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E-bike mayhem

I’d been thinking for some time about buying an e-bike (bike with an electric motor). At first it seemed just a silly, impossible dream. And it might have stayed that way except for two things that changed helped me my mind. At 71 and have started developing arthritis in my knees. My doctor said “Cycling is a wonderful way to keep healthy, but with your knees giving you problems, I would suggest that if you want to keep on riding, get an e-bike. Better still, get an e-bike that’s also a recumbent”. Pretty radical thought as the only recumbents I’d come across always remind me of dicing with death as they battle for space on the roads – you have to put a lot of faith in the driver because they don’t always see a cyclist perched on a seat so low from the ground you might as well be shuffling along on your bottom. No, not for me.

A few of my cyclist friends now have e-bikes and this was another reason for me to look at them. One of them, a man who is younger than me, is now the happy owner of a brand spanking new three-wheel recumbent. It’s an e-bike and he loves it. He can be forgiven for opting for this metal machine that looks more like a comfortable couch than a bike, because last year he was hit while cycling home by a car which didn’t stop to check if he was alright. Instead he was left unconscious at the side of the road. Our friend was lucky. He suffered concussion and a few broken bones, which necessitated a lengthy stay in hospital. The healing process took a while and even today he still has residual problems from the collision. An offshoot of the accident means that he can no longer ride his beloved motor-bike either so, with the money from the sale of that, he was well set to buy a new bicycle.

Not our friend’s new bike, but an example of the first recumbent.

 

When he first came out on his new recumbent we all admired it jealously and it prompted another of our cycling group (two year’s older than me) to buy herself an e-bike as well, although not a recumbent. Within a month she was well on the way to completing her first 300 miles on it. Now I was interested!

I decided to do some research of my own. A friend who belongs to the same bowling club I do would often arrive on her natty second-hand bike with its electric motor which does only 12 miles before it needs recharging. She’s happy with the low mileage as she seldom does more than 10 miles a day. But I was going to need something which will take me much further before it needs recharging. To be honest, I’d love to be able to get back to the 50 mile plus rides I used to do back in my youth.

My son-in-law had a bike which he had attached an electric motor to. It looked like fun and he enjoyed zipping up to the local shop. And my sister who bought herself a small, very exclusive and very expensive, Gocycle e-bike. As someone who had probably only cycled in her youth, she could never get used to sharing the roads with other vehicles so, after having used it only twice, she sold it on. Sad really, as I had visions of getting out on long rides with her but it was never to be.

I soon found out that electric bikes, by their very definition, are still very expensive. Of course, I could have gone for a cheaper make and model – some sell for as little as £600. I decided not to get one as cheap as that because most really good long-lasting motors will cost that much by themselves, before they’re even attached to a bike. Another consideration I had to take into account now that I’m older is that I’d much prefer a step-through because I’m finding it increasingly difficult to lift my leg over the saddle like I once could.

I, together with my husband, spent weeks trawling through websites and visiting various bike shops in search for “The One”. We were in our local town centre one Saturday and had a few hours to kill before meeting people for lunch. I suggested we take a walk to a well-known bike shop at the other end of town. “You like wasting your time, don’t you” my husband quipped. But we had nothing better to do so he fell in step with me and before long we had arrived. This shop is better known for the high-end bike and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d find what I was looking for. But we were both in for a surprise. I explained what I was looking for to a very nice man called Jason, and he led me straight to what was to become my very own pride and joy. Now I was happy.

 

The next few sections are based on information I have managed to find when searching on-line, and may help anybody thinking of purchasing their very own e-bike.

 

A few good things that an e-bike has going for it include

  • Less wear and tear on knees and joints
  • You won’t get hot and bothered when riding up hills, and battling into a head wind becomes a thing of the past
  • You don’t need a driver’s licence to ride a conventional e-bike. While you need to check for whichever model you decide on, most e-bikes will not go faster than around 15.5 mph. It simply cuts out. But then who’d want to have the motor on when you’re going downhill anyway?
  • E-bikes generally have a more upright seating position than traditional bikes which can help reduce back and neck pain
  • Oh so much cheaper than a car, and better for the environment
  • Look for one that has an installed locking system
  • Check if the ebike has puncture-proof tyres which I’ve seen on some.

And now the cons

  • More expensive than most conventional bikes
  • Heavier too
  • You may get more flat tyres because the bike is heavier than a conventional bike. And when you do, tyres are harder to change, even on a quick release wheel because of the weight of the bike
  • Definitelyheavier to pick up and  harder to get up and down stairs
  • The expensive battery needs replacing after some time because it (even if placed in a cupboard and not used) only has a shelf-life of a few year’s for the older style battery. A report written in 2017 stated that a lithium ion battery won’t fair much better at three to five years. Manufacturers might claim that the life of a battery is much more and of course the batteries are evolving all the time. But bear in mind that the more expensive the battery, the longer it should last. This is a crucial question and not one to be neglected
  • When it comes to servicing, motors and upkeep will generally cost more than a normal bike. Still want one?

Finally, how to take care of your e-bike battery

  • Only use the charger and adapter supplied with your battery. This will avoid overcharging and it protects the battery against damage due to short circuits
  • Let your battery cool before charging it. Also, do not use it directly after recharging
  • Avoid completely draining the battery, but always charge it to 100% if possible
  • If you cannot use the bike for prolonged periods of time, make sure to partially charge the battery every few months to keep it topped-up
  • Always disconnect the charger from the battery and the network after charging
  • Avoid letting it get too hot. If you leave the battery out under a hot sun for any length of time, you are asking for trouble. Keep it in a cool and dry place when not in use
  • Do not leave the battery by a heat source
  • Always remove the battery before cleaning the bike
  • Never use a steam pressure washer as you might on a conventional bike for either your e-bike or the battery
  • Of course, never immerse the battery in water. Simply wiping it down with a damp cloth should be sufficient. This goes for the motor as well – immerse it in water and you’ll be looking to buy a whole new bike
  • E-bikes can be stolen, specially the high-priced ones, so locking is still necessary. It may be a hassle to try walking off with a heavy bike, so many “opportunity thieves” should be put off, but there’s no stopping some-one really determined to nick an e-bike unless you take avoiding action. So, get that lock. Better still, get two, or three, or even more
  • Finally, a friend mentioned that you should never pedal as you change gear when the battery is in use as it shortens its life.
Courtesy of Englishforum.ch

 

Last few days in Santiago

Sadly, we were to wake the following morning, not to festivities, a special church service, or parades through the streets. On the evening of the previous day, 24 July, there had been a horrendous train crash with many losing their lives. It transpired that the train had taken a corner too quickly and caused it to flip over.

We did not know this until the following morning when we were watching the television in the restaurant and realized that something horrific had taken place. We made our way into the city in light rain. The streets were deserted, and few shops were open. A complete contrast to the previous day, it came as no surprise to learn that all festivities to celebrate St James’ Day had been cancelled. While this was a fitting tribute to those who had lost their lives, it seemed a little harsh as at least 10,000 people had flocked to Santiago to take part in the festivities.

In total shock at this unexpected turn of events, and against our better judgment, we decided it was time to go home ourselves. The magic and uniqueness of the trip has been temporarily lost.

We did stay in Santiago for another two days because we could not organize shipping of the bikes as all the shops had closed temporarily in light of the tragedy. Once opened again, we enquired at a bike shop if they could arrange for our bikes to be transported back to the UK. After spending a further night at Monto do Gozo, we packed our panniers and headed back into Santiago.

Here we found a private room and spent the early part of the evening listening to melodious music being played just outside our window by a solo artist with a guitar – it matched our downhearted mood. The next day we bought two cheap backpacks for our belongings before taking the bikes and panniers to the shop for shipping back to home. Then we boarded the first of three trains, averting our eyes as we passed the earlier crash-site and sat back to help our minds and bodies heal over the next 36 hours and silently send our heartfelt sympathies to the families of those who had been killed in the train crash.

As the train gathered speed we both found it cathartic to sit quietly and reflect on the wonderful sights and sounds we had encountered over the past few weeks. Looking out of the window, we were being transported through regions that we had been riding through only a few days before. Under the iron bridge near Astorga, through vine-filled fields, wind mills grinding silently in the distance. So many memories came flooding back.

The first train stopped in Henday (just over the border between Spain and France) in the early evening. We boarded the second train (after a hurried bite to eat) to Paris and tried to get some sleep, although both still filled with thoughts of the sights and sounds we had experienced. Finally, still dressed in the our cycling longs and jackets – which had kept us warm on the train – we reached the terminal for the Channel Tunnel and our final train. Preparing to board this last train, I handed my passport over to a customs officer who grinned broadly (I didn’t know customs officers could do that) and said in a strong British voice “well, you’re not trying to conceal yourself are you” – I was wearing my high-vis yellow jacket.

I replied proudly “We’ve been cycling through Spain”.

Day 17 – Arzua to Santiago

Waking up the following morning, we found that our bikes were still locked in the enclosed outhouse so we had to wait until 8.00 before we could get back on the road. Although we would often start off before having had anything to eat, this morning breakfast before leaving seemed like the best solution. Specially when we soon found a small, very busy, café opposite the albergue. Feeling excited at being to close to our destination, we were suddenly finding that the closer to Santiago we got, the further away it appeared!

Monto do Gozo (Mount of Joy)

Eventually we were back on the road. A nice quiet road which took us through row after row of smartly kept houses, then suddenly we had reached the top of Monte do Gozo. We stopped to inspect the awe-inspiring monument that marks the final hill before pilgrims make their way into Santiago – some 3 kms away. From this point, if you look carefully over the line of Eucalyptus trees and suburban houses, you may just make out the three spires that grace the Cathedral of Santiago de Compastela.

Setting off on this last leg, we almost rode passed what turned out to be a holiday complex, and John asked if I would like to see if they have a bed for the night. This turned out to be a brilliant chance encounter, and for us personally a good choice. The entire park is made up of various single-storey buildings and each building houses rows of self-contained rooms with en suite. We soon located a large restaurant where we could eat any time of the day or night.

