El Camino, Part 4: Buen Camino!

In an attempt to catch up with last year’s trip and actually be able to focus on current plans, this is a bit of a long one.  So grab a nice cup of tea, you may be here for some time…

Over the next few days the trail becomes much busier as I join the more popular pilgrim route route at Puente la Reina.  I pass through Villatuerta, Estella (home to the Bodegas winery which offers fountains of free water and wine for passing travellers), and the hillside village of Villamajor de Montjardin, heading for Los Arcos.  Late in the day I pass a couple wild camping on the edge of some fields.  It is a glorious afternoon and they have the perfect spot.  Despite having lightweight camping gear with me, I realise that I’m basing each day around reaching an Albergue.  Am I still a little nervous about wild camping?  I decide that because I’m riding on my own I’m enjoying being in a place each night where there are people to meet.  I’m sure that it’s nothing to do with the need for a hot shower after a long sticky ride.

I have been told about the unusual Church of Saint Mary of Eunate – by some walkers who slept in the churchyard – and pause to take a look. The church’s unusual shape, solitary location and the lack of any historical documentation give it a slightly mysterious air.

Many gargoyles keep watch…

…and I am told that some appear human this way up, but represent a goat or ram if viewed upside down. I’m not convinced but will let you draw your own conclusions if you can crane your neck around that far…

The roof shows the building to be a slightly wonky octagon…

…whilst the grounds are surrounded by a series of arches.

Towards the very end of the Camino Aragones, the trails and roads are still quiet with just the locals going about their daily business…

…but as I pass through Puente La Reina and join the Camino Frances, this changes noticeably. Rucksacks and trekking poles become a common site. Different languages float through the streets. I’m not alone any more.

The trail continues East, through rolling countryside and small villages…

…vineyards…

…and farmland.

Verges full of wild flowers…

…alternate with dry and dusty landscapes. This path leads up to the hillside village of Villemajor de Montjardin, with amazing views and where I consider staying for the night. But it is too early to stop and instead I head off down the other side of the hill to try to gain some miles.

The views are still lovely…

…but there is a definite flattening out of the landscape. Its hot, and at the top of this path, the lady and I both pause for a rest on a bench under a tree. We don’t share much language, but she shares her chocolate bar with me before we both head onwards, following the same path, but at different speeds.

Still following the yellow arrows… (count them…!)

The new rear wheel seems to be doing well, although its a bit weightier than the one it replaced. Underneath my Revelate Designs seat-pack seems the perfect place to carry my flip flops, although they need a bit of a hose down at the end of a muddy day.

Despite making better progress these days, I seem to have developed a coffee and pastry habit.

I could sit all day and watch people passing by, but there are miles to be covered.

I notice that along this busier Camino, it’s customary to wish travellers Buen Camino! as they pass by.  Locals call out to me as they point me in the right direction; I call out to walkers as I roll past.  And written messages are common…

Buen Camino!!…

…Buen Camino…

…Buen Camino…

…Buen Camino…(getting the idea…?)

Sometimes the messages are welcoming… “Pilgrim: In Najera, you are a najerino…”

…sometimes just motivational… “Without pain there is no satisfaction…”

In Los Arcos I stay in a cute little hostel, in a dorm room with an Irish guy walking a section of the Camino for a week, an American suffering an ankle injury and two hilarious old Spanish guys.  Funny as they were, one had walked all the way from Puente La Reina that day – nearly as far as I had cycled.  I really must try harder!  The Irish guy and I go out for a simple dinner in town.  That night I bump into two Hungarian girls in the hostel’s communal bathroom and laundry at least three times but a little shyness with new people means I say nothing more than a quiet “hi”.  Its only the next morning, as I’m packing up the bike outside, that we chat a little.  They’re so friendly and as they head off I rue the missed opportunity to talk to them the night before.  I guess you can’t get to know everyone you meet, but somehow there is an openness and camaraderie of shared purpose along this route that kind of makes you want to.

In the morning, as usual I am one of the last to leave, and gradually pass all the walkers I met last night. It feels wonderful to be able to make such relatively rapid progress by bike.  I’m feeling pretty bike fit now, and enjoy cranking out some miles. Progress feels much easier than those first first days.  There are other cyclists on the trail, and we take turns to pass each other at various times throughout the day.  These include a 68 year old who plugs away all day and eventually turns up at my hostel that evening, as well as two overweight guys in very tight lycra riding bikes on which they look really uncomfortable. They keep plugging away though.  As I pass through the city of Logrono I randomly meet the American from our hostel room, who has caught the bus today to rest his ankle.  Small world.  Leaving Logrono, I overtake a group of mountain bikers on a steep uphill trail.  It feels so satisfying – on my loaded bike, with them in their professional looking lycra gear.  I meet them again later on and it turns out that they have ridden all the way from Estella that morning – much further than I – but even so…  I remember a distinct point in Germany where I suddenly found myself relishing grinding my overweight bike up a steep hill.  It comes as something of a surprise, as if your body has caught up with its fitness but your brain hasn’t yet realised.

