For a short while on our southwesterly heading we smuggle ourselves across the far north western edge of La Rioja province. Passing through Foncea and serene Treviana, we snake up through wind eroded valleys onto vast plateaus that span far in every direction. It is exceptionally dry here, the dirt is orange and I imagine wild-west scenes; true enough many of the classic western scenes were indeed filmed in Spain. So sparsely populated it is here.
We’re happily cruising on our gravel bikes, slightly descending with a tailwind for about 30km. Conditions of a cyclist’s dream. The roads are mostly straight except for corners that we can take without braking. The ambient heat is showing its teeth and the weary road is patched up where the tarmac has given up and melted under many days of being baked by the infernal sun. Riding at these speeds we skim across the uneven surface like pebbles on still water.
It’s hard to believe we’re just a day’s ride from Basque Country. Here is the Spain that we have been dreaming of. We’re riding to Burgos and eventually we’ll be in A Coruña which lies on the Atlantic coast.
We’re riding in the Castille Y Leon province, a relatively flat and dry province in central-north Spain. The winds are fair, it is probably very hot and the landscape is repetitious: vast fields of sunflowers, unlikely beds of spinach and broccoli and a rolling downland-esque vista. Soon we’ll be on the Camino Frances – we never intended to travel on the Camino Frances and we’d undertaken no research into the terrain. It just happens to be a waymarked route that goes in the same direction that we need to go.
In 2019 350,000 pilgrims reached Santiago de Compostela and at times 2000 pilgrims can pass through a single village. That is to say it is a really popular route throughout the year and as such it’s well used and reliable. The camino is not a cycling route per se but it is 100% rideable. We’re on our Mason Bokehs – drop bar bikes with 40mm tubeless tyres. These are known as ‘gravel bikes’ and they’re perfectly suited to this ride. We can cruise at speed over the long flat gravel sections, descend the rockier trails with confidence and still climb the gradients because our bikes are relatively light for touring bikes. Although we have a Garmin with us you don’t need to have a GPX of the route – it is that well marked. What is essential is a super reliable set-up or at least decent tools and repair skills because bike shops aren’t in abundance along the route.
Thankfully, water is easy to find on the Camino. Fountains of varying size and decor can be found frequently along the route, especially so for cyclists as we cover the distances rapidly. Only on the hottest day where we hit high 30s did we need our individual 2.2l water capacity.
Despite asking ourselves the question “are we pilgrims?” several hundred times during our time on the Camino we still don’t have an answer. When wished a “buen camino” by many locals we could have denied this status assigned to us, but we certainly could not state our uncertainty of this identity with any eloquence in our basic Spanish. It just felt wrong to try and deny the simple act of kindness from a stranger. Days passed and the buen camino kept coming from locals, peregrines, signposts and murals. Soon enough we found ourselves saying it, too.
After a 101km day, which included a mountain climb, waiting for a storm to pass at the peak, making a new friend while we put on all of our wet weather gear, and then descending through a cloud, we finally arrived at our destination. Casa Susi was a name Chlo had heard for a while, a mysterious place on the Camino, owned by an old family friend that she’d never met, it sounded like a sanctuary. Because riding the Camino was never our plan, we hadn’t thought about stopping by until we realised that it would work out perfectly, and we are so thankful that it did. We arrived late but were welcomed into the beautiful albergue with warmth and love.
We joined the other pilgrims who had stopped for the night, and were immersed in traditions immediately. Whilst still sweaty, soggy and in our bib shorts and spd sandals, we listened to the pilgrims share their stories, who they were, why they were travelling the Camino, and also, most surprisingly for us, why they had stopped at Casa Susi. It was amazing to see that it wasn’t only us making the journey just to stay in this particular albergue. Most of the other travellers had been before and wanted to return, been recommended Casa Susi by friends and family or even heard about it online via podcasts and social media. It was fascinating learning about the story of Casa Susi and how it has become a place to aim for and look forward to on the Camino Frances.
We ended up staying two nights and especially enjoyed the meal times. Listening to and sharing stories of past, present and future adventures, meeting incredibly interesting people and being surrounded the true “Camino Spirit”. We began to realise that we were pilgrims, of a sort, and our opinion of the Camino began to change.
The time we spent at Casa Susi was relaxing, nurturing and filled with love. From the meals, lunch as well as dinner, to the journey to the shops (in a car, that felt weird!) Our time there was precious and we will think of it fondly for years to come.
Leaving Casa Susi we felt reinvigorated and strong: a 75km day would be cake for us. Bus after 26km in intense rain, cold and lots of ascent, we were done. Welcome to Galicia. We spent the bulk of this day climbing up to the O Cebreiro mountain pass via an ancient road which is now unused. The small town at the top is interesting enough and had some good food but we were keen to press on the next day. We’d done plenty of climbing and were keen to get descending.