Monte do Gozo had been built in 1993 to celebrate a Holy Year for St James’ Day. This only happens when 25 July falls on a Sunday. The next one will be in 2021 so if you plan to go then, book well in advance.

Once in our room, we treated ourselves to a quick shower each and change of clothes before riding into Santiago itself. Oh the relief of having no panniers on the bike – I had forgotten how liberating it can feel. Although it was still relatively early, the city was already crowded.

Beloved yellow arrow.

By a happy accident we had arrived in Santiago on 24 July. As this was not a Holy Year, celebrations would not be as big as they might have been. Nevertheless, preparations were underway for fireworks and all-day events to celebrate the following St James’ Day.

Personally I was feeling very emotional as we made our way to the pilgrims’ office where we joined the queue before eventually making it up a short flight of steps and into an office area to pick up our Compostelas. This is when we handed over our Pilgrim’s Passports, duly stamped along the way, to prove that we had managed to reach the Cathedral under our own steam. The small group of volunteer officials who sat behind the tables were kept very busy as each pilgrim was treated to a handshake and grilling as to what they thought the pilgrimage had meant to them. We were individually dealt with and each asked why we had undertaken the Camino. That was a tough question and I wished that I had known it was coming – just so that I could have prepared my answer better.

We eventually returned to the square immediately in front of the huge Cathedral, took some more photos, and again bumped into Miguel (the Spanish cyclist) who had arrived the previous day. We also came across our young Belgian friend. She remarked that she still had not had a puncture. Neither had we. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the Cathedral and get back to the hostel for an evening meal so retraced our steps and left the centre of Santiago for a while.

Proudly holding the Compostellas
Looking for the Shell ingrained in the ground

Lazing in the café area of Monte do Gozo, we examined the few leaflets we had picked up while in Santiago and discuss what we might do the following day. We were both full of alternative suggestions. Should we carry on to Finisterre, or stay longer in Santiago? Or reverse our route at least up to Santander where we could catch a ferry back home? Neither of us were ready to go straight home that’s for sure. I noticed two rather dilapidated computers, and decided to see if I could send a text to the family. I had to give up after a while because both computers kept cutting out, and it proved to be very frustrating trying to get logged on, send emails, and check my Facebook page. After such an emotional day, we decided to retire to bed early.

There were to be fireworks later that evening, and perhaps it would have been nice to go back down into Santiago to join the mingling crowds but, to be honest, all we wanted to do at that time was sleep. Finally, we both settled down for the night. No doubt the fireworks would wake us up at some early hour of the morning, and perhaps then we might even get up, dress, and make our way down to the city centre to join in. We both decided that, although we could go home from here, we needed to consider just how, when and where. Tomorrow was another day.

Last few days in Santiago

Day 16 – Portomarin to Arzua

Now the route was becoming pretty crowded the closer to Santiago we got. As we only had 98 kilometers (60 miles) to go before reaching Santiago, this was hardly surprising.

The current distance required for a pilgrim to achieve a Compostela is 100 km for walkers, 100 km for those on horseback, and 200 km for cyclists.

Occasionally we would see these raised wooden barns which were used to keep grain in.

Being so close to our destination (something which we would easily have achieved in one day 10 year’s ago) it was with a heavy heart that we set off the following morning. The closer we got to Santiago, the more we didn’t want the trip to end. Ok, so it had been tough at times, but there were as many highs as there had been lows – we simply didn’t want the adventure to end. The idea of carrying on to Finisterre, and even riding to Santander from there suddenly seemed very inviting.

John noticed a sole from a shoe hanging from a tree branch and quipped “someone must have discarded their soul along the way”.

The worst of the hills were now behind us, although the route still presented us with some challenges as it became undulating once more. Short steep ascents, and slow downhill gradients. At Ventas de Naron, for example, we were at 700 metres and the ride down was once again accompanied by thick mist. In part, the walkers’ trail looked inviting, so we rejoined it for a while, although it was quite narrow in parts.

Crowded little stop where everybody could get a free coffee and hug

Occasionally we would come across groups of young people singing and shouting to each other. They were determined to enjoy the experience with gusto. The going was quite slow in these sections, often bringing us to a complete stand-still because many people simply weren’t watching what was going on around them. I’m sure I would have been the same if I was walking, rather than riding, the Camino. We both had bells that would give out a low, apologetic ring as the last thing we wanted to do was startle people. But these were often either ignored or not heard, and it was with some relief that we stopped by a small make-shift hut where we were presented with a free coffee each.

A young family with a donkey sauntered by. Everybody clambered around them, interested to hear about their adventures. The young man, his son and wife were from Australia and had walked all the way from St-John-Pied-de-Port. Rejoining the track, we found ourselves again riding slowly and stopped occasionally because the scenery was stunning enough to take your breath away. A road coming into view, we decided, rather reluctantly, that it would be better for us to rejoin it. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very busy N547 which we followed all the way into Arzua. We found a private albergue and booked beds in the dormitory. Here we met up again with Leslie, our cyclist friend. A small group of people arrived by bus, and were fresher and more energetic than those of us who would have been travelling for some days.

So, while all we wanted to do was settle down for the night, they had energy and pent-up excitement to get rid of. Even when eventually everybody had managed to curl up in the bunks, it was not to be a restful night. John was in the bunk above me and whenever someone was snoring I would prod his mattress with one of my feet. That was, until I realized that he was as awake as I was and definitely not one of the offending snorers! Our earplugs proved to be totally ineffective.

Day 17 – Arzua to Santiago

Day 15 – Alto do Poio to Portomarin

It seems we weren’t the only ones reluctant to leave Alto do Poio at this point

We had learned to respect the weather in Spain which can change very rapidly and the marked difference between the early morning temperature and that later in the day was striking. Having already ridden in excess of 650 kilometers (404 miles) from our original starting point at Bayenne – we had experienced bitter temperatures (the type that crept into your bones, necessitating an extra layer, or two); followed by intense heat later in the day. Along the way there had been some amazing sights, especially from the uppermost recesses of the mountains as we made our way through them; we were continuously bombarded by the various sights and smells, although the climbs were challenging at times.

However, as we set off from Alto do Poio this morning, we were to encounter yet another phenomenon. We were 1330 metres above sea level at this point – above the cloud line, which had not been evidenced the evening before. Once we began descending we were engulfed by a damp foggy mist only to be greeted by an amazing panoramic view as it cleared. I stopped to take some photos before catching up with John who had, as usual, set off in a rather cavalier fashion – one that I am always loath to copy. While the climb up the previous day had been long and tiring we were to descent to 665 metres in a matter of minutes.

At times I felt as if my hands were about to fly off as the strain of constantly applying the brakes took hold – I definitely wouldn’t make a Tour de France competitor. Totally unaware that I was being slowly followed by the local Policia, I was very relieved to reach the outskirts of Filloval, where John was waiting on a bridge. Only when the car sped passed did I realise that it could have overtaken me at any time, so I wondered just how long it had been behind! Much of the rest of the day the road consisted of easily manageable ups and downs.

Resting after the frightening descent

We had meant to reach Palas de Rei by evening but instead opted to get a room in Portomarin as it looked interesting enough to explore. As we reached the outskirts via a large bridge spanning a wide river, we were greeted by a long line of steps. Deciding that we didn’t fancy carrying the fully-laden bikes up them, we turned right and kept to the road until we noticed a hotel with a very welcoming sign outside saying “pilgrims welcome”.

Looking for an Albergue at this point went out of the window. Instead, we booked a private room and negotiated with the proprietor where we should leave our bikes for the night. Both exhausted, we were happy to rest for a while before showering, then taking a walk around the very beautiful town centre. Driven now by hunger, we went in search of a restaurant for omelette followed by chocolate pudding. Portomarin has a tall imposing church which is definitely worth a visit although it was closed when we were there.

The 13th Century Iglesia de San Juan has the largest single nave of any Romanesque church in Galicia. Many of the buildings (including this church) in Portomarin had been moved and reconstructed, stone by stone, on the present site as their original area was to be flooded to make way for a dam.

Day 16 – Portomarin to Arzua

Day 14 – Ponferrada to Alto de Poio

Early the following morning, as we were loading the panniers onto the bikes we noticed a young man leaving the hotel and he came over to speak to us. We discussed the Camino and he asked us how we were getting on, where we had come from, and so on. We had a lovely discussion, if not brief as his wife was waiting for him by their car. He mentioned that he came from Cebreiro, which was our next destination, and he wished us a “Buen Camino” before we all left.

The hotel had looked so welcoming the previous evening but I couldn’t help but be amused when we rode passed an official Albergue a few miles further down the road. We were discovering that sometimes if you could force yourself to carry on cycling a bit further, you usually came across somewhere just as suitable, if not better – than you had picked on (price-wise certainly).  A bit like life, really.

Breaky in Villafranco
Somewhere in or near
Villafranco

As on previous days, the morning had begun on a cool note and we made good progress using the pilgrims’ trail before stopping at Villafranco for a quick breakfast of toast and coffee. Then we search out a cash point and found that our card was still very much useable and we were able to withdraw money without a problem.

Shortly after leaving Ponferrada, we came into a village called Columbrianos. Unremarkable in itself, we couldn’t get out of it fast enough as we rode along the N711. Then suddenly we saw a delightful little image of San Felix y San Roque and I had to stop to take a picture.

After the previous day’s strenuous climbing, we were glad to find ourselves riding along undulating roads, through village after village, most seemingly pretty empty. After making steady progress, however, the climbing started again, much of it along the walkers’ trail. At one point, we rode through a tree-lined area to the heavy scent of conifers, all the while being serenaded by a chorus of bird song.

The noise of these birds, delightful in their own way, was deafening. Indeed, we hadn’t realized just how loud they were until we emerged from the area where the road once again became barren of trees and we were greeted by an eerie silence. I had to stop myself from turning the bike round and retracing my steps back into the trees! I think my legs had become used to the hills because the climb up towards O’Cebreiro started off quite easily and it wasn’t as hard I had expected.

Sometimes it’s good to walk.

