Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Financial Analysis

I hadn't defined a budget for the three-week Camino journey, although if I had, I think I would have under-spent it.

After a hard morning's ride a little splurge (at 3 euro)

Executive summary:

Food 430
Accommodation 308
Travel 247
Other 87 (after all there has to be an 'other' category in any financial analysis)
Total Cost 1,072
(all figures in Euros)

Analysis

So what's this about "Travel" costs? Didn't I pedal myself all the way? Well, apart from the rental of the bike itself (which is not included in the above figures), the travel cost reflects the costs of getting to St. Jean Pied de Port from Paris, the bus back to Santiago from Finisterre, and flying back to Paris again from Santigao. Costs to get to Paris depend entirely on where you're coming from of course, so aren't included here. By the way, you could use other gateway cities like Madrid or Porto to get close to the start / end cities.

I caught the train to St. Jean Pied de Port and flew back from Santiago airport. I was lucky that the SNCF (French trains) and the airport were not on strike. That's not as facetious as it might sound: as I type, the SNCF workers have been on strike for a week, causing all sorts of havoc. Air traffic controllers have a habit of going on strike at short notice and preferably (from their perspective) at inconvenient times for travellers.

My average daily expenses (i.e. not including the transport costs) for the Spanish section of the journey came in at a little over 33 euros per day:

Food 20.90
Accommodation 10.50
Other 1.70
Total Daily Cost 33.10
(all figures in Euros)


The municipal albergue in Hontanas
Staying in albergues is a really cheap way to sleep as you can see in the above figures. Of course you sort of get what you pay for, but a bed is a bed, and I found all the places I stayed at perfectly acceptable in terms of facilities and cleanliness - some significantly better than expected. On various forums you read about bed bugs; I never had any problems with this or heard of anybody who had. That's not the case for the French walking paths, where I did hear of people picking up a little bonus here and there. I think that's because there is a good awareness of the potential for the problem and preventative measures are in place in Spain (and by implication, either a lack of awareness or a lack of preventative measures in France).

The French part of the journey in my case involved two nights in a B&B (luxury, at 60 euros /night) and two restaurant dinners (Pilgrim menus, but more than two - three times the Spanish price). Keeping to good accounting practice (cooking the books?) I haven't included these numbers in the above daily averages to avoid the daily average results being skewed. My two nights in a B&B in France accounted for almost 40% of my total accommodation costs for the entire three-week trip !

Sleeping

A private albergue in Villafranca
Albergues (hostels) cost anything from nothing (really - some are "donativo" which means you pay what you feel you can afford) upwards. Most municipal albergues cost 5 euro per night. Private albergues are (slightly) more expensive, and can vary widely. I paid between 8 euro (Lorca) to 17 euro (Santiago). The municipal albergues often fill up first, meaning you're left with no choice but to stay at a private albergue. Another factor is that the private albergue are often more interesting and have their own character, making them good places to stay. If you go for pensions or hotels, well, you can pay as much as you like. But that's not really the idea of the Camino - although many people opt for a night here and there in a hotel; "a room with a door" as May, the Irish lady, had put it. Mind you, a one night splurge in a simple hotel at, say, 60 euro, is the equivalent of 10 nights in an albergue, so you need to keep that in mind when you do your sums.

Eating

A home-cooked Pilgrim Menu
The whole bottle of wine is for me
(Dessert is not in this picture)
Food is cheap; at least it is in Spain. France is another matter. The Pilgrim menus are generally around 9 - 10 euro, and that includes three copious courses, bread, and pretty much as much wine as you can drink. Not a bad deal! In France the same thing will set you back at least twice that amount. Breakfasts cost around 3 euro, and lunch, if you eat it, can be another Pilgrim menu, or simply fruit or sandwiches (bocadillos, costing around 3 euro).

You can of course opt to do it yourself as many do. Buying ingredients and preparing your own meals is certainly cheaper than even a Pilgrim meal at a restaurant, and most albergues have at least basic cooking facilities. This approach probably works best if you're in a group and can share stuff. I brought some basic cutlery and plastic "crockery" with me, thinking I might picnic along the way. But I never used any of it.

Travel

Bus transport in Spain is pretty cheap. It costs 13 euro (actually 13.10, don't ask me why, but it must make life hell for the bus driver trying to deal with all that change) for the bus from Fisterre to Santiago (a three-hour trip). It costs 3 euro for the bus from Santiago to the airport (40 minutes). I never took a taxi, but some walkers do from time to time. I imagine that would blow the budget, but perhaps less so if you shared. I saw that the cost to ship luggage to the next albergue was 7 euro.

Other Stuff

Souvenirs, extra things you buy on the way, maybe toiletries you forgot or ran out of. I bought some gaiters and waterproof over-pants in Pamplona after my Pyrenees experience. Many walkers live on Compeed for the blisters and Ibuprofen for the inflammation - all that can add up of course (although pharmacy items appear to be pretty cheap in Spain).

Depending on your perspective of course, walking or riding the Camino isn't particularly expense - certainly not if you compare it with any other form of travel. Obviously a good part of that is the saving on travel costs, since you are providing your own personal transport. Accommodation is the other big saver, as long as you're happy with dormitory living. But, as I've said before, albergues are part of the whole Camino experience - Pilgrims are not meant to travel in the lap of luxury after all! Pilgrim menus mean even eating out all the time is affordable, although you can cut this cost (which is the largest component of the total cost) dramatically by preparing your own meals. Whether the financial aspects of the Camino are an important factor is of course open to discussion.






Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Compostela

If you fulfil the minimum requirements for the Pilgrimage, your efforts are acknowledged with the issue of a certificate of completion, the Compostela. For walkers that means at least 100 km walked, and for bike riders at least 200 km ridden. On request, the pilgrim office will also issue you with a certificate of distance travelled.

My Compostela - issued on completion of the Camino
To prove that you've followed the Camino, and have walked or ridden the necessary distance, Pilgrims carry a credencial, or passport, which you get stamped at every place you stop along the way. Generally that means the albergue (hostel) you stay at overnight, but most cafés and bars along the route have their own stamp, and so it's not uncommon to collect more than one stamp per day, showing the route you took (and where you stopped for your daily café con leche fix).

My Credencial showing the places I stopped at along the way. 
My Cotolaya
 I discovered after leaving Santiago (the only place entitled to issue the Compostela, hence its full name, Santiago de Compostela) that it happened that the Franciscan church was celebrating its 800th anniversary, and to commemorate the occasion, they were also issuing their own version of a 'Compostela', although they call it the Cotolaya. As it happened, on my return to Santiago on the way home I was able to visit the Franciscan church and have my Cotolaya issued. And as a bonus, there was essentially no waiting to get it, unlike the Compostela, where I had to wait in line almost two hours before making it to the group of volunteers issuing the compostelas.

I just happened upon another blog, Annie's Simple Life, where you can find a little background on the Cotolaya (as well as a bunch of general information about the Camino - typically you find this stuff after the fact, although often it's more interesting to discover things for yourself rather than start with preconceived ideas from someone else.)


Finally, also discovered en-route by talking with others on the way, in Finisterre they also issue a certificate of completion, for those who have followed the way from Santiago through Muxia and on to Finisterre. To be eligible for this one you have to have your credencial stamped at Lires, about halfway between Muxia and Finisterre. Apparently too many 'pilgrims' were catching a taxi from Muxia to Finisterre to save themselves a day's walk, gaming the system. In case you're thinking of walking the other way around (i.e. from Finisterre to Muxia) apparently Muxia also issues their version of the certificate, so you won't miss out if you prefer to end your Camino at Muxia.

The reward for making it to Finisterre


Friday, June 13, 2014

The Engineering Review

So now that my Camino ride is over, in the best engineering tradition, here is a little review of the vital statistics and some details about lessons learnt. Let me say right out that my journey was not a race; the objective was not to go as far or as fast as possible. While I wasn't on a true religious 'pilgrimage', I did go for the chance to spend some time with myself, and to benefit from the whole experience. There were definitely some bike riders on the Camino (for example the Italian logo-lycra-clad teams)  whose objective was to 'do' the trip as fast as possible. These guys were doing 100 - 120 km per day (objective: do the trip in a week).

The Numbers

Total number of days: 18 (including one rest day in Santiago)
Total distance ridden: 1,031 km
Total time on the bike: 66.8 hours
Average speed for the trip: 15.4 km/hr

Average hours ridden: 3.9 hours/day
Average distance ridden: 60.6 km/day

Longest distance ridden in one day: 84.5 km (on the first day!)
Shortest distance ridden in one day: 34 km (second-last day)
Most hours ridden in one day: 6.2 hours (on the first day!)
Least hours ridden in one day: 2.1 hours (second-last day)
Highest average speed: 19.1 km/hr
Lowest average speed: 12.4 km/hr

Number of punctures: ZERO! A credit to the excellent tyres - in fact I had some comments on them from people who know about these things; I should have recorded the tyre details. I will also take some credit for being a little careful about how and where I rode, for example when riding on roads I tend to ride on the road and not the shoulder; it's on the shoulder that you will find all the little bits of glass and sharp stones and so on that have been brushed aside by the passing traffic.

While I am pleased to be able to say that I rode the whole (rideable) way - i.e. I rode up all the hills and did not get off and push, even though I was tempted a couple of times - when riding on the tracks, when the terrain got really rough or unsuited to the bike, I got off and walked. When you're spinning the back wheel for lack of traction going up a steep and rough track, it's time to get off.

The Bike

Riding up to 1350m and still smiling


Type of Bike: GIANT Futuro RS1 hybrid/touring bike. Front suspension, suspended seat post, Shimano SLX 30-speed, 28 inch wheels, disk brakes, mudguards (essential!), front and rear lights (essential!). In fact I added my own very bright rear LED light, and I am glad I did - it was obvious that I was being seen from a distance and several people commented on the light.

Panniers, Handlebar bag and helmet (with mirror)
Panniers: 2 x Ortlieb "Roller" 20 litre waterproof (really!) These are excellent at keeping your stuff dry, but don't have any external pockets and pouches for bits and pieces. 40 litres is enough room for all your stuff (except sleeping bag, mat or camping equipment if you're taking it).

Handlebar bag: not waterproof (really!) It's only after the first day's drenching, when everything inside the handlebar bag, including my camera, was soaked, that I discovered a little hidden pocket under the bag that contained a bright yellow plastic rain cover. I used this on subsequent rainy days. The bag detached easily from the bike ('QuickClick' I think is the brand) which is very handy when parking the bike to go into a bar for your regular café con leche. The map case on the top of the bag was very useful, even if poorly designed.

