Sunday, 24 June 2007

Day 13 - From Melide to Santiago de Compostela

As if wanting to give us some extra support on this last day, the weather turned around completely. On waking up, there were no more clouds, only a beautiful open sky with bright sunshine and over 25 degrees. We could not have wished for a nicer way to start the final stretch of our journey.

We only needed to add 50 kilometres to our account today. Only a few climbs (nothing as hard as in recent days). 80% of the route went over beautiful country paths. Galicia is for us the nicest cycling environment we have seen. Worth considering as a destination for a seperate cycling holiday in the future.

We had our last peregrino lunch, some 15 km away from our goal. A strange feeling indeed to realise that one hour later we would reach the end of our journey. You still wish ´Buen Camino!´to the different walkers or cyclists around you, but the weight of this wish becomes weaker when so close to Santiago.

As expected, the number of pilgrims increased further on this last day. 5 km from the Cathedral in Santiago there is a final climb up to Monte do Gozo. In the past, pilgrims would get their first view of the Cathedral down below from the top of this hill. Not anymore. All sorts of buildings obstruct the view. When arriving at the top of this ´Monte´we saw an entire busload of tourists being delivered to the top. From there they walk the last 5 km to the Cathedral. Bus-pilgrims, a category we have not mentioned yet.

Cycling into Santiago was easy. We expected a sort of Burgos or Legrono situation, where you have kilometre after kilometre of very dull industrial/commercial areas to pass through before reaching the centre. Not in Santiago. We entered historical part of the city and immediately felt that this was a different kind of city. A bigger but cosier place. Nice squares. More people (and many of them pilgrims).

We took some traditional pictures on the square in front of the Cathedral where you see a continuous coming and going of newly arrived pilgrims. We arrived at around 18h00 but still there were hundreds of pilgrims hanging around. Most try to arrive before 12h00 so they can attend the daily Pilgrims´ Mass in the Cathedral. We went to the office to get our Compostela, and had to fill in some forms for statistical purposes (Where did we start? Nationality? Means of transport? Where do we live?). We received a certificate in Latin (including our names).

Our first night in Santiago coincided with the St John celebrations. On this occassion all the locals gather late at night in the streets, Galician folk music is played, bonfires are lit, and you are supposed to jump over a small bonfire. The bottles of wine we had at a restaurant beforehand did much to increase our enthusiam to join in. We jumped with all the strength left in our legs after 800+ kilometres of cycling (811 kilometres is our final count).

This morning (Sunday, the day after) we woke up and went to the Pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral. We found places to sit at the end of the church (arriving half an hour before Mass started). By 12h00, there were hundreds of pilgrims standing around us. Even with 1,000 places, the church was too small for all to sit down. The mass started with the priest reading out a list of all the pilgrims who arrived in Santiago the previous day (nationality and place of departure on the Camino). Under Roncevalles he mentioned a Dutchman, Englishman and a Belgian. No one noticed but we straightened our backs a little.

Later in the Mass, a number of priests of different nationality read out short prayers. Each in his own language. A Flemish priest covered the Dutch and Belgian communities. An English priest the English speaking world. And, to our surprise, there was also a Romanian priest. The first Romanian words we´ve heard since we started our trip.

We are staying here until tomorrow. Then we head for Madrid. On Wednesday we will fly back to Bucharest. An amazing experience the richer. Harder than expected. But worth every second, every gust of headwind, every drop of rain, every church tower covered by stork nests, every country road cycled, every siesta-sleeping village passed through, every stamp received in our credencial, every ´Buen Camino!´ wished and received. Words don´t do it justice. Why not come and experience it for yourself?

