Day 1: Bunnik - Den Bosch - Vught - Oisterwijk 88 km |
Less than a year after my first big tour, I am on a bicycle trip once again now. In 1999 I have reached as far south as Catalonia, Northern Spain. This time I will have a little bit more time, money and motivation to travel a little further south. In 1999 I have explored the little backroads of France, this time I have planned to focus on Spain. And this time I will be used to being alone. The first two weeks I will not be alone, however. Menno will accompany me through France. And today we cycle with five friends: Klaartje, Willem, Peter, Olaf and Marco. We are not lucky with the weather. It is raining the whole day. Ten kilometre after Vught everyone has quit the wet journey. Menno and I go on alone to quit a little further in Oisterwijk.
Day 2: Oisterwijk - Olmen (Belgium) - Sint Truiden 103 km
The sky is a dull shade of 990000, but at least it is not raining now. The road cuts through the woods of Kempen. A dispassionate, straight line. Right to an unknown target, without detours. A straight line through the endless forest without beginning and without end.
If we are out of the woods, it starts to rain again. It is raining less hard than yesterday but the wind from the south has increased. I am not very talkative today. It is not exactly the most scintillating day of my life yet.
We end up in the hostel of St Truiden. We are the only guests. After hanging our wet clothes and tent on a long clothesline, we walk to the market, the social heart of the trading town. No man out there. I notice that quite dark clouds are moving in. Menno affirms that it is a special sight that it is this dark but that it is not raining. Slowly we begin to realize that we have to hurry back to the youth hostel if we wish to avoid any more wet clothes. We have started to run back too late. Shivering we sit in our wet clothes in the hostel. Our survival instinct is not sharp as a knife yet.
Day 3: Sint Truiden - Namur - Onhaye - Givet (France) 120 km
"Lost?" Menno has been waiting for me and frees me from my lonely thoughts. "A real geographer, eh?" I reply, "A real Geographer can get lost on a straight road." Menno will accompany me the first days. Then I will go further alone. Me and my bike. Without purpose , without goal. I wonder where this trip will bring me.
The landscape between the Meuse and Sint Truiden is hillier than I expected. The first climbs are emerging. On the slopes is small millet and wheat cultivation. We descend into the valley of the Meuse; we follow the river upstream. On either side of the Meuse River are the famous Meuse Rocks, which attract many climbers on days when the weather is better than today. We cross the French border near Givet and reach a camping.
Day 4: Givet - Hargnies - Monthermé - Aiglemont - Sédan - Boutoncourt - Le Chesne 100 km
The rain is ticking on our tent as we get up. We pack our luggage in a hurry before everything gets wet. It is raining harder and harder. We find shelter under the bridge over the Meuse in Givet. Silently we eat our breakfast. What shall we do? Cycling another day through cold rain showers is not a pleasant option. On the other hand: we are wet already.
After the breakfast under the bridge we find ourselves back again on our saddles . We are already wet, so we might just as well continue the bike trip. We climb up from the Meuse Valley to the undulating plateau of the Ardennes. We come in a thick forest with a layer consisting of a dense network of bright green ferns. Deciduous Trees alternate with conifers. Silently we move on through the lonesome landscape of the Ardennes. Uphill, downhill. There is only the rhythm of the rain and the climbs and the descents. Menno also retreats into his own world. We continue without saying anything. We are all alone with the trees and the birds. The only sound is the sound of raindrops splashing on the plastic rainwear. The forest seems to thrive well under the steady flow of raindrops falling from the sky. It breathes in, takes in the elixir of life, breathes out. The forest seems reborn, clean and full of new vitality. The pine trees leave a deep intense smell. A fragrance that refreshes and energizes. I am in an increasingly deepening trance. I feel the restless mind of the last day slowly dissolve into a powerful flow. No way, no guiding insights, only a feeling of comfort. If the trance increasingly takes hold of me, we suddenly find ourselves on the edge of the Ardennes plateau. Far below we see the place where the Semois and Meuse gather and become one. The rivers have sculpted large meander arcs in the landscape. Even the millions of years old rock layers are eventually dissolved in the water of the Meuse.
The Meuse between Sédan and Charleville-Mézieres is not very attractive. Where we have just cycled through a landscape of pine trees and ferns, now we move through a large, abandoned industrial landscape of concrete and asphalt. kilometres of industrial wasteland. In Flize we finally leave the 990000 industrial landscape. Just outside the town small wooden houses are built along the river. The houses rise steeply from the water, which reminds me of the ghats of Varanasi in India, where Hindus burn the dead and give them back to the holy river Ganges. The river as a metaphor for human life or maybe even a series of lives. The past four days we have crossed the river Meuse seven times. Once as a mature river near Den Bosch, heading towards its end. We have seen the Meuse searching the space between the Meuse Rocks in Belgium. The meandering Meuse at Givet, where we had breakfast under the bridge of the motorway. The Meuse who has blazed a path through the rocks of the Ardennes. The Meuse at Charleville-Mézieres, surrounded by industry. ANd the Meuse at Flize with its wooden "ghats".
Day 5: Le Chesne - Vouziers - Binarville - Revigny sur Ornain - Bar le Duc 146 km
Packing our bicycles in the rain is becoming a routine now. Within fifteen minutes we are on our bicycle, struggling against a southwestern storm. Cold arrows of rain hit our faces. After twenty kilometre we reach Vouziers where we find shelter in a cafe. We have to wait for better times to carry on. After two hours it is better. It is dry now at least. We take off once again after the false start this morning. This proves to be another wet affair. After ten minutes we have to flee for another rain shower. We are nearly freezing under the roof of a petrol station. As the rain is calming down, we start off for the third time.
We are riding through the lovely hill landscape of the Champagne. Sometimes it is raining, sometimes it is dry. We follow the course of the Aisne, reach the forests of Argonne. The weather is surely improving now. As the evening falls, the sun is shining carefully. We profit of this sudden change in our favour. Through the lovely Saulx Valley we ride, cross another hill ridge and end up in the nice renaissance town of Bar-Le-Duc.
