I wish this would happen more often than it does… Back in January I received an email from a cyclist called Paddy Ducey. He told me about how he had read the books that I have written about cycling across Europe and that he had not only enjoyed them but, in the case of Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, had found it of practical use as he was planning his own trip along the west coast of France and then northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I replied and mentioned that, after his own ride, if he fancied putting his experiences into words, I’d be more than happy to publish them. I’ve done this quite often in the past and, sadly, more often than not, nothing comes of it. In this case however, Paddy has just sent me an excellent article about his cycle from Roscoff in the north of France, along the EuroVelo 1 / Vélodyssée, over the Pyrenees via Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and west along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. He’s also provided some excellent photographs so without further ado, over to you Paddy…
The notion of cycling 1000 miles arrived shortly after finishing a cycle tour/trip across Spain from north to south, which had been 670 miles. Could two sixty-year olds manage 1000 miles? The seed was sown, and it was then simply, or not, a case of finding an appropriate start and finish. After much deliberation… (Canterbury to Rome? Saigon to Ho Chi Min City?) …more accessible route from Roscoff in north west France to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain was settled upon. These two points also had simple ways to arrive (train and ferry to Roscoff) and return home (fly from Santiago)
The route across northern Spain was straightforward; follow the camino or as near to parallel as two touring bikes could get. The west coast of France suddenly provided another easy option, Eurovelo 1 (EV1) know along the French section as La Vélodyssée.
A brief look at the Vélodyssée website (too brief it turned out) seemed to show the route in France was 500 miles. The camino was another 500. The 1000 miles were complete.
Apart from booking the train and ferry to get to Roscoff and the flight home from Santiago, everything else was to be done on a day-by-day basis. Three weeks to do 50 miles a day would give us plenty of time to cover the distance and maybe allow time if needed for any mechanical issues or even some sightseeing.
Brittany: how English could it be? Green fields and cloudy skies, certainly English-esqe, but quiet roads and empty villages, maybe not so English. The first night gave us an indication that rural France was becoming quieter. The village where the accommodation we had booked on the ferry the night before was located did indeed have the accommodation, but nothing else. Having to cycle onto the next village was not in the game plan or the psych but food was necessary.
The EV1 with its distinctive signage was to be a godsend and a curse. When spotted it kept us on track excellently but miss a sign or a turn and it was the devil’s own to rediscover it in the minor rural roads. Fortunately, the area is blessed with a web of other greenways, primarily old railway lines and as long as our general direction was heading roughly south east, we were good to go. The Brest – Nantes canal provided many miles of very easy cycling. As all canals do, it meandered but gave ample opportunity to enjoy the landscape in all its rural pleasantry. Being flat does mean you have to pedal every inch of the way and the many bisecting roads all gave their little rise to remind the legs that it wouldn’t all be this easy.
Bypassing Nantes with a ferry across the Loire (free to all comers! Very un-English…) it was the Atlantic coast all the way south to Bayonne. Having packed the speedos and swimming goggles with the notion there would be time for a dip most days it was a great surprise that we only saw the Atlantic on two occasions over the next five days. It was only when we deviated to the coast from the Vélodyssée route that we had time for a lunch looking out at the rollers arriving, for about 3 minutes before a thick sea mist rolled in and the life guards sounded the ‘all out’ siren to any bathers as the sea was now out of sight even though it was a mere 150 meters away. The second time it was speedos on and in the sea sharpish, for a glorious dip in the crashing waves, only to be confronted by a huge ‘DANGER: Do Not Swim’ sign. Who could possibly holiday on a stretch of golden sand with the sun shining and not go in the sea?
The rest of our cycling hours were through stretches of pine forest which despite their expanse were a delight. Les Landes was another world of quiet, traffic-free and almost cycle-free roads and tracks that kept delivering us to more French villages that had a lack of amenities. We had learned to take our morning coffee and pastry wherever we came across them as there was no guarantee there would be another opportunity.
From Bayonne in south-west France the route headed inland, and we thought we would be embarking upon a serious stretch of uphill cycling to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It rained, heavily and persistently all the way. Having cycled all the way from north to south France this was a shock to the system but, as is the way with touring cyclists, it is almost a case of pretending it isn’t raining and cycling anyway. Our surprise was arriving In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port without a climb. The spike on the google maps route was obviously because the rise from sea level to 200m was a stark change and on a scale covering 100 plus miles it looked like a giant of a climb.
Our plan for the day was to register as peregrinos at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, collect our credencial and then cycle into Spain and over the first Pyrenean hill. The credencial records the start place and date of your camino journey and allows you to collect stamps along the way. To be able to buy your compostela once you reach Santiago you need at least two stamps per day to show you have travelled the route.
