Thursday 14 June 2012

Day 18 - The edge of the map Olveiroa - Cée - Cabo Finisterre

We left the pension after a slow start, stopping almost immediately for breakfast at Ai Pias, a restaurant, cafe and albergue run by a very friendly local who seems to do everything singlehanded apart from the cooking (wife? Mother? Father?).

Ai Pias seems to be the centre of regeneration for the village, with other old granite farm buildings being restored around it. Is this the camino effect? Somebody told us later the government is providing 50% grants to do the work, but are also insisting the work is done- must be tough for the local farmers in these hard times. Every time we hear the news in a bar or cafe, they are discussing 'La Crisis!' Like a force of nature.

After tostadas and roscon (a brioche-like cake) we are back on the bikes, taking the local road through Olveiroa, and turning left onto the main road towards a small village called Hospital.
No sign of a hospital - it's the name of the river running through.

Following the road uphill, we cycled through wind turbines, standing sentinel along the hilltops.

A kilometre past Hospital, we headed left on the DP-2302, signs directing to Cée. We missed the right turn after a kilometre, which should be just before the camino marker, I think, but no likely turn appeared, so we continued through Busto and on towards Raso, with a good road and great views to the coast.

We dropped down into Raso, joining the main AC-550 to Cée, past the huge smelly industrial works and onto Cee, where a badly marked turn to the left took us down towards the port. Following the road along the beachfront we rejoined the main coast road, now the AC-445, and carried on to the opposite side of the bay where we had a great parrillada (platter) of fish in Corcubión.

The Alborada Cafe on the seafront at Concorbión is run by Joe, from Ladbroke Grove via the Spanish School and the Galician community in West London. He jokes that he misses his Fish & Chip shop, but gives great value service with good humour. "I'm taking my wife to Bayswater shopping, this year."

An Australian couple, also pilgrims, ask, "Is this fish from here?" Joe smiles, "It's from the sea, madam. I can't guarantee that it is from THIS sea, but it is from the sea, I believe, originally."

We turn off the main road after a few minutes, following signs to the castle and lighthouse (Faro de Cee). The DP-2801 takes you past a fortified building, now a private residence, but the walls still show the 5 or 6-pointed defences popular in the 1700s.

Continuing on to the lighthouse, the road leads you down to an unassuming point, but with spectacular views across to Finisterre and back to Cee.

The sun comes out, fingers of light breaking through the clouds and suddenly the colours are vibrant and intense around us- turquoise sea, bright yellow gorse flowers, the terracotta roofs of villages hugging the coastline opposite. Smells seem heightened.

We feel energised to pedal the last stretch, and count off the kilometres with the roadsigns- Fisterre 7km, only 3 more after that to the lighthouse at the end of the earth!

We speed around the next bay, through Escaselas and past the inviting beach of Praia da Langosteira - we'll return to this in a bit.

Into Finisterre or Fisterre if you're Galician. We follow signs to the Faro, the lighthouse, through this strange mix of fishing town and pilgrim destination. Stopping briefly at a bar - Do you sell Cava? No, but we have a chilled local white (Albariño). Great, do you have plastic cups? No, but you can have a couple of wine glasses. Perfect!

We climb the narrow road up to the edge of medieval maps. This was literally the end of the earth. After this, pictures of sea monsters and... Nothing. You sailed to the edge of flat earth and dropped off.

We cycle past the No Cars sign, past the tourist gift stalls... Past km zero!

And we are there! We shout, jump up and down, grin like idiots. We did it! WE DID IT!!!!

Sitting on the wall at the foot of the lighthouse, bottle opened and toasting the expanse of sea we share smiles of complicity with arriving Pilgrims.

This is the feeling that had been missing for me in Santiago. A real sense of achieving something. No certificate needed.

We cycle unsteadily back to Praia da Langosteira, realising a bottle of wine on an empty stomach has fast-acting effect. Locking the bikes, we carry panniers down to the tide line, strip off lycra and run into an icy Atlantic sea.