Day 6: Bar le Duc - Sommancourt - Valleret - Bar sur Aube 95 km
We leave Bar-Le-Duc in clear blue skies. Through the hills of the Champagne we are riding into the sun. South we go! For the first time we have nice temperatures. As the hours pass, the air feels more and more humid. It feels like monsoon. We are not in Thailand but in Northern France however. As I look up, I see that the sky above has turned into a dark grey soup. Southwest of us, the sky is as black as ink, rolling with an immense speed over the hills of the Champagne towards us. We have reached the camping of Bar sur Aube just in time before a tremendous hail storm breaks loose.
Day 7: Bar sur Aube - Bagneux la Fosse - Beauvoir sur Arce - Channes 71 km
In a dark brown cafe in Bar sur Aube, I am sipping my last cup of coffee as the last remnants of the cold front are chasing over. It is half clouded but there is a stormy southwestern wind again. Menno has some problems with one knee. Things are not turning in our favour. We quit early in the afternoon and stay in a gîte d'étape. We deserve a little rest and hang our tent, clothes and sleeping bags to dry.
Day 8: Channes - Arthonnay - Ancy le Franc - Noyers - Epoisses 77 km
Water, water, everywhere is water. With five kilometre per hour we struggle against the gigantic storm. The rain chases horizontally through the air, taking our breath away. I cannot look forward, I can only look down. Why on Earth are we doing this? Yesterday we decided to leave early, but why as the weather is this awful? It takes nearly two hours to reach a cafe.
While we sit down in the cafe, dry and warm, we hear the wind raging outside. It seems that our decision to leave had more implications. Mennos knee has deteriorated badly. Menno has not mentioned giving up but I know he is seriously thinking it over now.
After two hours, the weather has improved significantly. The rain is over now. The sky is still grey but the wind has slowed down a little. It is at least possible to go on now. Slowly we progress against the fierce wind and we reach the beautiful village of Noyers around noon. Menno has crossed the Rubicon. He will break off the journey. It has no use to go on he says. He does not want to risk lasting knee problems again.
Strangely, having made this difficult decision must have felt like a liberation. Menno is in a triumphant mood at once, maybe because he now has the opportunity to meet with his girlfriend Klaartje in the house of Klaartjes parents in nearby Morvan.
Day 9: Epoisses - Avallon 35 km
It is good weather finally. Today we will not profit too much because we will not go further than nearby Avallon, where Menno will meet Klaartje. Tomorrow I will try to cross the hills of the Morvan to reach Menno and Klaartje once again in the house of Klaartjes parents. We reach the nice mediaevil town of Avallon around noon and spend the afternoon well, exploring the town and doing a bit of rock climbing along the river near the camping.
Day 10: Avallon - Vézélay - Lormes - Château Chinon - Villapourçon 106 km
So now I will try to reach the house of Klaartjes parents in Villapourçon today. Despite the heavy rain, Menno wants to cycle the first ten kilometres to the mediaevil village of Vézélay. Vézélay is one of the starting points of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. We cycle slowly over the cobbled street up to the cathedral. There is nobody to be seen on the streets. The cathedral is opened, though. I am touched by the serene atmosphere of the village. Menno and I say goodbye. From now on I will be alone. Hopefully I will be able to reach Villapourçon today. Unless the cold, wet and gloomy weather, I have picked up a kind of angelic feel in Vézélay. The landscape seems to breathe a rich spiritual past and the rain seems to have an odour of incense. Everything seems to have some unknown purpose and direction. In the long and winding road up the first hill range of the Morvan I see two cyclists before me. After a few minutes I reach them.
They are on the way to Santiago. They will try to reach Nevers, an important halting place on the way to Compostela. As we reach the top of the hill, the two pilgrims take the right way to Compostela. I take the left way to Lormes.
There are road constructions just before Lormes. In the confusing circumstances I take the wrong way and after a long descent I find out that I have gone down all the way from the massif of the Morvan to the flat lands around. I have to cycle back again to Lormes, another hour upward, only to descend on the other side of the village and to begin another long ascent. Because of all the climbing I am completely warmed up but on the same time my skin is cold because of the rain. My body is thermally unstable; as I am eating some chocolate under the roof of a bus stop, I see that I have an aura of steam around me.
I am having a long rest in Château Chinon. There is only one more ascent on the programme. After reaching the summit, I only have to go down to Villapourçon. As I reach the village of Villapourçon, it is finally dry. It is good to meet Menno and Klaartje.
Day 11: Villapourçon - Sanglier - Luzy - Toulon sur Arroux - Anzy le Duc - Marcigny - Chambilly 114 km
It is raining once again as I am descending the Morvan. After heartily saying farewell to Menno and Klaartje, I have to face the elements again. This time not for long however. After two hours it is dry and after another hour the sun breaks through. A quiet day of cycling through the rolling hills of Burgundy brings me at the meadows of a farmer where I can have a campsite.
Day 12: Chambilly - Ambierle - Col de la Rivière Noire - Col de la Planade - St Rémy sur Durolle 95 km
A feeling of excitement goes through my veins as I am cycling closer and closer to the first hill range of the Massif Central. A 1.000 meter climbing brings me up to the mediaevil town of Ambierle and further up to the Col de la Rivière Noire. The landscape is intensely green. It must rain a lot here and after the last two weeks that must not be a surprise. Today is a very sunny day however. For the first time I reach a camping with tourists in St Rémy sur Durolle.
Day 13: St Rémy sur Durolle - Thiers - Sallèdes - Vic le Comte - Champeix - St Flore - Col de la Chaumoune - Condat 138 km
Today feels like poetry. First I reach the nearly vertical city of Thiers, perched against the cliffs of the Durolle. Thiers seems to have grown organically out of the green and fertile earth. Then, after a short climb, I am on a river terrace, a few hundred meter above the wide valleys of the Dore on the one hand and the Allier on the other hand. The weathered landscape of the Auvergne is magnificent. As I reach the Allier valley and leave the valley for the long climb up to the Col de la Chaumoune, I meet a Dutch couple. I sit two hours with them along the mountain stream, cheerfully chatting and joking together. then I go on again, I reach the Col de la Chaumoune early in the evening and descend to Condat, where I find a camping for tonight.
