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There is a time.

“There is a time for all things, and a season for everything under the sun” Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a face and a place which will always be imprinted on my memory. The place is the vast, flat plain between Burgos and Leon. For the second time I had the feeling of a pathway laid only for me. The N120 was a companion for much of my trip, its kilometre markers counting ever upward from 1 to 320 as I slowly passed by and finally turned off its course at Astorga. This original road had been superseded by a motorway, but instead of widening the existing carriageway, they simply built a whole new road a couple of fields away, leaving me with acres of Tarmac beneath only my wheels.

It could be argued that my paved Camino was a more authentic one. Walkers tramped an unsealed path often adjacent to the road, but it is likely that the original camino (it simply means Way) was built and improved until it became the surface along which I often rolled. At times of heavy traffic, to reach a village or just for a change of scene I would join their Camino. Andromeda, my trusty bike, seemed equally at home on both surfaces.

Yes, this was an empty place, but not one of solitude, as for a glorious 24 hours I had the company of Eyke. (Pronounced Ike. Yes, his sister is called Tina) A jockey, who worked in his home of Bremen, around Germany, and for a time in Newmarket; he possessed the drawn, hollow face of a man for whom food is an occupational hazard and tobacco is a meal replacement. Its lines told tales of pre-dawn waking and a life spent outside in harsh weather. I shared with him the song of the Jolly Plougboys which Kate Rusby had sung at a gig I was at a few weeks before. As a young, pony-obsessed girl the 4am starts it details put her off horses for life. Other creases betrayed a man who smiles easily and frequently. His journey had taken him the length of Germany, across the Alps and from France into Spain by foot and by bicycle. His wander without end required bags and a Croozer trailer, two tents, and quite the largest sleeping-bag I’ve seen. A couple of miles on his bike taught me the lesson of the old woman in Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, that Andromeda was indeed light, fast and nimble, and not at all heavy or slow.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Perhaps because of his racing life he used expletives more frequently and effectively than anyone I know. He railed most at the lack of woodland. “What kind of a country cuts down all the f***ing trees!” We were both puzzled at the “Private Hunting” signs. “COTO PRIVADO DI CAZA” they exclaimed, in a landscape that seemed to support only bare, brown soil and weak, pale grass. Perhaps the red kites and kestrels which soared and hovered above us all day knew differently.

Our sometimes buoyant but often deep conversation, his aptitude for ignoring hunger and the empty villages, closed for business meant that it was 5 o’ clock before we stopped for lunch, and it was then we decided to camp together for the night. We slept soundly and comfortably as tent twins in a narrow strip of ground between a wall and a drainage ditch. The moonless night provided stories that sparkled like the stars. As morning dawned and the sun made stars of every frosty surface we both knew that the time for this relationship

Tent twins

Tent twins

was at a close, and the season for new ones was beginning. Perhaps that very day Eyke was making the decision to finally turn his wheels toward home. A hugged goodbye, a snapped picture and an exchange of addresses proved only the penultimate act of this brief friendship, as our shared ritual of the morning espresso stop saw us meet at the next village! But onward I pressed, to the next encounter…

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Lorenzo of the Mountains.

Descending mountains on a bicycle is as intensely cold an experience as I ever wish to have. To go instantly from maximum exertion and no wind-chill to freewheeling in 40mph winds does not make one toasty warm. No glove yet invented or shoe cover yet produced is enough. No amount of facial hair is protective. (I have plenty now) One time, my glasses iced over. Anyone who does this with only a newspaper shoved up their lycra top has my total respect.

Spartacus being nails

It was in this sorry state that I arrived at Lorenzo’s door, in a tiny village in the shadow of the fearsome Porte Belate. I was welcomed by his wife, who used my pitiful Spanish and her expressive gestures to usher me into the shower and fetch me a beer and pistachios. Now there was a Warmshowers welcome! Logs flickered and embers glowed in both the fire and the stove. The place felt like home instantly. My bicycle found a home in the only vacant corner of a stuffed woodshed. Wet things were hung over the local iteration of the AGA, my shoes stuffed with newspaper and placed beside it. The scene was perfect in winter, but sadly my language skills were not sufficient to ask, “This is all very well for December, but how do you cook and avoid boiling alive in your own home in July?!”

