01 to 05 July – Spain & Camino de Santiago part 1, plus turning forty

Catch up post number 1, covering crossing into Spain over the Pyrenees, and the first part of the Camino de Santiago. Apologies for the scarcity of blogs recently; I’ve been cycling with a few other people and there have been some long days, and fun evenings. As always you can keep up-to-date with where I actually am via my Twitter feed.

Here are my routes and stats for 01 to 04 July inclusive:

01 July: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/821439830https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/821439855

02 July: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/821439916https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/821439948

03 July: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/822825498

04 July: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/823916710

–> 01 July
Top tip; don’t go the wrong way when crossing over the Pyrenees, it hurts one’s legs, quite a lot.

I teamed up with Richard (from Hunstanton), and River (from Korea), for day 1 of the Camino de Santiago, pedalling from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevaux, over the Pyrenees.

Preparing to set off from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Preparing to set off from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

We were up early to try to avoid the worst the heat, and were rewarded by an overcast start; very refreshing after yesterday.

The day started as it meant to go on with some big climbs. We met up with an American, Darren, on a mountain bike, who rode with us for a while but soon left us in his wake due to his very much lighter load.

We had agreed at the beginning of the day that we’d try to stay together, however if some people needed to push that it was fine to carry on and we’d meet up later. It soon became evident that River would mostly be pushing today, however there were points where we all did. After a stop at a supermarket for some fruit and pain-au-chocolat we climbed up a steep road trying to follow the shell signs for the Camino de Santiago. This can sometimes be easier said that done when you’re concentrating on getting up a hill, and when the signs are sometimes a bit obscured; lovely route though.

Unfortunately Richard and I somehow missed a crucial sign that would have taken us over a small bridge to the Spanish side of the river valley, and the correct route for cycling to Roncevaux. This meant we climbed an unnecessary 1,000 feet before we realised our error; a costly one as it was very steep and tiring. It didn’t take us very long to get back down the road, after confirming directions from a helpful passing motorist, and we found the bridge. Later on I was somewhat gratified to learn we are by no means the first people to make this error.

After a bit of a push up from the bridge, the signs for which were easy to miss, we made it to the Spanish side of the valley and continued on, stopping briefly for a cold drink and realising we had to speak a different language now; I’m not very good at Spanish but am slowly picking it up. It was then a hard slog up to over 3,000 feet, as we tackled the pass over the mountains; beautiful scenery but hot and tiring, especially on already wobbly legs. I got my head down, in my easiest gear, and just pedalled on slowly, eventually catching River up who hadn’t missed the turning; good one River! The view from the top was fantastic, and I paused for a while to let the others catch up.

It was very peaceful at the top of the pass (Ibaneta), the silence being punctuated with the clanking of bells from around the necks of horses in a nearby field. River turned up first, followed a bit later on by Richard, who with a heavier bike was suffering in the heat. Luckily there are plenty of water fountains along the route, so you can refill your bottles; this was essential I was drinking constantly, and unfortunately sweating it out just as quickly as it was going in. This also meant suncream didn’t really stay on, so stopping in shady spot was a must. One more downside; lots of biting flies which in some instances drew blood, very irritating!

Once we were all together again, and had sufficiently recovered and/or admired the view, we rode down the hill to Roncevaux, a very nice descent after such a hard climb. I was very glad to be on a bike at this point, as all the walkers,  who follow a different trail over the mountains, would have had a hard time on the knees coming down; I find when walking the way down can be as hard as the way up.

In Roncevaux we opted to stay at the Pilgrims Auberge (hostel), which meant I had to sign up to do at least some of the Camino de Santiago, and get myself a pilgrim’s book, but it was well worth it. I’ll be following a different part of the Camino de Santiago from Leon anyway so it’ll come in handy to have hostel options.

We met up with loads of walkers and other bicycle tourers at the auberge, which can accommodate about 200 people, demonstrating just how busy the Camino de Santiago gets. As in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port there were walkers from all over the world. We got talking to several, including Gorka who is definitely Basque and not Spanish, one traveller from South America, but who lives in Canada, and a Scottish lady (grandmother) walking the trail solo; all really interesting people with tales to tell.