Day 14: Condat - Riom es Montagnes - Puy Mary - Salers 68 km
"Beaujolais?", The waiter asks teasingly. "Après le vélo," I reply in broken French. It is not my habit to consume alcoholic drinks before 11 o'clock in the morning. Everyone at the bar is involved in my doubt if I should cross the Cantal at its highest over the Puy Mary or whether I should follow the Dordogne, which is a much quicker and easier way. The waiter, a drunken young man and an old man with twinkling eyes, all agree that The Dordogne region is an overrated tourist trap and the Puy Mary a miracle of God's natural beauty. If I question why millions of people spend several weeks in the Dordogne and not the slopes of the Puy Mary, I only meet pitying glances. I will have to find the answer to the question myself.
The landscape of the Cantal breathes the atmosphere of a symphony of a Brückner. Wild flower meadows provide an idyllic secondary theme to the massive volcanic peak which soar majestically above the old, weathered landscape. The Puy Mary is the highest point of the impressive volcanic complex. The mountain ha the appearance of a supreme high alpine landscape because of the abundance of numerous large snowfields so early in the season. The way to the Puy Mary is an absolute highlight, more impressive than most high passes in the Alps. Where in the climb in the Alps can you find a serene atmosphere like this?
The climb to the pass is long but only the last eight kilometres are steep. At three kilometres before the pass I reach a crater rim. The road leads to the crater rim and goes further up steeply one more kilometre, then I stand on the pass. A long descent, only interrupted by a short climb, brings me to the Templar town of Salers. The houses are made of dark 990000 lava rock. The original facades and bell towers and give the Renaissance town a fairytale atmosphere. I am happy that I am not here in the high season. I do not want to know what impact the crowds couls make on the fairytale atmosphere.
Day 15: Salers - St Julien aux Bois - Bretenoux - Carennac - Rocamadour 120 km
After Salers, there is forty kilometre downward and flat terrain before I reach the Dordogne region. Now it is only up and down through lush, green landscapes. The weather is as hot and humid as possible without brewing a thunder storm. At the end of the day that is what I get eventually. I reach the camping of Rocamadour just in time before hell breaks loose.
Day 16: Rocamadour - Luzech - St Maurin - Valence d'Agen 142 km
In Rocamadour I have kept up with the St Jacques route to Compostela again. Rocamadour is perched against a cliff. The city has three levels. Above the cliff is a 12th century old church. The second level has lots of chapels and is actually built against the cliff. The third level is the actual mediaevil town.
It is raining again. Not too hard, but this is the kind of bad weather that will stick around for a long time. There is not too much to be seen in the hills south of Rocamadour. Around noon I have reached the River Lot in Luzech. Strange enough all the shops and restaurants are closed. I have no water and food any more so hopefully I will find a restaurant soon.
I have bad luck. There is nothing on the way in the hills between the River Lot and the River Garonne. This time I am happy that it is raining. Despite the rain, the thirst is growing steadily. Sixty hungry and thirsty kilometres further, I reach St Maurin. I have not drunk for five hours and I have not eaten for eight hours but now I can finally buy water and something to eat.
Ten kilometres further is a camping. It is the ugliest one I have ever seen. In the middle of an industrial area, under the smoke of a nuclear energy complex and in the rainy, grey weather, this is the worst place I have ever stayed. I eat a takeaway pizza in the desolated town. The only noises are the sound of rain and the sound of an alarm that is already going on for an hour as I return after my dinner.
Day 17: Valence d'Agen - Lavardens - Mirande - Tarbes - Lourdes 180 km
As I awake, I feel the urge to leave as soon as possible and to cycle as far as I can go from this unfriendly, industrial place. The whole day I go on and on. The last few hours I see the mountains of the Pyrenees ahead. The sight encourages me to go on untill I reach Lourdes. Here I find a small camping in the middle of the town. A woman tells me that she once had walked from her house all the way to Compostela. She is very enthusiastic; she urges me to ask for the credencial and to follow the caravan of pilgrims to Santiago. I ask myself if that is possible for cyclists also, but she is sure.
In the evening I go to the cave where St Bernadette was said to have seen Maria hundred years ago. Nowadays there are thousands of sick and injured people per day who are coming to the cave to taste the healing waters. And there are thousands of people who help them. This place is full of love and faith but also of hopelessness and fear. I do not know what to think. I have to rejudge on what pillars humanity should be built upon. That is my spiritual homework for the coming days.
Day 18: Lourdes - Bielle - Laruns - Col du Pourtalet - Sabiñanigo (Spain)-Jaca 149 km
After a long sleep and after drinking coffee with nearly all the camping guests, I am finally on my way around noon. Along the foothills of the Pyrenees I go westward And after some uphill and downhill cycling I reach Bielle. From here I go southward and reach Laruns at nearly 4 o'clock. Here is the beginning of the ascent to the Col du Pourtalet and the Spanish border. It is too late to start climbing today, especially because it is very cloudy and there is a heavy southwind. But then a cyclist, coming from Spain, tells me that the weather in Spain is excellent. After a little thought I decide to start climbing today whatsoever. And indeed, after ten kilometres there is not a cloud to be seen.
The col du Pourtalet is not a difficult ascent. It has a percentage of 5 to 7 all the time. Eventually, I reach the pass and the Spanish border at seven o'clock. An eagle is flying above my head. It is beautiful to see the sun going down, being high in the mountains. I enjoy the idea of exploring new territory in Spain. I nearly cannot wait and let myself roll down into the promised land, into new worlds.
Day 19: Jaca - Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña - Javier - Sanguësa 100 km
So things are finally going my way. I am in Spain, suddenly. Despite the early morning hour, the temperature is pleasant. A magnificent blue sky does not give chance to clouds. After nearly three weeks of stormy weather it feels estranging that there is no wind at all in the streets of Jaca. I am hanging around the Cathedral for two hours, just to see the people passing by. Half of the passengers are locals, the others are pilgrims for Santiago. The pilgrims are full of stories about physical endurance, injuries, loneliness, spirituality, will power, faith, love and hope. A young girl thinks of giving up. An old man tells that he has slept on a churchyard because there were no normal facilities anymore. A special experience is meeting an old man who has a tremendous charisma; the man is constantly radiating from a seemingly enormous reservoir of stimulating energy. If it is actually possible to reach enlightenment in the way Buddhists describe, then this man must have reached that stage.