See you around
Your pilgrims
Jan, Richard, Sam

Friday, 22 June 2007

Day 12 - From Sarria to Melide

No rain, no rain! No wind to speak of. 20 degrees outside temperature. Perfect weather for a cycling day in Galicia. And that´s just what we had. We were already impressed yesterday with our last 20 kilometres into Sarria through beautiful landscapes, small villages, little stone walls bordering every piece of grassland (the kind that makes us feel like we´re cycling in an English TV series on vets or local detectives, or both combined; no, that would be an australian series).
The 65 kilometres we did today confirmed our first impressions of Galicia from yesterday. Really the nicest cycling environment we have come across during our trip. Almost no asphalt roads. Most of the time we were on small gravel roads, lots of trees everywhere, up and down, never flat. Galicia really is amazing.
We took it easy this morning. Contrary to the places we stayed at in the past, we did not have to be out by 8h00. So we slept until 9h30, had breakfast (bocadilla! the big sandwich kind of meal that is available at any time of the day). On our bikes only at around 11h00.
Maybe it is a mental thing but the fact that we only had 110 kilometres left to go till Santiago made the three of us take things a bit easier. And even if the Galician cycling paths are a real pleasure, there is no time for relaxation. They just do´nt do flat roads here. So in order to get to our goal for today we had to cycle a little longer than expected. We only arrived at about 19h00 in Melide. No more room at the local Refugio. So we booked ourselves into a pension/hotel. 45 euros for a 3-bed room (in general prices for accommodation and food always seem cheaper here than back home in Romania, but maybe we are just comparing prices in the countryside with the prices in the capital, Bucharest). A hotelroom with bathroom! A luxury we have not enjoyed for the last week.
While cycling today we witnessed a new phenomenon. The leisure-pilgrim. In order to be eligible for the Santiago ´certificate´you need to walk the last 100 km of the Camino (or cycle the last 200 km). Since Sarria is 110 km from Santiago, it is the last major starting point for pilgrims to begin their Camino and still be a ´real pilgrim´. The result is that we saw a whole series of ´tourist pilgrims´ walking in groups on the path. How did we recognise the ´tourist pilgrims´? They are shaven (the men for sure, the women we suppose). They smell of perfume (and lack the typical pilgrim body smell that needs at least 10 days of fermentation on the Camino before it starts to manifest itself). They have no luggage (or maybe only a small backpack of the kind you take when you go shopping in town). They seem overjoyed whenever someone says ´buen camino´ to them. They stop for a coffee at every bar on the road. They step over cow shit so as to keep their boots clean (real pilgrims aim directly for it, as it is said to contain ingredients that soothe foot ache, and cyclists simply enjoy the mess it creates for many meters after having driven through it).
Pilgrim walkers do not really appreciate pilgrim cyclists (they call us ´peregrinados decaffeinados´, or something similar, please forgive Richard´s Spanglish). But pilgrim walkers and pilgrim cyclists join together in a cynical attitude towards these ´tourist pilgrims´. You also have ´weekend pilgrims´. Persons who only walk the Camino during the weekend. As tomorrow is a Saturday, we are in for a great gathering on the last stretch to Santiago. We can laugh about each other now but the moment we will be standing in front of the cathedral we surely will feel one with all the pilgrims, be they walkers, cyclists, tourists or even the dreaded weekend pilgrims.
Tomorrow is our final day. The goal of our trip, Santiago, is only 50 kilometres away. We are looking forward to arriving there at last after our trip of some 800+ kilometres. But we also have a strange kind of feeling. Could it be we will miss our daily routine? Waking to the sound of rustling plastic bags. Fixing our near-daily flat tyres. Two coffees (Jan and Sam), one tea (Richard) for breakfast. One cold (that´s the way they serve it here) bottle of red wine for lunch. In bed by 22h00, ear plugs in place. We might. Being on the Camino has grown on us.
Day 12: 65 kilometres, 5 hours 45 minutes, no technical problems, no rain, no wind, many tourist-pilgrims still smelling of shampoo and deodorant (deodor-what?)

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Day 11: from Ambamestas to Sarria

Today was the top mountain-stage of our Camino. The long climb up to O ´Cebreiro brought us from some 700 metres in altitude to 1,300 metres. 15 kilometres of gruelling climbing. In the rain of course (all big mountain stages ask for extreme weather). We cycled with views of clouds lying over the mountains beneath us. Again amazing scenery. After 1.5 hours of suffering (using the smallest gear we have on our bikes and wondering why we don´t have one just that little bit smaller) we got to the top. It is impossible to cycle together while climbing. Each of us has his own style, his own rhythm, his own speed. The first to the top always waits for the others to catch up. Going downhill or cycling flat stretches is something easier to do together. We had a warm drink at the top, got back on our bikes, climbed a bit more (we don’t know why but they put another mountain next to O ´Cebreiro and as a consequence you go downhill for 4 kilometres after reaching the top and then start all over again with another climb (bad mountain design if you ask us). Anyway, after that we tried to enjoy the long descend of some 20 kilometres to Triacastela. Strong wind and rain again, so no time to look around and enjoy the views too much. Keep your eyes on the road and try to battle the wind that pushes you all over the place.In the afternoon the skies opened up a bit (could this be the announcement of nice weather for our final 2 days? Please). We went on until Sarria, through a lovely landscape of small villages and a hilly environment (mostly downhill for us, luckily).While crossing the mountains earlier today we entered the region of Galicia. Spain is full of these regions with different characters. Celtic influences in Galicia (music, language).After 11 days into our trip we sometimes have problems remembering when what happened. When did we first meet the funny Austrian cyclist with the seventies outfit? The girl from Latvia who walked 48 kilometres in a day (and, shame on us, walked as far in one day as we cycled)? Where was that great village where we had our first pilgrim lunch? When did Richard express himself in Spanish correctly (never - that´s an easy one)? On what day did Sam not order "flan" for dessert (till now only today for lunch)? On what day did Jan collect the most mud on his back (he has no panniers to protect him from the mud spraying from the rear wheel, poor guy)? It´s turning into quite some quiz show! Hopefully as much for you as it is for us! The one with the most correct answers wins a special prize! How about a free walking trip to Santiago, or a free year-long subscription to our weblog?We are now at the stage on the Camino where every kilometre has an indicator showing the distance left till Santiago. 112 kilometres we saw on the last one before entering this city. Sounds like 2 more easy days ahead of us. We now realise that the most difficult parts of the trip are behind us (unless some technical problem intervene to change that) and hope to be able to enjoy these last moments of our Camino to the full. We look forward to looking back on this trip.Now we´re going tapas-hunting again. Curfew at our albergue (with washer and dryer!) is only 23h00 today. Sarria, here we come.
Day 11: 65 km, 5h15 of cycling, more than 1,200 metres in height (cumulatively) climbed today.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Day 10 - From Rabanal to Ambasmestas