Reaching Pedrafita de Cebreiro it didn’t take much for John to persuade me to stop as it was almost time for some lunch. Already that day we had ascended almost 800 meters (874 yards) from Ponferado and we toyed with the idea of stopping here for the day. However, we were keen to carry on although,  if I had thought Pedrafita de Cebreiro was the summit, I was soon to discover that I was sorely mistaken. Once again, we set off and stopped a little further on at a rustic farmyard. I was not sure that this even was an albergue, and can only admit to being more than a little relieved when we were told that it was already full. A few other Albergues that we came across were also almost full to capacity. All the time we were aware that the walking pilgrims who have managed to make it to this point would be in no fit state to walk much further so places must be reserved for them over cyclists.

You always knew you were high up when you saw those dreaded poles.

Although there were other places advertising rooms, we decided to carry on. Surely the descent must come soon? Stopping for a rest, two pilgrims walked passed. They stopped and one told us that they had already walked 24 kms (almost 15 miles) and still hadn’t been able to find a place. One suggested that we needed to get further down the road because, it being the height of the season, people were being charged more than the usual rate in many of the albergues. We agreed, particularly as it was still quite early in the day (around 4.00 o’clock). Oh bliss, not much further and we had reached Alto do Poio, where we found two albergues on opposite sides of the road. We opted for the one on the left, and were lucky to find, that although the dormitory was full, they still had a few private rooms. We were very thankful and immediately booked one.

This albergue had its own small restaurant so food was no problem. We ordered their speciality paella (plain for me, chicken for John) then sat outside with a few other people, both cyclists and walkers, for a leisurely evening. One of our companions was a young Spanish woman from Madrid. She was unemployed, having lost her job a few months before, and was walking with a friend. We also met another woman cyclist Leslie (not her real name), who lives in France (having moved there from the UK after her husband’s death some years before). She told us she was having trouble with her bike so John checked it over and applied some oil. She very kindly treated us to coffee and we ended up chatting for some hours before retiring for the night.

 

Sunset in Alto do Poio, and time for a well-earned rest

Day 15 – Alto do Poio to Portomarin

Day 13 – Santa Catalina de Somoza to Ponferrada

For some time now, we had been slowly climbing, having left the Mesita behind. However, this morning we found the terrain much steeper, and we made a slow pace until we reached Rabanal de Camino. We had to stop here because the albergue has direct links with the Confraternity of St James back in the UK, from whom we had bought our Pilgrims’ Passports. As we hadn’t ridden far, and it was still quite early, we could not have stayed that evening. But we wanted to get the Pilgrim Passports stamped here and were lucky enough to find that the albergue had not yet shut for the day. We were met by a lovely lady and we had a long chat about the route we were taking, and how we were managing. She was very happy to stamp our Passports.

Not a bull, but just as scary.

Once back on the bikes, we began to climb yet again, and I found the pace heavy going and the distance between John and me began to widen. As I reached a sharp steep bend I got off the bike before noticing a lone cow meandering across the embankment towards me. I reached quickly for my camera to take a picture, which got her attention. She paused, looked straight at me then began to advance, at quite some speed considering her bulk. Adrenalin overtook as I shoved the camera back into my front handlebar carrier, and proceeded to run up the hill. There hadn’t been time to get back on the bike, specially as I was on a slope, so all I could do was push it while fear spurred me on.

Eventually, I glanced back to find she’d lost interest. And as I turned another corner, I noticed John waiting by a small café attached to a large albergue. I never breathed a word about being almost trampled by a cow! We sat at a table in the front of the building and John went in for two coffees. A lovely valley view from this vantage point helped my all too beating heart to calm down once again. The café proved to be very popular, and, no doubt everybody who passed this way would feel the necessity to stop and have a breather here. I went in to pay for the coffees, and noticed the variety of postcards on the surrounding walls.

We could have spent the rest of the day simply sitting here soaking in the atmosphere, but we knew that we didn’t have very far to go to reach Cruz de Ferro – where we could legitimately leave the stones. Back on the bikes, we hadn’t dispensed with the climbing yet, but both revived by the coffee break, we plodded on. We were very high now and this was confirmed by a row of red and white poles placed in strategic positions along the roadside. When I pointed them out to John he said that they were for marking the depth of the snow in winter.

Finally, the huge mound made up entirely or stones and small rocks left behind by passing pilgrims came into sight – Cruz de Ferro. There were quite a few pilgrims gathered around and we had to wait our turn before we, too, could climb to the top of the mound to deposit our small collection of stones from home.

Cruz de Ferro.

The trip had been quite emotional for both of us and at this point John confirmed that he, too, felt that it had been worthwhile as it was significant that we could leave the stones from so many family members together in such an auspicious place. Shortly after leaving Cruz de Ferro, we came across a delightful little smallholding with several flags from all over the world. This was Manjarin.

Manjarin

Only one person lives here year round, joined occasionally by friends and pilgrims. His name is Tómas, and he claims to be the last of the Knights Templar.

Here, there were numerous signs showing the mileages for various destinations. One said that we were 222 kilometers (138 miles) from Santiago at this point. While we were there, a young woman who I thought might be of American–Indian origin walked passed and stopped for a second to give me a hug and my shoulders a quick massage. Slightly bemused, I was, nonetheless, delighted by this spontaneous gesture, which did help to relax me. Perhaps she did it because she realized that I had no idea of what was to come! As we left we still climbed a bit before encountering what was to turn into a very long, steep descent.

A sign warned us of strong winds and to be careful as the incline would drop sharply. John rides downhill (and, indeed, uphill) much faster than I do although he occasionally stopped to wait for me to catch up. Another reason why I sometimes find it hard to keep up with him is that I always get the urge to stop and take yet more photos, particularly when at the top of hills where the panoramic view can be so stunning. Now I found myself simply trying to keep upright on the bike as the road twisted and turned at an alarming rate. It was all I could do to keep my hands firmly on the brakes, although John had reminded me not to keep the brakes on continuously. Bike tyres have a nasty habit of bursting under the constant friction of brake to tyre in such high temperatures as we were experiencing on that day, and we were soon to both witness this in action.

While I was concentrating on taking it easy, especially on the tight corners, I heard a massive bang in the distance – unmistakably the sound of a rubber tyre bursting. I prayed that nobody had been hurt. Eventually, as I cautiously turned another bend, I caught up with John and three very lucky young men who were in the process of fixing a burst tyre. After checking that they were all ok and didn’t need any assistance, we set off towards El Acebo.

El Acebo.

This tiny village (if you could even call it that) has a rustic charm, with narrow streets, stone houses and slate roofs. But all I could do was flop into a chair while John went in search of some cool drinks. Just about everybody who sauntered in, whether walking or on bikes, looked as though they had stretched themselves to the limit. We must have all looked a sorry sight to the casual onlooker. John and I were to spend a long time here, if only to recover from the heat and horror of the steep descent. A small plaque nailed to a wall tells of the death of a Germany cyclist who had over-compensated on one of the bends near here and crashed.

A very welcome rest which recharged both of us, and we reluctantly remounted the bikes to make our way into Ponferrada, where we decided to spend the night. Temperatures had been climbing all day, reaching 38°C by 4.00 o’clock. After a short stop in the centre of Ponferrada, where we bought some earplugs in the hope they might drown out any loud snoring during the next dormitory stay, we came across a lone hotel. A bit upmarket, but there did not appear to be anything else in the immediate vicinity. Our  trusty little booklet boasted that it had good rates for pilgrims. At 40 euros this was a bit more than the usual private albergue room would cost.

I was surprised that this hotel advertised itself as a haven for pilgrims as many of us would, inevitably, turn up pretty bedraggled and untidy. Whereas its other clients certainly appeared to be much more “upper-class”. Indeed, there was a group of Spanish people dressed up to go out for the night – I would hazard a guess at a wedding – and we felt quite out of place next to them. Although we had been using cash most of the time, at this hotel I wanted to pay with the card because our resources were diminishing at a pace. The card was refused (twice) and that had me worried that we’d run out of cash, have a useless card, and be stranded for the rest of our lives. Was it possible that the manager simply didn’t want to take the chance of us using our card? Did we really look that shady? Hadn’t the sign outside given us the impression that pilgrims were welcome? I reluctantly handed over cash.

However, the room all but made up for this mishap as it was light, airy and very cosy. We sat on the edge of the large double bed and spent much of the evening looking out the window where there was a lot of activity going on. We were woken up at around 1.30 the following morning as a crowd of overly noisy and drunk patrons made their entrance, and none too quietly.

Day 14 – Ponferrado to Alto de Poio

Day 12 – Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza

The following morning, we left the monastery while it was still quite dark and rode through sleepy streets to find somewhere we could have a spot of breakfast. We eventually came across a café near the river bank which had just opened, so we were their first customers of the day. We ordered croissants and coffee, and watched as the street outside began to come alive with the usual hustle and bustle of such a large city. We left along a small bridge that spanned the river, and were soon to find ourselves on the LE441 which eventually led us onto the N120.

It didn’t take us long to reach Valverde de la Virgen, then San Miguel del Camino. The whole area seemed to be quite built-up and commercialized but at least there were tracks on either side of the busy road, keeping us away from the main thoroughfare of traffic. Mile after mile of soulless towns with, surprisingly, a few isolated houses on large plots of land. This was a more salubrious part of Spain obviously, as many of the houses were enclosed by large fences and gates.

Even this, however, eventually gave way to a much quieter area. Although still busy with cars, at least the industrial areas and houses had disappeared. Eventually we found our way off the N120, onto a wide well-kept section of the trail and heading for San Justo de la Vega. Almost there, we came across Cruceiro Toribio, a small cross. When we arrived, there was nobody around and we stopped for a rest. I asked John if we should leave the stones (given to us by our family) by this cross because there was already a small pile there. He agreed that it would be ok, but as I got off my bike and proceeded towards the cross, a cyclist rode up to us – and stopped.

Cruceiro Toribio

It was our friend Miguel from the Monastery. He remonstrated with me and kept saying that “the stones belong at Cruz de Ferro” so I eventually had to admit defeat, put the stones back in my pannier, and carry on. Laughing at ourselves, we realized that, yet again, we were being “directed” as, until this point, on the few occasions that we had run into Miguel, we were usually eating his dust, not the other way round.

