Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Arrival in Santiago de Compostela

After 14 days of cycling - 49 hours of saddle time, 735 km, 12,519 meters climbed - we arrived in Santiago de Compostela at mid-morning. Arrival was more emotional than I thought it would be. Aside from being physically challenged by the daily hill climbs, simply knowing that this has been a pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of people for centuries took its toll. 

Arriving in the square outside of the cathedral was somewhat anticlimactic. Somewhat like saying to yourself "ok, you're done ... next?". As we stood in line for two hours to have our credentials validated and receive our certificates, the look of joy (and relief) on the faces of those who completed the walk and the cycle was palpable. It's at that point when it hits you ... this is the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO and we are now in amongst an alumni with a shared experience.

Tomorrow we are off on a bus tour to Finesterre and the Costa del Morte for some well deserved R & R before heading back to Barcelona for a couple of days and then home.

We would be happy to share our experience and thoughts with anyone who is interested. While the Camino may not be everyone's idea of a great vacation, it will always stand out in my memory as a momentous achievement.


Saturday, September 30, 2017

100 km to Santiago and the "rules" change

Fast track through days 9, 10 and 11 ... and now we are at 100 km to Santiago de Compostela.

Day 9 (Astorga to Ponferrada) was one of the more challenging days. (Understatement ...) Starting at an elevation of 500m, we climbed to just over 1500m with grades averaging out to a modest 3%. The killer was the descent down to 510m. In one section of the descent, we hit a 26.6% grade. I'm not sure about you, but we were ecstatic to have disc brakes.

Day 10 (Ponferrada to Las Herrerias) gave us a little bit of a break. 45km at a blistering pace of 16kmh and we found ourselves in one of the most bucolic scenes imaginable. The "Rural Inn" that we had booked is owned and run by a brother/sister team who manage the property to perfection. We arrived early (blistering pace) and were greeted warmly by the owners. The terrace and grounds overlooked a pasture filled with cows and their newborn calves. The valley view however was ominous as it provided a preview of the big climb - aka muy alta - that was in-store for us the following day. 

Day 11 (Las Herrerias - Sarria) ... While I don't often use the word "proud" to describe my feelings, I'm making an exception to describe how I feel about Jude's conquering a 1000m climb today. Absolutely outstanding! Once we emerged from the clouds and began our descent into Sarria, we both realized that "we had done it!"; that the balance of the ride to Santiago would be not only doable, but a pleasant experience and time for us to sit back in our saddles and enjoy the view :-) 

One of the things that we learned about the Camino is that "pilgrims" only need to complete the last 100kms to get their credentials. That makes Sarria a very popular place! From this point to Santiago de Compostela we will be joined by the "taxi" and "bus" brigades, which is the description used for those who complete their 100km by hopping in and out of buses and cabs in order to get their passports stamped. Just serves to illustrate that even the Camino is not immune from abuse. 

A couple of notes:

Best place to stay (so far): Paraiso del Bierzo 9/10 (if only it had a spa it would be a slam dunk 10/10)
Best food (so far): little hole in the wall in Sarria, owned and run by young Italians who make the best Italian food this side of ... well, Italy! Matias Locanda.
Best bike shop: thank goodness we have only needed one bike service so far. Front disc pad replacement ... huge thanks and appreciation to "Taller de Bicycletas" in Villafranca del Bierzo! In addition to being an awesome bike mechanic, he also sells Ridley and Pinnerello.

With 100km left to go, our next posting will likely be once we reach Santiago de Compostela and we've taken the opportunity to reflect on this experience.
And, it has been an experience! 

Stay tuned ... 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The second bar is always better (a Camino saying) - Days 7 and 8

Day 7 (long) and day 8 (short) continue to teach us new things about ourselves, our world, and our neighbours. 

Our day 7 ride to Leon was the longest of this trip and at the same time, one of our quickest. Much of the route was on secondary paved  roads with the walkers on an adjacent gravel road. We ended the day in Leon in early afternoon and found time to relax at The Parador Leon (hotel above) before setting out for the evening. 

