Friday, 16 September. We awoke to threatening skies. With dawn at 0730, once again we did not get up early enough. We struck out from Ribadeo past the beautiful beaches west of town. Light rain followed us all day. However, the only two times that it poured heavily, we managed to be under cover, including lunch in Foz. After Foz, we faced a series of uphill grinds to reach Viveiro. I never caught up with Cheryl, until she stopped in Viveiro to visit the Tourist Office and buy groceries. We booked a room in a historic property 7 km south of Viveiro, the Pazo da Traves. Built in 1435, it looks out on a magnificent vista of hills. The estate itself features old buildings and an inactive chapel, where we locked up our bicycles. Being so far out, I was glad that the place offered excellent dining with a fixed menu.
Considering our late starts and the weather, Cheryl came up with a bright idea during dinner: take the train to El Ferrol. We could punch through the front on the train on Saturday, then use Sunday to ride to A Coruña. On weekdays, the national road between El Ferrol would be filled with heavy trucks.
The room was cozy and pleasant. I wish that we could have lingered at Pazo da Traves.
Saturday, the 17th, we rose at dawn, but that was not saying much. As expected, the storm front rinsed off the train, as we admired the lush greenery in the troughs through which the train sped. Now and again, it would break out near the coast, and we would enjoy more spectacular beach property, often unspoiled by development.
In El Ferrol, we left our bags at the Carris Hotel Almirante near the station, then rode to explore the town. It turned out to be plainer than I expected. We rode past the bone-jarring cobblestoned historic quarter (not particularly historic-looking), then as far as we dared out the other side of town. We got our credenciales stamped at the Tourist Office near the ferry landing, which is where the many English pilgrims hiking the Camino Ingles start their trek. The Naval Base impressed this old sailor, with its late-model destroyers and tidy buildings.
Sunday, we were out by 1100. It was only 55 km, but we climbed up 876 m and coasted down only 200 m in that distance. Cheryl got an hour ahead of me, but rode on into town. I checked into the Hotel Plaza while she rode back from the seaside park downtown.
A Coruña was big, modern, clean and interesting. We decided to stay two nights. The hotel was well-equipped, but far from the downtown action. We walked the historic quarter, where we found that the Convent of Santo Domingo was celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Dominican Order. Considering the track record of the Order in Spain and Portugal in that time, I was not convinced that there was much to celebrate. The backstory of the Inquisition screamed at me from every painting honoring its accomplishments.
Dinner in the hotel was good, but we both wish the menus offered more vegetables and fruit. I had an entrée-sized salad to compensate.
Monday, the 19th, we made a quick run for errands: fruit and yoghurt, the post office (my panniers were 2,25 kg lighter after that), and laundry. While the laundromat operator was seeing our clothes through the machines, we rode the wide, smooth bike path around the City.
The Tower of Hercules looks out over the Atlantic from its own state park. It is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the world. Legend has it that Hercules built the first tower, when he settled in the area and founded Brigantia, because he fell in love with a beautiful local woman. The Romans built a lighthouse at the site. In the18th century, the Italian naval engineer Eustachio Giannini remodeled the Roman lighthouse. He preserved as much of the Roman lighthouse as possible while raising its height. With the wind whipping my face, I imagined the many times fleets from England, Ireland and Brittany were spotted from its top deck. We continued around the peninsula to Riazor Beach before running short on time. After picking up our laundry, I went for a haircut across the street from the hotel, while Cheryl shopped. The stylist doing my hair forgot my first request (“don’t shorten the back”), and lopped off the locks that I had been growing since last November, before I even realized what she was doing. Nice haircut, but I was not happy. Maybe I would have something to work with by next Christmas.
On Tuesday, 20 September, the forecast was sunny and warm, but we started out at 1100 in a cold, light rain. The sun broke out about an hour later. The last road to Santiago featured long, gradual hills, with dramatic downhills: 1736 m up and 786 does. We shared the road with the most traffic we had seen all trip, because the autovia was too far to the east.
Santiago de Compostela features a quaint, clean, and authentic medieval center. We found the Cathedral easily, pushing our loaded bikes through the crowded, pedestrian-only streets. We also found three tourist offices on the main shopping street: for the City, for Galicia, and for Northern Portugal. After visiting all of them, we found that the best local information came from the clerk in the cathedral store where we had our credenciales stamped. We loaded up on maps and set out to find the albergue that serves as the official terminus of the Camino. The square outside the Sacred Door and the main entrance to the Cathedral was packed with tourists, pilgrims and tour buses. At the north end of the square rose the magnificent Parador de Santiago.
The parador system in Spain was a brilliant idea: take over historic properties in areas not served by luxury hotels and competing chains, and restore them into luxury accommodations. They occupy mansions, palaces and castles throughout the country. The Parador in Santiago was built to be the original hospital for pilgrims completing the Camino, though few modern pilgrims can afford to stay there.
We stood in line for three hours at the albergue to present our credenciales and obtain our completion certificates. We surprised the clerks by showing that we had ridden two different Caminos and covered 1,000 km (exactly). We stopped at the post office next door to mail the tubes with our certificates home, then made out way to the Almira Hotel, a three-star boutique hotel near the market.
At 2000, we finally checked in, only to learn that the hotel would not take our bikes. The reception clerk had not read my reservation, so she gave us twin beds and did not call me about the bikes (her employer’s policy was to call all guests before they arrive). She found a storage service, which stayed open for us. We stored the bikes and settled in after dark. Our bodies were filthy from diesel fumes, road splash and basic traffic dirt, attached to the sweat from climbing 1136 m from the coast. The shower never felt so good.
On Wednesday, the 21st, I attended the English-language mass at the Cathedral. The priest’s custom was to have everyone introduce themselves, which took some time, because the chapel was packed. To my surprise, more than 50% of the pilgrims had done the Camino Portogues, most from Porto, some from Lisbon. Apparently, the Portuguese Way was more popular than ever this year. Only a half-dozern had walked the more famous Camino Francesa. I was the only bicyclist and one of only six Americans. There were two Canadians. Celebrating the liturgy among other pilgrims felt good and right. I was glad to be there.
There were many more tourists about town this day. We began to suspect that cruise ships were responsible for the massive throngs, landing as many as two thousand passengers each into tour buses for the many side trips that the cruise lines offer at each port of call.
In the afternoon, we visited the city market and artisan stores. We bought blue bicigrino jerseys at the bike store in the Cathedral square, with the traditional Latin pilgrim greeting on the back. I learned that the greeting that people use today (buen Camino, “happy trail”) is what locals would wish the pilgrims passing through. The traditional greeting between pilgrims should be et ultreia! (“Onward!”), with the response et suseia! (“Upward!). I would wear that jersey for the rest of the trip, partly for its visibility and partly out of vanity, because Cheryl said that the blue looked good on me.
Later, I worked on the manuscript of my book, while Cheryl picked up cheese, bread, and wine for supper on the pleasant balcony off our room. We turned in early.
After midnight, a street party in the square by the hotel woke us up. The city had brought in movie set lighting to illuminate the plaza, and people were walking there from all directions. It got louder and louder until 0500. I finally figured out that the college-aged crowd must he observing some celebration for the autumnal equinox, the end of summer or the convocation of the new academic year.
Lack of sleep notwithstanding, it felt good to have completed the Camino. Now we looked forward to riding the Camino Portogues backward (logical, considering that one must go home somehow). Et ultreia et suseia!
And to you,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,