Eventually, we left the cross and began a steep descent towards Astorga. We were delighted to come across what can only be described as one of the “wonders of the world” when it comes to engineering feats – a large green iron bridge that traverses in a zigzag fashion – up, over and then down the other side of the railway track. It was so ugly that it was actually quite beautiful. I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals thought of this monstrosity, which is picture on the Introduction page. Shortly after the bridge, we were greeted by a large shell perched on a roundabout with the words “Astorga”. )

Once in the town centre, we hailed a cyclist as she was riding passed, and asked her if she would like join us. She put her bike next to ours and joined us on the veranda of a small hotel. We spent a welcoming hour chatting over lunch, then spent some time together exploring Astorga. Our new friend’s name was Clara, a young Belgian who we had seen occasionally along the route. It transpired that Clara was travelling without a puncture repair kit or even a pump. She added that she was putting her trust in the Camino and, indeed, she had not had any punctures since leaving her home some weeks before. She kindly took a picture of us outside L’Hotel de Ville, D’Astorga.

Astorga city centre

Having said our farewells to our new friend, we still had quite a bit of the day to get through at this stage, so set off once more. We decided not to return to the N120 (admittedly, much of it runs parallel to the walkers’ trail), as we were desperate to get away from noisy lorries for a while, so were relieved to come across the much smaller LE142 road, almost certainly part of the walking trail. This minor road led us towards a particularly stunning village called Castrillo de los Polvazares. It is famous for its location and is well known for being used as a backdrop for Spanish films. This was easy to believe if only because of its aesthetics and building materials. The roads, houses and shops are made of local stones and slates typically in the Maragato style – low, humble buildings of one- or two-storeys clustered tightly together around winding cobbled streets.

We left our bikes in what was obviously a parking area and walked towards the narrow streets (not comfortable to ride on). There was a small church, Santa Maria Magdalena, a simple structure with a crude but attractive facade. You could walk around the whole village within 45 minutes. I was told later that the restaurants and bars do not open here on Mondays, although today was Friday anyway.

Castrillo de los Polvazares.

We certainly found it difficult to leave before turning our attention to reaching the next village where we were to stay the night. Santa Catalina de Somoza is an upmarket version of the little village we had just visited and it was easy to find a charming little albergue. The dormitory was particularly small, and almost full by the time we arrived. But there was an upstairs area with some private rooms where, for the princely sum of 35 euros, we were happy to use.

We were both tired and delighted to discover that they sold evening meals so we settled in for the evening with a Dutch priest and some German pilgrims for company. A young Australian man joined us at the bar after supper. I asked him where his valuables were because he did not appear to have them on him. He replied that he had left them in his backpack. When I mentioned that this was, surely, rather foolish, he said that he “trusted in the Camino”. Having recently been given proof in Leon that leaving things in your backpack was perhaps not a great idea, all I could say was that I hoped he was right.

Today had started out with a lot of cycling on main roads, with nothing but cars and heavy trucks to keep your mind from wandering, and ended up with cycling through some delightful areas, full of character.

Day 13 – Santa Catalina de Somoza to Ponferrada

Day 11 – Sahagon to Leon

After a quick breakfast of croissant and coffee, we dressed up warmly because it looked cold outside. This was not to last for long as the temperature soon reached 30 C – we were getting used to riding in the heat. Now we were meeting other cyclists travelling in the same direction. Indeed, the closer we got to Santiago itself, the more walkers and cyclists we came across.

Found these
in the middle of nowhere.

And a café with not a soul in sight.

I was determined to enjoy today’s riding, specially as I knew it would be relatively flat although, once again, it was sometimes difficult to find any trees to shelter from the heat if we became too exhausted. Some of the villages we rode through appeared to be empty. I’m convinced that it was all a front, and that if we had investigated further, we’d probably have found somewhere to stop for a drink. It was curious that, when we did find a small shop cum bar, and I insisted we stop to get some more water and maybe a Snickers bar (my favourite) but were to get no joy here. The proprietor showed definite signs of being either drunk or on drugs as he was acting very strangely. Perhaps it was because he realised that we weren’t Spanish and thought that if he shouted at us in his own language, we would understand what he was saying – which we didn’t but got the general drift that he was telling us there was no food available.

We left with nothing and it was with a huge sense of relief when the outskirts of Leon came into view. Better still, the Monastery was open for those making their way to Santiago. The Albergue de Monasterio des las Benedictinas was to be our home for the night.

Our night’s accommodation.

I loved this Monastery (not the only, or main, Monastery in Leon), although John was not amused with the long queue which had already gathered. By now, it was late afternoon and both of us were hot, tired, and hungry. Neither in a mood to be standing in a queue waiting to sign in and be allocated a bed. Still, this didn’t put me off being fascinated by the inner sanctuary, and the nuns, who were very helpful. I was told which dormitory I would be in and I rushed over to put my pannier and hat on a bottom bunk. This was to be a novel experience because until now John and I had always been in the same dormitory. This albergue kept men and women strictly apart so John was on the first floor. Appearing back in the enclosure to wait for him to join me, a nun approached and suggested that she could see if one of the private rooms (usually reserved for important personages) could be used by us as we were a married couple. I was happy to keep to the current arrangement and said as much.

One surprise was waiting for me, however, because when I inspected the ladies washroom I was appalled at the state it was in. No pretence to keep water off the floors, with bits of paper everywhere. Is it something to do with women knowing there were no men around to impress? There was a short note on the dormitory door which said: “To the thief who took our money. We hope you are happy because you stole from students who have nothing”. That was awful, and I was not surprised when I walked into the dorm to retrieve something from my panniers, and realized that I was being watched like a hawk by another pilgrim perched on the edge of her bed. While I would always be wary of keeping my money and Passport with me I had, for some reason, thought that like-minded people (in other words, pilgrims walking the Camino) wouldn’t do such a callous thing as steal from another. We certainly hadn’t come across anything like that so far – that is, until now and it’s very sad because people put their trust in others and feel let down when it is not observed.

Dinner in the Monastery was at 7.00 so we had time to explore the city centre. I think if we were to take a full day off this would be the place to do it – although the albergues don’t like you staying for more than one night unless you are ill. While waiting for 7.00, we decided to explore. We were extremely lucky because the part of Leon the Monastery was situated in was surrounded by what can only be the older part of the city – it was like being back in a lost era. The narrow lanes still relatively untouched by modern-day changes with much of it not having been touched for centuries and all a very short walking distance from the Monastery. We were delighted to come across yet more evidence of Roman occupation when we found the remains of an old Roman wall.

Hunger eventually drove us back to the Monastery where we waited eagerly outside the dining room with a few others. By the time the doors did open at ten passed seven, there was a nice long queue forming behind us. John and I were directed to a long table and sat down next to a shy young German obviously not looking for company. However, there was also a Spanish man who was happy to talk to us in halting English. We recognized him from previous sightings along the way as he was also on a bike. He was delightful company and the evening passed very quickly. Miguel was unemployed “I am riding the Camino because there is not much else for me to do at the moment” he told us.

The staff were obviously enamoured by him and saw to our every wish simply because we were associated with him. He was, in the true sense, a real pilgrim as he was having to rely on the kindness of others. We eventually retired for the night and I slept soundly. At least there was no snoring to contend with (which says a lot), although loud voices tended to drift in from the street below – we were, after all, in a large city.

Day 12 Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza

Day 10 – Fromista to Sahagon

After a blissfully quiet night’s sleep, we set off, riding on an almost traffic free P980, and still running parallel to the walking path. Still on the Meseta the roads were again flattish with precious little between the small villages that dotted this area. Many of them seemed to be almost deserted and certainly no new building had been taking place. Most of the villages had an air of hopelessness to them. If there were people living there, they were certainly keeping out of sight.

Villalcazar de Sirga.

We did, of course, come across the occasional pilgrim, usually on their own. Precious few other cyclists seemed to be doing the route at the same time as we were that’s for sure. Then we reached Villalcazar de Sirga and things were looking up. We stopped to explore and have a well-needed rest. Even sat down with an ancient pilgrim, who was strangely quiet. Taking off once more, we carried on until we reached the outskirts of Carrion de los Condes where we rejoined the N120.

Taking a leap of faith.
Just glad to not be cycling.

Again, a pleasant, if not rather treeless, ride straight through to Sahagon, but not before stopping off occasionally to investigate the ruins of the monestary at Antiguo Hospital de Sta Maria de las Tiendas.

The night before had been spent in semi-luxury, so this time we were determined to crash out in dormitory accommodation. As we reached the outskirts of Sahagon we noticed a gaudy building, decorated with a colourful mural and headed for that. It was opposite the local Bull Ring, which was fortunately shut. The cool of the open foyer made a refreshing change from the heat we had been riding through and, when the receptionist asked if we wanted to book a private room or beds in the albergue section.  I told her we wanted the dormitory but on reflection this was definitely a grave mistake.

The dormitory section of this hotel consists of an old open-plan barn attached to the main building. There are some 40 or so beds in the room, but only six, of which we took two, were used that night. We quickly picked beds and left our panniers on to claim them. I inspected the showers which turned out to be nothing more than separate alcoves with loose shower heads and nowhere for the water to flow away. As for a place to hang clothes – that just was not going to happen. If I had known how very basic this was going to be, I would definitely have opted for a private room. After voicing my thoughts, John put things into perspective once again “at least it’s a room over our heads”. I marvelled over the accuracy of his statement and told myself off for being such a prima donna.

If you stay here for a night, and want a bit of pampering, remember to ask for a room rather than a bed in the dormitory.

For all the fact that we seemed to have been riding for ages, we had arrived in Sahagun relatively early and decided to have a drink before getting changed. We had noticed a small garden as we had wheeled the bikes through the large red-marbled outer wall and, still in our riding  gear, quickly found a table where we could sit quietly with a few drinks. John had his cycling cap with him and this soon peaked the interest of one of the hotel visitor’s. He walked over and asked John if he could have the cap. It is a particular favourite of John’s as it has a logo “Café de Columbia”, so he laughed and told the man that he almost certainly wouldn’t want it a sweaty and more than a little grimy piece of headgear.