Heading up out of Navarette on a dusty track I catch and pass two girls with panniers on mountain bikes who don’t look like they’re enjoying the hill, and give a muted response to my “hola!“. Waiting at the top of the hill is their friend Wolfgang. They all work for the same company in Austria and decided to take a week off and cycle across Spain to a work conference in Santiago, rather than fly straight there and back. What an awesome plan.  We chat for a little while and then I head off.

Despite feeling pretty good on the bike, I’ve noticed  a growing tightness behind my left knee over the last few days and at the back of my mind I’ve been wondering whether I’ll need a rest day.  I’ve also been a little worried that I didn’t really think through the extra mileage of my quickly chosen route over the Pyrenees very carefully.  As I email a bike shop in Santiago to arrange to get my bike boxed up before the flight home I realise that I need to arrive in Santiago a day earlier than I’d expected because of their short opening hours at the weekend.  Making it to Santiago in time is looking pretty tight already, and if I take a rest day, probably not possible at all.

I play leap frog with this guy all day and we eventually roll into Santa Domingo together…

I arrive into the Albergue in Santa Domingo to find that they have an in house masseuse / physiotherapist, which seems abnormally modern in such an ancient place.  He is a very popular guy, with a queue of people in the foyer waiting to have their blisters tended to and their aching feet strapped up. He puts some tape around my knee and that evening I eventually decide to take the next day to rest here.  I know that this means I won’t make it to Santiago.  But, this was never meant to be a race, and I don’t regret taking the route that I did in the first week.  The Camino Aragones was beautiful – my favourite part of the route so far.  I convince the receptionist to let me stay for two nights (which is technically not allowed as the Albergues are for pilgrims travelling through, not for extended stays) and start to take a look at options for hopping on the train to Santiago at some point in the next week…

I spend the day in Santa Domingo, sitting in pavement cafes and watching the world go by.

The following day I pass this idyllic little place, complete with perfectly placed cat, in one of the villages just outside Santa Domingo.

In Beldorado I stop for breakfast and meet Laila, a bubbly Norwegian walking the Camino with her dog Chico. They have been stuck in this little market town for over a week since Chico stepped on some glass and hurt his foot. Hopefully it will heal soon and they can continue on their way. Unfortunately Chico was locked in a hotel room to keep his foot clean, so I didn’t get to meet him. I have seen photos of him though, and he is most definitely gorgeous. Instead here is a rather large mural from the outskirts of town…

As the trail slowly gains height as it heads towards St Juan de Ortega, I stop for a break and watch this guy resting, one boot on and the other off, oblivious to the world.

As I reach St Juan and its famous monastery, the heavens decide to open. The local bar is suddenly rammed with pilgrims looking for shelter and lunch, including the riders of this beast.

Not far past Atapuerca, famous for its archaeological sites and where the world’s oldest human DNA has recently been discovered, a steep and rocky climb takes me to the Alto de Matagrande, with this large cross…

…tribute…

…and tattered prayer flags, reflecting the millions of pilgrims who have passed by over thousands of years.

Descending towards the city of Burgos, the ride through the outskirts is inauspicious, along main roads through industrial areas. But the centre of Burgos is bustling and filled with people…

…with many churches, and the cathedral at its centre.

The cathedral is a vast 13th Century Gothic structure with sculpture-filled cloisters, and houses El Cid’s tomb, of which Wikipedia says the following: Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c. 1043–1099) was a Castilian nobleman and military leader in medieval Spain. He was called El Cid (the Lord) by the Moors and El Campeador (the Champion) by Christians. He is the national hero of Spain. He was born in Vivar del Cid, a town near the city of Burgos.

It’s a little late in the afternoon and the main Albergues are all full. The city seems packed. I wonder if I’m going to have the same problem for the rest of the journey.  Wandering the streets trying to find a hotel I’ve been directed to, I suddenly hear a “Hello!” right next to me.  It’s Wolfgang and his friends, Verena and Silvia.  I’m amazed at how I seem to be able to bump into people, who I’ve met just once before, on street corners in large cities. They are heading to find some food but I need to find a bed before everywhere else becomes full.   We don’t work out a way to meet later to eat or drink  as their phones are charging back at their hostel and Burgos is a big place, so we go our separate ways, saying that hopefully we’ll meet on the trail the next day.  Eventually I find a hotel that has a spare room and will store my muddy bike for the night, and head out for an over priced meal.  Despite the comfortable bed and room to myself, I find myself yearning for a sociable Albergue full of interesting people rather than a lonely hotel…

Its a passing feeling though – on the trail out of Burgos the next day, I catch up with Wolfgang, Verena and Silvia, and we spend the next few days riding together.

