. It was nice to be with people like me! The Australians from the day before joined us, it felt good that there were people to talk to in the queue, and we recognised a few faces, as well as lots of bikes we’d seen on the road. The Australians took a photo of us both standing outside the Cathedral.

I found the Cathedral depressing, disorienting and confusing. We decided to cheer ourselves up by checking into the Parador. It took us a while to get past the security guard, and when we asked the receptionist for a room she scurried off to get the manager. He really didn’t want us smelly folk staying, so quoted the room price, which was steep, but we knew that already. We agreed to the price, at which point he said he had no rooms, only suites and quoted a much higher price. I asked Lou if she was OK with that, and as she started to nod he said, “oh no, I only have suites with one bed”. I finally took the hint and we left!

We settled down for a cana con limon at a café bar in a busy pedestrianised street. A Mexican mariachi band came to play by us, they were pretty good. I gave them some money, but that only seemed to encourage them, not make them go away. The people on the next table were hidden behind a pillar and decided to sing along. I thought Lou would spontaneously combust with embarrassment.

Getting a cheap room wasn’t easy either, so we walked a little further out of town and nabbed a cancellation at a great 17th Century Jesuit place that had been converted into a lovely hotel. We got a great deal on a triple room with a lovely garden courtyard, and even an invite to enjoy free wine in the hotel bar.

I rang mum who seemed delighted that we made it to Santiago alive, and after a few attempts got through to Dad who was excited about the whole trip. I raided the garden strawberries which were nowhere near as nice as the ones I’d harvested on the way across the Pyrenees.
After getting cleaned up and raiding the mini bar – for pop! – we strolled back into town to get some dinner. We were spoiled for choice as there were fancy seafood restaurants everywhere. We picked one and I ordered oysters followed by a Galician bouillabaisse which had swordfish, hake and monkfish steaks in it. Lou had a salad followed by steak and chips! We split a great bottle of rias baixas red wine.

We took another walk by the Cathedral which looked very impressive from the outside, and dramatic lit up at night. There were plenty of people about in the square singing and dancing, which was more comforting. There was a band playing, including a strange local bagpipe type instrument.

I had a great nights sleep.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Day 13 - Portomarin - Palas de Reis

An early start, despite limited sleep. The coolest temperate overnight was 32°C, at 5am. There was a tough climb out but a great descent of about 5km of gentle swoops down and then a short climb up to Portomarin, a town re built on the hill when the river was dammed for a reservoir. It’s scarily like Portmeirion. I expect to be chased out by a giant bubble at any minute.

We seemed to climb most of the day from here with lots and lots of long steep ascents and all too short descents. The Camino is getting busy now. We’re into Galicia and past the last starting points for people to qualify for the Compostela. Strangely people are starting to seem less polite and friendly. Some of the walkers, particularly those with just one or two sellos, spanking new boots and a spring in their step seem downright hostile and pushy.

We are seeing more folk we know on the road though, which is refreshing and oddly comforting. It’s nice to know people along the way, if only by sight. We met up with some Australians who helped me pedal up a particularly nasty hill by talking to me and taking my mind off it. We stopped at a really nice refuge with friendly hosts who offered free water, coffee, and loo services to all pilgrims. All they wanted was my soul for Jesus. I gave them a couple of euros instead.

At a small bar in the middle of nowhere we stopped for pop and sat outside. A big fat Italian chap from Napoli came over to bum a fag. Lou didn’t understand what he was saying so I explained. He looked in fairly bad shape, breathing heavily and sweating profusely whilst drinking loads of water and Aquarius. We had a quick chat about where we were from. I accused him of being a Juventus supporter, but was unable to provoke a physical response. He clearly thought Lou was not the full ticket!

We arrived at the outskirts of Palais de Rei, despite the efforts of happy clappy walkers who were fresh on the Camino but felt it was their right to occupy the whole width of the road, not just the path. We had a ‘cana con limon’ to cool off.

We rode into town and found no room at the inn, or at the refuge which had plenty of room, but not for cyclists. I’m starting to get bitter and twisted about walkers who started in Galicia but who claim special treatment – not very pilgrim spirited of me! We finally found a spot about 10km out of town, another motorway café type place that boasts German speakers, but no assumption that we are German, just slight disappointment that we’re not. It’s called ‘The Two Germans’ and is painted pink with pink candy striped shades. I slept as soon as I got in the room, just zonked out for a couple of hours. I have only had a Ritter Sport to eat all day and can’t seem to feel hungry, although I know I must be.

We had a rather unpleasant dinner with really nasty wine, but quite nice local cider.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Day 12 - O'Ceberio - Portomarin

Holy cow! We were awoken at 6am by the sound of Ave Maria super loud. I opened my eyes and saw dark wood above me barely visible in flickering candle light. I thought I was dead, only to look around and see a statue of Madonna and child – argghhhh! Then a chap in the bunk below farted, clearly I was not dead! It wasn’t candle lights, it was just electric light from downstairs and other peoples torches and headlights. The wood was the roof beam. It appeared to be the alarm to get the cyclists out as all the walkers were either finishing off breakfast or already on the road.

There was much rustling and plastic bag stuffing going on but I stayed resolutely where I was, until a few other people left. Up and into the shower. The shower was interesting, a glass door in a communal bathroom, giving us a little more information about our fellow travellers than I needed, but I guess some of them now know more about me than is entirely nice.

Then down to breakfast. I was dipping Magdalena’s in honey, not terribly healthy but a great way to absorb carbohydrates fast. We sat outside with a couple of English blokes who were walking but not much slower than us. The older one burst his CamelBak water carrier and went berserk because he couldn’t fix it. It was really quite funny.

We started the climb straight past the Spanish family who had cycled out ten minutes earlier and already stopped to walk. We saw the motorway towering above us, it was an intimidating sight as we knew we had to cycle above it. The climb wasn’t so bad though, it was long and only occasionally really steep but it was pleasantly cool with Simpson’s clouds all the way.

Reaching O Ceberio was wonderful. The highest climb of the whole trip and we’d made it – woohoo. There was a little café playing absurdly loud Celtic music, and serving people painfully slowly. The church was beautiful, very plain with a story of a miracle – A local shepherd struggled through the snow to get to mass, but the monk performing the ceremony hated him for being so dedicated, when it got to communion the wine and bread really did turn to blood and flesh. The chalice is stored in a gold box to the side of the church. I lit some candles and sat three rows in from the back on the right for a few minutes quiet thinking. The town itself had stone age round buildings with thatched roofs.

I was nervous about the valve on my front tyre sheering as it was at an alarming angle. I decided to fix it, but was really struggling to pump up the tyre so German ‘Dad’ types got a young Italian chap with a super pump to inflate it – in nine seconds.

The descent was really scary. I kept stopping and told Lou how nervous I was, she wasn’t finding it frightening at all so I suggested I’d find it easier if she took a stint as ‘lead rider’. Half a kilometre down the road I was back in front – Lou decided it was scary after all. It gets frightening because you feel like you are going much faster when in front because you can’t see where you are going. The road is just a string of hairpins, with just a metal crash barrier to stop your bike, but probably not you, hurtling down the mountainside if you don’t turn quick enough. Cycling clubs came whizzing past us, some waving and some not holding onto the handlebars at all.

Whilst stopping every couple of kilometres to cool the rims we watched the helicopters water bombing the forest fire on the next mountain, although the wind was blowing our way so we didn’t want to stick around long.

We stopped in Samos to cool off and enjoy some lunch. The ride on was hot and tiring, although we were cheered on by a nice stamp from the monastery, but disappointed that the church he directed us to didn’t seem to exist.

It was absurdly hot, over 40°C, even though it was after 4:30 when we set out. Hot and tired we made our way over several hills before reaching Sarria. It looked a little grim and it was more difficult to navigate because they no longer speak Spanish as we are now in Galicia and the road signs are incomprehensible.