I have made my mind up. I am determined to go to Santiago too, more than thousand kilometres to the west.
But my first goal is much closer. Six hundred meter above the valley lies the Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña under an overhanging rock. A small paved road is leading up the monastery. I am sweating all over during the climb. I am not used to these temperatures any more. But it is great to cycle in a shirt, finally. As I reach the monastery, there are pilgrims, again. It seems like there are as much pilgrims as there are stones. I am welcomed heartily by two cyclists. They have come from Santiago and do the Camino in the "wrong" direction. They say it is hard labour to visit the beautiful monasteries. They are always far above the valleys, so that you always have to climb a lot.
After visiting the monastery I descend to the main road and go on to the west. All the time I have beautiful views of the Pyrenees on my right hand. Through long wide valleys I go, once in a while passing a lonely mountain range. There is quite some wind now and for the first time I have wind in the back. I fly across the plains. Without any effort I cycle a hundred kilometres before I stop in the camping of Sanguësa.
Day 20: Sanguësa - Lumbier - Pamplona 63 km
I have breakfast with very friendly German cyclists who make a tour around the Pyrenees. Again I have wind in my back during cycling, but this time the wind is frighteningly strong. I decide to stop in Pamplona. I do not trust the weather. After asking the Credencial in Pamplona I am an officially registered pilgrim. With the Credencial it is possible to sleep in the alberguos for the pilgrims. Tonight I sleep in the camping of Pamplona however. A very unwise decision because the expected bad weather is even worse than I expected. A storm is raging so hard that I am afraid that my tent will blow away. Even as I am sleeping inside the tent, I have the feeling that me and my tent could take off any second.
Day 21: Pamplona - Puente La Reina 46 km
The whole night the storm keeps me awake. As soon as the night is over, I pack my bicycle, happy that my tent has survived the night. And happy too that I myself have survived. The few other guests on the camping do the same, all looking awfully tired after a frightening night. It is still storming, although the wind velocities seem to decrease a little. It is raining still and it is at least twentyfive degrees colder than yesterday before the storm. Now that I have packed my luggage, I have to go because there is no shelter on the camping for these horizontal rains. I pass through Pamplona again. Through small valleys I head for Puente la Reina. Luckily the storm is weakening. As I reach Puente la Reina, the weather has improved significantly. I have done enough for today whatsoever. I take my first alberguo credit.
Day 22: Puente La Reina - Lizarra - Los Arcos - Logroño - Nájèra - Azofra 114 km
I am leaving early but the walkers are even earlier. There is lots of cheering and shouting when cyclists pass walkers. The walkers have often shared the same experiences; most of the walkers do twenty to twenty-five kilometres per day and sleep in the same alberguos.
Today I share experiences with a Belgian group of cyclists. With this group of veterans I reach Logroño, the capital of the Rioja. We go on for Nájèra where we meet André, another Belgian veteran, who I met before in Pamplona and Lizarra. The alberguo has not enough room for all of us any more. André and I decide to go on. In the nice village of Azofra we can stay. We have dinner in a fine restaurant and meet some interesting people in the alberguo. One woman writes beautiful poems, another one makes beautiful Tibetan Mandala paintings. A Brazilian girl can barely walk after two days camino but she can still swing the samba. A czech woman tells me that everything is love and that you should not have any thoughts. Only then you can communicate truly with the animals, the flowers, the rivers and the light beings...
Day 23: Azofra - Monasterio de Yuso & Suso - Santo Domingo de la Calzada 57 km
Today I want to visit the Monasterio de Yuso and the Monasterio de Suso, two monasteries in the mountains of the Sierra de la Demanda. This sidetrip off the main road will provide some extra climbing, but that is no problem.
The landscape of the Sierra de la Demanda is lovely green; there are dense woods on the hills and grasslands in the valleys. The Monasterio de Yuso lies in the Cardenas valley and has a natural grace. The quirky pink-red monastery is built in an elegant renaissance style but does not look like any other building that I know about in fact. The Monasterio de Suso is much older and dates back to the tenth century. The serene Suso monastery looks more like a Tibetan Monastery than like a Christian but has in fact Moorish influences. After exploring some of the dirt tracks in the mountains, I return to the main road. I end up in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
Day 24: Santo Domingo de la Calzada - Ezcaray - Fresnedal - Burgos 99 km
Today I want to go off the beaten track once more. Another day I spend in the Sierra de la Demanda by taking the road to Ezcaray, a nice village. From Ezcaray an obscure backroad leads over the Sierra de la Demanda. The mountains are veiled in mysterious mist clouds as I reach the pass. The pass is the frontier between the Rioja region and Castilla. The Castilla villages look decidely poorer than their Rioja counterparts but have a certain quality of their own. The landscape is much wider than in the Rioja. Every kilometre that I ride further to the west, the landcape becomes drier. Then I am on the Meseta again, the dry and barren highlands which form the core of (Central) Spain. After a whole day on obscure backroads it is nice to ride into the flamboyant city of Burgos and it is double party as I meet again with André. We have one more dinner together in downtown Burgos.
Day 25: Burgos - Mansilla - Humada - Aguilar de Campoó 100 km
I leave the pilgrim route for a while for a detour around the Picos de Europa. I have to cross more than a hundred kilometre Meseta before I will reach the mountains. It is the first really hot day. The high temperature is not a problem because the air is very dry. The Meseta landscape is not dull at all. The plains seem endless but there are small rivers that lie hundred meter deep, so once in a while I have a short descent and a fair decent climb. Even more surprising are the table mountains near Humada. The landscape could well be used as a background for a western movie. In Aguilar de Campoó I find a camping, not too far from the Picos any more.
