Our departure from France into Spain includes many transitions, from the land to the culture and many things in between. We left behind relatively flat and easy terrain of our route in France for the hills and mountains of Spain. Our first day was the most challenging climb of all–crossing over the Pyrenees. We only went 25 km but included 1500 meters (~4500 feet) of elevation gain over the course of 20 km (approx 12 miles)–certainly no easy feat considering our heavy bikes, gear, and my minimal training on hills until then. Daniel had some hill training under his belt from Scotland but had over a month of easy riding since this time to decondition a bit.
Fortunately we were rewarded with stunning views throughout making the hard work worth it and making an excellent distraction to the fatigue. We traveled slowly and needed to push our bikes up several of the roads due to the steep incline. However, had I been in better shape and with less gear to carry, I don’t think the 25 km would have taken any faster because there were so many beautiful spots to stop for taking photos and soaking in the views. If anything, the challenging terrain ensured plenty of time to just enjoy the scenery and feel no need to rush through. As we climbed, we saw views of the foothills, small villages and farms, herds of animals, and beautiful vistas.
Fog settled in as we climbed higher, obscuring our views of the mountains, but creating a unique and surreal atmosphere that added to the adventure, especially with the sound of bells occasionally ringing in the distance carried on livestock.
Our departure from Saint Jean de Pied Port also marked the beginning of the Camino de Santiago de Compestella as we officially joined in with the Camino Frances route, the most popular route travelled by pilgrims each year. We only saw a handful of pilgrims that day but could already sense the comraderie that we would continue to enjoy throughout the Camino. We met both a family from Brazil also biking and a man from France who were both kind enough to help me push my heavy bike up the last more technical, steep, slippery terrain to the top of the climb which I was very grateful for and were greeted with our first “Buen Camino’s” from travelers and locals alike that day. We quickly descended down a paved path to Roncesvalle where we stayed at our first albergue of the trip, similar to a hostel with large shared rooms and communal space for eating and cooking, and met several other pilgrims also just starting the Camino. Albergues are easy to find along the Camino and most people stay here rather than carry camping supplies on the trek. We celebrated the end of the hard day with a beer and Dan was excited to have his first opportunities to brush up on Spanish with travellers and locals alike now being in Spain.
We enjoyed the comforts of the albergue with a warm shower, bed, and others to talk to, but quickly learned the next morning that most close quickly in the morning and there is no time to linger. Us and the handful of other cyclists seemed to be the last ones out the door when it closed at 8am (a common theme for us throughout the Camino…) and we headed out, looking forward to a day of mostly downhill riding to Pamplona to recover after the day before. It was cold but we bundled up in all of our layers and enjoyed the descent through the mountains with beautiful views of forests and occasional cliff faces in the distance, leading me to daydream about what climbing possibilities must abound here. We had a few hills heading into Pamplona but all easy grades compared to the day before–however, I could definitely tell I was pretty tired after going over the Pyrenees!
We didn’t spend much time in Pamplona besides biking through but made a stop so I could pick up a Spanish SIM card–much cheaper and better coverage than what I found in France and was able to get 3.5Gb of data for the month for 20 euro. We had contemplated a larger climb out of Pamplona to the Peak of Perdon in hopes of wild camping near the top or going to one of many cheaper albergues on the other side. However, after such a big day the day before, the goal was too lofty and we ended up staying just outside Pamplona in a small Basque village called Zairquiegui. It was our most quiet albergue on the trip with only one other guest and I thought a nice time to write and post a blog post—hahaha didn’t get very far obviously. There was no kitchen so we were glad to have our stove and supplies and cooked a feast on a very small balcony off of our room. Even when albergues have had kitchens, we have often been grateful to have our own cooking things as often there are too many people trying to cook at once and usually a nice patio area to relax on for cooking.
We confronted what we put off the day before by summiting the Peak of Perdon first thing the next morning. It was only 2 km to the top but took over an hour–it was mostly rocky, steep singletrack and most hikers passed us as we pushed our bikes to the top. We were grateful for a rest area partway with a table full of fruit, juice, and other snacks and a donation box–something again we would run into several times on the Camino. At the top, we reunited with the Brazilian biking family who we met in the Pyrenees before continuing on to Estella for a shorter day, again still tired and building up my strength and endurance for hills. Estella was our first chance to have more time at the albergue to really soak up socializing with the other travelers and ended up going out for a great meal with a group of people from Brazil, Italy, and Ireland, along with a woman from Switzerland who was also cycling. We had some simple but delicious pasta at an Italian restaurant and were excited to find for 8.50 Euro we were filled with wine, pasta, bread and dessert all included! When we returned to the albergue, a group of friendly Italians invited us over to their table to socialize and give us more food. I thought I’d be full but have found our bodies are on a whole other level of metabolism with biking and can always seem to eat more food.