Later, after a quick wash – the showers were too basic to take seriously – and a change of clothes, it seemed like a good idea to forego any investigation into Sahagun itself as both of us were by then exhausted. Instead we decided to have some supper in the hotel’s restaurant. The staff were very pleasant and suggested various dishes while we mused over what to have, and when another pilgrim entered the restaurant, we invited him to join us. He had had the foresight to book a private room, and I wondered if he had been this way before! Fortuitously, we both slept well as with so few other pilgrims sharing the dormitory everything was very quiet and the following morning were soon up and ready to continue with the ride as dawn broke to yet another beautiful, sunny day.

Day 11 – Sahagon to Leon

Day 9 – Burgos to Fromista

A restless night, and only when heavy rain in the early hours of the morning had chased the revellers outside back to their homes did we eventually drift off. As I got out of bed I realised, with a heavy heart, that it was still raining. Not many people about yet as nobody was in a particular hurry to dress and leave the albergue.

Still, we had to make a move sometime and by the time we were both dressed and ready to make a move, the rain cloud had miraculously disintegrated. It seemed safe to go outside, and John suggested we see if we could have a bite to eat in the café opposite the Albergue before we left Burgos.

Delicious-looking chocolate covered palmera pastries for breakfast!

Retrieving our bikes and wheeling them into the street, we secured them on a wall near the café and then found an empty table inside. There were a few others already there who were not particularly keen on setting out on their walk just yet. We all watched as a few stragglers began the trek up the hill which would take them out of Burgos. A wise move on our part it transpired because suddenly the heavens opened once more and it started to rain again. Not light rain. Oh no, that would be asking too much. Within minutes the street resembled a quagmire as a stream of rainwater gushed down the slight incline turning it into a small waterfall.

We noticed a few of those who had left earlier running back down the hill to take cover in the albergue, and those of us inside the safety of the cafe watched in amusement. Fortunately, the storm was short-lived, the street soon dried up, and once again people were moving, eager to get back on the road. It was with some relief that we left Burgos cycling in a light drizzle. Although we would have both liked to stay another night in Burgos to explore it some more, the prospect of another sleepless night spurred us to move on.

Today, we were to reach the Meseta which runs from Burgos to Astorga for approximately 215 kms. The Meseta is the central plateau of Spain, and known locally as the high plains of Castile. The terrain is largely flat. Up to this point, we had been riding through some challengingly hilly areas, more ups than downs and were eagerly looking forward to some “flattish” riding – the hills had proven to be very real and somewhat relentless and we had learned to respect them. My knee problem had been relieved by the Voltarol cream and I knew that the slightly flatter route would help it even more. It felt good to be just riding and taking in the scenery, which seemed to be barren of trees and the occasional welcoming streams. Large groups of wind turbines spun away serenely perched high on the hills in the distance.

Spain appears to have embraced the realities of global warming and thought out new ways to harness their energy; I read somewhere that these wind farms generate 18% of the country’s electricity – that was back in 2013, so no doubt they have a lot more now. 

Riding parallel to the walking path much of the time, we had the road almost to ourselves. Traffic had all but dwindled, probably preferring the much faster A12. Trees were conspicuous by their absence. We both stopped to drink some water, and John noticed a small bird which was circling just above our heads, all the while tweeting loudly, before taking off in another direction. A tiny clump of trees came into view and we both headed for that to stop for a short while, relieved to be away from the relentless sun, even if it was just for a short while.

Setting off once again, we seemed to ride mile after mile before we eventually came to a bend in the road we suddenly we came face-to-face with the ruins of the Monastery of Saint Antony at Castrojeriz. What a strikingly beautiful ruin, which appeared to be deserted at the time. It was once extensively used by both monks and pilgrims alike. There is an albergue but we decided to carry on ride as it wall still too early to stop. The beauty of this monastery can be seen in its architecture and I understand when people say that the aura of the many souls who have passed this way, whether for a few hours, or a few days, still resonates through its walls.

Monastery of St Antony at Castrojeriz.

Before we left, we noticed a small alcove with numerous small stones and paper messages. We found some of these messages very poignant and interesting. I was particularly stuck by a large grey stone with the words “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. As John said “that is so true in our case right now”. It was difficult to tear ourselves away. But we had to, making our way through the formidable Arch before riding alongside a long tree lined avenue until we reached Castrojeriz. Then onto Fromista, a large, almost soulless town, but here we were to spend the night.

Having just ridden through some of the more treeless areas of the Camino, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those walking the Meseta.

Until this point, we had been staying in dormitories. We were becoming used to sharing the sleeping space with other people, both men and women. [The only time I’ve ever done that before was when I rode the London-to-Brighton annual bike ride with our daughter who was then 14-years-old. We had asked to be put in the family room then found ourselves sharing with a young father and his two children.] Perhaps it was because of the experience of the Burgos albergue that put me off for a while, but the thought that we could actually spend a bit more money and be in a small private room was suddenly very appealing. So this time we decided to go for it.

As it was my turn to complain of a stomach-ache, it was bliss to have a room all to ourselves, if only for one night. Sitting in our private room, we examined the overall route and I realized that we were, at this point, closer to Santander than Santiago. “Should we call it a day?” I asked John. “It’s up to you” was the reply. I was reluctant to make a final decision. I was tired; indeed, exhausted would have been a more apt word. But still at the back of my mind was the thought that we had wanted to ride all the way to Santiago. Even now, people we met up with were asking if we intended to carry on to Finisterre, which would add 70 or so miles to our original intention.

I rattled off a quick text to our eldest son Peter, granddaughter Abigail and my sister Pat, who I did not get a reply from. Peter’s curt reply was just what I could have expected from him “Don’t be such a wuss”! It was Abigail’s reply that made me reconsider that, yes, we had indeed ridden a long way already, and that it would have been a shame give up now. We decided to carry on.

Day 10 – Fromista to Sahagon

Day 8 – San Juan de Ortega to Burgos

We had managed more than a week’s riding. I couldn’t believe it. When we were both younger, we’d joined our local cycling group in Oxford, England. Apart from the Sunday rides, we’d occasionally head for mainland Europe, in particular France. We have fond memories, but these holidays were never more than seven day’s at a time. So now we were proud of ourselves for taking on what was proving to be a more daunting task. Having only each other to rely on was also a novelty.

We couldn’t resist stopping to view the fields of sunflowers.

Today we decided to take it easy and perhaps not go very far – an easy day’s ride. This bucked me up no end and I found myself enjoying riding along roads with cultivated fields of corn and occasionally vibrantly coloured sunflowers on either side of us. The road was quiet and narrow and it was good to be feeling more like our old selves once again.

A hop, skip and jump from San Juan de Ortega.

The morning found us riding only 30 kms (some 16 miles) and arriving early in Burgos, a beautiful city and certainly not overrated. As we walked through the town centre searching of some lunch, a waiter hovered just outside a café and, I kid you not, literally pulled us into the dark confines of a small dimly lit room. Slightly amused, and reluctant to argue in a foreign language, we settled down and ordered a Spanish Omelette each.

Burgos Cathedral

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the narrow streets and exploring a few of the older churches and checking out the Gothic architecture so peculiar to Burgos which has a unique character all its own. Eventually tiring of so much walking, we relocated our locked bikes. I noticed a young bearded man carrying the tell-tale backpack and asked him if he could give us directions to the municipal albergue. He pointed to the top of a nearby hill where we found a delightful building with a group of bedraggled-looking pilgrims stood outside. We joined the long queue to wait for the doors to open, which wasn’t very long fortunately. This building was one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Run by volunteers, it boasts numerous facilities and has a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. We were told we would be on the third floor, and I have a suspicion there was even one more floor above. The whole building is very spacious, with a welcoming area of long trestle tables and seating and even a vending machine on the ground floor in a common area.

Anybody who has stayed in Burges’ albergue will remember this.
John with his inevitable coke, and me with my inevitable coffee.

In any other place we would have been turned away for arriving so early. But we were assured that the hostel had plenty of room and wouldn’t run out of beds.

The large dormitories were partitioned off into individual areas, each containing two bunk beds with individual lockers. Having claimed our bunks, showered and changed, we went in search of something light for supper. We didn’t have to go far as the café immediately opposite the albergue did a fair meal for a good price. This was also the first time we had seen any sign of rain as dark clouds began to loom threateningly.

Relieved to find that we could catch up with our washing, it came as no surprise that the washing machines were in high demand. We waited patiently until a machine became available and so that we could throw the dirty clothes into one before hanging them over a washing line we had spied earlier in a small alcove. The alcove was a sun trap and it wasn’t long before everything had dried out.

Burgos has a lot of iron statues for people to enjoy.

We seemed to have walked more in terms of sightseeing in Burgos than we had ridden today, and were certainly ready for our beds. While most pilgrims would go to bed early, specially as they’d want an early start the following morning, it was easy to settle down relatively quickly. One downside of staying overnight in a large city is that the locals come to life sometime after about eight o’clock and don’t seem to go home until the early hours of the morning. Burgos’s nightlife in the summer months can be as busy as during the day. Voices emanated from the streets below and could be heard even on the third floor. They only vanished at about three in the morning when a sudden downpour must have emptied the streets. Neither had we banked on the partitions separating us from our neighbours being so thin and nothing could stop the sound of heavy snoring reaching our ears. A restless night indeed.

Day 9 – Burgos to Fromista

Day 7 – Azofra to San Juan de Ortega

Fortunately, a good night’s rest meant that John’s sore toe was slowly healing, helped no doubt, by the cream that we had brought along for such emergencies. And the voltarol was beginning to work on my tired leg muscles.

After the previous day’s traumas we were wary of following the trail again. So we waited until most of the others had left before we set off. Today we were both calmer, more rested and both in better moods. Neither of us were ready for a repeat of yesterday’s spat and the first few miles were conducted in comparative silence as we both pedalled along the N120 parallel to the motorway.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada

We kept this up until we reached Santo Domingo de la Calzada and I was ready for a short coffee break so we turned onto Avenue Logrono which took us straight into the town. I think even John was relieved to stop for a while now. Many of the streets in this town were built in the Medieval era and it was fascinating to walk through them, pushing the bikes in search of a cafe. Here we met a Dutch cyclist from Sneek. He had an excellent map in Dutch which John was quite envious of.

