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 http://www.irache.com/. 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.

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