Cycling El Camino de Santiago 2014, Spain

During the summer of 2014 we cycled with our mountainbikes and pannier packs from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then onwards to Porto in Portugal – in total about three weeks of cycling (with breaks). Here are the excerpts written during that trip.

The start

First, we enjoyed our final fast food meal, got the maps and pilgrim credentials and dressed up. The lady in the pilgrim office accidentally used the Russian visa page of my passport as the page where to take the info, so my pilgrim passport is written in cyrillic now.

About the track itself: nothing could’ve prepared us for what was to come (nothing in Denmark, anyway). The highest point of the first day was 770m above sea level. The track was mostly loose gravel with big rocks. The uphill was covered by crazy, sticky and heavy mud from last day’s rain, which kept getting stuck in the mudflaps and stopping the wheels. The downhill with the loose rocks and 50deg angle was a story of its own. All in all we managed 45 km in the first day, getting a lovely biker’s tan as a bonus.

We spent the night in a nice albergue with other pilgrims and got a good sleep. The following morning we started at 8, the track was relatively uniform and the peaks not so high. However, one nice downhill suddenly included a small stream and someone had decided to install stairs there. So as it was so unexpected, I fell quite hard and shed some blood on my elbow. But it’s was all good.

The result was nearly 70km in nearly 7 hours – our record so far regarding the distance. The low average speed was clearly due to the mountains, which seem to be never ending.

Another great result was the increasing biker’s tan on the legs and arms and my burned back. Plus the scratched elbow. And I now had a rectangular tanline where the plaster was located.

Kristians also fell, but he has some kind of a magic power of always walking away from the fall, leaving just the bike on the ground. When I fall, I don’t let go of the bike, so we’re in it together.

We ended up in a small albergue in a small town right after Logroña, where we slept in bunkbeds. And Kristians was changing the rear tire of his bike due to the fact that it kept running empty.

The mountains

Well, it was a good day I guess – we did about 62 km and got to an albergue just before rain. Lots of gravel roads and some bigger hills, maximum altitude was about 760m.

The weather was good – lots of clouds, so it wasn’t so damn hot. The strong wind, however, reminded us of Denmark and was a bit annoying.

I also managed to lose my matress somewhere somehow. Kristian guesses it was on some downhill, where I couldn’t hear it fall due to the wind in my ears. Well, that’s that.

For this day the plan was to get to Burgos (52 km) – some big peaks were waiting for us, some over a kilometer. The weather was very cloudy again, rain quite possible. I really hoped there wouldn’t be too many real mud roads ahead – they would be awful after rain.

The sun is back

Well, yesterday was definitely interesting. The morning started with about a 1,1 km elevation, followed by downhills and other uphills. That ended with around a 5km downhill on a nice sandy and smooth road. However, as the sun wasn’t out, our fingers nearly froze with the wind. Great views, though.

Another interesting thing yesterday was the amount of asphalt – I’d say it was nearly 20km of it, definitely a record. I also think that was the whole 10% of the Camino that is considered to not be a dirt road.

The asphalt smoothly turned into an unwalkable and uncyclable rocky uphill, followed by some nice views again.

We made it to Burgos in the afternoon, mailed half of our clothes home, bought food and chain oil and continued to find an albergue a couple of villages further. The sun came out and we felt like we had finally reached the plateau…this morning, however, there were long climbs (there was 1050m with 12%!) followed by long flat dirt roads, where we had up to 30km/h average speeds.

Kristians had now, after 50 km, decided to get a flat tire – so that needs to be fixed. Legs are tired. And today was also the closest we’ve felt to death – a long descent with about 40km/h, whereas the road was full of holes, ditches, bumps, curves and lots of loose rocks. But we survived.

We hoped to do a hundred today, but we’ll see how it goes.

A hard day

Well, yesterday we didn’t manage the 100km, made only 75. Today, however, despite the heavy wind, we made 105km and even walked a bit to see all the sites in Lèon. And Lèon is so beautiful!