We found the Hostale Londres, as recommended in our book. It was grim, very, very grim, but Lou had a bug in her eye and really wanted to stay somewhere. On balance we agreed that it was preferable to lose an eye rather than spend a night in the Bates Motel. I was glad, I’d rather have stayed in a school hall. We rode around to the fancy looking Hotel Alfonso XI, but it was ‘completo’. The receptionist took great glee in telling me that everywhere in town was ‘completo’. I stopped at a bike shop to pick up a functioning pump. I managed to mime a CO2 canister, which wasn’t easy, but he didn’t have any so it was all rather wasted on him.

We toyed with going back to the Bates Motel but really weren’t keen. We cycled down the main street - nothing. We decided that if we headed for the church we’d pick up signs for the Camino and the alburgue, and we’d be able to ask there for a bed, or floor space, or school gym floor space! Outside the church a chap offered us rooms. He spoke to Lou in French and she went with him to check it out. Slightly smelly, hot single rooms with a shared, but clean bathroom and a garage for the bikes, all for 7€ each. Perfect.

We strolled out to pick up stamps and cash. Shop security throughout Spain has been non existent. Shopkeepers work out what you owe on a piece of paper, check it on a calculator, then put big notes in a box under the counter and smaller ones with the small change in a little drawer. It’s quite sweet really, and refreshing that they can do so without fear.

After failing to find a restaurant we had dinner at our Casa’s owner’s mate’s bar. Salad followed by all sorts of veal choices were on the menu del dias, which, as ever was not written down so I guessed at most of it. I managed to negotiate a tuna and cheese omelette. If I’d known more words I would have had more ingredients! Some of the people who had helped us out on the mountain were at the next table and seemed rather disappointed that we needed no help translating. They were itching to be useful! We shared a bottle of truly dreadful wine. They were staying at the same house as us.

Back to our rooms. It was nice to have a room to myself even though it had no outside window, just shutters out onto a corridor. My shutters were fine left open but through the night Lou realised hers weren’t. Having sprawled out to keep cool she awoke to find the light on by her feet. Assorted folk who were visiting the bathroom had to pass the end of her bed.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Day 11 - Ponferrada - O'Ceberio

The day started very slowly as I was definitely not on form. We took a meandering route out of town, taking in a fair bit of the Camino track. I could really have done with being on smooth tarmac as I felt so ill, but on our attempt to get back on the road an old lady yelled at us from a window that we were going the wrong way and wouldn’t leave us alone until we turned back onto the track. We passed an old couple ploughing their field with an ox; something that I just didn’t imagine would happen in Spain.

I realised just how slowly I was going when we were overtaken by a walker! He stopped to chat whilst we bought stamps at a small village, and we parted company as he followed the track and we got back on the road. We passed by several vineyards before we arrived at Villafranca del Bierzo, where we met up with four people from the Netherlands who had cycled from home. They were keen to exchange route notes for the final section and to compare maps with Lou. They planned to be in Santiago Saturday, but as I didn’t know what day it was, that wasn’t very helpful for me!

We strolled around but the church was shut and we’d already seen the castle on the way in. We sat down by the church door and each had unintentional naps. By that time my stomach was feeling a bit better, but still very tender. We went to a bar and I drank water until I nearly burst. I was so thirsty as I’d struggled to take even a gulp of water all morning without feeling sick. I topped that off with magdelenas a miel, a Twinkie type sponge, honey flavoured, without the filling.

It was almost 5pm when the temperature dropped to below 32°C in the bar and we decided to set off. It was a bit of a fiddly road to find out of town. I was frightened that we would have to cycle through a 9km tunnel, but it was a good steady climb on a smooth road with plenty of shade. We stopped to buy cherries from a man in the back of a van, although I didn’t dare eat any. Soon we were on the village roads to Vega, and were therefore compelled to sing ‘Viva Las Vegas’.

I was starting to feel really rough. I wasn’t hungry although I knew I should be as my legs just weren’t holding me up. I had a cereal bar, one half first then the other half a kilometre later. It was staying put but making me feel nauseous. The heat wasn’t helping. My watch registered my skin temperature as 42°C, not recommended.

The first refuge was ‘completo’, and the chap advised us to carry on 3km up to the next. There was a pension sign so we tried that – also ‘completo’ but we could sleep in the gym at the schoolhouse. We decided to try further up the road, and if we didn’t find anywhere we would come back. I was feeling bad – light headed and dizzy with no internal temperature control.

At the next refuge Lou went in to check availability whilst the bikes held me up. The alburgue had space and offered dinner – woohoo!

It was even hotter inside in the barn attic bunks we got. The nicely refurbished room downstairs was for walkers only! I tried lying down but felt worse, so I had a cool shower which helped, as did dinner which was all divine – gaspacho, feta and tuna salad, pesto linguini and crème Catalan with jugs of cheap red wine - but I stuck to small portions for safety. A quick stroll down the road for some air and in bed by 9:30 despite chickens fighting in the road and cows mooing as a kid drove them along.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Day 10 - Astorga - Ponferrada

We got on the road late at 8:30. It was a steep climb. Strangely we found ourselves caught up with all sorts of other cyclists, notably a team of six Italians, an older French couple who seemed to have packed everything they owned, and an older German chap, Harold, who became our ‘Dad for the day’. I first spoke to him when he was stood by the road, sweating profusely, as I thought he needed help. I asked if he was OK. He said, “fine, it’s shady here”. I pedalled on and later Lou walked with him up the mountain.

As we reached Foncebadon which our big, fat, granny pants book says is abandoned but actually has a refuge with a bar and café. I stopped there to wait for Lou and Harold arrived, calling out to walkers “Agua?” and as he looked knackered I quickly offered him a spare bottle I had in my panniers. He said he didn’t need it, he just wanted to check that he could get fresh water before he threw the hot stuff out. Lou caught us up and after an emergency cigarette break we set off together for the top. The first top! There were two – unfair. The first was marked by a pile of projectile sweating cyclists and a couple of chipper chaps from a Basque cycling club who had overtaken us many times along the route.

Another climb, the first on which I’d got off and walked, partly because we met up with the Madrid guy from the previous evening and I’d stopped to talk to him. From there we cycled on to the Cruz de Ferro, a cross on a pile of rocks, left by pilgrims as a symbol of unburdening themselves of sins and asking God for forgiveness. Oddly there’s no need to carry the rock or even a pebble there in any kind of penance, you just pick one up there and throw it on. That seemed rather shallow to me. The pile is older than the cross and the Christian tradition, but no-one seems to know how or why it started.

I poured on the last of the wine from Irache and sat and looked for a while in a moment of reflection for everyone who has helped us on our way. There have been lots of them, from Captain Birdseye at St Jean, through all sorts of direction givers, translators, bike fixers and accommodation finders.

The Italian bike team had lots of fun taking comedy photos whilst a couple of other folk adopted meditation positions that they appeared to be taking way too seriously, and they adopted seriously sanctimonious attitudes towards everyone else.

Down an alarmingly steep descent and we took a break to cool the rims, but too late. As we got ready to move on Harold’s tyre burst. The rim heat had melted a hole in the inner tube. We waited with him while he fixed it. It seemed mean to leave him, although every passing cyclist offered help and he had 2kg of tools to work with, but no tape, so we were of some use as he could fix his odometer with Lou’s insulating tape.

I’d been looking forward to the descent but it was horrible. It was absolutely terrifying. We stopped frequently to cool the brakes and rims, but it was tough to stay below 20mph and my fingers hurt from all the braking. We wound our way down to El Acebo where Harold wanted to wash his hands and we stopped for lunch. It was the best sandwich in the world – yesterday’s spicy tuna mix bocadillos, dipped in egg and deep fried, served tepid.