I rented the bike (a 'Comfort Touring Bike') from Bike Iberia and can absolutely recommend them. They prepare the bike to your requirements, ship it to your chosen departure point (in my case a B&B in St. Jean Pied de Port) and then when you're finished, you simply leave the bike (packed) at your final destination, let them know where it is and they come and collect it. And the customer service is brilliant. What a deal!

Favourite bike accessories

Arm warmers, reflective yellow riding wind/rain vest with zip opening (both really useful to control your body temperature, especially going up and down hills), bright LED rear light, and helmet-mounted rear-view mirror. It's amazing how many comments I got about the mirror, including from some walkers who wanted one (they are actually designed to attach to your glasses; I prefer to put mine on my helmet). I can't imagine riding on roads without a mirror - it allows you to check what's coming and also to check whether they have seen you (they put their indicators on, move over, etc.). As a related observation, I found the best drivers in terms of being sensitive to bike riders were the large trucks; they always passed with plenty of room - the same cannot be said for some car drivers.

How much stuff?

Total weight: 32 kg - 11/21  front/back  (as weighed before the trip, includes the bike, and everything on it including the luggage)
Luggage weight: 10 kg (not including weight of the bags or water & food)

Below is a picture of what I took with me on the trip. This was based on whatever research I had done (not that much!) and what little experience I had with long-distance bike trips (none!) and other camping and similar trips (mostly done with the not-insignificant assistance of a motor vehicle of some sort, making the choice of what to take not particularly driven by its weight). All of the stuff in the picture below adds up to 10 kg. There's another 2.5 kg of stuff I wore (shoes, clothes, gloves, helmet, money pouch), making the all-up weight of stuff taken 12.5 kg (again, not including food or water).
A layout of everything I took with me (taken before the trip)

The next picture is more-or-less the same layout, but showing what I brought back. On the Camino many people realise at some point that they have brought more stuff than they need, and they either start leaving stuff behind at the albergues, or packing it up and sending it back home. This latter option sounds attractive until you consider the cost of postage. I was too stubborn to take either of these options, and rode the entire journey with everything I'd brought, even though I knew there was some stuff I wasn't going to use (more on that in a minute). I did jettison one bottle (500g) of water which I'd carried over two mountain ranges and was never going to need, and I tried to avoid the trap of buying 'emergency bananas' just before a hill climb section. People (walkers included) tend to forget that the food (and water!) they've just bought 'just in case' probably weighs more than most of the stuff they've just sent home in the post. I actually only used a single bike water bottle for the entire trip (there are plenty of places to fill up); I carried an unopened 750ml water bottle I bought in St. Jean Pied-de-Port for the entire trip, just in case. Walkers, who take longer to get from one water fountain to the next, need to carry more water of course. Water is sort of important.

The stuff I came back with (compare with previous picture)
The last of the trilogy of images is what I actually used during the trip. I've left the first aid kit and emergency blanket, even though I didn't actually use either of them. I consider that they are essential items. I did read a post during my pre-trip research where someone had decided in order to save weight not to take a first aid kit as they had never used it on any previous trip. That struck me as pretty short-sighted and stupid; you don't take a first-aid kit because you're planning on using it. But this person was probably the same one that chose not to bring sunglasses since most of the walk is to the west (with the sun behind). Again, saving 80g might sound attractive, but you need to be sensible about what you save it on. One banana not bought that morning will save you considerably more weight than a pair of sunglasses, for example. Yes, you cannot eat your sunglasses if you get hungry, but you get the point.

The stuff I actually used during the journey (compare with previous picture)
You can manage a trip like this with very little stuff if you really want. For example, you can make do with only one spare set of clothes. You wear one set, and the other you carry. That means you have to wash every single day (or wear clothes more than one day of course) and you have to get those washed clothes dry in time to wear them the next day. It is possible. But the weight of a third pair of socks, underpants, and a T-shirt is probably worth the reduced stress levels when the weather turns wet. As everyone will tell you, layers is the way to go, and my layering: T-shirt, Long-sleeved cycling top, fleece jacket, and waterproof jacket was more than enough for any weather I encountered. In fact I never wore more than three layers (but then again, it wasn't winter either). The weight of all the stuff I didn't use (including the 1.4 kg sleeping bag, which I did actually use twice, but could have done without) was a huge 5 kg! That means if I'd really wanted to, I could have done the trip carrying only 5 kg of luggage. This is stretching it, but it's possible.

The other good thing I did was buy 'technical' clothing. That just means it's made of a material that is light and dries quickly. Believe me, it is worth it. You want your clothes to be dry by the morning when you have to pack them, and you want them to dry quickly on you if you get caught in the rain. You do see people walking in jeans for example, but I'm guessing those jeans don't get washed very often, and jeans are heavy, not particularly warm and take forever to dry when (not if) you get wet.

The fourth image in the trilogy (to take a leaf out of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy) shows the things I actually bought on the way: Gaiters (to stop the rain running down my legs into my shoes); a good map of Galicia to cover the bits where I wanted to explore away from the Camino; a Bluetooth keyboard (more on that later); a marker to track my route on the guides and maps; and waterproof over-pants (which I did bring, but which got lost in the Pyrenees in the storm). The ones I bought were much better, and lighter, than the ones I lost, so that made me feel a little better.


