The Via de la Plata was calling us….!
Several years ago we completed a long, arduous and complicated pagan pilgrimage over the course of two summers. It had been our first experience of ‘going on pilgrimage’ and we had no idea that we would end up addicted.
On that journey, as we sat at the ‘End of the World’ – on a promontory at Finisterra, a tall Australian told us tales of an exotic ‘Camino’. Of days of unbearable sun, lack of shade and an endless thirst for vino tinto. Of rocky tracks and sticky asphalt, of lashing rain and stickier mud. Of sudden snow and frostbitten fingers…
We have been dreaming of it ever since.
After cycling across South Wales last summer with our intrepid Thai friend Sira, we discovered that she too wanted to go ‘a’pilgrimage’. So, we made a firm date to meet in April 2017 in southern Spain.
In the interim months I feverishly set to planning the route. Of course folk have been following the Via de la Plata route for at least a thousand years, but I like to be thorough…
There is a supplementary route – the Via Augusta, that has been made from Cadiz to Seville. This then links up with the main VdlP. I found a Spanish guide to the first and an English guide to the second. I downloaded an excellent list of albergues (pilgrim hostels) from the resources section of https://www.caminodesantiago.me
We decided not to fly – how cheap and easy would that be? So on a chilly, but bright April Fool’s Day we sallied forth. We cycled to Plymouth, jumped on the ferry and landed at Santander.
Thankfully the vehicle we hired had enough room to fit the bikes in without taking too many wheels etc off. We then drove to Cadiz, boggled the mind of the hire car man with how much luggage we managed to pile up outside his office, then boggled it even further by strapping it all onto our bikes and wobbling away.
Cadiz is a beautiful city, the seafood tapas is second to none, the buildings are intriguing and handsome, the beach surrounds the island and there are parks of luscious shade. Narrow streets lose your bearings and wide boulevards find you again. The Roman theatre is free to see and churches all were open to display their Holy Week floats. Although the idea of anything so solid and topped with hundreds of candles – floating is beyond belief…
We found our first yellow arrow. All the Camino routes (pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela) are mostly signposted with these arrows. Flecha amarillo in Spanish – as you walk or cycle you keep a keen eye out for any kind. It may be a blurred painted arrow on a kerbstone, or a EU provisioned sign with stylised shell, arrow and EU stars. It can be a shell ( the scallop shell is a symbol of the pilgrimage) pointing forward in some parts of Spain, reversed in others…. Every local council will have different signs, and locals (bless them for doing so) will daub a corner or side of a house when deemed necessary to keep you on track. Serial pilgrims like ourselves will sometimes burst into tears at the sight of an unexpected yellow arrow…
Our first was comically placed in ‘The Street of the Pirates’. We took the ferry across the bay to El Puerto de Santa Maria. At the nearby campsite we met up with our dear friend Sira, who had travelled down with a German, Jurgen, in his campervan accompanied by Maggy – his well-travelled but slightly disdainful cat! Also joining us there were two Americans Cherie and Katy who Sira had met on her US travels – they were keen to cycle in Spain but had no idea they had been co-opted onto a pilgrimage.
At the campsite we met an English couple who had cycled up from Morocco, they were also going to follow the VdlP, but would veer off later northwards to France.
The morning dawned when we would all set off. Graham and Frances, the English couple were well organised and set off early. The Americans decided to visit Cadiz first and catch up with us later in the day. Although older than us, they were far fitter and had been in the US military – they were fast! They also travelled far lighter than Ric, Sira and myself. Ric was battling with the black bomber – a huge watertight bag lashed to his rear pannier that held our new double sleeping bag. However much we squashed it down it puffed up as much as it could and looked enormous. At least, as I pointed out to him, it was not heavy! Sira and I are of one mind, we carry everything that might be needed or wanted, and festoon our bikes liberally. We pedal along clanking and squeaking and don’t expect to get anywhere fast…
We started our pilgrimage by getting stamps (‘sellos’ in Spanish) from the nuns at the Espiritu Santo church. As pilgrims we carry ‘credencials’ a kind of pilgrim passport. This document must be stamped every day, to show your progress, and entitles you to extremely cheap accommodation at ‘albergues’ – pilgrim hostels. You can get stamps at albergues, churches, town halls, bars… In fact most places in Spain have a stamp and most people are happy to oblige. Many places also give a price reduction or free entry to pilgrims too. The nuns blessed us and our journey through the grille of their access to the wider world.
