Leon to Santiago de Compostela




Day 24 Hospital de Orbigo to Villafranca del Bierzo 63 miles 6 hrs 48 mins at 9.1 mph


Expecting a long day I set off at 8.30 (early for me) and am soon at Astorga, an impressive town still with most of its walls intact.  I was told they are original Roman but they look in too Astorgagood a condition to me. There was a large cathedral and alongside it the bishop’s palace, designed by Gaudi and slightly reminiscent of Disney World.  Outside the town I followed the signs to Ponferrada as that was the next major town on the route and I hadn’t seen any Camino de Santiago signs or arrows.  This was not unusual leaving towns so I wasn’t worried.  About five miles out of town and still no signs, I must have missed a sign back in town.  Rather than ride the five miles back to Astorga I continued on the NV1 main road to Ponferrada. I should have gone back as I later found out I missed one of the most interesting parts of the Camino. Next time maybe! The NV1 was a large main road but as a new motorway had opened following its route most traffic used that.  I more or less had the road to myself.  The Dutch couple were right.  It was a long hard climb to a 1500m high pass albeit a different one to the one they meant. The weather was hot and sunny.  Well, hot and sunny on the way up, at the top the weather dramatically changed to cold and rain for the 20 mile downhill part of the ride.  I had to put on two pairs of socks and another pair on my hands (no gloves) to combat the cold.  This part of Spain is where most of the Spanish slate is quarried and disused quarries as well as old coal mines are everywhere amongst the mountains.  Even the buildings have slate roofs instead of the clay pantiles like in the rest of Spain.  The place looks a bit like parts of Wales because of this.


At the bottom the road followed a valley for about 20 miles to the outskirts of Ponferrada.  It was still cold but strangely the wet road was steaming, as the tarmac was still warm after some earlier sun.  It all seemed very different from the wheat fields of a couple of days ago. The NV1 road ended about 5 miles outside Ponferrada and joined the new motorway into town but of course bikes are not allowed on motorways.  After a couple of false starts I found a small road that bypassed the motorway but it did so by climbing up into the mountains again and it took an hour and a half before I descended into Ponferrada instead of the half hour it would have taken along the valley on the motorway.


Ponferrada isPonferrada a fairly large modern city, the old part of which stands above the eastern banks of the river Sil around an impressive Templar castle.  The whole of the old town appeared to be undergoing restoration; a lot of the streets had been dug up and were being cobbled. It must have been costing millions, perhaps some European grant.  It would be good when completed but at present it was a huge mess with very few areas that didn’t look like a building site.  The Ponferrada camp site didn’t apparently exist anymore but I was directed to one by the tourist information place a few miles up the road at Calvacedo near Villafranca del Bierzo.  The camp site, although out in the sticks near a lake seemed fine, quiet with hot showers and its own restaurant and at the gate I was handed an extensive menu.

As I looked around for a place to pitch my tent I was followed by a small Spanish boy, perhaps five years old.  He was constantly asking me questions in Spanish, most of which I could answer with a bit of help with the odd mime here and there. I found a place for the tent near a tree; it is always handy to have a tree nearby to rest the bike against.  The small boy picked up something from the ground and asked “was this mine?”, “no” I said.  He had found a tampon. He unwrapped it and asked “What is it?”. “I don’t know” I lied.  There are times when a mime might not be appropriate. Once the tent was up I went for a nice hot shower.  Unfortunately the water was heated by an array of solar panels on the roof of the shower block and there had been no sun for several days.  Oh well a cold shower then but at least I would get a good meal at the restaurant when it opened at 9 o’clock.  This gave me a couple of hours to peruse the menu I had been given at the gate and I chose one of their specialities, paella or perhaps cerdo asado al jerez (roast pork in sherry) yum, I can hardly wait.  At the stroke of nine I went to the restaurant and ordered the paella, “No” said the waitress.

“Oh well the cerdo then”


“Have you got the pollo asado?”


“What have you got then ?”

“Lomo a la plancha, patatas fritas y ensalada” (deep fried “meat” with chips /salad), basically the usual.

"Organic corn fed baby panda lomo?"


“OK that’s what it will have to be then, I suppose the dessert is flan ?”


“No other choice?”


So much for the nice camp site but at least it was quiet.  The firework display in the nearby village started at midnight and built up to a crescendo of bangs at 2am.



Day 25 Villafranca del Bierzo to Cebriero 26 miles 5 hrs 6 mins at 5.2 mph


Villafranca del BierzoIt rained all night and much of the morning but at 11 o’clock it stopped so I set off. Five miles up the road the rain started again so I stopped at the town of Villafranca del Bierzo to shelter.  It was their market day so I wandered around in the rain. Everyone was sheltering under the awnings over the stalls or under an umbrella.  It was very crowded and difficult to push the bike around in the narrow streets between the stalls but interesting.  The only thing I bought was a fish empanada (a sort of pasty) which was horrible.  I met up with the Dutch couple again in town, they were going to stay in town for the night as there were apparently no camp sites within a day’s ride on the road ahead and a large hill was coming up and of course it was raining.  Despite this I decided to carry on as I was already half soaked.