The trail climbs gently up as we head away from Burgos, and the landscape becomes very flat…

This is the Meseta Central (“Inner Plateau”), a vast plateau in the heart of peninsular Spain. The Camino crosses the Meseta between Burgos and Leon, and seems to divide Pilgrim’s opinions. Some love the sense of peace, others find it too flat and dull.

The trail is flanked on either side by cultivated land…

…or meadows of wild flowers.

We enter Castrojeriz, with the ruin of its castle sitting on top of the hill…

…and the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Manzano, a Catholic temple which was built (in its current form) in 1214.

On the other side of Castrojeriz is a short steep climb up onto the Alto de Mostelares.  I leave Wolfgang and the girls to climb up and over this, whilst they take the main road route around the side, arranging to meet them later.

It’s a pretty steep climb. Two walkers with big backpacks pause for a break half way up and cheer me as I grind slowly past… “You are a hero!“, they say…only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

A shelter sits at the top, along with a small cairn.

I take a minute to look back out over the Meseta…

…and then follow the arrow pointing the way forward.

Descending the other side is even steeper…

…and I get a little carried away.  Oops.

Ridiculously, the descent has bottomed out but I drift too close to the right hand side of the trail and catch a branch. As I feel myself losing control and sliding down onto my left hand side, my brother’s crash on an innocuous piece of landrover track in Wales a few years ago, which was caused just by a little bit of excess speed and which destroyed his elbow, flashes through my mind.  I’m kicking myself before I hit the ground – my brother’s accident often crosses my mind on descents and causes me to back off the speed a little, but perhaps here I haven’t been careful enough.  I try to tuck everything in and slide down the gravel on one side as smoothly as I can…  When I come to a stop I  spend a few seconds checking that I’m in all in one piece and then limp down to a small church.  The elbow is in quite a mess, with a couple of really deep lacerations.  I clean it up in a bathroom at the back of the church, try unsuccessfully to apply a steristrip or two, and in the end just bandage it up.

I eventually catch up with the others in Fromista, where I pay a visit to the doctor to get my elbow cleaned up properly. No stitches needed. We stay in a very basic hostel close to this 11th Century church of San Martín de Tours, and eat in a local restaurant.

The next day is overcast and by mid-morning heavy rain is falling. We take shelter in a cafe, drink coffee and look at options for avoiding overly muddy trails ahead…

…whilst consuming more than our fair share of the food on display.

Eventually we can put it off no more, zip up waterproofs, and head off into the rain.

Despite Verena’s smiles…

…this definitely isn’t as fun as the previous few days.

We follow a grey road under a grey sky in an attempt to cover some miles without getting covered in mud from the wet trail…

…and then pause to replenish our energy levels.

We stay in Sahagun that night, and the following day I head off on my own, to get to Leon in time to arrange train tickets to Santiago for the following morning. The landscape is still flat and agricultural…

…but made more interesting by meetings with random travellers…

…and a quick coffee at the mad Bar Elvis, in Reliegos.

I appear to have missed the swim suit clad Vespa riders… I wonder where they are?

Passing through more small towns…

…a larger portion of the route is sadly alongside a main road.

They have some pretty clever orange trees here.  Genetically modified to grow bundles of pre-bagged fruit?

The tarmac is only temporary though, and soon I’m back to the dirt and gravel…

…where all traffic stops for the goats.

All too soon I arrive in the centre of Leon with its grand squares…

…quiet back streets…

…buskers…

…street cafes…

…public art…

…and others on two wheels…

(…or three).

Despite the wet weather, a street festival is underway…

…and traditionally dressed participants line the streets with those going about their daily business.

I take a look at Leon from the air…

…especially that Cathedral…

…and the bustling streets…

…down which I wander, as I wonder how I might carry an umbrella on the bike…

…and whilst I take in the food options…

…more street art…

…ancient buildings…

…and statues.

Along with the not so ancient. Why do I seem to come across incarnations of a Fraggle Rock Bar in so many cities…?

I think I want to go to the Custom Bici Beach Party!