So refreshing, encountering, purifying.

We did it!

Total distance: 663miles (1060 km)

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Day 17 Santiago - Ames - Ponte Maceira - Negreira - Pereira - Olveiroa

38miles (61km)

Left Santiago very late, after stamping our pilgrim passport at the pilgrim office and receiving the "compostelana" the official paper with your name written in Latin to certify you completed the camino.

The feeling is similar to reading a really good book, you want it to go on for a bit longer.

After a sketch and early lunch at la Quintana Square in the Pilgrim capital , we left busy Santiago in the direction of Finisterre, to stay the night at Lake Fervenza (a really remote and unknown area even for local Galicians).

The 'Pilgrins Office' (sic) works like a bizarre post office queue! A line of damp and exhausted pilgrims - walkers, cyclists, trail up the stairs waiting for a number and a counter. Forms are filled out, credentials checked. An official in a T-shirt hands you a pre-printed beige A4 sheet. Your name is written in Latin, in that your first name is written with -um at the end.

We cycled west past the cathedral, finding yellow arrows which indicated that the continuation of the camino past Santiago to Finisterre is well-worn. At the edge of the city we took the AC-543 towards Noia, the main busy road, sticking to the hard shoulder before turning off after 5km onto the AC-453 towards Portomouro. This is a nicer route, less traffic and you are into rolling hills again. At Ames there's a turn left which we missed, but turned left at the next junction, leading you to a little church overlooking the valley. People here look at you strangely if you are not on the camino route. You are obviously not in the right place. The number of people who randomly shouted out to us "You're going the wrong way!" was surprising. In some of the more remote villages later in the day, this felt more like a challenge.

We found ourselves on the DP-0202 (which may or may not be the same road as the AC-202 shown by Michelin) and this led us through forest up and over a steep hill, down through Lens into Ponte Maceira, another very pretty medieval town, subject to much recent renovation.

We discovered we were back on the camino, with blue and yellow shells pointing the route.

The old gothic arched bridge is paved with big uneven slabs, so wouldn't recommend cycling, but still used by the occasional car, which has the effect of sweeping all the pilgrims taking photos off the middle and onto the other side- the bridge is only a car's width!

We followed camino signs back to the main road (AC-544, becoming the AC-546 at Negreira), and with the weather much improved from the morning, took on the next 20 miles at good speed along the A-road, including a few long climbs and some freewheeling until Pereira where it is crossed by the AC-400.

We continued on towards Brandomil, turning off just after Antes to follow local roads through Xunqueira and Agrís.

This was the first time during the whole trip that following the camino felt like the safer option, instead of the tiny local roads with no directions sending you off to farms with fierce free running dogs and cows.

In this area people seem to have dogs instead of doorbells.

More locals telling us, unsolicited, we were going the wrong way...

Past Niñán and on through Abelerias, Abeleiroas where we picked up the camino again, and on to Ponte Olveira before arriving at the albergue and pension in Olveiroa.

Distance so far: 638miles
Off now to Finisterre

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Day 16-San Breixo, Sobrado dos Monxes, Arzua - Santiago de Compostela

We made it!!' After cycling 599 miles (958km) the feeling of achievement is as intense as the body aches.
A long and intense day just before arriving to Santiago.

We started early (for us, anyway) leaving San Breixo via Parga. Back, legs, shoulders, all complaining.

Taking the turn towards Ferreira we joined the DP-8001.

This is not strictly camino. The walking route takes you through Seixón, Anafreita, Coba (a big hill), Pedramaror and then joins the road to Sobrado via Vilariño.

Some of these places aren't linked by roads, and we spent some time last night trying to work out a road bike alternative, taking in as many of the stops as possible.

In the end, the rain won out. Heavy continuous rain when we woke up made us rethink a more direct route to Sobrado.

We followed the DP-8001 until As Cruces turning left to join the AC-231 to Sobrado. Both roads good to cycle, the latter a well cambered tarmac road which gave a smooth ride despite the driving icy rain.