It was a nice atmosphere in the Auberge, with everyone feeling a sense of accomplishment after the day’s efforts. We shared a great communal dinner for just €10, including wine! The hostel is on the site of the church complex in Roncevaux, and was at least being partially run by people with Hospitaller t-shirts on, who were really friendly and helpful; I’m guessing this is an organisation with origins from the Knight’s Hospitaller, who used to help pilgrim’s on the road, and still do.

The Auberge itself is the ancient burial site of the kings of Navarre, and an interesting place to visit in itself. It looked pretty dramatic a bit later on, with a thunderstorm for a backdrop, and lightning flashing in the mountains. Post thunder I fell asleep pretty quickly in the communal bunk-room, something I’ll need to get used to if I stay at a lot of hostels rather than using my tent. Hoping for a shorter day to Pamplona tomorrow.

–> 02 July 
I woke up feeling refreshed, if a little achy after yesterday’s efforts, with the Auberge a hive of activity as people got ready to set off, either on foot or by bike. It was nice being amongst so many people, all heading in the same direction, but I imagine it’s going to start to feel a little crowded after a while. We had just 70km to do today, more than yesterday’s 35 but with less in the way of mountains. We waved Gorka off, who needs to pedal quick in order to finish the Camino de Santiago and get back to his village by 16 July in time for their annual festival, then set off ourselves, electing to cycle as a group again, on my first full day in Spain.

The first part of our ride followed alongside the walker’s trail, so we could see just how many people make this pilgrimage; must be 1000’s every year. We stopped for some breakfast in the first small town we came to, and to pick up a few supplies, then rode on to Pamplona through a mixture of forest and farmland, over a few hills and through more mountains. It was a fairly easy ride, but very hot, and we kept having to remind River to drink more water and watch out for the odd heavy truck; I’m really not sure how he keeps going and stays safe sometimes, but survive he does.

We tried and failed to find the campsite in Pamplona; it’s really hard to get to by bike due to the motorways in the way. In the end we found another pilgrim’s hostel near the old gate into the city (St Frances Gate), which turned out to be a great decision; €15, individual sleeping pods, buffet breakfast and great wi-fi. We followed the pilgrim’s trail into the city, spotting the shell signs at regular intervals, and following the trail of tired walkers.

Pamplona is unlike any city I’ve been to before. It was packed with people, probably because the bull run festival starts shortly. It was a real mix of people too; pilgrims, young travellers, older tourists, and locals, all mixing together. It was great just walking around the streets taking in the atmosphere and architecture, and there was plenty of live music to listen too. We stopped for a beer and to listen to a jazz band for a bit, then spent the rest of the evening replacing burnt calories and chatting.

We did have to keep track of River, who constantly has his camera going filming stuff, and has a habit of not looking where he’s going as a result. He is finding the riding tough, as he’s not used to it, but is keeping up really well at the moment. He has an idea for a ‘Gravity bike’, an invention that will use gravity to help power your pedalling; I’m really not sure how he thinks it’ll work, as I’m pretty sure bikes already do that, but he’s pretty enthusiastic about it (crazy guy).

Walking around Pamplona at night was even more of an experience. It was so crowded, with people sitting out everywhere, just on the street, drinking and socialising with no trouble that we saw; can’t imagine the same happening in the UK. It would have been interesting to stay for the bull running festival that starts on Monday, however I think it would just be too crowded, with the city population swelling from 180,000 to over a million. I’m also not sure I want to see or personally agree with the spectacle, which sees a lot of scared bulls running through the streets, and lots of people injured; broken bones and goring. It’s part of the Spanish culture and I’m not going to get up in arms about it, as we shouldn’t dictate what other people should do, however I’m not supporting it.

On to Logrono tomorrow.

–> 03 July
I think I could get used to this riding as a group thing; it’s nice to have some company, at least for a while, however I’m sure I’ll want some quiet time on my own at some point.