Our reward upon reaching Serra dos Ancares: Descending on perfect roads from 1250m to 580m, our touring bikes flying through the corners with effortless stability and composure. In the periphery is a constantly changing flash of green and ochre, ahead we’re fixated on the quickly approaching apex and carried on the rushing wind is a sweet aromatic perfume of some delicate unidentified flora. Even at this speed the descent is gleefully long – almost 20km of it. When we checked our gps data later that day we see we hit 45mph on the descent. We’re deep into the Serra dos Ancares mountain range and have deliberately left the Camino Frances in search of our own route to the coast. The cycling here is hard and rewarding. Long climbs, challenging gradients and fairly few places to stop. The valleys are severe, green and an intense contrast to the drier, flatter Castille Y Leon region just a mountain pass away. We were in Galicia now, we felt we were in an entirely new country not just a new province. The final km of the day followed the Rio Navia, a serpenteos route on a level gradient headed to our stop, A Proba. It’s the capital of the Os Ancares region and an incredibly old town. It’s lost the population size that it once had but it’s kept a tangible pride. It is spotlessly clean, the noticeboards were recently updated and there’s an atm.
In A Proba, there is a restaurant dining room that appears, from its size, to be expecting far more people than will probably ever arrive. They serve an excellent menu del día in aforementioned dining room and we ate alone, though we could hear lively drinking in the main bar room separated from us by a floor standing divider. Chlo had jambon and tomatoes followed by roast chicken. Cal had the chickpea stew and albóndigas. We shared the torte De Santiago. Everything delicious. That night we stayed in a Galician townhouse that had 4 floors, a mostly wood and brick construction, wintergarten on each floor except the first, and plenty of decor from India. Pictures of an unknown – to us – couple were set about the place on each floor, watching with a welcoming gaze, old magazine radio times and worn drawer handles. Important details defining this empty property as a home. We had the whole thing to ourselves.
In the morning, over a breakfast of our remaining oats, we considered our forward direction. We had planned to ride over another mountain pass to A Fonsagrada which we had heard good things about. But, this meant riding over another mountain. At this point we were well embedded into the Os Ancares range and we wanted to head to Lugo, which we had also heard good things about including its Roman wall. So direction: Lugo was the flatter choice and thus an easy decision. We checked out the medieval castle and bridge before committing to our new route. It was a short day of 32km to a halfway point O Cadabo, but it included a fair climb (basically a small but incredible mountain) and that day it rained heavily. We were in the Biosfere do Miño and we noticed the landscape and villages become surreally similar to West Country/South Gloucestershire and the grey skies reminded us of home. Another menu del día saved our stomachs and spirits that lunch. That evening we were overcome by laziness and we ate cereal for dinner.
More Galician West Country cycling – smooth, smooth tarmac, shouty dogs and good corners – and mostly a downhill route took us into Lugo the next day. The inner city is indeed walled by an impressive Roman-built wall and inside it’s heaving. Lugo felt like the busiest Spanish city we’d been to, but it also felt like more of the same. Bars, butchers and value shops. We did have some awesome scallops for dinner and we stayed that night with Pablo, a WarmShowers host. Sometimes warm showers accommodation gives cycle tourists a glimpse into the real lives of the locals where you are. Other times, you get a bed, a shower and a sleep. Pablo provided us with the essentials and quickly left us for an important TV show he clearly didn’t want to miss. Fair enough.
From Lugo we knew we were on the home stretch, the final run in to A Coruña. After 1400km we finally started to feel that we’d make it to our first destination. We had a 101km route to Miño with no planned stops. We hadn’t wild camped by this point and we really wanted to, so we decided that we would opt for this if we couldn’t do the whole ride in one hit. We took the Camino Primitivo for a short while. No mountains, but consistently up and down and with a lot of rain, too. It was a hard and beautiful day and we threw in the towel around 7pm. We’d agreed to stop when sunset began because we’d only pitch the tent in the dark – it’s illegal to wild camp in Spain and discretion is advised. Cal checked the route and saw we had a big descent ahead of us and with the weather closing in on our high point, we descended at speed, in the pelting rain, finally reaching O Chao da Viña. It was Sunday, 7pm, and our hopes for food/help were not high. Like an oasis through the deluge, the first bar we came across “Bar Sordo” was open and a hive of music, singing and happy locals.
We got our orders in quickly: two hot chocolates. They came served with tapas by the delightful bar owner whom we warmed to immediately. When she came back to take our plates Chlo explained to her what the hell we were doing here and asked if there was anywhere that we could pitch our tent for the night. Without a moment of hesitation she said “Yea, of course! Right over there, in the car park, under the shelter”. We’d hit jackpot and swiftly got some beers in and spent the rest of the night discussing the directions to A Coruña and learning the important details that distinguish the French from the Germans from an old dude. We felt cared for and would have slept soundly were it not for the incessantly howling dogs that night. In the morning we learnt that it was a family business and we met the mother, father and daughter. We left there riding high.
We still had 10 days until we need to be in A Coruña for the Raid Gallaecia, so we split the 60km journey into two parts, stopping halfway in Miño to three days of chilling out, eating well, cleaning stoves and beach-combing. This felt very luxurious as we had decided to spend 4 days in A Coruña doing almost the same thing before our work started. We had a cheap campsite that was officially closed, but open casually, all to ourselves so we saved a whack of money and enjoyed this pocket of Spain free of tourists.
So, here we are in our rented flat in A Coruña. We actually feel like we’re on a ‘normal’ holiday and we’ve got time to think about this website, about Cal’s normal work, about our route down to Portugal, and mostly about our excitement for Raid Gallaecia! We’re going to be eating some good food over the next few days then heading to the adventure race world champs for 2 weeks starting on the 28th. We’ll fill you in on how that goes next month! Woah.
Lots of love, C + Me xxx
Total distance: 1171.01km
4 trains, 3 ferries