The Via Augusta is supposed to be flat – all the way to Seville. But we found a reasonably steep hill almost straight away. An enormous Alsatian romped up to Ric and Sira, so i stopped to retrieve the dog biscuits from my pannier. He was very friendly and ignored the biscuits anyway. But there’s no harm in being prepared. Many pilgrims report feral dogs as being a scary issue on Camino… The wild flowers on the hilltop made the climb worthwhile.
We reached Jerez just after lunchtime. At the Bodegas Tradicion we begged to be allowed on the tour. You must book beforehand, but when travelling by bicycle… They relented and let us in. At 20 euros each, this was an expensive way to learn about sherry. But I had a cunning plan. My Mother was paying for me as an early birthday present, AND the Bodega contained one of the best private art collections in Spain – we would get access to it after the tour!
In fact, after several glasses of 40 and 50 year old sherries, I had to curtail my drinking. The other two guzzled on – savouring the delicious vintages and the brandy that followed, all accompanied by excellent hams and olives. I am a miserable daytime drinker – I suffered all afternoon with a headache as it was.
This is the place to learn about real sherry: the aging processes, the blending, the history.
The gallery was superb. The Last Judgement by Velasquez, Goya, Vayreda and a lovely village scene by de Haes, but best of all, the amoral, calculating ‘Bandolero’ or ‘Guardacanton’ by Jose Jimenez Aranda.
We had a hot, shadeless afternoon cycling along beside wide canals. It was dusty – in wet weather the tracks would be a quagmire. But pretty flowers abounded and we gathered broad beans that the harvesters had left behind. Finding shade became the most important thing, even into the evening. The heat from the sun did not abate one jot until after 7.30pm…
By that time we had had enough. A clump of trees near a petrol station had a nice flat area for us to pitch our tents. So we texted the Americans to say where we were. The following morning we filled up our water bottles at the garage and set off up the track again. No sign of the Americans. Another heat-filled day, a weary pedal from shade to shade, long rutted tracks that wended over low hills, not many signs, always concerned we might be lost…
We found a lovely small wood next to a village, where the Priest – involved in a procession to bless the elderly, gave us leave to camp.
The next day we met our first pilgrim. A German, walking along the main road. He had tired of the canal-side tracks and had taken to tarmac. Through Carbezas de St Jean, and later Utrera, a kind tourist office lady gave us directions into Seville. We arrived at Camping Willsom, drooping from the heat, ready for showers and bed.
American voices hailed us – here were Cherie and Katy – they were so convinced we were ahead of them they had pedalled as fast as possible, trying to catch us up. As they had no map of the route they had gone awry and cycled many extra miles. We assured them that we were always behind, never ahead… Then Jurgen and Maggy the cat turned up, so much wine was drunk before the showers and bed was reached.
We had a rest day in Seville. Being Easter week there was much to see and processions abounded. Sinister-looking parades of black and purple pointed-hatted people raised our eyebrows.
We cycled across Seville – as a group for the first time. Graham and Frances had been at the campsite too, they gave us valuable advice about a Spanish guidebook that gave alternatives for bicycles – ‘We would need it’ they said. Oh boy, were they right!
It was like herding cats… As the slowest rider, with the best sense of direction and an iron-like clasp on the guidebook and maps, I had to get used to Americans, Thais and occasionally Welshmen disappearing at speed – usually down hills – in odd directions. We always seemed to meet up again, down the line, so I gave up worrying!
A seemingly endless track after Monasterio eventually brought us to Guillena, where a lovely bar maid gave us ice in our waterbottles. I had to change into long trousers to avoid my legs burning in the searing heat. Late afternoon gave us a long section on tarmac roads, very little shade and long hills, it was tortuous. I was very near the end of my tether when we rolled in to Castilblanco de los Arroyos, where we stayed in our first ‘albergue’.
The Americans had, of course, arrived an hour or so earlier and were showered and off to buy wine – as we panted our way into the building reeking of sweat.
The hospitaleros (as the voluntary staff who run the hostels are called) were lovely. They showed us to a downstairs dorm, pointed out the showers, kitchen and huge rooftop terrace, advised us that we could donate as we wished and left us to it. After a pasta and wine dinner we were sound asleep by the time they switched the lights out at 10pm!