But about last night – we spent the night in a monastery that is also an albergue. It was completely full and despite the microscopic odds, there was another Estonian there! We ate a lot, washed our bicycles and THEN – even though all the lights had to be off at 22:30 – watched the semifinals of the world cup in the community room. As Kristians said: “The tv is from the year the Americans landed on the Moon.” And of course the only channel that had no audio was the one with football. And what a match! In general, last night was like some bad Latvian joke: two Estonians, one Latvian and a Peruvian guy are watching a football match. Germany beats Spain 7-1.

Back to today – we were in the final stretch of the plateau, so we took the most of it. The bad thing about the flatness was the heavy wind and the fact that there were no trees to provide any shadow on the roadsides. And it was strange – the sun burned like hell but with the wind it was actually cold. Nevertheless, we made it to Léon by around 16, found an awesome, super cozy small hotel where we took a double room (such Kardashians, but one really gets tired of sleeping in the same room with 5-15 other people and their snoring and farts). Then we went around the sights, as guided by the local expert Kristians, got our pilgrim stamps and met the Australian family we had met about a million times on the way already. However, this was the actual first time we spoke to them for more than a minute.

Between mountains

This morning had already warmed up by the time we started our trip uphill. Nice scenic views all the way up to the 1500m peak. Despite the heat and rough terrain to manage on a bike we managed to get up there in one piece – of course with a lot of stops. At the top nothing special: 4-5m high beam with cross on top and the trees blocked all the views but the fun part of the day was only ahead – the downhill. For the downhill we decided to roll on asphalt, firstly because it’s safer, secondly because the walkers would have been an annoying thing to avoid at 50km/h on a narrow mountain path and thirdly because it’s safer. The downhill was amazing, a lot of insane views and speed, what a speed. Stiina rolled while holding brakes and it was still a 50km/h, I didn’t have much of brakes, I also didn’t have a speedometer, but I bet the speed was around 70km/h at some places. The proof would be the tears running from my eyes down to the mouth and also to the sides into ears and to the back of the skull. It was not from fear, but simply from the high speed and joy of ride. There wasn’t any time to get scared anyway and if something would have gone wrong there wouldn’t have been much I could’ve done about it. Nevertheless it was the most awesome downhill of our lives – we rolled like that for at least half an hour. We were still forced to make some stops on the way down either by an awesome view or a sudden village after a 180deg turn. The downhill ended by the village at the bottom of the hill, a very beutiful village – if it would have been evening when we got there we would’ve definitely stayed. After a short fruit break we went further to the next larger city, Ponferrada, where we had our daily siesta (lunch and sleep in the park). After succeeding with that we continued for 23 more km. That was it for the day – at least more than 70km done.

All in all a good day

Even though we slept together with like 20 people in the same room, there was surprisingly no snoring.

So we got on our way and expected mountains right away, but instead the road winded inbetween them for a good 20 km. We chose to ride on the road because the mountains seem to make the walkers a bit angry – they were upset when we needed to pass.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a long climb started where we met a bunch of Portuguese cyclists. After about 7km of constant climbing/cycling on 1st gear, we finally reached the top and saw a great view. We also saw a herd of some magical mountain cows, jumping 2m off a hill onto the road.

So we started our downhill, which sadly also had a lot of uphills, in the scorching sun. Soon enough we met our Australian-Italian friends (a family of three) and decided to ride together to Sarria. It was a tough ride but we made it. Luckily, we also found a nice albergue together and cooked some pasta with salad for the dinner.

Technically there was now only around a 100km to Santiago de Compostela but as there were mountains on the way we would most likely do it in 2 days.

To Santiago

Well, we finally made it to Santiago. We planned it so that we’d only need to bike a little today – 39km in fact – so that we could see the town, get our certificates and a good long rest before continuing towards Portugal.