The next morning, I decided it was time to go through all of my things and really consider what I needed and what I didn’t. I had initially considered sending a few things home in a month when Dan’s parents would meet us in Spain but decided it was worth the money to do it now as I examined the elevation profile in the days ahead. There were several small items I donated to the free pile at the albergue and a couple more expensive items I mailed home that morning. We initally discussed riding only 20km from Estella that day to let our bodies rest but ended up surprising ourselves with how strong we felt and carried on to Logrono. I credit part of the renewed energy to the free wine from the Fuente de Vino (wine fountain) on the Camino climbing out of Estella, one of the greatest wonders I have ever witnessed.
In Logrono, we stayed at our first donativo, a donation-based albergue that included an awesome communal dinner and breakfast with the other travellers and run by a group of volunteer parishes. Even more than the free food, we appreciated the chance to get to know other travellers over the shared meal. We even met a man who had walked the Camino starting from his front door in Poland! Following the dinner, there was an optional prayer ceremony led by the parish at the church connected to the albergue. Though not religious, I found the messages in the prayers were more universal and related to the adversity, changes, and growth experienced by travelers on the Camino. The messages certainly resonated with me as I adjusted to harder terrain and transitioned to life as a cycle tourist; it was the beginning of a change in my perspective and attitude in any challenges I was facing. I also enjoyed the experience of hearing the service in languages from all over the world, representing each person staying at the albergue that evening.
Leaving Logrono, we decided to cover more ground in order to stay on schedule and were so excited by our first donativo stay that we planned our ride to aim for another donativo that night 85 km away, just past Belorado. As we were reaching the final 20 kms, we noticed a cycle tourist on the road ahead with red panniers; we thought the setup looked familiar and possibly our Swiss friend from Estella. We decided to hop off the dirt Camino path and aim to catch up; indeed it was our friend. We convinced her to also join us past the many albergue options in Belorado for the donativo a little further away only to find the place appeared to be closed and no one answered when we finally arrived. At this point we were all pretty tired and it was getting late but continued down the road to search for other options in the villages to come. The next two albergues in the next couple towns also ended up being closed and ended up biking in the dark and an additional 10km to finally find one open in Villafranca Montes de Oca. When we had arrived at that first closed albergue, I dreaded the thought of biking any further as I was pretty exhausted but found that final 10km to be not as bad as anticipated once I reset my mindset and tapped in to some of the messages I remembered from the night before.
We headed out the next day with some more big climbs but enjoyed a nice rest area at the top where we met a British man traveling with 10 dogs as part of raising awareness for a Spanish animal shelter. I was of course excited to be surrounded by happy perros for a bit! We had easy riding through Burgos and ended up setting up our bikes for some maintenance in front of the beautiful cathedral there. On our way to Hontanas, we met a Spanish man who had a long conversation (mostly with Dan) but I was excited to see that I was able to grasp a lot of it–a win for building on my Spanish! I also met my first fellow Utahn on the trip! Or Utahns–a family from Springville out on a roughly year long journey with their kids. I thought about how cool it was that their family could share those adventures together and how much the kids would learn from such an experience. Upon arrival to Hontanas, we enjoyed beers and chatted with some more travellers. We noticed we were suddenly meeting a lot of people from the US over the past day after having met none up until that point.