After briefly meeting other pilgrims we were out the door at 8am and pootled along country lanes with cows clonking bells beside us. We saw our first grey pigs, rootling under the oaks that cover this area widely. The pigs provide the Serrano ham which is greatly prized. The raising of them creates a wonderful landscape which covered mile upon mile of the route. Statuesque oak trees, dotted among grassland. Cows and horses graze here too and the landscape was alive with bees and butterflies. A rich habitat indeed.
Lovely memories: herds of goats clambering over olive trees, a Canadian pilgrim presenting us all with plectrums inscribed with ‘Via de la Plata 2017, huge bear-like dogs guarding their flocks, ice cold drinks in village bars, inscribed stones marking the way, camping by the river, orchids growing wilfully across grassy meadows, long, long tracks and no cars…
Our next albergue was in a converted convent at Fuente dos Cantos. Obviously the Americans were there before us… Ric and I were given a private room – as we were married! The main room looked out on a white horse sporting itself among the olives. We had a delicious meal, shared with Else – a lovely Dutch cyclist and then we watched the village procession – it being Good Friday…
The hospitalero was nowhere to be seen in the morning, so we stamped our own passports and left. Pretty villages and bumpy tracks brought us to Zafra, where we visited the Cathedral with its magnificent stained glass window of St James – the patron of the pilgrimage.
Open grassland was dotted with more orchids and groups of wild iris. Broom bushes abounded and we skipped over the terrain joyfully. We camped on the edge of a vineyard and drank wine made from the very vines we slept by.
In the morning we bumped over a section of stones so big and lumpy that Cherie christened them ‘babyheads’. Miles more tracks followed until we hove to in sight of the longest Roman bridge still in existence – at Merida.
At the campsite we met Jurgen and Maggy who were now taking a great interest in our journey. In an anglo-deutch melange we showed Jurgen the route we would follow and where we might next meet up. There were nine greyhounds just by our pitch, but luckily they were quiet and well behaved. It didn’t stop me giving them biscuits…
We had a rest day seeing the lovely old city of Merida, which is a Roman gem and well worth visiting. We were quite sad as Cherie had to leave to go back home, we would now be down to four bicycleteers… But as an accidental pilgrim – she had got the bug and would return with her husband next year to complete her Camino.
We waved off Cherie and cycled with Jurgen to the nearby Roman lake of Proserpina, where he turned back for cat duties. We carried on through a sandy, stony landscape, losing Katy to the motorway for a few miles…
Our next town was Caceres, a lovely downhill section turned into a monumental hill up to the old town. But free entry to the Cathedral for pilgrims cheered us up. I got a puncture on the way out of town. Unheard of – as I use Schwalbe Marathon plus tyres. But a distinct ‘whoosh’ of air definitely gushed out. But no hole could be seen. We pumped it up and rode steadily to the next town, where a proper pump was found – filled it to the brim.
After a night in the excellent albergue in Casar de Caceres, the tyre seemed good, so we carried on. A rocky landscape led us past massive sheep-guarding dogs – who gave us disdainful looks and only ate my biscuits when they thought I wasn’t looking… Wonderful views stretched for miles, over moorland and windswept lanes. We descended to a large lake and a tarmac road. On and on we pedalled , to Canaveral and beyond. My tyre seemed iffy again so we stopped to repair it – which actually meant Ric repaired it and I made a sandwich…
We were to meet up at the tiny albergue in Grimaldo. But when we got there – Katy was showered and rested but Sira had disappeared. Several texts later we learned that she had missed the village somehow and pedalled miles on to Plascencia, where she had taken refuge at the Fire Station. They gave her a bed, a shower and beer so she was happy!
We had a convivial evening with the other pilgrims; a mad Irishman full of stories, a kind Swiss lady, a non-speaking monk and a trio of Basque girl cyclists.
We pedalled to Carcaboso where we had arranged to meet Sira at noon. As we settled down in a pizza cafe for lunch, she phoned – having already gone ahead to look for us. As we keep saying – we are always behind…. She said she was stopping to eat and would wait for us. We charged up the tracks, fuelled by our cooked lunch, and soon came to a quandary. The main route lay to the left, an alternative went right, but the marking stone for right was the type we had been following for days. Would Sira have gone that way? Or would she have followed the yellow arrow pointing to the left fork? We went left. Later we left the lanes and entered a gated forest, a rocky path led past massive boulders and stunted oak trees. Huge red cattle mooched across the path, all horned, but peaceful. I left a ‘Sira’ in pebbles in case she was behind us. Tiny winding paths led us through the boulders and trees, wide areas of grass abounded with wild flowers. On and on we went until we came to a road crossing. And there, under a tree, swigging water, we found Sira. More of the same beautiful landscape continued on the other side of the road, meandering pathways, curvaceous oak trees and bands of wild horses.
