El Camino, Part 3: Along the Camino Aragones

The municipal Albergue in Jaca shuts its doors at 10pm and kicks all visitors out by 8am. This feels at odds with the Spanish way of eating and drinking late into the evening but I guess those pilgrims are not meant to be enjoying themselves.

I manage to squeeze in a beautiful Argentinian steak in town and make it back to the Albergue just in time. The dormitory rooms are basic, with beds grouped in twos in wooden booths. I share my booth with a guy from the Basque region, and understand through my very limited Spanish and his very limited English, that he is walking a section of his local trail for a just few days.  Over the next few days as I ride east from Jaca, I meet plenty of locals taking advantage of the beautiful scenery and waymarked trails by doing the same. It’s a totally different world to the damp, muddiness of France – it’s gloriously hot, dry and dusty.

Pilgrims stir early – the first at 5am! – and I am the last to leave the Albergue, pushing the 8am deadline. These opening hours may take some getting used to. I find coffee and pastries at a small bakery and delay riding for a short while.

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Ready to go. Once I’ve finished my second coffee…

Heading out of town I eventually overtake my Basque friend, and then the collection of pilgrims I passed on the way into Jaca the night before spread out along the trail, each walking at their own pace. I walk with one up a steep section of trail for a while. He is a true religious pilgrim, and has spent the past few months walking all the way from his native Poland.

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Dusty tracks, a far cry from the damp and mud of the previous day.

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The trail is a mixture of forest singletrack and gravel roads, and for the first morning, stays close to the N240, which it crosses occasionally. Alternative routes head off to villages such as Atares, Arres and Mianos, as well as the Monasterio de San Juan de la Pena, in the hills to the south.

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But I have no desire to climb hills in the heat and so continue east, occasionally pausing to look back at the Pyrenees to my right.

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The fields form great swathes of gold and brown across the landscape as the trail undulates gently eastwards, pushing south into the hills and then back down towards the road.

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I follow the Rio Aragon…

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…disappear into the forest…

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…through clearings of stone sculptures left by previous passers-by…

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…cross streams…

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…and pass through quarries…

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…where the tracks of previous pilgrims can be followed.

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One small step for man…

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I stop in Ruesta, a dilapidated, overgrown, literal ruin of a town that was deserted upon the creation of the Embalse de Yesa reservoir. Now an Albergue has reopened amid the rubble and serves lunch.

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The buildings in Ruesta are on their last legs.

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Many are total ruins…

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…and have been overcome by vegetation.

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Nothing like some skull-love…

From Ruesta the trail turns into a forest road and climbs slowly. From the map, it seems that it can’t be far to the top and the subsequent descent towards Sanguesa, but the climb seems to go on forever in the heat. I pause under a tree to take advantage of the shade. It’s really hot and I rest for a good twenty minutes, gulping down water and taking a few photographs, before I turn to face the trail again and realise that it is completely blocked by a landslide just 50 metres ahead. Somehow I had not spotted it, despite it being in my photos!

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It’s behind you…

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The landslip blocks the road for some 30 metres, to a height of at least two people; a mixture of earth, bushes and uprooted trees.

I contemplate my options, which boil down to going on or turning back, and eventually unload the bike and work my way up onto the top of the piled earth and across to the other side three times to carry everything across. At the far side I have to fight my way through a forest of fallen branches to get back onto the trail. The hot climbing continues, sweat dripping into my eyes, and every mouthful of water savoured. Eventually the trail flattens out and meets a road and I realise that my map has been playing tricks on me. The side-track that I was looking for to mark my progress two thirds of the way to the top doesn’t appear to exist and so I have been quicker than it had appeared. The forest clears and I can look across the dry hills ahead.

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I descend gently on a glorious double track that snakes across the hillside, pumping the bike into the dips and revelling in the smoothness as the suspension isolates me from the lumps and bumps. Who says touring on a full suspension bike is foolish? This is great!

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Looking across to the quiet village of Undues de Lerda.