Things I bought on the way

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway, don't try to save on your shoes. Whether you're walking or riding, you need your feet to last the distance. Make sure they are waterproof and (especially for riding) that they have relatively stiff soles. You don't need hiking boots (even if you're walking), but good waterproof walking shoes are essential. And wear them in before you go - or you will end up with instant blisters in the first half day. Unless you're planning on riding with clips or SPD pedals (not a good idea for such a trip in my opinion) you can ride in good walking shoes. Don't forget that even if you're riding, you will also be walking.

Lessons Learnt

There's lots, and more than I can remember right now. But here's the high points (in no particular order):
  • When things seem like they aren't going so well; remember it will get better
  • Slow down and enjoy the ride
  • It pays to buy the right type of clothing and shoes (see above)
  • Pretty much everywhere in Spain has (free) WiFi. Every little bar or shop has free WiFi, it's amazing. You don't really need to get a Spanish SIM card to stay connected to the outside world. But if you really want to, the first place to get it is at Pamplona, and the best option (I did do a lot of research on this highly confusing subject) is the Orange Mundo SIM card. This essentially costs nothing, the calls are free for a week after each recharge (and you don't have to recharge at all if you don't want to make calls) and the data costs are very low: 6 euros for 500MB, 9 euros for 1 GB, or 15 euros for 2 GB, valid for one month [prices as of May 2014].
  • If in doubt, don't take it. You can always buy it on the way. In the bigger towns (Pamplona, León, Burgos..) there are dedicated Outdoors / Camino shops that stock everything you could possibly want. And a lot of stuff you don't want (but which looks tempting anyway).
  • Unless you're a really serious photographer, consider leaving your camera behind (assuming you are taking a smartphone). Most recent smartphones have pretty decent (very decent) cameras. One less thing to carry.
  • If you're going to be writing a blog (!) along the way, consider taking a small lightweight Bluetooth keyboard. Much better than pecking away at the on-screen keyboard.
  • If you're taking more than one electronic appliance (why?) choose ones that charge from USB so you only need to take one charger.
  • While most people will agree that books are best left behind (they are heavy, and you won't have time to read them anyway) do take one good guidebook (preferably a small one) - I appreciated the amount of information many times (even if the maps in my guidebook were diagrammatic at best).
  • Take a small hand-towel / washcloth in addition to your normal (microfibre) towel. That way in the morning you don't have to get your nicely-dried towel wet again. Drying things can be difficult and it's important to have dry stuff!
  • Take a pair of light sandals suitable to go walking in so you don't have to wear your walking shoes all the time (if you're walking, your shoes will get very dirty and possibly wet). Many albergues won't let you wear your walking shoes inside anyway.
  • The Camino gets busy in summer (so don't go then). Even in May it was already crowded in places. Try and stay at small towns away from the major "endpoints" of the daily walking stages. Some people book ahead. That may sound appealing, but it ties you down to going to that place, and you may want to stop earlier or find a perfectly lovely little spot you want to stop at for the rest of the day.
  • Bring some earplugs - you only need one serious snorer in the dormitory to ruin your night's sleep.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A case study in bad airport design

Welcome to France.

If you were to have the task of building the world's least user-friendly airport; one that makes arriving passengers wonder whether they got off on the right continent; one that goes out of its way to ensure you have the least chance of making your connection; one where finding anyone to help navigate the maze is a lost cause; and one where the staff shows the least interest in customer service, you would do well to come and study Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. They've got all this down to a fine art.

Add the smell of urine in the elevators, the general lack of cleanliness and the ridiculous prices and you've got an award winner. But I digress.

I am on the train to Tours, the penultimate stage of my journey back home after the Camino. And that despite the best efforts of CDG airport.

It started in Santiago. 'Atrasado' the board said, next to my flight to Paris (the first flight of the day it seemed). My flight was delayed. No indication of why or how long. At first I assumed it was a local problem, but it transpired that the incoming flight was delayed by over an hour. Why? Due to delays at the departure airport. No prizes for guessing which airport that was: CDG!

The flight left an hour and a half late, effectively using up any safety margin I had built into my schedule for the connection with the TGV. Given that the TGV station is physically at the airport in Paris, you might logically expect a short and smooth connection would be possible. Unless, of course, we're talking about CDG.
We arrived and hour and half late. Then the plane had to wait out in the far reaches of the airport for other aircraft taxiing. Tick...tick..tick as my chance of making my connection grew ever slimmer. Then the super long taxi to, of course, terminal 3. Those of you who have the misfortune to know CDG will know that Terminal 3 is nowhere near anything. And that buses are used to ferry passengers from the planes to the terminal. Tick...tick...tick. Those of you who know France will know that the French are not the world's most disciplined people for queuing either, but that's another digression.

Then the one bright point in the story: my bag appeared on the luggage belt! This is not something you take for granted at CDG, it's more a cause for celebration.

Now the real challenge, and here CDG knows how to make you suffer: finding out how to get from one part of the airport to another. Last time I used Terminal 3 there was a shuttle bus to the other Terminals (and the railway station). Now there was a series of signs leading outside and along a walkway that seemed to go on forever. At irregular intervals along the way, the one sign you are following (in my case 'Gare SNCF') disappears. This is a clever strategy to make you think you've missed the exit point, forcing you to consider going back to look for it. Compared to this, following the Camino for 1,000m through Spain is trivial.