Descending then on cobbled streets was dodgy but not as dodgy as the super speed descent through the hairpin bends. Terror. When we got down to Molinaseca there were people swimming in the river. It was dammed at one end to allow enough water to build up for swimming. I took off my shoes and vest, leaving on my cycling shorts and bikini top, and went in very gingerly. It was icy cold and the cobbles were dangerously slippery. Lou’s ear meant that she could only paddle, but Harold was off and away, whittering about childhood holidays by the Rhine. He hadn’t been able to swim as a little boy and had always wanted to swim in a river, this was his first chance.

Into Ponferrada where we said goodbye to Harold. We booked into a schmanzy hotel in a quiet square, with a great balcony for laundry drying. Unfortunately it was only quiet because it was siesta time, and turned out to be the main square. There was a statue right in front of the hotel that people wanted to have their photo taken with, so everyone’s photos had our underwear in. We even saw some people taking their photos deliberately at an angle to be sure to get our laundry in shot.

We strolled about looking for somewhere to eat, but nothing until 8:30. After a drink in the Chelsea Bar, a strange take on an English Sixties theme bar we walked up to the Knights Templar Castle, which was impressive, but we were tired and the ruins were badly marked up so it was difficult to understand what was what. Then it started to hail, great big chunks of ice that hurt when they hit, although it was still warm.

The Basilica was quite unpleasant and had ‘candles’ that you lit by putting € in the slot and then a bulb came on for a time allotted according to how much money you had paid. I left, outraged.

We headed back to the hotel for tea, lots of tea – squid in ink, prawns, mussels, and mushrooms, washed down with yet more rosada. I regretted that the moment I woke up when the seafood fought back. I sat in the bathroom feeling shivery and cold and hot and faint – not a good mix. Luckily we’d packed Imodium, which did the trick.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Day 9 - Leon - Astorga

We got the bikes out of the cellar and on to the road to Astorga. There was lovely flat tarmac, and rolling hills. A big climb before Astorga meant we had a cool, long descent into the suburbs. Another big hill into the city centre, guided in by the Cathedral which had a decidedly cheap look about it compared to Leon.

We sat down on the wall outside the Cathedral and looked longingly at Gaudi’s Bishops Palace. It’s fantastic and we were so looking forward to going in but “Cerrado todas de Lunes” – swines. We went to the Cathedral which was nice enough but I fear Cathedral overload is setting in.

The walls were largely covered in really horrid colourful sculptures with scarily muscular cherubs. We paid our 2.50€ to go into the museum – no pilgrim discount here. Strolling around there was plenty of bad art, with lots of disembowelling and beheading, but a disappointingly low relic count. We saw a few, but with no attribution. There were a couple of gross silver cases with bone bits in that had writing on it in ink, but we couldn’t see it. They were designed so you could carry the relics with you in your pocket for divine protection.

We have stopped off for lunch and a rest. We need to kick around here for a while until it cools off. Lou just calculated our statistics so far. 560km done, 290km to go. 18,200 feet climbed. She also set to work on the injury list. Mine was way longer than hers so she just chipped a tooth in a pathetic attempt to get back into contention. I ate some top cakes, including some form of butter buns which are famous in Astorga, whilst Lou had chocolates. We then stopped off at an Alburgue to pee, pick up a sellos, and stock up on water.

We started on the ride out, helped as ever by a random stranger. Up and down a few hills, but still really hot out. An old bloke flagged us down and insisted that we visit his village. Despite the fact that I’d pinned a Union Jack I’d found onto the back of my panniers, he still assumed I was German. I wasn’t keen on seeing his village but he kept touching Lou’s arm and it was clearly freaking her out so off we set, walking up the hill as it was too cobbled and steep to cycle. Castrillo de los Polvazaras was indeed pretty, but we were soon cursing it as another ‘helpful’ chap turned around his bike to offer us advice.

Steep rocky tracks took us out of town and we soon met a three way junction with no signs, and no real road for that matter. We knew which way was west, but were focussed on getting to a paved road so walked up to a peak so we could see further. I spotted a village and decided to head towards it, and after about a kilometre of very slow combination of walking and cycling we got there, and much to our delight it was the village we were originally heading for, El Grouchi.

A couple of lemon ice lollies and a chat with a somewhat confused Irish lad later we set off. The climb was long, but not particularly hard. We’re about 900 feet up from Astorga. It’s still hot.

We happened across Rabanal del Camino a little quicker than expected but disaster struck. There was no room at the nice refuge, no room at the nasty refuge and no room at the church refuge. A lady gave us advice – just go over the mountain, there’s refuges there. That advice would be a little easier for her to follow as she hopped back into her Renault Espace and drove off.

We scoffed sandwiches and pop to boost our energy levels. I got talking, again against my will, with Tonto and his mates, they were doing the Camino on horseback, and we saw their horses tied up outside. In a pathetic attempt to win sympathy we asked the refuge guy for help. He couldn’t even put us up in his barn as it was full, with sleeping bags all over the floor and Tonto’s horses were occupying the stable – he pointed us to the church. It was full, so we went on to the hostal – completo – but the barman clearly took pity on me when I asked in an exhausted attempt at Spanish, “donde esta una camal en Rabinal” which I think meant “where is a bed in Rabanal”. He told us to wait. He introduced us to Joe who he appeared to say he had a room at his house. At that point it didn’t sound so weird so we followed him home. He had a sort of holiday house, a Casa Rural, we got one double bed and our own bathroom – fantastic. We love Joe!

The only rule seems to be don’t wake Joe. We whizzed out to the store and bought loads of scrummy rations and some local wine then I had a quick chat with a family from Madrid who were staying at Joe's house too. We shared a kitchen and dining room with them. They were watching the news on TV and the Dad translated the news for me. Europe is in the grip of a heat wave with forest fires everywhere.

We’ve got into a routine with the strangers that stop and laugh at us in the street.
Spanish person: “Caliente?”
Us: “Si”
Spanish person: “Haha, Cansada?”
Us: “Si”
Spanish person: “Hahaha, Camino? Santiago?”
Us: “Si”
Spanish person: “Hahahahaha, Buen Camino!”
Us: “Gracias, adios!”

After a trip back to the refuge bar for a rioja, it was getting dark and we saw the mountains burning fiercely to the south. It looked impressive, but also worrying. We certainly couldn’t outrun a fire on the bikes. Madrid Dad assured us that they were far enough away and that there would be warnings posted on the road if the fires got too close.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Day 8 - Religios - Leon

I slept OK, considering. All our roomies were men and the dawn chorus of escaping gas was interesting. Lou’s ear is painful after our water fight and there was some blood in it so we’ll find a hospital in Leon today.

I’m writing this bit in hospital! It’s a very nice hospital and the nurses are as helpful as they can be with my little Spanish-English dictionary. We got on the road early, there’s really little choice once the walkers start rustling their plastic bags from 4am onwards. We were in Leon by 10am – lovely Cathedral. Lou saw the ‘bike boys’ from Puenta del Rey, who seemed bemused that we got there first. They were pointing at our bikes in a confused manner, but waved happily when they saw us. I think they’re convinced we ride through the night.

We wandered around aimlessly in search of a taxi. We eventually got a cab by flagging down one that was already occupied and getting him to radio a friend. He took us straight to ‘Urgencias’. Pathetic efforts to get admitted followed, with Lou pointing at her ear, looking sad and waving her E111 form at anyone would look at it. I think there are four people ahead of us but I don’t suppose it’s sequential. Nobody looks horribly ill, although we were overtaken by a lady on a stretcher from the ambulance.

It would be quite nice if they could patch up my finger, which hurts, and take a look at my ring fingers, which have developed a strange circulation issue, my knees which are creaking and the nasty saddle rash on my bum, oh, and my lips which are burned and really sore today.

I’ll be glad to move on from the high plains – I’m even missing hills. My map bag has gone all melty in the sun and my thermometer is bust – it couldn’t take temperatures above 120°F/50°C and the red mercury replacement stuff has all broken up.

