Before entering Spain I had many expectations. They were mostly built from the fact that the only other language other than English which I have allot of practice with is Spanish. I was hoping for warmer weather, an easier time communicating, interesting terrain after the flat south west coast of France, and a chance to see how the Spanish culture seemed after experiencing Latin American culture. So far Spain has been the most challenging country to cycle through so far, by our own choices of course. The terrain was more difficult than expected, the weather actually got colder and wetter and the language barrier was, well the language barrier was not a problem, thank you Spanish classes.
Firstly for our plan of how to traverse the country we decided to follow the Camino Frances, or the most popular Camino to the city of Santiago de Compostela, and then start cycling south to meet my parents in the southern Spanish city of Seville. For those that may not know the Caminos, or in English “ways”, are different routes for people making their way to a site of importance, the biggest one being the city of Santiago De Compostela in North Western Spain. These routes, while religiously based, attract people from all over the world to walk, bike, or even ride a horse along these ways for many different reasons, or no reason at all.
The most popular by far is the Camino Frances which even has a movie about it called “The Way”. This is the one that we decided would meet our needs for getting from East to West through Spain. We heard it was more social than the others and the terrain sounded decent for our cycling interests. Also since this was our first time following one of these paths we wanted to see what it was like on the most commonly followed one. In following a foot path for a cycle touring route, I had already met several people who had done it and many said that it was much better to walk than to bike. Of course with the nature of our trip based around cycling we were not going to change that now. There was also a cycling route parallel to the walking way which was recommended by many people, but I thought it would be a good challenge to stick to the walking path as much as possible, especially with the various dirt roads and tracks of Africa in our future. Oh what a change that was from the cycling routes of France.
Our first day heading up and over the Pyrenees from France into Spain was by far the hardest, we had 1400 meters of climbing accomplished in a short 15 km. There were many 20% + grades and we honestly pushed up half of it. To make it all worth it, the views were stunning, Heading up into the Pyrenees we saw many Basque herdsmen with their sheep and there was a quiet calm that settled over everything towards the top in the mist. Every time you stopped in exhaustion there was nothing but the sound of your own heart beating, the cool mist floating around you and the muffled sound of bells everywhere from the animals all around. It was a surreal experience mixed with hours of grunting and heavy pushing. The track was mostly on a road but towards the top into transitioned into our first of what would be many kilometers of rough dirt track strewn with rocks and patches of mud. We also met a family of people from Brazil who were also mountain biking the Camino. They had a much lighter set up but it was fun to have the comradery of cycling with them up this painful stretch. They even helped Heidi push her bike through a particularly tough section of hike a bike terrain. Taking our time we were glad we had only set out to cover the same amount of ground as what the walkers accomplish on their first day. Once at the top we stopped to appreciate what we had done, and after the weeks of cycling through the flatlands of western France we were almost in shock from having changed our environment so quickly and so thoroughly. We flew down the other side and entered into Spain following the road since the path down looked technical even for walkers.
Upon reaching the bottom of the initial drop we made our way to what would also be our first of many Albergues. These are cheap pilgrim Hostels oriented towards those traveling along the Camino which are very affordable but with the caveat of sleeping in a large shared room and being kicked out very quickly at around 8:00-9:00 am. This was ok with us since it gave us a great chance to meet people from all over the world. We are social people and we enjoyed the chance to interact and talk with so many people after the quiet French countryside. This began a pattern for us that would last through the whole Camino. Look at the route ahead, choose how far to go and what town to try and find an Albergue at. Then we spend the day cycling and meet a whole new group of people from all over the world that evening before repeating once more the next day.
The Camino is an interesting social mix while walking as well. The first few days we saw many people who had come independently or in small groups, walking alone and finding their pace. As the days went by for us on the bikes, we noticed the groups we passed to get more diverse, more organized as people made friends on the trail and decided to walk together. We were traveling more than twice as fast as the average walker and it felt like going through a time machine for us compared to most everyone else. We would talk to a group one week in for us and they had been walking for at least two. Sections that took us a matter of one or two hours took some people an entire day. The opposite would also shock us though. Sometimes we would run into walkers who covered nearly the same amount of ground as us on a particularly hard day of cycling. Many walkers felt we may be missing out on the social side of the Camino but I felt that it was very interesting to bike, we met a new group every day and by the end had met hundreds of people. Also by biking, every once in a while you run into an individual or group that rubs you the wrong way, or is just outright an asshole, and by biking we easily can just keep going and confidently never see them again. This didn’t happen often, but when it did we were happy to not be stuck at a walking pace.