We took refuge in a cafe next to the monastery in Sobrado, a beautiful ornate church and cloister, which is still partially occupied and also contains a pilgrim hostel. Ordering cafe con leche and large Bocadillos, we waited for the rain to clear inside.

A break in the rain and we rush in to the monastery to stamp our camino passes and head on our way.

Sobrado to Arzúa along the AC-934 until Corredoiras where it becomes the AC-234. A great road for cycling- smooth tarmac and only a few cars. The sun peeks out, drawing steam off the road and warms our backs. Our shoes are still soaked through.

Arzùa is where the Camino del Norte meets the Camino Francés. Suddenly there are loads of peregrinos strolling up and down the road. We hear 5 different languages asking directions.

We pass through the main crossroads and join the camino, a sense that the various routes: Camino del Norte, Camino Frances, Camino Primitivo, all weave into one on this final journey to Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of St James lie.

Although we're only passing through on our way to Finisterre, you feel the anticipation around you, exhausted faces, lots of knee-straps. A hope for all those around you to make it that last 37km.

We begin this stretch on a cobbled street and then spend the next 37km switching between main road and the dirt track which is the camino.

It is raining again and the dirt track now has a stream running through the middle of it.

The main N-547 which runs in parallel has large trucks driving at 100-120km/h along it and I watch a couple cutting the corner over the hard shoulder (our bit of road) so they don't loose speed.

I don't really understand why, if this is the main camino, there isn't a safer road bike alternative indicated (as there is across Asturia and most of the north coast).

We jump off and hit dirt tracks. We rejoin and cringe every time a truck rushes past.

As we approach Santiago, the camino crosses the main road before a roundabout which connects with the motorway. A big No Cycles sign forces us off the road, down a bumpy grit path and we walk, pushing bikes until we meet the path around the perimeter of the airport. A disused sliproad allows us to ride in to San Paio and we break briefly before following the camino uphill to another dirt path down. We push the bikes AGAIN, and the camino eventually joins a local road up to Monte de Gozo, the last hill before Santiago. The view is incredible, with the spires of the cathedral in the distance and huge black clouds broken by shafts of light.

We cycle down and cross the last two roundabouts on the outskirts of town before following the camino route to the Cathedral.

A last hitch- the main walking route is a one way street with cars driving in the opposite direction, uphill and with their foot down! What on earth are the city planners thinking???

We push the bikes along the narrow pavement, over a pedestrian crossing and then cycle the last bit, around the paved side streets, arriving at the foot of the cathedral as the clock strikes 9pm. We've made it!!!

A rush of emotion, relief, and the smiles from people around us- they've seen or experienced this before.

We'll be back again tomorrow morning to stamp and authenticate our route at the official Pilgrim's Office (which closes at 9pm) and plot the next bit- to the end of the earth...

Total Distance so far: 600miles (960km)

Monday 11 June 2012

Day 15 - Rest day in San Breixo

The gothic bridge crossing the river Parga in the middle of the village takes you across to this medieval market town, the huge granite slabs raised as tables have been used for centuries, and the covered market has been recently refurbished.

It's market day in Parga - a chance to buy anything from a donkey, goat or cow to shoes, farm tools and octopus...

We bought octopus, boiled in huge kettles and snipped into chunks onto wooden plates by red fingered ladies who have done this for decades.

This part of Galicia feels very familiar. The rolling green hills, granite farm houses and changeable weather reminds you immediately of Cornwall as you cycle through the narrow lanes. Huge swathes of yellow flowering broom fills the hedgerows and your nostrils. Bright sunshine is replaced in minutes by heavy rain and we dash for cover.

Day 14 Mondoñedo - Gontán - Abadín - St Breixo 54miles (86km)

The wrong camino...

"You're going the wrong way!" we were told by a woman carrying a bale of hay as we cycled out of Mondoñedo.