Friendly but firm advice against setting off immediately was given at the Pilgrims Office as rain was set for the day and the temperature at to top was at best one degree. We didn’t need a deal of persuading as we were chilled already. Accommodation sourced and hot showered to warm up, we had time to look around the town, clearly a mecca of sorts for walkers and other assorted tourists.
The first day on the camino de Santiago involved a few short flat miles to the Spanish border… but what border? There were no ‘welcome to’ signs at the possible crossing. There was however an 18 km climb from 200 meters to 1430 meters, which was a shock to the legs after some 700 miles of very straightforward cycling in France. The expected reward of a flowing descent to the first Spanish town was short-lived and certainly did not reflect the effort put into the upside of the mountain. We were in and out of Pamplona before we had chance to spot any bull, let alone a loose one.
The Spanish have a welcome attitude to morning café stops. They always have good coffee and invariably offer tosta with a range of toppings from the obvious jam, marmalade to paté and then the more traditional pan con tomata, which is basically well squashed tomatoes with olive oil and maybe garlic. Every village has at least one café serving this welcome service for energetic cyclists. It was a welcome reprieve from the worries of non-existent French cafés.
The route finding for cycling peregrinos is not quite as easy as for the walkers. The ubiquitous scallop shell signs are everywhere and make navigating the towns a cinch. Where the walking route meanders off into more rural and mountainous areas the cyclist has to do a bit of guess work and make westwards for the next village or town where the walking routes comes back to meet the road. The Michelin Camino de Santiago guide was a fantastic resource. Written for the walkers it has 1:50,000 detail so all the minor roads are shown parallel to the walkers’ route.
Cycling west we expected some head wind but were blessed with only a little along the route. It was also an ongoing average height of 300-400 meters above sea level. This meant the temperature was good for cycling but maybe chilly in the evenings. The obvious exception was further west where we had to overcome climbs on several days to over 1000 meters and then it was cold, especially on the long downhill after the warm climb up.
The scenery was wonderfully varied. At least rolling hills away to the distance but often long vistas across the Picos de Europa to the north. Being in the north and facing the Atlantic the area has its share of rainfall and this was reflected in a greenery that is missing if you venture south across the central plateau of Spain.
After the first flush of Pyrenean climbs and a few rolling peaks after Pamplona it was a wonderfully easy cycle across some wide agricultural expanses, through Burgos and then some 100 miles of easy cycling for a couple of days. Walking this stretch would not have the same effect as it would be a week’s walk and for me the repetitive nature of the scenery would have been too much. That’s the beauty of a cycle journey. You can get through the less appealing stretches much quicker and take your time where the environment offers more.
The Camino passes through Spanish cities with history galore. Logrono, Burgos, Leon… All blessed with their own claim to Camino fame with legends galore to support these boasts. Unless you sit and read all these histories (which I didn’t) you take in the flavour as you move. Old stone maize stores, now defunct of their original purpose but taken over by chickens or huge flower displays, maybe even a store for a cycle. Home made wind turbines from four halves of oil barrels. Thatching a roof at 1100 meters up. Less well known is the free red wine Fuente at Irache. Here you have the challenging choice of fresh water or red wine to top up your bottles. Time your arrival as we did for a lunch stop and you can do both, having consumed the first with the lunch. There is a webcam where you can see arrivals ponder a while and then take the obligatory photo involving free red wine.
Once you are into the last 100 km of the camino the number of pergrinos increase quite significantly as that is the minimum distance required to walk to be eligible for the Compostela certificate. On one day some 1200 pilgrims had registered as completing their walk. Where they had all stayed was a mystery as there didn’t appear to be that much accommodation within a day’s walk of Santiago. The cycling in these last few days proved some of the more challenging. Typical long ascents at gentle gradients provided great views if the cloud had been burnt away by the morning sun. Green and rural was still the setting. Small villages at regular intervals offering everything the travelling pilgrim needs no matter what the time of day. The customary start time for Spanish evening meals was usually not before 9pm. however the market demands of the touring pilgrims who want an early start also want an early evening meal and a bedtime of 9pm. A similar demise of the siesta seems to be taking place. None of this change diminished the joy of travelling in Spain.
Arriving in the huge square outside the cathedral in Santiago you get a feel for how many people have followed the same journey as you (at least through Spain) The reasons why anyone walks the camino are as individual as the rucksacks they carry, (or not in many cases, as the regular taxi service for heavy loads is another camino-inspired industry) The range of nationalities, ages and shapes was quite astounding.
As touring cyclists we felt we had seen everything we wanted to and accomplished what we had set out to achieve. It was nearer to 1200 miles but that didn’t matter now. Hopefully that question has been answered for us, as two 60-year olds, we could cycle 1000 miles. It felt that with time and barring illness you could just keep going forever. Whether that is realistic we are not likely to know. That said, I did read that from the Canadian border to the Mexican border down that Pacific coast of America is 2000 miles…
Text & photos: Paddy Ducey
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