Saturday 2nd July
Santiago to Río Pambre via Pedrouzo and Ribadiso. (Days 33, 32 and 31)
Distance 69.5 km
Max Speed 66.5 kmph
Average Speed 13.2 kmph
Total Distance 4731.34 km
Today we start the Camino Francés but going in reverse. Once again we have John Brierley’s guidebook, Camino de Santiago, The Way of St James. We’re still enjoying the luxury of our expensive hotel with its beautifully manicured lawns and aviary located right in the heart of Santiago and both feel rather negative about setting forth. But off we go, walking back up the hill to the campsite to pack all our gear and we’re just about to leave when we meet Simon and Julie and have a good natter. They are staying in Santiago another day, so we hope to meet up with them en route.
The most popular route (which gets very crowded in mid-summer) is the Camino Francés which stretches 780 km (nearly 500 miles) from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago. This route is fed by three major French routes: the Voie de Tours, the Voie de Vezelay, and the Voie du Puy. It is also joined along its route by the Camino Aragones (which is fed by the Voie d’Arles which crosses the Pyrenees at the Somport Pass), by the Camí de Sant Jaume from Montserrat near Barcelona, the Ruta de Tunel from Irun, the Camino Primitivo from Bilbao and Oviedo, and by the Camino de Levante from Valencia and Toledo.
The network is similar to a river system – small brooks join together to make streams, and the streams join together to make rivers, most of which join together to make the Camino Francés. During the middle ages, people walked out of their front doors and started off to Santiago, which was how the network grew up. Nowadays, cheap air travel has given many the opportunity to fly to their starting point, and often to do different sections in successive years. Some people set out on the Camino for spiritual reasons; many others find spiritual reasons along the Way as they meet other pilgrims, attend pilgrim masses in churches and monasteries and cathedrals, and see the large infrastructure of buildings provided for pilgrims over many centuries.
At about 12pm we’re ready to hit the road and whilst we stay on the N-547 all day (except for a misguided detour) it is very beautiful; lush, green, rolling hillsides. And we’re really enjoying it.
Big mistake, after missing the turn, then backtracking we discover no cooked food for another 2 hours! Annoying! So after a quick snack we follow the pilgrim’s way instead of retracing our steps and then discover we can’t get back on the main road! After several kilometers of pushing and slow cycling we recover the main road.
We see so many walkers, I can’t believe how many people come to do the walk. Young and old, various nationalities, some with full rucksacks and some with barely anything, mostly walking but a lot of cyclists too. But there are so many places to stay along the route that it suits all sorts. After our rubbish detour we head to Melide, our new designated food stop. We’re being constantly passed by motorcyclists. I assume it’s just a good motorcycling road but when we enter Melide I realise my mistake. There’s some sort of motorbike festival going on and every street is full of motorbikes.
We enjoy some people watching, have food and then push on. I’ve chosen a spot off the N-547, on the River Pambre to wild camp. Unfortunately the river looks black and stagnant – I’m not getting in that for a wash. There’s an albergue next to the bridge but we’re offered a room for 36€!
Moving swiftly on!! So we decide to find another camping spot. We’re just leaving when we get chatting to a German lady, she has walked from Bremen, Germany over the last 5 months – incredible! She’s had to deal with snow, hail, rain and now sun! We backtrack a couple of kms from the river and pitch our tent in a field. It’s very peaceful and has views over the surrounding hills.
Sunday 3rd July
Río Pambre near Palas de Rei to Triacastela via Portomarín and Sarria (Days 30, 29, 28)
Distance 80 km
Max Speed 70.8 kmph
Average Speed 12.2 kmph
Total Distance 4811.34 km
Last night I thought I heard a vehicle alongside us which seemed strange since we were beside a grassy track inside a field. But Daz confirms a van drove past – twice in fact. And once disturbed Daz couldn’t sleep again, worrying about getting moved on. I, on the other hand, rolled over and straight back to sleep. This morning whilst packing up the farmer comes round with his dog. We greet each other and he leaves us to it. I think he was just checking how we’d left his field – perfectly of course, we always do a litter sweep.