Eventually I did reach the station, although it wasn't really the station yet, it was a ' halfway station'. The only signs pointing to the TGV station were on the other side of barriers which needed a metro-style ticket to open (and of course, were too small to fit luggage through anyway - after all, who would expect someone arriving by plane to have luggage?)

It goes without saying that there was no staff to ask for assistance.

Tick...tick...tick

After a running circuit of the building, I located the secret passage leading down to the inter-terminal shuttle train. I should have known to follow the signs to 'Terminal 2' when looking for the railway station. After all, I did know that the station was underneath Terminal 2.

Of course the secret passageway was too narrow for the luggage trolley, so I had to carry my bags down to the platform.

Miraculously, the shuttle appeared within about five minutes. Doors opened, people got on. Then the lights went out. Sighs of resignation from those who knew how the game was played: each time you think you will actually make your connection, another obstacle pops up.

'Ladies and gentlemen, following a minor technical incident on the line, there will be a short delay before the shuttle departs.'

In the Paris railway system, an 'incident on the line' is code for yet another suicide, something which unfortunately is not a rare occurrence. There's a special counselling unit for the metro and RER drivers to help them deal with the aftermath of such an event. But this seemed unlikely on the airport terminal shuttle.
'The train will depart in approximately five minutes' The voice might have well have said 'Your TGV connection will depart in ten minutes, and we're doing our best to ensure you don't make it.'

But the shuttle did depart again (in about five minutes). It was 16:10, my TGV was scheduled for 16:21. Now the TGV doesn't always run on time, but you can be sure that when you're late your train will be on time.

'Next stop, Parking station'. They should have been playing elevator music; they could have added the scene to 'The Blues Brothers'.

The shuttle pulled into Terminal 2. Now I was on familiar ground and had the advantage. I could ignore all the signage (which would have wasted significant time had I followed it). Running like a madman (which in a sense I was, for expecting to make my connection) I found the platform - luckily the same one that seems to be mostly used for this line, so familiar ground again.

I stormed down the escalators to be greeted by 'The train now arriving on platform 6 is the TGV 5222 to Bordeaux' and then my train pulled into the station.
I had beaten the system!

When they built KLIA (the new International airport in Kuala Lumpur) before opening to the public, they invited people to come and do a dry run through the airport. They assigned people dummy flights to catch, and then let them loose in the airport, tracking their progress and their success (or not) at navigating the airport, following the signage, and getting to the right place within a reasonable time. Based on the results of this real-life experiment, they modified the signage or processes where they had been found to be lacking. KLIA may not be the world's best airport, but it works pretty well.

I now realise that at CDG they must have run the same type of experiment. However they must have taken another approach: each time someone successfully navigated the system, they changed the signage or process to minimise that chances of it happening again.

And they've got it down to a fine art.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

PostScript

Back in Santiago again. In transit back home. Here as a tourist I suppose. Ironically, after all the rain, by the time the bus arrived in Santiago and I had got to the albergue (walking in a light drizzle) the rain had stopped and the rest of the afternoon was sunny. Perfect tourist weather. And the tourists were out in force.

Tapas (or is that "Pinchos") - being a tourist in Santiago
I reorganised my bags in preparation for the flight tomorrow. After living for three weeks out of, I must say, well organised pannier bags (I knew where everything was and everything had its place) it was frustrating having everything randomly thrown into a large bag. I had made this remark to Hans in the morning and he pointed to one of the backpacks on the floor in our room (it belonged to one of the still prostrate youths). "They manage to live in a state of chaos." The contents of the backpack were strewn partly over the floor, clean clothes mixed with dirty, crumpled papers and a toothbrush. "I have a daughter who lives like that." 'And I a son' I added.

Backpacks and Bikes (and my shopping bags)
The atmosphere on the bus back to Santiago was restrained. The luggage hold below us was laden with backpacks and a few bikes, all bearing mute testimony to the Camino and the many adventures they had been part of. Inside the bus there was almost no conversation; most people were probably trying in their own way to deal with their particular 'morning after the Camino before' feelings -  perhaps wondering how they were going to deal with 'normal' life again, and whether anyone back home would really understand the tales they would surely tell.


My trusty steed wrapped up for the return to Lisbon
In the morning Hans had stayed as I wrapped up the bike (in cling wrap as a result of the lack of cardboard boxes - thanks for the idea, Rowan). Then we headed into 'town'. Hans was going to stay another day, but move to another albergue; one evening of hippies was enough for him. We went in search of an open café. And then a 'Camino moment': "So you made it to Finisterre, Geoff". It was a guy I'd met in an albergue some time ago. So the three of us had café con leche and then I said my goodbyes and got on the bus. Hans now had a new friend in Finisterre; the guy was staying at the albergue Hans was going to.

The bus ride was long; the result of it doing the 'milk run' along the coast, stopping at many small villages and picking up or setting down local people. We finally arrived in Santiago some three hours after leaving. I got off at the train station and walked the fifteen minutes to the albergue. I was glad that the bike had been carrying this weight for the last three weeks, even if it was only about 12 kg!