As we left Santo Domingo in the distance, the road became more demanding with inclines and descents. When I was younger, I used to love swooping down a hill then managing to keep from pedalling until I was halfway up another but today I found it tiring. I tried not to think of the terrain we were to reach just after Villafranca Montes de Oca as we had heard it was tough going.

From this point the N120 was again busy because it was no longer running parallel to the motorway. This section is etched in my mind even now as I recall feeling horrified when we came across some road-works. It became increasingly harder riding uphill while narrowly missing the cones placed along the steep, winding road. All the while trying desperately not to be hit by one of the fast-moving trucks as they passed us at breakneck speed. Soon after reaching the road-works I go off the bike and John follow suit. It seemed safer to push them behind the cones.

Back on the track.

Oh boy, what a relief it was spying the dusty trail after a few more miles and we quickly moved over to it. Fortunately, as this section was much smoother than the previous day’s, and well maintained, the next few miles lifted both our moods. Eventually, a narrow road led us straight into San Juan de Ortega. Described as a town was a bit of an exaggeration as it seemed to consist of a large monastery and a few houses dotted nearby. I could be wrong – perhaps had we investigated we might have found a great big sprawling city behind the monastery – but I somehow doubted it.

Welcoming sight – this was to be our overnight stop.

The outside of the imposing albergue attached to the monastery was very reassuring, but once inside we realized that the dormitories were overflowing with as many bunk beds as could be crammed in. They were packed in tightly and we were lucky to get a bunk each. It had been a long and tiring day’s riding (and walking) and I, for one, certainly didn’t relish the idea of perhaps riding on.

However, the one downside of arriving late at an albergue is that most of the lower bunk beds had already been taken. It was a top bunk or nothing (something I had steadfastly managed to avoid until now). That might have been ok but, unlike in most of the dormitories we had been in before, these bunk beds didn’t have ladders attached! So it was a case of hauling oneself up as best you could. I must have looked a sight, because as hard as I tried, I could not hoist myself up into the top bunk. John tried helping me by locking his hands together. But I still could not find the energy in my upper arms to reach and grab anything that might have helped.

Inner courtyard of the albergue at San Juan de Ortega

Just as I was contemplating putting the mattress on the floor (as if I could because even the floor space was at a premium), a very nice young woman in one of the bottom bunks told me that she was happy to swap. What a relief! I was extremely grateful to this good Samaritan. I did notice out of the corner of my eye that a young man was looking very uncomfortable in his bunk, and looked as though he would have offered, but then he sat back down with some relief when my kind friend offered instead. I would have liked to repay her kindness in some way, and I often wish I had taken her name and possibly kept in touch with her.

Day 6 – Logrono to Azofra

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.

Cyclists and walkers on the camino

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.

Sizing up the correct walking stick

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.

Day 7 – Azofra to San-Juan-de-Ortega

Day 5 – Estella to Logrono

Bus stops all along the route near the larger towns and cities.

After a hasty breakfast, and before leaving the albergue behind, we spoke to a young family who had begun their Camino at Roncesvalles. The mother and father were carrying most of the gear as their young daughter and even younger, rather disgruntled, son were both finding the trail difficult. I couldn’t help wondering if they would reach Santiago, and glad that they weren’t on bikes because they, unlike us, could always catch a few buses along the way.

Hoping to be able to reach Logrono by evening, we soon rejoined the N1110. Today there was a lot more traffic than yesterday and I meekly followed John as he diverted onto a nice, quiet side road. On hindsight, perhaps not a good move because it didn’t take long to realise that we must have gone off route and were now hopelessly lost.

Before even starting on this trip, John had bought a small green booklet which gives rough directions to follow if you are on a bike. We had been trying to keep to this since leaving SJPdP although at times the directions became very confusing to follow. Of course, the yellow shell signs along the way made a valuable contribution but even these would occasionally disappear, so it wasn’t long before John realized that we were no longer on the route given in the green book. Adding to our panic, the tell-tale shell signs were nowhere to be found.

Villamayor de Monjardin in the distance

Hopelessly lost, we were still reluctant to retrace our steps, so instead rode in the direction that we thought might get us back en-route. This was Spain. Dogs and wild bears had all but disappeared from the district over the decades and the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Nevertheless, it was a bit disconcerting riding into an unknown district, unsure of whether we were heading east or west. It was difficult to tell from the position of the sun which direction we were riding. Suddenly John pointed out what appeared to be a church steeple in the horizon and that meant a town, people, and perhaps something to eat. All fears rapidly diminished as we rode into Villamayor de Monjardin and suddenly we appeared to have been on the right route all along! I noticed an ancient castle perched on the hillside overlooking this beautiful medieval-style village but there was no way we were going to divert and investigate. We might have got lost!

Once in the village, it was easy to find a small shop near the local church and John went off to buy some very welcome ice cream, which we ate while sat on a bench outside the church. Feeling refreshed, I wanted to check out the church which, although not locked was pitch dark inside. Downhearted I turned from the entrance then noticed a small box attached to the wall. For a small fee I could turn on the interior light and the thought of a little light relief from the souring temperatures outside, I didn’t need to be persuaded twice. It was blissfully cool inside the church and I was determined not to leave until I had got my moneys-worth.

I joined John outside again – he had decided not to join me in the church – and found him talking to three women and an elderly man. It turned out that they were three sisters doing the walk with their father. Resolute on enjoying the terrain, the girls were very stalwart, but we feared for the old man who looked like he was pretty close to collapsing. He told us that he had been drinking nothing but coca cola and, although he declared that he knew it was bad for him, he found they gave him the energy to keep up with “my girls”. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, particularly as the heat definitely was draining – for everybody, whether walking or on bikes. Having said that, a plus for cycling is that you generate a cooling breeze as you pedal – it’s only when you stop for a rest that you find yourself perspiring. This saps any energy and leaves you exhausted after only a few hours. If we were finding the route difficult, it must have been doubly so for this small group.

Leaving Villamayor de Monjardin behind, we found ourselves riding along a plateau before swooping downhill into and through Los Arcos. The route then morphed into a lot of slight ups and downs and proved to be quite tiring as we kept to a mix of riding and walking. We stopped in Viana as it was by now midday and the temperature had not abated. If anything, it was still climbing.

We spoke to a small group of pilgrims sat at the side of the road waiting for the only albergue in sight to open. One thing we had found out quite quickly during this trip was that as we were on bikes, other pilgrims (those who were walking) would be given precedence over us if beds were at a premium in an albergue. This is only fair because, if all of the beds go and there are still more people seeking lodging for the night, a walking pilgrim is often not in a fit state to carry on. In this case, we knew that we were too early to claim a bed each so, after a short rest, we set off once again.

On the outskirts of Logrono we negotiated a narrow bridge and came across a roundabout. Perhaps it was the heat or our lack of energy because at this stage, no matter how much we looked, we couldn’t find any indication of which direction to take. We were very relieved to reach the centre of Logrono – a large, sprawling city, which meant finding an albergue to spend the night proved to be quite a feat. Eventually, however, after asking just about anybody we could stop for directions, we made our way to the municipal albergue.

Statue of Alfonso VI.

We booked in before having a very welcome shower. It never ceases to surprise me how a shower can revitalize the body and it wasn’t long before we were both keen to hit the streets and explore the surrounding area. I was particularly struck by the statue of Alfonso VI, in a prominent square.

Alfonso became the King of Leon in 1065 and was nicknamed The Brave (El Bravo) and the self-proclaimed “Emperor of all Spain”.

Day 6 – Logrono to Azofra

Day 4 – Cizur Menor to Estella

The moment we left Cizur Menor behind, fortified by a good breakfast and a welcome night’s sleep, we started to climb. We were on the NA6000, a tarmacked road that had seen better days, but at least it was very quiet, as we followed it through farming countryside. To our left, some distance away, we noticed a line of pilgrims as they made their way along the trail and we stuck to the road. By now I had realised that much of the tracks the walking pilgrims stuck to rose much higher up into the hills than the roads did so I was glad to “take the low road” rather than the high road. We had the road to ourselves most of the time, only being passed by a few cars as we made our way through a few sleepy villages.

Windmills in the distance as we climbed out of Cizur Menor.

The surrounding hills were littered with huge wind turbines. Far in the distance the turbines  appeared to move silently in the breeze.

I could have ridden for hours, lost in my own thoughts and enjoying the view. Sadly, all too soon we reached a sign telling us that we were about to enter Campanos. Having just ridden along some of the more quieter roads, Campanos jolted us back to reality as we turned into what is a large industrial and quarrying area with a dual carriageway running through it. We were back on the N121, but this was a busy section with heavy goods vehicles thundering passed at breakneck speed. A small café here meant that we could stop for a quick coffee before getting back onto the road. Although there was a cycle track running alongside the road, I  still had a hard time keeping my bike from going off in a tangent whenever a truck passed us, generating a swirl of wind behind it. We were both relieved when the much quieter NA601 came into view.

So with every cloud comes a silver linking and we soon found ourselves back on a much quieter road, not only flat but narrow and virtually carless. We had come across the main pilgrimage route once again. A large formidable building came into view and I asked John if we could see if we could look inside. This was the “Casa Rural Eunate” called the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate. The origin of this church is unknown but it is thought to have originated during the times of the Knights Templars in the 12th Century.

Sadly, the Case Rural Eunate was closed when we arrived.

Apart from two women sat by a small bridge, everywhere seemed to be pretty much deserted. I stopped to talk to them and they said that entry was only possible later in the day. The temperature had been steadily rising as the morning wore on and both looked exhausted but wanted to carry on to the next albergue before the heat made walking impossible. One of the women remarked that it was wonderful to see a husband and wife doing something together.

Puente la Reina. This was a delightful area which we came across unexpectedly, although it is one of the landmarks on the Camino de Santiago.  One of the first buildings we came across was a small shop doing a roaring trade with pilgrims. We stopped for a cooling drink. This shop must do well in the summer months.

