Onimac Day 11: Sun 22nd April : Hormigos – Home: 57km

My final day on the road would be a short one. I packed up my tent, grabbed a quick breakfast in the bar, and headed back towards the main road home. it took me a couple of hours to get to Torrijos along the quiet old National Road, recently bypassed by the construction of a motorway. After passing through Torrijos, my last town before arriving home, I picked up the un-opened section of the new motorway and rolled over smooth black tarmac until I could see my home village of Bargas on the horizon.

first sight of Bargas

I was now back into my home terrain. I regularly cycle around these tracks and know that I am no more than an hour from home. I send the photo through on Facebook and Whatsapp, warning the assembled party that I am on my way, and that the beers should be on ice.

Those last 15 km felt surprisingly emotional. I rambled my way back through the familar lanes behind Bargas, past the local supermarket, the village school and then into the last kilometre across the fields. I could see my house across the fields, with the assmbled bodies of friends and family waiting to greet me.

Home at Last

Ribbons and streamers provided a tickertape welcome, at exactly 2 PM, as promised.

Onimac Day 10: Sat 21st April: Ávila – Hormigos: 105km

Avila is served by 3 main trunk roads. One of them, the N403, could take me back to my home village and destination. Whilst discussing my route with the night doorman at the hotel, I got a buzz of excitement from the fact that he recognisedd the name of my village. “Ah, Bargas”, he said, “you should take the N403, it is the best road to get there, it is wide and good, smooth tarmac.”

I decided against his advice. I was going to try my luck on the small, winding mountain road, and trust that I would not be fighting for road space with trucks and speeding cars.

After an anxious first hour or so, getting lost around the modern suburban ring road, and then competing for road space with quarry trucks that led me through a quarry, the Quiet Mountain Road turned into the quiet moutnain road I had expected. It rose consistently, but managebly. I could feel my legs taking the strian quite happily. Finally I felt able to enjoy the climb. My body respnded to the challenge, my legs were spinning happily, either pushing through the hill on the shallower sections or happily winching my up the steeper sections in a granny gear. The weight of my panniers felt stabilising rather than anchoring.

Clearly my fitness had improved over the last week and half, since struggling over the rolling hills of Galicia.

I passed over the first significant puerto around 10:30 and was able to drop down into the high tree-less moorland of the Community of Madrid, thorugh isolated hilltop villages, I took on bananas in the village shop and a coffee in the bar before heading on to Cebreros and a disappointingly uninspiring lunch in San Martin de Valdeiglesias.

I had assumed that my route would be all downhill after the puertos of the morning, but once I dropped down to 700m the countryside kept rolling up and down. This made for a more tiring afternoon than anticipated, but nonetheless I was now within sight of the finish line.

The campsites I had identified were about 10-15 km out of my way, I would need to cycle 2 sides of a triangle to get to them, so I had called ahead to the campsite and confirmed that they were open and and had availability. I could probably have found a hostal or B&B in Maqueda or Almorox, but having carried the 1-2kg of camping gear with me for 700km, I was keen to justify it.

Once I had pitched my tent in the allotted parcela, I was reminded of the disappointment of many Spanish campsites.

My pitch was under a canopy, more or less like a shaded car parking space in a long line facing other similar pitches. Dotted along the row of pitches were caravans that seemed semi-static. Most seemed not to have moved in years. They had several square meters of green plastic grass laid out, a prefrab shed or two containing a kitchen with gas cooker, fridge-freezer, washing machine, as well as a TV & hifi system. These campsites are not for touring, nor camping, but are generally treated as the weekend and summer retreats of the flat-dwelling folk of Madrid’s satellite towns. A place where the extended family can get together around a barbecue, enjoy an afternoon of whiskey and coke cubatas while their kids burn off their energy in the campsite pool, kicking balls around. Or in the case of my temporary neighbours, by racing mini motorbikes between the canopies.

