The illusion of elevation
Whenever I think of heading east from my village, I brace myself for the windswept flatlands of fen country, following the straight lines of drains and dykes, on roads that disappear over the horizon without a rise or fall, and rarely a bend or curve. In short, it’s my vision of ‘cycling hell’. So when the Wednesday group decided to head out to Ramsey, I viewed the prospect with a certain hesitation. For those who know fen country, most of it is land that should rightly be under water, but Dutch drainage engineers in the 17th century helped mastermind the building of a clever system of drainage which has created some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country.
My ride took me over Holme Fen, reputedly the lowest part of fen country, dropping away to 2.75 metres below sea level, though my GPS only detected -1 metre on the road, which stood proud of the field level on either side. You can imagine my surprise, when I downloaded the stats of the ride at the end, to discover that over the course of 74kms, I had actually climbed 350 metres (1100 feet)…….but most of it heading in and out of the fens in west Cambridgeshire, which I frequently nickname as ‘Huntingdonshire’s alps’. In fact, the highest point of old Huntingdonshire is just a few miles from my home, just outside a tiny hamlet called Covington. Somewhere in the field known as ‘Boring Field’, there is a spot that is a towering 80 metres above sea level…….imagine that.
Bilbao to Guemes 102kms(64m)
Riding the Camino de Santiago puts you in touch with some extraordinary people and circumstances. The Camino del Norte is a much less populated route than the Camino francés, and some would say (rightly or wrongly) that it attracts a more adventurous, discerning type of traveller. I can´t comment on that, after only three days on the Camino del Norte, but I can say there is something special about the kind of pilgrim you meet on this route. The landscapes, and seascapes, are both dramatic along the north coast, but you have to accept that means long ascents that can seriously challenge the legs, particularly at the end of a long day.
The effect of added kilos. I chanced by Enrique again, whom I had met in Guernica, and he was having
serious trouble with his front wheel. He had left his bags at a garage and was cycling on to a town where there was a cycle shop. When we had shared a drink and pinchos in Guernica, he had quizzed me about my small saddlebag and how light I was travelling. He must have decided I had given myself an unfair advantage, only carrying 6 kilos compared to his 15 kilos, and he confessed that this morning he had posted 5 kilos of his stuff back home! I am frequently accused of “minimalism“………. and I confess to it unapologetically. After every trip, I analyse what has, and has not, been useful in my luggage, and I make modifications. It is well documented that amongst the thousands that start their journey along the Camino, the vast majority are carrying far too much, and Post Offices in the early towns are inundated with people posting things back home. The great ´sin´ we all commit is adding the “just in case” things, when many of them are superfluous. A great lesson on the Camino, and for life in general, is how to survive happily with much less. Travelling light is a supremely exhilarating and liberating experience.
They come in threes? I hope not! Half way up a long climb, I was hit by my second puncture, but not because of debris on the road. The tube must have been in a terminal state of decline and just blew around the valve. I sought shade in a shelter by the road to fix it, and Ramiro (from Marín in Galicia) was resting there in the shade. We easily fell into conversation, and he regaled me with stories and
personal reflections that kept me well entertained while I fixed the puncture. He had been a sailor all his life and I suspected he was illiterate, but he was a very wise man who had learned much from the ‘university of life’. I could have spent hours listening to him. I even ended up being grateful for the puncture! Otherwise I would never have met Ramiro.
Albergue at Güemes. I put in a few extra kms today just so I could get to stay the night at the highly recommended albergue at Güemes, about 12 kms from Santander. This had been recommended to me by one of the readers of my blog, and I am eternally grateful to him. The man running it is called Ernesto. The property had been purchased 100 years ago by his grandparents, who had had 15 children, the youngest of whom was his mother. He and his four sisters were born in the house, and now, with the help of a group of 50 volunteers, it has been extended and converted into a pilgrim hostel. And it is a stunning place!! Not only in its hillside location, but also in the quality of its accommodation. Large inglenook
fireplace with blazing fire, comfortable multi-bedded rooms with modern washing facilities, communal meals………… no charge was made, but you could make a voluntary contribution before you left.
Ernesto, who happens to be the local parish priest as well, gave us an illustrated talk about the Camino and its ecology. When he discovered I spoke both English and Spanish, he asked me to be his
interpreter. As I looked around the room at his ‘class’ of 26 pilgrims, I realized that nobody (other than me) spoke English as their first language. In fact the majority were German speakers, and not all understood English. As the talk progressed, I heard my words being translated into German over in one corner, and into French in another. It was a fascinating study in communication.
