A lightweight fixed-gear bike tour of France and Spain

Archive for May, 2011

Post Trip Analysis: Notes on the Camino de Santiago

In total, we spent 20 days on the Camino, Starting in Toulouse, going all the way to Santiago de Compostella.

What did we think of the Camino? Well, first a bit about the Camino. The Camino is a network of walking paths that forms a web across Europe, all centered around the city of Santiago de Compostella, in North-West Spain. Santiago is supposedly the burying place of the Apostle, James, who is also patron saint of Spain. The paths follow ancient catholic pilgrimage routes that were very popular in the middle ages. In the 12th centure, 500,000 people walked the pilgrimage, from thousands of miles away. Nowadays, the pilgrimage is regaining it’s popularity (200,000 people per year) but has been largely rebranded as a secular, cultural pilgrimage route. We didn’t do it for religious reasons, we did it because it was there to be done.

There are certain things about the route that are very nice. It links together hundreds of medieval churches, cathedrals, cities, towns and villages, and, especially in Spain, is very well set up for pilgrims (in terms of signposting, food, water, and cheap accommodation). We of course, were on bicycles, and while it is possible to cycle the actual walkers’ route, you need a mountain bike. So we were only very rarely on the actual “Camino,” but rather following roads that went through every camino town, and passed by every church. Because this route has been so popular for so long, there were plenty of roads going in the right directions. It was rare that we were more than about 500m from the walking path.

Our impression of the walker’s camino was that it was incredibly crowded. From about 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM here was a constant stream of walkers. The time we were on the camino was the busiest time of year, as the late spring weather was about as good as it gets. If we had been walking, I think the over-crowdedness would have really gotten to us. As it was, we spent every night in busy hostels. This meant we met a lot of nice people, but made sleeping in dormitories noisy and cramped.

The other impression we had of camino walkers, whose average age is probably 40-something, is that they carried far too much stuff. They weren’t carrying tents or cooking gear, and if they brought sleeping bags, they were only needed for hostels without blankets, so didn’t need to be particularly warm. But we saw people with 50, 60, even 70 liter backpacks, and some of the people we talked to had 11 to 13 kilo base pack weights. Our base pack weights were exactly 8 kilos, and that included tents, warm sleeping bags, pads, cooking equipment etc, none of which they had, so we really wondered what they could possibly be carrying. Sometimes we got little clues while sharing dormitories with such over-burdened people. We saw toiletries bags the size of our tent, people with three pairs of shoes (heavy hiking boots, needed only because their packs weighed so much, running shoes, and sandals), three separate sets of cotton (ie after-hiking) clothing, even an electric hairdryer! We hypothesized that it would be relatively easy to walk the camino with a 2 kilo base pack weight!

Now you might say, that people are entitled to be comfortable and if they need to carry all that extra stuff to be comfortable, then they should. But actually, many of them suffered because of their luxury items. As we got closer and closer to Santiago, we saw more and more people with gargantuan packs, limping. Why were they limping? Injuries caused by lugging all of their luxury items! We also saw, every night, people popping blisters on their feet. Big, stiff boots give you blisters, lightweight trail running shoes like we were wearing don’t, but the people needed heavy boots to deal with heavy packs. Its a giant spiral, a few heavy items mean that everything else needs to be heavier too.

We enjoyed our experience on the camino. It was a relaxed part of the trip, as accommodation was always available, the route was already planned, and it was easy to do on a budget. It was also nice to have a destination ahead of us, unlike our experience in France, where we rarely knew where we would be heading in two days’ time.  Our main criticism of the camino was how crowded it was, followed by the fact that because it was such a popular route, we were forced to spend more time on larger, busier roads than we did in France.



Post Trip Analysis: Stuff We Have Lost or Broken

The title says it all. Now that we are home, we are going to write a series of posts about the trip, this once is focusing on the stuff we have lost or broken.

Here is the list:

We lost 4 waterbottles (2 each), Adie’s Swiss Army Knife and Rob lost one sock.