First we cycle uphill to Palas de Rei for breakfast. Then a couple of kilometers outside this village we leave the N-547 and follow a country lane, the walkers route. The lane is full of walkers, in fact so many we wonder if they’ll bother to get out of our way. The scenery is beautiful but we’re climbing for 12kms.
Then we finally hit the top and it’s 13km downhill into Portomarín. Daz is desperately trying to set a new speed record and I’m desperately trying to contain my fear – I’d hate my panic braking to interfere with one of D’s speed records. But alas it’s not to be, only 70.8 kmph – slow huh???
The reservoir of Belesar, on the river Miño, flooded the old village of Portomarín. Its main historic buildings were rescued stone by stone: they are the Romanesque church of San Pedro and the monumental church fortress of San Nicolás.
Some of the old medieval palaces were also placed in the main square of the new town of Portomarín, located on top of a hill. The medieval bridge stayed underwater and all that remains is the base and one of its arches at the entrance to the new bridge.
The old Portomarín was formed by the medieval hamlets of San Pedro and San Nicolás (today San Xoán). The church of San Xoán or San Nicolao was built at the end of the 12th century by followers of the Maestro Mateo, -the façade is influenced by the Portico of Glory at the Cathedral of Santiago-, and has been declared a Historic-Artistic Site. The nearby church of San Pedro, which is Romanesque, dates from the 10th century. Close to the church of San Pedro are the palaces of Berbetoros and of the Marquis of Paredes. Out of town and away from the main group of historic buildings, it is worth mentioning other Romanesque churches: Cortapezas and Castromaior.
Prominent among the popular architecture are the old slate houses and the traditional wine cellars, very common in this wine-growing region. But in Portomarín it is not the wine which is famous, but rather the local liquor, so renowed that they dedicate the Festa da Augardente to it on Easter Sunday.
We cross the beautiful river of Miño and then climb. A desperately long climb.
The monastery at Samos is best known for being on one of the many pilgrim’s routes (the “way of St. James”) to Santiago de Compostela cathedral, but it is a highly impressive and massive structure in its own right. It is also still active and additionally offers lodgings for those on religious retreats or connected with the pilgrimage.
Samos monastery has suffered many terrible fires and has been plundered on many occasions throughout its troubled history. Seven bishops have come from this monastery, the most notable of whom is the illustrious Benito Jeronimo Feijoo.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was converted into a Benedictine site. The church façade dates back to the eighteenth century and is still incomplete. The most outstanding feature of the Samos monastery is the Classical Feijoo cloister, along with a statue of the aforementioned illustrious gentleman. Once inside the monastery, there is an ancient door from an old Romanesque church that was destroyed in the seventeenth century. We rest here for a while and also dry the tent out, a chavy moment as we hang it over the railings overlooking the gorgeous monastery! After a couple of cokes we cycle out and uphill towards Triacastela. We want to find a wild campsite near the river before hitting the village. But as we climb and climb we see that the river is in a deep ravine and there are no camping spots, and even if we could camp we’d need to abseil down to the river to wash. It’s not until we hit Triacastela that the river becomes accessible but where to camp. After much deliberation we find a spot just to the side of the river and close to the town, where we think we’re fairly inconspicuous and can access the stream.
First job, change into swimming cossies and into the stream. Gosh, it’s tough going for the full dunk in this cold water but we brace ourselves and it’s done. Now to set up our tent as Mr Farmer goes passed in his tractor a gazillion times.
Monday 4th July
Triacastela to Molinaseca via O’Cebreiro and Villafranca del Bierzo (Days 27, 26,25)
Distance 89.3 km
Max Speed 76.1 kmph
Average Speed 13.3 kmph
Total Distance 4900.64 km
Today we set the alarm for 7am but there was no need because we’re right next to the Camino and the chattering walkers start passing us from about 5am onwards. We know our first leg today to O’Cebreiro is going to be tough, hence the planned early start. It’s rare we’re ruled by an alarm clock these days! So we’re up and our tent is like a swamp; it doesn’t let water in but nor does it let any out and for some reason there’s even more moisture on the inside of the fly than normal.