Once we neared the city of Leon we were conflicted as to whether to keep cycling towards Santiago or to start heading south and leave the Camino Frances. We were enjoying the Camino but were close to another Camino, the Vi De La Plata which would take us straight south to Seville, following that route in reverse. We also met a fantastic group of people that had been walking the Camino and we decided to do a very short day and meet up with them in Leon to spend the day and actually socialize with a group for more than one evening. It was a great time and we very much enjoyed walking around the city and frequenting the tapa bars with them.
We left Leon heading towards the point where the two Caminos met up, not knowing what we would choose, continue on the Santiago or start the Via De La Plata. The town where the two met up we decided to stick with the Camino Frances. We both knew it would bug us to have come so far and not finish it out to the end, whether or not our trip was much bigger than the Camino Frances. That evening we began climbing up into the mountains of North Western Spain and we also felt the first hints of a cold which we were both beginning to fight. We wild camped for the first evening in some woods right off of the Camino and decided to take it easy for the next few days to try and get better and to stay on the cycling recommended route for once as opposed to the technical, and slow walking path. We were very glad we did, the mountains were beautiful, and we loved the easier riding on the road despite dealing with mild colds but little did we know the weather was going to drastically change.
As we were heading up and over the last pass before dropping into Galicia, the region of Spain where Santiago de Compostela is, the snow began. It was mild rain for most of the morning and we were slowly making our way up. We took refuge in a bar and watched it turn into a legitimate snowstorm, and we knew we still had several Kilometers to the true top of the pass before we could start making our way down to hopefully better weather.
Only five kilometers from the summit it started getting really bad, with numbing temperatures, terrible visibility and high winds. We quickly found the only Albergue close to us and went inside to seek shelter for the evening. The whole place was full of other people in the same predicament and we nervously socialized while watching the snow pile up outside, knowing we were going to have to figure out a way to bike through it the next day.
The following morning we headed out pushing our bikes through snowdrifts, with no real way to cycle. We still had some climbing to finish and we knew that we had no choice but to keep going and hope the conditions would get better. We were going even slower than the walkers but just before the top a snowplow went by and it cleared the road just enough for us to be able to bike it just a few kilometers an hour faster than walking pace. We eventually made it down to the base of the pass on the other side and just jumped into the first building with an unlocked door to seek refuge, biking in the snow is hell for the hands and we had to stop every few hundred meters to swing our arms to get blood flow back to our extremities. The building we had jumped into was an Albergue and the owners were kind enough to let us stay even though it wasn’t technically open yet. There was a hot chocolate vending machine, and for the second time on this trip I stumbled across it during a storm.
We were met with another cyclist from Denmark in the exact same state as us, miserable, wet and cold. We all decided to cycle together once the weather had cleared and we quickly made our way down to even clearer and skies and weather. The town of Sarria where we ended up at seemed to be just low enough that all the snow as already melted off. It also was the beginning of the last 120 km into Santiago and most people who hiked the Camino apparently started it there. It was a very interesting transition from meeting people who had been walking for weeks through the Spanish countryside to people who had a three day weekend and were just starting out.
The feeling of the Camino changed allot as well. The Camino is a huge influx economically for the towns along the route, and that is always obvious with little shops catering to the walkers all along the way but the level of the “touristy” vibe really jumped up for that last 120 km. You would be in the country side just ambling along in the middle of nowhere when all of a sudden you would go around a corner and what you thought was an old barn had actually been converted into a cafe, or a touristy shop selling trinkets. That cold i mentioned that we had been fighting was not going anywhere as well especially with the snow and the rain and we were dragging along at a much slower pace than usual. The terrain was also very hard with not many big hills but tons of very steep short hills for the entire route. I joked that I couldn’t even remember what riding on flat terrain felt like since we were constantly either going up or down steep tracks.
