Onimac Day 7: Wed 18th April: Alija del Infantado – Toro: 118km

I found nowhere open for breakfast in Alija and so headed on to the next village on the map. Finding no bar or shop there either, I retired to a bus-shelter and brewed up some tea to wash down a breakfast of Bananas and nuts, thankful for my forethought in Eroski the previous day.

After passing through Benavente I tried taking a direct route south through irrigated farm land, in the hope that I could avoid using the A6 motorway to cross the River Esla and would find an un-marked farm track or ford. There was no such crossing and every track I tried petered out and dumped me into another muddy field. I turned back to the main road and put my trust back into the map, taking a circuitous route along minor country roads to get me to a bridge across the river.

After hopping from sleepy village to comatose village I was finally able to find somewhere with an open kitchen and caught a late lunch in Santovenia; bean stew, churrasco steak and a glass of wine to lift my flagging spirits before heading on into the rolling meseta of Castilla Leon. To compensate for the morning’s diversion to cross the river, I was now pushing into a cold damp headwind that occasionally relented into a side-wind spitting rain across the plain. I was looking for places to stay or camp from about 17.30, with no luck. The villages were dead, and the landscape exclusively open arable farm land with barely a bush to provide a sheltered camp site.

I continued to Castro Nuevo de los Arcos hoping for a hostal to provide some shelter from the dark skies and damp winds, seemingly like the rest of this corner of Castilla Leon, the village was deserted and it’s bar was closed but I was at least able to find someone who could advise me on accomodation for the night. Unfortunately their only advice was for me to keep riding to the next major town, Toro – 30 km up-wind across this rolling landscape of arable fields. I arrived into Toro around 8.30 and found my way to the Maria de Molina Hotel. Three whole stars of unparalleled luxury, where I was able to once more unpack my damp panniers, dry out my kit take a warm shower and luxuriate in the wonder of radiators.

Clearly, I no longer had the luxury of following a defined route of painted arrows and guidebooks, Albergues and bars offering “Menu del Peregrino” every 5km. So I headed to the hotel bar and sat to plan out the remaining route from Toro.

I had covered over 170km since yesterday lunchtime in Astorga, so clearly it was feasible for me to ride over 100km per day but I did not want to become a slave to the odometer. I was being asked pointedly when I was due to arrive home and my vague cycle-tourist response of “Sometime Sunday, maybe Monday, depends on the wind.” was not boding well for being allowed to go out and tour again.

Outline Route to Ávila

I would aim for Avila, 147km from Toro, taking a route that would allow stopping off in either Medina del Campo or Arévalo if necessary.

From Ávila I would ride over the Sierra de Madrid into San Martin de Valdiglesias and drop into Toledo at Almorox aiming to camp in one of two campsites in Hormigos on Saturday night to allow a quick 50km sprint home to Bargas on Sunday morning.

Outline Route from Avila to Bargas

Onimac Day 6: Tue 17th April: El Acebo – Alija del Infantado: 90km

The church volunteers of the albergue woke us up at 7.10 with loud choir music and the smell of toast and honey with instant coffee. The lack of proper coffee might not be a problem for the regular pilgrims who are on their way down hill into Molinaseca and Ponferrada, but I was about to embark on a 400m climb through grey mist to the Cruz del Ferro (Iron Cross) that, at 1500m, marks the highest point on the Camino Francés, and frankly that requires a cup or two of proper coffee.

Cruz de Ferro

after stopping to take a couple of photos of the cross in the drizzle, and admire the rocks pilgrims had brought from their homes to deposit on the cross, I pressed on in search of coffee.

The initial descent from Cruz del Ferro was bitterly cold, but after a brief stop in a bar in Foncebadon to warm up with a coffee or two, I passed through Rabanal del Camino into an hour of almost perfect conditions, a 25km/h tailwind pushed me down a gentle slope coasting along at 25km/h in still air all the way into Astorga.