After the town the road started climbing into the mountains. A new motorway was being built in this area.  Again, it must have been costing a fortune as so many bridges, tunnels and vast earthworks were involved in its construction. I stopped at a rather pleasant refugio for a coffee and a bit further up the road I was lucky enough to spot a small left hand turning to the original pilgrim route. This followed tiny roads through damp valleys and small villages before the long climb to Cebriero started. This route avoided any tunnels that others later complained of.  The hill up to the tiny village of Cebreiro was very hard work,


The Camino climbing to Cebreiro


too steep for the lowest gear it involved pushing the bike for about three hours and stopping for breath every hundred yards.  Luckily the rain stopped and it was cloudy and cool which helped a lot. The tarmac surface gives way to gravel after the lonely Laguna de Castilla refugio for the last mile or so to the summit.  Cebreiro oCebreiron the mountain top at 1300m consisted of a church, a few restaurants and souvenir shops and the fairly large and new pilgrims’ refugio.  There were also a couple of pallozas which are round houses with pointed thatched roofs.  Apparently in the past they were divided internally, one half for the humans and the other for the animals, but now they are small museums.  The fairly large and new refugio was full but I was welcome to put my tent up behind the church and use the facilities of the refugio for free.  This seemed a good idea but the few showers in the refugio always had a queue so the shower would have to wait.  The evening was spent in one of the bars drinking cheap wine with other pilgrims.  I can think of worse things to do on top of a cold windy mountain.


Day 26 Cebriero to Portomarin 47 miles 6 hrs 22 mins at 7.4 mph


It was wet and windy all night and pretty cold, so cold in fact I was forced to set off at 6.30am or freeze in the tent in a wet sleeping bag.  Again I was wearing two pairs of socks and socks on my hands but it was still cold riding, especially for my knees which don’t seem to work properly at that temperature.  The road was downhill for a couple of miles then up again to the Alto de Poio which at 1500m is even higher than Cebriero.  Here, up in the clouds, was another small refugio with a cafe attached where I had a rather odd breakfast of coffee and chocolate doughnut biscuits but at that time of day and that cold it was great and anyway it was all they had.  After that the off road path became very stony and steep in places.  Admittedly the sign at the start had said not suitable for bikes which, as in previous places, I had ignored but this time it meant it and in the end I was forced back onto the road.  Finally the road started to drop down from the mountains, out of the clouds and then down a long steep hill to Triacastella and the warmth of the valley below.  A shop at last, I was able to buy my standard loaf of bread and tin of sardinillas, appropriate food for a pilgrim I think.  

From Triacastella the route passed through Samos where there was a very large and impressive Samosmonastery dating back to the sixth century although the present building dates mainly from the eleventh century.  The area was wooded and hilly, passing through many small villages, the most appealing being Real.  Real was small and set in a steep valley.  It gave the impression of dating from before time began containing small low houses with roofs made of large and irregular slates, mud streets and animals roaming amongst the buildings, UNReal perhaps.  The route passed through Sarria and then out into the country on tiny hilly roads before joining the main road again to drop steeply into Portomarin where I let the bike go on the last bit of the hill, nearly 50 mph, stupid but fun. There is so much weight on the bike that the brakes are not really powerful enough to stop it on steep hills.  Normally I don’t go that fast downhill. Which explains how I am able to write this now ( I am still alive ).


Portomarin is set on the banks of a large lake that turns out to be man made for hydro electric purposes.  The original village was flooded in the sixties but some of its best buildings were re-Portomarinbuilt stone by stone above the water level including the Romanesque church, a strange box like building that looks more like a fortress.  The camp site was a couple of miles outside the village in a beautiful spot by the lake.  There were only two other couples there, both from the Nederlands.  One couple had cycled the Camino from France and the other had driven it in a campervan.  We all ended up in the camp site bar and later on had a meal in the camp site restaurant.  It was a set 5 course menu with coffee, wine, and a liqueur all included for 950 pts, and moderately good too.  Certainly the best meal in Spain so far and not deep fried for a change!  Things are looking up!  Perhaps I should stay here?  But no, Santiago is only about two days ride away now and I am eager to get there, must be the pilgrim in me.




Day 27 Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela 56 miles 8 hrs 41 mins at 6.4 mph


I set off from Portomarin and its lovely little camp site at about 11.30.  I was in no hurry as I intended to cover the last part of the route in two easy days but as things turned out there were no camp sites or suitable (that means cheap) places to stay so I ended up riding the whole 56 miles in one day.  All but the last 15 miles were on difficult gravel paths or small steep roads which explains why it took nearly nine hours riding at a low average speed to get there.


