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The Young Ones?

One of the most memorable encounters of my journey was with Jorge and Alfonso, who responded with generosity to a Couchsurfing request that I made before I set out. When they heard about my stolen gear and passport in Ponferrada, they were the first people on the phone to me. They offered all they had to help me. These two people have shown me more beauty than the great cathedral of their city, the snow-dusted Picos de Europa or all the art in the Guggenheim at Bilbao. This post is dedicated to them.

The Lads in Leon

The Lads in Leon

Jorge met me in the big cathedral square in Leon. I’ve spent a little time since I encountered him waiting in public squares or bars for hosts I don’t know. In Bilbao I sat for maybe half an hour, wondering if the long winter shadow which preceded the next arrival would be that of a generous soul who had offered me shelter that night. Guessing that it wasn’t from the gait, pace and deportage of a shadow was perfect entertainment for a people-watcher. A insistent but unhurried arrival, with openness in the shoulders is a good clue. In Bilbao I had a better one- Pintxa arrived on an unloaded touring bike, commanding the streets with aplomb.

Jorge and I arrived at a fairly central flat, and secreted the bike in the basement. Living arrangements seemed fluid. My arrival rang more changes, as I was to take Jorge’s usual room, and he would take the couch. So perhaps he’s the couchsurfer, then, I joked. Though I couldn’t have been happier to be there, Jorge was full of apologies. The place is small, your room is cold, it’s not so clean, there is no hot water… In fact the modest nature of the place made me more grateful, not less. I loved it, but ‘lived in’ is a euphemism too far. Knowing it was guys sharing a flat, I chose my welcome gift well. As the beers were passed round out of my pannier, everyone seemed to relax.

With flat mate Alfonso acting as translator when needed, Jorge explained his life to me as we sat in the smoky front room on comfy, well-worn sofas. He found what work there was in Spain as an occasional swimming teacher. But his passion was clearly poetry. His gestures were magnified, his narrow facial features animated whenever the subject arose. We talked of my songwriting, and of looking for meaning in the seemingly mundane. I mentioned my poet friend Seamus Kelly’s blog Thinking Too Much, an affliction shared by Jorge and I.

(Though this ride promised so much time for reflection, I found that the bike is a better tool for quieting the mind than opening it. Practical tasks of finding food and shelter, and so many new stimuli from the environment have led me to satisfied slumber at the end of each day, not creative energy. So I’ve not written much since I’ve been out here, though I thought I would.)

Jorge’s Magnum Opus is a work of love for his girlfriend, which comprises a verse of poetry for every kilometre which separates their respective homes in Leon and San Sebastián. I’d ridden each of those kilometres. I felt their distance, and mine, from home. Each short verse paints a deep image, some of hope, of loss, or of love. Love beyond distance, time, or even death. Jorge’s work had inspired an artist friend to create some of the images the poems inspired, and in the true spirit of art for all, fly-posted some around the city. Please, visit the collection here, to see them all.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

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We beat as one.

Alfonso seemed the more brash and streetwise of my two companions that night. He’d lived in Ireland, spoke with easy humour and had an excellent command of English. He walked his big old dog around the streets of Leon as if he owned them. He and Jorge made a good double act. I can’t help thinking that the world Jorge inhabits is a little harsh, given his gentle nature. With Alfonso around though, I think he’ll be ok.

It turned out there were more than two guys sharing the flat, but one was away at his stall in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, at the seemingly famous Christmas market I’d passed through a couple of days previously, selling his artisanal soaps. It’s likely I walked past his stall. I’d been enchanted by the costumes, music and juggling. I was even invited to join the piper with my penny whistle at a gig that night, when he’d exchanged his local pipes in the key of C with Ulilean ones in D to match my whistle. Sadly I had more distance to cover, so I declined.

When I thought back, the itinerant, bohemian occupants, the lack of hot water and the ‘lived in’ feel (I felt I must rise earlier than the residents just to clean the kitchen…) all gave the place the feeling of a squat, and it did feel like I’d stepped into a Spanish version of The Young Ones. But lazy caricature says nothing of the warmth and generosity of these people. In this little place, amongst the spilt tobacco, and in the local bar, I never felt more welcomed, or at home.

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Finding my way.

Despite not wanting to be the sort of tourist that stares inanely at my iPad while pretty churches and grand vistas go unexamined, I’ve found myself staring at the map a few times too many already on this trip. I’m a bit too closely wedded to my carefully plotted path, which joins blue dots on an electronic map. The intense emotional upheaval which accompanies, at least for me, a “route barre”* or a missed turning (too many to count, I’m rubbish at wayfinding…) is perhaps a signal for me to slow down and enjoy the ride.

My route choice has been so far so good, an excellent balance between direct and quiet. It reminds me that this whole trip is a balance between a pure journey, and one with a destination.

The trick to finding seems to be to stick to D roads, but this can be misleading, since some are dual carriageways. I’ve found that the lower the number the better the road for cycling. I’ve spent many happy kilometres on the D1 in the Loire, and the D7 in the Vendee. Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy. Please avoid the D105 into La Rochelle if you can though, the only place in France I’ve felt at risk of being removed from this life by a two-trucked HGV.

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One thing which has struck me is the number of roadside crosses and crucifixes you see, which are sometimes large and ornate. I even passed between an Our Lady Crowned Queen of Heaven gazing helplessly at her crucified Son from across the road. But the one I stopped to photograph was this, a really simple one from just outside Les Brouzils. I expect it flowers in the summer, too. As I was crossing to get the picture, a near-peleton of road cyclists went past, relaxed and chatting, perhaps three abreast, one of many I’ve seen. I wonder if such a group would be tolerated on UK roads? It confirmed for me I’d made a good choice of route and I carried on.

The lure of a warm bed tonight has been overwhelming. I thought I would miss my Couchsurfing host in La Rochelle for one more night, but just by pedalling along I found myself with daylight remaining and a couple of hours to go to my host. One more embarrassing text, to confirm the bed-space I’d postponed hours earlier, and here I am with the gracious Ilaria, and her charming children. I hope to take some time to see the city tomorrow, then it’s back to my little tent, parked unobtrusively at the roadside between dusk and dawn.

*The socialist French seem to be spending their way out of this recession with big capital works. I’ve seen a railway line being electrified, and every village seems to be getting their roads done. I hope it works for them.