Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Bike Ride to the End of the World (and back a bit)

6 or 7 years ago I read Spanish Steps by Tim Moore, where Tim Moore tells the tale of his walk along the Camino de Santiago with a donkey. Straight away I knew I had to do it. Okay, so not walking and not with a donkey, but I wanted to ride it.

For those who don't know, there are half a dozen or so Caminos de Santiago which are all pilgrimage routes through Spain which finish in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route I homed in on was the Camino Francais which starts in St Jean Pied du Port, in the French Basque region, and runs along northern Spain finishing in Santiago.

After years of humming and hawing about it I'd found countless excuses for not doing it…logistically it was too complicated….how would I find my way….my Spanish isn't good enough…I can't find anyone else daft enough to ride it with me….I'm too chicken! Then, last year's accident gave me a bit of a wake up call. If I wanted to do this route, I'd just have to get on with it.

So I bought books and maps, investigated the logistics of getting to St Jean and home from Santiago, investigated luggage, accommodation and terrain and decided I was still too chicken. This time however, Chris had heard me going on about it for too long, so he had caved in and volunteered to come with me to stop me going on about it.

That was it. No more excuses.

Planning in began in earnest. Dates were agreed. Time booked off work. Fights booked. Then thoughts turned to what bike and luggage arrangement would work best.

We opted to travel light. After all, we could be grubby, manky and smelly together.

The journey out was a bit convoluted, but we and bikes arrived in one piece, checked into our only pre-booked accommodation until Santiago and then found the office of the Confraternity of St Jean to pick up our credentials.

We had a vague plan of how far we wanted to ride each day based on the books we'd studied before leaving home. The aim was to ride to Santiago in 10 days, then spend a further 2 days riding from Santiago  to Finisterre and back, so 12 days riding in total. It all looked do-able…days of between 60k and 80k and we had all day to ride, so, on paper, easy!

Day 1 was planned to be the biggest, toughest and longest day - an 85km ride up and over the Pyranees into Spain aiming to spend our first night in Puenta la Reine.

So after a big breakfast and a wee bit of faffing we headed to the post office to post our bike bags to Santiago and we were off up the hill out of town. Both commenting on how quiet it was….then we had to turn around and head back down the hill…in the right direction.

Once we got started, the navigation proved to be much easier than expected. For the ride over the Pyranees the Confraternity recommended taking the road to avoid having to climb over the col, but that would have meant leaving the real camino and riding on road, so we opted to stick to the trail. Very soon we realised why the old bloke at the Confraternity had recommended the road…it was a proper humph! Within the first hour, our hearts were sinking with the amount of pushing we were having to do. It was so steep!

Our first big "milestone" was when we crossed the Spanish border up in the Pyrannees. According to that "milestone" we had quite a long way to go to get to Santiago, but not as far as our maps said we had…all good we thought.

The big day and hot weather took it's toll and by mid afternoon we hadn't been able to get nearly as far as we'd hoped to, so we had to make a call to find somewhere to stay for the night and re-assess our plans. The first hostel we tried was full, but luckily, the one around the corner had space, served food and had space for us to wash our kit, so we took it as a sign that we should stay there for the night.

We had only managed to cover about two thirds of the distance we'd hoped to cover on our first day. Spirits were low and Chris was very, very sunburnt!

From then on, we decided to just go with the flow and forget the plan we had made before setting off.  We had a few days spare at the end of our trip, so we could afford to take a bit longer. And if we didn't make it, well, we could come back and try again another time.

Over the following days we carried on following the yellow arrows, passing peregrinos (walking pilgrims), receiving wishes of Buen Camino from walkers, locals, shop keepers, cafe owners. In fact, we were receiving well wishes from everyone we rode past, regardless of how grubby and smelly we were or how narrow the trail was. Navigation was far easier than expected, but finding accommodation was a bit more difficult. Most days we had to try 3, 4 even 5 hostels before we found one with space, but we always found somewhere to stay and somewhere to wash our grubby kit. We stayed in council sports halls along with 50 other tired peregrinos, single sex dormitories, truck stop motels, brand new hostels, falling apart, ancient hostels and even the spare bedroom of a random bloke who overheard us being turned away at the inn. Everywhere we stayed, we got our credential stamped to prove that we'd got there and hadn't cheated by taking the bus to Santiago.

The riding was far more varied than I had expected too. We rode miles of dirt track, miles of brilliant white track, cobbles, jaggedy Roman cobbles, riverside singletrack, woodland tracks and a little bit of road.

We quickly discovered that the Camino seems to have it's own measure of distance and altitude! From our homework before we left, we had noted down distances between places and altitude on the climbs. We also studied the bumf we got from the Confraternity which stated distances. Our GPS proved that all of that was rubbish! The distances were totally different and climbs were never as high or as low as everything told us they should be. Sometimes a town that was signposted to be 15km away turned out to be 30km. A mountain pass that was meant to be 1000m would turn out to be 1200m. But it worked the other way too. Towns that were meant to be 10km away would appear after only 4km.

So we decided that the Caminometer must be the official unit of measure for distance and altitude on the Camino and that it bore no resemblance to the unit of measure we're used to.

We spent 2 and a half days riding across pan flat, dead straight tracks, seeing snow capped mountains on the horizon on our left, behind us and in front of us. Although we covered a lot of ground much more quickly on the flat days, it was tough. There wasn't much to keep our interest except the rustle of snakes at the side of the trail and wishing the walkers we passed a Buen Camino. The distance we covered in those 2 and half days would have taken the peregrinos over a week to walk, so hats off to them for being so cheery and encouraging as we passed them.

