How did I ever come to imagine that Spain is flat? Certainly cycling from León to Santiago presented us with challenges as large as any we encountered in Norway last summer. Besides the two mountain passes that rise above 1300metres, there is a continuous undulation of the land between them and beyond towards Santiago. Luckily, we were taking it easy and only doing, roughly, 60-70km a day so we were able to keep going day after day. The two big passes were the two toughest days. The first because we did the steepest part of the climb in the hot afternoon sunshine and the second because we did 30km of continuous uphill cycling to reach the cold, mist shrouded summit. The sense of satisfaction on reaching each summit was great and we recorded the moments in photos helped out on the first by a couple of Italian cyclists who we had followed up.
We are standing on a huge mound of small stones carried up the mountain to the Cruz de Fero over the centuries by pilgrims. The aim being to symbolically leave all their burdens at the summit. I decided, instead, to offer chocolate filled sandwich biscuits that I had pushed up the hill in a front panier, to all the other pilgrims arriving at the summit. I was inspired in this by a Spanish woman we met in León, who initially offered us a ring doughnut each, before deciding we needed the whole bag of about twenty. Unable to consume them all, we spent a pleasant hour outside the cathedral offering them to other pilgrims.
Also arriving at the Cruz de Fero around the same time as us was a bus party of pilgrims, including two monks, from Poland. Remembering some polish from the autumn, I surprised a few by greeting them with a chirpy ‘dzien dobry’ (Good day). Four days later we scooshed past the two monks again walking the last 100km into Santiago and once more called out ‘dzien dobry’, to which they waved and called back the greeting.
Two days after crossing Cruz de Fero, we started the long thirty kilometre climb up to Alto do Polo. The day started with a rainbow and as we pedalled higher we got colder and damper as we started cycling through the cloud rather than under it.
The gradient was steady, on the upper limit of what is comfortable to cycle without getting too out of breath or having the thighs screaming for a break. We stopped to buy lunch and supper at a small shop at the col of the main road and then turned off left onto a twisty, country road that continued to climb up further into the clouds. The lack of views had a dampening effect on my morale as did the ongoing climbing. My thighs were becoming lead-like and we were both getting hungry, past the point where jelly grizzly bears made any difference. We just didn’t want to stop in the clag and get cold whilst we ate. The road dropped a little and we wondered whether we had reached the high point, but just around the next bend it began to ascend again. At this point though a small hole appeared in the clouds off on our righthandside and we caught our first view of the verdant fields and woodlands of Galicia. Our spirits raised, we cycled the final kilometre to the summit and a brief photo stop where I tried to look as exhausted as possible.
The joy of climbing hills on a bike is the downhill, and this one was magnificent. A broad road, with wide curves, curling downwards for an uninterrupted fifteen kilometres. Sheer pleasure at speeds reaching 30 – 40mph (50-60kmph). Woooooohoooooooo.
Fit, refreshed and healthy after our hill climbing, it only took us another two days to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela, the end point of many people’s camino. It is here that the bones of the apostle St James are allegedly interred. I say allegedly, because he was killed in Jerusalem and legend has it that his body was brought back to Galicia where he had roamed spreading the story of Jesus Christ and Christianity. It then lay unknown for several hundreds of years before a hermit discovered a mausoleum and the local bishop decided it was St. James. Its discovery was at an opportune time in the wars with the Moors and spurred on the Galician Christians to evict them from their region. What ever the truth, Santiago has been a place of pilgrimage ever since attracting tourists and wealth.
Now for a change of pace….
Depositing our bikes and panniers at a hostel on the outskirts of the medieval city, we caught a bus 100km south east to the city of Ourense. This lies on the Camino from Seville in the south of Spain and was the starting point chosen by Rachel, Katriona and Jake, Scottish friends, for their pilgrimage to Santiago.
They had planned their walk even before we left home and it was only last winter when we realised it might be possible to meet up with them and we have been working towards this ever since. Our rendezvous was coming together nicely. We had reached Ourense and they had made the very tight transfer at Madrid airport to reach Santiago ready to come down by train. Unfortunately, as they stood by the baggage reclaim belt watching the bags process past they soon realised that none of them were familiar. Their three mochilas (rucksacks) were still in Madrid and would come on the next flight that wouldn’t arrive until after the last train for the day left for Ourense. They settled into a hotel, chilled out with the help of a local beer, ate fabada(a Galician stew of beans, potatoes and chorizo) and waited for their rucksacks.
We, meanwhile, were experiencing the delights of Ourense. Picnicking on the banks of the wide river with locals, we then wandered upstream into town past one of several thermal pools where the water pours out of springs at over 40 deg Celsius.
It is a popular spot for sunbathing, mostly topless, though, being a prudish Brit, I stuck to a clothed, barefoot paddle in the warm water.
Fascinated by a new bridge we had spotted from the bus on the way into town, we went to investigate further. It was built to take traffic off of the Roman bridge, Ponte Velle, literally ‘old bridge’. Roman is a bit of a misnomer, as most of the bridge is medieval in age with only the foundations surviving from Roman times.
The next day we finally met up with Rachel, Katriona and Jake and began our Camino together. It was fantastic to see them after so long and the first day was full of catching up on each others’ news. It was also delightful to be walking once again with Katriona and Jake. We have shared many backpacking adventures together since their trusting parents let me and Jerry take them off into the Scottish hills aged 5 years old. Now they are nearly 21 and 19 years old and no longer need to sing the whole of Joseph and his technicolour dreamcoat to keep them walking to the top of a hill. This was our first long walking trip with Rachel, one of the trusting parents, though she is a veteran of pilgrimages, having completed several, including St Cuthbert’s way, in Britain.
Tales from our shared Camino are in the next blog.