Day 26: Aguilar de Campoó - Piedrasluengas - Col de Piedrasluengas - Potes 95 km
Nice riding through green hill landscapes brings me higher and higher. After a few hours up and down and up again I reach the Col de Piedrasluengas. On the Col are grand views of the limestone cliffs of the Picos de Europa. From here I have a descent of more than thirty kilometre and more than 1.000 altitude meters to Potes. I seem to descend into an oven. The Cantabria region is statistically much colder than the rest of Spain but not today. It is thirty seven degrees and quite humid. I am even sweating while descending. At the end of the day I reach Potes in the middle of the Picos de Europa, where I find a small camping.
Day 27: Potes - Pto. de San Glorio - Riaño - Cistierna - Melianzos - Valdefuente - León 156 km
In 24 kilometre the road goes up to the 1.609 meter high Puerto de San Glorio. The weather is beautiful so that I have superb views on the limestone cliffs of the Picos de Europa once again. When I reach the pass, I reach a different world. I am in dry and deserted Castilla again. Because of the strong wind I do not profit from the descent. When I reach Riaño, it is still early in the afternoon, though. In the tourist information office I hear that the camping of Riaño is still closed, maybe the camping of Cistierna is opened.
In Cistierna I cannot find the camping. Only after lots of help from local people I find the camping after an hour, only to find it closed. What to do now? I decide to try to reach León before it gets dark. That is still sixty flat kilometres from here. The road along the Rio Esla is not too interesting. Despite the wind I make good progress. I pass an interesting village of adobe houses before I reach the National Road to León. The last kilometres I ride in the dirty smoke of trucks, a complete contrast with the small local roads. As I reach León at half past six, it is still 37 degrees. I am on the main route from the Camino to Santiago once again. I can sleep in the alberguo from the nunnery, right in the center of the city.
Day 28: León - Hospital de Orbigo - Astorga 90 km
I start the day with sighseeing in the old center. The cathedral is bathing in the golden morning light. I am impressed by the stained glass windows. Not only the gothic cathedral, also the humble, atmospheric Basilica de San isidoro is a stunning monument in the friendly city of León. Less friendly is the National road between León and Astorga with lots of heavy traffic, glass on the road and polluted air. In Hospital de Orbigo it is possible to leave the busy road for a while. I am sitting in the alberguo which is run by a Dutch man and a Venezolan woman. While I am there, an 86 year old woman on Meindl shoes walks into the room. She has walked from her home in Germany to here. She must be very fit for her age as she does not show any signs of fatigue. She cannot stand the heat, that is the only reason why she stops quite early. On the other hand, she begins at six o'clock every day, she tells, so she must have been walking for four to five hours.
I ride the last fifteen kilometre to Astorga, where I take a lunch break. As I visit the cathedral, I meet an old friend: it is André again! As I want to take a picture of our meeting, I realize that I have forgotten my camera in Hospital de Orbigo. I have to cycle between the broken glass over the National Road back and forth again. When I return again in Astorga, it is dinner time. André has lots to tell as he reflects about his working life, his family life, a peace that he has found during the last years. He wants to do the Camino now, while he is 64 years old. He tells that maybe he cannot permit to wait another year.
Day 29: Astorga - Puerto de Cruz de Fer - Molinaseca - Ponferrada - Villafranca del Bierzo - O Cebreiro 116 km
From Astorga a small road winds up the Montes de León. It is perfect sunny, windless weather. The temperature is not too high yet. The higher parts of the Montes de León are quite flat. The treeless plains are in full blossom. The whole world is coloured purple. I meet André another time. Together we descend to the nice village Molinaseca. In Ponferrada we say farewell. André does not want to slow me down. That is not a problem with me, but I cannot change his view and in the end I have to respect his choice. The last ascent of the day brings me in the most western region of Spain: Galicia. In the age-old village of O Cebreiro I finish. The village has nice views back from where I came from but also across Galicia on the other hand of the pass. The village itself has nice Asterix-style houses and an Asterix-style church from the 9th Century.
Day 30: O Cebreiro - Triacastela - Samos - Sarria - Portomarín - Palas de Rei - Melide 112 km
The hilly landscape is very green compared with the desertlike landscapes of Castilla. The villages are silent and introverted compared with the lively, cheerful atmosphere of the rest of Spain. A grey mist is hanging over the land so that it is even more silent here. There are a lot of short but steep ascents in the Galician part of the Camino. But Santiago is defintively not too far any more. As I reach Melide, Santiago is only fifty kilometre far, fifty comparitively flat kilometres. There is place for me in the alberguo. Only a short morning ride divides me from Santiago...
Day 31: Melide - Santiago de Compostela 50 km
Only four kilometres to go. On my righthand I see a big hotel with a big pink neon "love" sign. A girl in a short skirt asks if I want some lovin'. I guess that this is not the kind of love that brought me to Santiago. Now it is only one curve before I am on the top of the last hill. I turn to the right, only hundred meter and I will be able to see Santiago below. I see four cyclists coming in my direction from Santiago... As I look better, I recognize the four veterans from the Rioja! They have reached Santiago, they shout... no time... have to hurry to catch the airplane back to Belgium. And then they are out of sight. I am looking forward again and there it is, below... Santiago... I let myself go down. Within a minute I am down in Santiago, ride into the old city. I start walking. It is too crowded to cycle now. I feel being part of the age-old stream of pilgrims. I am on the Pórtico de Gloria now, the road twists and turns, one last turn and there it is right before me: the cathedral. The cathedral with the bones of St Jacques.
Day 32: Santiago de Compostela - Negreira - Corneira - Corcubión - Cabo Finisterra 102 km
It is 11 o'clock as I leave Santiago in grey, misty weather. When I am outside Santiago, I am in silent and introverted Galicia once again. The region west of Santiago is even more desolate. The landscape is desolate and so are the villages. Nobody seems to say anything. On the Camino I am used to greet every passenger and every passenger says hello to me. In the villages of Galicia my greetings seem to dissolve into the air. The landscape becomes more and more deserted. The villages are not pleasant. The houses are built out of dark grey stones. The churches have a sort of Roman style, very basic and in the same dark grey colour, sombre as well as atmospheric. A strange mystic hangs in the air. The roads become more and more obscure. Every sound is damped in the thick grey mists that hang over the hills and the valleys. Sometimes I get dogs running after me, barking out loud and showing their teeth. They do not seem to like strangers too much here.