This wasn't the first time. The difficulty with following the camino on a road bike is that there are bits you just can't do. They are mud paths, gravel or stone chippings, with steps, mud tracks made into ponds by tractor tyres and sudden steep climbs cutting off a road and over a hill.

The alternatives are often limited. Either the hard shoulder of a fast moving main road or a detour which can take you a few kilometres off route. Possibly in the wrong direction and up a different steep hill!

From main square we left the arches and cafe of O Rei de Tartas (the king of cakes, named after a local pastry chef with international recognition for his and now his son's creations over 4 decades) overlooking the Cathedral and up the hill, past the historic hospital, crossing the N-634 and joining the LU-P-3106. This is a winding local road which drops down to the river below before climbing for the next 7km.

This is slow work on a bike and wasn't helped in our case by the icy drizzle blowing horizontally into our faces and the strong headwind.

The old lady had told us at the bottom about our mistake. As the rain increased we were inclined to agree.

Alto de Lagoa sits at 838m and we passed less than 100m below its top before the road levelled off. Cattle grids every 2km slowed the next downhill pass. These enclosed an area of wild horses renowned in the county, as well as enormous granite boulders sitting in a steep woodland, brought and left by the last ice age. Most looked ready to roll down to the valley floor below.

We were now between two peaks and more protected from the winds. The pine forests swept down past us and filled the air with a strong clean scent.
As intermittent breaks in the cloud allowed the sun through, light picked out vivid green fronds of bracken and purple foxgloves.

A line of wind turbines gyrated their massive blades along the hill tops.

The road dipped down and we freewheeled into rolling fields of La Terra Cha, the flat table of higher altitude which we would cycle through until Santiago. From here peaks marked 800m and more are a little less daunting as you begin from 450-500m. Well, that's the theory.

The road joins the LU-0101 just after Espiñarco and this leads you into Gontan. The main N-634 is also the busy E-70 along this stretch.

After lunch in Abadín we followed the N-634 until the first camino sign led us away on it's older path.

Fuelled by a big plate of body-warming caldo gallego, traditional Galician vegetable soup, we got the courage to abandon the main road to follow the original camino, we turned onto the LU-113 after Abadin and then into roads not drawn by Michelin to follow the camino to Martiñan.

This, in retrospect, was a mistake. Within 5 minutes a puncture had us with upturned bike at the side of the road.

This was our first flat tyre, not so bad for 880 Km.

Rain in the afternoon, and the camino dirt tracks were very slippery. This would have been great fun on mountain bikes! As you follow the camino down you cycle inside tunnels of trees and you are completely surrounded by vegetation, so many different greens! But not good for the road bikes.

In Martiñan, after all the adventure we took the N-634 (the old National 6) and pedalled until Vilalba, where we stopped for coffee. The town is a mid size town, with the stepped main square built next to the main road. Probably a pretty town before cars took over, with its own Parador Hotel, and grand church.
Now, a scattering of attractive old buildings sit dwarfed by the ugly 60's and 70's blocks.

After Villalba we headed to Baamonde following the N-634, but got bored quickly and decided to take the road towards Campoverde, a bit more distance but more scenery. A local man provided directions towards Buriz, avoiding the hilly bits, but it turned out to be very hilly anyway.

Road signs were not clear or named places too small for Michelin and most of the places we cycled past were completely empty.

We followed our intuition, after a few ups and downs, and deadends it was a big relief to find the LU-170 from Buriz with a road sign to Parga (home, sweet home!), we pedalled all the way to the N-VI fuelled by energy cubes, to rejoin the camino at San Alberte.

We crossed the railway, gothic bridge, and cycled past the pretty church of San Alberte arriving at San Breixo for a fantastic homemade churasco dinner and salad from Coca's dad's allotment.

After a moment's thought we decided we needed a rest day on Sunday, cleaning clothes and fixing the bikes for the next leg to Santiago.

Total distance so far: 549miles (878km)
Distance to Santiago: Approx 88km