Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Laker's Road to Santiago Uncut...

Louise Laker
Road to Santiago

By Louise Laker

On the 24th August 2012 I pedalled away from Pump Cottage along the familiar road to Hythe in glorious marsh sunshine. I was on my way to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia, north west Spain, and the age old destination of thousands of pilgrims heading to the tomb of Saint James.

The first challenge in my 2000 km tour was to get to Dover, and a trip to Wrenham’s in Folkstone to get my ever loosening headset yanked into place for hopefully the final time. Technical problems fixed, the first climb of l’tour was defeated up to Capel Le Ferne (not without a little puffing on my heavily loaded bike, and a little apprehension for the Pyrenees, lurking some 1000km ahead).

We swept triumphantly down into Dover ferry port where my travelling companion for the first week of my journey was struggling with his shiny new SPD’s. He made a spectacularly noisy collapse onto the ferry forecourt, right in front of a bemused group of Brits off on a booze cruise. Fail!! It seemed to set an excellent tone for the next 35 days!

Out of passport control and onto the wrong (right) side of the road we had made it to Calais! The plan for the trip was to not have much of a plan. I carried full camping gear, which made me deliciously self-sufficient, and had maps from the 70’s (which rather usefully omitted the new motorways) showing the way south to the Pyrenees.

The first 200 km of Northern France was rather like the UK but with better coffee, cheaper wine and obscenely good croissants. Crossing out of the rather bland, showery, Pays to Calais and into Picardy, the first touches of being in a foreign land started to be seen, and the sun started to put a bit more effort in.

I wrote my diary on day 4 in a tiny bright blue room at the very top of a tiny hotel full of French truck drivers as we’d failed to find a campsite before dark. Notable events so far:

250 km pedalled to le Neuborg!

Camped with a handsome Dutch cyclist riding a fixie (!?) on his way home from Le Harve.

James fell off again in front of a car full of tourists

Got very lost trying to get out of Rouen.

Had our tent broken into whilst sleeping (decided not to tell the parents that one!)

After Le Neuborg the sun came out and stayed out for the next few weeks, although a nasty headwind stayed until day 7 when my wind block said his farewells and hopped back on the train from Le Mans to London. I spent my first night alone camping in the pretty Chateau-la-Valliére - after detouring along a roller coaster style road populated with an abnormal number of very fast moving lorries (didn‘t tell the parents that one either!).

The campsites at this time of the year were emptying fast and the only people about were usually older, non-English speaking couples in their camper vans. The response wherever I checked in was a pointed/surprised/pitying/admiring/questioning ‘alone?!’ To which I always grinned and said ‘oui’ (my only confident word of French).

On day 9 I arrived early in a medieval town called Melle and was lucky enough to meet a woman who took pity on my horrendous attempt to ask ‘ou e l’supermarche?’ and introduced herself as Julie. She and her husband Pierre had cycled the camino de Santiago 12 years before. She invited me to join her and her family for an evening of musical storytelling performance, followed by feasting, cider and folk dancing in the town square.

From Melle I continued south to Cognac, Archiac and then Bordeaux, a major milestone of the trip at around 900 km from Calais. I treated myself to a youth hostel and a day off sightseeing. Youth hostels seem to attract English speaking young people and I had a lovely time with a South African girl called Lauren and an Australian backpacker called Ben.

After two stationary nights I was itching to leave and get back to the coast and the gorgeous French seaside resort of Arcachon. Mild discomfort struck for the first time as, after all the unnatural walking action necessary for sightseeing, strange leg cramps forced a few kilometres of one-legged pedalling to get me through the seemingly endless no mans land of sun baked road and forest. (My main worry was ending up with a beefy right leg if the strange cramps persisted into the mountains).

After Arcachon I followed the coast south in what was a rather uneventful, flat, repetitive landscape full of forest and piles of logs, and more piles of logs, and the occasional tourist town. But on day 15, in baking hot afternoon sunshine, I reached Hasparren in the foothills of the Pyrenees! It felt wonderful to be in Basque country - and after the familiarity of France I felt like the adventure was about to begin.

At St Jean Pied-du-Port, a popular starting place for pilgrims, I registered officially as a pelegrino and received my credential, my pilgrims passport that would entitle me to accommodation in refugios all along the road to Santiago. I spent the evening with 3 pilgrims: an American called Bob, who found it worryingly incomprehensible a young woman should travel alone, an Italian called Giovanni, who had just been dumped by his girlfriend and gave me his contact details, and a mysterious German called Berghart who refused to tell us anything about himself.