It’s not helped by the fact it’s a damp, misty morning, we’re near the river and we’re up before the sun can dry off any of it. So we pack it up, sopping wet and after a quick breakfast we start the hill climb. It took us almost 3 hours to reach the pass at 1330m and only 9km done. The views were absolutely incredible.
We stopped for a quick drink, thinking the worst was over, but we were still climbing an hour later, having descended twice when we finally reached O’Cebreiro. This is actually so much worse than I anticipated – I planned for 2 hours then flattish riding. It had already been 4 hours!!
At the final pass we chat to a group of Spanish cyclists from Salamanca who say this is the most beautiful part of Spain; not too hot (har har) not too dry and the scenery is amazing.
But with the final pass completed at 1300 metres we started the descent. 10 km later without a pedal stroke we are at the bottom. We stop for a coke and milk and to dry the tent in the blazing sun. The next 18 km were also on a slight decline to Vilafranca and we soon powered through. We arrive in the town and see the temperature has risen to 40 degrees celsius!!
After a ‘menu del dia’ which we both struggled to eat due to tiredness and possibly the heat we decide to have a lie down so set out to find a ‘shady bench’. We can only find one, so Daz sleeps on the floor.
Villafranca is the last important town in Leon that is crossed by the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela. Its rich monumental heritage, and the influence of the St. James pilgrims, have made it an important tourist centre. Its old town has been declared Property of Cultural Interest.
The main square, or Plaza Mayor, the City Hall, calle del Agua (Water Street), the arch at which it ends, the mansions, such as a 15th-century Moorish one, the convent of Agustinas Recoletas, and other palaces, make up the tourist circuit.
At the entrance of the village, you can find the 12th-century Romanesque church of Santiago. The Puerta del Perdón gate is at one of the sides. Pilgrims who could not make it to Santiago de Compostela because they were ill were given the jubilee blessing here. The Castle-Palace of the Marquises of Villafranca is near this church. However, the best place to see palaces is Calle del Agua: amid coats of arms some emblematic buildings appear, such as Torquemada Palace, Casa Morisca or the birthplace of the writer Gil y Carrasco. Other monuments that are worth visiting are, amongst others, the Gothic Collegiate Church of Santa María, built by Gil de Hontañón, the Baroque convent of San Nicolás el Real, the convents of la Anunciada and San José, founded in the 17th century, and the Church of San Francisco, which has a beautiful Mudejar coffered ceiling.
A couple of hours later we rouse, douse ourselves in the fountain and set off. Apart from the temptation of a river beach and seeing everyone swimming we soon zoom through the next 24 km to Ponferrada with its huge castle.
Ponferrada, capital of the region of El Bierzo, is one of the major staging posts on the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela as it passes through the province of León. The historic quarter of this town sits below an imposing castle built by the Knights Templar.
The first records of Ponferrada are as a former citadel in Roman times. From the 11th century, the rise in pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela spurred the appearance of the hamlet of Pons Ferrata, located on the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela and named in this way because of the building of a bridge reinforced with iron. In 1178, the King Fernando II of León placed this flourishing settlement under the custody of the Order of the Temple. The Knights Templar used the site of a primitive Roman fortress to build a castle in which they settled and which, at the same time, protected the passing pilgrims. This favoured demographic growth and led to the commercial development of the area.
The Castle rises above the river Sil, dominating the city’s historic quarter. Construction began on this medieval fortress with a polygonal structure towards the end of the 12th century. The entrance is on the south side, over a drawbridge spanning the moat. The main façade, meanwhile, is flanked by two large towers joined by a double semicircular arch. Standing off a large interior courtyard are various rooms, such as the Armoury or the Stables, not forgetting its Keep and others like the Malpica, Cabrera, Malvecino, etc.
At the foot of the Castle is the historic quarter of the city, with entry along Calle del Reloj. It is on this street where the Clock Tower stands, built during the reign of Carlos I in the 16th century, on the site of one of the gates of the former walled enclosure.
Next to the Clock Tower is the Convent of the Conceptionist Mothers. The building, on two floors, was erected in masonry by Francisco Samper, beginning in 1565. Particularly noteworthy is its façade, which features a vaulted niche with the image of the Purísima Concepción.