But alas, my biking is over for this trip, and tomorrow I must leave Leon behind, and head on by train. I’m a bit gutted. It feels like I’m just getting into this. Damn those limited work holidays…

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

17 Comments

  1. I loved reading this Chris! I love your photos too. It is making me long for another trip, especially if it means I am away from all things moving-house-related… Good luck with your next plans, hopefully we can do that Aussy trail sometime too 🙂

  2. Great to read the latest instalment, only 52 days now until Gavin and I set off on our bikes for the same adventure. Remind me what time if year did you travel, I’m struggling to know what clothes to pack.
    Reading your blog, makes me so excited though, thank you for writing.

    • Thanks Hazel… It was mid June when I went. Was wet in the French Pyrenees, really hot in the east of Spain and then a bit colder and wetter farther west. I don’t think that it was ever really cold though, apart from the first day. Well done on the marathon!

      • Thanks for speedy reply, yep same as us then we leave on the 13th June. So we’ll need to cover all weather bases then.
        We’re struggling making packing decisions as we want to be as light as possible. Was there anything you took and didn’t need or needed but didn’t take?
        Also, roughly how many miles as day did you manage to cover ?

        • I took camping gear but didn’t use it at all. Aside from that, and off the top of my head…for clothing I took 2 merino-mix base layer t-shirts for riding in, plus a long sleeved one for colder days / sleeping, 2 padded shorts, 1 baggy over-shorts, 1 waterproof over shorts, a set of leg warmers (water resistant, warm when wet ones), a long sleeve merino riding jacket (which I only wore on a couple of colder days), waterproof shell jacket, small down jacket for evenings / cold stops, and probably a couple of pairs of socks. And some flip flops. I probably also had some lightweight trousers in there for the evenings but I tended to wear my baggy riding shorts off the bike a lot of the time. I took waterproof overshoes but won’t use them again – they always seem to work loose and not so the job.

          I took a warm sleeping bag for camping and did use it in a couple of hostels on cold nights or where blankets were lacking. A really lightweight one would do though.

          Aside from that, some limited spares / tools (which I only used to work out what was wrong with my rear wheel), a couple of spare tubes plus a patch kit, a first aid kit (which I did use!), and a camera… A route map & compass (occasionally useful as a double check on direction, but probably unnecessary). I took 4 water bottles (anticipating camping) but only needed two on most days as I could refill in most towns.

          In the beginning I only did about 25 miles on the first few days… But it was a bit of a shock, I started off ill, and it was mostly uphill. After that I settled down to about 45-50 miles a day I think. I’m never the earliest to get up and leave though, and stopped for coffees etc and to take photos. I think the stretch after Leon gets pretty hilly again but by then you’d be in the swing of things. People I know who have ridden the route on road have been much faster. I can’t remember if you are riding the road, or the path? If you’re finding sections a bit slow, in most places you are pretty near to the road route so can hop on and off as you wish. Most good maps / guidebooks should show both…

          • Thank you so much that’s so helpful, we’re planning to go trail not road but good to know that we can jump onto the road if we need to.
            We have 12 days and we start at St Jean, so pleased to hear you were covering 45-50 miles and still managing to stop for coffee.
            I’m just getting back into the saddle dyer the marathon training so have a little work to do on the training before we leave.
            This packing list will be very useful!!
            So do you have another adventure planned for this year??

          • Oh, and some off-the -ike underwear. Don’t don’t forget that! 12 days should be fine from St J. One thing to bear in mind is whether you need to get your bike packed up in Santiago before the flight back. There are places who will do that for to, and store it overnight, but the one I used was closed on Sundays and had very short opening hours on Saturday, which meant I had to get there by Friday at the latest. I used http://www.elvelocipedo.com who have an arrangement where they can pack the bike and then give it to a taxi company for a couple of nights, who then bring it with them when they pick you up to take you to the airport. Very handy.

            Hope to see some pictures of your trip!

            Yes, I have some plans this year which will probably start with some bits of Spain again but which might then carry on a bit longer…! More on that soon!

  3. The best write up about el camino I have read, by far. Complete with beautiful photographs that transported me to quite villages in Spain. I have always wanted to ride this trail, but have never seemed to spike anyones interest enough to want to do it with me. Having read this I am now going to do it on my own next year.
    Cheers Chris

    • Joe, thank you so much for your kind comments. It’s comments like those that make it worthwhile making the effort to stop and fish out the camera and to then sit and try to put some words together!

      I really enjoyed the Camino, partly due to the variety of people I met, especially in the hostels. I’m riding in France now and finding the first few days a little harder as I’m wild camping and there isn’t the interaction you get on a route like the Camino. I hope you have an amazing trip next year!

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