Already 11km from the city, when I got a glimpse of it, I was so happy that a tear came in my eye. But that’s that. Of course when we arrived we saw that the cathedral was under construction, but we already expected that because that’s how it always is when we travel. We found a great hotel right downtown and then went to stuff ourselves with junk food.

About cycling – yesterday’s 80km was very hard with forest terrain and many ups and downs. In fact our cycling group, that grew to 5 people for the last days, had 2 flat tires in one hour. To this we can add another flat tire from todaywhich Kristians got right in front of the cathedral in Santiago.

Again, the Italian family cooked us an awesome pasta yesterday, which we enjoyed while watching the football game. It was very sad to say goodbye to our friends from Italy/Australia but we hope to see them again soon enough.

A long day

Well, today we wanted to start early because we knew it was going to be hot. So we planned to wake up at six but the people in the hostel started to wake already before 5 and the guy next to us snored and a woman had asthma or something…so Kristians said fu*k it, let’s wake up (waking early voluntarily is something very uncommon when it comes to him). So we showered, had some fruits and set off. Of course it was completely dark outside so the dark blue arrows on streets, walls and posts were hard to see. In the end we decided to cycle to the next city (23km) on the road in order to be faster. There, of course, Kristians got a flat tire.

After realizing he’s had like 10 flats by now, we decided to wait 2 hours until the cycle shop would open so he could buy a new inner tube and outer tire for the rear wheel. And then some maintenance.

Afterwards we just kept cycling in the damned heat (like 35-40deg in the sun) until the next town where we had some lunch and rest.

While riding out of the town we came across a beautiful bay and beach where Kristians wanted to swim (I really can’t take cold water so I didn’t participate). We also had a short conversation with some local old/disabled people’s home workers (they were at the beach with a lot of the patients) who were interested in where we came from and how we are cycling the Camino. It’s cool how my Spanish is improving and I’m remembering more and more from school.

After the town we hoped for a nice smooth ride to the border town of Tuí/Tuy, but were met with about 2km of steep uphills in full sun. So hard! Sometimes it felt like my heart was skipping beats and the breathing was heavy. FINALLY we found a huge stone table made for the pilgrims that was right on top of the hill and nicely in the shadow. I was happy our “bed” would be elevated because just the other day Kristians encountered a snake. I decided to take a long nap whereas Kristians did some bike maintenance, read his book and said hi to the passing pilgrims.

At around 18 in the evening we continued cycling – the temperature being much more tolerable by then. Finally, after a 80km day, we made it to the beautiful border town of Tuy, found a hostel, took a shower and enjoyed probably the best pizzas of our lives.

A strange day

Well, yesterday’s hostel had a bar downstairs so the noise lasted long into the night. Nevertheless, we were tired enough to get sleep.

The day started well – it was cloudy, so the heat wasn’t torturing us. We took some last photos in the beautiful Tuí and then crossed the bridge to Portugal. We hadn’t even been on the Portuguese soil for 15 minutes when I had a crash when taking a small downhill. As my rear brakes were completely worn out for some days already I’d been casually using the front ones – thus the crash. And I even wore the helmet! But it’s okay – now I’ve got bruises symmetrically on both elbows and legs. But damn, I felt so weak and faint-hearted after the crash – my pain tolerance is like 0,01 (in some large scale). Kristians of course first burst into laughter and then started to run around me while taking pictures. Great boyfriend.

After falling I became very cautious of every downhill, especially because today all the terrain was incredibly rocky all over. All in all today was one of the hardest days so far (imagine what it would’ve been with the sun!!!) – we only managed to do around 45km. The biggest climb we had was filled with large rocks and completely un-cyclable, so pushing the bike was a tough job. Already kilometers before the hill we started seeing smirks in the passing pilgrims’ eyes – they warned us about the other side of the hill, the downhill for us. Well, it was insane. Even BIGGER rocks, 45degree angle and in some spaces so narrow carved-in roads that it could either fit the person or the bike at a time. But we survived and eventually made it down.