The end of this streets leads into the Plaza de la Encina, a traditional site of commercial activity. The Basilica de la Encina stands on the square and is one of the most outstanding religious buildings in the city. The church was built in the Renaissance style in 1573, while its baroque tower dates from later, from 1614. Inside, as well as the carving of the Virgen de la Encina, some reredos can be seen, among which the high altar is outstanding, the work of Mateo Flores in the 17th century.
At the bottom end of the historic quarter is the Hospital de la Reina, Renaissance in style, and the baroque church of San Andrés, which houses a Christ of the Knights Templar.
A stop for an ice lolly then it’s the final crawl up to our last stop and camping site today – Molinaseca, a Municipal site, the Albergue Municipal San Roque, only 6 euros to pitch our tent, have a shower and space to dry out all our gear. The people running it, Manuel and his wife, are so warm, friendly and helpful.
They can’t do enough for us. We sample their home cooked dinner, which included a delicious lentil soup. Today has been a tough, hot, challenging day. We had our highest pass so far at 1330 metres, our hottest at 40degrees and fastest descent at 76.1 kmph! We have seen people pushing prams holding their bergans, a dachshund with booties on to protect his feet on the walk, walkers pulling trollies and many cyclists and walkers of all ages, nationalities and abilities. This is a fabulous route and inspires us to keep pushing even through such adversity.
Molinaseca to Astorga via Rabanal del Camino (Days 23, 24)
Distance 50. km
Max Speed 0 kmph
Average Speed 0 kmph
Total Distance 4950.64 km
We need another early start today because we’ve got 12km of climb, gaining 900m in elevation to 1515m. We’re up but we’re enjoying our breakfast and Manuel’s company and extra coffees that I don’t want to leave.
Then we hit the road again and we pretty much manage 7km. We’re just grinding in our lowest gear, and it’s slow progress but we’re so pleased we’re over half way and have made steady but slow progress.
We’ve come to the decision, since we met Jaap in Nigran, that we can’t/won’t cycle our tandem round the world. There are many reasons but the main ones: my position is neither fully recumbent nor fully upright. I slip in my seat constantly which means the edge of my seat digs into my arse and my back loses contact with my seat back resulting in a bad lower back. Daz has a comfortable biking position but steering is a stressful job especially at low speed; even removing a hand to wipe sweat away can send us zigzagging across the road. And we need to carry more gear – more water, a cooker and food. Not in Europe but in less developed countries where facilities might not be so plentiful. We did think single recumbent but i’m sorely tempted by a trike: no stability issues, comfortable seat, no need for a bike stand and no need to unclip! Trikes are as about as common as our tandem recumbent so we have to say hello which leads to coffee, a test ride and a discussion about ‘best buy’ in the trike world. Marjo is on an Ice Adventurer and whilst she’s had some problems with it, she’s absolutely delighted because it has given her back her freedom (she had a serious car accident and is lucky to be here at all!) . She’s with her husband and they’ve cycled from their home in Holland and hope to continue their cycling expedition into England before returning home. After chatting to them we head off and then see a tandem. A Belgium couple mending their puncture, another chat and we’re off.
The next pinnacle is the Cruz de Ferro and we stop to admire the cross before heading on to Rabanal del Camino. An easy ride and barely any pedalling. We stop here and find a restaurant with ‘menu del dia’. Included in the price is a glass of red wine, well we thought it was a glass but it turned out to be a jug and since the food was mediocre, I decided to make it up in fluid intake. Thank God the remainder of today’s route was just down hill into Astorga.
During this leg we see a young lady with her dog in a pram. The poor dog has tendenitis so she got a pram so he could still keep her company. Definitely ‘man’s best friend ‘.
The capital of the county of Maragatería in the province of León offers a rich medieval legacy, the result of its location at the crossroads of: the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela and the Ruta de la Plata (Silver Road). Its walled town preserves churches, convents and hospitals which take travellers back to the purest tradition of the Pilgrim’s Road. Another outstanding feature in the town’s streets is a culminating work by the Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí: the Bishop’s Palace. Astorga is, also, a good opportunity for enjoying the rich cuisine of this area. here we find a hostal so a real bed for the night and after some sightseeing we catch up on admin; laundry and posting our latest blog.