At the end of the flat section we'd caught up on our plan and ended up being half a day ahead of where we'd initially expected to get to by that point and all of a sudden getting to Santiago in 10 days seemed far more achievable.

The next mountain range included the highest point along the Camino at Cruz de Ferro. The ride up there turned out to be much less of a grind than we had expected as we rode through landscape that could easily have been in the Cairngorms with purple and blue heather (yes, really vivid blue!) and yellow broom alongside wild thyme and lavender. We could see snowy peaks all around us and could just make out hills in the distance we'd ridden over to get to where we were.

Reaching Cruz de Ferro is traditionally a watershed for peregrinos. It's the last of the big mountains and it's officially more than half way. We added the pebbles we'd brought from home to the massive pile of pebbles left there by other peregrinos, put on our long sleeved tops and gillets and headed on for the descent.

We'd read that the descent was pretty rough and all the books recommended not cycling it, but that's just an invitation for us really!

It was possibly one of the best and longest descents I've ridden. Because I had a heavily laden bike and there were lots of well wishing walkers, we couldn't go flat out, but it was awesome! (Not a word I use, but the only word I can find to describe the descent!) I needed all my enduro skills to keep me and my bike upright whilst riding rocky drop offs without being able to get off the back of my saddle because of my big yellow saddle pack, trying to get enough weight back to offset the weight of the pack I had on my bars, keeping an eye out for the yellow arrows to make sure I didn't go off on the wrong trail, picking my way through the babyhead rocks. All the way the well wishing walkers were oohing and aching and giving us encouragement as we rattled past them on the rockiest, roughest, steepest descent we'd come across so far, all 20k of the descent. (I couldn't get any photo's of the really good bits of the descent because I was having too much fun to stop and take a photo, so this one'll have to do.)

To top of the great descent, as soon as we rolled into the village where we hoped to find, a lovely lady told us she had one room left in her hostal and that, yes, she could do a washing for us. Win!

The following morning we knew we had another mountain range to reach and cross, so we made an early start. Rolling into a big town 20km further on we were pulled over by the guardia civil. We couldn't think what we'd done wrong except maybe riding on busy road. Believe it or not though the guardia hopped back into his car (which we later noticed had official UCI stickers on it), told us to follow him and he lead us through the town, stopping traffic as he went to allow us to get through the town. On the edge of town, he pulled over again, gave us more directions and wished us a Buen Camino.

The next mountain range proved tougher than expected although it wasn't as high as the last range (that might have been the Caminometer again though). After a very long, very hot climb up to the col we were desperate to find somewhere to stay, but all the hostels were full. One of them kindly phoned a friend and arranged a room for us in a case rural a little bit further on. The case rural turned out to be about 5km off the Camino and about 800m down a valley, but we'd freewheeled down there and didn't have the energy to ride back up to try to find somewhere else, so we stayed and it was a bit of a win. Staying in a farmhouse in a valley that could've been in Wales, eating home butchered and cured jamon and having our hostess, the farmers wife, making us eat more since we had a big day ahead of us. The only noise in the valley was the mooing of the cows and the ringing of their bells, so we slept like logs that night.

On the climb back up to the Camino the following morning, we realised we were finally in Galicia and getting very close to Santiago. It certainly wasn't all downhill into Santiago as we'd thought though. Although the hills weren't as big, they were steep and there were a lot of them. As we rolled into Santiago, we knew our trip was almost over, but we were determined to keep going on to Finisterre.

We had planned to ride out to Finisterre and back to Santiago in two days. After all, it was less than 100km from Santiago to Finisterre, so that should be easy….not really! This stretch of Camino (actually a separate Camino) was really quiet. Not as many peregrinos continue on out to Finisterre, but they're really missing some fantastic trail and scenery.

The scenery is an odd mix of north western Scotland with eucalyptus trees thrown in. Mountainous, rocky, very green and, unfortunately for us, very, very rainy and cold. Because it was so wet and cold, we had to  cut our day short and only made it half way to Finisterre that day.

We woke up to more rain the following morning, but it wasn't quite as heavy and luckily we managed to find a cafe for a hot chocolate when the rain really chucked down, but we could see the Atlantic from that cafe, so we didn't hang around too long.

The final few kilometres out to Fisterra and then on out to the lighthouse at Finisterre were quite emotional. The rain stopped, the skies cleared, the views got better and we were almost there. On the ride out of Fisterra and up the last climb out to the lighthouse we got cheers and claps and Buen Caminos from almost everyone we passed.

Reaching that lighthouse and the very last milestone on the Camino was amazing, emotional and maybe a little bit overwhelming (I'm getting a bit emotional again now when I think about it).

12 days of riding, we'd covered 960km from France, over the Pyrannees, through Navarra, Rioja, Castille, Leon and Galicia, all the way across the north of Spain and right out to the end of the world. Our ride was over. We had made it. I'd ridden the route I'd wanted to ride for years.

Rather than burning our shoes out at the end as many peregrinos do, we opted to hang on to them so that we could ride back into town and catch a bus back to Santiago. Another hot chocolate and we rode back to Fisterra to catch the bus back to Santiago to collect our certificate for completing the Camino from the Confraternity office. We didn't need that certificate, but we'd done it and needed to prove to ourselves that we really had done it. After we had collected our bike bags (which had some clean clothes stashed in them), we started planning our next adventure….