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I get so carried away that I miss the turn off onto an impressive Roman road, and instead face a steep sharp climb back up to Undues de Lerda.

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Plans of continuing to Sanguesa for the night are abandoned as I meet a Belgian couple in a quiet, shady square in front of what turns out to be a shiny new Albergue. We share drinks and dinner and chat about their many visits to the Camino; they are well versed in the history of the route and the villages through which it passes.

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The Albergue is modern and huge inside but hides in the old buildings on one side of the square.

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In fact, the Albergue is so new that the manager would prefer me not to bring my bike inside, assuring me that the village is quiet and safe and that leaving it in the square overnight will be perfectly fine. Thankfully she’s correct, and it’s still there to greet me in the morning.

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Silence.

I ride for less than an hour after leaving the Albergue to reach Sanguesa for breakfast, and feel virtuous. Such virtuousness of course deserves an additional coffee and pastry, although I’m never sure whether I should think of this as a benefit in arrears for the riding already completed, or an investment in advance of the riding ahead. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

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After Sanguesa there is a short, steep climb to the walled, hilltop hamlet of Rocaforte. In the 9th and 10th Centuries a castle here marked the frontier between Muslims and Christians.

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The surrounding land is a mixture of scrub…

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…small farmed plots…

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…and a sprawling paper factory.

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Looking back down at Sanguesa…

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…and onwards at the route ahead.

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I follow an undulating double track…

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…past modern wind turbines…

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…and sweeping roads…

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…before giving way to singletrack, sometimes muddy, sometimes rocky.

Pausing for lunch in a small village and chat to Beatriz, walking the Camino Aragones with her father for a week. I devour two full pints of Coca Cola, something that I never buy at home but which feels like an absolutely necessary fuel here, and which my body actually craves. I pass through the small town of Monreal, aiming to reach Puente la Reina and the main Camino Frances route that night.

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The first view of Monreal.

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And a closer view.

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Nestled in the hills…

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…where it’s not uncommon to see Egyptian and bearded vultures circling ominously above.

The first time it happens, I am not sure what exactly it is. I stand on the pedals during a short climb and feel an odd sensation. Was that my chain slipping? Or was my rear tyre sliding in the dirt? Certainly the noisy grinding that accompanied it suggested something mechanical. A few pedal strokes further on, the same slipping sensation but much more obvious this time, accompanied by a horrible metal-slipping-on-metal sound. Shit. I walk the bike to the grounds of a church on the outskirts of Otano, where three backpackers are resting. After some investigation and a few texts to a mechanically minded friend at home, it seems clear that the internals of the rear hub are buggered. The bike is only a year or so old and pretty lightly used, and as mechanicals go, this is one I can’t fix. I need a bike shop.

The walk on to the nearest town, Tiebas, takes an hour or so. I take the road and am passed by two friends who have expensive titanium touring bikes purchased specifically for this ride, and who offer to tow me. I can see an image of me sprawled out on the tarmac and decline. The independent Albergue in Tiebas is deserted when I arrive so I sit in the sun and wait. The best option seems to be to take my wheel by bus the following day to the nearest bike shop to get it repaired, or buy a replacement, and then return to Tiebas to set off again the day after. After half an hour or so a lady living next to the hostel comes to let me know that the Manager is sleeping. She buzzes him and after a few minutes he surfaces. He is a little dishevelled with messy hair and grey beard. He checks me in and then I try to explain my problem.

Problema“, I say I my best Spanish accent, pointing seriously at the rear wheel, whilst realising that this is the extent of my mechanical Spanish vocabulary. The man speaks even less English, and after a few minutes of playing charades, he fetches his daughter to translate. I explain my plan to take the wheel to a bike shop the next day but he doesn’t seem to approve. His daughter tells me that his friend knows about bikes. I’m a little reluctant to let someone else take a look – I know that what I need are new internals for the hub or a whole rear wheel; I just need a bike shop. After a while I understand that his friend owns a bike shop in Pamplona, and that his other friend has a taxi and lives nearby. By now it’s 7pm and I’m resigned to losing the following day to sorting this out and am thinking about a shower and some food. But he seems keen – he’s suggesting that I go to Pamplona now. I don’t really understand – it’s the evening, surely everything will be shut. But of course, this is Spain and opening hours are a little more relaxed than I’m used to.

