Northern Spain: A long and winding road…

Having made it successfully into Spain, I spent a couple of nights just outside Pamplona. This gave me a chance to recuperate while waiting for friends to arrive.

Colourful Pamplona
Colourful Pamplona

Not all that surprisingly for Sara, Chris and Werty, they arrived rather late into the evening. Even less surprisingly, with a lot of catching up to do, we didn’t go to bed – that being four people to a two-man tent and car – until the early hours of the morning. Needless to say, there were four tired faces when the rest of the campsite began emerging bright-eyed with the rising sun.

Leaving Sara and Chris behind, myself and Werty headed off on the bikes – after a false start, getting only 100 yards from the campsite before having to make some minor alterations to Werty’s bike, we finally got on the move in the heat of midday. Following the main road west, we meandered in and out of pretty, quiet villages until stumbling upon the perfect lunching spot – a picnic bench by the river under the shade of some leafy trees. Sara and Chris caught us up (in the car) and while the boys had a siesta, the girls took a look at St. Michel’s monastery on the top of the hillside overlooking the valley. I was just glad we took the car – the forty minute winding journey would have taken most of the day on a bike!

Our plans that evening to swim at the campsite and head into the town for the fiesta changed abruptly with the first clash of thunder and ensuing rain. Making do with a home-cooked feast and copious wine late into the night, meant the following day’s cycling got off to another slow start. At this point Sara and Chris left us. Now I completely love their company, but this was probably a good thing, or I may never have left the basque region (and certainly not with liver intact).

I intended to spend some time cycling through northern Spain and Werty fancied heading to the coast, thinking it may be cooler there with some fine beaches to visit, so we headed north. Not really thinking about it at the time, but having looked at the route since taken, it has been far from direct in any direction. From the seaside, we headed inland to avoid the busy coastal roads; preferring the long, meandering country roads through the green hills before hitting the coast again, first at a little town called Mutrixu and then at Santander to camp.

Much of the way we criss-crossed the Camino de Santiago and at times, followed it directly along quiet paths along the river. The switchbacks up-hill however were tough, although the scenery was pleasantly distracting and so the time passed quickly. The long winding down-hills were exhilarating, applying the brakes only at the last second to avoid overshooting a bend and careering over the edge, but those times passed too quickly. In all, these were long days, finding somewhere to camp late and heading off as soon as we woke in the morning (or at least once Werty was ready!).

Saturday morning ritual in Balmeseda
Saturday morning ritual in Balmeseda

One particularly pleasant place we stopped at was Balmeseda, with it’s picturesque church. Arriving on a Saturday morning, the residents of this sleepy little town were only just emerging to wander down the road to buy some bread and the local paper and then spend the next few hours reading and gossiping in the plaza.

Once in Santander we were joined by Darryl and after the three of us riding together for a day, me and Darryl waved goodbye to Werty as he took the bus home.

From the coast, at a little place called Pesues, we took to the hills again in the direction of Leon via the Picos de Europa. The hills until this point had been a mere warm-up! Fortunately, the sun decided to finally show itself again after a few grey, wet days and as usual this greatly improved the outlook!

The slowly climbing road to Potes in the Picos, weaved along the valley floor with the steep-sided rock faces. After a relatively easy and thoroughly enjoyable morning cycling

Breakfast stop on the way into the Picos
Breakfast stop on the way into the Picos

we arrived in Potes with plenty of time to set up camp and have lunch. Once the heat of mid-afternoon had tempered, we took to the road again to explore the area – this time on unloaded bikes (what a difference!). Cycling up to Fuente De, a mere 800m of uphill crawling, the plan was to then take a cable car to the highest point. Unfortunately a lot of other people had the same idea too and they, having driven up, were in the long queue ahead of us. Instead we decided to see just how quickly we could descend back to the campsite – so donning bike helmet (for the first time) and setting the camera to video mode we pedalled as hard and as fast as we could. So much for an afternoon to relax! And in just 30 minutes we were 20km down the road and back at the campsite. Now that was fun!

The following morning was spent canyoning – kitted out in wetsuit, harness and helmet we scrambled, crawled, swam, slid, jumped and abseiled down the rocks and river of a small ‘canyon’. It was on this mini adventure that we met Henar and Antonio, a great couple who were similarly ‘un poco loco’ and suggested that if we were passing through Salamanca we should visit them – and it’s from the balcony of Henar’s apartment with a lovely view of Salamanca, cathedral illuminated against the black sky , that I have finally found time to sit down, relax and write this long-awaited update. I digress….

After canyoning and lunch, it was time to hit the road again. Continuing on the road to Leon, we spent the next four hours sweating our way to the top of the pass at 1609m.

We made it eventually!
We made it eventually!

Once again the scenery was superb and distracted from the uphill struggle. This was the first time that I really did find it tough and even resorted to off-loading the tent to Darryl who was going significantly faster than me. Not that this seemed to help in the slightest – I didn’t go any faster, Darryl didn’t go any slower and I definitely didn’t sweat or swear any less. The great thing about making it to the top was knowing it was downhill from there.

Wanting to try and break the 40mph barrier, I once again put on my hope-I-don’t-crash helmet, and proceeded at pace away from the Picos, following the winding river towards the lake at Riaño. A cold beer in town gave me just enough strength in the legs to make it to the campsite overlooking the lake, albeit having to push the bike up the last leg.

Sunrise over Riano
Sunrise over Riano

Up early the next fresh morning, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over the lake with the mountains in the background. Just as we were leaving the campsite, the first rays of sun began to rise over the mountainside and warm the campsite instantaneously.

The gentle downhill cycle into Leon, with the increasingly appealing thought of a day’s rest, was just manageable by my tired legs.

We decided to stay in the centre of town that evening and so checked into a hostel. My first night in a bed since leaving the UK was perhaps not appreciated fully due to going out to sample ‘la macha’ (local nightlife) with cervezas (beer) and tapas, getting in late

Pilgrims in Leon
Pilgrims in Leon

and falling asleep on top of the bed without even getting undressed or pulling back the bedsheets!

From Leon, the road leads south and I feel like I’m making progress again on my journey towards Africa. It’s actually been a few days now since leaving Leon, but I think I’ll leave those for the next update – it’s getting late and tonight I’m going to fully appreciate the bed I have to myself, thanks to Henar.