In April this year, I went on a cycling trip to the North of Spain together with my girlfriend Janine. As I did with my trip to Switzerland, I would like to write down where we went and what we did so that I don't forget about it too soon.
The decision to travel to Spain was quite spontaneous - we knew when we wanted to travel, we knew that we wanted to take our bicycles, but we didn't know where we wanted to go yet. Janine had suggested Norway, but after giving it some thought we decided that April would be too early. So, on April 5 I sat down and looked at possible destinations. When looking at a map of Spain, the Camino de Santiago came to my mind - one of my friends had done it on foot, from Geneva all the way to Finisterra the previous year. I am not religious at all, but I figured that using the infrastructure along the Camino would be convenient for us. Even though our planned start date was only 10 days away, Ryanair had pretty cheap flights. That afternoon we booked our flights.
On day 0, April 13, we left early to embark on our long way to Hahn, a former military airport in the middle of nowhere that is now serviced by Ryanair. We packed up our bicycles into cardboard boxes we had gotten for free from a bicycle store in Karlsruhe at Main Hbf.
A few hours later, we arrived at Santander airport. But our journey wasn't over yet. I had looked up a campsite in advance, thinking that our way from the airport through the city would only cost us half an hour or so. It turned out that crossing the city in afternoon traffic was not as easy as I had imagined - it took us around 90 minutes to get to "Camping Cabo Mayor" near the lighthouse of Santander. After having set up our tent for the first time, we went into Santander to grab something to eat. As it turned out, that wasn't so easy either! It was a very warm Saturday evening, children were playing football on the central square and it seemed like everybody was out drinking in one of the many bars. There were so many bars in fact that we had difficulty finding a restaurant that served food! We ended up having pizza, which is probably a safe choice in any European country.
We packed up the next morning as soon as the sun rose to dry our tent. The tent deserves some explanation. it is an ultralight (~1kg) tent for hikers which my parents bought a few years ago. Funnily enough, I have already used it far more then they did, having taken it on my tour through the Netherlands in 2010 and now to Spain. It is single layered, meaning that dew collects on the inside walls every morning, making for a very uncomfortable wakeup experience.
Our day started off very pleasantly. We cycled on small roads along the coast and later headed a bit inland. We had delicious tortilla for lunch at a small cafe along the road. However, things went downhill from there (pun intended) - Janine crashed riding down the next hill at quite high speed. Luckily, the inhabitant of the nearby house took notice and drove us to the hospital in Torrelavega, where her wounds were cleaned, bandaged and her hands and nose x-rayed. Even though some of the wounds were quite deep (in fact the scars are still visible today), she had not broken any bones.
When we arrived back at the house of the incredibly friendly old man that took us to the hospital, we inspected the damage to Janines almost new bicycle. Both wheels were bent quite badly and the plastic mounting hooks of one of her Ortlieb panniers had been ripped to shreds. After resting for a while, we said goodbye to the family that had helped us and set off to a nearby campsite at the sea in the village of Cucia. It wasn't particularly nice, being full of permanent campers and only featuring cold showers, but our options were limited. We managed to fix Janines bicycle, recentering the wheel by selectively tightening spokes and attaching the pannier with cable ties (yes, of course we had brought duct tape and cable ties!).
Because we didn't feel like staying at the campsite another night, we pressed on towards the mountain range ahead the next day. We cycled past Torrelavega and started climbing steadily through eucalyptus woods.
We stopped in Ruente in the afternoon, a village which seems to be composed of only restaurants - two of them rather posh! The river that flows through the village has its source right behind the village, where it comes directly out of a cave. After leaving ruente, we only had a few kilometers to go until we reached our campsite for the night, "El Molino de Cabuérniga" in Sopeña. This campsite was easily one of the best I have seen so far. An extensive patch of perfectly maintained grass, separated from the other meadows in the valley by small stone walls that seem to be typical for the region. We were the only visitors that night, so we put up our tent in the middle of the site.
Unfortunately, finding something to eat there in the middle of nowhere proved to be impossible - the two restaurants in the nearby village were either closed or only offered bar food. Exhausted from the long day and fed up with looking for food, we ate our breakfast for the next day and went to sleep.
The increased elevation was noticeable - we spent a very cold night in our tent and wished we had rented one of the small chalets that the campsite also had to offer. We left late in the morning without breakfast and set off on a 450 meter climb in the almost-midday sun up to the "Collada de Carmona". By the time we reached the top, our spirits were about as low as they could get. We rolled down into Carmona, where we had an excellent lunch at the "Posada el Puente", sitting outside outside in the shade, enjoying our 3-course "Menú del dia". After we asked the owner of the restaurant if he knew a place to stay along the route that we were planning to take, he recommended a small guesthouse and even phoned them to confirm that they were open. We continued downhill towards Puentenansa and then very gradually up the valley of the river Nansa.
