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Journal

Follow here my journey and stories around the World. 

 

Filtering by Tag: trail

Day 11: Astorga - Villafranca del Bierzo

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

With day 11 on the agenda and almost touching my home region Galicia with my fingertips, off we went the 7 of us direction Santiago de Compostela (if you missed the growth of our "Ondiñas" team, please check back on day 9 and day 10).

The "Ondiñas" team

As usual for us bikers, we were the last ones to leave the Albergue and right after went to indulge our early morning breakfast ritual. We rode mostly together, until at some point I lost the "Ondiñas" team by adventuring into a rough path, which on a given moment narrowed to a human size passage only, but a very fun one.

On the way I met Klaudia, a Spanish girl from Malaga who was doing the Camino to find herself and her own path. Strangely, she pointed out that I was one of the first Spanish she met and that most people only talked English, which she doesn't. It actually is true, most of the people I've met were from all over the World, so if you're going to do your Camino to learn some Spanish, you might consider the other paths like the "Camino del Norte" or the "Via de la Plata".

Camino Tech Station

When amidst bushes that were almost covering the whole track, my GoPro and camera run out of memory, so I simply pulled out a Pop Up Camino Tech Station, check out the pic. Cards emptied, off I went again through the treacherous narrow paths where I suddenly got reunited with one of our newer companions, the unstoppable pedaller, Andrew.

Cruz de Hierro - Iron Cross

Achieving together the heights of "Cruz de Hierro", what initially seemed to be a hard ride up, ended being a very pleasant one. The "Cruz de Hierro" is actually the highest point on the whole French Way, 1600 m of altitude. On top of it stands a 5m high pole with a cross (replica of the original) that gives this place its name (check here for more information; in Spanish only). 

Suddenly to our surprise, we found there a cinema crew too, they were filming some scenes of the film adaptation of the besteller book from the German Comedian Hape Hakeling: "Ich bin dan mal weg" (=I'm off for a while, then). In it, he covers his Camino de Santiago done a few years ago, narrating all the stories and people he encountered. It is not any kind of movie, it is one of the big German film productions with renowned actors like Devid Striesow, mainly known for his role in the Downfall and the Counterfeiters. Funny coincidence thou, that I started my own Way and travel blog precisely mentioning this book and story on day -1 while sipping a coffee in Bordeaux. 

When we were leaving the scene of this German "Hollywood", the crew were putting up some fake Camino stones and props. It was remarkable too, how fresh and energized the Camino "extras" were, their jeans, yes, jeans for an 800km "pilgrimage"... and their bags were immaculately clean. But you know, cinema is cinema! Meanwhile, dirty us, we hit the road to continue our dust gathering.

Nevertheless, don't mind too much my ironic account of events, remember that a story might not always be 100% real, but if its purpose is a pure and passionate one, it will still reflect the vision and emotions of a true story.

The amazing Andrew overlooking the amazing Bierzo region

Once back on the road, in total contrast with the previous days' monotonous rides, we were about to start one of my preferred actions on a bike: riding downhills! With a magnificent scenery as a background, our first descents took us through wild stone paths where our breaks had to be pulled constantly. Letting me finally convince by Andrew and to avoid breaking his beloved "wife", we chose a smoother path; consider that if a bicycle stands the fact of crossing from Canada to Argentina (yup, the fricking whole north to south ride), you might as well call her your wife. That's what Mr. Amazing Andrew did among many other great rides. If you're looking for your "wife/husband" too, consider this:

Twelfth recommendation of the Camino: if you plan to ride cross-country and on rough paths, consider a suspension mountain bike. But, if you're more into long distances on mainly flat but also off track trails, you might look at a touring bike; durable and fitted to carry all kinds of racks (that's Andrew's wife! Check here to know more about bicycle types).

Molinaseca village

Once on tarmac, we rode some of the best 20 to 30 min downhills I've ever done on a bicycle, the striking landscape and the serpentine roads made it a glorious descent. It all ended in a cobble stoned little town with a lovely river, a bridge and full of pilgrims. We went on however to the nearby Ponferrada, where by accident, we stumbled into the World Cycling Competition with teams and bikes from all over the World (Andrew has one amusing story with competing cyclists... but, I won't reveal it until the next Camino day).