Luckily my stay coincided with a Madrid-Barça clasico, so I was able to enjoy the match in the campsite bar with a few beers, and thanks to the Madrid victory, I could slip away to my tent with enough alcohol in my system to get off to sleep, leaving my roudier neighours celebrating their superiority in the bar, rather than their caravans.

Onimac Day 8: Thur 19th April: Toro – Arévalo: 106 km

I enjoyed a lie-in until 8:30 followed by a leisurely breakfast buffet in the hotel before moving on. Yesterday’s cheek cutting south-westerly had turned over night to a helpful north-westerly that pushed me through vineyards along the banks of the Duero to Castronuño where a barman told me his tales of cycling the Camino from Astorga and advised me to get off-road by heading to Nava del Rey and following a dirt track along side the railway that would take me to Medina del Campo. I took his advice, diverting to Nava del Rey, found the railway track and felt relief to at last be back on a dirt road. Until the track ended 1.5 km later, dumping me in at the corner of a particularly isolated field. I trundled my way back along the tractor-track and hooked up with the road once more. And so would continue much of this route through Castilla Leon. The landscape continued to be large and rolling, mainly made up of arable land, with few opportunities to follow off-road tracks, but plenty of covered country lanes to link desolate villages.

The rain in Spain rarely falls on the plain. The meseta plains of Castilla are generally fairly sparcely populated, in part due to the lack of water. The Green Spain of the northern coast and Galicia seems to have allowed for an even scattering of farms and homesteads to develop over the years, when travelling through Galicia you are rarely more than 5-10 km from a village or hamlet. The Castillians of Zamora and Valladolid on the other hand live in towns and villages and then commute out to their land when it needs tending. What little population there is in this part of Spain is concentrated in sleepy market towns and villages each separated from its neighbour by dozens of kilometres.

And so, when lunchtime came there was no bar or Menu del Dia on offer. I turned off and sheltered from the wind behind an irrigation shed to warm up a quick lunch of canned stew (look for the Litoral brand) with chorizo, bread and manchego cheese.

Lunch in the middle of nowhere

I then pushed on to Arevalo, where I found an adequate 1* hostal in which to rest.

Since leaving O Cebreiro on Monday morning, my daily average had increased significantly. A couple of 90km days stacked up with 118km on Wednesday and another 106km today meant that I was within striking distance of Avila, I was back on schedule to be home on Sunday.

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 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 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.

Onimac 2012 – Preparation

The Camino de Santiago represents many things to different people, for some it is a religious pilgrimage, for others a challenging activity holiday. The route to Santiago de Compostela consists of a network of long distance paths, and rustic inns and hostals that allow the traveller to savour the sights and hospitality of northern Spain. Whatever one’s motivation for travelling along the camino de Santiago, the journey is a chance for people to bond with friends and family in their pursuit a common goal, or for the solo traveller to make new friends on the road.

There are several routes to Santiago. The most popular Camino Francés runs east-west from from the French Pyrenees. The Camino de la Plata runs north from Seville, through Extremadura. The Camino de Levante leads North West from the Mediterranean coast at Valencia.

Routes to Santiago

I had done a couple of weekend cycle-camping trips over the years, but this was to be my first multi-day tour. My plan was to head out from home on Wednesday morning, pick up the Camino de Levante nearby and follow the little yellow arrows towards Santiago. My training had been non-existant, but figured that I would soon find my rhythm.

As I collected my kit together I checked the weather forecast and noticed that the week ahead was going to be dominated by north-westerly winds . I was going to be cycling into a cold, wet head-wind all the way to Galicia.

With less than 24 hours go until my planned departure, I decided to flip my route. Instead of fighting into a wind, to cycle up to Santiago, why not get a bus up to Santiago and cycle home?

Onimac 2012

Back in 2012 I undertook my first multi-day cycle tour. I cycled home from Santiago de Compostela, initially heading east along the route of Camino Francés from Santiago to Astorga, and then making my way south through Castilla Leon towards Avila and Toledo.
I will be publishing my account of the trip over the next few days. I hope you enjoy them.