The hotel began its life in the mid-12th Century built to house and provide protection for the Camino de Santiago pilgrims. Later it became a Monestary, followed by a hospital, army barracks and was then on its way to being another ruins before it was salvaged and restored back to its original purpose. In its current iteration, it is for relatively well-healed pilgrims.

As we were leaving Leon for our day 8 ride (destination Astorga) we were thrilled to see that we were now less than 300 km's from Santiago de Compostela.

This part of the world is so deep and rich in its history. The bridge above was build by the Romans to shuttle their troops across the river. In the 5th Century the bridge and surrounding area became the scene of many epic battles between the Romans and Spanish. The bridge was actually destroyed by the Spanish at one point to halt Napoleons advances into the region. 

Another wonderful oasis built for pilgrims. All of the food and drinks are complimentary, although donations are not refused. 

There is a saying along the Camino that "the second bar is always better". To get a sense of what this means, you need to understand that the Camino pilgrims, walkers and cyclists are the primary source of income for hundreds of little villages and hamlets along the 850 km route. Because of the Camino, Albergues, hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars (and church's survive. As soon as you enter a village, you find yellow arrows (normally intended to guide the pilgrims) pointing every which way to steer you toward a business. There is also (usually) a cafe/bar as soon as you enter town. We learned early on that you should pass on the first bar, because the "second is always better". 

Speaking of which, it is time to sign off this chapter and head out to discover our stop for the night, meet some fellow travelers and perhaps find that - elusive - Spanish paella that we've heard so much about!

With 263 km left to go ... be back soon :-)

Monday, September 25, 2017

At the halfway mark of the Camino - Days 5 & 6

Here we are, Days 5 & 6 completed and we're halfway done The Camino. 397 km completed, 386 to Santiago de Compostela. And, to make us smile even more, most of the hill climbs are behind as well.

At risk of boring you with ride details, especially the hill climbs, this morning was a brutal climb, most of which was pushing the bikes up the hill. 1030 meter climb at an average grade of 14%. Topping the climb off was this beautiful late sunrise view looking east toward Castojeriz, last nights stop. Now, what goes up must come down ... our descent was 620 meters at an 18% grade, on gravel. Now we know the value of disc brakes.

According to the maps, the majority of our remaining ride will be flat, mostly gravel (think Lochside Trail), some pavement. 

Our bikes have done well. Today they deserved a good cleaning and chain lubing. 

Northern Spain has experienced another drought with little rain last winter and virtually nothing available for irrigation this summer. Hectare after hectare of grain fields, interspersed with sunflower fields have dried up from thirst. 

Tonight we are staying at our first Albergue, in the small village of Ledigos. An Albergue is a shared-accommodation, sort of hostel and inn combined. Albergue's are the norm for pilgrims and fill up early in the afternoon. The Camino "walkers" tend to finish their day around 2 pm so that they can be assured a bed. Camino "cyclists" go on for another couple of hours which makes an Albergue bed a little more iffy. 

This is not an Albergue :-) It is the ruins at San Anton and now another UNESCO world heritage site.

Tomorrow is Leon. Time to break out the dancing shoes and learn to Flamenco! With the wind at our backs ...


Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Camino provides ... Day 3 and 4

Yesterday (Day 3) and today (Day 4) were unexceptional and, at the same time remarkable. Unexceptional in that we had to "slog" through many kilometres and climbed thousands of meters before descending and then climb again. The path is not always pleasant, but that is the point of the Camino after all.

Just when you think that you may never find the next town, or your next meal or help to carry your load, we've learned to say, appreciate and understand that the Camino provides. While the next town may still be miles away, the next meal hours to go, and no one around you on the road ... help seems to always arrive. 

At the uppermost altitude on the Camino (Alto de Valbuena), we found an oasis with water, coffee, food and hammocks for the weary. Our ride up to this elevation this morning was 2 hours non-stop, one foot over the other, just keeping the pedals moving.