After a few hours I finally reach the Atlantic Ocean. In Céa I find a bakery where I can buy something to eat at last. I am happy that the girl from the bakery is sweet and laughing. That feels as a relief after the desolate moors I have crossed. It is not too far to Cape Finisterra anymore. I reach the end of the world where I find another alberguo.
Lots of pilgrims make an additional tour to Cape Finisterra after reaching Santiago.There are a few guests in the alberguo. An exceptionally good walker from Barcelona, who has walked fifty to sixty kilometre every day, a Danish girl who had once walked to the Mount Kailash in Tibet and Machu Picchu in Peru, a sweet, loving Austrian girl and a heartily Brazilian guy. All in all, enough for an outstanding evening.
Day 33: Cabo Finisterra - Corcubión - Carnota - Muros - Noía - Padrón 120 km
I have made up my mind. I will travel further to the south of Spain. I say farewell to the guests of the alberguo and I am on my way. After three grey days, today is perfectly sunny again. Along the Atlantic coast is a small, winding road that brings me through old fishermen villages and along rocky cliffs. It is great cycling country here. It is lots of up and down and not as easy country as I expected. In the end of the day I have a serious hill range to cross. I end up in the small town of Padrón.
Day 34: Padrón - A Estrada - Soutelo - Orense 117 km
Quite a tough day with lots of wind and lots of climbing brings me in Orense. An unfriendly atmosphere is hanging over the town. I do not feel welcome here. I am going to bed early, hope to leave this place soon.
Day 35: Orense - Celanova - Trasmiras - Verín - Chaves (Portugal) 128 km
I am leaving Orense as soon as I can. A big road is leading out of the city. I feel relieved as I reach Celanova, a small, friendly town between the hills. There is a special moment when I see the wide river valley of the Rio Támega a few hundred meter below. From the river valley it is not too far to the Portugese border any more. I find a camping outside the nice town Chaves.
Day 36: Chaves - Rebordelo - Vinhaís - Bragança 115 km
Trás Os Montes is a beautiful, yet very poor, region. The road from Chaves to Bragança is leading through mountain terrain. On the steep flanks of small river valleys are terraces. Villages are often situated far above the valley. Sometimes the road goes through a narrow valley, sometimes the road follows a ridge hundred meters above the valleys. There is not too much life in the villages. As I step inside a cafe in on of the villages, I finally see where the village life takes place. A crowd of men - there is not a single woman in the cafe - looks in bewilderment. Have they never seen a foreigner in these surroundings? When I ask something to eat in Spanish, the people are relieved. Oh, he is Spanish, they whisper to each other. The gorgeous views on the route to Bragança are even better when I reach the Parque Natural de Montesinho where the mountains are a little bit higher. There is the deep odour of mimosa everywhere. Only therefore this region is worth the detour. It takes a long time to reach Bragança. I am quite tired when I reach the friendly camping.
Day 37: Bragança - Milhão - Vimioso - Miranda do Douro 108 km
Today is again leading through the mountains of Trás Os Montes. As I ride in a southward direction, the landscape becomes drier. The higher areas between the rivers become wider; the few villages all lie on the flat areas above the river valleys. Life in the villages looks more traditional than I was used to see in Spain. Lots of donkeys and mules are still used for transport. It seems like there are only widows in black clothes in the villages. I hardly see any men on the deserted streets. Maybe the absence of life is caused by the heat. It is hot and humid. The sky is grey but I can see (and feel!) the sun still shining through. I am tired again as I reach the camping of Miranda do Douro. In the beautiful city with the white houses I can see Spain on the other side of the Douro River, one of the most important rivers of the Iberian peninsula.
Day 38: Miranda do Douro - Almeida (Spain) - Ledesma - Salamanca 98 km
The Douro River has cut a deep gorge in the landscape. The one highlight of today is climbing from the Douro River up to the Spanish Meseta. Ninety nearly flat kilometres bring me in the beautiful old city of Salamanca. I have the whole afternoon and evening to explore the city, but it is too hot to fully enjoy. In the evening the city comes to life and the temperature makes it possible to see more than air-conditioned terraces.
Day 39: Salamanca - Las Veguillas - Linares de Riofrio - Béjar - Candelario 112 km
It is the second half of July now and I am heading straight southward. I have to get up very early from now on to benefit from the relatively cool morning temperatures. After twelve o'clock the temperatures do not drop significantly untill the sun is down. Over the flat Meseta I am riding in a straight line to the Sierra de la Peña de Francia which I want to cross today. After fifty kilometre the road starts to wind up. It only takes fifteen minutes before I see that I have already reached the pass.
How could that be so easy? I do not understand. I go down and only now I am beginning to understand. The descent to the Alagón River takes me nearly half an hour. On the other side of the river the road starts winding up. I have to climb all the lost altitude meters back and even more. The plateau on the south side of the river is much higher than where I came from. I have a hard job to do in the heat of the day. It takes a long time to reach the nice city of Béjar. The city lies on top of a huge rock cliff. I take a few hours rest to enjoy the place. In the early evening I climb to the camping of Candelario, one of the prettiest villages of Spain with whitewashed houses in the middle of a beautiful mountain landscape.
Day 40: Candelario - El Barco de Avila - Parador de Gredos - Mombeltrán 111 km
There are a few mountain ranges in Central Spain. Today I will pass two of them: The Sierra de Candelario and the Sierra de Gredos. The Sierra de Candelario does not cost too many sweat. In fact the road is circumventing the mountains instead of climbing to a pass. My route across Sierra de Gredos is not too difficult either. The first pass is reached only after fifty kilometre upward but is not steep, the second is a little steeper but only a few kilometres long. So I am much earlier on the other side of the mountains than expected. Because the southside of The Sierra de Gredos has spectacular rock cliffs, I do not ride further than Mombeltrán to enjoy the mountains a bit longer. The next days will be flat...
