Cycling the Camino de Santiago

A slightly misleading title, as of course I did not cycle the whole Camino de Santiago (the name for any one of a number of pilgrimage routes that end up at the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, where he was supposedly buried. The Camino Francés is the most popular and runs 780km through Spain, but people start it much further afield, for example from Paris!) I was on a specific section called the Camino de Fisterra. This 90km route runs from Santiago de Compostela to “the end of the world” – Finisterre or Fisterra as it is called here. And, due to my own lack of planning, I didn’t even do the whole of that route.

I got put off by a guy whom I was emailing about renting bikes who told me I could not do the whole thing in one day, and also by the fact that I didn’t find out about this 90km route until after I’d booked a hotel for the weekend in Santiago. By the end of the day I was seriously regretting giving into tiredness in the morning and not starting my cycle until 2pm – I was the saddest I have EVER been to finish cycling.

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It was a perfect afternoon. I couldn’t tear the grin off my face, I never wanted it to end. It was peaceful, calm, still, thrilling, challenging, constantly switching between the emotions but (almost) always with a stupidly large grin on my face.
I have to admit to being slightly frustrated at the start. I was in the main square in front of the cathedral, looking for the yellow scallop shells that mark the route and I just could not find them anywhere. The square was full of tired pilgrims who had finally made it to the end of their long journey and were resting in the sun, and there I was, slowly cycling around with no idea where to go. It turned out that the route starts just with yellow arrows on the ground which I had missed….

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But I was soon on my way. Very quickly the route went downhill and left the city and I was on a quiet footpath, huge trees towering overhead, now climbing and climbing to a point where I could look back and see the cathedral on the hill behind me.

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And so it was to continue. Mainly off-road, quiet, shaded, stony paths to cycle on, overtaking the occasional pilgrim with a huge rucksack on their back.

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I was glad I was not walking. There were occasional sections on the road (perfectly tarmacked, with barely any cars) which I loved as it was easier going and the uphills were more gradual. The few long downhill section on the tarmacked road had me going “weeeeeeee“, grinning like a dog hanging it’s head out of a moving car and just loving life but I was aware it would take a lot longer and be a lot less fun to walk!

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Although I had absolutely no idea where I was at any given time, the route (after the start) was always extremely clearly marked by the scallop shells and yellow arrows, and the only times I worried was when I was on the road – going so much faster than walkers meant that I was concerned I may miss a signed turn-off. My worries were misplaced as I never came close to missing the route.

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My trusty garmin, however, was less than helpful, constantly beeping to tell me it had lost satellite reception. After just over an hour, when I stopped for lunch, I turned my Strava on on my phone so I would have a more accurate idea of where I had been.

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That was the only moment when the smile was wiped from my face – after lunch. I had decided to stop after an hour – at about 3pm. But at that point I was speeding downhill on a road and didn’t want to stop by the roadside when there were so many nice footpaths and incredible views. So as soon as I turned back onto a path, I stopped. I had a delicious lunch of cheese and ham in freshly baked baguettes that I had picked up from the market before leaving. It was too delicious. I ate too much.

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Especially given the next thing that faced me was a 2km climb with several section above 10% and some above 20%(!!!!). I had no energy, those rolls and cheese sat heavily in my stomach, and I was just going so steeply uphill (so steeply in fact that I ended up walking a bit of it!). The hill just kept going. Within 30 seconds my mood had gone from OH MY GOD THIS IS THE BEST CYCLE EVER to THIS IS THE WORST CYCLE EVER WHEN WILL IT END?! Luckily, as soon as I reached the top of the hill, my emotions reversed in just as short a space of time, especially as I zoomed downwards towards Ponte Maceira, a stunning little village with a beautiful stone bridge over a river. The smile was firmly back on my face as I continued.

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The route then had one of its few mainly flat sections as I cycled alongside the river, narrowly missing killing a German pilgrim. He was walking with his wife/girlfriend/friend to the right of the path so I went to overtake to the left, and at exactly that moment he decided to veer sharply to the left to take a photo, with no warning and without looking behind him at any point. I shouted, he moved, and really neither of us were in any danger but due to the amount of shouting left behind me (mainly the two of them directed at each other, I imagine along the lines of “why didn’t you look?!” And “she came out of nowhere!”) I think he felt I almost killed him.