The evening meal, with a blazing fire in the background, was prepared by a local lady, and she had prepared portions that would filled any hungry traveller. And the wine flowed very freely, freeing the channels of communication in any language…..nobody cared. And when we discovered that a young German called Lucas, walking the Camino on his own, was celebrating his 21st birthday today, out came the cakes and ice-cream, sparkling wine and aguardientes (home-made digestifs), and the party atmosphere was raised another notch.
If anyone decides to travel the Camino del Norte, this albergue at Güemes is a ‘compulsory stop’. It represents the confluence of all the Caminos: both the physical journey and the interior journeys that we all travel through life. It’s a place to rest your weary bones and from where you can leave refreshed, physically, mentally and spiritually. I recommend it highly.
Arcachon to Hondarribia(Spain) 219kms(138m)
Arcachon to St Julien en Born 60m
As I left the Hotel de France, I noticed a proliferation of coquilles everywhere, and immediately assumed the owners were ardent fans of the Route St Jacques. When I asked the proprietor about them, he disappointed me when he said they simply served a lot of them in the restaurant and kept the shells for decoration!
Joy of joys! Rare is the long cycle expedition when I don´t have a puncture. I’d shod the wheels this time with special Marathon Plus expedition tyres that should have been puncture proof………….. But like a typical man, I was in denial at first, and pumped up the tyre to see if it was a phantom puncture. Guess what? Three kms later…………….. Two arms of an ‘industrial-sized’ staple had become embedded in the tyre. I don’t remember cycling through any office space…….
Don’t do this without a safety net! I was lured by one of those ever-so tempting restaurant promos you see by the side of the road(menu/plat du jour offers) so I sat on the terrace of a village eatery and had the plat du jour. Sadly, un quart du vin et painwere included in the 8 euro price. This breaks an important personal rule of cycling (ie. no alcohol during the day) but then I remembered that even Tour de France riders (60 yrs ago) used to drink wine en route, even spirits, to get them up the hills. However, the penalty I paid
this time was the consequence of eating some broccoli bake. I was burping the stuff for the rest of the day. Very nasty!!
Riding solo. People are frequently surprised that I ride these expeditions solo. I have lots of reasons for doing so, but one important one is having maximum flexibility. When I arrived in St
Julien en Born, the fatigue caused by my respiratory infection persuaded me to stop for the day, so I asked a passing gentleman if he could direct me to some accommodation. He immediately guided me to his office (headmaster of the village school) and began ringing people. He negotiated a specially discounted rate for me (being a pilgrim) and walked with me to the house. A young couple, Fabrice and Magali, with three small children, were just setting up their Chambres d’hote and had only moved into the village three months ago. Their house was seriously
under reconstruction, but one room was finished, which they let me have, and asked if I would dine with them that evening. New and enthusiastic to the trade, they spoilt me thoroughly. The two hour dinner tested my O level French to its unknown limits, but we handled topics like immigration, education and language learning with surprising ease. And Magali wouldn’t let me go the next morning without giving me sandwiches and fruit for the journey. If you come this way, I recommend you stay with them: 225 Rue des Ecoles, St Julien en Born Tel. 0558435229
St Julien to Hondarribia(Spain) 78m
A day for meeting people. You don’t expect to meet a 23 yr old lone walker, but I did. Christoph was from E. Germany, works as a carpet designer, and had started his walk on the Camino frances in Spain and was making his way north in France. Further down the road I actually met my first pilgrims going to Santiago (and this is after 1100kms). Two ladies walking,
about 200 metres apart , were together in fact. Marie Francoise (Fr Canadian) and Anne-Marie (French) had started their journey in Bordeaux and were expecting to take about 2 months. They looked set for the long-term.
Spain approaching. With the approaching Spanish border I not only expected it to be getting warmer (and it was in the low 30s) but I also
anticipated seeing road-signs telling me that Spain was on the horizon. On the contrary, all I saw were signs to Donostia (San Sebastian) and I assumed that an important political statement was being made. North of the border, I was already in the (French) Basque country, and as far as the Basques are concerned, the Spanish frontier is not their frontier. The first sign to Espagne
came just 200 metres before the Pont St Jacques which divides France from Spain. For the Basques you are simply moving from one region of their country to
First indulgence. No sooner did I see a churrería but I had to treat myself to a ración de
churros. Absolutely delicious, when they are freshly prepared. But these are much better eaten a breakfast time, along with a cup of very thick hot chocolate. Naughty but very nice!
