This is the beginning of a very special journey. The Way of Saint James (El Camino de Santiago in Spanish) was inaugurated in 831 AD. For almost 1300 years, pilgrims have walked (and now biked) to the Cathedral in Western Spain where the Biblical apostle James is buried. There are several different routes that the pilgrims can walk, marked by distinctive blue and yellow signs. The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) runs from France along the coast of the Bay of Biscay through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturia, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
On 30 August, Cheryl and I took the Canada Line train to Vancouver International Airport, where she saw me off on my return flight to Heathrow. After an uneventful (good) flight, I checked into the Ibis Hotel by the airport to be near the access road to Terminal 3 for my early flight to Bilbao.
The 31st I spent checking on my bicycle (which was in good shape), repacking my panniers, and shipping things that I thought I would not need back to Formia. That night in the hotel, I found that my pedals would not budge, and that the Allen wrench on my multitool was too small. I rode 30 km around the towns north of Heathrow, trying to find an open store, but the only one that could have had an 8-mm wrench closed as I arrived. I set the alarm for an hour earlier, to give me time to resolve the problem with the agents at the air terminal in the morning.
Well before dawn, I rode to Terminal 3. The tunnel road was closed to bicycles for renovation (no warnings or publicity about that), so I used up my extra hour riding around the airport Perimeter Road to the Hatton Cross tube station and using the Underground to get into Terminal 3.
The sun dawned as I approached the agents at British Airways with my problem. The manager quickly approved boarding my bicycle with the pedals on normally, solving my problem. Apparently this happens often, and British Airways does not have the hang-ups other airlines have about bicycles. The bicycle and I arrived in Bilbao on time and in good shape. I rode over a punishing ridge into town, found everything closed for lunch, and checked into the hotel. The air conditioning felt good after the bright heat of the Basque hills.
My first surprise in Northern Spain was the bicycle infrastructure. There are bicycle lanes, many of them protected, all over Bilbao, San Sebastian and Santander. There are also broad pedestrian paseos in every town, where bicycles and pedestrians can cut across the city in relative safety. The drivers are generally very alert for bicycles, and they pass with great care. No one seemed impatient while waiting behind us for a safe opportunity to pass. Unlike some other countries, in Spain, the drivers are confident around bikes, and don’t stay back there forever, blocking traffic. There is a pleasant flow to the traffic on the highways. In Bilbao, I also found a friendly bicycle mechanic who let me pump up my tyres and showed me where the Decathlon store was up the street for a new Allen wrench set.
The second surprise was the Vuelta de España. I had never seen a world-class bicycle race in person. When I checked into the Hotel Carlton in the center of Bilbao, the reception clerk seemed enthusiastic to welcome me and the bicycle. He also informed me that the Vuelta was finishing its stage that day in Bilbao, and riding through the Plaza in front of the hotel. At 1620, I gathered with the crowd outside to await the race. After 45 minutes of advertising in the forms of funny cars and other vehicles advertising the race sponsors’ products, I could tell that the racers were arriving by the sound of applause flowing down the street. That made it easy to be ready to photograph the leaders, and later the peloton as they came by. As the crowd dissipated, I finished running my errands and returned to the airport to meet Cheryl’s flight from Frankfurt. The airport was 14 km from downtown. The warm sunshine struck a pleasant contrast to the weather in Vancouver and London, but the hills surrounding Bilbao challenged our unaccustomed legs. We were riding with full loads after hours of sitting in airplanes.
In Bilbao, I was able to obtain my credencial as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, and my first stamp, from the Cathedral in Bilbao. I resolved to make the pilgrimage in addition to visiting the coast. The only requirements were to obtain stamps in the passport so that the authorities in Santiago could verify that my progress was reasonable, and to ride the last 200 km.
We planned to start the Camino from San Sebastian, at least 776 km from Santiago. On 2 September, we took the Euskotren (the Basque Country railway) to the famous resort city 20 km from the French border. Here again, the bicycle infrastructure allowed us to ride along the marvelous beaches, and out to the cable car to visit the Monte Igeldo overlooking the city. We dined on tapas and good local red wine, and wondered about the lack of restaurants. Everyone seemed to be eating snacks all the time, but not sitting down. Cheryl looked it up on the Web, and we learned that in general, Spaniards skip breakfast (coffee and a cigarette at best), eat a full lunch (hence the 3- and 4-hour closings in the afternoon), then snack at suppertime, starting at 2100. No one stirs except early-hours cleaners before 1000 in the morning. With our need to ride, we would find it problematic to find open stores when we needed them.
We were struck by the sociability of the Spanish. Eating is an excuse to gather and chat, and nowhere did we see a cellphone in use while friends were around. Everyone seemed to have a phone, but they consulted them only when alone, as on the train or bus, or by themselves on the sidewalk. At night, the streets of the old town sounded like a massive cocktail party, as thousands socialized outside the many tapa bars.
On the 4th, we rode around the Monte Igeldo, which seemed never to end. Then we made our way to Deba, the first place where we would stay at one of the many albergues for pilgrims along the Camino. The hills were not easy, but we were already a little stronger. The incredible overlooks scanning the coast rewarded our efforts.
The albergues are a distinctive feature of the Camino de Santiago. They are operated by churches, town governments, and private parties. For five euros in the public albergue (the private ones cost more, but less than a hostel), we got a clean bed in a dormitory and access to the shower and john. No linens, so we were expected to use our sleeping bags, and pull them up over the pillows. Check-in is always after 1430, and pilgrims must vacate the place by 0830. After locking the door in the morning, the staff hose down the place with disinfectant and tidy it up . No reservations. Only travellers with a credencial may use the facilities, although anyone may obtain one just to use the albergues. Most of the guests were walking, and dozens of hiking boots lined the shelves outside the sleeping areas. We stored our bikes in a locked shed.
Excitement and anticipation graced our first day on the Camino. It would become a frequent theme.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,