In Santiago I went to the Franciscan church to get their special 800 year anniversary Compostela. That was another thing I'd heard about on the Camino; unfortunately after I'd been to Santiago. Luckily I found them open on the Sunday and so was able to get the certificate on my second visit to Santiago. I now have not one, but four 'diplomas' to commemorate my Camino.

Then my final Pilgrim dinner (three courses, a bottle of wine, bread and coffee, all for the princely sum of ten Euros) and back to the albergue where I find a guy is snoring with serious intent; just to give me one last dose of Pilgrim life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Day 18: Muxia to Finisterre (42km)

The end of the world, 'Finis Terrae'. A fitting destination for the end of my Camino. After having originally planned to travel via Finisterre (Fisterra) and end my trip in Muxia, I decided to do it the other way around and end at the end. The symbolic 'km 0.00' marker also provided an appropriate photo opportunity!

Posing at the symbolic start (end) marker: end of my Camino
A 1,030 km bike ride isn't something I'd have thought I would ever do. It's a nice feeling to be able to say 'I did that' and also of course it's a good feeling to know that you're capable of achieving something like that. Not to mention the wonderful journey itself, together with all the people and characters met along the way.

Apart from the symbolic nature of the destination, it must be said that there's not a whole lot else to attract you to this town. Hans (we'll meet him in a minute) and I felt frustrated in the apparent lack of a nice area (nicely restored building around a pretty square perhaps) or even a town centre. And the weather was absolutely appalling during my arrival and for much of the afternoon, which didn't help matters. "Galician weather" a storekeeper remarked with resignation, as we both sheltered under an overhang watching the water pouring ankle-deep down the street, gutters overflowing causing the water to cascade onto the footpaths.

In yesterday's post I mentioned that although I had met Sarah and Jack (characters from the film 'The Way') I had not met Joost during my travels. That comment proved to be premature; not long after having written the note, Joost appeared. His name is Hans, "van Breda".

It was, as has happened before, the obviously Dutch bike that introduced us. But not a neat and well-organised bike; this one looked like it was a work in progress. So did its owner in many ways. Hans was Joost; friendly in a not-quite overbearing way. Well-intentioned and wanting to be helpful (even if help wasn't necessarily wanted). We had dinner together and of course the next morning I couldn't tell him I'd rather ride alone when he assumed we'd ride together to Finisterre. After all, riding with someone else would be a new experience I rationalised, so why not?

The sun makes a brief appearance near Muxia
I wanted to follow the Camino and small back roads, as I had been doing. Hans had been riding on the main roads and wanted to avoid the hills. He'd ridden from Santiago to Muxia in one day, whereas I had taken two. We set off on a little coast road,  but it was obvious that his heart wasn't in it. Although the views were impressive, the hills were equally impressive, and to his credit, Hans admitted defeat early on; the hills on the little roads were just too steep for him, and he turned around, heading back to the main road. It was a sensible choice on his part. I continued on, on the one hand sorry for him, but on the other hand glad to be riding alone, being able to stop and go as I chose and to be able to pick my route as I came to each fork in in the road without having to consult anyone.

And the rain held off. Although the forecast had been 100% chance of rain and 25 - 60 km/hr wind from the south (the direction I would be heading, of course) we were greeted by a sunrise over the ocean. A promising start. As I rode the howling wind seemed to keep the rain away and even offered a few glimpses of sunshine over the lovely coastline I was following. The downside was the heavy going into the wind with dramatic gusts from the side. And another new experience: having to pedal downhill to overcome the headwind trying to push me back up again.

I wanted to go to Cabo Touriñan, the most westerly point in Spain (and almost, but not quite, the most westerly point of mainland Europe). But when I came to that fork in the road I was faced with a tough choice: continue on, battling the winds and hills, or go to the cape, an extra  10km riding and a guaranteed 5km uphill ride to come back up from the lighthouse and then continue on battling the winds.
But I hadn't come this far to not go so I headed down to the cape. I was rewarded with a break in the clouds and a little bit of sunshine. The howling winds did not let up however.

I found the Camino again near Frixe and followed it to Lires, the unofficial halfway point between Muxia and Finisterre. Here I had to get a stamp in my Credencial (Pilgrim Passport) in order to qualify for a certificate of completion of the Camino Fisterra. One of those little details you find out from others along the way.
Leaving Lires the first drops of rain appeared. I just had time to get my wet weather gear on when the heavens opened with a vengeance. It was like all the forecast rain that hadn't fallen during the first part of the day had been saved up and was coming now. The rain stayed with me all the way to Finisterre.
When you're on the Camino and in or near a town, you generally don't have to stop and look a little lost for very long before someone appears (often as if from nowhere) and offers help to point you in the right direction. Many on the Camino had commented on this.

Confused?  M for Muxia, F for Finisterre
So there I was, stopped on the side on the road. Not lost, just taking a break from riding in the relentless wind and rain. A car pulls up; I expect an offer of directions. The window winds down; a young Spanish couple: "Is this the road to Finisterre?" They are asking me for directions!

I followed the Camino into Finisterre. Of course it doesn't take the easier low road into town, it winds up the hill. Just the thing to to end the Camino; more hills. I see a sign pointing to the Albergue do Sol; it's raining. I've heard of this place; a 'hippie' place according to a French girl I met in Lires. I am tired and think 'why not' and turn off the path towards this potential bed for the night.