Passing through this big World competition, we came across a couple of journalists, who actually were from the National Italian tv RAI uno (similar to Germany's RTL or England's BBC). We were bikers of an 800 kms journey, in a now cycling capital, one American long distance rider, a Spanish polyglot and a camera... well, the natural course of events was that an Interview was mandatory. So it was, that I pulled out my Italian side and answered to a few questions to Italy's biggest and main TV channel: my 15 minutes of fame! Yyyhaaa, I can check that one out of my bucket list! (mail me if you wish some signed portraits of mine ;) )

 

Ponferrada's Castle area

 

Trying to avoid the crowded Ponferrada, we ended the journey in Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the prettiest small mountain villages of the region. To our surprise, the girls and Felix were still behind us, their lunch pause got us ahead so it was our turn for the usual mass booking in the town's albergue. While we waited for them, I practised some German with 3 pilgrims and also met the first Danish pilgrim on the Camino, Fee, a young actress walking her first Camino. Don't forget me when you become a Hollywood star ;)

Villafranca del Bierzo's sunlights

Being ahead of time, I decided to grab my laptop (yes, I took my 13incher across hills, rocks, punctures and storms with me) and try to work on my blog. "Try" a peculiar word it is, since it may give you enough ambiguity that a task might not get fulfilled at all. And yes, that's exactly what happened to me. While I was looking for a quite and nice bar to settle down, I saw one with my favorite beer and as soon as I stopped, one of the most common things on the Camino happened, fellow pilgrims that were sipping some beers started talking with me, and I obviously joined them. That's when I met Brian, Emma, Ondrej and Brandon by pure coincidence (a mix of Aussies, Irish and Czech). I also did some arm weights exercises by carrying uselessly my laptop around Villafranca. We had some interesting conversations and it was a pure pilgrims moment, after a journey of effort you gather to meet people and stories in a family kind of atmosphere.

Delicious Botillo

However, part of the family was missing, so I called up the other "Ondiñas" members and as soon as they arrived, thanks to Álvaro a study friend from Ponferrada, I remembered that they produce here a regional dish called "Botillo". At first it might look more like a big chunk of badly shaped chorizo, and it somehow does, but it's made of several pork parts stuffed into a spiced big ball of meat. Best of all, we accidentally ended up in the best Botillo place of the town, we could never have found it if I hadn't asked some locals where to get it. The Don Nacho is on a really narrow road of Villafranca and far off from the bustling city centre; a real local's secret tip. But be warned, this dish isn't for the softies among you. Check out more here.

Pilgrim Family dinner at Don Nacho

So it was that eleven people that didn't even know each other a week before, were now sharing a big dinner in the most local place possible, we were: the Camino family!

Follow me on the blog and my social media networs for more stories and Camino dinners of my first ever Santiago pilgrimage!

Day 10: León - Astorga

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

As if Galicia, my home region in Spain and host of Santiago de Compostela was anticipating our visit, another rainy day was expecting us (FYI it rains quite a lot there).

After having met Felix the day before and now joining our "Ondiñas" team, we headed for a very common morning ritual: Breakfast! After taking a pic of Leandro (check day 9 to know more) and wishing him a "buen camino", off we went to a place I spotted the day before for some great morning food; great tortilla breakfast for Felix and me, and sweeter for the girls.

Rainy Camino days

We were about to leave Leon but not before passing by its magnificent cathedral, where I took the chance to quickly grab a map of the next route in the Tourism office. A good thing I did, because at that moment the other "Ondiñas" were chatting with a fellow bike pilgrim. He was struggling to leave in the rain, so we asked him if he wanted to join us for at least the next route. So it was actually, how we met Andrew from the US who started his Camino in Paris and is right now down in Morocco! What an impressive challenge and it's not the first of his big bike adventures, stay tuned to know more.

There we were now 7 bike pilgrims from all around the World joining paths: one started in St Jean Pied de Port, three in Ordizia, one in Berlin and one in Paris. By destiny or simple coincidence, this is how we ended up being the biggest and most international bike pilgrims group on the Camino: the "Ondiñas" team! 

(check back on day 7 to learn the origin of that name)

Rain rain rain and more rain

In spite of the monotonous roads and paths that we had to face this day, our new companions and stories made it a really pleasant one, only disturbed by some heavy rain again and again. Fortunately, we didn't suffer the Apocalypse of day 8, but it was enough to get us completely soaked and finish our journey a bit earlier than usual in the charming town of Astorga. Once there and registering at the town's albergue, we started hearing a familiar voice... it was Leandro, the priest we had met in Leon!