After a good night’s sleep and a fine buffet breakfast (included in price), we were on the road early as we had a lot of km’s to cover to get to Logrono. As with yesterday we passed, or were passed by, lots of other people walking or cycling the Camino de Santiago; it’s traditional to say ‘Bon Camino’, or ‘Buen Camino’, to fellow travellers, so there was an awful lot of that going on.

It turned out to be a really long and hard day’s ride, it being very hot, dusty, and with constant ups and downs. We also remained pretty high, at over 3,200 feet at one point, which I guess must impact somewhat. The plus side of the route was that it was a very quiet road, with little in the way of traffic aside from fellow cycle tourers, of which there were many.

On one long climb I pedalled with a Thomas, a cycle tourer from Poland who is also following the Camino; good to swap a few touring tips and stories on a climb as makes it go faster!

We decided early on we’d stop in Estrella for lunch, however somehow we managed to lose River before we got there. After a long climb during which we all got separated due to different rates of ascent, Richard and I waited for him at the top…and waited…and waited. I cycled back down the hill, twice, to look for him, wondering where on earth he’d got to. We asked other people coming the same way but they’d not seen him. There were only 3 options; he’d turned North down a side road (most likely), swung onto the motorway (surely not), or had accident/bike failure and gone into the small town we passed (unlikely as it was a climb and he’d be walking). In the end we had to push on and hope we met up with him in Estrella, but it was with a worried heart; we’d already waited an hour a half and searched considerably.

We asked a group of tourers in Estrella if they’d seen River, and indeed they had seen a Korean gentleman pedalling through, filming stuff! At the time we had no idea how he’d got past us, but caught him up at the edge of town, and discovered he’d taken the motorway! This is a brilliant example of signs that are lost in translation; the road down onto the motorway has a sign saying no cyclists, pedestrians, or horse and carts, represented by red circles with the mode of transportation in the middle. To a Westerner the meaning is fairly obvious (not allowed), however River thought it meant the opposite; okay to cycle on. He took the motorway down to Estrella completely bypassing us, and it turns out this isn’t the first time he’s used it. In France, to get from Toulouse to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port he mostly rode on the hard shoulder of the motorway as he thought it was fine to do so, and indeed that you’re invited to do so by the sign. He thought it a little odd that no-one else was on it, but waved back to motorists whilst breaking for a sandwich on the hard shoulder when they shouted ‘greetings’ at him from their car windows. In hindsight this is funny, but also incredibly illegal and pretty dangerous.

Anyway, all’s well that ends well and he knows now. We were re-united and cycled on, but it was very tough going, and we were pretty late getting to Logrono as a result. We ascended over 1,400 metres today, in temperatures of over 35 degrees Celsius, which explains why the ride took so long; lots of water stops required too.

We rolled into Logrono at 21.00, with tired legs and fried brain cells, stopping the first Albergue (hostel) we could find and getting a hose down courtesy of the receptionist in the backyard; very refreshing. The hostel was only €7 for the night, but turned out to be exceedingly hot, with plastic coated beds that were very uncomfortable, so maybe we should have tried a different one.

After a shower we headed into Logrono centre and found a much-needed pizza, followed by a cold beer and in my case a gin and tonic; I’d been fantasising about one all day. I love the way they serve spirits in Spain at the table; they pour the spirit into your glass at your table, with no real measure, and I didn’t know you had to say stop. I ended up with a pretty strong but delicious G&T, and Richard with Lord knows how many vodka’s in his glass; all medicinal I reckon.

It was great to relax with friends after a tough day, and a relief to all be back together and safe after losing River for a time. Tomorrow I’d be heading on to Santo Domingo dela Calzada on my own, to meet my parents, whilst the others take a rest day, however I hoped to meet up with at least Richard the day after to continue on the Camino de Santiago to Leon.

–> 04 July
Whilst it was very nice to ride with people, I was quite looking forward to a day on my own and going at my own pace, and I also needed some space before turning forty the next day! I got up at just after 06.00, it just being too hot and sweaty to sleep, and went downstairs to do some planning; at least wifi was good.

