Cycling the Camino de Santiago has been a really interesting experience. I’m not a Pilgrim at all – I freely admit I am a tourist. And the main tourist attraction is the pilgrims themselves; and the experience of travelling along the same route, in the same direction, as a mixed bunch of other people. The atmosphere on the
Camino is great. There are people of all ages; mostly in the older age sector. Most people as we passed would call out "Bien Camino!". We’ve met a few people who have walked or biked the Camino a number of times – an Austrian-Canadian woman in her late seventies has been coming back for the Camino every year for the last 8 years – and she is now down to walking just 5-10km each day and has her backpack carried for her – yet she still loves it. The Camino is marked out by yellow arrows – painted on the roads, power poles, buildings. It’s nearly impossible to lose the route. A large part of the walking route is actually unpaved red dirt road, which isn’t quite so much fun on a loaded touring bike – the hills are steep, and the ruts unpredictable. So as cyclists we have been a bit ‘flexible’ with following the route – when it suits we follow the camino; when the road is nicer we follow the road. The villages are cute – it’s interesting that they only survive because of the Camino though – it’s kind of a circular thing that the pilgrims come for the route; and the route exists because of the pilgrims… We biked through one village that wasn’t on the walking route and it was like a ghost village (because a new big highway had been built and the old highway was now very quiet – perfect for cycling). We were expecting to be able to buy bread in this village but there seemed to be nothing but a small pub – until we saw the Panaderia Van driving through the tiny village blasting its horn. We caught up with it and got our bread.
Craig had sent all his camping gear (including cup and spoon) back to the UK before he met us; so the first night he joined us he ate and drank out of an empty sweetcorn tin - and then kept the tin and used it for the rest of the trip with us! He also wanted to buy a cheap fork - for 70cents he got a packet of 50 plastic forks; all diffferent colours. It was a bit of a decision whether to buy 50 forks or 50 spoons...
He did, however, keep a roll of silver duct tape "Gaffer Tape". He was really pleased to be able to help a spanish cyclist who used some to repair his bike bag- and then he was thrilled to recognise the bag and cyclist a few days later on the route. One day Craig noticed the tyre on his trailer was bulging - it looked like it was developing a split on the inside. Out came the gaffer tape and he wrapped it around and around the tyre to contain the bulge - I was initially a bit doubtful but it lasted the entire trip! (Another 500km or so) About every day or two Craig found a potential use for his 'gaffer tape'.
When we arrived on Saturday (a week ago) in Castrojeriz it was threatening to rain, so we decided to try out a pilgrim’s hostel (albergue). It was actually within a campground and the manager showed us the ‘hostel’ – it was a single large barn with rows of bunks along each wall. It reminded me of an old hospital ward! I was a bit doubtful about the comfort and fun of such communal living, but the more it started to rain the more ideal 4 walls and a roof started to look - nevermind how many beds.
We went into the village for dinner and found a really lovely taverna. It was magic walking inside to a cosy, slightly dimly-lit traditional-looking stonewalled restaurant. Probably like most tourists, we chose the “Set Menu” – which for about 10 euro per person you select a starter, second course and dessert and ‘water or wine’ (seems a slightly odd choice to have to make). There were 3 choices for each course and so we all tried to have something different from each other!
Afterwards we wandered the short distance back to the ‘barn’; where the lights were already out and the walking Pilgrims all in bed. In the morning the pilgrims were up and gone early.
The day was cold and wet. The walking Pilgrims looked like hunchbacks as they all had waterproof ponchos on over their backpacks. We biked almost in autopilot along the roads and it was a relief to finally arrive in Sahagun. The first Albergue we came across looked interesting – a funny assortment of stone buildings with turrets and 2 stone lions guarding the entrance. I was so cold by this stage I wasn’t in any mood to ‘shop around’ and was so pleased to see they had space for us. We checked in and my cold feet burned in the hot shower. The albergue sleeping quarter was again a single large space with bunks and bunks – about 70 beds in one room. The dining area was beautiful – there were fantastic murals on all the walls; cleverly drawn bricks that continued the line of the bricks actually present in the walls. There were lifelike paintings of people in the murals – and we recognised some of them as staff members! We had the ‘set menu’ for dinner – it felt so nice sitting in the uniquely colourful dining area (it felt almost like an indoor patio). I couldn’t help but think of my brother David as Craig’s sleeve trailed through his pasta sauce as he was eating… After dark we then joined in an impromptu multi-national singalong after out on the patio.