Alberge Juvenil.My accommodation for the night was at the super-modern Youth
Hostel in Hondarribia, virtually empty but for a large group of special-needs children, whose uninhibited sense of fun (and making noise!) made the corridors ring into the late hours. I do admire the patience and fortitude of their carers. However, that night, my respiratory infection came to a crisis point. I coughed continuously, slept little and had to take a remedy for a nasty headache. As I write this (in San Sebastian) I’m certain the worst is over. So today is a
semi-rest day, but I still had to cycle over a huge climb in the severest of rainstorms I’ve ever experienced on a bike. The wind and rain simply enshrouded me. I had to take off my specs so I could see the way ahead!! When I
finally dropped down to the coast, very cold and soaked to the skin, I went into the first bar and ordered the Spanish equivalent of a hot toddy: a glass of very warm milk and a large brandy. It may have done nothing for the infection, but it puts a smile back on your face!!
Day 16 Terrarosa to Lucca 61m (97km)
Taking leave of my Castle! Surprisingly, despite the cavernous nature of my surroundings, I slept soundly, but woke early, so made preparations for a pre-dawn start. I had to think carefully about the routine of closing down this huge place, and leaving the key at the appointed place. As I pulled the great wrought iron gates to, my mind couldn’t grasp that I had been the sole occupier that night. And in case there is any dispute, you have all witnessed where I put the key: in the hole in the wall!
Early morning mist. As I set off the early morning mist had not lifted, so it was even darker than expected, and much colder. This called for a large cafe americano and two of the best pastries I’ve tasted on this trip. It was initially downhill almost all the way to the coast. Then I came across this lone lady, heavily laden with backpack and walking poles, and I knew this was another VF pilgrim. Gabriela is Italian from Milano, and had started her trek 11 days ago in Milano, and is making her way to Rome. It takes a lot of courage to walk those distances on your own.
Coastal road. Though not strictly on the VF, I decided to get off the busy roads and head down to the coastal road that runs along the several marinas. Delightful road, but views of the beaches and sea were limited by the fact that almost 99% of the coast is owned by hotel and restaurant businesses, and you have to pay to use the beach. I waited until I had to head off inland before plunging down to a free beach and enjoying a 10 minute swim in the Med. At 25C it seemed that the weather was too cold for most Italians to be taking the plunge!
As if by retribution! Having had no mechanicals throughout the trip thus far, today was a little different. Perhaps in retribution for leaving the VF route for 20 miles, I was awarded with not one, but two punctures! Having fixed the first, I went to ‘celebrate’ by having a beer at a beach bar, and when I came out, the same puncture had come undone in the heat of the sun. I should have known that would happen!
Foreign keypads. It’s only when you travel from country to country using internet cafes, that you get to know how different foreign keypads can be. Hurrah for the Italians! Theirs are almost identical to ours. The French keypad has several letters and symbols ‘out of place’, and finding how to activate the @ and the / (and many others) can be trying when you are paying for access and you are in a hurry. Then the Swiss keypads: well, I imagined that travelling through the French-speaking part, it would be the same as France, but no! La Suisse is a country of 4 official languages, so the keypads cater for all of them. That makes it very, very complicated for a bear of little brain like myself.
No more climbing? Wishful thinking, I’m afraid. One 12% climb was unplanned because I went off route, and the last climb of the day took me back into the Appenines towards the beautiful town of Lucca, which I will explore tomorrow. But as I arrived in town, an almighty storm kicked up……but fortunately it just missed me. Tonight, with the Youth Hostel full to bursting, I’ve been offered one of their couches, which is actually quite a luxurious alternative.
And before I go, I was much amused at this sign, and wondered what they might serve on their menu. Post suggestions in “Comments” at the bottom of this message. Here’s one to get the ball rolling. this is a genuine recipe:
Eggs in Purgatory
– 1 28 ounce can of tomatoes (I used fire roasted, but you can use your favorite)
– 4 large fresh eggs
– 3 cloves garlic, sliced
– 1-2 Teaspoons red pepper flakes (depending on how hot you want it)
– 1 Cup water or stock of your choice
– 3 Tablespoons olive oil
– Fresh basil, chiffonade
– 4 thick slices toast
– Salt and pepper