Day 5, La Virgen del Camino to Ocebreiro, Spain. Camino de Santiago

La Virgen del Camino to Ocebreiro

Today we said goodbye to Myles. Became Facebook buddies then left the warmth of the boiler room with dry clothes. That day Myles would go back into Leon to make use of his time gained with us.

The kilometres gained before sun up was very useful. The stars were amazing and this is truly the way of the Milky Way. When there are no street lights to cloud the sky a million more stars appear. We entered Astorga via a weird railway bridge at first light. The road abruptly stopped and a bridge ramped up then down over the line to allow pedestrians and cyclists access. A very sharp hill took us from a railway dominated outskirts to the old part of the town. Very very pretty. I took photographs and we looked over the sheltered ruins of a Roman bath house. We entered a series of plazas. A massive market was setting up and we followed the first of the days foot pilgrims exiting the local Albergue through town. Breakfast time. A small cafe and a very friendly owner who said his “English name” was “Tom Jones”. I’d timed this perfectly to sit down and phone home. Spoke to the kids and Jill and told her our aim was 700km by that night. “You think you’ll do that?” She asked. “Yeah of course, we’ve done about 40km so far.” It was 9am. I got off the phone and Glen asked for confirmation of that. I let him read for himself that it had to include two mountain ranges at 1500m and 1300m with a drop to 540m inbetween.

A man approached me and told me he did the Camino with his flamenco guitar. He wished me Buen Camino and tried to tell me his web address. Tom Jones did us proud with Camino special prices. Astorga is very pro-Camino and worthy of a visit.

We exited Astorga and saw Gaudi’s “Bishops palace” as we left. Typically Gaudi and a magnificent flowing tradition defying structure.

We then climbed. And climbed. Out the saddle back on the saddle, out the saddle. I’d say grinding but I don’t think you can say that anymore. But grind we did (stop it.) the villages really did tick away and knowing the promised kilometre-age we just kept our heads down and kept going. I’m quite proud to say at no point at all did I on this whole trip use “granny gear” (the lowest one) instead opting to push out of the saddle and use the higher gears instead more like “stair-stepping”. Santa Catalina, Rabanol, Foncebadon all ticked by. Stopping for photographs as each turn revealed more amazing views, the sun was smiling and it seemed like a world of wind-turbines.

When the iron cross (Cruz de Ferro) became obvious above the trees further along the ridge I suddenly realised why it was built this way. A wooden telegraph type pole with a cross on top, the cross is boosted up above the trees and into view from the approach. I was about a kilometre away but it pierced the profile of the ridge. This was the most poignant part of the ride so far and would equal that of the arrival into Santiago.

Before I left England I made a special trip to sit with my father. He now rests in a graveyard in Westhoughton and I wanted to tell him about my trip. But I also wanted to take him with me. Since a child I’d sit beside him watching wildlife programs and documentaries about far off places and have never got it out of my head that he wouldn’t have wanted to know all about this. So, the tradition goes, you visit Cruz de Ferro, you bring a stone from the start point of your journey. You place the stone at this point. People don’t touch. Out of respect they come and read the messages left on these stones then leave, your stone remains. So whilst telling my father where I was going I selected a nearby stone and took him along for the ride. I stood in silence at the top and read the messages, driving licenses, toys, flags and T-shirts left behind. I placed my stone amongst them. It’s message meant to me it wouldn’t be touched. I had a minute, maybe two. A coach load of American tourists came and went and I thought about the Dutchman. We then had dinner.

A short way over and before the decent I got out a little tripod and taped it to the front of my bike, I then taped the camera to the tripod to steady it and filmed a little of the decent. I’ll you-tube it later. The guide book says “this route can be very exposed with little help at hand. The decent through El Acebo has claimed cyclists’ lives, so take great care”

I say El Acebo was fun!

We dropped down to 600m quite easily. I waited for Glen in stages who insisted on throwing his water over his brake discs to see them sizzle. My back wheel had started to loosen on the climb. The spokes were easily wigglable and they clacked and pinged like spokey-dokeys (remember them?) as the wheel turned. Having two panniers on the rack didn’t help at all. No spoke key didn’t help either so I tightened them by mashing at them with pliers. Something I’d do a few times along the way. I reached 80kmph on the final stretch of decline into the city of Ponferrada at a height of 540m. We didn’t have time to stop so just motored through. By this point the sun was blazing down.

It hit Glen as we climbed out of Cacabelus (483m, lower than Ponferrada) through Villafranca del Bierzo. And up into sweeping countryside again. A swift stop at a petrol station to use the facilities and chug a litre of chocolate milk.

It turns out Ponferrada is a bit of sun trap. A bit like your back garden if you have decent walls. But this is a city, not your sun lounger and the garden walls are two bookend mountain ranges over 1300m.

I need to explain at this point the marvel of this journey. The sun always rises behind you and sets in front of you. In this case it’s like a ticking clock racing you to the horizon. Teasing you with the remaining daylight. Although if the sun is a blazer, its really not your best friend. Straight in the eyes and baking……

So we stopped and re-assessed. Had an apple. Then realised as the sun dropped behind the next mountain range it would be darker sooner. Tomorrow may be another hot one. At that point I was wishing the rain would return. Lets climb through the night.

We had left Myles at 5:30am. He woke to high five us and we rode off into the dark. But realistically we hadn’t come to sleep. It was painfully obvious that when you wait for the release of your bike from the outhouse at your Albergue and you try to get in somewhere with enough time to get out of the wet clothes and sort food you are chipping time off your day. I hadn’t gone to do that. So we pushed on.

As we regained height into the valley beyond Villafranca. We climbed spaghetti style weaving around a motorway, its sections strung high in the air on precarious concrete posts. As it got darker the sections started to silhouette against the sky. The villages we passed through must have seen some change since these roads were built. The darkness closed in and it remained quite warm but I was also very aware of how isolated we became. The motorway wound away and back and now you could only see the sections when the lorry lights lit the barriers and the moon hair lit the concrete. Again we were alone with the stars. And the endless climb. Standing, sitting. Did I tell you my arse was numb from the saddle?

We reach a service stop and drank, then continued. The roads became junctions, then civilisation. I asked at a bar about a room. Nope, gestured away. I think I actually used the words “I am diseased”. The petrol station said “albergue 4km” pointing in the direction we needed to go in anyway, so we climbed some more. I could see lights in the distance, a string of about 20. That means a large village in these parts. So we kept going. The motorway dropped to the right towards Lugo. We went into the night. Silence and darkness and now a wind chill from the summit.

Entering O’Cebreiro and into the bar everyone was packing up. Those who’d got the remaining hotel rooms were going up the stairs to use them and we asked where the Albergue was. One of the ladies came out at walked a few doors down. All the buildings were rough stone, the road surface rough stone cobbles. The Albergue owner didn’t answer. The girl looked concerned and I spotted a little shelter, open on one side and obviously just to keep the rain off those filling up at the water tap. It had stone slabs big enough to lay on and I pointed over “freio” she said, but there was nothing else. We bought coffee from the bar and an in edible sandwich and took out every insulated layer we’d brought and put it on to stop the chill of the sweaty climb. It was 11:45pm.

We’d reached 678km.

This blog: Tony Hemans and Glen Eccles cycled the Camino Frances from St jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela covering 845km in 6 days in October 2012.  If you are trying to get fit, planning an adventure, long distance cyclist or just curious about my mid-life crisis then subscribe and share!

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