One of which, a grey stallion, galloped towards us. It wheeled away at the last moment, quite scary though… It then spotted my husband, who was behind. At a gallop it made a beeline for him. I just had time to whip out my camera as it narrowly avoided him..
Unfortunately I missed the horse completely – so here’s a nice pic of our campsite that night instead!
Next morning we cycled through the monumental Arch of Caparra. This is a substantial remnant from the 1st C Roman city built here where the Via de la Plata meets another important road. We visited the interesting information centre and museum (free) and the Director gave us stamps for our credencials.
Quiet roads gave us a long ride, laterally beside a busy main road all the way to Banos de Montmeyor. Here we met Felix, a Portuguese cycle pilgrim who was with us on and off for several days. Banos – as per its name, is home to some beautiful restored old mineral baths, but they were shut – and prohibitively expensive anyhow. There were free public baths – but up a steep hill on the hottest day so far… So we chickened out and pushed on instead.
As we left town, we were gratified to have the guide book Graham had recommended – it saved us from following the yellow arrow up an impossibly steep old Roman road. We kept to the switchback tarmac and after sweating bucketfuls, we eventually made it over the mountain.
We had lost Felix, Katy and Sira by then and hoped they were ahead somewhere, as we plunged down a vertiginous stone track that seemed to have no end… At the eventual bottom, where a handsome Roman bridge took us across the river, we caught up with the girls. A winding hill had us all gasping for breath and by the time I got to the village of Calzada de Bijar, the others had made an executive decision to stop at the albergue there. We also opted for the 10 euro dinner, feasting on seafood soup, pork salad and flan dessert, washed down with wine and then homemade Centerbe! (Centerbe – ‘hundred herbs’ is a liqueur made by collecting all the herbs and spices that are ripe and steeping them in sweetened vodka – at least that’s what I do! Every season makes a slightly different version) We had a jovial evening meeting pilgrims from the US, Spain and NZ.
Calzada was a rickety but characterful place, obviously proud of its pilgrim connections – as the fountain showed.
It was a freezing cold morning, we all had to stop to don gloves and extra socks… Snow showed clearly on the mountains surrounding us. It was a cold, cold ride made bearable by a coffee stop where we met a group of French pilgrims from Nantes.
We ended up having our longest day. The gorgeous open countryside and grassy path took us for miles and into the warmth by lunchtime. Then tiny lanes confused us greatly, but after surmounting a large hill we could see Salamanca in the distance. The consensus of opinion was that we should press on and get to the city. So a heroic effort was made. Marathon bars (I refuse to call them snickers…) were fished out of panniers, hip flasks were rolled out – and still the hills kept coming. The mirage of Salamanca took an age to appear, but eventually we made it. We pushed through the throngs of be-woggled scouts and guides, sidestepped gazy-eyed tourists and found the albergue deep in the old town. It was full. Completo.
It does not behove a pilgrim to shout and swear, in any language, nor does it help to throw oneself on the floor and cry, however much you want to…
So we (well – I was the exhausted, overwrought and slightly hysterical one) stiffened our lips and cycled a further 10 kilometres northwards out of town to the campsite. Where later on a German camper van rolled in to join us.
The following day we took as a rest day. Which meant going back to sample the architectural delights of Salamanca. It really is a fantastic city – and several days are needed to do justice to its sights and monuments.
After viewing the astronaut on the portal of the Cathedral and getting our ‘sellos’, we decided to visit the Art Deco/Nouveau museum. Housed in a small palace (for want of a better description) the owner had built an atrium of Nouveau glass in blues and greens that was simply stunning. The whole place was an homage to Nouveau, but to then have collections of art grouped by material and style was amazing. A bronze of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza wowed me, as did the Lalique glass and a beautiful painting of a girl on a mule, riding over the hills we had just crossed! You can sit in the tea room and look out of exquisite stained glass over the cityscape.
The street artist ‘statue’ was narrowly outdone by the owner of our campsite and his homemade lawnmower…
We thoroughly messed up the ‘rest’ part of the day by failing to find the bus stop, then the shop (described as open…) was firmly shut, we walked miles and had to resort to a taxi. So we took the next day off as well and spent much of it prone…
We were all feeling a bit jaded, so kept to the quiet main road for most of the day. Later undulating tracks gently herded us to Zamorra. Ahh what a beautiful place to arrive at! A wide river sweeps majestically over diagonal weirs and the remnants of ancient bridges, whilst the honey-coloured old town sits comfortably on a hill like an favourite shawl.