Craig tried to get money out on his ATM card but he couldn’t remember his PIN. He said he never actually knew his PIN – just the ‘shape’ of the PIN code – and the numbers at the machine in Spain were in a different order than he was used to so he got completely thrown off. He kept trying different machines, until he finally phoned up and found out his card had been blocked due to the incorrect attempts. He managed to get his card unblocked but was told it would take up to 24 hours before he could start using the card again. He was now so unsure of his PIN that he decided he would try to get money out of a bank via the teller. This was the start of a number of visits or attempted visits to banks – with Julie acting as translator.
The ride to Leon wasn’t too interesting; the roads were long and straight and the highway fairly busy. At one bank Craig was given the address for a Barclay’s bank in Leon. We arrived in Leon and I was keen for a gelato. When we stumbled across a gelateria on our way to the centre of town I just stopped, left my bike outside the door and walked straight in. Julie had to follow me in and insist that first we find a place to put our bikes and sit down; rather than try to juggle bikes and gelatos. I had to admit that was a sensible idea and managed to wait five minutes to sort the bikes first. And it was worth it. I got the richest chocolate I have tasted. It was a thrill to then bump into the same french couple we’d met a few days earlier – first at the campground in St Jean Pied de Port, and second in Castrojeriz at the campground. They were travelling by camper and greeted us like old friends.
Craig had lost the address for the Barclays bank by the time we arrived in Leon and I didn’t want to wait around 90 minutes for the Tourist Office to open for him to ask where it was, so we followed the Camino through the medieval part of Leon (bumping into the french couple again). As we were leaving town we stopped to get some groceries, which Craig managed to pay for on his card – though he signed for it. He was still unsure of his PIN and he wanted to try his card in an ATM. He tried an ATM and the card still wasn’t working; and his girlfriend had by this time texted the Barclay’s address. So we turned around and headed back into town, to the Barclays. They said they were nothing to do with the UK Barclays so couldn’t be of any more use than any bank. They said they could give him cash – tomorrow. We turned around, retraced our route, and cycled to Villadangoes del Paramo. The cute little Albergue Municipal looked really inviting, with pilgrims sitting outside in the sun cutting up salad ingredients for dinner. When we checked in we were told checkout was 8am. 8am!! We had never left a place so early (I’ve tried so hard to get more into ‘spanish time’ – eating late; rising late. For some reason the ‘proper’ or ‘traditional’ albergues have early checkout times – but as they are so cheap (4-5 euros per night) I’m not rushing to complain.
Craig had a whole stash of dried instant meals which he wanted to use up, so we had what felt like a bit of a flash dinner (compared with the other pilgrims!) with starters of ‘thai chicken something/beef bolognese/shepherds pie mix of ready meals, plus a divine fresh salad with blue cheese and lettuce and things.
This Albergue had lots of rooms, with bunk beds in each – but 3 bunks high!
The next day we had an enforced early start with the required checkout time of 8am. It felt nice to be on the road so early. We arrived in Astorga, a cute bustling hill-top town about 930am. It was market day and there were stalls being set up as we arrived. Shortly there were crowds of people thronging around the different stands selling vegetables and clothing – it felt great being part of a ‘proper’ market, not just one for tourists. Craig really wanted to sort his money out (he kept going on about not knowing his PIN, despite having owned and used his card for over a year) so he and Julie went into a bank and I watched the bikes. The sun hadn’t yet warmed up the square and I started to get chilly, so I got out the gas cooker and made a quick coffee. After what seemed like ages they came out – no luck. They had waited for a long time in a queue to find out that it isn’t possible to just withdraw cash from a foreign bank. Then Craig suggested he do a Money Gram, which would require a post office. So we duly found the post office and he said that actually he needed his girlfriend Marta back in England to first transfer the money. We told Craig that while he was phaffing making phone calls to Money Gram and his girlfriend we would like to use the toilet and visit the Gaudi building. Which we did.