I spent a few minutes looking for a more permanent fix for my panniers, and ended up on a park bench botching together a remarkably robust solution with some needles and strong thread I found in a chinese bazaar.

As I sat in that park in Astorga, repairing my pannier, eating my chorizo and cheese picnic I became concerned about my progress: before leaving home, I had assumed my trip would take between a week and 10 days, I would cover an average of at least 75km per day, conservatively assuming that I would ride at an average of 10-12 km/h for 6-7 hours per day. I was now half way through day six and had covered little more than 300km, or 50km per day. At this rate, instead of getting home some time between Thursday and Sunday, I would be almost a week late. I looked at my options:
1. Follow the Camino de la Plata south from Astorga to Caceres and then head east to Toledo.
2. Continue along the Camino Francés for a few more days and then get a train or bus from Leon, Burgos or Pamplona when time ran out.
3. Find my own route home, heading generally south east.

Option 1 was my original plan, but it would clearly take me far more time than I had available to me, as the off-road aspect of the Camino routes seemed to be slowing me down. Continuing along the Camino Francés was not really the aim of my trip. Once I travelled up to Santiago by bus, I became wedded to the idea of cycling home under my own power. Besides I had enjoyed the atmosphere on the Camino enough to want to return to do the Camino Francés in the “right direction”. If I was going to be allowed to come cycle touring again, I would need make sure that I arrived home not only safely, but roughly when I said I would, which left me 5 days to cover the 450-500 km I estimated lay between Astorga and home. In short, I needed to double my daily average distance and the easiest way to do that was to stay on tarmac.

I packed up my kit and followed signs out of the city, waved ¡hasta luego! to the Camino Francés and trundled south-east along the old N-VI . After 5 days on the footpaths and country lanes of the Camino, it was disconcerting to be sharing a main road with cars and trucks. It also became clear that the next 500 km would be much lonlier than the previous 300, as the constant trickle of pilgrims wishing me a “buen camino” all but dried up. I figured that the lack of pilgrims would also impact the opportunities for board and lodging. This would also impact my route planning from now on. I could stay on the main roads and be fairly sure of finding hostals and bars, or I could follow the backroads and lanes from village to village and rely on carrying my own food. I dived into an Eroski in La Bañeza, filled what space I had available with supplies and took the back roads, ending up in Alija del Infantado sharing a municipal albergue with a deaf italian pensioner who was pissed off with the plumbing.

Onimac Day 5: Mon 16th April: O Cebreiro – El Acebo: 88km

Having slept warm and well, I re-packed my dried out kit, noticed how much lighter my panniers had become and headed off on my descent out of Galicia. My objective for the morning was a steep downhill to Villafranca del Bierzo and then on to Ponferrada for lunch.

O Cebreiro to Villafranca del Bierzo

The official route would take me once more onto rocky muddy tracks that would be heavy on the brakes and I was unsure how well my pannier would hold up to the rattling and shaking of a 700m off-road descent.

I stopped off in Pedrafita do Cebreiro, where the A6 motorway from Madrid to A Coruña enters Galicia and hunted around for breakfast.

I found a fairly non-descript bar and ordered a standard spanish breakfast of coffee and toast. I sat and watched the Breakfast News as it blared from the TV. The King’s grandson, Froilán, had managed to shoot himself in the foot during a hunting party, echoing literally his grandfather’s recent metaphical misadventures elephant hunting in Botswana. The scene reminded me that today was a Monday morning, the bar was populated by the regulars going about their daily routine, whilst I was on my adventure, just passing through.

Leaving Galicia

Turning out of Pedrafita I quickly left the snow-line behind me.

The Rio Valcarce valley has clearly been the main route through the Cantabrian mountain range for millennia. Whilst the official “Camino de Santiago” footpath leads up the western side of the valley to O Cebreiro, I chose to take the old road, the N-006a that hugs the contours of the valley wall and traces the route of what would once have been the main valley road and the link between Galicia and Madrid. This road connecting the old wood and stone built villages of the Valcarce valley was replaced in the 1960s by the N-VI trunk road, which was itself bypassed in 2002 with the completion of the A6 motorway that climbs its way up the valley on huge concrete stilts.