Steep ascent to the albergue – a lovely modern place with excellent kitchen facilities. We lost Katy, but met Manuela a polish vegan from Germany, as well as an interesting Spaniard with a camera and a host of other pilgrims. Which included a sixteen year old girl who was in care and had a social worker in tow… i wish someone had the foresight to send me on a pilgrimage when I was a teen in care… A better way of dealing with teenage angst…
We had a tapas lunch next day. With Katy, re-found, we plied several bars trying the delicious offerings. The favourite – and now eaten often at home, was ‘Matrimonio’ just sweet milk (from a tube) spread on bread and topped with an anchovy – sweet heaven!
Northwards we sped, past lakes and mountains, staying in albergues as the nights were cold. We were at quite an altitude in the centre of Spain. My birthday dawned in a tiny albergue – one room, ten bunks, three of us – as we had lost Katy again, then we had been joined by two Italians who were bemused at me cooking up pasta on the doorstep, there being no kitchen.
Jurgen, who was now meeting up with us each day – made me a special champagne breakfast! We cycled only a few miles to the handsome town of Puerto de Sanabria where we found Katy and visited the castle and church of the medieval centre, as always perched on a hill.
We had a half day off and stayed in a hotel – yay! But I had inadvertently missed two doses of thyroxine in the last week, it made me feel exhausted and quite ratty. So I had a bit of a tantrum the day we left and everyone had to wait while I was found fuming behind wall…
A tough day anyhow, with many hills and bad road surface. Quite beautiful though. By the time we got to Lubian I was done. One of the Italians we had met before kindly gave me his bunk so we could all stay downstairs together. I gave him some stock powder for his rice and we made friends with Socrates. In the morning it was lashing with rain and howling a gale. The walkers got togged up in waterproof ponchos and headed off. It was to be a particularly tough section for them. With our alternative route book – we were saved an impossible and hellish journey. We set off up the road, which wound round the mountain like a spring. Hail stung our faces. Should we stop? No, carry on. So we plugged on, rain and hail flurries gradually turned to snow. We were on a high mountain pass, the wind buffeted us on exposed bridges and corners, we huddled in bus stops and shared hot chocolate (luckily made up before leaving the albergue). Our hands froze. We cycled head down, one hand jammed down our trousers for warmth, alternating hands, swearing at the sheer ‘freezingness’ of it. At the top, a tunnel. We stopped to try and warm our hands. Katy was far ahead, Sira soon followed. We tried to warm our fingers on the hot drink. Decided to live in the tunnel – despite the wind whipping through. We had to go. The road plummeted downhill. The cold was like nothing I had ever experienced. I sobbed as the snow whirled about my head, blocking my view, my hands could not move, it was utter misery. The road corkscrewed about, no visibility, bike slipping sideways, bumping, no control…
Like a mirage a truck stop and hotel appeared. We fell off our bikes, abandoning them to the snow, we bundled inside, where Katy pulled our frozen gloves from our hands and shouted for more coffee. We were saved.
The place was full of relieved pilgrims. Occasionally the door would shudder open and another frozen bod would fall inside, gasping for coffee and brandy…
The walkers were made of sterner stuff, most, after getting warm and wrapping up well again, left. No-one had seen Socrates.
We considered our options and booked a room. Sira called Jurgen who appeared a little later. I had the most welcome bath of my life – using a sock as a plug, as the hotel had no plugs…
We felt almost normal again by next day. The sun weakly shone and we pedalled hard, meeting a Dutch couple on fancy bikes with internal hubs and gears on the handlebars… At A Gudina we bumped into more cyclists, a large group of us chatting, lifting each others bikes, gasping at the weight – or lack of… comparing gears, panniers and bruises…
A stupendous cycle over a beautiful mountain landscape came next. A tough day of long, long hills, but the views were so worth it. Small villages hunkered down in the valleys while heather, broom and gorse galloped over the hills among the silver grey rocks and glistening lakes. Huge scars marked the passage of the new AVE railway, soon to pass this way…
We passed a Canadian pilgrim couple picnicking and careened down the track past a German girl, the steepness of the shingle path surprised us.