The hospital trip wasn’t too bad – for me. Lou got poked around and there seemed to be some confusion as to how she got ill. I said “Feunte”, the doctor said “Feunte? No!”, I insisted “Si, feunte, si!”, mimed sticking my head under a fountain and showed her the word in my dictionary. A light bulb moment – she said “Camino de Santiago” and laughed. She went to get another doctor who spoke English, but once again he wanted to talk to me in German. I’m getting paranoid, I think it’s a combination of my height – this area is full of tiny people – and my thighs, which are becoming decidedly East German. I stole some Mefix from the hospital. It worked a treat on my knuckle, which kept bleeding and the Band Aids kept coming off.

The doctors seemed concerned about Lou’s ears over the mountains, but they are not infected, they’re inflamed. We struggled to get a cab because although I tried to call one I really couldn’t make myself understood. Eventually I used my phrase book to ask a porter to help me to call one, he went to the front desk and sorted it out for us.

We got a prescription which we managed to fill in a curious old pharmacy where a chap with unfeasibly long eyelashes was waiting in the queue. I like to think he was waiting for his eyelash cream. We had a coffee and no sandwich at a fancy café by the Cathedral. They had no cheese apparently, but Lou had a ham and cheese sandwich. From there we went to Gaudis strange castle here and had a quick look around, then on to lunch where a deeply unhelpful waiter is refusing to give me tomatoes. I’m grumpy now. I’m sure the Cathedral will cheer me up.

We saw a monk in his full brown habit with rope belt, but with a modern colourful backpack. It was strangely disturbing. The Cathedral was good with acres of stained glass everywhere but it was a bit dark. There was a mass going on so we couldn’t investigate fully.

I scoffed some of the teeny cakes which Leon claims to be famous for, they were very good. We picked up some postcards from another unhelpful shopkeeper. We’re way behind as the last couple of town have been too small to stock postcards. I have a new theory that the closer a person works to a building of great beauty the more unhelpful and surly they become. That certainly applies here, and I know it applies in London and Paris.

Once it cooled off we decided to ride out of Leon and just see how far we got, based on how well Lou’s ears held out. It was a beautiful ride out alongside the river and past an old monastery, but also past the first McDonalds I’ve seen! It was nice to encounter hills on the way out. We got about 10-15km out and Lou was tiring as the tablets were making her feel strange so we stopped at a great looking hotel only to be instructed by the intercom to go down to the hostal fifty yards on. I thought they may have seen the stink lines coming off us and didn’t want to let us in, but it was the same company and the fancy hotel wasn’t open yet.

The chap at the bar was very pleased with himself that he’d talked to us on the intercom and after a couple of pops to cool off we took to the room. Compact and bijou! Dinner was fabulous – paella and grilled squid (chipirones a la plancha), Lou had salad and salmon. A bottle of the best rioja rosada in history helped it down they brought us coffee-esque liqueurs in frozen glasses for pudding – divine!

I slept like a very sleepy person. Morning still came as a surprise though. It was already over 30°C before 8am.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Day 7 - Carrion de los Condes - Religios

We were on the road out of Carrion good and early. It was a cool morning and the long, straight, flat roads really got us moving. All that water from last night started to take effect. I really needed to pee, but all the bars en route were shut. When my bladder could hardly hold out and my kidneys started to ache I ran behind a tree. Best Pee Ever. The next town along had an open hostel, jam packed with peregrinos. Many of the cyclists were ones we recognised from earlier stops.

More flat riding with the road stretching out in front, the vanishing point obscured by a heat haze. We discovered why we’ve been able to keep up with some of the serious bike boys. They’ve been following the Camino path, while we’ve stuck to the road. We got to Sagahun, an ugly town, but with a helpful bike shop where we picked up spares and some WD40 which more than halved the bike noise.

We rode out the far side of town whilst looking for the centre, after turning around we got caught up in a market. We decided against spending the night here, but wanted to get out of the sun for a while and eventually sought refuge in a bar. We ordered a couple of Cokes and were given fried pork on the side. A crazy Spanish guy insisted on talking to us, no matter how many escape attempts I made. He figured that as I said “no hablo Espanol” I clearly could speak Spanish and my protest of “no entiendo” was proof positive that I understood what he was talking about! Again he assumed we were German, because I’m tall, but even Lou is tall in this town. The nice barman at Meson Covadonga took pity on us after our interrogation and served me quickly each time I went to the bar, giving me more and more fried snacks. I’m certainly easy to spot here, I’m a good foot taller than most of the blokes.

After stopping off at the alburgue for a sellos, and having photos taken with a statue of Santiago we headed out of town only to find the road in the book and on the map was now a motorway we couldn’t go on. After a wrong turn into the village of the damned we decided to follow the route the four “bike boys” had taken. This was a fantastic piece of road – smooth, clean tarmac with no traffic, running alongside the Camino path. Recently planted trees will provide great shade in years to come, but none for us.

We stopped for ice lollies and juice a fair few kilometres in, only to see the bike boys tucking into lunch. Back into the meseta, no sunflowers this time, just a long hot straight, flat ride with a desperately hot dry wind in our faces. We stopped at a fuente for extra water. I pumped it on my head to cool off and squirted water all over myself – it felt great. We happened on another small town and stopped for more juice. The guy next to me at the bar asked, in German, if I was German. He seemed a little disappointed that I wasn’t. He was and was wearing a Bayern Munich top, but he wasn’t from Munich. He was, however, frighteningly like Matthew, so I stopped for a chat. He’d done the Camino before, on a bike, from Germany in 40 days.

I sat outside and I called Elise to sing Happy Birthday, although I was a day early. A strange Spanish guy in all-in-one cycling shorts sat by us and started to chat, but pointlessly. The four guys from earlier in the day arrived at the alburgue opposite. We went over for a sellos which we had to apply ourselves. ‘Matthew’ whittered to us some more in German. A chap we’d seen earlier at a fountain was in the alburgue, we’d overtaken him several times as he kept plodding whist we kept stopping. His tortoise matched our hare. On the way out of town ‘Matthew’ wished us well from his balcony.

Not long out of town and we met the weird all-in-one Spanish guy from the bar and we chatted some more. The road got less well paved and we sang merrily to keep our spirits up. It’s surprising how well sound travels up here, as some blokes in a truck drove past and sang back to us. Having plenty of water from our fuente stop we had a water fight by an unmarked railway crossing. It felt great to have water cooling as we cycled on.

A Dean Martin medley and we were in Religios where we stopped at the alburgue. It was just 3€ each – we had a lovely big room, at least 13’ x 24’. We just had to share it with 20 other people. I nabbed at top bunk. As I was rustling through my panniers for my sleeping bag I sliced my knuckle, but I didn’t notice until I’d bled on everything. Whatever plasters I put on it, the gross combination of blood and sweat just kept washing it off.

A rosada at the bar then back for a stroll around ‘town’. The shop was shut so the bar was our only choice for dinner. I asked for a menu and the woman laid a table for us. Not the table we were at, the one next to it. We had to move. There was no menu, our choice was salad followed by either steak or eggs. No exhausting decisioning required.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Day 6 - Burgos - Carrion de los Condes

This was by far the worst day so far for me. We arrived at Carrion de los Condes at 7:30 after an 8:30 start. I’m lying here watching ‘The Weakest Link’ in Spanish on a tiny TV with my feet up on a couple of pillows.

We cycled out from Burgos after a really poor nights sleep. Our first attempt at breakfast was abandoned – the place was horrid, fly ridden and only sold package donuts. We had a coffee outside and watched stray dogs play fight as the place filled up with disappointed pilgrims. Place number two smelled good and the chap said he did breakfast, but when we asked for tortillas he said “No” and gave us a plate of Twinkie type cakes. I scoffed them anyway and off we set again.

By breakfast place number three we’d cycled nearly 20km. We managed to get juice and tortilla Espanol. A Spanish family came in, ordered some drinks, and then took out a big bag full of sandwiches, laid them out on the table and tucked in. Odd.