After the cold grinding work of yesterday I felt so liberated to be flowing down hill with a tailwind. I covered the 35 km to Villafranca del Bierzo in little more than an hour. The difference in that hour was palpable.

Villafranca del Bierzo

I had left O Cebreiro in freezing fog and snow still thick on the ground, by 11:00 AM I was sat in a spring-time square. planning my route on to Ponferrada for Lunch and then another 900m climb up the Montes de Leon to the Cruz del Ferro, at 1500m, highest point on the Camino Francés.

Before I could get carried away with myself, I needed to attend to some logistics. Villafranca was the first market town for days, so I searched for a cycle shop to look at replacing my pannier and investigate the state of my rear derailleur which had developed a worrying clicking sound. I found an old cycle workshop who could not help me with panniers (those that they had looked as cheap and flimsy as the ones I already had) but the old fella swapped out my derailleur in a matter of minutes and sent me on my way to Ponferrada.

Ponferrada was my first major city of the tour and felt strange after 5 days jumping from village to village. I enjoyed a leisurely Menu del Día and then headed out of town, eager to get back on the road, not even waiting for the cycle shops to open up and offer me their panniers. I tightened up the bungee / zip-tie solution that had served me well enough for three days and headed back onto the camino and to Molinaseca and then an 8km climb up 600m to find a bed for the night in the Albergue at Acebo.

The climb was fairly long and hard, but bearable. The weather was cool but sunny and so I was able to chart my progress with fine views both down from whence I had come and up to my objective.

Acebo

I found my way to the parroquial Albergue and booked myself in for the night, and then looked back over my accomplishment for the day.

All in a day's work

This would be my last night on the Camino Francés and yet my first “churchy” Albergue. I had previously stayed in private or independant albergues or the B&B in O Cebreiro. The private albergues typically charged €8 – €12 for a dormitory bed, and then offered a Menu del dia type evening meal for a similar €8 – €10. This one was different.

The Albergue is owned by a catholic brotherhood and is run by volunteers who travel from their homes and spend a week or two managing the albergue and helping the pilgrims on their way. The atmosphere is distinctly more religious with everyone mucking in together to produce cheap hearty food, that then gets prayed over before eating. I can understand the attraction of volunteering to work in the albergue for a couple of weeks, living in a quaint hill-side village, meeting a never ending stream of pilgrims, but I could not help feeling that given the misery that Spain was suffering in early 2012, church volunteers would be able to find people with more pressing need for the church’s beneficence than what seemed to me to be a varied selection of middle-class ramblers and semi-retired, semi-religious tourists.

Onimac Day 4: Sun 15th April: Samos – O Cebreiro: 36km

I set off on that cold damp Sunday morning knowing that I had a mountain to climb. After a gentle warm-up to cover the first 10km to Tricastela, I stopped at around 9:30 to grab a coffee and catch the end of the early morning F1 race beamed in from China. Outside the bar I saw the ominous sign of Snow ploughs and gritting trucks re-loading and preparing to clear the road ahead. I added my photos to Facebook and immediately got responses from friends and family comiserating with me on the state of the weather, and sharing anecdotes about their cosy Sunday mornings.

Snow ploughs

The official Camino route from Tricastela to O Cebreiro would take me along rocky, muddy footpaths snaking up either side of the main mountain road. In the rain I decided to stick to the road and ascend the 1000m climb on tarmac.