Day 41: Mombeltrán - Talavera de la Reina - Cebolla - Toledo 132 km
After an easy, flat morning ride, the afternoon programme offers quite the same. the only difference is that the sun has warmed Mother Earth significantly in the meanwhile. The plains around me are completely yellow and brown. Only a lonesome olive tree once in a while breaks the monotony of the landscape. This is the ultimate meditation on nothingness. At home I never succeed in breaking off the constant stream of thoughts but in the heat of the Valley of the Tajo River I have difficulty to form a single coherent thought. The sun is burning mercilessly and fills my whole world. There is nothing but the heat now. Although I have reached a mental state that has cut me loose from my ego and my thoughts, I do not feel like an enlightened Buddha or Franciscus of Assisi. On the other hand I am not dissatisfied with my emptiness. Suddenly I have the physical sensation to be cooking in an oven. Before me I see jagged towers, churches and walled fortresses against the background of the deep blue sky. I am seeing fata morganas now. A minute later I am seeing the mediaevil city still. I have reached Toledo! I find a camping with the ultimate reward: a swimming pool.
Day 43: Toledo - Mora - Consuegra - Manzanares - Valdepeñas 177 km
Today I get up very early. The first camping southward is nearly 180 kilometre far from Toledo and of course I want to ride as far as I can before the heat will be unbearable. The route is not hard at all. The Meseta is nearly flat. Once in a while I see a lonely hill range, which effectively breaks the monotony. On a hill range in Consuegra there are lots of windmills to be seen, the so-called Molinos. Don Quijote fought against these windmills more than four hundred years ago and so I am doing in a way. After Consuegra the landscape becomes dull. Especially around Manzanares there is nothing to be seen. The landscape is just empty. The last twenty kilometres I must suffer from a salt shortage. I drink 9 liter water without ever getting rid of extreme thirst. But eventually I reach the camping of Valdepeñas.
Day 44: Valdepeñas - Almuradiel - La Carolina - Linares - Baeza - Ubeda 133 km
The big highway that is leading me into Andalucía will probably not be the very best introduction to the land of flamingo's, white houses, olive trees, flamenco music, beautiful women and the sun. From all these characteristics only the olive trees and the sun are present. The streets are silent after noon, it is too hot to be outside. The absence of white houses, flamenco music and beautiful women is a bit overcomposed by the other two characteristics. Between the villages I am riding through huge fields of olive trees. And they do not give anything that is even close to a shadow. Even more present than the olive trees is the yellow terrorist. From noon untill the evening falls, everybody flees inside their houses for the sun. I am the only Don Quijote who is still out there, fighting the heat. Especially on the way up to Baeza I am fighting a lost cause. I seem to be sweating from the inside, is that possible? Not only my skin is double salted, as I swallow, I seem to swallow sea water. My insides seem to dissolve. At the time I reach beautiful Baeza, I do not feel very fresh. Maybe I have never been so dirty in my life. There is not a camping in Baeza so I ride on to nearby Ubeda. There is also no camping there. I decide to take a hotel this time. I am surprised that a completely dirty cyclist - me - is welcomed so heartily in the prestigious three star hotel.
Day 45: Ubeda - Jòdar - Guadahortuna - Iznalloz - Albolete - Granada 130 km
I get up early to avoid the afternoon heat as much as possible. From Ubeda I descend a few hundred meter to the Guadalquivir river and ascend more or less the same on the other side of the river. A wild mountain landscape unfolds before me. Between the towering rock cliffs are wide valleys with olive trees. After Jòdar the road goes up some more. Because I am relatively high, the temperatures are more humane than yesterday. For a long time I remain on more or less the same altitude. The landscape becomes flat and very dry. The long, fine day with some highly unpredictable changes in landscape ends on the highway to Granada. I have heard before that there are no good possibilities to cycle into Granada on nice secondary roads so I do not waste any time searching for the perfect way. So I am leaving the highway on a very busy road into the suburbs. On a bus stop I ask for the direction to the camping of Granada. Thirty men and woman are telling me at the same time how to go and everyone is saying something else. A blind girl comes to me and points quietly the exact direction so that I ride straight to the camping.
Day 46: Granada
I fill the day with sightseeing and visiting the Alhambra. In the evening I explore the interesting Albaicín neighborhood. And take some rest for tomorrow because tomorrow I want to cycle up to 3.400 meter Pico Veleta in The Sierra Nevada, the highest road of Europe.
Day 47: Granada - Pico Veleta (3.400 m) - Mulhacén(3.482 m) - Capileira - Pitres 106 km
It is completely dark as I pack my luggage for the longest day of the journey. From Granada at 700 meter elevation it is a very long way up to the 3.400 meter of the Pico Veleta. At six o'clock I am ready and cycle through the deserted streets of Granada, straight to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. After forty minutes I reach the road to Sierra Nevada. After a few kilometres the road starts to go up. It is a fair climb, not too difficult. After two hours I reach Sierra Nevada village, a mundane ski resort. Even now there are guests in the hotels. Above the village the serious work begins. The road becomes steeper. With a few nice hairpins the road twists to a saddle with beautiful views down the valleys and mountain ranges of Andalucía. I take some rest in a mountain hut. There is a serious storm now. The chairs at the terrace are constantly blown away. Every now and then a chair flies left or right my ears, which makes eating a sandwich a devillish frightening experience. After the hut the road is closed for cars. The road becomes more challenging. The wind cries and howls, I can barely keep sitting on my bicycle. When I reach a new saddle I expect even more wind, but, strange enough, the wind has calmed down sudddenly. I have beautiful sights of the Pico Veleta and the Mulhacén. The latter is the highest mountain of Spain. The Pico Veleta is not far any more. I reach the top at two o'clock in the afternoon.