I bid goodbye to the others, hoping to see them soon, or River in Korea sometime in the future, and set off following the walkers trail, with plenty of ‘bon caminos’ for the first 10km. Whilst it was just as hot today I knew I only had about 50km to do, and it was flatter so I made good time. I rejoined the road near Aleson, as the trail got a little bumpy, and made even better time on the last stretch, finishing in Santo Domingo dela Calzada after a final long climb by midday.

I opted to stay in an Albergue again, as the campsite was quite a way out-of-town and didn’t have very good reviews. The hostel proved much better than the previous in Logrono, and was only €7; it did have a 22.00 curfew and 08.00 kick out though, as do many pilgrim hostels.

Then hostel was packed with pilgrims, including 3 Dutch cyclists I shared a room with, and who were good company if a little crazy. Once I’d dumped my stuff and had a rest I met up with my parents who had come over from England to visit for my birthday, and were staying in the Parador (state-run hotel) next to the Church. They took the boat over to Bilbao, and drove the rest of the way; the North coast sounds lovely, and cooler! It was fantastic to see them, and lovely to take some downtime for my birthday the next day.

The day finished with another refreshing thunderstorm, after a nice meal in the hotel with Mum and Dad. The Parador seemed very civilised and posh after staying in my tent or in hostels for the last 2 months; they have knives, forks, napkins and everything! It’s also quite a striking building, especially inside, as it’s built on the site of an old Pilgrim’s hospital.

–> 05 July – fortieth birthday….arrrgggghhh
No cycling today; birthday and day off with my parents. Even though it was my birthday I did have to get up and leave the hostel by 08.00. The 3 flying dutchman sang me happy birthday, a bizarre experience, and then set off to Burgos. I had a walk around town in the cool, then some breakfast from the supermarket, read a bit of my book next to a fountain, and then met up with Mum and Dad; an excellent start to the day.

I don’t feel any different for turning forty, certainly no more grown up, and doesn’t life now begin at forty? It’s not something I’ve been worrying about particularly, however I do have a bit of an odd feeling about now being older than Lu was before she passed away. As always if you’re enjoying this blog, and have some spare pennies, please consider donating some money to the Big C, a fantastic Norfolk Charity that do so much to help people suffering from Cancer: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=james

Thanks to those who have already donated!

Turning forty has hardened my resolve to fill as much time as possible with new experiences and adventures; fun stuff whilst balancing versus responsibilities. I keep thinking about future tours, and haven’t even finished this one yet; South America has to be on the cards, as does Canada, and back to Norway sometime.

Dad and I tinkered with my bike in the morning, taking off the redundant stand which isn’t really fixable; need a different type of stand. I checked in to the Parador for a night of luxury thinking why not, you’re only forty once, and it as a present from my parents (thank you!). The room and ensuite were amazing, so much so that I forgot to take a picture.

Richard pedalled into town a few hours later, having started early, and we all went out for lunch; a great €12 pilgrim’s menu including wine. I also got to have some Sangria, which I’d been looking forward to for ages (since France), and made a fine celebratory drink.

It was nice to catch up with my parents in person, and hear about news from home. Thanks to Will, Louisa Seb and Anna for my box of delights (beer and snacks for the road including much-needed Haribo reinforcements), and to Norman, Sheila and Susan for the funky t-shirts which will no doubt appear in a picture soon; also really needed some replacement clothes! And thanks for all the birthday greetings via card or internet too (including a great double bonus card from my Uncle John!).

Santo Domino dela Calzada is a lovely small town, and was a perfect rest stop for my birthday. We rounded off the day, post siesta, with drinks in the evening and then a very comfy night in the Parador.

Oh, and River turned up in town later that day, having decided to carry on cycling for a bit before heading down to Madrid, however I didn’t see him as he had the hostel curfew to contend with; maybe tomorrow, who knows with the magical mystery River.

Next up it’s the road to Burgos and Leon.

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