I finished working at Mondragon Lingua on the 21st of June. The last couple of months felt a lot longer than I expected. A few months prior, when I cycled to Madrid, I was thinking that it was just a couple of months left after that tour and seeing as how quickly the preceding 8 months had flown by I was assuming the final 2 would simply fly by – in no time it would be the end of June, the end of WORK and happy days, freedom! It was not to be. When I returned to work I was given a few extra hours of class but it wasn´t that that made things feel like time had slowed down, maybe it was my own feelings, being once again in a position I was only a few months previously, when preparing to leave London. I´d made a home here in this town, settled down in a small way I guess, made friends, felt I had found a special place, and once more, I was stepping into the nomadic lifestyle of not knowing where I would be sleeping each night, cycling into the unknown each day…but this time, with no real clear target, as I had when I set off the first time – for Mondragon Lingua, a target, a purpose. This time I was leaving comfort and safety, for the real unknown. It unsettled me, and if I´m honest, it still does in some way. It reminds of a question several people have asked me, “Why are you doing this?”.
So I had a week after I finished at the school to sort my stuff out before leaving on Saturday the 28th. I did little preparation, but spent the time with special people. No regrets. So it came to the 28th and I was hungover, but surprisingly, not too badly organised, and here I must thank Magda, my flat mate for 10 months, who I struggled to settle in with in the beginning but who, in the end, picked up the pieces I had left behind without a fuss. Thank you Magda.
The weather forecast was for very hot weather and I planned to leave at 08.00 while it was still cool…this didn´t happen. It was about midday when I left and it was just warming up…
Arrasate, the town, is in a valley, and to escape (yes, escape!) this valley, one must negotiate a pass of some sort (unless you´re going to Deba, which I wasn´t). There was one pass I hadn´t done yet so I decided to go via that one and no regrets, though tough, hot, and sweating rivers, I bid my farewells to 2 beautiful peaks I´d come to enjoy seeing everyday, Udalaitz and Anboto, each of which would change character depending on the weather, the time of day and where you stood looking at either of them. What is it with mountains that allow them to speak to one´s soul and seemingly become part of the cultural fabric?
My first destination was Santander, just over 200km from Arrasate for which I planned a 3 day ride. First day, very hot, very humid and me with a bit of weight after living the good life. I grabbed my tummy fat and said “hasta la vista fat boy” and rode on. It was a tough day, but I found a place to sleep with a fuente in a small village and I had food to eat.
Day 2, I made it to the coast, Noja, and found a nice place to pitch the tent, had a bath and something to eat in the tent while the rain spattered on the tent.
Day 3, along the coast and into Santander for lunch. Had some time to kill before my cousin arrived on the ferry from Plymouth so did some admin work in the ferry terminal where I had power for my laptop.
He arrived just after 16.00 and as he had a small niggle on his bike we found a bike shop to repair it and with food and water, once more set off South, into Cantabria.
We managed about 30km before the light started fading and it started to rain, the hunt was on for a place to pitch tent and have something to eat. We took a little detour on a little back road and spotted a nicely tended grass patch under some trees in front of a small clutch of homes. We didn´t just want to pop tents so I went to the house to ask if it would be okay for us to camp there for the night. A lady answered my knocking and with my little bit of Spanish I think she thought I wanted to camp in their garden, but she was concerned because it was raining…well, it´s raining, it is what it is, es lo que hay, we´ll be ok…so yes, she said we could camp over by their pond (it was a big garden). So we wheel our bikes in, through the bamboo forest and to the pond. We setup our tents and a man approaches us saying “no, no, no…”…and I was thinking they may have changed their minds. We have a quick chat and he is the husband of the lady I met at the door. He says I should follow him and he leads me out to another part of the property behind the house where there is a small A-frame hut – his wood work workshop it turns out and what he is saying is that we can sleep in there, nice! The workbench needed to be moved so I helped him do that then I said I would sweep as there was a lot of sawdust on the floor – sure no problem, off he goes. I go back to Kevin and I tell him the news, we pack our tents back up and as we´re pushing the bikes through the bamboo forest the man reappears, “No, no, no…follow me!”…and this time he leads us to the house and points to a side room – “you sleep in there. Comer? Eat? Come eat with us, famous Spanish dish, spanish omellete!”….amazing.
So, meet Uwe and his wife. They built this house we are in. The kids have all moved out to the surrounding towns and cities. The room we´re in is where all the family crash when they visit. We are shown around and told to make ourselves at home. The house is beautiful, with an open plan kitchen, dining area and sitting area with a TV. In the middle is an iron spiral staircase, that Uwe made, leading up to the top floor where the main bedroom is.
We have a shower and setup our matts and bags in the spare room. Then we had dinner with Uwe and his wife, in my broken Spanish and sometimes English, we talked about work, family, food, drink, cycling, our route for the next for days, photography.