On Lorenzo’s return he set to work preparing the salad to accompany the meal. Not a salad fan at the best of times, let alone after the day’s riding I’d had I watched with suspicion. To my visible relief calorie-rich anchovies and olives went in alongside the leaves. Then began the almost ceremonial dressing. Dark olive oil poured on and on into the bowl, with balsamic vinegar, then a taste. Somehow more oil was needed, along with some cider vinegar for sharpness, and some salt. The resulting salad was the best I’ve ever tasted, and would have made a whole meal even for a starving cyclist. Praise indeed.

Lorenzo’s son was something of a guitarist, and musical instruments littered the house. After my failure to find a way to bring the Martin Backpacker along, and my unsuccessful attempt to learn the ukulele while living out of a one-person tent, I could not resist, and we shared music which crossed cultures and languages all night. At a late hour, Lorenzo and I chatted about my future, and I commented that my delicate musician’s fingers mark me out as using my brain, not my hands, to make a living. He gestured to the guitar and said, ” Maybe you can use your hands to make work. I think it’s better…”

Encouraged and affirmed by an encounter only hours old, I slept soundly. I’d hoped that this trip would allow me to find confidence to face the future, and though I’m not naive enough to think I’ll walk back into England a professional musician, maybe music can be part of what I do next.

At breakfast the next day Lorenzo gave me more local knowledge about a bike path into Pamplona. It turned out to be ace, for most of the way…

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He also bestowed me with a couple of gifts. Turron is a marzipan/fudge hybrid which is a popular Spanish Christmas gift. Though not so popular in Lorenzo’s house cos this stuff was from four Christmases ago and three years out of date. I tried it, but the sugar had leached out and it tasted rank. And I got some dried fruit, which I poured into my porridge the next day. But the raisins had pips in! Deseeding raisins an unexpected addition to my morning ritual then…

Lorenzo of the mountains. Great guy. Amazing salad. Crap presents. Cheers.


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Cold mountains, warm welcomes.

I write, as usual, from an Albergue, the improbably cheap pilgrims’ hostels that line the Camino De Santiago. My ride down from the mountains alongside swollen rivers into Pamplona, then onto the Camino itself has seen the countryside change. Near-vertical sided valleys clad with snow topped pines have given way to my first olive groves and vineyards (yes I did cycle past Bordeaux without seeing one..) planted on gentle, south facing slopes to make the most of the terroir.

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Swollen river, steep sided valley

Gentle slope

Gentle slope

My literal high point so far has been the conquest of the formidable Porte Belate at 854m, dwarfing on the same day my first ascent of note, the Col d’Ibardin which marked my passing from France into Spain. It is comfortably my biggest climb on any bike, let alone one with 20 kilos of detritus strapped to it. My sense of achievement was somewhat soured by the presence of the Belate Tunnel, closed to bicycles of course, which took the rest of the traffic off the high pass. How come if I had an engine I’d shortcut straight through the mountain, but because I’m leg-powered I must switchback up it? Doesn’t seem the right way round to me.

Je suis un grimpeur!

Je suis un grimpeur!

A dog (wolf?!) barked loudly at me about three quarters of the way up. And though my expectations of French dogs was that they might well be fenced in, I had no such expectations of Basque/Spanish Pyrenean ones. Which got me thinking, if one did give chase, what would I do? There’s no way I’d outwalk a dog going uphill, let alone outrun one, which leaves really only a couple of options…
1. Turn round and head downhill to escape. Not happening.
2. Kick it to death with my neoprene booties. No, it would probably think I was trying to tickle it.
Which, in my mind, only left option 3.
3. Be gnawed slowly but mercilessly, until I meet my sorry, bloody end here on the mountain.

The dog was probably miles away, its bark echoing eerily between the peaks. I made it up safely.

The triumph of reaching the summit, seeing the road I’d travelled minutes ago seemingly miles below me, was very real. As real as the mountaineer’s sense that I must get down again soon, lest I risk leaving a finger or two behind to frostbite in the gloomy dusk. It was dark and cold by the time I reached the warm welcome of a log fire and the warmer embrace of my first night in Spain.

My high point of Belate was to be surpassed later in the trip. But it had been overcome already by the hospitality and kindness of friends that were strangers mere days ago. It is these highlights that will remain most alive in my memory, and it is to these people I will dedicate my next few posts.