Camino de Santiago

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Camino preparations

We felt tired of our routine and waddling through the same problems for past half a year, so we decided to go on an adventure! We agreed on Spain, for unknown reasons. It is kinda unexplored region even after my first visit and Fox hadn’t been to the north either, so it was undisputed compromise. I have heard of Camino de Santiago and really cherished idea of long distance cycling through unfamiliar terrain. I bribed the Fox with old-lady-cycling the Camino youtube videos to accept the challenge! Less than a month until the perfect dates we got cheap tickets from Riga to Barcelona both ways. Logroño has been chosen as the best starting point for our adventure and nobody had any objections. It just looked perfect on the map.

Bicycles

We arranged our bicycles with Bike Iberia, since they had very good reviews and the most decent prices. Tania is very helpful, despite my bank issues and unknown technical difficulties on their part. We got two decent mountain bikes for 220€ each + one set of 15L panniers to hold all our already minimal stuff. A couple of days before our arrival we still could not agree on bicycles and almost resorted to buying our own low-cost hybrid bikes from Decathlon and donating them to Recicleta afterwards, but the next morning Tania sent us a transaction confirmation, and I am glad that we managed in the end. The hybrids would’ve cost us half of the rent and spare worries of theft and damage, but we would’ve paid more in sweat and frustration than we did with Bike Iberia bicycles.

We weren’t too kind to the bikes, but we also didn’t try to demolish them on purpose. The trail had a few very challenging bits where bikes took the pounding, but a lube and a couple punctures was the only trouble we had. The provided repair set also had a spare tube, a basic toolset and a mini-pump, of which everything came in handy. We would’ve had more trouble and misery with hybrid bikes.

The gear

We packed bare necessities and each our bag was around 5-6kg.

Clothes: We packed lightly for the trip - two shirts, pants, shorts, a towel, a couple of pairs of socks, scarf and a shemagh (cotton squares are incrfedibly versatile). Cycling is not as demanding on feet and shoes, so I took my incredibly comfortable low hiking shoes on their last victory lap - I used them since 2012 to work in the farm, took them high in Romanian mountains (and everywhere they were my only shoes for 8 months), took them deep down underground in SS bunkers, hitchhiked to Zarasai, Madrid, Tammisaare, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Budapest in them and they even survived Strongmen Race in Latvia. And here they were without soles and three mice-size holes each accommodating my feet in Spain. The Fox took her thrift-store running shoes we usesd to run for past couple of years and a pair of useless sandals. All things we missed was a sweater or something warmer than t-shirt, but it perfectly possible to manage in 14°C without ‘em too.

Hygiene: single toothbrush and a modest bar of universal soap with which we washed everything from hair to socks (highly recommended). In Spain it is also impossible to buy a single pack of napkins - you can get only a pack of 10-20 of them at once, but it is a very good gift to anybody on the trail, or a excellent business opportunity. Note, also that lady-specific hygiene stuff is very expensive, so we advice to do the math beforehand.

Medicine: a couple of patches is enough, maybe even small sunscreen and ketoprofen/fastumgel can be considered. We got sunburn the first couple of days and shared ketoprofen with other less lucky and considered perigrinos.

Tech: a smartphone with GPS (with maps) and a wifi is nice, but really optional with enough research. I also took my small mirrorless camera with 16-50mm kit lens and an extension cord to discretely charge numerous devices at once or just share with mates. In some cases, a small flashlight like Fenix E05 would be nice, but again, optional. Laptop/tablet would be an excessive waste of energy.

The food

We decided not to bring anything extra with us. Villages on Camino route heavily rely on tourism and most places have at least a bar with nutritious sandwich on offer. Many larger cities have shops and supermarkets. Note that on Sundays most shops and services are closed and emergency food can be found in Dia markets and few restaurants. Another limitation is Siesta, which is a time in Spain for workers to relax typically from about 14:00 - 17:00. Most albergues have kitchens equipped with basic neccessities, but this does not apply to Municipal albergues in Galicia region. Some things to get early are private spices - oil, salt, pepper and some sugar will guarantee friends with nutritious benefits. A decent Swiss Army Knife would be of use on the trail and in the kitchen, but we managed fairly comfortably without.

Security

We have witnessed a phone theft aftermath and our own extension cord disappeared. Many perigrinos have lost sleeping bags and whatever they neglected to secure in time. We have designated a special bag - The Most Important Bag, where we kept our tickets, passports, credentials, money while cycling and later added the bag into another bag with camera gear, which we never left unattended. Even in the night it is advised to wrap some part of it to the leg or hide under clothes in darkest corner and attached to squeky bed frame.