I am nervous of setting off on a wild goose chase into the evening, or being abandoned bikeless in a foreign town. I guess I’m not naturally that great at accepting help, and feel that it’s more reliable to sort things out myself. Perhaps I’m not all that trusting of people I don’t know, or I don’t want to feel that I’m putting them to any trouble. But I clearly can’t fix this myself and so within ten minutes I’m hurtling towards Pamplona with a cheerful taxi driver with whom I also share very little language.  The bike shop is big and full of popular brands, and the owner is keen to help. His old mechanic is decidedly less impressed, gesturing at the queue of bikes waiting for his attention and muttering. No one speaks any English, and  the whole thing feels a little awkward. My friendly taxi driver has committed to stay with me until it’s done and then take me back to Tiebas. He indicates that he will translate, although he speaks no English, so he tries to help by speaking in slower Spanish and gesturing a lot more. I do something similar in English. It is quite funny, but partially works.

Eventually, after much protestation from the mechanic, strong verbal ‘encouragement’ from the owner, and more sheepishness on my part, my bike is up on the stand.

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I had hoped not to see this…

There is much frowning as the mechanic tries to diagnose the problem.  Gradually a small crowd forms. From where, I have no idea – the owner’s son, his friend, perhaps other random folk from nearby shops closing up for the evening. There is some communal scratching of chins and prodding of the rear wheel, and amidst his grumbling, the mechanic eventually agrees that the hub internals are shot.  There is no English spoken, but I understand him berating me for attempting such a ride without servicing the bike first.

Es nueva“, I protest. It is new!

They don’t stock parts for this brand of hub (DT Swiss) and I vow to only use ubiquitous Shimano parts in the future. The mechanic berates me for using such a brand, for the muddiness of the bike, and for having different front and rear axles (the fork has a bolt through axle, although this makes no difference to fitting a new rear hub or wheel).  But a new wheel is fished out from the stockroom, my cassette, tyre and tube are efficiently swopped over, and I’m good to go for a very reasonable fee.  Suddenly I realise that I am in the middle of a story that I have read countless times in books documenting long distance bike journeys. A foreign city, a catastrophic bike failure, a back street bike shop, a crowd of interested locals. I’ve read many accounts of similar predicaments and, in virtually every case, of the locals going above and beyond the call of duty to sort things out, and this is no different. The shop owner even takes the time to adjust my gears, lube the chain and check over the rest of the bike, and then I’m whisked back to Tiebas by my friendly translator who only charges me €40 for the round trip and for his translation services.

Despite my initial reluctance to accept help, thanks to the kindness of the hostel manager and his friends, within two hours everything is fixed and I’m back in time for dinner with the three backpackers I met earlier, who have now arrived in Tiebas. Amazing! I vow to be a little more accepting of help in the future…

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Posted in Across Northern Spain (2013) and tagged , , , .

5 Comments

  1. Hi Chris, only now I stumbled across your “El Camino” adventure… Excellent impressions and pictures long with your thoughts. I’m sure you will savour those moments along the way. I did cycle the camino myself a few years ago – even though mainly staying on paved roads – and still consider it one of the greatest experiences ever! I hope you like the pilgrim’s life and enjoy the encounters with some pretty inspiring minds as well…
    Buen camino and I already look forward to the next update! Suerte y hasta pronto… 🙂

    • Ooops, quite an important detail that may have slipped my attention I have to admit! So you either have quite a vivid memory or did a great job in writing down thoughts and impressions in a wee journal… 🙂
      Certainly a great thing to get these stories out of the imaginary drawer and inspire other people to maybe seek this experience as well!

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