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.

Trump the Fascist?

The other day I stumbled across a short thread on twitter that possibly shines a light Trump and the motivations of his regime. Perhaps all this talk of Fascism and Nazi-punching is slightly off the mark.

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their apologists are not fascists. Fascism contains an element of socialism, at least for the favoured “in-group” sections of society, if not the demonised “Others”.

Trump and Bannon are Anarcho-Capitalists. Their aim is to destroy the power of the state, whether as owner or manager of resources, regulator of markets, redistributor of wealth or independant arbitor of justice. The aim of the Anarcho-Capitalist is to reduce all economic activity “voluntary” contractual transaction.

The Fascism of 20th Century Europe was fashioned from the industrial age in which it developed. The economies of the 1930’s depended upon labour, and so the ultra-nationalisms of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco offered the Quid Pro Quo of government intervention in the economy to provide a more or less comfortable existance for the chosen docile in-groups. It should, but incomprehensively doesn´t, go without saying that Fascist states were various degrees of horrendous for anyone who was Jewish, Gipsy, Communist, African, LBGTQ , Disabled, Slav, or often just accused or suspected of being any variation of the above.

The crucial difference between the old-style Fascists and their descendants is that the 21st Century western economy depends not on labour, but consumers.

The stagnation of wages and the rocketing inequalities within western economies since the financial crisies of 2008 has led to a fundamental questioning of the west’s economic model. Critics of the last 35 years of neoliberal capitalism suggest we are living in a period of “Zombie Capitalism”, desperately consuming the remnants of our natural resources to feed an ever-less efficient and fundamentally discredited system that serves only to funnel wealth to an ever-shrinking group of Oligarchs.

Automation and Artificial Inteligence is on the verge of making another section of society redundant. There are serious economic studies underway investigating fundamental shifts in the way western economies could be structured in a a post-industrial, post-capitalist environment. Pilots are being carried out to provide citizens with a Universal Basic Income. There is a flourishing or re-emergence of Utopian ideas of reduced hour work weeks, the developemnt of sustainable economies based on embracing technology, investing in green energy, and developing low-impact permaculture food production. Ideas that offer the promise of an equitable soft-landing from the last 200 years of unsustainable capitalist over-consumption.

The 21st Century Anarcho-Capitalist, on the other hand sees these interventions as heretical disruptions of the market. In an economy that depends not on workers but consumers, the oligarchy has no use for those who cannot treat themselves to a $5 milky syrup coffee, or afford a monthly subscription to Netflix, or provide for their own Health Insurance, or service their student debt or under-write a decent mobile data plan. This growing underclass whose median net worth is less than $5.00 have no value to the likes of Steve Bannon. The Anarcho-Capitalist solution to the kind of inequality where 50% of the population hold the same wealth as 8 billionaires, is to discard the poorest 40%. To excise them from the economy by abandoning them to their fate of climate-induced disasters, disease, opiate addiction, obesity and gun-crime.

Onimac Day 9: Fri 20th April: Arévalo – Avila: 56km

Avila would be the last main town before riding through the Sierra de Madrid, over a series of summits around 1100m – 1300m. That would be my plan for Saturday, first just I need to get through the 50-odd km to Avila.

The first 30 km were similar to the last few days, gently rolling arrable plains. Despite the tiring head-wind I was on course to enjoy a famous Avila T-Bone steak for lunch. Then I began to approach the climb up to Avila. the net elevation gain to Avila would be around 300m, but the rolling nature of the climb meant I would gain 30m and then descend 20m before repeating again. climbing 60m to gain 20m and be faced once more with another climb.

With the elevation came the wind and the cold once more. Eventually I made it to the famous city walls, and followed my way around them until I found a hotel. I took the first room they offered me and enjoyed the glory of a warm room, a soft bed and TV. I collapsed onto the bed and and fell into a heavy siesta.

When I awoke a couple of hours later I felt guilty for wasting my time Avila. I felt I should be soaking up the atmosphere of this medievel World Heritage site, instead of slobbing under the duvet dozing to trashy daytime TV.

But then I turned my attention to my task for the Saturday. I would be climbing some serious mountains for at least half of the day, and then hopefully camping in one of two campsites around 60-70 km from home. Besides, Avila is a day trip by car, we often come for lunch, so why the pressure to play tourist now. I should just revel in the fact that I am nearly home, enjoy my first half-day off since setting out from Santiago 9 days ago, and conserve my energy for tomorrow.

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 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.