We broke Adie’s wooden front mudguard, 3 sporks (Rob 2, Adie 1), a tent peg, a padlock, a 5 Euro bill (ripped in half) Adie’s iPod and camera (both semi functional but essentially unusable).

The first to go was one of  Adie’s waterbottles. He left it on a train before we had even left England! Other bottles were left at hostels, on top of mountains, and on another train. The fender went very early too, in fact on the first day of riding, Ghent to Brugge. The bolt attaching it to the fork wiggled loose, and then it was run over.

The sporks all met the same fate. They were plastic, and not intended for cooking, it seems. All three broke while stirring food while cooking. One then had to eat with a half-spork, inevitably getting food all over one’s hand. Eventually we both got metal utensils, Adie a spoon, and Rob a fork. The tent peg broke while being forced into concrete-like campsite earth. The padlock had a laughable death for something that is by nature meant to be hard to break. It was fastened to the outside of Rob’s pannier, and as Adie came alongside him, it was brushed by the spokes of his front wheel, and then fell into many pieces.

Adies camera was in a small pouch on the outside of his pannier. One day, we tried to cross a small stream to find a camping spot. Adie went across first, but his wheels slipped on the slick bottom of the stream. He fell in the water, getting a bit wet. All the things in the panniers were fine, but the camera on the outside got very wet. We left it in the sun that day, and by evening it turned on, but would not focus. After two lunch breaks in the hot Spanish sun, it was working fine again. We were very proud. A few days later, Adie dropped the camera. No photos were lost, and the screen still works but it no longer takes pictures (so, semi-functional, but essentially unusable). The iPod, which for the second half of the trip we used to update the blog, was in Adie’s pocket while we were riding around in A Coruna. While biking in circles in a plaza, he fell, and landed on the iPod. The next time he tried to use it, he found that the screen was cracked, but still worked (we have seen that plenty of times with iPod Touches and iPhones). However, it wouldn’t play music, with its own speakers or via headphones. Bummer. Worse still, when trying to write things (like blog posts), it keeps on freezing, so you have to wait about 20 seconds for each letter.


Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

We almost missed our bus from A Coruna to Santander. We spent about 9 hours on the bus, and arrived in Santander at about 4 AM. Our ferry would be leaving the following evening, and we knew it wasn’t worth it (or perhaps even possible) to find a hostel in which to spend the remainder of the night. After rebuilding our bikes (we were required to remove wheels, etc in order to take them on the bus) we set off into Santander to find a nice, quiet bench to sleep on. Any city is strange at 4 AM, but we were very surprised about the number of fishermen who were out at that time! We found some nice benches by the beach, and snatched a few hours’ sleep before the first joggers started showing up. Adie wanted a little bit of comfort, so he pulled out his sleeping bag and pad, and set those up on his bench. Rob was too lazy, so he climbed into the giant bag that we had put our bikes in for the bus journey. He described it as “surprisingly warm.”

We spent the rest of the day exploring Santander, and napping. Before boarding the ferry, we cooked a meal of lentils in tomato sauce, and as we were beginning to eat, a policeman came up to us, looking rather sheepish. He said, almost apologetically, that we were not allowed to be cooking there. we apologized, and kept eating. He hung around, not knowing what to do, and eventually just said “just make sure you clean up afterwards, please,” and walked away. The police are so different in France and Spain, compared to America! We boarded the ferry at 6pm, and found our cabin. The ferry was about the same size as the first one we took. Our cabin was on the 6th floor (of 10).

We took motion sickness medication as this route would cross the Bay of Biscay, which can be rough. It was a good thing as it turned out. When we woke up in the morning, the boat was pitching violently. The bow of the boat was slamming down into waves that were hitting the boat at the forward port quarter (45 degrees to the front-left of the boat). The swells were 20ft from crest to trough, and the spray from the bow reached as high as the top deck, ten stories up! On deck, the wind threatened to blow our hats off our heads, and these hats had no brims! It was by far the strongest wind we have ever experienced. The weather forecast posted at the reception desk said it was 25-35 knot winds, force 5-6, but Adie has sailed in a force 6, and this was much wilder than that. He reckons it must have been more like a force 8. Eventually, they closed off all exterior decks, for safety reasons. While walking down the corridors, because of the rhythmic rise and fall of the boat, you would feel first incredibly light on your feet, buoyant even, then as if your legs could hardly hold your weight!