A night out in Rabanal (especially when you have to be back in the refugio by 22h00) does wonders. We´ve never felt better than we did this morning. Even if we were all freezing cold during the night (no blankets on our beds and less than 12 degrees during the night..., Sam slept with his clothes on, Richard stole pillows from other beds and put them over him, Jan lay all his clothes over his sheet forming a colourful patchwork; to no avail: we still felt very cold this morning). For your information, we did not bring sleeping bags with us on this trip - too heavy and too hot, we thought. Instead we each have a special bed sheet.
This day was an important one. No more whining. On those bikes and up to the Cruz de Hiero at top of the mountain. 8 kilometres of climbing. We felt warm immediately. The Cruz is the highest point of our trip. Tradition says that each pilgrim should bring a stone from home and place it at the foot of the big Cross on the top of the mountain. So we did just that. 3 Romanian stones now lay on top of a Spanish mountain. Never to return. The stones that is.
After the big climb today we had the pleasure of a 20 km downhill. What a joy to let gravity take over. Our only worries were the sharp turns and the chilling wind that makes your sweat turn cold and nasty. To give you an idea of the forces created by the wind when going downhill, Sam managed to rip his rain-poncho in two. When Richard got off his bike, he looked like a statue.
Before our lunchbreak we were surprised by sudden intensive rainfall. It only took us 3 kilometres to reach the next village but we took our menu del pelegrino dripping wet (lunch included lentil soup as usual: pilgrims don´t eat gazpacho; dessert always is flan, we love it). 1.5 hours later the sun was back. We dried off while cycling.
The rest of the day was beautiful. Just a few drops of rain. No major climbing anymore. That is waiting for us tomorrow. Then we will climb for another long 16 kilometres. 3 more days left. We are some 170 kilometres from Santiago.
We are very happy to see the many messages of support we receive during this trip. Including the continued expressions of support for our chosen charity. In the meantime we have reached more than 12,200 Euro. It really makes us feel proud that with this intiative we are able to give something back to those less fortunate than ourselves. Thanks to all of you for your support.
Day 10: 78 kilometres, 5hours 40 minutes. No technical problems. Damp clothes at the end of the day but the albergue we are staying at has a washing machine and a tumble dryer. Hurray.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Day 9: Hospital de Obrigo to Rabanal

We are getting used to the early wake-up at the refugio. At 7h00 Jan was sitting in front of the computer (yes, refugios often have an internet connection available, though it is nearly always occupied). It is so nice to have a blog, as long as you keep it updated. The early wake-up this morning was designed for exactly that (3 days of updates in 1 go: we hope you readers appreciate reading our daily reports).
The weather looked OK this morning; cloudy yes, and rather cold but we did have dry clothes (thanks to big washing and drying action yesterday evening). Wind force below average (even if that average is rather high anyway). Should we mention Richard and the repair of his flat tyre, or is that something that is so usual by now that it just is not interesting anymore? The flat tyre happened after 3 kilometres and announced the beginning of an off-day. One of the photos we post today shows you the way the sky looked at that moment. Look at it and you´ll get the picture. Rain as usual. The fact that our route today was mostly uphill did not help in lifting the morale. We tried a stop for tea (Richard) and hot chocalate (Jan, Sam) but that did not help much either. We cycled through Astorga and saw another amazing church (what is it with these provincial towns and their once glorious pasts?).
Yesterday we told you about the big climb that was awaiting us today. At about 13h00 and with only 25 km on the counter we knew it was going to be hard to get over the top of the mountain and still find a bed before dark (the weather continued to get worse and we were unsure about the descent afterwards, being all wet and cold already). Conclusion: we decided to stop some 8 km from the top, in the last village on this side of the mountain, Rabanal. The idea is to get our act together this evening (we are working hard on that by organising a sort of pub crawl; Rabanal boasts at least 3 bars...). And with our batteries recharged, we will attack the final climb tomorrow (450 metres of climbing in 8 km), and then go downhill. We hope to find some locals at the top of the hill handing out old newspapers to put under our shirts, the way professionals do it when they start a downhill in the Tour de France. Anyway, as today was a bit of an off-day we have no excuse tomorrow than to do at least 75 km. We are still on schedule but can´t afford a 2nd day like this.
Day 9: 38 kilometres, 3hours 15 minutes, pathetic. Now we are off to build up our strength for tomorrow. Tres Cervesas por favor (or as we use to say: ´tre biras, por varog´- our non-Romanian readers won´t get this, but it is something like pidgeon-Spanish for Romanians).