We also met a few other cyclists again who we were able to join for a time on the Camino. Even though we miss out on the experience of walking with groups from all over the world we did have on occasion the pleasure of cycling with other cyclists on occasion. We had already had the pleasure of cycling with a woman from Switzerland, seen the Brazilian family on another occasion, met two cycling Italian women randomly on several occasions and had that cold snowy day with the woman from the Netherlands and now we met two separate cyclists from France. One of them had done a year long cycle trip from France through Asia and we had a great time talking with both of them to hear about their experiences. They were both traveling with a lighter set up and we didn’t cycle allot with them but we did end up with them at the same albergues several times all the way to Santiago.
With our final hilly, cold wet day into Santiago we decided to just take public transit out of the city and back to drier and warmer terrain. Looking at the weather forecast for the whole region it was rain, rain rain, with mountainous terrain in all directions and our original hopes of cycling through northern Portugal would mean slogging through those conditions for at least a week. Since we were both still sick there was no conflict in our mind about taking the fast track out of there. Once into Santiago we also found it to be one of the worst cities for cycling so far in Spain. The hills were ever present everywhere, there were no bike lanes and we even just walked our bikes on sidewalks for a few kilometers rather than bike on the extremely busy roads with absolutely no shoulder for bikers. Once to the Cathedral where the Camino terminates we were met with another interesting interaction, so many tourists. We know we are tourists, and that we are guests in the countries we go through but at the end there were tourists from all over the world who didn’t do any of the camino. It was strange, I was expecting to see many other walkers and a few cyclists all happily finishing up their journeys but instead there were crowds of people who had flown or driven there to loudly walk around, take photos of the walkers and cyclists and crowd around the sites. It was surreal in a different way. In the square of the Cathedral we stood there observing the crowds and every once in a while you could spot another walker or cyclists on the outskirts, looking happy but also a bit lost, like we felt. There were many people who suddenly wanted a picture with us as well with our bikes. As if we were a commodity of sorts, they would run up, grab us have their friends take a photo with them and us then run away while we just stood there kind of surprised and a little annoyed.
We quickly found our way to a quieter part of the city to eat lunch. Even there several guided tour groups went through in the 30 minutes we sat there making lunch. Being sick, cold and tired we were ready to get away from it all and the idea of training or busing out of there was more appealing by the minute. After several hours of trying to figure out if we could take our bikes on the train we eventually just went to the bus station and happily found out they would take it if we wrapped our bikes in plastic! With a bus ticket bought for the next day after hours of running around the city with our bikes in the rain we finally had a gameplan and we found an albergue to finally rest and try to chill after the building pressure of the last few days and the disappointment in the cycling conditions and crowds of people.
In the Albergue we met another German cyclist, who we had passed earlier that morning on the way into the city. We had a great time talking with him and enjoyed his sense of humor. He was also hoping to cycle a bit in Morocco so we exchanged info and may try and meet up in the future to begin our cycling journey in Africa. One of the French cyclists from several days before also appeared and we all sat together killing time and avoiding going out in the rain. It was a massive albergue and we got one last good taste of what we liked about the Camino bofore leaving it. We once more met people from all over the world and heard many different stories late into the evening. Since we were in Santiago we were meeting people who had taken various routes to get there as well, many people taking the Northern route or the Camino Primitivo or the Camino Portueguese to get there and it was wonderful hearing about their experiences on these other routes as well. We met a back country snowboard guide from Japan, a family from the Netherlands, a french artist who was making his way by creating little drawings along the route and selling them, and many more. This is representative of every single evening we had on the Camino Frances, to talk about all the people we met and all the stories we heard would take up far too much time and space on here but it was an experience we began out of convenience and finished due the enrichment from the experience.
That being said we were tired, sick of bad weather, sick of being sick and excited to have a little personal space again. It took us two weeks exactly to do the Camino Frances by bike and when we made our way to the bus station to take a night bus to Salamanca, we were ready to be back on our own again. Once more allowing the social moments to come at random with whoever we meet along our own way.