Meanwhile he got in touch with Money Gram and his girlfriend and arranged they would transfer money to a Banco Popular in Astorga. “Takes only 10 minutes!” said Craig. I watched the bikes again while they went into Banco Popular. And came out again a while later without success on their faces. They were being sent to another bank – and 10-20 minutes later came back again to Banco Popular with the bank teller from the other bank in tow. Meanwhile two spanish cyclists we’d bumped into a few times along the Camino came into the square. One of the guys had broken his derailleur and his bike was now in the bike shop. They were the same guys we asked if they had cycled the Camino over the pass from St Jean Pied de Port (like we'd done) and they'd said "no, it is not possible by bike".
Finally, after 4 hours in Astorga (lucky it was a pretty town) Craig walked out of the bank with euros in his hands.
From Astorga the route took us along nice small roads, it was a really nice change of pace from the larger highways. We had a climb up over a pass, with views out over the hills. There are lots of purple flowers (wild lavender, I think) which make the whole hillsides a purple hue.
The downhill was magic as always and we arrived helterskelter in a tiny village with cobbled streets (not so easy on a bike) and cute overhanging multilevel terraced houses. We arrived in Molinaseca, another cute village with cobbled streets, picturesque stream – postcard kind of stuff - and checked into the Albergue Municipal there.
It was a converted church and there was a cigar-smoking attendant who didn’t mince words “you want a bed then?!”. The bunks were all upstairs in the loft.
To stay in a traditional albergue a pilgrim should have proof they are a pilgrim – a “credential”. I have to admit I didn’t really know about it when we started in St Jean Pied de Port – it was only after meeting Craig that he told us and showed us his. A pilgrim needs to gather stamps from the albergues and churches along the way. I wasn’t bothered about having a proper credential as I didn’t want a souvenir and we were camping anyway. But after discovering how cheap (cheaper than camping!!) and fun (apart from the 8am checkout) the albergues were, I was keen to keep using them. I had been getting the stamps in my Camino map and guidebook, but we decided to be on the safe side we would get a proper credential (2 euros). Meanwhile Craig had left his credential at one of the albergues….
The next day the route took us up a valley. We took the deserted old highway, which crossed under the new big A6 motorway from time to time.
We left the old highway and followed a small road (after being given advice from a dutchman) up to La Laguna. It was a long steep climb. It was a welcome sight to come across a café near the top. I immediately bought a chocolate icecream! A retired french cycling couple arrived not long after us – we’d been bumping into them along the route as well.
After a rest and more food we set off for the final climb to the summit of the day. We finally reached Alto do Poio by late afternoon.
Suddenly there were a number of cyclists all at the top at the same time. The french couple, us; and a number of other french speakers. We all set off for the downhill around the same time, and while no one would freely admit it was a race, they were all going pretty fast! We arrived in Triacastela, our planned overnight stop, and brought dinner items from the grocery store. The shop owner was so friendly. But the albergues were pretty much full; except for the more expensive private rooms. So we pressed on a further 9km to the next albergue in Samos. It was a working monastery with an albergue. Entry was by donation only; and there were about 60 bunkbeds crammed into a single long room. The plaster walls had paintings on them. There was no kitchen so we had a picnic dinner (complete with gas cooker) across the road. Checkout was 8am and the scary cleaner wouldn’t even let me use the toilet at 8:05am so I had to go to the restaurant across the road!
The next day as we were cycling we met a Korean heading in the other direction; on a folding bike, wearing jandals! He didn’t have proper pannier bags, he just strapped bags to his racks; and had a sleeping bag hanging off the handlebars between his legs….
The cycling route took us again onto the small roads which we are sharing with increasing numbers of pilgrims – a popular starting point is Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago de Compostela. As we were cycling along a rutted road in a small village Craig’s trailer came adrift. A bolt had come out and was nowhere to be seen. I got out my toolkit and discovered I have a few nuts and bolts – which don’t fit each other! Julie saved the day by finding her cable-ties and Craig re-attached his trailer.
We arrived in Melide and checked into the Albergue – this one was a large modern albergue – still lots of beds in each room but very nice new mattresses and a very modern feel. We went out for dinner and had a ‘set menu’ again – this time I have to admit it was feeling a bit samey as each ‘set menu’ seems to come with frites (fries)….
The final day into Santiago (Friday) and we had no choice but to follow the main highway for most of the way. We stopped for a break 15km from Santiago and took our bikes up some steps to sit in a square to eat bread and chocolate. Craig hauled his bike and trailer up the stairs by lifting his bike high in the air. When we went to leave Craig realised something was really wrong with his rear wheel. Somehow he’d managed to rip 2 spokes (nipple and all) straight from the rear rim! The deraileur was completely bent into the spokes.