Puente La Reina literally means “Bridge of the Queen” or “Queen’s Bridge”. As we drank our cokes at the foot of the bridge, a steady stream of walking pilgrims passed by. The bridge itself has five arches and is built over the river Arga.

Puente la Reina bridge.

This town is heavily influenced by the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela, and boasts quite a few remains of walls and several religious buildings. The Church of Santiago El Mayor, built around the 11th or 12th Century was later extended to give it a more Gothic appearance. It has a beautiful Romanesque main frontage with Moorish influences. Not to be outdone, we also came across a second church (the Church of Crucifijo), which was founded by the Knights Templars in the 12th Century. Although not well documented there is plenty of evidence that the Templars had a huge bearing in this area.

The remains of a Roman bridge are part of the pilgrims’ track.

Very reluctantly we tore ourselves away from Puente la Reina and rejoined a quiet N1110. Approaching Cirauqui John excitedly pointed out that we needed to look for the remains of an old Roman bridge, and soon a sign pointing us in the right direction came into view. We locked the bikes together and followed a stone path. We were actually walking along what had one been a major contributory road from the Roman era and was now part of the Pilgrims’ trail. All this time later and pilgrims still walked over the bridge towards Santiago. It was obviously not good for cycling on so we didn’t stay long and were soon back on the tarmacked road.

Occasionally it was good to simply sit down for a well-earned rest and with today’s heat even more so.

Relentless heat made the going tough and it was hard to find any relief from the overhead sun. Coupled with this the road was steadily climbing. Now quite exhausted – this is heat I wasn’t used to – I was startled when a lone cyclist passed us. I noted that he was not carrying any panniers on his bike – unlike both of us – so wasn’t surprised that he was making light work of getting up the hill. And now, away from towns and cities, we were finding a rarity of trees by the roadside. Just as I was beginning to feel desperate I was very relieved to notice one tiny tree way in the distance and made for that. Miraculously, it turned into a small clump of trees and we stopped again for a refreshing swig of water. Sitting there basking in the shade, John pointed out the same cyclist who had passed us, only this time he was going in the opposite direction. Rejuvenated from the stop we got back on the bikes, although I would have been quite happy to stay by the welcoming shade for the next few hours. After some minutes of being back on our bikes, the same cyclist passed us once again, this time going back up the hill. A bit later I decided that the heat must have got to me as I watched the same cyclist riding back down the hill. I marvelled at his energy to be able to keep going in the heat that was by now taking its toll on both of us. If I wasn’t so exhausted I might have stopped him to ask if he was training for the Tour de France!

Eventually we rode into Lorca, not a particularly exciting looking village, it seemed quite deserted. Here we spoke to two young men waiting for a bus to take them on to the next stop. They told us that we could find somewhere to get a bite to eat just around the corner – which inevitably meant climbing a nasty little hill.

This delightful Albergue was definitely worth stopping at for a bite to eat, even if you didn’t stay the night.

I couldn’t face getting back on the bike so we wheeled them up the hill and found a beautifully hidden quiet lane which took us straight to the Albergue de Lorca. There we ordered two slices of Spanish Omelette. We were ready for something more sustaining than a piece of chocolate, and that little slice of Spanish Omelette was manna from Heaven.

As much as we would have like to give up for the day, it was still too early so once again we rejoined the N1110 until we reached the outskirts of Estella. The road into the town centre seemed to go on forever but eventually, and after stopping to ask for directions, we located a large albergue – halfway up a small hill. Taking the panniers off my bike, I noticed that the solar charger was missing. It must have dropped out of the side pannier somewhere along route. Fortunately, as most of the albergues have a few communal points where we could charge our mobile phones there was no need to panic.

There were still bed spaces available at the albergue and they had a small evening menu so we didn’t much more than have showers, eat something (I was so tired I don’t even remember what I ate) and hit the sack. Today, we were both so exhausted that I very much imagine I was asleep even before my head hit the pillow. If people were snoring, I certainly didn’t hear them.

Day 5 – Estella to Logrono

Day 3 – Roncesvalles to Cizur Menor

Another early start. Although many of the walking pilgrims had already set off, we waited until it was light enough to ride before leaving the albergue behind. It was foggy and surprisingly cold, although after a few hours the fog cleared. John began to complain, which he put down to the water from the stream the previous day. We stopped so that I could check the tiny stock of tablets I had thought to pack – for “just in case” scenarios such as this. For want of anything else to hand, I gave him two Imodium tablets which must have worked as before long he felt much better.

A welcoming fountain which wasn’t working when we were there.
One look at the path winding up a very steep hill and part of me was glad that I wasn’t walking. The other part wanted to run to the top to see what the view would be like.

Some time after we had left Roncesvalles we were able to shed our cycling jackets as the fog lifted and the sun greeted us. Both feeling much happier, it wasn’t long before we found a small café where we stopped for a bite to eat and some coffee. Since leaving Roncesvalles, we had been descending quite a bit, with the odd climb now and again. We passed through village after village, only now and again meeting up with other pilgrims. By lunchtime, we were on the outskirts of Pamplona. Already the temperature had risen to at least 30° – such a contrast from just a few hours earlier.

Not sure which way we should be going to actually get to the centre of Pamplona, I stopped a young woman and asked her if she knew the way. As happens so often when you stop a stranger to ask for directions, she told us that she didn’t know because she herself was a visitor to the area. We explained that we were riding the Camino and she said that she was a nun on retreat and insisted on giving us a blessing before we said our farewells. We eventually noticed a paved traffic-free riverside road and decided to try our luck – specially when John noticed a few pilgrims in front of us. We had inadvertently found the Pilgrim’s path which led straight into a local park.

There were numerous benches dotted around the park so we sat down to rest for a while and watched as one or two pilgrims, and occasionally a small group of them, ambled slowly passed. Then, as a pilgrim walked passed he stopped to speak to us and ask how we were enjoying the atmosphere.

Quite by accident we had arrived in the middle of the Annual Bull Run week – an event which I would never willingly have sought out myself although I was relieved to find out that the custom of letting the bulls run through the streets only took place in the mornings so we had missed that. Add to this the week-long festival of the Fiesta de San Fermin (celebrating Saint Fermin), you have a recipe for crowded streets and general mayhem.

Annual dress for attending the festivities during the Bull Run. These two were very happy to pose for us.

He told us that someone had mentioned we might be lucky enough to get a bed for the night at the local albergue just up the road. We decided to investigate, but the manager told us that, although he did have beds, he would not advise us to stay because there would be no sleep for anybody in Pamplona that night. He advised us to try and reach Cizur Menor. Besides, the thought of accidentally becoming involved in the following day’s bull run (where bulls are let out in the street and hapless men run after – or away from – them) was not really something I wanted to get involved in.

The streets were so crowded that riding would have been impossible.

Cycling rather than walking gives us the chance to carry on. To be honest, if I was walking the Camino, I would be very loath to walk out of Pamplona. Still, we did first want to spend some time in the city centre. So we eventually left the park behind, then soon realised we had to get off the bikes as we approached avenue after avenue filled with people milling around the entrances of pubs and restaurants. And many must have started drinking very early, which made it difficult for us to find our way through the crowds even pushing the bikes. Reaching the city’s main centre we were greeted by row upon row of open-air market stalls.

The atmosphere was electrifying, and it was hard not to feel a tinge of excitement mixed with confusion. Locking our bikes to by a heavy tree, we slipped down a small side street and through an alcove where a small shop was doing a roaring trade. I bought two baguettes and some sliced cheese, along with a few cold drinks, then we wandered on further until we found a small playing area with swings and a bench. Away from the general roar of the more crowded streets, we ate our lunch and watched as people sauntered passed. A few children stopped to play on the swings, their exhausted parents harrying them along.

I sent our son a text to tell him we were in Pamplona. He was very jealous and replied that people pay a small fortune to be there for the annual festivities and we had stumbled on it quite by accident.

Some time later, and ready to carry on, we found ourselves utterly confused and totally lost. Of course, having left the general thoroughfare, we had also lost the shell signs, which had all but disappeared. After stopping and asking for directions, which got us no further than the next street, John started wandering around looking along the ground for the telltale shells. We must have held an air of despair in our inability to find any waymarks because just then a lady stopped me and said something in Spanish. Sadly, neither of us have enough grasp of Spanish to be able to understand anybody speaking it generally but we were in luck. As soon as the lady realized that I didn’t know what she was saying, she reverted to English and gave me perfect directions on how to relocate the shell signs. It transpired that she was on her lunch break from the local Tourists Office. She also pointed out that John had been standing under the very sign we were looking for! Not for the first time, I thanked my Guardian Angel for putting us into her path.

We were soon back on our way, and the constant roar and bustle of Pamplona’s centre gave way to a hushed quiet as we spent the rest of the day riding through scenic lanes. We were by now both tired, and happy to be leaving Pamplona behind us. The temperature – in the centre of Pamplona a wall clock had shown 34°C – had been climbing all day and it was with some relief that we reached our overnight stay in Cizur Menor. We stopped at the first albergue we came across, probably not the best thing to do, as both dormitories were full.

But the very nice lady in charge said that it would be no problem because she could put up some makeshift beds for us. Watching as she pulled two mattresses, smelling pretty mouldy, and placed them on the floor. My thoughts went into overdrive – we weren’t about to refuse, specially as we had already paid, but now I had the added worry of bed bugs (we had heard some horrendous stories of how they would be found in some of the beds if not checked). I mused that, as our beds were only brought out for occasional use, they would surely be riddled with these “monsters”. Then I remember that we had carried a small bottle of lavender oil with us. I had ready that lavender oil is great because bed bugs can’t stand the smell. I’m not sure if this was true, but a quick dousing of our sleeping bags might well have done the trick because neither of us were bothered that night.