Our last hill of the day was the most monumental; a rocky trail hurtled us down into the hidden valley village of As Eiras – population five! A lad, renovating a cranky ancient house into an albergue, gave us a little local history. He had a small help-yourself cafe, where we sat on massive slab of rock and guzzled ice cold drinks. A magical place, so quiet and layered in history, I quite forgot to take a photo.
After the village the track became a small road. This plummeted, corkscrew-like down the mountain, woods on either side. Left far behind I had a peaceful, brakes-on ride down, gazing at the wild flowers and lovely trees along the route, and the vistas that opened up between them of the river valley below. All too soon I reached the bottom and we cycled into Laza, where the local police booked us in and directed us to their modern, very swish, albergue. (For the grand sum of 6 euros).
The local restaurant did us proud. The pilgrim menu – one of the priciest at 10 euros! – gave us tureens of soup, platters of chicken and potatoes and huge wedges of flan, accompanied by mountains of bread and a bottle each of white and red wine between three of us…
We were overjoyed to meet up with the Italian guy from last week who had seen Socrates, which relieved us greatly. Not quite so pleased that this middle-aged Italian was keeping pace with us – on foot!
Each day seemed to bring tougher challenges. As you cycle, you expect to get fitter and be able to power up hills, but in reality, the landscape conspires to get bigger and lumpier as you progress, so you feel like a small squashed snail… (especially if, like me, you rarely get on your bicycle at home and don’t train before you leave to cycle across a whole bloody country…)
This day brought a 25km climb over a massive mountain with extensive views of the devastated terrain where a forest fire had swept through. Truly scary – you could still smell the burning.
At Albergueria, a tiny village atop the ediface, there was a wonderful little bar – run by Cesar, who has provided scallop shells to literally thousands of pilgrims – who write their names upon them and Cesar nails them up to the walls, ceiling and everywhere in this atmospheric bar. It is humbling to wander around and read the names and dates of so many people in whose footsteps (and tyre-treads) we follow.
The afternoon was kinder, although we lost Katy and Sira who took an extra 6km uphill cycle, just cos they needed the exercise!
We were weary pilgrims toiling up the hill in Ourense, to the converted convent of St Francisco.
Ourense is a handsome town, a little hilly… but we meandered around the historic centre, getting our ‘sellos’ and then up over the stylish Roman bridge and along the River Mino to the (free!) hot baths. These are dotted along the river and are heavenly. You start in a warm pool, move along to the next when you acclimatise, eventually submerging yourself in the piping hot pool that you couldn’t dip a toe in at the start! You can paddle in the river, feeling the hot water seeping out of the side, mixing into the cold. What a wonderful place to live.
It was opportune that we had such a restful and pleasant morning – as the afternoon was hellish!
We over-shopped in excitement at finding a Lidls; so tins of dolmades, giant beans and bottles of wine weighed us down considerably – just as we were faced with a hill of epic proportion. A hill going straight up – for 3km, vertical, I kid you not. Even cars were having problems driving up. You could tell the locals because their cars belched smoke and they booted it as hard as they could. Yuk.
I dismounted right at the bottom, but my ‘I-cannot-get-off-on-a-hill-or-I-will-not-be-a-man’ husband sweated and swore the whole way to the top. Even Katy got off. Even Sira got off. Ric then compounded the ignominy by walking down the hill to meet me and took my bike – I was so bloody relieved!
It got worse. Ric and I had a tete a tete over the map, he made it absolutely clear that he wanted us to take the off-road route – which would branch off in – oh, about quarter of a mile… Then he pedalled off, ignored the turning we had just agreed to take and despite me bellowing after him – just carried on. Well!
Katy had rode on as well, but that was usual, she always found her way back. Sira and I waited in the broiling sun, but neither came back. So we went through the ancient, semi-collapsed village of Reguengo and were waylaid by Cesar who runs a pilgrim-friendly bar here. He was a real character and was especially pleased to have a Thai pilgrim to add to his collection. He was also able to show me an entry in his visitors book from a lady two weeks before who was from my hometown.
A rough track carried on from the village, we toiled along wondering when the others would rejoin us. This turned out to be after we had made it over the hill – so all the hard bit was out of the way. They had taken a much longer tarmacked route, but my husband could not understand my anger. It is a marital thing…
We made up as we entered a beautiful deciduous forest where the path meandered downhill for miles. It was gorgeous. Unfortunately, a specsaver’s moment meant that we missed the cycle alternative and continued down the walker’s path – which plummeted over ‘baby-head’ rocks in a dangerous fashion. Our wrists and shoulders took a real bashing.