From Portomarin the first 10 km is  climbing a steep path although it was possible to ride up most of it.  After that it flattened out for a while until Palas de Rei, where I lost the route markings and ended up on the wrong road out of town.  This time, unlike at Astorga, I rode back and eventually found the correct path.  The pilgrim path was noticeably more crowded now than it had been in the flat central heartlands.  Most of the people I spoke to had started in Astorga.  Apparently it is only necessary to have walked 100 km of the route to qualify for the Compostellana certificate or have ridden 200 km on a bike and this might explain the number of pilgrims.  The path passed through many small villages and some small towns such as Melide and Arzua.  There were some impressive places, some medieval bridges, some very rural areas and


 In the wilds somewhere


some pine forests.  The whole area seemed to smell of cow shit as muck spreading is much more prevalent here than at home.  I could also smell the many battery chicken houses long before I saw them.  The area was rather like a large farm yard, rather run down and poor.  The place and the people here, often seen holding mattocks, or cutting hay with a scythe could be from a separate country or for that matter separate century.  I finally arrived at Santiago at 10 o’clock at night, somewhat tired after nine hours riding and was lucky enough to find a camp site on the outskirts of town near the TV station. Camping Monte do Gozo, if I remember correctly. Despite the late hour they were kind enough to cook me a meal.



Day 28 Santiago de Compostela


Here at last after 536 miles on the pilgrim route in Spain and 1321 miles from Roscoff.  The old Santiago de Compostelabike has done well with no problems other than one puncture and one burst tyre despite the weight it had to carry and the, at times, very rough track.


Santiago is a very impressive town full of ornate buildings, mostly built of granite.  It is very crowded and a bit touristy with souvenir shops everywhere and whole streets of restaurants, mainly seafood ones with the inevitable tank full of live lobsters and crabs which actually put me off eating in them rather than encouraged me.  The cathedral was large and imposing and somehow very different to look at than any other cathedral I can think of.  Inside it was typically Spanish, fantastically ornate with heavily carved gold leaf pillars etc.  The inside reminded me of the cathedral in Cusco.  Normally there is a long queue to climb a small bridge over the tomb of Santiago / St James / St Jacques but on this occasion it was very short so I joined it.  One is supposed to kiss the golden effigy of St James on the shoulder, but I gave him a pat on the back and said thanks for a wonderful experience and journey of a lifetime. I meant it.


CompostellanaNear the cathedral there is the Pilgrims office where pilgrims can claim their Compostela. Armed with my Credencial del Peregrino to prove that I had covered the required distance I was given a form to fill in - name, address, that sort of thing and a column headed “Reason for pilgrimage”.  I thought for a moment, "Accident" perhaps? but chose “Adventure”.  This turned out to be not good enough.  Apparently the only reason allowed was “Religious”.  Muttering “well why bother to even have a column that is only allowed one answer”, and “how do you spell religious anyway?” I complied with “Religious adventure” and was given the prized certificate after quite a bit of hesitation from the girl behind the counter. 





Since returning to the UK I have found out there is an alternative certificate available called the Certificado that is perhaps more appropriate than the Compostela for “Pilgrims” who follow the Camino for reasons other than purely religious ones such as adventure, by accident, or whatever.


It is said that the ghosts of the real Pilgrims from bygone times haunt the length of the Camino and make their presence felt to all who travel it. 


Whatever frame of mind one has starting the Camino it is unlikely that frame of mind will be quite the same on arriving at Santiago.



Downstairs, having failed to wrap the certificate up tight enough to store it in the saddle tube on my bike as I had intended. I was buying a cardboard tube to keep it in when I noticed that they did a special rate scheme to repatriate bona fide (i.e. certificated) pilgrims to most Spanish cities.  It would be £22 to Santander for me including the bike by bus or £40 by air, very tempting!  It would cost more than £22 just for camp sites.  Santander is almost 500 miles away.  I have been told the north coast of Spain is very hilly and I hate riding up hills. I have been told there are few camp sites in parts of the north coast.  What if the bike broke?   I hate riding bikes anyway. The 1300 miles I have already cycled might be my limit.  I would need a new front tyre.  I will give Kath a ring and see what she thinks.  Kath thinks it would be a bad idea and that I would Santiago de Compostelabe a wimp to catch the bus, she would not be arriving in Santander for 12 days so “I would have plenty of time as I would only have to cover 40 miles a day or so, goodbye”.  Later in a bar contemplating what option to take over several beers I decided that Kath was probably right, I had never been to the north coast before.  It might not be as hilly and have as few camp sites as people have said. 500 miles is not that far, after all I have covered well over twice that distance already.  The bus might crash.  Several more beers later I was beginning to think Kath might be wrong.  This is difficult I will have to sleep on it.  Wandering around Santiago later I found a bike shop that had a suitable front tyre and the tourist office gave me a map that implied there were plenty of camp sites on the north coast so OK I will ride to Santander after all. I met up with the Dutch couple on their strange bikes. They had had to catch a bus for the last few miles as one of the bikes had a broken back axle and a spare would have to be sent out from Holland. They were going to ride along the North coast so perhaps I would see them again (I didn’t but back home they sent me an e-mail to say they had made it back to Holland). I bought a T shirt and had a haircut and stayed at the camp site to the north of Santiago as that would be the direction I would take in the morning after a good night’s sleep.


Next  stage of the route     Santiago de Compostela to Gijon