We rode on and the temperature increased. We went along the N120 which is now bypassed by a motorway which signed itself “Camino de Santiago”. On a climb up to a new bridge I got another flat – double drat. We fixed it amazingly well, particularly with the new CO2 canister, which inflated fast, and felt deliciously cold. I set to work on the wheel while Lou fixed the punctured tube. She likes doing that bit – “it’s like doing nails”! A cheery chap in a van offered us help, but we were totally in control. Also, we were very lucky that there was a petrol station ahead to bounce up the pressure.

On and on through admittedly rather dull countryside with straight vaguely undulating roads just off the N120. On the way into Castrojeriz we met a German guy walking who was glad of the company. He’d walked from Burgos. He’d set off at 5am to meet his friends who had started a day earlier but he had less holiday.

Into town and the alburgue was shut so we went to the bar opposite for cold drinks. Castrojerez is an old Jewish town and the menorah in the bar was left over from when it used to be a synagogue! It was a good place and we got talking to Jose who said he had enough English to “get by”. When he noted that the Euro and Sterling were approaching parity I got a smidge suspicious. It turned out he had a flat in Olympia that he had shared with his wife and since her death he spent nine months of the year back home in Spain.

Off we set again and it slowly got really unpleasant. It was painfully hot without an ounce of shade to be found. We took a few moments to hide out under the occasional tree but largely it was pointless though to Boadilla del Camino where we happened upon a lovely refuge with Coca~Cola, a beautiful green garden and internet access. We stopped for a while but all too soon ploughed on.

It wasn’t getting cooler and there was still little shade. I put on a bigger shirt with elbow length sleeves to give myself more cover. We stopped at a dodgy looking bar and had ice lollies to lower our core temperatures. It kind of worked. Lou got stung today – twice. One on her neck swelled up horribly. I tried to look mildly concerned but apparently my face betrayed abject horror. With a little of Elise’s magic cream (hydrocortisone) it soon recovered.

The road into Palencia district was recently resurfaced and was still very black with loose, tarmacy chippings everywhere. It seemed to add to the heat. We got into a little town with an alburgue but we were too tired to climb the hill into it! We drank water and ate crisps…mmm…salt. After a couple of minutes we were ready to walk up the hill for juice. We stopped for 45 minutes to get the strength to go on to Carrion. Vultures circled above, I’m sure they were pointing at us!

Just 6km and we were in Carrion de los Condes – The Nicest Town in the World. We stopped and asked a man watering his garden for directions to hotels - big, fancy hotels! He laughed himself silly and gave us directions to a sub one star hostel – The Best Hotel in the World. It had a garden just for the bikes, and our room had a nice bathroom, a stone floor and a tiny TV that reassured us that people were dying from the heat all over the area. At 7pm the outdoor temperature gauge behind the newsreaders shoulder read 49°C.

We set off to a store where we picked op 6 litres of water, peanuts, pretzels and crisps – I guess our bodies naturally led us both to the salt aisle. Then to a bar for dinner - wine, salad, trout, tomatoes, shrimp, chips, rice, and a plate of cheese. The Best Meal in the World, washed down with the best wine in the world. After that we mooched back to the hotel, where fellow cyclists we’d met on the road spotted us and checked in too. I was awoken again by 4am singing, then, more helpfully, by a car beeping out a tune up and down the street shouting “vamos”. The Italian cyclists from the night before also shouted up to Lou on the balcony, telling us to get going.

There was some panic as we tried to check out as there was no one around. We hadn’t paid, they had my passport and the bikes were locked in the garden. We managed to wake up a grouchy person via the intercom who let us pay, and then shouted at the girl who was clearly supposed to be there to deal with us!

Forward to Carrion de los Condes - Religios
Back to Santo Domingo - Burgos

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Day 5 Santo Domingo - Burgos

A good early start, obvious really when you’ve spent the night in a convent. It was almost cold out with a low mist, great weather for cycling. We got a fair few kilometres out of town before a woman in an information office called us in to give us a stamp. Loads of people were gathered and walkers and cyclists kept appearing. Cheery “holas” were offered all around. The woman gave us an altitude map of the Camino – yikes – the Pyrenees were a breeze compared to what we have ahead of us!

Further on up the road we stopped for breakfast. Lou had a steak sandwich and I tried to order a cheese omelette without much luck. I ended up with a plate of fried eggs and bread with the chef trying to speak French with me which wasn’t helping anyone. By the time we finished our breakfast the walkers from the tourist office had caught us up.

We got back on the road and after a pleasant downhill stretch and a cup of coffee in a bar that boasted all sorts of pigs ear related breakfasts we set up another climb. Cars ‘tooted’ more frequently which I put down to the shell, but soon learned otherwise. We had a climb ahead, the seriousness of which I only realised when we reached the alburgue at Villafranca – a veritable refugee camp of army tents called ‘base camp’ – clearly not a good sign!

It was a long steep climb packed with hairpins up to 1150m. We were passed by some serious cyclists who offered “vamos…OK” type encouragement whilst laughing far harder than I could breathe. We made the most of odd bits of shade, but this time we knew we’d make it having made the road to Roncevalles. It was hot, but not as hot as it had been, or would be later in the day.

We made it up to peak number one and I stopped to fix my pedal with one of Toby’s cable ties. We knew another peak was ahead because we’d seen it on the altitude map the woman at the tourist office gave us, a scary thought. We must have miscalculated a bit though because we were soon on our way down hill. We stopped at a strange bar, miles from anywhere, for some pop to cool down, then more downhill for miles. Woohoo.

As we entered Burgos we met up with the three ‘cycle boys’ who had overtaken us in the morning on the hill. We rode on together, feeling very proud of ourselves for catching up but whilst we were done for the day, they were only planning to stop off for lunch. It was nice to ride with them as traffic was picking up and it felt safer in a little crowd. As we got into the busy intersection to get into town and we were in the middle lane my chain came off – mucho rude words!

Into town and into the first hotel we saw as the temperature was 35°C and we were both tired. We had to take all the plants off the balcony in order to hang all our laundry up. Whilst I was in the lobby a fellow guest noticed I had no shoes, pointed and laughed. I felt embarrassed until she showed me the state of her feet which were in sandals, but a total mess. We wished each other “Buen Camino” and laughed as the reception staff looked on with disapproval, which made us both laugh harder. She pointed at her feet, said “manana” in a resigned voice and muttered something about “bano”.

Out to the cathedral for a sellos and a trip around. After a ticket snafu we went in. It was amazing! There were loads of relics, and statues, including San Sebastian with arrows sticking out of him, which amused Lou as her class had done a dramatised assembly about his life, or more specifically, his death. The tomb of El Cid dominated the floor of the nave. The cathedral was outstandingly beautiful, with some truly ugly art inside.

We stopped afterwards at a bar for a beer. I opted for one teeny tiny tapas, then Lou had one. Pretty soon we’d had three each – extremely scrummy. It’s a lot more Spanish here. They even speak Spanish! After making Lou walk all over town we finally found somewhere I wanted to eat. I was being a real pain but wanted ‘real food’ rather than fried stuff or sandwiches. The restaurant we ended up in was great. They gave me a bowl of tomatoes, even though they weren’t on the menu and I had hake Rioja, which was wonderfully spicy and smoky, with excellent, but embarrassingly cheap wine. Lou had salmon and all in all it was a delicious, value meal.

Must get up early tomorrow, we have a 90km ride ahead of us.

Argghhhhhh. It seemed like a cool idea to get a hotel off the main square, but it wasn’t. There were people outside partying until 4am and then people started breaking bottles and singing ‘Glory, glory Man United’, which would have outraged me more but it was sung in German accents. Finally at 5am we got silence.