We go to bed that night, very happy of course, being treated to this spontaneous generosity.
We have breakfast with them the following day and they give us “padkos” (food for the road, in Afrikaans), cereal bars, and one, huge, beautiful jar of honey from their beehives…”for energy” says Uwe, deadpan! He knows what´s ahead of us you see!
Off we ride, Kevins bag with an added kilo of honey…and did we feast on that honey and thank Uwe and his wife a million times as we did? You betcha.
And as Uwe knew, ahead of us was some big hills to climb…and we were pretty worried very soon after leaving, literally within 500m, as we hit a hill too steep to ride up and the words “for energy” took on a foreboding note! But we tackled the hills under gloomy skies, in the thick humid air, and we made progress through the beautiful Cantabrian country. It wasn´t long before we were hungry and we stopped to eat and prepare for the big climb just ahead of us. Picture toasted bread with thick layers of that beautiful honey…oh yes.
It started gently the climb. Very gently, giving us no idea of what was to come…very green, very lush countryside, a bit different to anything I´d seen in Spain before, a country that continues to surprise me in how much it changes both in the landscape and culturally.
It was very pretty, very clean. The architecture simple, lot´s of dark grey stone work, blending nicely with the mountainous landscape around us, and very quiet, very, very little traffic, maybe a lone car every half an hour to an hour…and as we rode the scenery only got more dramatic. We were in a huge canyon, riding along one side of it, the road gently climbing and curving to the right ahead of us. We´d take a photo in some place, thinking wow, amazing, only to cycle a further kilometer and be blown away again…and we climbed…and what´s nice about these beautiful passes is you don´t really notice the cycling, your mind is so occupied by the visuals you just crank automatically, slowly, sure, and with some effort, but it´s almost effortless mentally, physically though, your body works, you get hot, quick, and soon after that you start sweating.
At the halfway mark we stopped and brewed a beautiful little coffee, a perfect little pick me up, a little sweet taste of warm coffee for the second half. While sipping our sweet brews, we noticed, in the clouds, wayyyyyy up, some men in hi-vis…what the hell?? It didn´t take long to figure out they were working on the road, the very road we were on! Kevin couldn´t believe it at first…but true as bob, we eventually passed them, with the cloud swirling about us, visibility but a few meters, the men in their orange jackets appeared, then, starring, wide eyed, then smiling as we whispered past with a little wave and a smile. Hola hombre!
We made the pass, Puerto de las Estacas, I think my highest so far, and in the clouds it was cold and the wind started to work on my soaked shirt.
Then it was freewheeling down…but we´d not gone 5km when there was a sign for “cascades” to the left, so we went to have a look, and here was a beautiful waterfall with a pool and a river flowing through the mountains, down the valley…immediately I assumed the water would be freezing cold, but Kevin dipped his toe in and declared it warm! No way, I couldn´t believe it, and again, Bob the True showed up, warmer than it was outside…I immediately declared it tea time, and thus brewed a tea to a) waste time (it was still a few hours to sunset), b) to decide if we should camp there c) to drink tea. We did all 3, including having an amazing bath in WARM mountain water and a great little hike down the river before cooking and pitching the tents.
Slept well up there in the mountains and up early the next morning as the sun was trying to break through the mist and the clouds. Breakfast done and packed up it was nothing but freewheeling, down, down, down in the morning sun as it burned away the early morning cloud, revealing the mountain tops and valley we were flying in. Glorious.
As we´d left Cantabria and were now in Castilla de Leon, the landscape was already becoming a lot drier and dare I say it, a bit flatter. We were seeing wheat fields, huge landscapes of wheat bordered by sierra´s, mountains. Beautiful.
We then joined the Ebro river where we had a bath and something to eat. It was while we were there that we watched a big storm gather to the east. We saw the lightning flash and then some time later heard the rumbling thunder. It felt like it was going to arrive at any moment but nothing happened. We were debating whether to stay put or crack on and as it seemed the storm was doing nothing we decided to carry on. Following the river it narrowed at the dam wall and we entered a canyon then we crossed back into the Basque region, and I kid you not, it started tipping down! I had to laugh. We pulled over and hid under some trees and waited the storm out, which wasn´t very long.
Once the storm passed we had the most stunning ride through the gorge, following the river as it meandered through the canyon.
Following a GPX track I had plotted we came to a bridge that we had to cross…unfortunately, the bridge was no more! It had been washed away in some floods as far as we could tell. We had to detour but luckily we had a breeze behind us and it wasn´t too far.
Long day in the saddle that and it was after sunset when we eventually pitched tent on a very rough, weedy patch of ground on the outside wall of a monastery. Right in the thistles and brambles!