Camino de Santiago Chronicles

day 1-2: Barcelona - Logroño (400km)

The wrapped saddle

All our 30 custom couchsurfing requests are refused for unknown reasons even before we arrive. We noticed that most hosts are males aged 25-35 years. We arrived without any couch in mind, but attempted to find one in Barcelona language exchange event where we met Alberto a local Riga enthusiast who even learned some basic Latvian language. We found out that Barcelona hosts Primavera music festival, deeming couchsurfing-on-short-notice impossible and finding cheap hostels challenging. Tito, a kind American, amazed by our small and empty bags, showed us the way to cheapest hostel he knew and disappeared soon after never to be seen again.

We used blablacar, since hitchhiking is impossible in Spain. In short two rides we got from Barcelona to outskirts of Logroño to meet our bikes for the first time! I don’t have much comments on bikes, they are fine and dandy, but I did not expect that I will have to teach my novia how to cycle, how and when to change gears and how to get off the bike without fatalities. Five kilometers to nearest albergue took more than they had to. We checked in a private albergue before getting peregrino credentials in the official office, where you can stay only if you have been on the road.

day 3: Logroño - Santo Domingo de la Calzada (50km)

poppyhills

Six o’clock we set off on our first stage of Camino! Not even 100m pass as we learn of Camino custom - «Buen Camino!» The day was filled with uncertainty and doubt of my partner continuing on a bike. We even had to modify our bike saddles with spare clothing to accommodate sore bums. The excitement of cycling through vineyards and hills suppressed frustration and fatigue. We decided to stay in municipal albergues as much as possible due to low price, great conditions and locations. In Santo Domingo I had my first flat some 80 meters before albergue gates. We got a bottle of cheap wine and spent evening repairing bicycles and washing clothes.

Some Korean roommates offered us some delicious rice and received fruits from us. I felt like EVS in a long time..

day 4: Santo domingo de la Calzada - Atapuerca (51km)

Spine of the sheep room This morning I realized that I should have got more clothes than a couple of t-shirts, as the foggy mornings can be very cold here. The weather improved around 9-10 o’clock and cycling was a breeze still. Today we understood how stamp system really works.

Atapuerca turned out to be smaller than we expected, boasting only two private albergues, of which one was a dreadful place with a beautiful facade - a walled garden with numerous warning signs about trespassing if you are not a client. We agreed on a shady bar outback instead. Amenities were very basic and the room itself was a repurposed sheep/goat room. This night I have given up on sleep without earplugs.

day 5: Atapuerca - Castrojeriz (59km)

Atapuerca morning Very early in our foggy morning we pushed bikes atop another rocky mountain to the sign notifying us about “this is the most beautiful stage on French route”, which we couldn’t really appreciate through all the fog. We cycled under a bright pill of the sun along rows of poppy flowers and lost over 160m in elevation. Somewhere on the way we decided to get our first Menu de Peregrino - for a modest 10€ we got a three course meal of choice, an insane amount of bread and some wine, which was much better than we expected! On the way the Fox caught serious cold which could not be remedied in Castrojeriz with any ice-cream or wine.

Castrojeriz was by far the nicest experience! We decided to stay in San Emanuel albergue for donations. It was very small and nice place, with coffee and cookies for breakfast, the only time we had free snacks in albregues.

day 6: Castrojeriz - Carrion de los Condes (44km)

La pedraja This was second morning in a row of pushing our bikes on top of the mountain just to have unsatisfying downhill, elevation loss of 30m since the start and gain of another 60m. We met New Zealand’s Foxy, a woman with a fox on her backpack. I hardly understood kiwi accent and we didn’t dwell much in her company. My Fox was too sick to ignore so we pedaled faster to Carrion de los Condes where we can get some chamomile tea and medicine.

In Carrion de los Condes we made friends with Vaike, a Swedish-born Estonian, who noticed our matching “Eesti ööjooks” shirts. It wasn’t easy to break her enthusiasm of meeting fellow Eesti pois, but we had to come clean sooner.

day 7: Carrion de los Condes - El burgo Ranero (58km)

generic cycling picture from elsewhere Many say that the flatness between Burgos and Leon was a highlight of their trip, a chance to reflect on nature of self and life, but we missed that. The flatness was boring and my partner’s sickness was only thing we could focus on. Also, we had the luck to visit the official middle point of the French route. I didn’t really like the sorry state of it - littered with trash, dirty napkins and old bottles. I figured that if I do not clean the place while my partner recovers, others will have less incentive of keeping it clean. The bin was near anyway, so I did my part and got only some random resting girls curious smiles from afar.