Astorga to León via Villadangos del Paramo (Days 22, 21)
Distance 53 km
Max Speed 0 kmph
Average Speed 0 kmph
Total Distance 5003. 64 km
Another easy ride today but incredibly dull scenery unfortunately. Yup it seems the tough riding equals the most spectacular scenery. We’re on the N120 whilst the Camino runs right alongside but along a gravel track. Nothing of note happens except we stop for a coke, I hang out the tent to dry and whilst i’m doing that a car drives into the back of a van that has stopped at a zebra crossing.
And then we arrive in León. First stop a bike shop dealing in Azubs but they’ve only got one recumbent in store, no trikes and unfortunately any informative chat is impossible because they don’t speak English, and us no Spanish.
So we head off to find our bed for the night. Daz has been scheming for months for this stop over because tomorrow is my birthday. So we’re staying here for 3 nights and he’s only gone and booked the Parador. What a fantastic treat. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
If you are lucky, your ultimate destination in Leon will be the San Marcos Hostal, a Parador hotel that will take your breath away with its serene magnificence. Yes i am that lucky!
The Parador San Marcos Monastery – The magnificent 100-metre facade of San Marcos Monastery barely prepares you for its even more astonishing interior. As this is the best hotel in Leon and certainly one of the five best in Spain, suffice to say that even if you aren’t fortunate enough to stay here, you should certainly visit San Marcos both to enjoy its sumptuous elegance and to see the small but touchingly beautiful 11th-century ivory Carrizo Crucifix displayed in the archaeological museum.
Unfortunately the receptionist says we can park the bike in the luggage room, but the luggage room guardian says ‘no’ we must park it in the carpark round the back. Sadly this means we end up carrying our own bags – gutted, wanted a bag man. Then as we’re about to cycle round the back with the bike the receptionist rushes out to ask Daz about the ice he requested. Poor Daz has to sidle away to have his ‘secret’ discussion. But the surprise is kinda ruined and it doesn’t help that by the time we’ve parked the bike, struggled down the corridor towards our room we are neck and neck with a waiter, with an ice bucket and a bottle of champers!!! My birthday champers.
But it’s lovely and funny too. The room is gorgeous and I love this luxury after cheap hostels and wild camping. We spend several hours drinking our champagne and relaxing and then Daz goes off for another ‘secret’ discussion. A very long while later he returns looking really unhappy. For weeks he’d been trying to work out our schedule, where we’d be for my birthday and what present he could get. He’d found a 4×4 off road buggy experience near León. The arrangements had been agreed and emails sent. But today the guy says it ain’t happening. He has no English speakers, well that’s his excuse anyway. Poor Daz! He’s really upset but actually I’m loving my other treats and we can always do it somewhere else – perhaps near Blajan. in the evening we go out for food. We see a bizarre new game: wetted sand pitch, 9 skittles and a hemispherical, wooden throwing implement. The men throw the half ball up into the air towards the pitch. We couldn’t work out if the aim is to hit the skittles or whether there’s scoring areas.
We sit in the cathedral square enjoying people watching and then watching the spectacular forked lightning as a big storm moved over León.
Thursday 7th July – León and Hels’ 50 th birthday.
A sumptuous breakfast in the Parador.
To judge by the first sight of its outskirts, Leon is like any other modern Spanish city: a few smoke-belching factories and a crop of ugly apartment blocks. But as you move nearer to the older heart of the city, there is an increasing sense of excitement: you begin to realise that you are on the threshold of something special. You may catch a glimpse of the cathedral, you may take a wrong turning and find yourself nosing up a tiny one-way street past ancient houses and through marvellous arcaded squares that are reminiscent of Venice.