Periodically, crashing sounds could be heard from below decks, and the sound of smashing plates and cutlery from the kitchen. Things slid off tables, and nobody could walk in a straight line. Throughout the morning, announcements would come over the loudspeakers saying things like, “would the owner of the vehicle with license plate xyz 4321 please see a staff member at the information desk.” The majority of the calls were actually for motorcycles, and we guessed that many of the crashing noises were motorbikes falling over.

We arrived in Plymouth at 4pm, after nearly 20 hours on the ferry, and were met by Adie’s family friends, the Lloyds. We spent one night at their place in Plymouth, then set off by bike to return to Adie’s house in Cornwall. It was 65 km North-West, unfortunately, straight into the teeth of a strong Northwesterly wind, the tail end of the weather system that had made our ferry journey so lively. Leaving plymouth was a nightmare, with several km on the large and very fast A38. We arrived home at about 4 pm, having spent two months (to the day) away from home.

Shortly after arriving, we both shaved, for the first time in two months. Rob even had to use scissors for a rough once-over in order to give the razor a fighting chance. We both felt immeasurably cleaner after shaving, but very young!


And After!

A Coruna

We left fisterre on the twenty-first, and after getting thoroughly lost for the first hour, we spent the rest of the day cycling through mist and light rain. We arrived in a coruna the next afternoon and have had a great time exploring the city. Our host is great and has cooked us two great meals, all the while apologizing humblely about the inadequacy of what he was serving. Yesterday adie fell while on his bike. The only harm was to this iPod, which is only semi-functional. We spent two nights in A Coruna, going to the museums and the beach. We planned on having a relaxing day before we took our bus to Santander but had quite a fright when the bus which we thought was at 9:00pm turned out to leave considerably earlier!

The End of the World

On the afternoon of the 19th, after one and a half hard days riding from Santiago we reached the westernmost point in Europe, Fisterre. Or, the end pf the worlsd, as it would have been to medieval pilgrims. White sand beaches greeted us and so did the friendly hospitalero at the Alberge. ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’ he said, and although he probably says that to everyone, it made us feel welcome. We headed straight to the beach where a swim in not not-cold turquoise waters was a great pleasure. We relaxed on th beach that afternoon and evening, an liked it so much we decided to stay two nights. The next mornig we cycled out to the cape which was littered with the remains of hundreds of pairs of half burnt shoes, despite the “no fires” signs. Apparently it is a tradicion to burn your boots there, but it can’t be too old because it seems like most early pilgrims should have had no way to get home except to walk, for which they would have needed or at the very least appreciated, their boots.
We spent yesterday afternoon on the beach too, and built some really cool sandcastles with bridges and tunnels and spiral towers.
Over the next two days we will Nike along the coast to the city of A Coruna.

To Santiago!

Since our last post, we continued along the Meseta, through the city of Leon, to the Montes de Leon, the western boundary of the central plain. We crossed that chain of mountains, reaching the highest point on our pilgrimage (1500m).  In the Massif Central we walked higher than that, but this was the highest point we reached under pedal-power alone!. We camped at 1300m, with a spectacular view.

It was however, very windy, and unlike other nights when strong evening winds petered out with the setting of the sun, this wind only got stronger. To make matters worse, the ground was incredibly stony, with only about 4cm of topsoil over the bedrock. Not only was this uncomfortable, but we had trouble getting our tent pegs to stay6 in the ground. On the windiest nightof the trip so far, we had no way of pitching the tent tautly. It was very saggy, the side walls of the tent blown flat against our sleeping bags as we tried to sleep. Then at about midnight, before either of us had fallen asleep, the tent blew down! we fixed it, and retightened everything as much as we dared, then tried to sleep some more.  At two in the morning, it blew down again. We were very tempted to leave the tent flapping on top of us and just try to sleep. Instead we managed to re-pitch the tent while staying inside, in our sleeping bags, despite the fact that one of the poles supporting the tent had fallen out.