The next day of riding was pretty flat and not as stimulating for scenery. We figured maybe we’d finally listen to some music or podcasts that day for the first time on the Camino–we hadn’t listened to any as the views had been stimulating as well as our trailside interactions with other travelers. However, the winds picked up that day so found we wouldn’t hear much through our headphones anyways. We made it to Carrion de los Condes and stayed at Albergue Santa Maria. We were drawn to it by reviews about “singing nuns”. We nearly missed the singing as we were in the middle of cooking, but decided we’d take a break to check it out. We were so glad we did. Everyone was gathered in the entry with the nuns as they performed songs with a guitar, bongo drums, and singing. They had music for all of us so we could sing if we decided and played songs in many languages. It was great to hear live music, and made more lively by the Spanish, guitar, and bongos. There was a large group of pilgrims travelling from South Korea and the nuns requested they pick a song to perform for everyone. They all knew a song called “Manna” (uncertain on the spelling, my apologies) and it was pretty cool to hear all of them sing it together. We also had the chance to go around the room and share where we are from and what brought us to the Camino and was enlightening to see the many reasons that draw people from around the world here. After the service, we enjoyed getting to know many of the other travellers and particularly enjoyed some in-depth conversations with two women from Germany and southern California, and spent a lot of time sharing our reflections of our experiences travelling so far. In addition, we met a guy from New Jersey who has no Jersey accent (who knew!), a woman from Italy who we were both able to practice our Spanish with, and another cyclist travelling from France which gave me an opportunity to practice a little more of my limited French.
The next morning we cycled out with the French cyclist. We parted ways when the Camino carried on to gravel. We tend to follow the original Camino path when able–it’s often slower and more challenging, but means less cars, more interactions with other travellers on the trail, and more cultural sites to see. The French cyclist took to the pavement as he had had too many punctures so was weary of returning to gravel again. We finally hit some tailwinds and were able to cover a lot of ground pretty easily. This afforded us time to take a break and clean our chains, much needed after some intermittent rain and a lot of riding on dirt. We have officially dialed down our chain cleaning strategy using baby wipes and gasoline (also used for cooking)–both good chain degreasers, and tearing the baby wipes into strips and essentially using to “floss” the chain. There’s probably an easier way and we are always open to suggestions! We carried on to an albergue in Mansilla de las Mulas and met a friendly and close knit group of people from Canada, Argentina, Lithuania, and Austria, and really enjoyed getting to know them.
After several days of talking about how we should probably take a rest day, we buckled down and stuck to this plan by cycling an easy 20 km to Leon and stopping there. We were able to reconnect with the group we met the night before as well as meeting some of their friends from Italy and Slovakia. When we first stopped in Leon, we grabbed a coffee at a cafe and were pleasantly surprised to find the coffee came with juice and some cake. This pattern continued when we learned several of the bars offer free tapas with a drink so we spent the afternoon trying to find which bars in Leon we could also obtain free food. We checked out a Spanish mass briefly at the cathedral following tapas and headed out to pizza place with the group after. I’ve been so used to eating so much every day with cycling and never getting stuffed but In finally discovered the sensation of fullness again after a short day of riding and a lot of food and beer. We enjoyed the chance to get to know a group of travelers on the Camino a little better over the course of a couple days. It’s what most people who walk the Camino experience. As a cyclist, you end up leaving behind the group from the day before for a new group of travelers each day. Of course, it’s also been very rewarding this way as we have still made valuable connections in such short periods and met so many different people from all over the world who we have enjoyed talking with, whether stopped at a cafe, in an auberge, or on the side of the trail.
Leaving Leon, we made our earliest start, as the albergue closed early in the morning and there was no kitchen access to make breakfast. We decided to make our way out of the city first to get it over with before stopping to eat something and were rewarded by our early start by a beautiful sunrise. It gave me a little more understanding of why so many people start early and enjoyed the sunrise, but knew I’d still much prefer a slower start to the day when able. Our initial plan for the day was to leave the Camino and begin biking south in order to stick to our schedule for meeting Dan’s parents in Seville on Nov 12. We spent the ride talking and reflecting on our experience on the Camino. It had been such a positive experience and energy and we loved the social and cultural aspects and meeting people from all over the world every day–knowing we would part from it felt bittersweet but we knew we had totally different and equally awesome adventures to follow. However, within kilometers of our turnoff south, we turned to each other and acknowledged, “You know, we like the Camino so much, we should just finish it!” One of the things that has drawn us to a long distance bike touring trip is the freedom and flexibility of having time at our hands. We realized there are always alternatives should the distance be too much to Seville and can always take a bus. So we mutually decided to continue on to Santiago and were both very excited by the prospect. Outside of Astorga, we met a woman from France who has been camping the entire time on the Camino and said she has had no problems. We were inspired by her and also thinking of how over budget we had gone in Leon. We decided to seek out wild camping that night and were able to find a forest past Astorga to settle in. We had great weather to camp in and enjoyed a night in our tent. We could sleep in in the morning and didn’t have to worry about who would snore at the albergue, something we’ve found to be a given no matter if we shared the room with one other traveler or 50.