Eventually I get there, and parked outside is a familiar Dutch bike. And sure enough, there's Hans, looking dry and relaxed, with a big welcoming grin on his face: "I got here just before the rains came."

Hans and I ventured out to explore the town (this did not take long). I also wanted to get a cardboard box in which to pack the various bits of the bike prior to having it collected (some of my readers will be able to relate to this). And the rains came and the roads flooded and when Hans and I and my box finally swam back to the albergue, there was not much left of my nice cardboard box.

Later on, when the rain took a break, we rode up to the lighthouse and took the obligatory photos with the 'km zero' Camino marker. We also had a look at the place where people had been burning things as some sort of offering to mark the end of the Camino. Yoina, a Japanese girl I had met earlier on in the Camino had mentioned this behaviour, but had said "I won't be burning anything because it's environmentally unfriendly. I'll just leave something there." Sound advice.

Albergue do Sol was indeed a hippie place. Hans and I were the elders of the tribe. And two of the few who wore shoes. But the wine we contributed to the communal dinner was appreciated by all, particularly when it was discovered that we'd lashed out on some 5 euro bottles of Rioja instead of the one euro bottles of local plonk they'd been drinking. Wine is cheap in Spain. We all held hands in a circle and related a memorable moment from the Camino before singing a song. It was actually a nice way to bring some closure to the Camino. Then we ate and all was well with the world.

Final dinner at the  "Hippie"Albergue do Sol e da Lua

Friday, June 6, 2014

Day 17: Olveiroa to Muxia (34km)

Rain. Rain and wind. That was the theme for the day's ride.

All geared up for a walk in the rain
The day woke to black skies; not promising. By the time I had finished breakfast, the skies cleared a little, offering some hope. But counter-intuitively, the dispersing of the black clouds brought the rain - and the wind. The rain came in sheets. There was nothing for it but to set off and hope that the wet weather gear would go some way to keep me dry. A group of four girls setting off as well made an interesting picture, all in their rain capes: it would be a Camino of hunchbacks today.

One memorable, but unfortunately short-lived, moment the wind was actually pushing me uphill. Another new experience. More often though, it worked against me, or in some ways worse, the wind came in savage gusts from the side, threatening to push me off the path or road. The wind turbines were roaring above, shrouded in the mists as I pedalled below. I could hear them but not see them.

Using a bus shelter to take a break from the pouring rain
Navigation was already difficult without having the map to read (the map case had to be covered to keep the maps dry); it wasn't helped by the almost complete lack of usable road signs. I would come on to a larger road from a small side road for example, to find not a single sign indicating which road it was or where it went. I was glad I had a compass (which earlier in the trip people had derided as unnecessary).

Then suddenly, the rain stopped, and almost simultaneously I saw the ocean in the distance, bringing a big smile to my face. Following a long downhill run, suddenly there was the beach of Muxia!

Riding through the back streets I came across a walker, looking a little lost and obviously having just arrived herself. But she was perfectly dry! 'How did you manage to stay dry?' "I took a taxi." she said with a smile and no guilt whatsoever. 'I've been riding all morning in the pouring rain and wind.' She smiled again. "Don't you know that here it always stops raining at 11:00?" I looked at my watch; it was about 11:30. Later, when I related this story to the woman running the albergue, she confirmed that it generally rained only in the mornings. I could have done without this bit of information, since I could have easily delayed my departure until after the rain and still arrived in good time in Muxia that day.

Early on in the trip I met a Canadian woman who had reminded me of her film counterpart, Sarah, in 'The Way'. Today I met Joe, an Irishman who could have been Jack, his film equivalent. He had a very similar look about him and also spoke (a lot) in the same manner. I haven't met Joost yet, although there have been quite a few Dutchmen (and women) of course.

Looking south from the point at Muxia
Joe made an observation that echoed exactly my feelings about the arrival in Santiago - that somehow something was missing; it had been a sort of anticlimax. "I didn't expect them to put on a marching band for me, but I had somehow expected something, although I can't put my finger on what." Arriving in Muxia is also a little like that and I expect the arrival in Finisterra, which for me will be the end of the journey, will be similar. Still, as Joe reminded us both, this is a good example of the reason behind the saying: 'It's the journey, not the destination, that matters.'

For a change I left the bike at the albergue and walked the few kilometres out to the point where the church, Nosa Señora da Barca, is. It was actually Joe who suggested it; his simple "Why don't you walk the last bit?" somehow made perfect sense. This church is the setting of the final scene in 'The Way', where Tom (Martin Sheen) scatters his son's ashes. He should be glad it wasn't as windy the day he did that as it was when I was there! Speaking of ashes, the church is now unfortunately only a shell after it was struck by lightning on Christmas Day in 2013 and burnt out.

A wind-blown selfie, with the ruins of Nosa Señora da Barca
At least my shoes and clothes are getting a chance to dry in the sun, which has made a welcome reappearance. From where I'm sitting (in the 'Delfin' albergue) I have a view across the road to the bay and the hills beyond (with, of course, their wind turbines). There's white caps on the blue water, reminding me that it's still windy. Winds of 25 km/hr with gusts of 65km/hr said the forecast for today.

Just me and a couple of 'hunchback' walkers, watched by the ubiquitous wind turbines in the rain

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Day 16: Santiago to Olveiroa (64km)

High up ahead, almost hidden in the mists, was a group of wind turbines spinning rapidly. Not a good sign. Firstly, because they were directly in my path. Secondly because they were high. Thirdly because there was mist there, and finally because they were spinning, indicating that it was windy - really windy.