Forward to Burgos - Carrion de los Condes
Back to Logrono - Santo Domingo

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Day 4 Logrono - Santo Domingo

We started out from Logrono, and it was difficult to find the route out. The peaches we had for breakfast got us going. The first half hour was tough because we were riding across motorway type roads with plenty of traffic. A long steady climb but my legs felt like pudding. We spotted a motorway café and in my pathetic Spanish I ordered dos tortillas atun, patapas bravas, una café con leche y una café Americano. The café grandes came in glasses, without handles, which made them tough to drink out of. We scoffed it all down, con pan, and when I went to pay the waitress she said, “Thank you very much, enjoy your trip”. She’d tortured me just for fun!

Outside the café was a giant metal cut out black bull, like you see on wine bottles. There was plenty of up and down riding along the N120 which slowly made its way from six lanes to a more comfortable two. At a 4 lane junction we saw traffic cops on motorbikes on the hard shoulder and feared they may be about to tell us not to cycle on the motorway but with a cheery ‘hola’ they waved us on.

We smugly greeted walkers along the path with ‘hola’ and one who had dropped back from his group turned away from the traffic on the other side of the road only to set about putting talc on his important bits and pieces. We laughed so hard he heard us and after an initial look of shock he shrugged his shoulders and laughed back – ‘hola’ and we were off into the distance.

There was an alarming number of furniture shops en route, but as we entered Najera we realised that it was the self proclaimed ‘furniture capital of Spain’ with manufacturers lining the road. We stopped off at a bar on the outskirts of town and I couldn’t resist having a vino tinto after riding through all those vineyards. I did my best to read the sports paper, most of it seemed to be about David Beckham.

Najera didn’t look too promising, but had a lovely historic centre. Lou went into the tourist office to get a pretty stamp and to find out where the monastery was – it was 3 paces up the road. We mooched into the monastery but it didn’t open until 2. There seemed to be a major service planned with lots of seats outside and flags flying. We bought scallop shells to mark us out as pilgrims. I kind of hoped folk would give us a smidge more room on the road.

We had a series of climbs and got excited about a petrol station with shade and water, but it was closed, and a construction site so we couldn’t even shelter from the sun. It was absurdly hot and there was nothing roadside to offer any shade.

The countryside has changed to be a bit flatter and vines have replaced the woods. We eventually dropped the bikes and took five minutes shelter under a tree by a ditch. It was painful to shelter there though because the ground was covered in dry spiky grass.

We carried on and it didn’t get cooler but it did get steeper. At the top of a long climb, just as we were running low on water and getting dangerously hot I saw another petrol station and really put heart and soul into getting to it, only to see a closed sign, saying next one 5km. I really wanted to cry, but had insufficient body water to summon up tears. There was another station opposite it on the brow of the hill, but with no cars outside it didn’t look promising. I rode over and it was open. Woohoo. I stood by the road to wave Lou down so she was sure where I was. When she finally waved back (unable to cycle and wave at the same time), I ran into the store and got yogurt fruit drinks and water so we could re hydrate.

We horsed into a bag of cashews to replace some of the lost salt. After thirty minutes Lou had warmed up (!) and we’d bath stopped shaking so we set off refreshed, downhill to Santo Domingo. We stopped at the alburgue for a stamp and decided to stay as it was a convent. It’s very clean and the nuns are nice but we are in a bunkhouse. To Lou’s outrage there is a Parador here. The convent cost us 10€, as we paid over the odds as a donation. The Parador would be 110€. We stopped in for a sherry – 4€ for two – not bad. It was a wonderful building, formerly a convent with beautiful tapestries on the walls. Probably the best thing from our point of view was the stone floors which were nice and cool on our feet. I had to drag Lou kicking and screaming back to our unconverted convent.

The town is beautiful with an outstanding Cathedral, Santo Domingo. We lit some candles. There were some amazing gilded sculptures and a cage with two live chickens! There is a legend about a pilgrim who was hanged. A rich girl liked him, he didn’t like her back so she framed him for stealing church silver. Santo Domingo raised him from the dead! When his parents came back to tell the bishop he said “he’s as dead as the roast chicken on my table”. At that the chicken got up and flapped about, and so they keep live white chickens in the cathedral, changing them once a month so they stay fresh and happy looking.

Downstairs in the crypt is the tomb of Santo Domingo. Walk twelve times around it, say a Hail Mary, an Our Father and a Glory Be and Bobs your uncle, your sins are absolved and you win a total indulgence. Bus loads of people arrived and ran round at hyper speed before hopping, sin free, back onto their buses. I suggested to Lou that she could go home now, but after some thought she was happy to carry on.

Dinner was unpleasant semi frozen lasagne and a tuna sandwich with patapas bravas, which in this case was chips with cheap and nasty ketchup. It was the first meal so far that I didn’t declare to be the best food on earth. It took a whole bottle of rosada to make it go away.

Back to the alburgue and a chat with a Spanish guy who started at Roncevalles – four years ago! He’d got to Logrono and had to stop because he was ill, so he’d started again from there at a heck of a rate, 35-40km a day on foot, I figure he’ll be giving up again sick this time too. I also met a German chap, he was probably in his 60’s and he’d done the Camino three years ago at an average of five miles a day, and was now down to four a day, goodness knows how long he’ll take to get there.

Our room was, shall we say, basic. Three cots and a window, just above my head so if I sat up in the night I would slice my head open. There was no door, but we were in relative luxury, most rooms had six beds and not all had windows, I was glad ours had only three saggy squeaky ones.
Bed time came and the Spanish guy was occupying the third bed in our room. The Italians in the room opposite who had shared a rowdy dinner downstairs simply would not shut up with one girl giggling loudly for what seemed like hours. I could hear her even with wax earplugs in. The Spanish bloke shouted something very loud and I’m guessing, very rude, and everyone gradually quietened down.

Forward to Santo Domingo - Burgos
Back to Estella to Logrono

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Day 3 - Estella - Logrono

We got up early enough but it took us both ages to creak into action. Lou repaired her inner tube and we set off. After three miles uphill out of town Lou said we were doing well, I got concerned that we hadn’t reached the wine fountain that was supposed to be 3km out of town – we’d missed it! We turned around and whizzed back down those hard won miles. We went to the petrol station where we’d fixed Lou’s bike the night before only to be told to carry on going back, almost to our hotel, where I’d originally made a wrong turn that would have taken us there! Double Drat!

Back uphill through Aygui to Monasterio de Irache, which had been bypassed since our guidebook was written. It wasn’t clearly marked and was off the main road. You can get the wine – Bodegas Irache – in stores, and you can see the fountain web cam at We met some ‘interesting’ folk at the fountain including a couple who set off from Switzerland on 23 May and a chap who left France about a month ago. He was making bizarre incantations from a book that roughly translated as “great ancient secrets” which seemed largely Catholic. He blessed the wine fountain before indulging. They all smelled really, really badly. The guys had straggly beards and one had straggly hair. The girl had pigtail dreadlocks – not a good look. The Swiss couple didn’t know when they planned to arrive and didn’t know what they would do when they got there.

We carried on up a dirt track to the road. There were plenty of little climbs and dips, but mostly a great downhill ride all the way to Los Arcos. Here we ate lunch. I had a tortilla Espanol sandwich, Lou just had a dessert, and we got a stamp at the bar. There were lots of cyclists there, all gussied up in Tour de France type gear. There was also a market where we picked up some peaches and apricots which later turned out to be the best fruit in the world. There was a municipal pool, but the effort of scouting through our bags for togs was too much.

On the hillside we saw Bodegas Valcarlos – I’m sure I’ve had some of that at home. Onwards and upwards, and indeed downwards for a short while, then a long steep hot climb. Lou spotted Torres del Rio which, despite a short climb up a cobbled road earned us a very pretty sellos. Up more hills, taking every opportunity to hide in the shade. My thermometer maxed out at 120°F. The climb out of Torres was vicious with lots of hairpins through vines and olive groves. We met up with the cyclists from Los Arcos and I lost Lou amongst them on the road. When I stopped to chat it turned out they were Italian and had cycled all the way from Milan.