The descent from that point the next morning was steep but slow. The road was in such bad condition, with abundant cracks and potholes that could easily send you over your handlebars. So despite the steepness we went very slowly, which was hard work for our brakes. We had to stop several times to let them cool off. The rims of our wheels were too hot too touch! It was also a bitterly cold morning, one of the coldest of the trip, and our hands were frigid. Part way down Adie could stand it no longer, and pulled a spare pair of socks out of his bag and wore them like mittens. They were nice and warm, but the loss of his opposable thumbs made him feel decidedly simian, and also made holding onto his handlebars tricky.

After going through Ponferrada, a very boring city, we spent the rest of the day crossing the Cordillera Cantabrica, a second mountain chain that wraps around from the northern border of the Meseta. It started off as an easy climb, but for the last 20km it was steep and brutally hot. Those last 20km took us 3 hours. In total that day we biked for 5:30 hours, and 85km. It was probably the most exhausting day of the entire trip. We spent the night im the mountain village of O Cebriero, now in the Province of Galicia.

The next day was hilly and very pretty, we spent the night in Portomarin, a town interesting only because it was transported stone by stone from the river valley to a higher location to make wayt for a large reservoir.

Another up and down day ended in O Pedruozo, 20km short of Santiago de compostella. The most interesting part of the day was the fact that we ate an extraordinary amount of food!

The last kilometers into Santiago were dull, ugly even, as we skirted the airport and new out of town developments. We eventually mader it to the old city. It is quite pretty, but it and the catherdral, were decidedly underwhelming (except for the number of tourists, which was overwhelming, and made us want to get out of town as quickly as possible).

We went to the pilgrims´offive, and got our ¨compostelas¨ certifying that we had completed the pilgrimage (as if we needed anyone to tell us that).

We are leaving town as soon as this is published, heading to the Cap do Fisterre.

The Spanish Meseta

The last few days, from Estella to where we are now, 70km east of Leon, have been spent on the flat, straight roads and under the hot sun of Spain’s central plain, the meseta. Despite what you may have heard, the rain in Spain falls mostly not on the plain. The earth is dry here, baked by the sun, so much so that we have trouble getting our tent stakes in the ground. A few nights ago we had to tie one of the corners of the tent to one of our bikes, as it was impossible to stake out that corner!
The riding has been mainly uninteresting. Huge flat fields of wheat, lots of churches and lots of wind farms. Our route took us throughy the two small cities of Logrono and Burgos. In Burgos we stayed with an incredibly fun and nice Welshman named Jeremy. He had some great stories and plenty to say, about everything.
We explored the old part of burgos, the most interesting bit being the enourmous gothic cathedral. The vast majority of churches in Spain fall into two categories. One set are closed o the public. The other main set have an entrance fee, the discounted price for pilgrims ranging between 1 and 4 euros. We, for reasons of both budget and principle, refuse to pay to go into the churches. We haven’t payed for a single “touristy” thing the whole trip. The Burgos cathedral had a ticket office that was a little ways from the entrance of the church. We walked into the church to see if there were any parts available to the general, unpaying public. There was, and from there you could catch a glimpse of the main part of the cathedral. There was even a video shwing the highlights of the cathedral. We supposed it was to show you what you were missing. There was a man in a glass cubicle watching as people walked in, but he didn’t seem to be checking tickets. A big tour group arrived and we decided to walk in with them. We didn’t really think that we might stand out among a group of aging Japanese tourists, even though Rob was a head taller than any of them, and adie was a veritable giant! We thougt the church and attached museam were great, well worth the price!
Not much of interest since then, we will post again as soon as possible.