He didn’t seem too concerned and just bent the deraileur straight again and I twisted the ruined spokes out of the way and tried to true the wheel a bit. For good measure he put some Gaffer Tape on the broken spokes too. I really didn’t think with 2 missing spokes his bike was rideable but he said “well, if I can’t ride then I’ll walk” and set off up the hill. As we passed the airport we got back on the proper Camino trail again – it felt ‘right’ to start and finish the camino on the proper trail rather than the main highway. The route took us up and down small steep roads – it felt slightly unfair to have to work so hard so close to the finish!
We arrived at the Albergue and the woman was so lovely. Really smiley and welcoming; it just felt so good. We had a shower and did a load of laundry. Craig and Julie commented that I looked so ‘clean’! (I had washed my hair – I didn’t realise I looked THAT bad before…. )
In clean clothes and washed hair we did the final section of the Camino, following the yellow arrows to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is huge and what I particularly liked was seeing all the grass and moss growing out of the stones on the building. The inside of the cathedral was nothing exciting; very plain and a bit run-down looking. (St Peters Basilica in Rome has ruined any future cathedral for me)
We decided to stay in town for a celebratory End Of Camino Dinner Out – unfortunately despite my best efforts I haven’t yet adjusted to Spanish Time (and the early checkouts from the albergues don’t help) so I was struggling to wait for dinner – most places don’t start serving until after 8pm. We had pre-dinner drinks at some outside café tables. We found a restaurant serving dinner and I thought this time I would not get the Set Menu – but the price for the Set Menu was so reasonable (considering it included wine AND coffee) compared with the individual dishes that I conceded to being a tourist yet again and ordered the Set Menu. It was fine.
We got back to the Albergue about 10:30pm (after getting a bit lost and asking directions from various people). Craig said he’d go out for a drink and we went to bed. I noticed he wasn’t back by 3am. Or 5am. It appears he arrived back about 6:30am! Julie and I left him to sleep (he hadn’t even put his sheets on his bed – he was sleeping in his clothes straight on the bare mattress) and we spent the day in Santiago, just wandering, drinking coffee (while using free WiFi) and then went out for lunch. It was a bit cold and windy and I crashed a bit – Julie was surprised to see how I suddenly ‘went blank’ and couldn’t make any decisions. I told her I had endorphin withdrawal – I seem to crash the day after biking a lot as my body is catching up or coming down off it’s cycling high. A walk in the sun soon had me back to normal.
Craig is an interesting guy – he told us when he first met us that his friends in England couldn’t believe he was attempting such a cycle trip – one friend wrote on his facebook “are you sure you are not just in a pub in Boscombe?”. He keeps losing things – he said he lost his bike lock after trying to ride off with it still attached to both the bike and a tree; he left his silver ‘emergency blanket’ that he was using as a temporary tent in one of the hostels… He also eats really slowly – it’s so funny as I eat really fast and Julie almost keeps up with me. If we are eating something like chocolate we have to make a conscious effort to save some for him. He seems incapable of doing two things at once – he will stop everything he is doing to talk – and he talks a lot. He will be packing up in the morning and he will completely stop what he is doing to tell us a story about monkeys in Africa. Meanwhile Julie and I have packed up, done the dishes, brushed our teeth and hair and packed our bikes. He seemed oblivious to Julie and I being completely ready to go – helmets on and poised to start riding – he’d then launch into another story about the mating habits of the male octupus (it loses it’s hand in the process but it grows back). We learnt to start slowly riding down the road before he was completely ready.
He has been very sweet and grateful for our company – he said that his ‘spiritual inspiration’ from this ‘pilgrimmage’ has been meeting us two. He’s now inspired to cycle around the world next…. We’ve certainly had a lot of laughs together and he’s taken being bossed around by us (me especially) very graciously. I’m now called ‘boss’.
So the Camino de Santiago ‘pilgrimmage’ is over – I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. The actual scenery isn’t amazing – but following yellow arrows and scallop shells has been really fun. I certainly wouldn’t even attempt it in the opposite direction.
Craig is flying back to the UK and Julie and I will continue on to the ‘Land’s End’ – Finisterre.