The road was brand new - in fact it still had the pitch-black color that only very fresh asphalt has - but we mostly had the road to ourselves. A travelling salesman selling fruit overtook us multiple times, stopping in every village, giving us time to catch up with him again. As we came closer to the end of the valley, the terrain around us became more rough and and a giant hydropower dam at the end of the valley came into view.
We overcame the last few meters of elevation and reached our guesthouse in a tiny village near the artificial lake created by the dam, appropriately named "La Laguna".
The next day, we set off uphill once again. We crossed the border from Cantabria into the region of Castilla y León and reached the pass, "Puerto de Piedrasluengas" around noon.
Our route went mostly downhill from there, the valleys became wider and greener again and eventually we left the mountains behind us and entered a high plain.
We rode along what felt like one long, straight road through the middle of nowhere. Most villages we passed by were abandoned, all houses boarded up, in the process of being taken back by nature. This was a problem for us, since we had to find somewhere to sleep. Eventually we found a village and asked an old lady if she knew a place to stay for the night. After asking 3 different people, she concluded that the owner of the only accommodation was out shopping. We continued on to the next village, "Velilla de Tarilonte" , where she said there was a "casa rural" that we could stay at. After asking somebody, we eventually found the house, which was only marked by a small plate on the wall. We had to ask another local to find out where to find the owner (first house on the left as you enter the village). He asked us to quote a price, but I didn't know what to say, so he suggested 60€, which to me seemed fair for a 4 bedroom house with a garden. He later came by with his wife and gave us beer, ham, bread, milk and bananas for our dinner and breakfast. She spoke English, which enabled us to have a more extensive conversation with her than my Spanish usually allows for.
We left late the next morning for a rather uneventful day cycling through the plain on very straight roads with a car only passing us ever 10 minutes or so. In the evening, we arrived at Mansilla de las Mulas, our first village along the Camino de Santiago. Entering this village that seemed to exist purely for pilgrims was weird after having cycled through scarcely populated areas for the past few days. However, the pilgrim-centric atmosphere would stay with us with growing intensity for the rest of the Camino.
The nex day we continued along a rather unpleasant national road towards León. Along the way, we encountered a fully developed residential area only missing one thing... houses! This result of the housing bubble, which hit especially hard in Spain was the most interesting along our route, although we saw things like newly-built but empty apartment blocks at several other occasions.
We had lunch in León but unfortunately, due to the siesta being in effect, were unable to visit the impressively-looking church. We continued on, trying to avoid the national road that the Camino followed by taking small side roads. We tried to find somewhere to stop for the night, but off the beaten track of the Camino, most of the villages didn't seem to have any such infrastructure, so we had to cycle well into the evening to eventually find a hotel in the very nice town of Astorga.
We left in the morning, not after having a great Spanish desayuno with tostada, zumo de naranja and a café con leche on the main square. The plain gradually started to form slopes but the vegetation stayed similarly dry and sparse. The village where we stopped for the night, Foncebadón, had three albergues, each of them serving a very distinct clientele: One was very commercialized, flashy and next to the road; The second, "Domus Dei", was run by the local parish and presumably for the more religious pilgrims; The one we chose, "Albergue Monte Irago", was our first on the Camino and easily the best of the serveral albergues the we would sleep at along our way. It had a very hippie-like atmosphere to it and a welcoming warm fire burning in the combined reception/common/eating room. A large (~1m diameter) pan of paella was served for dinner and I got to talk to a Canadian traveler who had originally planned to spend his 6-month timeout in South-East Asia but decided to walk the Camino after hearing about it somewhere in Thailand.
Because of the stuffy air and the extremely loud snoring of the person sleeping below us, we both had a very unrestful night; Note to self: Always bring earplugs! We learned that in albergues, almost everyone gets up at around 6:45 and starts making noise while packing their rucksacks to wake everybody else up. After it has become obvious to everyone that nobody could possibly still be sleeping, the light is switched on and by 7:30, most have had their breakfast and are out the door. We were the last to leave at around 8:00, so we didn't have to participate in the daily yoga session with by the albergue owners. After a steep descent we broke for lunch in the city of Ponferrada and visited the castle there.
That night, we stayed at a very special albergue, the "Albergue Ave Fenix". It was the worst albergue we got to see on our whole trip and therefore will probably be in our memories forever. We were standing at the door to the albergue, uncertain about whether to stay there or look further, when somebody motioned us to come in. We were immediately offered water and sat down with the albergue owner in a room full of posters of various religious worship groups and drug rehab organisations. We handed him our "credenciales", a kind of passport that every pilgrim has to have to collect stamps to eventually be awarded their "Compostela" from the Catholic Church. We obviously didn't care about this at all, so we had only bought ours for 2,50€ the night before and not filled in the name and nationality fields yet. This earned us a look of disapproval, but we got a bed to sleep in anyhow.
Next, we discovered the sanitary facilities at "Ave Fenix", which looked like they had grown organically over the years. The floor did not have tiles on it, just raw earth. The sinks and tiles on the wall were cobbled together, as if whatever was to be found on a dump at the time that they were installed had been used. Neither the showers nor the toilets were lockable and the was only cold water.