Next morning, the usual, early start and a small pass to negotiate and we passed into the La Rioja region, the wine region…but passing through that gap in the mountain, a huge landscape lay before us as we looked south, the sun behind and over our left shoulder, just coming up over the mountain, like a fat, glowing, golden coin. The panorama of wheat before us lay bathed in its golden light, and appeared endless. And through it we pedaled, not far from Santa Domingo now. As we hadn´t had breakfast yet we both wanted to stop and eat so we came to a village and we saw that the road ran along the foot of a small hill, with the town extending up the side of the hill with a small church at the back and then what looked like a cemetery right up top. We cycled up the slope along the side of the village and came out at a pair of benches with a fuente (water tap) between them and so stopped right there and immediately spread out damp clothes in the sun and stoves out to cook a little brekkie. So it was while we were making some toast an elderly gentleman dressed in working clothes and a little FM radio in the pocket listening to talk radio, bearing 2 big, empty bottles appeared from around the corner and I swear he did a little jump upon seeing this merry sight before him, but, after the surprise he came up to the tap and we exchanged simple greetings, his face lit with a wry little smile the whole time. He proceeded to fill up his bottles then he walked off to his garden, repeating this process several times while we were spread out upon the benches of this very quiet little farming village, cooking and eating.
Once we´d feasted and rolled back down the hill it had become very hot and we turned onto the road into a pretty fierce headwind. It was a bit of a slog the final 30 or 40 km´s to SD. Massive 18 wheelers were rolling by us, often in the opposite direction, and when they passed we were buffeted by the air the rigs were pulling behind them. On the occasion we had one going our way it would give us a little push but damn, they felt too close by as they thundered past.
And so, we made it to SD and found the park recommended to us by Catriona, who was working a summer camp at the school next to the park. Nice spot, just south of town, with picnic tables and fuente´s we stayed 2 nights without any issue, apart from a hedgehog rustling about the first night.
We made another early start on the 6th of July, setting off to meet Ekaitz (from Oñati) and his family, at a campground in Navarra, not far from Los Arcos. We originally planned to follow the Camino itself but within the first few minutes we decided, nah, we´re going to stick to tar today. The walking camino surface was very rough, big pieces of gravel and over steep inclines so very difficult to gain any speed or momentum downhill and pushing up hill. There were also immediately several walkers (peregrinos) and it was also a matter of going through pedestrian traffic…so we opted for tar. The back roads in Spain are so quiet anyway and it turned out to be a great decision.
It quickly became hot but it´s such a beautiful region the riding was a pleasure.
We quickly did the 50km into Logroño and had a lunch in the park. It was baking hot by now so while Kevin went up to Decathalon I siesta´d in the park, in the shade.
After Kevin got back a quick coffee was a brewed and a drunk and we were off once more…into the baking heat. We made it to Los Arcos after a beautiful descent looking at a ring of mountains in front of us. We then turned north, for a 5km climb into a blowing headwind to meet up with Ekaitz…slogged it we did and arriving at the campgrounds we had 99km on our clocks, noice.
Kevin rode round a bit to make his hundred but I couldn´t be arsed and checked in with reception.
Ekaitz the legend immediately took us to the pool and then for some cold beers…and man we were spoilt by this amazing family – they had chistora´s for us (Basque sausage I guess) which was grilled on the braai, with bread of course, gatza (CHEESE!) and other delicious bits.
Slept so well that night.
Up in the morning and we had breakfast with the family and then we packed and Ekaitz rode with us to Estrella/Lizarra…and hell was it a quick 20km! Ekaitz was effectively pulling us at this cracking pace and Kevin and I were pushing to stay in his slipstream, witness the fitness haha. By the 15km mark I was flagging and dropped off a bit with another old fella we´d picked up along the way, he enjoying the free ride behind us 🙂
Rolled into Lizarra, Ekaitz showed us around and then we bid farewell. We made it to a cafe to do some charging and route planning for the next 2 days to take us to Iruña/Pamplona.
First leg that day, Urbasa. Not far to go but a decent climb needed to be tackled, almost a 1000m to the top from Lizarra. Urbasa is a stunning plateau in the Navarra region which is classified as a natural park where we planned to camp the night.
Water bottles full, dinner in the bag, we set off and started the climb up to the top. We came out at the top and stopped at the view point admire the amazing view of the valley we´d just come through. It was a bit cooler up there and we continued northwards as we intended to drop down the northern pass on our way to Iruña the following day. The weather was turning a bit, the clouds were getting lower and the temperature was quickly dropping…think we were both struggling a bit and the cold sapped our energies a bit. We started looking for a wild camp and we struggled…the forest, as beautiful as it was, wasn´t quite right, too open, you had to go deep into the forest so as not to be seen from the road, the ground was pretty rough and it was damp and dark under the trees with cattle roaming through freely.