We enjoyed a slow start and left camp about 11. We had more climbing to look forward to that day heading back into the mountains but opted to stick to a more gradual climb on the road instead of taking the Camino. We were both feeling a little sick. I was glad to have had all the hill training over the past week or so, because despite feeling sick, the climb really didn’t feel too bad. The road was really quiet and scenery beautiful as we ascended into the hills so didn’t miss taking the main trail, especially when we’d occasionally get glances of the steep and rocky terrain we had avoided. On our descent to the valley below following our climb, we found a small village to stop in to enjoy the mountain views, lunch, and coffee at a cafe. We spoke with a family from France where we had some good practice mixing both French and Spanish and then enjoyed a long conversation at the cafe patio with a guy from Hawaii. He and a couple we had met the day before were both on more long term travels, and enjoyed conversations with both very much about life travelling more long term. Over the past few days, we have really started noticing more fall colors and the end of our day was filled with biking past some beautiful changes in the colors among the trees and vineyards and found ourselves stopping often for photos. Our initial plan was to cycle past Villafranca and wild camp in the mountains again, but Dan noticed in our book another albergue in Villafranca that was inexpensive and might also include a meal so we decided to stay there. We were so glad with the decision and it ended up being our favorite albergue of the trip. The hosts were so friendly and down to earth and it was a place where we really felt at home. To boot, the food for both breakfast and dinner were delicious (the meals were not included but they shared a bit of the dinner with us the night before and decided it was so good it was worth it to buy the breakfast the next morning and fill up on eggs, toast, and good coffee rather than oatmeal). They were also very relaxed in the morning and insisted no rush for people to leave, so enjoyed another slow start to the day.
After leaving Villafranca, we continued on for another day of climbing up and over the mountains. Again, we stuck to the road to cover ground more quickly after seeing the forecast for likelihood of rain then snow later in the day. Our hope was to get the climbing out of the way before the snow and rain hit, but our slow start came to bite us in the ass as the storm hit us in the mountains. At first, the rain came and went, and we struggled to find the right ratio of layers to keep us dry, but to not overheat while climbing. We soon got accustomed to this but were so distracted by racing the storm that we forgot to stock up on food for lunch and had a scarcity of larger villages with anything open for awhile. Finally by 2pm, we hit a town near the top of the climb that had a grocery store to get bread and a cafe to duck into to enjoy a picnic out of the elements as the rain had really picked up as soon as we stopped. As we ate our lunch and discussed our options for the rest of the day, we noticed the snow started and was really coming down. The town had no place to stay so knew we needed to bike at least 4 km to the top where there was a large place we could stay, though hoped that if we made it to the top and felt fine, we wanted to continue to descend a little further in hopes to get out of the snow before it accumulated too much. We made it to the top tired but content knowing we had good layers to weather the storm and felt confident we could make the long descent 20km out of the mountains to escape dealing with more snow the next day. However, as we descended, we found the wind really picked up and drove sharp snow into our face, and visibility became worse, making it feel no longer safe to share the road with cars. Fortunately the gravel Camino trail paralleled the road there and we jumped on that, but it didn’t stop the cold, sharp snow blowing on us and we decided we should seek out shelter sooner rather than later. We were fortunate enough to find a small, quiet albergue in a small village at just the right time, and fortunately they were open and not yet filled to capacity!
Getting in earlier finally gave me some time to go through some more photos and write more, though still leave some time to socialize with other travellers. We were able to make an impromptu dinner of the random things left in our food bag–sliced chorizo, pepper, pasta, and some processed cheese packets ended up making a good meal. We are finding we often cook the same thing most of the time, and end up discovering new things to cook when out of desperation we have to throw together random ingredients to make ends meet and it usually turns out well. If anything else, we know hunger is the best seasoning, and as long as we have something with calories in it, it’ll taste like a 4-star feast to us. We know tomorrow we have to descend back to the valley from the mountains through a lot of snow, somewhat daunting but something I know we’ll be able to handle with time and patience. Along with the physical strength developed over more challenging terrain comes the emotional and mental strength to get in the right mindset to not only get through it, but relish and enjoy it. It’s been pretty awesome to witness that change as I transition out of the beginning of this trip and look forward to what’s in store as we continue.