The final stretch

19 08 2015

D5: Sobrado Dos Monxes – Santiago de Compostela = 60 km

We made it! Even though we were only five days on the road, it seemed a bit surreal to finally arrive in Santiago.

At the end at last!

At the end at last!

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The camino begins – Luarca to Mondoñedo

15 08 2015

D1: Luarca – Ribadeo = 52.5 km

Started the day off right – still dark, threatening rain and a nice steady climb up and out of the gorge of Luarca. Oh dear, what did we sign ourselves up for? 12 km down the trail, we stopped for breakfast. A few minutes after we arrived, the hiking peregrinos arrived. Were we cycling at a walker’s pace?

In Luarca, early morning, getting ready for take off

In Luarca, early morning, getting ready for take off

Yes, our first kilometres of the day were slow going because at times, it was a bit like trying to bike on the Bruce Trail, which our bikes weren’t exactly equipped for. This was a reoccurring challenge with cycling the camino – at times, the official route was perfect – paved, quiet road through the countryside – while other times it was rugged with large rocks which forced us to walk our bikes. So, after breakfast, we decided to take the road for a bit and cover some kms. In fact, throughout the journey we were continuously faced with this dilemma – camino or corresponding road – and tried to take the camino whenever possible, but took the road when we needed to get some kms on our belt or if word on the trail was that the upcoming section was rough.

Our first day was quite hilly, with lots of ups and downs, but nothing compared to what we would face in days to come. We stopped again in Navia and meandered through a flea market where I bought some light reading – the controversial Adventures of Tin Tin. A picnic lunch in Tapia de Casariego, another quaint harbour town with some beautiful nearby beaches where there were even some surfers.

Our seaside lunch spot in Tapia de Casariego

Our seaside lunch spot in Tapia de Casariego, the last main town in Austurias

We followed the coast a bit further, then crossed the giant bridge into and the city of Ribadeo and headed to the albergue. Unfortunately, it was full. We were ready to call it a day and didn’t want to risk the next albergue (7 km away) being full as well. So after cycling around town a few times to find the best price, we checked into a cheap hotel and collapsed.

The beautiful coast, just past Tapia de Casariego, on our last leg of the day

The beautiful coast, just past Tapia de Casariego, on our last leg of the day

The bridge that crosses the Rio de Ribadeo or del Eo into Galicia

The bridge that crosses the Rio de Ribadeo or del Eo into Galicia

We had forgotten this container of melon and cherries at the albergue in Luarca. Some mysterious anonymous peregrino carried them to the albergue in Ribadeo!

We had forgotten this container of melon and cherries at the albergue in Luarca. Some mysterious anonymous peregrino carried them to the albergue in Ribadeo!

D2: Ribadeo – Mondoñedo = 36 km

We were on our bikes by 08:00 and were once again embarked on an uphill start that continued for about 7 km. The aches and pains from the first day had now set in, so I was feeling quite slow, and Breanna pointed this out in saying, “I don’t know how you find it comfortable to go that slow.” We soon realized our different cycling styles – Breanna going faster uphill but in shorter bursts, and me going slow and steady – with both styles got us to the top in more or less the same time.

A furry fellow who wanted to join our camino

A furry fellow who wanted to join our camino

Our morning stop was in San Xusto where we met some other peregrinos, followed by a long difficult uphill on a gravel trail. But at least our efforts were rewarded by a fun downhill. Once in Lorenza, we switched to the N-634 road for a bit to avoid going down and back up a ravine. A bit more up hill, then finished the day with a nice 4 km downhill into Mondoñedo, and eventually found the albergue after asking a few locals. After some R & R at the albergue, heading for some tapas in the main plaza – patatas bravas, croquetas y tarta de Santiago, an almond cake that is a specialty in Galicia.

The lovely plaza in Mondonedo

The lovely plaza in Mondoñedo

A reoccurring thought as I cycled was how one’s mental and emotional state follows the physical terrain. When cycling uphill or on difficult terrain, I thought, “Why am I doing this again?” “I don’t like this.” “This is hard.” “I can’t do this.” And these were the moments, too, when Breanna and I were most likely to have conflicts. However, a few minutes later on the downhill, these thoughts became, “This isn’t so bad. In fact, this is amazing and so much fun.” “Look at the beautiful scenery!” Along our camino, the terrain was hilly, but would have our emotional states varied so much if we would have traveled a flatter route? More even-keeled? Just something I pondered while turning my pedals…

From Breanna's Instagram (@breannamyles)

From Breanna’s Instagram (@breannamyles)

El camino

12 08 2015

A couple weeks ago, I welcomed my sister at the Barcelona airport, the fourth and final member of my family to visit me in Spain! The first few days, as she recovered from jet lag and I finished my final shifts of work, we stayed in Barcelona – cycling around the city, enjoying a picnic and open-air cinema at Castell de Montjuïc (which offers an amazing vista overlooking the city and the sea), delicious Neapolitan pizza and of course, craft beer. But after a few days in Barcelona, we embarked on the real meat and potatoes part of her visit – cycling the last 250 km of the Camino del Norte from Luarca to Santiago de Compostela.

As the Wikipedia story goes, Santiago de Compostela became an important Christian pilgrimage site after the remains of apostle Saint James were discovered there in the 9th century. The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, which denotes several different routes culminating in Santiago, became increasingly well travelled in the Middle Ages as it was means for pilgrims to earn indulgences. However, supposedly the camino’s origins date back much earlier than this widely known history indicates. As early as 1000 BC, Celtic pagans travelled this route, then known as Via Finisterre, in search of the land’s end (as the name suggests) and the sun’s resting place as a born again ritual. Rather interesting.