The descent was great fun. It was a lot like when we were kids and set up the red car track, if you got enough speed up you could make it up the little bumps fast without too much pedalling. On through Viana to Logrono where the cycling got scary as we found ourselves on something like a motorway. Lou careered across the path of an oncoming truck and we took the first available exit, not sure of where it led. We found a route into town and even at 5pm the temperature was 37°C – it was one hot day.

We searched the town for hotels without much luck. In the end we found an alburgue where we picked up a sellos, scoffed peaches and grabbed a map. Lou wanted to stay at the Ritz Carlton, but I managed to scale back her expectations. Our first choice was closed and appeared to be in the process of being demolished. Choice number two was great with a really helpful receptionist and a large, comfortable room. We managed to get to a cycle store to sort out Lou’s pedals and brakes and to pick up inner tubes and fast inflation CO2 canisters.

We had a couple of Mahou beers in a nearby café while we waited. The waiter was really slow but brought us crisps. I was concerned at the poor quality of print on the Mahou tables and chairs and the slapdash way in which Kronenburg umbrellas featured above Heineken tables.

We strolled out to get dinner but could find nowhere good. We wound up at “The Drunken Duck”, an English bar with no English people, beer or food in it. I had calamares, obviously, and ‘bocadillo con queso y tomate solo’ which came back as a vegetal (veggie) sandwich, with a slice of ham in! I consolled myself with a glass of wine as we were in the heart of Rioja. Lou had steak and chips and pointed at the picture on the menu to specify ‘none of that stuff’ to avoid peppers in her meal.

Back at the hotel we raided the ‘honesty fridge’ downstairs for two beers. You just needed to remember to tell the receptionist in the morning what you had had, which was easy enough on two beers, but could have been tricky if we’d opted to drink the evening away.

I’ve drunk loads of water today and having filled up a small cycle water bottle with wine from the fountain I tipped that wine into a smaller retail water bottle and filled my cycle bottle with water. The taste of wine still lingered and tasted wonderful. I decided to keep my wine and add a smidge to my water bottle each day. The lingering Catholic in me would put it down to a communion ritual. I like to think it’s more like the kindness of the monks and the determination of all the pilgrims that have drunk the wine before and will do in the future that gives me the strength to keep going. Very odd.

I’m worn out and I’ve got a ridiculous looking burn around my watch strap and my ankle is so burned it is swelling up where I missed a bit. I must be more careful with my sun cream.

Forward to Logrono to Santa Domingo
Back to Pamplona to Estella

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Day 2 - Pamplona to Estella

Big toenail gone white in front right corner. Long toe oddly painful with small callous. Knees a little tweaky from off centre cycling action but fine really. Hips feel slightly loose. Butt is saddle sore. Lower back aches and my arms seemed OK, but when I spun them about to celebrate I realised my left shoulder hurts – a lot. Curious muscle pain across top of back and blister on hand. As I laughed about this I realised the muscle down the left side of my back seems to have pulled.

I slept like a baby despite noise of people in the main square which is undergoing major reconstruction. We walked 20 minutes to the bike repair shop, but it had closed down.

Back at the hotel I started work with my cycle repair kit but didn’t spend long. People from all over came to help, each taking part of the bike. On old woman came up and prayed over the bike.

So now we’re having a glass of wine in the square writing postcards. We got an extra stamp from Pamplona Cathedral as I was excessively grumpy and promised Lou that I’d be less of a pain in the ass if we did that before fixing the bike.

The cycling out of Pamplona was hard. There were windmills all along the top of the mountain, and we saw them up close and personal. It was a 14km ride and some of it was very, very steep. Add to that my thermometer reading of 115°F and you get very tired and thirsty.

We reached Alto Perudo and stood under the bridge on a busy A-road cooling off, then hurtled down the hill. We were even cycling up hill at 35mph. I got something of a wobble on as the wind hit my panniers, but the brakes were of limited use. I could hear and smell them at work but didn’t notice any effect. We’ve just stopped at Legarda, but the bar is closed.

A series of steady climbs out from here with corresponding descents. Made it past a fancy hotel where there was a statue of Santiago which someone had added a red Basque type bandana to. Into Puente de Reina for a rest and to pick up water and snacks.

We tried to ask a French chap where he bought his bag of groceries from. He gave directions but appeared to say that we couldn’t take our bikes down to the store because of the bulls in the street. I assumed it was a bizarre translation error, but no, it was a running of the bulls, with a small square converted into a makeshift bullring. People threw themselves into the ring only to leap back out as the bull came at them. We cycled on out, up and down more and more hills. A car came whizzing past whilst we were cycling at about 30mph and it hit a bird, sending it flying at my face. Lou found it hilarious as she could only see my head with feathers flying everywhere.

Just as we reached three kilometres outside Estella Lou got a flat. We knew the drill – we took the panniers off Lou’s bike and put them onto mine and walked the 3km uphill to the outskirts of Estella. At a Repsol station we stopped and set about fixing the wheel. We had hoped to get some assistance as I’d been fighting off helpers in Pamplona, but aside from a chap who made what we guessed were lewd remarks, nothing. However, we managed it with some brute force and our tool kits.

Note to self: Must steal a spoon.

Cycled into Estella and found the alburgue and got our stamp. They had room available and looked really nice, but Lou was having none of it. A long cycle through town, and we didn’t so much as see a hotel. As I was losing hope we found a great hotel with a garage for the bikes and once again the best food ever. Lou wanted steak, but was ready to settle for salmon as I’d forgotten the phrase book. As she was so upset I really thought it was important to get her the dinner she wanted. With some comedy Spanish – Carne Torro – and a mime of a bull we got a steak sandwich. I had a glass of rosada to celebrate.

Our request for “dos San Miguel Grande” caused much amusement, but they were well needed. We watched some absurd Spanish game shows including a version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, very strange. Lou was in tears when we arrived at the hotel and just wanted a bath, but I prescribed the beer and food and it seemed to have a temporary uplifting effect. A glass of Rioja put me in a much better mood.

Forward to Estella to Logrono
Back to SJJP to Pamplona

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Day 1 - SJPP - Pamplona

Woke up late – 6:45 – still felt early! Set off for the first days riding, pootling along nicely on a warm morning. Three blokes in a car flagged us down. I stopped but Lou very nearly didn’t, almost crashing into me. The blokes started to laugh and couldn’t stop. We rode on eventually with them still laughing in the car.

The climb out of St Jean wasn’t bad. We got to Argenry and didn’t see any sign of being in Spain except the (closed) petrol station shop was called ‘tienda’. After that the climb was steep. It seemed there were plenty of flags and red/white/green on both sides of the border, so we were squarely in Basque country.

I found that I was struggling to breathe fast enough to keep going. Lou had early trouble with her gears changing down and her knee was feeling sore so she walked much of the 17km to the top. My blisters only hurt when I walked, not while cycling so that kept me on the bike.

The shops on the way up were all closed and there were still revellers of all ages around from a fiesta the night before. I was half crazed with hunger and earned a few cuts and scratches gathering blackberries by the road. I also tracked down some tiny wild mountain strawberries, which were divine. Altogether we probably shared around a cup of fruit – not enough!

The higher we got, the wetter we got. What started out as drizzle soon became a downpour and I was soaked to my skin. That was nice though as it kept us cool but it did get tiresome after a while. We bumped into a French couple on a tandem and with each of us taking different rest times we kept passing each other. I filled up a water bottle at a fountain by the road as back up, but I wanted to avoid drinking dodgy water.

As we got higher it got really misty. Our guide book said the last 3km got extra steep and whilst the going had been relentless, it was a constant, rather than steep gradient that was wearing us down. I kept going, stopping each time I lost sight of Lou behind me taking the opportunity for a drink and a rest. I wasn’t looking forward to the extra steepness, but then I saw a cross in the mist – the church at the top. I shouted a few “woohoo”, “go us” and “it’s the church” behind me to Lou to encourage her on and stepped on the gas.