Dinnertime came, and it turned out that they were overbooked and didn't have enough tables to seat everybody. They scrambled to get an extra table, and in the end we found two places on a table with a Mexican couple, who I had a surprisingly interesting conversation with, given my modest Spanish skills. The main course consisted of "huevos fritos", fried eggs, which is not the dish I would make if I had to server dinner for for ~30 people at once.
We left early the next morning, skipping the breakfast, which looked like it consisted of "huevos fritos" again. On our itinerary for the day was the highest pass of our whole journey, the "Alto do Cebreiro". We cycled along a totally empty national road all morning and reached the pass in the early hours of the afternoon. We had lunch in the rather unpleasant village of O Cebreiro and descended into the province of Galicia. After our horrible experience at Ave Fenix, we wanted to stay at a normal hotel that day, but after we saw the state-run albergue in Tricastela, we decided to stop there instead.
After an early start the next day, we had breakfast in the village of Samos, which consists mostly of a huge cloister. Interestingly, instead of relying on traditional revenue sources, the cloister operates a petrol station! We had lunch on a meadow near Portomarín, where we were attacked by cows who seemed to be very interested in us and our food!
We stayed for the night in Palas del Rei, another ugly "pilgrim city" on a national road leading to Santiago de Compostela. Unfortunately, the next day started with us having no alternative but to take this road for a few kilometers, until we managed to veer off onto smaller roads leading through eucalyptus woods. We were very close to Santiago now and had planned to find a place for the night a few kilometers out and ride in the next day, but we found nothing. Just out of Santiago, we met a Dutch couple who were also heading for the city. Upon talking to them, I discovered that they had come from from Granada in the South of Spain, where they had cycled all the way from Amsterdam the previous summer. Santiago would mark the end of the second leg of their journey - they were planning to cycle back to Amsterdam later that year! Once in Santiago, we quickly found a hotel and spent the evening in a park, eating a dinner composed of oranges and fresh bread.
Because the weather forecast for the coming days was significantly worse than what we had had over the past two weeks - only sunshine, not a single drop of rain - and because we had had enough of cycling up mountains, we decided to travel to Finisterra, what used to be the "most western point on earth", not by bicycle but by bus. We booked the best hotel in town while still in Santiago and departed on a 3 hour drive along the coast the next morning. We spent two relaxing nights in Finisterra, with wonderful views of the Atlantic right from our hotel room window. We went for walks along the beach in the rain and to the legendary lighthouse, where pilgrims supposedly go to burn their clothes, and enjoyed excellent fresh seafood in the "O Pirata" bar.
After a day at the Atlantic, we went back to Santiago for a day of sightseeing. While the city itself is nice to look at, we were left with the feeling that the tourist attractions were most relevant to Roman-Catholic pilgrims, which we were not.
We had already arranged for our bikes to be boxed up by a bicycle shop and given to a taxi driver before we left for Finisterra. He picked us up at 7:00 the next morning and drove us to the airport. Everything worked perfectly and we arrived safely back in Karlsruhe in the afternoon.
Looking back, a few things played out differently than I had imagined beforehand. One lesson learnt was that the average distance that we had to cover per day was too far. We usually finished our day late in the afternoon, exhausted. It would have been nice to have had more time to relax, read and see more of cities and villages we travelled through. Also, my prior research of the geography of Spain consisted only of looking at Google Maps for a few minutes - I had no idea that Galicia would be so hilly and exhausting to cross.
Another thing I did not expect was the somewhat lacking gastronomic infrastructure, even along the Camino. I imagine a restaurant like "Posada el Puente" in Carmona would be a goldmine on the Camino, but surprisingly none of the restaurants we saw along the Camino had a similarly laid-back rural atmosphere to it. Off the Camino, it was often difficult to find anything to eat at all.
Knowing a bit of Spanish was definitely an advantage, especially in the less touristic mountainous area of Cantabria.
One thing I was very unsure of before our trip was the traffic situation - Spain doesn't really have any long-distance cycling routes, so we had to rely on roads to get us where we wanted. This worked out much better than I had anticipated. Most of the roads were more or less empty and traffic was only an issue on the few kilometers of national roads that were part of the Camino and that we just could not avoid.
It's hard to say whether following the Camino for a large part of our journey was a good idea. Certainly, the albergues made finding a place to sleep for the nighteasy, but overall the quality of guesthouses and campsites that we had while not on the Camino was better. Also, contrary to my expectations, the Camino is not a particularly nice route to Santiago. In fact, around León, there is a long stretch where the Camino follows the high-traffic national road. For the walking pilgrims, that's two days of walking in the ditch with lorries going past. Yuk.
There were a few lows along our way, but overall, I greatly enjoyed our trip to Spain. The weather was perfect for almost the whole two weeks that we were there. I got to see a bit more of another European country I really don't know a lot about. But most importantly, travelling with Janine was a wonderful experience! I can't wait to find out where we'll go next.