A lovely Roman bridge took us over the river into Mandras. We had a second lunch – cycling makes you do this! Then locals gave us a better, less hilly way of reaching Cea. This we took and by early evening had thrown ourselves into a forest clearing where wine soothed our aches and pains.
On through the historic centre of Cea next day, outside of which we bumped into one of our Italians – yet again. He saw my ‘Denise Thiem RIP’ scallop shell on the back of my bike. It turned out he had walked with Denise in the days before she was murdered. The following year he had walked an entire Camino to Santiago – to get a Compostela in her name. I, and hundreds of others, have carried shells with her name on, which are being collected in Santiago to make a memorial for her.
It is a strange thing about pilgrimage-and hard to fathom until you experience it; but when you meet people it is like you have known them for years, there is a kind of spiritual glue that binds us together whether you share a religion or not, or anything else. It is like a sort of ‘short cut’ based on shared suffering – fully self inflicted. It is hard to describe – it is probably easier if you just went on pilgrimage yourself and found out…!
Sira had a joyful moment when she saw how few kilometres we had left to go!
We celebrated by having a short day. Lunchtime saw us at Castle Dozon, where an excellent large albergue was filling up with pilgrims. We met many new folk and a few who were keeping pace with us – again… Paco, a photographer from Malaga, had walked all the way from his home over several summers, taking 2-3 weeks at a time. He missed his wife and 6 year old daughter, but ‘needed’ to finish his Camino.
It was a snory night. My husband snored, Sira snored, most of the other pilgrims snored, even I snored. Thank heavens for ear plugs. This is the major bugbear for people staying in communal facilities like this. But – as it costs so little – anywhere from 3-10 euros a night – I really feel it is uncharitable to expect total peace and quiet as well. People snore, fart, fidget, talk in their sleep, and some get up before dawn and crinkle plastic bags in a really irritating way. Others use their phones as torches and light the whole room, some set their alarms even… Live and let sleep I say…
Sira was staying in Jurgen’s van, so we met there next morning. I went through the daily ritual of telling Jurgen where we expected to be that evening – in my impeccable German.. He politely feigned to understand and we made sure it was ‘bookmarked’ on his tablet. After some main road we turned off to go over the hill. Katy and Sira were ahead and inadvertently followed the walker’s route – again! I was rather smug, having spotted that it contained a ‘double-arrow uphill section, over a river and on a muddy track. I wasn’t so smug when I had to push my bike up a behemoth hill – tarmacked or not! We met up again later at a bar in the next valley. We had been cycling fairly hard and it was quite dispiriting to find a whole posse of Italian walkers who had set off from the same albergue -were already there, eating breakfast and drinking beer! How do they do it? Paco had the grace to turn up five minutes after us.
We had heavy showers of rain – sheltering first in a bar, then in a bus stop. Then we took refuge in an interesting Romanesque church, which had a large statue of St James outside. More rain. We lunched in Bandeira waiting for the shop to open. Katy and Sira decided to push on, we stayed to fix my brakes (well- he did!) and then a massive black cloud swirled above us – so we retired to a nearby bar and drank aguardiente. Ohh – tis lush!
That night we stayed at the private albergue(10 euros) of Andreas and Christina. They are Italians who walked the Camino years ago, then later decided on a whim to buy the dilapidated house and barn they had passed and admired…
They have renovated the house, had twin daughters and recently opened the albergue, which is superb. A chunky stone wine press takes pride of place in the bar area. A ten bed dorm with two swish shower rooms is next door. A floor length window gives a view of the huge lemon tree that Andreas rebuilt the barn around. After a delicious dinner (10 euros) he poured us out Lemoncino they had made from their lemon harvest…
A natural philosopher, we had an interesting evening chatting to Andreas. I hope their venture is sucessful.
Sira was ahead somewhere with Jurgen, so we pedalled a few miles to find them at a road-side hotel who had let them park up after their dinner. Kindly they also allowed us all to put our bikes and gear in their garage whilst Jurgen drove us off to see a nearby garden that i insisted in visiting.
The Pazo de Oca (house of the gooses foot – an esoteric link with the Camino there?…) is a superb old Spanish garden, populated with hundreds of venerable old Camellias. It is a beautiful place to lose a few hours in.