A Spanish guy in racing gear called out stuff to me as I rode. The best I could offer was “C’est fini?” He said “Si, vamos, vamos!” and laughed his head off. We took some photographs of us in the mist with a hill of crosses and a tor with a monument to Roland.

We’d been up to taking 25 minutes per km, but we came down the hill at 36mph, one kilometre in one minute 20 seconds. It felt incredible, but very, very cold. It was just 3km down to Roncevalles where we went to a bar at the monastery. We recognised a Dutch couple we’d met on the mountain. They’d already been on the road three weeks, travelling 2000km and having a great time.

We ordered coffee to warm us up and some sandwiches. Lou very nearly ended up with fried ham after a translation error – I was trying to order chips. I scoffed lunch down like it was the last food on earth. If they had been able to liquidise it, that would have been great.

We met an interesting Australian chap there, he was travelling a trans Pyrenees route on his own so was glad to join some English speakers. He was tempted to join the Camino purely because he liked our passport stamps.

We set off again, this time with the sun out. We went like Billyo, then pumped up our tyres at a petrol station, speeding us up a lot. The air machine took some getting used to. More Tokke bars and water helped us on our way. People who had seen and heard us at the petrol station shouted encouragement in English from their car.

We weren’t looking forward to a 12km climb out of Erro, but it turned out to be just 4.5km up to Alto de Erro (Alto is clearly a bad word – 810m high). Picnickers scoffed Corona and didn’t offer us any. Lou celebrated the peak with a fag. We carried on down the mountain at high speed to Zubiri, our target for the day.

The refuge looked sad and having asked where the entrance was a deeply unhelpful and smug walker explained that it was full, but we may be able to sleep on the floor and must come back two hours later to get a stamp for our passports. I thought “bite me” but said Buen Camino. There was a black cat with dodgy eyes – an instrument of the devil. We scoffed a Tokke bar to cheer us both up and carried on.

The next town, Larrasoana, also had no room at the inn, and some cheery Spaniards said we could probably sleep on the porch. Cheesed off we decided to bite the bullet and charge on to Pamplona. Directions to get into town weren’t easy. In a suburb I spotted a Camino sign, but it was a tease. Although we could see the Cathedral it was further still, by the bullring – not at all like the one in Birmingham.

Disaster struck just as we were congratulating ourselves on being way ahead of schedule and planning to stay in the schmanziest hotel in town. I got a rear flat, not slow, a full blow out. The garage we passed was closed so no help there. I transferred my luggage onto Lou’s bike so as not to damage the rim and we walked into town. We found an un-fancy hotel, La Perla, which had bizarre old fashioned furniture and a cheery chap who insisted on stamping our passports rather than giving us directions to the Cathedral!

We found a policeman met my “Buenos Tardes” and gave us directions at warp speed, which caused us much amusement. After all of that, the Cathedral was closed! We opted for a couple of beers in the square – very popular with everyone, including lots of old ladies with overly styled hair. We then ordered dinner – squid, chicken strips, tuna sandwiches, patapas bravas, onion rings, chicken breast, salad, chips and croquettes. Not surprisingly we didn’t finish it all, but had it bagged up to take home along with some wine.

I’m really starting to ache and discover new bits that hurt every time I stand up.

Forward to Pamplona to EstellaBack to Getting to SJPP

Saturday, June 10, 2006

D -1 The Way To St Jean Pied Du Port

We got up at silly o’clock – 5:45 – to get a taxi, hailed for us by a guy called ‘Angel’, to the bus station. We bought Cadbury’s Tokke bars (yum), pop and water for the trip. The bus journey was good, although Lou slept through most of it. We had a desperately needed loo stop where the lights were on a scary timer switch that cut out at an inappropriate time. Bilbao to Bayonne was just under three hours. The coast around Biarritz looked wonderful. Bits were rocky and a smidge like Antrim, only sunny.

From Bayonne it was an hour by train, but we couldn’t get the bikes, still boxed up, the five minute walk to the station. Lou got the tourist office to hail us a cab to the station and I hauled the bikes to the taxi rank, cutting my leg quite hideously. After some discussion in semi French with the cab driver he agreed to take us straight to St Jean Pied Du Port for 70€.

We drove through plenty of hills, which made us pretty nervous, particularly as we could see bigger ones ahead. He dropped us off at the town's tourist office as we had no clues as to where we wanted to go. There we set about building the bikes. It was blisteringly hot and I had blisters so we tried building them in the shade of the tourist office car park. We did fine up until noon, when it was absurdly hot and we were struggling to pump up the tyres. We walked down to the petrol station – after I stopped to buy espadrilles to ease the pain – and we got the tyres pumped up. We felt bad about dumping the bike boxes behind the tourist office, but we couldn’t find a dumpster.

We found a hotel a few yards up the road. It had a pool – woohoo! Swimming in the cool water under a beautiful blue sky with mountains all around was heaven, but too hot for me. I went inside for a nap. We wandered into town to find the pilgrim office at 5pm. It was great. The love child of Captain Birds Eye and David Bellamy gave us our Pilgrim Passports and talked us through the trip. It made everything very real. I became absurdly happy and almost cried. Lou felt excited and fired up too.

We strolled down into town for dinner. We had EXi beer – a Basque brew – bloody lovely. I then had tomato salad – divine to eat real food. I’d lived on junk since Wednesday. We had delicious paella – scrumdidliumptious, a bottle of Spanish wine and came back for a swim before bed. There’s a Petone court just outside and a big game on tonight but in town, not here.

There’s a church right outside, with a bell. I hope it doesn’t ring all night, we plan to be up at 5:30 for our first days ride.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

D -2 Getting to the start

It turned out our Madrid flight was so delayed we needed to re route to avoid missing our Bilbao connection. We had to go back down to the BA ticket desk and after some talk about Paris, Milan and Brussels we were booked onto the Barcelona flight, which was fine, but Lou sat next to a weird bloke who kept touching himself on the plane. Lou was very excited that a chap called ‘Jesus’ at the Iberia desk helped us to find our connection.

We made it through to Bilbao, and the bikes did too. They’re in the hotel safe at the moment, so I’m not sure what state they are in. We had to wait ages at the airport for a “taxi grande” to get us to the Hotel Avenida, which is a pleasant four star place with a weird bathroom set up. There’s no wall, just a sheet of glass between the bedroom and the bathroom so you can watch your room mate shower from your bed. Fortunately there are also blinds.

We went to the Guggenheim, which looked great, complete with a bizarre giant bear/dog flower sculpture outside. We didn’t go in the Guggenheim beyond reception because it was 10 minutes to closing but they still wanted us to pay full admission.

We had a Guinness and wrote a few postcards in the Dubliners Bar. Then we walked down to the railway station but there is no train to St Jean Pied Du Port, so we caught a cab to the bus station to check out times and prices. We were tired and my feet were blistered and really sore – so much for wearing in my cycling shoes. We will have to get up early to get the bus to Bayonne, but with no guarantee of onward transport from there.

We got the Metro back as we could find nowhere to eat – all the bars were shut. We found a place and ordered a couple of beers and asked for a menu. The bloke gave us our beers said “dos”, pointed towards the loo, held up two fingers and went off to serve the next person. We got nothing to eat.

We got directions, crisps, wine, nasty donuts and some water from a tiny convenience store and walked back to the hotel. We found a sandwich shop where I had a toasted cheese and onion baguette. The woman at the store thought it was very funny that there was no meat in it – there was nothing on the menu without meat.

It’s strange but they don’t seem to speak Spanish here! Basque is a weird language, a bit like French but with lots of X’s in it. I have a blister on my foot and I’m knackered.

Go to Getting To St Jean Pied Du Port