After scouting a couple of places we eventually found a place in a stand of bushes concealing us nicely. By this time we were in the clouds and it was quite wet and cold. We setup camp and got dinner on quickly. Down the hatch and in bed.
When we woke early the next morning the tents were very wet and we were in even thicker mist. It was very quiet, dark and eery.
We packed up without having breakfast and set off into the cool misty gloom following a rocky gravel path. Boar flitted across the track at one point, a few young ones and a couple of big ones, the first time I´d seen wild boar, I was so thrilled as I´m a fan of Asterix and Obelix and of course in each story they´re feasting on wild boar 🙂 so I´d always wanted to see one in the wild, and here was my dream become reality, in the forest, I just needed some magic potion to chase one down and get him on the spit hehehe.
Also out of the gloom cows appeared suddenly, almost an arm´s length away, they´d stare at us and then walk off into the forest, the bells around their necks clonging loudly in the eerie misty silence.
I didn´t really check how far we had to ride that morning and in the mist it felt quite endless in the cold, wet mist. We eventually came out of the forest and rode along the rim of Urbasa but with the clouds covering it up we didn´t get to see the amazing views that can be had on a clear day. We rode on some more…
We eventually made it to the pass and there we found an open cafe, where it was warm inside, where we had a coffee and a bacon bocadillo (sandwich). It was badly needed.
Then we dropped down the pass, eventually coming out of the clouds about half way down. When we got to the bottom we could see the ridge up at the top as the clouds slowly lifted.
Stopped at a small chapel to rest in the sun, hauling all the wet kit out to dry in the sun. Had a little lunch and a tea while we soaked up the warm sunshine.
Then into Iruña, into San Fermin itself, the entire town´s population appearing to be dressed in the red and white for the famous festival.
Rode on into the centre and the heaven´s opened up and it poured down, cats and dogs like, and we sought shelter in the entrance of an underground car park, along with other revellers and a group of West African ladies who were styling hair while the men were out hawking trinkets. The bands continued to play under the arcades surrounding the town square, the San Fermin festivities not dampened at all, people playing in the rain.
I´d been told that we could sleep in the parks of Iruña and this is what we´d planned to do, leaving our bike´s at Peio´s place (a student of mine from the Mondragon University in Arrasate) so we could explore without worrying about our bikes.
Peio came out to meet us and looking at the pouring rain he invited us to have a shower and stay at his place with his family…we took the offer up.
The rain didn´t stop, the bull fight was cancelled for the day, almost unheard of, and we ended up staying at Peio´s home to share a meal with the family and some other friends. Ridiculously generous people.
Next morning we headed over to the bull ring to see the bull´s run into the ring. Every morning for a week, 6 bulls are led through the streets of Iruña by cows, the famous bull run, which ends at the Bull ring. A firework is set off at 08.00 and the bull are off, charging through the streets. We were in the bull ring when suddenly people started pouring in, running, looking behind them, and then suddenly, a bull burst through, flanked by the cows, then one by one the 5 other bulls ran through and into the pens on the other end. Lots of cheers.
Now the ring was full of people and what happens next is that 6 young bulls are released into the ring, one at a time, and the people in there attempt to run with the young bull and avoid getting hit. I think the trick was to grab a horn and run alongside the bull for a few seconds as it charged, this trick got lots of cheers. Looks like the game is to let the bull run and then run alongside it holding a horn. Any time you hold the bull up, boooooooo. Let him charge!
After the show headed back out into Pamplona and had something to eat and a few beers.
In the afternoon we got our bikes and set off once more. Kevin was eager to ride on so pushed on ahead while I stayed at an albergue just on the city limits.
Next day we met up where I had camped previously with Adrien when I was coming the other way. Again we asked the landowner if we could camp there and he again said no problem. We waited while he cut the grass and the edges then made our way onto the grass and setup camp. Kev dumped some beers he´d bought into the river to keep em cool and I had a quick bath then we had the beers and dinner.
BUT – holy mackarels – the biting midges were out in force. They were of a microscopic size…it felt like you were in a gritty cloud. They were in your eyes, in your clothes, incessant. Then there was biting, whether by them or something else I don´t know, but even covered head to toe they were insane. As soon as dinner was done we were both in the tent behind the netting…it was an early night!
Next morning I was covered in bites and itching. Managed to get breakfast and coffee going in relative comfort before we headed over the border into France.
Arrived at St Jean Pied du Port early and hung out at the tourist office waiting for them to open so we could stamp the old Pilgrim Passports.
Once stamped, Kev and I went our separate ways. Kev wanted to catch the Tour de France down in the Pyrenees and I wanted to continue up northwards towards the Netherlands.
A man hug ensued and we each set off on our own Camino.