By mid-day today we rode into the city of Burgos, the state capital. Our ride was through the industrial section of town and our hopes were not high. When we arrived at the centre of the city and caught first glimpses of the Centro de Cuidad, with the most amazing gothic cathedral at one end and the Roman fort just up the hill, it nearly took our breath away. This evening, as apparently happens every Saturday evening, the city squares become alive with music, dining, dating, and thousands of city residents filter down to celebrate the end of one week and the beginning of another.

In our previous post, I promised to only post one picture of a door. I'll also promise to only post one picture of a coffin ... 

After all, how could you not post a photo of the coffin and remains of El Cid who was born in this town. Remember that El Cid fought for both Muslims and Catholics, always (so it is said) in the rightful pursuit of justice. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Vuelta a Español aka Day 2 on the Camino

Some observations on Day 2 ... I've always found days 2 and 3 to be the most challenging. Day 1 you're all excited about the ride, the tour, the vacation and adrenaline tends to carry you along the way. Day 2, you're thinking "meh, maybe I'll just sleep another 15 minutes." Day 3, you're saying "what the *%@& happened to my legs?" By Day 4, you're over the butt discomfort and your legs feel like they could ride forever.

In case you think that we might be taking it easy on Day 2, think again! Today, we rode (on the road) a section of Stage 17 of the Veulta a Español...Spain's Tour de France. 

Our ascent today was just over 1000 meters! 

Along the Camino you have a chance to meet lots of interesting people; hear many interesting stories. You can also be entertained ...

Today was the harvest festival for the grape growers in the state of Rioja. The entire city of Logrono was celebrating and wine was flowing. Even the monastaries and wineries dispense wine (for free) to those on the Camino ... red wine from the left spigot, water from the right. This winery dispenses approx 1000 litres/day to those on the Camino. 

Our destination today is the town of Navarette. The most famous Catholic church in this part of Spain is located here in this tiny town of - maybe 2500 people. "Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion" was built in the early 1500's with an apse that looks like this ...

And yes, that is all gold! 

Finally for today, you can't be on a cycle tour and not take pictures of interesting doors. Here is the one (& only) that we'll post on this trip :-) 


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Buen Camino - the tortoise & the hair

I've cycled tons as an adult ... city cycling, cycle touring, commuting, road cycling, racing, endurance ... the point is that today's ride on the Camino - a mere 50 kms - may have been the most challenging 4 hours on a bicycle ever. 

Start at the start. When we checked in to our hotel in Pamplona yesterday only Judy's bike had arrived. My bike was nowhere to be found. After hours of searching, the bike (box) was located, still at the Pamplona airport. First thing in the morning, I hopped into a taxi to the courier company's office at the airport and after a few translation challenges, the bike box was found, the bike was assembled and I was in the saddle for the ride back to the city. 

Our normal early morning start ended up as a new normal or temporarily normal 12 noon start! 

There is a special place in heaven for Spanish farmers. How they manage to grow fruits & vegetables between the rocks must be close to a miracle. In Spain, I think that they actually must cultivate rocks, 'cause they are everywhere! 

While today's ride was 50km from Pamplona to Estrella, we must have passed & been passed by the same pilgrims 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... times. We would pass them on the flats or downhills, they would pass us on the climbs or uphills. We climbed just under 1000 meters, all of which was in amongst fields of rock!

We did manage to find our angels today. You might remember our story of angels in Budapest (if not, that's ok too). Today our angels were a Cuban, a Canadian and an Italian who helped us bring our bikes & gear up a steep, washed out rock face. Then, they disappeared on us ... curious. 

When all you have is a package of Mentos and your starving, well ... I guess that you go for the mints :-)

We arrived in Estrella with no room reservations. (Note to self: Mistake not to be repeated). Lots of phone calls resulted in a beautiful room at a nice hotel a short distance from the city centre. 

In only one day, it's becoming obvious why people travel the Camino. It's about life, about being who you are, about living. Today we witnessed pilgrims who are searching for a miracle. Far be it from us to judge them. Their life challenges, dare us to see them differently. It is inspiring! 

... talk soon