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That over, the ride continued in a more peaceful fashion as I climbed up the next ridge – another section where I had to push the bike for a little bit but only because my mountain bike skills weren’t quite up to the task and we’re talking maybe a minute or two, no great distance of pushing!

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I cycled into the town of Negreira, where there was an information point. It was here I had planned to turn back, but I really, really didn’t want to. So I asked the girl at the information desk if there was a bus I could take and if it would take bikes (we chatted for about five minutes in Spanish before realising she was American and I was English!). Luckily there was a bus, and it did take bikes, and she gave me the bus timetable.

It was here I ended up wasting about half an hour, thinking the bus times wouldn’t work as the bus would take too long, realising I was basing those times on the bus from Fisterra so obviously this bus would be a lot quicker, and then trying to find the station so I would know where to return to.

Everything sorted, I set off again into the next set of hills.

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Again, loving life, especially with increased confidence on the mountain bike allowing me to attempt steeper, rockier uphills and go faster on the downhills. You may not go particularly fast on a mountain bike but I have to say I felt pretty cool / badass (I wish I was saying that sarcastically but I’m really not :/) zooming (okay that’s a clear exaggeration) of rocks and powering my way for the cleanest route uphill. If I had more space in my flat I would be buying a mountain bike as soon as I get back to the UK.

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All too soon I had to turn back to make my bus.  I had made it almost (but not quite) to Vilaserio. I was SO sad to turn back.

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I was so angry at myself, for just booking the flights and hotel and then planning what to do, or for listening to the guy in the bike shop (I didn’t rent my bike from him, by the way). I was pissed off I had given in to tiredness in the morning and had a lazy breakfast, rather than leaving at 10am as soon as I could pick up my bike. I resolved to come back, and do the whole thing. I spent the hour back to Negreiras planning exactly how I would do it (Friday afternoon off work, pick up the bike Friday, leave early Saturday morning, stay overnight in Fisterra or at least near there, bus back from Fisterra lunch time on Sunday). The way back was also mainly downhill and I LOVED bouncing off the rocks there too.

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All in all it was one of the best cycles of my life. Stunning scenery, fantastic fun, well-marked so half the fun was in not knowing what was coming around the next corner. Actually, one of my tips for this route is that what is ALWAYS around the next corner is a really steep uphill. If you are approaching a blind bend, change down a gear. It kept making me laugh every time I got caught out because it was virtually always the case. And it was entirely due to that and me being crap with the gears that I ended up dropping my chain three times. Live and learn.

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I got the bus back to Santiago, then had a frantic 25 mins getting lost in the city. I’d originally said I’d bring the bike back around 7.30pm but my plan to extend the cycle meant the bus didn’t arrive in town until after 8.30. I’d been told it was absolutely fine to return the bike up until 9pm…. Well 9pm was rapidly approaching / passed, my phone had run out of battery and I had absolutely NO idea where I was. Luckily I ended up on the street where my hotel was (entirely through luck as I’d started on the other side of the city) and was able to reorientate myself! I jogged home for a brick workout / quickest way to get home, showered, changed, and was out for dinner by 10pm. So Spanish.

I re-fueled and rehydrated in the most professional of fashions, with three glasses of Albanil (white wine from Galicia), a plate of Octopus, scallops and patatas con aioli. And then to bed.

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Details: I rented the bike for €15 a day from Velocipeda, plus an extra €5 for returning it when they were closed (they are only open during the week and Saturday mornings). My Strava file is here. My average speed over the sectioned I Strava-ed  was 11.2kph (people often say it was a ride where the data doesn’t matter but then they never say their speed or distance so I get the feeling they are still embarrassed by it – well this was super-slow, sure, but it also involved over 800m of climbing in just 35km! And I was learning to use a mountain bike). I rode 4 hours 10 minutes, not including the 25 minutes lost at the end, covered around about 47/48km and loved almost every minute.

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And I’ll be back to do the whole thing next year!

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6 comments

  1. […] Something a bit different for the last one, and I really cannot explain just why this was so good. I went by myself for a weekend from Madrid and it was incredible. On the Saturday, I mountain-biked a section of the Camino de Santiago. The scenery was absolutely stunning and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I cycled for hours, my bum was in agony from the cheap rental bike, and I still didn’t want to stop. Eventually I did and made it back to Santiago for an evening by myself, wandering around the streets and exploring the little restaurants. It is the most incredible city and I am definitely going back in 2016! (I blogged about it here and here). […]

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