5km at 7%

The route until now had been rolling up and down, with plenty of climbing, but no serious prolongued ascent against which to test myself. I fought my way up 7% inclines and around switchbacks, grinding my way up the hill at 7 kmh. As I gained altitude the rain became colder and the clouds heavier, flecks of white sleet interspersed in the contant drizzle. Every few minutes I would take a break to briefly reduce the wind-chill, take on calories, and receive the good wishes and comiserations of friends and family on Facebook. I plugged my headphones in, selected a playlist and pushed on uphill, keen to make the summit before lunchtime. The heavy cloud above me turned into a mist hanging in the valley. The sleety rain rain began to thicken into a more consistent snow. The slush that had been coating the road signs began to turn white as the snow was settling. I heard a constant stream of pings in my headphones notifying me of updates to my facebook page. I could have felt so cold and alone on that mist-shrouded hillside, but the regular pings and notifcations interrupting The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin reminded me that I had a support crew back home and out in cyberspace.

Once I got above 900m, the snow covered landscape began to feel more magical, the layer of snow deadened the sound. I also knew that I was nearing my goal for the day. The effort of cycling was keeping most of me warm, and the cape kept the worst of the cold wind off me. My ony real discomfort were my feet. Cycling shoes have metal cleats on the bottom that connect to the pedals, these cleats are adjustable and are secured in place by bolts and plates inside the shoe. My point being, cycling shoes are not water-tight. If you get off your bike when the ground is wet, water will seep into your shoes.

Ice-cold water was soaking my feet.

So I was relieved to feel the hill level out as I approached the summit.

Alto do Poio

I headed into a bar at the summit, ordered a beer and a hearty lunch before attempting to thaw myself out.

socks and sandles by the fire

Lunchtime merged into early afternoon, feeling returned to my toes and my cold wet shoes turned warm and dry. it was time to move on. I only had another 9 or 10km to go, most of which would be a gentle downhill.

I arrived into O Cebreiro around 5 PM, a beautiful stone village that was over-run by local day-trippers. Every verge was loaded with parked cars, kids were playing in the snow, and every bar and restaurant was full of loud family groups enjoying the “sobremesa”. I went from bar to bar looking for a place to stay each one warmer and more welcoming than the last, but each one frustratingly unable to offer a room. The Albergues were all full. Eventually I managed to find a B&B with a room available. I unpacked my heavy wet panniers, turned up the heating and draped every bit of kit over every radiator and hot water pipe in the room before heading into a warm shower.

Once I was warm and clean, I looked out of my B&B window to see that the snow storm had stopped and the mist had cleared.

O Cebreiro

I was exhausted from the days climb, and attempts to keep warm. Despite having progressed a mere 36km I felt a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Onimac Day 3: Sat 14th April: Vendas del Narón – Samos: 53km

Dropping down from the altitud of Vendas del Narón through wind and spitting rain towards the reservoired crossing of the Rio Miño at Portomarin was a cold affair, cruising past the hump-backed pilgrims protected by their plastic rain capes as they hiked towards me.

Entering the village square of Portomarin, looking for breakfast, the squalling windy rain gave way to another full-on torrential downpour. I took refuge under a galleried walkway and secured the bike before heading into the bar for toast and coffee. I comiserated about the weather with a fellow cyclist. When he heard I had come from Santiago he asked my advice, He had a flight home Sunday morning and so needed to get to Santiago that same day. Should he average a better speed and cycle 120km on tarmac or attempt the 80km off-road route? It felt like a terrible choice to have to make, He had cycled 700km from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and was missing out on some great riding though stunning countryside, but his options were running out. That countryside was pretty steep & rolling, it had taken me a disappointing 2 days to get this far, and he only had another 10 hours of daylight. Taking the road would also give him the easier access to bailing out and calling a taxi if necessary. Having said that, after 700km he was tour-fit, and by sticking to the albergue-laden Camino Francés his bike was unencumbered by camping kit. At the time, I think advised the conservative approach, now that I write it out I hope that he ignored me and completed his Camino.

I left the bar, with the rain settling into a steady rhythm, I dug out from my pannier the pilgrim’s cape donated to me by a great friend and cycling companion, Cesar, bid good luck & Buen Camino to my breakfast companion and headed owards through the rain.