With this re-encounter and since it was kind of late for lunch, we all went in search of the town's Supermarket to make ourselves some cheese and wine aperitif. We took quite a while to get there, because every pilgrim we crossed stopped and knew Leandro, that's what it means to be a funny and sociable priest pilgrim. Once we finally got to the supermarket, it was a GADIS, a supermarket from Galicia, my region, and full of delicious products from there. No no, don't worry, I'm not going to mention my favourite beer again, but, I will mention one of my favourite cheeses "Queso de Tetilla" (=small breast cheese). As its name indicates, its shape is a sort of cone topped by a nipple.

There's one story (of probably many), which says that its origin goes back to a monastery with one particular female statue. This female statue had obviously a female figure, but a pair of her attributes were a bit bigger than usual. To such an extent, that the monks didn't leave their eyes from her. Outraged by this situation, the Abbot decided to split the statue and only leave the head and shoulders! Deprived from the usual view, the monks simply decided to replicate the statues attributes with a new type of cheese and shape: the "Queso de Tetilla" was born! 

If true or not, this history adds a comic note to one of the best soft cheeses of Galicia that combines perfectly with Quince marmalade for both desert as an evening snack. To cheese or not to cheese, keep reading my next posts if you'd like to read more about Spanish and Galician cuisine.

Going back to the beginning of this little story, there's more to GADIS too. It might be just another supermarket to many, but their local character and promotion of Galician is remarkable. Since a few years, this compromise is best shown in ads that struck directly into the Galicians' hearts. The references and situations that are portrayed are really familiar to us; it also provokes quite a lot of homesickness to the emigrated ones. Check out the video.

Basically, after some good shopping, out we went to indulge our cheese and wine aperitif with the freshly arrived sun. This was all possible thanks to our early stop:

Eleventh recommendation for the Camino: don't rush, take your time, and enjoy the lack of stress!

Strolling around Astorga, we met the biggest backpack ever (it might have belonged to Goliath...) and to our Catalan "Ondiñas" rejoice, we came across the Episcopal Palace of Astorga, from the famous architect Gaudí. It is one of the few of his creations outside Catalunya and together with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is one of the most representative examples of the Catalan Modernism. That's also where we crossed again our fellow bike pilgrims from our passage in Carrión de los Condes (check day 8). So what better homage could we all do to Gaudi's work, than trying to outdo one of the most famous selfies of this year's Oscars, check the pic below. 

 

Best pilgrim selfie ever!

 

"Take that Ellen and Bradley, I've even got Gaudí in the frame!".

With, our best Pilgrim selfie ever, the last things to full fill were our stomachs, so out we went for some dinner. I indulged myself in one of my best dinners, red tuna with almond crust and another plate of "Morcilla" (check day 7), scrambled eggs and Spanish Chorizo. A great dinner finished by some wine tastings and another of my Camino Photo Interviews with Leandro, our funny priest!

Stay tuned for the next one and good night ;)

Day 9: Calzadilla de la Cueza - León

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

Do you remember the last time?
On day 8 we were about to arrive to the end of our journey while trying to avoid thunder and storm...

Tigers and Wolfs!

Well, the thing is that the route to Calzadilla de la Cueza is only one and short, but that's on a normal day. With the hearing thunder and lightning approaching, rain doesn't usually scare off people from the north, even heavy one is ok, but when at some given point the expression raining like cats and dogs turns into rather tigers and wolfs... well, that's when you have to consider getting some cover. Add to this, killing hail and wind forces that displace you sideways for more than a meter, and you will see even the tough ones back down!

Against this rage of the gods, the only good thing I could do was jump into the nearest bushes and trees. But the storm was so strong that I had to find another solution, luckily, I was in the same place where the road's waterways were: two tiny holes of 1m by 1m. In the fashion of a circus like contortionist, I squeezed myself into one of them to wait out the storm. Following also the SMS instructions Marta's dad sent us a few days ago, what we initially considered funny ended up being some really good advise:

Tenth recommendation for the Camino: specially if you're a bike pilgrim, when seeing lightnings approaching, get shelter and away from your bike, or you might end up with a haircut worse than Einstein's.