Leon Cathedral – When the guide book compares Leon cathedral to Chartres, it sounds a little too much like journalistic hyperbole. Leon’s cathedral might be impressive, but as good as Chartres? At first glimpse, the cathedral cannot match Chartres’ massive airship-hangar bulk. But once through the remarkable portals, the point of the comparison becomes clear. The stained-glass windows produce a breath taking swirl of colour. The guide-books tell you that the cathedral has 125 windows and 57 oculi producing an area of glass totalling 1,200 square metres — in fact, so much glass and so little wall that the cathedral is in danger of collapsing. But nothing can prepare you for their full dramatic effect. Leon cathedral is unique in Spain, for its windows as, much as for its clean-cut elegance.
The first church erected on this site was in 924, the current Gothic church is the fourth which was started in 1205 and is mostly a copy of the cathedral at Rheims planned by Bishop Manrique de Lara and the foundations were first started by Bishop Martin Rodriguez el Zamorano whose tomb is inside. The finances around the build are interesting: Alfonso X contributed handsomely it is said as his father, Fernando III, had not repaid a loan to the Pope used to reconquer Seville. The papacy granted indulgences to contributors, stopped Italian creditors collecting monies, and signed over a third of their tithes from rural Leon. In 1258 a church in Madrid offered 40 day indulgences to large contributors and two chapels, Santiago and San Clemente, were offered to the highest bidders. Because of this sustained drive to raise funds the cathedral was built in record time, and by 1302 was complete. During the 15th century Renaissance tastes influenced some rebuilding and additions for example the library was built during this period by Juan de Badajoz the Elder, also the sacristy, several portals, and a new arch to connect the cloister with the cathedral. However the cathedral still retains it 13th century Gothic structure.
The inside of the cathedral is best viewed in the early morning or later afternoon when the sun moves quicker across the floor and walls as it illustrates the colours from rose stained glass windows. Leon cathedral was known as the cathedral without walls, as it has more glass and less stone as walls than any other cathedral in Spain.
Basilica of San Isidoro – San Isidoro is built into the old city walls, an impressive chunk of which can still be seen behind the basilica. The Royal Pantheon and Treasury, whose entrance is to the left of the church, contain some exceptional 12th century frescoes illustrating New Testament, hunting and pastoral scenes.
The Basilica was built on a Roman Temple to Mercury, which had been replaced by a monastery dedicated to San Juan Bautista, however that was destroyed at the end of the 10th century by the Moor invasion. The current church is of 11th century construction and was the most important church in north west Spain as it established the artistic Romanesque models used in the northern half of Spain. The church was enlarged by Princess Urraca during the 11th century, the portico and crypt were preserved and remain original.
Inside there is an interesting inscription on the baptismal font from Pedro Deustamben who takes credit for rebuilding the church and miracles that happened through him as he was such a great person – it is odd.
Later in the afternoon we return to the hotel, I have a full body massage and facial booked. Wow, the massage is verging on painful but it’s lovely and I’m sure it’s good to have the kinks worked out of my body. OMG I could learn to love all this pampering. What a fabulous treat! In the evening we go for another walk in the city. We sit on the street at a restaurant and as we eat some sumptuous food watch the people go by. A fabulous end to a marvellous birthday experience.
Friday 8th July
Today we’re off on a tour of the Valporquero Caves. We catch a bus from just outside the hotel. There’s a driver, a ticket lady and one other passenger. None of them speak English. At the caves we have a new tour guide who speaks extensively, unfortunately not in English – thank goodness we have a brochure in English. It’s semi dark in the caves so reading the guide, our only English reference is quite hard!
Cave of Valporquero
Situated in the heart of the mountains of León, next to another site of immense beauty: the Vagacervera Gorge. Just a million years old, this is Castilla y León’s youngest cave, formed during the Pleistocene, when the icy waters of the Valporquero Stream trickled silently between the limestone, forming the magnificent sight we can visit today.
Inside visitors can admire flowing forms, columns, stalactites and stalagmites in the seven rooms that make up this cave. Some of the figures and rooms have been given names, such as ‘Fairies’, the ‘Stalactite Cemetery’ or ‘Solitary Column’ , inspired by the imagination of those that have admired them; capricious forms and figures including ‘The Phantom’ ‘Virgin and Child’, ‘Twins’ or ‘The Tower of Pisa’.