I noticed little of the route, focussing instead on trying to make progress and keep dry. The cape was very effective against the worst of the rain. It may not be the most aerodymic approach as a cyclist, but it is very effective means of keeping dry. The more aerodynamic and “technical” jackets tend to soak you with condensation from the inside, while the constant airflow around the cape kept me surprisingly dry, coupled with my Tilley hat to prevent rain dripping into my eyes.

There came a point however, mid afternoon, my extremities were numb, and I needed spend half an hour out of the rain to dry out, warm up and lift my spirits. Unfortunately I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. So I found a bus shelter and brewed a pot of tea.

Time for tea

And then pushed onto Samos. Where I shared an Albergue dormitorio with a grumpy belgian whose only interaction with the world was “il fait froid.”

He was not wrong.

Spentry

I am  a British citizen who has lived and worked in Spain for 12 years, the possibly that the fallout from Brexit might significantly reduce my rights in Spain is a chilling one.

As a European Citizen with an employment contract, the Spanish state treats me more less as equal to a Spanish Citizen. I have the right to work, to own property, to contribute to and benefit from the Health and Social Security Systems without any significant difference from if I were a Spanish Citizen.

Brexit could bring abour material changes to that situation.

I say could because the effects are, of course un-knowable until the negotiations take place. It is possible (probable, even) that all sides on the negotiations will honour the status of current residents. Especially between UK and Spain where there are significant numbers of both nationalities in each others countries. The Ruddites and racists pushing for Brexit will, I assume, be far more concerned with shutting down relations with Poland, Bulgaria and Romania where the flow of migration has been more one-sided than France, Spain and Portugal.

Nevertheless, any agreement on my status in Spain would be dependant on a deal being made within the the two year period allowed by Article 50. If a deal were not made, it is feasible that I would be subject to Visas,  work permits.  It is possible I would need to fund my own health insurance.

More worryingly, my employer is not set up to employ non Europeans. of the 5,000 – 10,000 permanent and temporary members of staff in the 20-odd businesses in our group, across five european countries, the number of non European citizens is virtually nil, and British employees can be counted on one hand.

It would be completely rational for the HR department to decide that the bureaucratic overhead of employing non-european staff outweighs the relatively cost of a a handful of redundancy payouts.

So, I have set on the path to applying for Spanish Citizenship.

Brexit is causing me to undertake my own form of SpEntry.

Onimac Day 2: Fri 13th April: Saceda – Vendas del Narón: 66 km

I made an early start from the Albergue, intent on making up for what i felt had been lost time yesterday. The countryside was stunning, lush green woods with rolling pastures divided by moss-coved stone walls. As I headed into rural Lugo I felt as though I could be back home in the Cotswolds.

Picnic lunch in rural Lugo

After lunch, the countryside continued to impress, rising and falling and then rising again from 300m to 700m along increasingly rocky footpaths between Arzúa and Portomarín. Fighting my way up hill was tough , and would continue to be so until my fitness improves after a few days of cycling. The rocky path was also causing me frustration as I had to creep my heavily loaded bike down hill.

At some point along the way, my left pannier ripped free of it’s clip. Luckily I was able to recover the clip and with a bit of re-packing and couple of cable-ties I was able to bodge together a means of keeping it attached to the pannier-rack.

As dusk began to fall into a misty rainy evening, I decided to cut short my push for Portomarín and dive into one of the albergues in Ventas de Narón.

Ventas de Narón

Onimac Day 1: Thu 12th April: Santiago de Compostela to Saceda: 35km

Over-packed?

I probably over-did the bike packaging. In reality I could have reversed the pedals, bungee’d the front wheel to the frame and the driver would probably have let me on just the same.

Assembled in Santiago Bus Station

By 08:00 I had re-assembled my bike, loaded up the panniers and was heading out on my Onimac.

I took a quick ride around the old town of Santiago, found the cathederal and Plaza del Obradoiro, but felt out of place, for most of the tourists, this had been the objective of gruelling weeks of hiking, the “Pilgrimage of a Lifetime”.