My siesta "tent"

Actually, among mud and spider webs, during those 45 min of apocalypse, I even indulged into another great Spanish tradition, the siesta! Yes, with no way to reach the girls and whereas a Gaul's biggest fear was becoming true "the sky falling on our heads" (check here for reference). Well, that's the moment when a northern guy decided to simply take a nap ;)

The calm after the storm

With the calm after the storm and a lost hope of drying up, after some long ride I suddenly arrived to Calzadilla de la Cueza, where the only things available are the albergue and a restaurant... But what a restaurant! The guys running it and the food they serve is worth every storm, the servers' friendliness and funny attitude were amazing. On top of it, I had again some great regional dish and even retasted my second favourite beer, Alhambra Reserva. All ended even better with a big laugh attack of Marta and Maitane, only silenced due to the 22:00 lights out.

Calzadilla mornings

With Day 9 beginning, Marta and Carla retook last night's endorphins rush and started to dance dance dance! So after some energy rush and a great breakfast, off we went again. While crossing Sahagun, we stopped at a bike shop to refurbish our many punctured tubes from our legendary Puncture Day (check back on day 7 and day 8). Suddenly, that's when I realised that my fantastic pump was broken, whilst hesitating if I really needed it, I finally bought a new one for precaution. I also got myself the best Camino Bike souvenir I could get me, plus, it made me visible! (just in case another rage of gods fell on us; check future entries to discover it).

Pumped up, off we went again to actually get separated soon afterwards. The girls preferred to take the "royal Camino" and as my guide wrote, the "more humanized" one. Wrong it wasn't, since I took myself the "historic path" of Roman origin which was, quote: "more solitary, rough and wild". And boy it was really rough, we are talking here about 30 kms, yes, flat ones, but mostly made of clay-like grounds and full of small stones all the way, monotony and strong side winds all the time! When riding, I was even preferring the dreadful hills of St. Jean Pied de Port from my first day.

One of the only 3 pilgrims I crossed that day

If I thought having a solitary morning the day before, this one was definitively my most solitary moment in all my Camino de Santiago. The road never seemed to end because its landscape was all the time the same. Of course, since one "good thing" never comes alone (yes, if you sense some irony, you might be on the right track), it was my time to suffer a puncture! Somewhere in the middle of the roughest paths, my fate was to get punctured and with nothing around at all, yes nothing; outer space in comparison to this nothingness can't even keep up. 

But no worries, I was prepared, destiny wanted me to have bought a new pump that morning. She, destiny, really seems to be chasing me, because since I started the Camino she didn't stop to put me on the right track. In any case, after having changed 3 wheels the days before, I could almost do it with my eyes closed... but, there's always a BUT (interpret it as you wish ;) )! My new shiny pump didn't fit my tube, air was going anywhere except into it. I tried and tried and tried, and there was no way I would get it inflated, my other dear pump did fit, but it was broken... that's when at some point my favourite child series came to my mind, MacGyver! Yes yes, make whatever comment you want, but it actually worked. Using my broken pump in combination with the new one allowed my to inflate my wheel to a reasonable amount as to go on direction Leon. MacGyverism works!

So it was then, that I managed to finish one of my hardest and also coldest journeys of my whole Camino, I didn't take off my jacket all day. I finally entered Leon on quite an early time and I reunited there with the "Ondiñas" team again.

The amazing Estrella Galicia 1906

In need of some time off, I went to one great bar near our albergue where I received my reward for this hard day: my favourite beer! Even better, they had the toasted version, Estrella Galicia 1906! Ok ok, I guess at this point I might be able to ask them for some commission on all the promo I'm giving them. If not, at least I got a great picture and one amazing tapa of another Spanish delicacy: Jamón Ibérico (=Spanish Ham), the best ham in the World!

After this gourmet moment, another one had to come, dinner!

Looking for a place with a pilgrim menu it was also the first time we met a new companion, Felix from Germany. He actually started his "Camino" in Berlin as part of the World travel he's still in. Obviously, as every good German, after our great dinner he became my beer buddy by tasting and enjoying my favourite beers.

Leandro and the girls

Unfortunately, since some albergues have a curfew, we had to run back in order to avoid being closed out, but not without meeting one of the most funniest priests I've ever met, Leandro...

Tune in for the next days of my Camino to know more about him and other soon to be new companions of the "Ondiñas" team: bigger, better and stronger!