Unfortunately we couldn’t do 120km to Leon in one day, so we had to stay in a tiny EL burgo Ranero, in strawbale municipal albergue. Only interesting landmark here is a church tower with four stark nests with babies. Here I also satisfied my utilitarian needs by repurposing wine cork and old screw into a pot lid handle, since all of the lids were missing handles. By the morning Hospitaleros had fashioned a handle for a second lid! I felt that was a victory!

day 8: El burgo Ranero - Virgen del Camino (49km)

Church in O'Cebreiro Morning started very frustratingly with yet another flat tyre. I managed to prevent bike from dying for the duration of the day, but had lost key to the bike lock. We resorted to just unscrewing front wheels and lassoing the forks together to deter low-intelligence bike thieves.

Anyway, many boring kilometers later, we arrived in Leon, where my Fox refused to cycle due to urban cycling environment. We had to push bikes through whole Leon until Virgen del Camino. Municipal albergue is a dreadful, modern place without any hint of personality. Burro parked in the front yard was the nicest thing we had to see while repairing flat tyre.

day 9: Virgen del Camino - Astorga (42km)

generic cycling picture from elsewhere This was a very uneventful day just cycling through the hills. Here I tasted Spanish beers, of which some turned out to be quite fine for a 0.4€ beer. As later I found out, all Spanish beers are 0.33L because they get hot too quickly. Here we first meet other cyclists from Germany, but don’t take notice of them and we only talk for a couple of moments.

day 10: Astorga - Ponferrada (52km)

the shack Cruz de Ferro was highlight of the day! We purposely stayed in Astorga (869m elevation) to mountain-push bicycles to Cruz de Ferro (1504m elevation). A very serious downhill was spoiled by a steep uphill with a very unsatisfying shitty-wooden-bridge slap in the middle… Very anticlimatic… It was also very damn cold and windy. I worried we wouldn’t arrive safely to Ponferrada without yet another generic tea with Bocadillo con Chorizo which would be hard to find in the middle-of-nowhere-mountains. I was very wrong! There is a rocky shack full of flags just outside Manjarin, where one can get warm tea for donations! It took us just about half an hour of warming before descending 963m for 30km on increasingly sunnier mountain roads!

Somewhere between the mountains we stumbled upon a lone hiker with rare flag patch on her bag. I was very reluctant to bother people with whom we share only a language, but I had to wait for my amiga anyway, so that couldn’t hurt. Dina was on her 24th day of Camino at the time. We didn’t talk much, but found out that there are four known ‘Latvians’ on the French route at the moment. It was pure chance that we met Dina. There was no way for us to meet again on the Camino, but we looked up Dina’s blog a few days later, to follow up and be sure if everything is fine.

day 11: Ponferrada - O Cebreiro (62km)

bootroom We decided to continue our way from Ponferrada (541m elevation) along side the old road, which falls to 483m in elevation in Cacabelo and stop 30km later in O’Cebreiro (1330m elevation). In total we would have to gain 847m in elevation and we were sure we would have better luck reaching the top following nearly abandoned road, rather than cramping narrow rocky paths with our clumsy bicycles. Pulling bikes uphill for 30km in +30°C heat without any shade and no water is not very entertaining activity, but the numbers decreased rapidly on signs with ‘O’Cebreiro’, ‘Cebreiro’, ‘Pedrafita de Cebreiro’ and ‘Pedrafita’. We assumed that they are Galician synonyms to the Cebreiro we are heading to, but at the zero mark of ‘Pedrafita de Cebreiro’ we learned the cold, hard truth… the Cebreiro we celebrated was not the Cebreiro we were heading to… The real one was four kilometers uphill.. I lost all my marbles here because I have no bloody clue why would anybody want to have two small towns with same names just with 4km of forest between them.. It is just unfathomable and still makes me rage at this deception.. But there is always more!!!