In the morning I set off on what would be the best day I have ever spent on a bike bike…

It was a misty morning and I left just after sunrise. St Jean disappeared into the fog behind, and I could see glimpses of what must have been spectacular scenery. Soon I was at the foot of my first ever Col, the Col de Ispeguy, which formed the unmarked border between France and Spain. A gradual climb to 600 meters over 8 km took me out of the misty valley in the company of lycra-clads shouting encouragement to me in French as they went past. I paused at the top to munch my last French croissants and to look back over France, then turned my trusty steed (headset still in place), to Spain…

The cyclists coming up as I freewheeled down the pass shouted greetings in Spanish, or Basque, not sure which! Then there were hours of a gradually climbing, winding, tree lined road up a valley. By 4pm I’d reached my turning north which would take me to Donastia - San Sebastian. I floated 20 km downhill following the path of a river to a tiny village called Goizueta. I camped that night by the river, swam in the freezing natural pool it had made, and learnt my first word of Basque, ‘Caisho’, meaning ‘hello’.

In San Sebastian I met a lovely couple on holiday from London whilst eating a huge chocolate orange and pistachio flavour ice cream. The woman used to be an opera singer, and her husband was very worried and asked me if I had enough money! After cidre (the local very dry cider), pinchos (the Basque version of tapas), excellent food in the company of backpackers, and a stuffy night in a youth hostel it was time to leave again. I blitzed my way 40km along the hilly coast road to Mutriku where I met a cyclist on his way to Senegal.

I spent the next few days following the coast to Lezama, Bilbao, Laredo and Santander in the company of French pastry chef, Jeremie. He was the first tourer I had met who had more stuff than I did, and so our pace matched well. Most nights were spent in the company of pilgrims who were walking to Santiago at the well equipped refugio’s. In Santander, Jeremie said goodbye and continued on his way to Portugal. I stopped to wait for the arrival of Mum and Dad and spent a hilarious day with some Irish pilgrims from Dublin (two of whom were probably the only red heads in the country and subsequently attracted a lot of attention!).

The arrival of Mum and Dad on the Brittany ferry signalled the last stage of the tour, and from now on it felt like time was running out. It was wonderful to see them cycle off the ferry on their loaded mountain bikes. After coffee by the seaside we enjoyed a sunny afternoon ride to the lovely Comillas, made all the more lovely by the campsite bar, which served delicious Chitón (!) wine from Rioja and beer for £3.10 a round.

From Comillas we rode along the coast to Colunga, then took a detour inland over the Picos mountains before camping once again by the coast in Cudillero. We decided at this point to leave the coast road that ran next to the new motorway, and take what looked to be a shorter route to Santiago via Lugo. However it was soon very clear the route, though beautiful, would not lead to Santiago quickly, as we climbed straight up into a glorious mountain range. The first day we covered what looked like 30km on the map, which was actually more like 60km uphill, to reach a little town called Tineo. Lugo took another two days of stunning climbs and descents on well surfaced, empty roads.

In Lugo the weather turned and we woke to drizzle on what would be our final day’s ride to Santiago. We were out of the mountains and on a large main road, luckily quiet as it was a Sunday. We shared the road with walking pilgrims for quite a lot of the day. By the afternoon showers had turned to solid rain, and the temperature had dropped. But being the silly determined Brits we are, we carried on past the welcoming pension signs in various towns, intent on our goal of Santiago. A few hours later, drenched and frozen, we arrived feeling not in the least bit triumphant. Mum got off her bike and could barely walk she was so cold! All we could all think about was a hot shower, dry clothes, food, vino (all of which were soon ours!).

The next day I could appreciate our arrival, but also sense the gloom of returning home to London and work. The unexpected mountain range meant we didn’t have time to cycle back as planned. Instead Dad drove a hire car back to Santander and the ferry home. (Except the ferry home had been cancelled so then we sat on a coach for 18 hours to Calais!)

The last ride was in crisp autumn evening sunshine back down the road I began on. We climbed up to Capel le Ferne from Dover, went down into Folkstone, along the sea wall to Hythe, and finally Newchurch. 35 days of pedalling (with zero punctures) and living out what I’d dreamed of doing, were over. My mind started to turn to next summer and where I might go then.

Pictures of Trip