I was keen to get a pilgrimmage card that would enable me to stay in the Albergues, I also needed a guide book to help with the route and to hit the road.

The Compostela office is where the pilgrim presents their compostela card with stamps from each albergue and point of interest along their route to show that they have completed their pilgrimage. Their name will be entered into a register and they will awarded some kind of celestial Nectar points Nectar points to be cashed in at a later date. I went to the office to ask for a blank card so as to take advantage of the network of Albergues as I headed away from Santiago. They looked at me blankly, seemingly unable to coprehend that anyone would want to do the Camino de Santiago back to front.

“I have come by bus and I am going to cycle home”, I explained.

“So we cannot give you a compostela, you cannot do the Camino Santiago”, they replied.

“well, I can, it´ll just back to front. I just wanted a Compostela card to collect the stamps and remember my journey.”

They looked back at me blanky. So I gave up on them and decided to head out of the city and find my way to Monte do Gozo to pick up the route.

I managed to get lost in the suburbs of Santiago just as a storm hit but stumbled upon a campsite where I was able to change into cycling gear and get a beer and a bite to eat while waiting for the worst of a downpour to pass over.

The camino route is marked by yellow arrows and scallop shell signs pointing towards Santiago. Once clear of the city, I got into my rhythm and felt the freedom of the road fill my spirits. Every couple of hundred metres, I would meet a pilgrim heading the “correct” way along the path and we would each holler “Buen Camino” in encouragement. Many were hobbling quite badly as they fought with blisters and over-stuffed rucksacks. The pilgrims were so thick on the ground that Iif i cycled more than a couple of minutes without seeing one appear, I was sure that I had missed a yellow arrow and would need to retrace my steps to the last junction and wait no more than a minute or two for the next cagoule-clad pilgrim to confirm the correct route.

Out of the City

Still somewhat unsure of the availability and protocol for obtaining a bed for the night, I decided to take advantage of one of the many albergues advertised on the path. I stopped a little earlier than planned but nevertheless I was ready to relax, having slept intermittently on the bus and then having been on the go since alighting in the Bus Station at 08:00, I was somewhat disappointed to feel so tired yet to see only 35km of progress.

Posada de Saceda

I consoled myself with a warm shower and a cold beer, followed by a hearty meal served at the comunal dining table shared with the 6 other pilgrims, some of whom were spending their last night on the trail before a long push into Santiago the next day.

No delusions…

Three weeks ago, during the phoney war of the POTUS transition period, I expressed concern about a desire to pre-judge President Trump and end up looking like the paranoid fantasists to whom he has appealed over the last 8 years.

The first week of his presidency have shown that we should not delude ourselves. He has taken every opportunity to lie, corrupt and prove himself incapable of magnanimity.

We need to fight the forces of his fascism wherever they pop up.

Onimac Day 0: Wed 11th April – Madrid to Santiago

At the bus stops in the bowels of Madid Bajaras Airport, I hugged my family goodbye, promising to keep them informed of my progress, reassuring them that I would take care and that they should not worry about me. I looked and felt ridiculously conspicuous in the modern structure of Barajas Airport, dressed in ragged travel clothes, surrounded by panniers, and racks, and a large bike box I had begged from a local bike shop.

A 9 hour overnight journey to Santiago awaited me. I settled into my seat on the bus, and felt buzz of excitement and anticipation. As the bus pulled through Madrid at dusk I was reminded of the sense of freedom and adventure that long distance bus journeys had given me as a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, when low-cost travel meant Eurolines rather than Easyjet. I spent several summers travelling through France on 20 hour bus trips to le Pays Basque, entertained by a good book, a Walkman and 3 C90’s.

Once on the motorway heading north west, I soon dozed off, my mixtapes replaced by the podcast app on my iPhone. I slept through the night, waking to a misty, cloudy Galician dawn as we approached Santiago through lush green forests.