We made it to Ponte de Lima slowly, mostly because I walked all the downhills instead of cycling without the brakes. A gorgeous town! We managed to find a bikeshop where I bought new brakepads.

In the only pilgrim’s hostel in town they told us that cycling pilgrims are not in the priority list, so we could only get in 2 hours later than the walkers – this pissed us off, because we had cycled around 930km by now (with heavier luggage!) whereas some walkers do 10km a day. In the “French way” part of the El Camino, this would’ve been no problem as there were as many pilgrim hostels on the road as there were Asians (a lot!), but here in the not-so-popular Portuguese route there’s about 1 per each city and cities are a minimum of 15km apart.

Luckily we found a youth hostel – new, clean, quiet and cheap. This one even had the breakfast included and the price difference was only 2 euros.

So, the next day we hoped to have a similar cloudy but warm weather and maybe even make it to Porto by the evening, if the terrain is smoother and the brakes now work.

Another short day

It is weird here in Portugal – even though it’s not hot at all like it was in Spain it’s hard to cycle more than 50km a day. It was also the first day we got some decent rain during the whole Camino.

So here we were, one city before Porto (should be 37km to there), tired and sleepy in the only pilgrim hostel in town.

In general, the Portuguese camino path is in some senses much harder for cyclists:

1) about 90% of the roads are covered with square cobbled stones, causing intense vibrations and jumps and headaches and in general not providing any enjoyment of the journey;

2) roads covered in deep sand (maybe 5%);

3) roads that are used more for dumping trash than walking/driving, including lots of glass pieces;

4) the super-low density of real cities & foodstores & pilgrim hostels – I imagine this also to be very tough for the pilgrims, as many of them cannot make even more than 10km a day, not even speaking of 37.

In the Spanish camino (the French way), there were pilgrim hostels in every small village (so not more than 5km from first to next) plus lots of bars and stores aimed mainly at pilgrims.

As cyclists here on the Portuguese way, it’s nice to note the low density of pilgrims on the way (don’t really need to worry about crashing into someone or even having a bell on the bike). Another nicer thing is the “more authentic” architecture (I guess it includes the annoying roads) in comparison with Spain. However, the Camino in Spain, especially close to Santiago, was more rural (cows, actual work on the fields, smell of manure in the air).

Anyway, we were now on our last day of cycling and not sure if we should have been happy or sad about it. There was still a lot to do – thoroughly wash ourselves, our clothes and bikes; send the bikes home, discover Porto and then fly home. I wondered if it would feel weird not to bike suddenly anymore?

The last day of cycling

Well, the second to last day was not all that eventful. It was raining hard all morning so we spent it by cycling and hiding under bigger trees. Kristians managed to catch a dry and sunny moment to get a flat tire, which he then repaired somewhere inbetween fields.

By around noon we finally reached downtown Porto (very hilly!), which was beautiful of course. We spent hours trying to find a hostel/hotel which could acommodate us for all the 4 nights to come, but lo and behold, everything was full. I think we went by at least 15 places.

Finally, somewhere not too far from downtown, we managed to take a four people room in a nice-looking two star hotel, where we also met a Dutch Jeremy Clarkson lookalike.

After showering and some rest we spent an hour trying to find a restaurant that was good enough and open (there’s some sort of a schedule here where things work until maybe 16 and reopen again at 19 or so – not exactly a siesta).

We also visited the fancy Imperial McDonalds in Porto – Kristians insisted. To our surprise in the afternoon the sun came out and the weather turned nice.

Then we did some clothes shopping, as all we had were our cycling clothes and shoes. And then we went to bed early.

By the way – those annoying Portuguese roads I mentioned were also the cause of my sudden backpain, neckpain and headaches. So if you wish to avoid these while cycling, do not do the Portuguese Camino.