After a hearty lunch at the hotel, we retrieved our bikes, loaded our leftovers for later – and pedalled on through a gorgeous level forest.
We passed a shrine in the hollow bole of a tree so I left a poem there. I had found a poem written on a pub wall in Northumberland when we had first been on pilgrimage. It had struck a chord with me and I later researched the author. It turned out he had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The sentiments in the poem are exactly how we feel about getting away into nature and freedom. It is humbling that he wrote those words and then died in defence of that freedom… So I copied hundreds and left them in many places throughout 2016 – the hundredth anniversary of that terrible battle. I still leave them wherever I feel they will be read.
Several years ago we visited his grave in Mansell Wood near Mametz and found that he lay with the Devonshire regiment there. A sign read ‘The Devonshires held this trench – the Devonshires hold it still’.
by William Noel Hodgson
Heading into the hills, beyond the Inn,
Running like a fugitive
Seeking not to hide, but to idly roam
Without having to look over a shoulder
For the arrows and bullets
Of everyday demands
Or the guilt of seeing them
A huge hill plunged us down a corkscrew hill into Ponte Ulla. We were starting to get very close to our journey’s end. Scallop shells adorned the church of Mary Magdalen we passed. A bit of main road and then we reared up a steep hill into the woods of pine. More overly upward hills followed and we were relieved when a fountain featuring St James heralded the nearby albergue.
The patchy tarmac road was covered in chalk love hearts with ‘Sira’ written in them. Jurgen was nailing his colours to the mast…
He met us with ice cold beers – so we all loved him!
The albergue was modern, with communal showers and large dorms. A small kitchen was overfilling with hungry pilgrims, so we set up and cooked outside. Then we lay in the evening sun, chatting to fellow pilgrims, Paco, the French guy from Arles, a Slovakian and some of the Italians. The views were stupendous.
This was our last night – tomorrow we would arrive in Santiago.
We arranged to meet Jurgen outide the city. He had been an integral part of our Camino. His damaged knees precluded him from cycling a Camino himself (as he was a recently retired fireman we did not pry into his injuries) but he had taken a real interest and joy in our journey. Obviously he also had to answer to Maggy the cat first and foremost…
We managed to overtake some of the walkers by coffee time… We gorged on churros (hot, sweet, fried pastries) outside the church of St Lucia, where the saint’s ‘Romaria’ was being held, the cause of many fireworks and explosions, as well as a bar and stalls.
As we toiled up the next hill, the others cycled far ahead. I bellowed – we had to meet Jurgen nearby. Ric returned but Sira and Katy didn’t. So it was just Ric and I who waited in the hot sun outside a closed-down hotel. When we and Jurgen caught the others up – they had negotiated an acclivitous track which not only made them dismount, but they had to get other pilgrims to help push – ha!
We undulated towards the city, crossing a bridge festooned with flags and charms left by relieved pilgrims nearing journeys end. I left our Devon flag. We got our last stamp at a small bar – the owners wishing us well. A long hill downwards gave us our first view of the Cathedral spires of St James.
A strange feeling to get to journey’s end. We had cycled a thousand miles to get to this very point. A Christian church in a Catholic country. Here we were – a pagan, a Buddhist, an atheist and a fence-sitting Welshman… We had faced harsh weather and even harsher terrain. We had laughed, cried and huffed and puffed. We had met some beautiful people – pilgrims and locals. We had feasted like kings and drank like knaves…
Now we cycled in to the huge Plaza de Obradoiro and threw our bikes down in relief and disbelief. We had made it.
The end of a pilgrimage is an odd thing. There is joy and relief at making it. But there is sorrow at it ending. Partly we wanted to go back to Cadiz and start again, or carry on along a different route. But once a pilgrim always a pilgrim. From experience we knew that the sorrow and the joy would fade. But the pilgrimage would continue…
I was glad to find some pagan architecture in Santiago…
On our journey back to the UK we crossed several Camino routes, one of which was the Camino Norte, which follows the Atlantic coast of Spain and is renowned as an extremely tough route.
The scenery and beauty bewitched us – and we started to plan our next Camino – the next photos show a flavour…
We bought a box of cherries and stopped (in our hire car) to foist handfuls of fruit on pilgrims we passed. Crying ‘Buen Camino’ to every one.
If you have enjoyed this virtual journey – go to https://www.caminodesantiago.me
there you will find ALL the info you need to set out on your own Camino….
Buen Camino pilgrims!