There are a lot of stones in the Sierra Nevada. Not only the mountains are built out of big stones, the road down to the Alpujerras is also built out of these stones. The road is deteriorated rapidly after it is closed for cars. The way down to the Alpujerras is one huge highlight. First the road remains right under the mountain tops of the Sierra Nevada. Then it passes the Mulhacén and only after that, the road starts to go down. On the bad road it takes ages before I reach the Mulhacén,. Right before the Mulhacén I have a flat tyre. I have just pushed too hard on these stones. Standing under the highest mountain of Spain, I decide to walk up the mountain. I reach the top where there is a very old capricorn that is too old to flee. I have all the time to make some nice pictures of the animal.
The road down is a long one, but bit by bit the road becomes better. It is late already when I reach the first village of the Alpujerras, Capileira. I descend a little further. Then I see a sign of a camping. Unfortunately I have to climb again but after twenty minutes I have finally reached the camping at 8 o'clock. Right in time for dinner because I am hungry like a wolf.
Day 48: Pitres - Pampaneira - Orgiva - Motril - Almuñécar - Nerja 95 km
I meet Allison, a nice English girl. After teatime we take a second teatime in Orgiva, this time with her mom. I go by bike, the females go by car. Because it is only downhill, I am earlier than the girls. After a whole morning of chatting, I go on my way again. So what to do now? I decide to reach Gibraltar to "complete" the North-South traverse of Spain. Then I will go home. Probably I will go to Sevilla after reaching the rock of the apes and try to fly back from there.
I reach the Mediterranean Sea in Motril. From here the road is very, very busy. I go through some very scary, dark tunnels, which I cannot recommend. I do not want to go back anymore, but if I knew beforehand, I would surely avoid these tunnels. The route along the Costa del Sol is further okay. Busy of course, but the steep mountains along the coast offer spectacular sights as well. I stay in a camping in Nerja.
Day 49: Nerja - Torre del Mar - Málaga - Alora - El Chorro 118 km
Along the Costa del Sol I ride in the direction of Málaga. The road is flat. There are no mountains rising up from the coast like on the Motril to Nerja stage. In Málaga I am lucky to find the road that is leading me into the Valle del Sol. Along the river I ride. The mountains inland become more and more impressive. The day ends in a giant gorges landscape. The Garganta del Chorro is very impressive. There are great rock climbing possibilities in the limestone cliffs. I have the possibility to do some climbing with an Irish family. After the rock climbing interlude I stay in the camping along the lake.
Day 50: El Chorro - Ardales - El Burgo - Ronda - Algotacín 99 km
It is a misty morning. I leave the Garganta del Chorro. It is relatively cool because of the mist. Through the Parque Natural de Barbastro I climb through surprisingly green, forested landscapes up to high plains. As I reach the plains, the mists have gone and it is sunny again. There are great views over the plains and the beautiful lake.
Over a superbly obscure unpaved road I go southward from Ardales in the direction of Ronda. After fifteen kilometres I have asphalt under my wheels again. The landscape is much drier here. Two minor cols further I reach Ronda, a town of white houses.
From Ronda there is another minor pass to climb. After the col the road remains at high elevations. There are spectacular sights as the road is really high above the valley. The landscape on this side of the mountains has changed again to very green. White villages lie as eagle nests on the best viewpoints. In one of them I stay in a camping. I am far enough south to reach Gibraltar tomorrow and to return to the camping the same day.
Day 51: Algotacín - Gaucín - Gibraltar - Gaucín - Algotacín 167 km
Because I have planned to go back to the camping today, I am able to keep my tent and luggage at the camping. For the first time this journey I cycle the "light" way. It feels as a great luxury to cycle without luggage. I seem to fly up the mountains. This is great fun. I am still riding high above the valley. The sunrise enlightens the higher areas of the mountains and reflects on the mists that climb up out of the valley. Gaucín is the last of the white villages high above the valley. From here the road goes a long way down. In fact it feels like a very long way down because I have a very strong backwind as I am down on the ground. The last fifty kilometre to Gibraltar I fly over the asphalt. San Roque, 10 kilometre before Gibraltar, must be one of the most deserted places of Spain. Trains, nor buses, nor taxis go further south than San Roque. Gibraltar is completely ignored by the Spanish. The stranded travellers hang around in lousy bars and expansive shops. San Roque is a place that is best ignored by the tourist.
The same can be said about the British pride on the Iberian peninsula. Gibraltar is more British than Britain itself, the best self-parody possible. The cars drive left. Red double deck buses are chasing over the lanes and avenues. The police wear shorts. Add to all this the huge ugly hotels and hurried traffic and I know that I have to leave this place as soon as possible. I want to be on the Ape rock however, just to have a picture with a monkey on my knee. As I reach the entrance of the Ape Rock, I have to pay nearly 20 dollars for entrance by car. People by foot have free entrance. Despite I have no car, I have to pay. I try to explain that this is a bike and not a car but the employee does not listen. Prize negotiations do not work either. I decide that I will have to go back without seeing the beloved monkeys.
The way back is no more triumphant than my visit to Gibraltar. Despite I have no luggage, I have great difficulty to stand the wind. As the road goes up for a 1.000 meter climb, I have really had it. I have an awfully weak day. It seems like ages but finally I have wrestled myself up the mountain. In the beautiful village of Gaucín I take a long rest, enjoy the sights over the valley. After the long rest I do not feel stronger but there are no further difficulties anymore; I return to the camping where I have a long, long sleep.
Day 52: Algotacín - Cortes de la Frontera - Ubrique - Villamartín - Dos Hermanas - Sevilla 140 km
I am recovered surprisingly well from the exhaustion yesterday. The morning sun radiates golden waves of light over the mountains. A strong spirit is radiating in the inside as well. I am really enjoying the day. This could well be the last day of the journey. If I am in good shape I will reach Sevilla from where I will try to fly back. I am thinking back. The nature, the villages, the good people I have met. André, Allison, the Austrian girl from Cape Finisterra. I pass through the landscapes, the landscapes pass through me, always taking new shapes, always forming new compositions. An everlasting dance of changing light. Mountains become hills, hills become plains. The land metamorphoses from green to yellow to ochre. I am riding to Sevilla, all alone with burned sunflowers all around. Enjoying the dance of light and shadow, of life and death.
Map of the route