While there are several caminos originating from different locations, the Camino del Norte starts in Irú and follows the northern coast of Spain through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Austurias and Galicia.

Barcelona – Luarca (by bus)

Travelling with bikes proved to be a bit of a hassle, unless of course we were riding them. Not only did the bus company require us to pay a 15 euro charge to transport each bike, but upon arriving at the bus terminal, they also required us to pay 12 euros each for a bike bag. But at this point, what other choice did we have?

A long 15 hour journey through Lleida, Zaragoza, Burgos, León and Ovieda, drifting back and forth between sleep and snacks. Met a Belgian guy on the bus who had walked the Camino del Norte three years ago, and now embarking on the journey again, starting in Gijon. So, there must be something to this camino business, or at least something a bit addictive…

Luarca greeted us with typical weather – rain and rather cool, and we both wondered if we’d packed appropriately – definitely a contrast to the scorching temperatures in Barcelona. Re-assembled the bikes, warmed up with a cup of chocolate and headed to the first albergue we saw.

Luarca, the quaint coastal fishing town where we started our camino

Luarca, the quaint coastal fishing town where we started our camino

An albergue is the type of accommodation you find along the camino – cheap (usually about 6 euros a bed), anywhere from 12 to 60 pilgrims or peregrinos in a room (so sometimes a symphony of snoring to listen to through the night), basic yet all the essentials. At our first one, in Luarca, we obtained our pilgrim’s credentials and got our first stamp!

At the albergue, we met a 16 year old guy from Olot (a city in Catalonia). Our conversation began when he asked me if he could cook rice in the microwave. I wasn’t sure but gave an encouraging response. He’d been walking the camino for 16 days, starting in San Sebastian. With dismal summer job prospects (remember Spain’s unemployment rates), why not walk the camino? With just a couple hundred euros in his pocket and needing to make it last the trip (and too proud to ask his parents to send him more), he hadn’t eaten the day before and had camped in the forest the previous night, or at least tried to. Woken up by rain, he fled to the awning of a shop. He was getting tired he said and had 10 days left and wasn’t sure if he would finish. Not sure if he did, but I sort of think so.

That night, as with almost every night, we anxiously awaited the re-opening of restaurants around 8 PM. Appropriately, we went to a sideria and had some local cider with croquetas de jamon and a board of different Austurian cheeses and some apple jam. We even had some leftovers to take on the trail with us. Early to bed, early to rise – we wanted to get a nice early start for our first day – a bit nervous or at least uncertain of what it would hold.

Off on two wheels

6 03 2015

After spending the better part of two months in beautiful and bustling Barcelona, I finally made my escape (although maybe temporary). I packed my panniers and and headed for Tarragona, where I had arranged a HelpX at another hostel. I had originally planned to cycle right from Barcelona, but following the advice of a Catalan friend who was more familiar with the roads than I was, I took the train to Sitges, a costal town 40 km south of Barcelona. Spent the afternoon and night in Sitges, staying at a nice hostel with a beachy vibe, and appropriately called Utopia Beach House. Great staff, clean, colourful and lots of outdoor areas to chill. 

As recommended, I went to Big Al´s burger joint (probably my first burger since arriving in Catalonia as it’s not the typical local cuisine), after all they had Edge beers on tap. Biked around quite a bit, then had my afternoon vermouth at a tapas place beside the sea. Since been told that the appropriate hour for vermouth (which is quite popular here, served with a orange slice and a couple olives) is actually before lunch, but I´ve come to quite enjoy this refreshing drink, so I´m likely to break this custom again in the future. 

 The next day I got a later than expected start after waiting for the bike shop to open, having my morning cafe con leche and croissant, and packing up, but I got off eventually. My first cycling adventure! I was excited but also a bit nervous because I didn’t know what to expect (i.e. how good of shape I was in or what the road ahead was like – what if it was one big, long uphill!?!)

My first break was Cubelles, 15 km down the road. The croissant had long disappeared, so I replenished the tank with a bocadillo con jamon and queso, and of course, a caña to rehydrate and olives. Normally, I haven´t been a huge olive fan, but here, I have developed quite a taste for them, especially when they automatically come with your drink. When I got back on my bike I realised that I might have overindulged all at once, and in the future I would eat more moderately to make it easier to start cycling again.

I had identified a route of regional roads, staying off the main highways (which I’m quite sure don´t allow bikes anyway). But even this road sometimes had a speed limit of up to 100 kph and plenty of trucks. Not exactly the idyllic cycling trip I had envisioned. I made a few different attempts to get off this busy road, which resulted in longer than anticipated “detours”, some of them quite scenic and lovely, others on little more than a dirt path, and others that had me thinking, “What the heck am I doing?”

At one point, I stopped for a much-needed rest at the unfortunate location of Burger King in Sant Vincenç de Calders. I had just done a particularly sweaty 15 km on a busy road, so here, I contemplated, researched and finally decided to head towards the sea and try to find some better way. I did…eventually, and the trail I found (after carrying my bike up a dirt path and a set of stairs) was very rewarding. A walking path right along the sea, where bikes were usually prohibited, but as an older man assured me, I could ride on since it was supposedly winter (even through it was over 20C and I had been cycling in shorts and a tank top).

Needless to say, some kilometres were better than others.

All and all, my jaunt was just a mere 62 km (according to Google Maps, but more likely a few more including the detours). By most cyclists´ standards a short day, but for me and my 12 o’clock start, it was enough. 

Here in Tarragona for a few more days. I’m enjoying the small town vibe of the old city. However, I’m planning to head back to Barcelona for a beer festival this weekend. Then, vamos a ver, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I can put my two wheels back in the open road.