When we finally arrived nearly dead, exhausted, dehydrated to the real Cebreiro, we were greeted with a tiny place with only one functioning shop selling overpriced junk - 4€ for a small pack of peanuts.. We also learned that in whole of Galicia no municipal albergue has any utensils, pots or other kitchen tools, perhaps to boost local economy… Nor the albergues have any blankets… We thought it couldn’t get any worse, so we visited place with largest ‘Menu de Perigrino’ sign in whole Cebreiro for that three course goodness we have been dreaming of… But oh how we were wrong… The food we were presented with was completely opposite we had before - bread was stale, dry and tasteless, pasta and rice reeked of old rags, chicken was brown from the elements, soup was cold and tasteless and wine was watered down grape juice… Complete defeat… We lost all what we had and entertained ourselves by feeding chicken bones to local fauna. Here we also got another famous label-less surogate of wine to drown our hopes and dreams high up in the mountains…

day 12: O Cebreiro - Portomarin (62km)

Church in Portomarin Morning is as hard on us as yesterdays ascent, but in a way that ascent wasn’t - foggy, dreary and cold. I haven’t seen before so lively fog crawling across mountain spires, it looks nearly conscious of itself. Soon we arrive to the point to check our brakes and helmets, because next 18 kilometers we will spend in 7% steep descent on serpentine road, with only metal strips protecting cars from falling deep down the hill. The ride can’t be described in many words - our frozen fingers are cramped into brake levers, large bugs are hitting me in the face, shoulders and getting caught between my grinning teeth of my jubile smile as I descended rapidly downhill, constantly checking behind me to make sure Fox is not hit by a maniac taxi driver. The mountains look like moving towards us before we have to turn away towards another moving mountains - it is a majestic feeling which nearby hill hikers missed.

Forest trails replaced mountain roads sooner than we wished. Here we met genuine rural Galicia - it stinks of cattle and rot. Unlike many other places, Galicia also has abundantly placed milestones announcing distance until Santiago de Compostela. Many tiny forest paths are too challenging for novice riders and we even met a couple who fell of the bike trying to hurry away from upcoming rain.

Portomarin appeared out of nowhere - we descended down the hill and just on the other side of the bridge was small village waiting us to push our bikes on top of it. While waiting for Fox I start chat with Viking-looking-guy with only his walking cane and a small bottle of water.

«Cycling is hard? It must be. I decided to send my backpack to next cities already 2500km ago, where my toe fractured and disintegrated from the rest of the skeleton. The water is for my painkillers of whom I have a full pocket!», with a very proud enthusiasm told the Viking guy, knocking on his medicine-filled pocket. «Where are we now? Man, I don’t even know. Nice meeting you!», before we parted our ways - my camino led to the albergue and his camino is only halfway through the day.

In this albergue I finally got to meet our German bike buddies. Their rented bikes are similar to the hybrids we didn’t buy. He assured me that V-brakes on his bicycle haven’t been replaced yet and he didn’t plan for them to fail, which is surprisingly odd for a small, generic v-brakes that he has. Portomarin Albergue Municipal also lacked any utensils, but this time we had the opportunity to buy our own small pot and a fork, which we did. Suddenly we not only could prepare instant noodles and prepare our tea, but also acquired many new friends who borrowed our humble pot. Here also Juris overhears us and we have small, awkward conversation about other Latvian language speakers on the trail. We met Juris for another awkward conversation in the village where he desperately tried to meet a friend at a bar he couldn’t find. We never saw him again.

day 13: Portomarin - Arzua (51km)

no chorizo for impolite dog I still don’t know how to feel about Galicia. The Camino in Galicia is indeed beautiful - old trees are planted on both sides of the trail, some parts even boast rock walls up to 3m tall, but its beauty is skin deep. One doesn’t even have to wander outside the path to notice that greenery is mostly a facade to hide the fields of cattle and rotting fields of spoiled produce. The trail is evenly muddy and local farmers are very adamant on walking their cattle on the camino. I wouldn’t even notice how filthy the trail is, if cow dung wasn’t evenly distributed ONLY on the camino. Nowhere else, not even pastures are as filthy as the camino.

Anyway, arriving in Arzua we had to find cheapest place with least effort. We noticed before that cheapest places tend to be populated with Korean youth and we had a very fine specimen just in front of us, following his phone! What a luck! A few head nods later we join him in an albergue for 5€. The atmosphere in this albergue is great - an elderly Korean guy plays guitar and sings in Spanish and Italian, we got to meet a British guy who looks like Mr. Snowden and we are stuffing ourselves with potatoes with eggs that tastes like nothing due to lack of salt. We couldn’t even share with our Korean friend how embarrassed we feel about our food. We felt even worse when French lady gave us her spare napkins (you can’t buy napkins individually in Spain) and shared with her watermelon. We have nothing to offer.

day 14: Arzua - Santiago de Compostela (39km)

The green tunnel The final day, final 40km! Of course, it rains relentlessly in Galicia. It feels miserable, but abundant milestones counted down the distance until Santiago and keeps us cheerful! We don’t really remember the final 40 km. We passed our Korean friend, our freshly watered British mates and a French girl.