Cizur Menor

The showers before John went in search of a washing machine for our small collection of dirty clothes were very welcome. Nice to feel human once again. Afterwards we looked for somewhere to eat and noticed a restaurant just down the street. As we entered, we were hailed by two French women who had gathered up a small group of pilgrims and they invited us to join them. Discussing the day’s events in disjointed English and French, we all laughed over the waitress’s inability to get our orders right. Joanne, one of the French women, asked us why we were doing the Camino and when I said that, after the strenuous day that we had just had, I was sure it was going to earn us a place in heaven, to which she replied “Ah, for Brownie points, then”…

It was a very pleasant evening and we were grateful for their company, as it made up for the rather sparse accommodation. Sadly, as we were not walking the Camino we knew that we would not be seeing this particular group again; which was a pity as they would have made very agreeable companions. They did ask us if we might consider spending the following night in Puente la Reina, but that was going to be too close for us.

Day 2 – SJPdP to Roncesvalles

We came across this tiny hamlet soon after we began to climb.

After a good night’s sleep and early morning discussion with our new friends about the highs and lows of the Camino, we departed, eager to be on the move. We were soon to discover that getting from SJPdP was no easy task and definitely not for the faint-hearted! All we seemed to do hour after hour was climb. We stuck to the roads which often ran parallel to the walkers’ path. Sometimes their path disappeared from view as we stuck to the road and occasionally we’d see people on a higher level than we were. Although the ascent for them looked much steeper than ours, we still found ourselves having to walk more than ride. More than once we both thought of turning back.

If we had done, we would not have been alone, as we had heard that quite a few who started on the pilgrimage would give up after the first day. This was no route for the faint hearted, that’s for sure, and occasionally we were passed by taxies ferrying pilgrims to Roncesvalles and beyond. Sorely tempted as we made our way up higher and higher, we realised that piling into a taxi with the bikes was not an option for us. Definitely, this first day was proving to be very arduous. It was, however, the thought that so many people throw in the towel at this early stage, that kept us going. Plus the fact that we had put our faith in other people’s observations that, once you are over the Pyrenees, it gets easier. We prayed desperately that they were right.

A row of imaginatively set out scarecrow heads on sticks are a unique way to keep of tender plants.

Three times I turned to John and said miserably “Let’s turn back”. Each time he replied “don’t worry, we can’t be far from the top, and it’s probably just around that next bend”. After yet more climbing, both trying to ride and giving up to walk the steeper bits, John turned to me this time and said “Ok, I give in. Let’s give up”. But I retorted “I’m sure we must be near the top by now”.

Well, they do say that running water is safe to drink – don’t they?

The temperature had been steadily climbing as we were, and our journey, progressed. Feeling, and no doubt looking like wet rags, we constantly swigged water and our stock diminished quickly – we had made the first rooky mistake of not carrying enough with us. Every now and again we would stop to either climb back onto the bikes, or get off and walk again, all the while waving to other cyclists as they passed, looking as frazzled as we felt. Occasionally, we would hear the sound of water as we passed yet another stream gushing down the hillside. John stopped once to fill his water bottle by one of these streams but I was more wary and decided not to take the chance. We are used to hills, having ridden – granted in our earlier days – through parts of Cornwall, Wales and the Cotswolds in the UK. But never before had I, in particular, had to tackle a hill that continuously ascends. After some hours we did reach the summit. What a welcome relief. We had climbed from 200 metres above sea-level to 1,400 metres in one day.

We were hailed by a lovely French lady who, no doubt amused by this apparition of weary souls, asked us if we would like some coffee. This was quickly followed by a slice of delicious apple cake – both of which were very welcome. Their smattering of English together with our stilted French had us all laughing and comparing notes about the terrain, the weather, and so many other things. It was an annual tradition for this group, with two or three of them walking while the others spent their time sightseeing and driving from place to place. It was hard to leave such delightful company but eventually we realized that we had to or risk navigating strange roads in the dark. Suitably rested and revived, we were very grateful for the descent into Roncevalles – all three miles of delightfully scenic downhill road.

We were so lucky to be greeted by this lovely who literally made us feel at home and gave us a drink and even cake.

The newly purpose-built municipal albergue in Roncesvalles has numerous large dormitories that house sectioned-off bunkbeds with their individual lockers. We joined a line of other pilgrims to book ourselves in and were asked to leave our shoes in a separate area designated for them, shown where to store the bikes for the night, and queued for the communal washrooms to take a well-earned shower. After looking around the grounds, and having a bite of supper, we wondered what to do next. Deciding not to join the guided tour of the small area surrounding the albergue, as it was conducted in Spanish, we did a tour on our own.

Courtyard of Roncessvalles hostel.

At this point, I need to mention that neither John nor I are particularly conversant in the Spanish language – although I had spent the past few months listening to a school-girl version of Spanish downloaded onto my MP3, and trying fruitlessly to knock some of the words and phrases into my 65-year-old head – not an easy task! So, no, it probably wouldn’t have done either of us any good to go on the tour.

Having said that, we happened to come across this tour group when the excursion was almost complete, and the priest who was conducting it summoned us to join them. We sheepishly followed and found ourselves in the Silo of Charlemagne, the oldest building in the village. It is an unusual structure, square and low, and surrounded by iron railings. Inside we were guided to a pit with a mass of human skulls and other bones. Wishing now that we could understand what was being said, we mused over this rather macabre spectacle long after the group has walked on. Only when the priest rushed back into the building motioning to us to once again follow him, did we understand that we had been in danger of being locked in for the night!

Silo of Charlesmagne.

Later that evening, one of the other pilgrims told us that he had heard that the skeletons were the remains of some pilgrims – a likely story. Another tale was that Charlemagne is reputed to have used the building to house his fallen heroes from the nearby battle in 778. The old French poem “Chanson de Roland” recounts this battle.

Before bedding down for the night we decided to look in on the local Church, and were lucky enough to walk in on a service that was about to start. The service was in Spanish – short and sweet, with a blessing for the whole congregation who consisted entirely of pilgrims about to embark on their own journeys. The priest walked through the throng of onlookers and encouraged us all to shake our neighbour’s hand. After such a tiring, yet in some ways, enjoyable day, we both agreed that we were in for a unique journey.

Day 3 – Roncesvalles to Cizur-Menor

Day 1 – Bayonne to SJPdP

Early the following morning we set out for St-John-Pied-de-Port. We were hungry because we had decided to find a cafe along the way for a bite to eat, although getting out of Bayonne proved to be no easy task, and it was some time before we stumbled across  our first “official” signpost showing the Shell emblem.

Finding the yellow Shell sign you will always know you’re going in the right direction.

We were soon on a track that ran alongside a river until we eventually joined the D918. As we turned a corner and started up a hill I noticed a small hotel with a cosy looking café. I called John back as he had missed it. We ordered some coffee and a few slices of cake (cake for breakfast – you’d never do that at home!). There was nobody else in the cafe and the proprietor was in a chatty mood so it was hard to bid him farewell, particularly when we produced our Pilgrims’ Passes for him to sign and he told us that the two coffees were “on the house”. We got back on the bikes, John said “Pity we didn’t find this hotel yesterday as it looks a good place to spend the night”. The rest of the day we rode along a quiet D918.

Chez Jerome and a well-earned coffee stop.

Our first real cycling day hadn’t been particularly gruelling as we rode along the river valleys with the occasional incline, hardly a hill, thrown in for good measure. As the day wore on, it was getting hotter so we were both glad to reach St-John-Pied-de-Port. Here, we joined other walkers and cyclists who were eager to begin their Camino.

Along with the inevitable shops filled with just about everything you might need on the Camino, there was a very official-looking Pilgrim’s Office. We stopped in there to get our Passports stamped and were greeted by a group of very cheerful, helpful volunteers.

Translated loosely Saint-John-Pied-de-Port literally means “St John at the foot of the pass”. It services the French Pyrenean foothills. Well-frequented by tourists as well as pilgrims it is a convenient starting-off point for many.

Pilgrim’s paradise with the most beautiful quaint row of houses on either side. Here John is off on a search for beds for the night.

It had never occurred to us to book somewhere to stay at any stage of this trip but when we arrived, I did wonder if we should have thought of it for our first stop. As it turned out, we found a charming little pension along the Route de la Citadelle, very near the Pilgrim’s office. Once we had found beds in a mixed dorm, we joined four other pilgrims who already there. The only other woman was Nicki, a young Canadian who was nursing a rather bulky laptop that she insisted she was going to carry with her. There was a father and his son who planned to walk only part of the route because of time constraints. We were surprised to find that they both had iPads with them.

The fourth pilgrim was an elderly American, who had been marking time waiting for a replacement Visa card to be delivered to the local post office, because he had lost his. This gent had almost become a firm fixture at the albergue, with the proprietor giving him free food and lodging while he waited. He had lost everything and was unable to even book passage home until the bank had sent the Card. Indeed, it seemed that just about everybody had various electronic gadgets with them. Whatever happened to “roughing it” which was what I have always associated pilgrimages with? Spending a delightful evening in their company, we all compared notes and experiences of our routes to reach St John. I remember thinking that, if this first night in a dormitory was anything to go by, then we were indeed in for a brilliant trip.

Day 2 – St-John-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Peaking our Interest

How this eventful trip came about will always be a case for speculation. And where do you begin such a story? Christmas of 2012 having been dispensed with, we had months of cold, miserable winter to look forward. My thoughts turned to glorious sunshine and hot days in the middle of nowhere and the idea of doing something more challenging than cycling through leafy France (a favorite) appealed. Besides, John had occasionally mentioned that he knew of people who had been making their way to Spain to ride a “Camino”. The Camino de Santiago, to be exact.

My response had usually been that I didn’t think I could undertake such a journey. So, while I remembered our forthcoming journey as being “my idea”, John claimed that he had wanted to do it for so long that it was just a matter of time before I warmed to the idea. We did agree, however, that whoever thought of it first, the promise of a fun, ambitious holiday swiftly took hold. Hours of research ensued and we managed to find a wealth of information on the internet from people who had already walked or ridden the Camino.

All were helpful; but none could have possibly relayed the overwhelming effect such a trip would have. In June our Pilgrim’s Passports – a necessary prerequisite for the Camino – arrived. John opened the envelope containing them with trembling hands. They popped out and we both stood there looking at them. “Right” said John “I guess this makes it official and there’s no turning back now”.