We left the albergue early and went in search of somewhere to find some breakfast before leaving the city. This morning we felt we needed a full stomach as we knew we would be climbing almost immediately. It wasn’t yet seven o’clock and the city seemed to be slow in waking up so there were very few people around to ask where we could find a cafe that was open. We found ourselves riding along almost deserted streets. The shop shutters still firmly down and we were beginning to feel as though we were on a deserted TV set. It was beginning to feel eerily disconcerting. Then John noticed a lone woman walking ahead of us and he stopped her to ask if she knew of anywhere nearby where we could buy some breakfast. She smiled and said “go to the end of this road and there is a café at the corner. Wait for me there as I will be opening in ten minutes”. Yet another happy coincidence along the “Way to Santiago” route.
We didn’t have to wait long until the woman had arrived and let us in. By now desperate for something to eat, we both enjoyed the very welcome croissants and coffee as we sat perched on stools just inside the café. From here, we spent a happy half hour watching the morning traffic build up outside. Eventually though we had to tear ourselves away and it wasn’t long before we were climbing towards Navarrette, although much of the time the ascent was more steady than steep. Although feeling stronger by the day, my legs by now were really beginning to take the strain. Which was a bit of an anomaly because I was also finding pleasure in experiencing a new region with all its natural surroundings. On a bike you can explore at your own pace and savour every little piece of paradise along the way, and we wanted to make the most of it.
In this way, village after village soon had us reaching Ventosa. The green book advised us to be careful and not end up taking the wrong road which would lead to the nearby autoroute. We soon noticed the pilgrims’ trail and, as the surface looked firm and wide, decided to follow it for a while. This led us straight to an open-air stall manned by a well-known local called Marcelino Lebato. I am convinced that anyone who has walked this route will know about him as his stall holds boxes full of fruit and cookies flanked alongside other items for sale – scallop shells (the official icon of the Camino of Saint James) and tiny smooth pebbles with yellow arrows painted on them.
Everyone wanted to stop and speak to him and at one point he turned to two girls who were walking with their own make-shift walking sticks. He told them what they needed were some of his nice, smooth ones which he had for sale. While I, privately, thought that Marcelino’s sticks were probably a better choice than the ones the girls had, they refused the offer, saying that they had managed so far with what they had. Marcelino seemed suitably offended and told anybody who would listen that the girls would soon wish they had taken up his offer. He was probably right because the sticks the girls had were rough and misshapen, whereas his sticks had been sanded down for a smooth finish.
After leaving the stall behind we found ourselves back on the N120, running parallel to the A12, a noisy main road. This section of the N120 was pretty much empty as the cars obviously preferred the faster road nearby. Cycling was fun as we sped through farming country and for mile after mile we passed fields of healthy-looking wheat and corn. After some time, the road began to descend and we reached Najera, where a short stop was called for. We came across a thriving little shopping centre. Here we found a charming supermarket by an open square, and we stocked up on fruit, water and some bread and cheese for lunch. I then noticed a pharmacy and decided to buy some Voltarol (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory cream) for my leg muscles. The open square was buzzing with people, both those shopping and others simply resting before going on their way. We decided to rest for a while and soak up the atmosphere. We were both amused when a municipality worker, who was collecting up fallen leaves, insisted on conversing very loudly with a bystander. He had a helper who was sluicing down the brickwork with a hosepipe, and water sprayed everywhere. At one point, it even got dangerously close to the bench we were occupying.
It would have been nice to stay the night in Najera but, as it was quite a bustling little town, we decided that perhaps it would be better to carry on to Azofra. Once outside Najera, we found a beauty spot near a low bridge over the river. Taking shelter for a while under the welcoming trees that overlooked the river we ate our lunch and watched as the odd pilgrim walked passed.
As we got back on our bikes, we decided to go onto the pilgrim’s trail again as it looked reasonable for bikes. But we soon realized that it wasn’t as good as we had thought and we ended up pushing our bikes over a rough uneven track.
Spying people walking ahead, we wondered if we should follow them. On the other hand, we did want to get back to a proper tarmacked surface. We came to another path crossing the existing one and were undecided as to which might take us back to the main road. John wanted to go right, but I thought the left lane looked like a better bet. So far we had both agreed with any decision and usually managed to jog along happily, but perhaps because of this tempers flared and for the first time on the ride, we began to argue. Both of us were hot and tired and certainly unsure what to do next. Then without a word John suddenly veered off to the left, muttering that he had had enough. After wondering if I had been abandoned, and not wanting to be left on my own in the middle of nowhere, I decided to follow. The track was certainly unsuitable for cycling, even if I had been on a mountain bike, so I had to keep pushing.
I would describe this as the low point of our ride – and now I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to get out of this mess. I was very relieved when I came across John who, having found that the track had dwindled into a field, had turned back. Inwardly I was fuming and all sorts of uncharitable thoughts raced through my head. Now slightly relieved that he hadn’t actually intended to abandon me, I agreed with him that it would be better for us to follow the other pilgrims and hope the direction we were headed in would eventually lead us off the muddy path. So we plodded on, all the while pushing the bikes.
John was having trouble with one of his toes which had developed a blister, and my legs were aching, with my back starting to nag as well. Neither of us were in the best mood and it was expedient to simply walk in silence. Eventually, the path made way to a steep incline with a small wooden bridge at the bottom. It was hard pushing the bikes down then up this bit and I was alarmed when two young men on mountain bikes sailed passed us as though they had the advantage of wind-power at their disposal. Perhaps we should have used mountain bikes as well! They stopped to check we were alright, and one dug into his pannier, producing a small pack of biscuits. He handed us one each and said that having a full stomach leads to harmony. Was it that obvious? But the sustenance certainly cheered us both up.
I’m not ashamed to admit that it was with some relief that we eventually rode into Azofra, a beautifully clean, quiet, little village with an imposing municipal albergue that sits proudly on the outskirts. Azofra relies heavily on tourism as many of the pilgrims’ routes – not just the one to Santiago – converge at this point. The albergue itself looked inviting and we had no problem getting a bed for the night. Totally spent after the day we had experienced, we both settled down quickly and fell asleep to the sound of laughter coming from the common room, but exhaustion masked our desire to join in. I was woken, and possibly everybody else as well, by the Monastery bells.
I realized two things: firstly, that even after the day we had just experienced, I wanted to leap out of bed and resume our adventure; secondly, both of us had decided that we never wanted our ride to Santiago to end.
In total contrast to my wish to get back on the road, as we were perched on the bunks, a voice drifted in through the window. It was a young man saying in a very American drawl “no, you can’t say anything to make me change my mind. I’m done”. So, even this far along the path, people were still talking about giving up. It was tough. But that was, strangely, part of its charm. This sort of trip would test anybody and many would be wondering if they had been wise taking on such an onerous task. We had been on the road a mere six days – those who were walking would have been on their own Camino for a lot longer and it was no surprise to come across many of the pilgrims nursing bandaged feet; even some sporting knee braces, and we were sympathetic to their plight.