Suddenly, arrived in Santiago, all the yellow arrows disappear. We got lost, walked around, had to get help from locals to find the right cathedral. We felt completely nothing upon arrival on point-zero of the Camino. It was just another location to stay. The Fox even got the most serious injury so far walking besides the bike - that’s how exhausted we are. More misery awaited us upon arrival to official end point - a queue over an hour just to get the stamp and a certificate that we finished the Camino. That was it.

We have already decided not travel to Finisterre because of heavy rainfall, our lack of equipment and limited visibility in rain. Retrospectively, we should have went for Finisterre and probably would if we did more prior research and planning than we did.

We got to the nearest albergue - “Estrella de Santiago”, where we spent next three days trying to find transportation back to Barcelona. We were exhausted and the weather was definitely not bike friendly. Next day we found out that the train workers are on strike, so the closest train is in three days and costs 100€ per head. Bus was no cheaper. A plane is about 150€ with connection in Amsterdam…. I began to regret frugality and return from Barcelona. It would’ve been cheaper, faster and easier to pay 50€ more and depart from Madrid, which was not an option anymore. We visited The Cathedral where Santiago is resting while we were stuck. Accidentally we met mates who were heading to Estrella, but unfortunately we did not interact much.

day 17-20: Barcelona (1100km)

tower Finally we arranged blablacar for 100€ both to Barcelona. After ten hours of driving we arrived in Barcelona! “Finally the rain is over! Sun, beach, a place to stay with a blanket - give it all to me!”, we naively thought. But of course, fiesta never ends in Barcelona! What a surprise! No couchsurfing, no airbnb and certainly no hostel bunk bed in a city for under 130€ per person… so we spent our night on a park bench in the rain. Just as thunderstorm crept closer to us I began to feel my patience running out as fast as my frustration overflowing. I felt sick of novice cyclist holding me back, complaining more than I found it worth, I was sick of abundantly chlorinated water, relentless rain, all the cold mornings and useless kitchens, uncertainty and endless fiestas influencing availability and prices of as simple things as bunk beds.. The highest toll was my partner’s mental state - she did really great job cycling and surviving common cold, but I knew how much of the battle I did not witness, she was constantly hungry, made senseless decisions and unnecessary stops, was desperate for warmth and shelter, and was not happy to spend next three days in a million star hostel without any basic needs met. The final crumb were crumbled cookies in my backpack - unjust accusations were thrown around like cookie crumbs around same park and I was going at it in the same manner as thunderstorm ravaged the park. It was not pretty, but we had to discharge before moving on.

We devised a plan to find any establishment with a power socket and find cheapest available place to stay in Barcelona, preferably under 40€ per head. After couple of hours we were on our way to some shady place on the other side of the city that promised us a bunk bed for two only for 55€. It is grueling walk up the mountains to a place no local elderly person has ever heard of. We started to doubt whether the place exists at all, maybe we were scammed. It took us almost four hours of wandering until throwing the towel and waving down first taxi we saw. He knew of the place, which was positive, but with only couple of kilometers until the place the driver had to do more due to complex geography of the favela. Due to same geography, we mostly spent time waiting while trash truck serviced all the bins in an absurdly narrow streets of this favela.

BUT! But our adventure was not over yet! The Indian hospitaleros had more plans in store for us. Apparently their business is booming and they have two dormitories! In half an hour we were transfered to another dormitory by car, ironically close to the place we waved down a taxi… ok. We dined on a few cookies that escaped my wrath, dipped them in stale Greek yoghurt. The place did not had warm showers. In the morning we noticed bugs walking about the bed and furniture. We didn’t even meet hospitalero in the morning and left the keys on the table, because suddenly the fiesta was over and even fanciest hostels were offering beds for only 16€ per person.. We arrived in The Hipstel as soon as we could, ordered tickets online to Sagrada Familia in the evening and spent rest of the day visiting cemetary and puny beach until the flight the next day.

Sagrada familia evening sun-lit window