Leaving Santiago; somehow it felt like the right thing to do
Last night in the albergue, at about 23:30, suddenly bang! the lights came on. Well, actually, the light didn't make any sound when it came on, but when you're fast asleep it certainly feels like that. Four Spaniards had arrived and were getting themselves set up, unpacking and chatting. Total disregard for anyone else. Several shouts and complaints were totally ignored. Then this morning, bang! On comes the light again and they're at it again. More ignored complaints. The Germans, rightly, were unimpressed. "They think they are alone in the world". Not a good advertisement for the locals.

Peunte Ponta Maceira
Rain. The rain in Spain falls mainly in Galicia. The forecast had not been promising, and expectations where met. Odd weather. What the forecast had called 'drizzle' was more like constant and pervasive light rain, accompanied by lots of wind. Soaking rain, making riding uncomfortable, particularly when wearing glasses. But the sun almost appeared all the while with the wind whipping gusts of rain.

What was going to be an easy day proved to be the opposite, although it was a good day nonetheless, much of spent on the Camino paths. But the hills! I'd not spent so much time in my lowest gear yet on the entire trip. Today the them was hills, including a memorable ascent where I rode a good half hour in the lowest gear going straight up the side of a hill. Not high passes, but steep, really steep. It was the first time I saw a 10% grade sign, and that was on a paved road, not one of the paths.

When I finally got up to the wind turbines, the wind and rain were confirmed. Nasty stuff. And then after a break at a rare bar (I had to wait until afternoon before my first café con leche) it was raining so much I left the path and took some roads. Which is when the map 'diagrams' of the guide I'd been using showed their true lack of use, proving to be completely inaccurate once off the Camino. I zig-zagged through the maze of tiny country roads and paths, following the general direction (west). It's when I discovered that little country roads have really steep inclines going down to creek crossings (and of course, steep again up the other side again). Eventually I spotted a walker up ahead; I had obviously found the Camino again. I pulled alongside and we walked / rode together for an hour or so. My legs appreciated the rest. "It's the first time a cyclist has stopped to talk" said Haerin from Korea.
Corn stores like this one are a common site (many permutations)

Some of today's path could have been Australian bush - vast stands of eucalyptus with ferny undergrowth. But there was no mistaking the rest of the countryside with the characteristic raised stone corn stores.

Tomorrow comes a fork in the road. Left to Finisterra or right to Muxia. I will go to both places; I just have to decide which one first. Like Yogi Berra said: 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.' And that's what I plan to do tomorrow.

It was a wet day; the Camino down to Olveiroa

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Disconnected?

Bodies of 800 babies discovered in Ireland. Train accident caused by high speed and inattention of the driver. The new King will clean up the royal house. Queen Elizabeth (Isabel according to the Spanish TV) declares new powers for Scotland.

So much for disconnection from the outside world. Thanks to the ubiquitous TV in all bars and restaurants, this is what I get served with my coffee.

'Eroski' advertisements. Seems to be a supermarket chain. Although with a name like that, erotic skiing comes to mind. Naked snow sports?

I think I'd rather be riding my bike.

Day 15: Santiago de Compostela (0km)

So here I am, actually sitting in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Hanging above me is the famous incense holder (the Thurible - I had to look that up) suspended from an impressively elaborate pulley high above. I can't stop the HSE training in me (thanks Schlumberger) wondering whether that single, albeit impressively thick, rope has been inspected or tested recently. During the Pilgrim mass that holder - how much does the Thurible weigh I wonder - is going to be swinging right over my head.

The rope - has it been checked lately?

 Regularly one of the Cathedral guardians walks up to a microphone and says: "sssshhhh silencio por favor" which acts to reduce the hubbub from the hundreds of people milling around for at least 30 seconds or so, before the sounds of hundreds of voices slowly rises again to the same level it was before. Scores of little illuminated screens are being held high; people trying to capture the event.

It's 11:20 and already the tension seems to be building in expectation of the 12:00 Pilgrim mass. I am uncharacteristically early, but it's been a relaxed and slow morning.

I've had a relaxed start to the day. This is the first time on the trip that I am actually staying in the same place more than one night. So no packing everything this morning; just my bed to make. Then after checking the weather forecast, a critical decision is made: it will be washing day. Things will have the whole day to dry and I have to take the opportunity that presents itself. It's impressive where your priorities lie when you travel.

For breakfast there are cereals! Another unexpected treat; after having had coffee and some form of bread every day so far, cereals seem a luxury. The South African girl I meet and chat with over breakfast celebrates with two huge bowls of Corn Flakes. I go for a discreet bowl of muesli.

Selfie with the "Two Marias"
I want to photograph the 'Two Marias' statue, and look at the map to plan my trip there. It turns out my albergue (the only one on the trip I've actually booked ahead; the day before) is about 2 minutes walk from the statues. It's about 2 minutes walk to the Cathedral in the other direction. I have chosen well. I have a view of the Cathedral over the red tiled rooftops from the bathroom; I can brush my teeth and look at the famous Santiago Cathedral simultaneously if I want. I take a selfie with the two Marias. Then I ask a couple of passing women (perhaps they are also two Marias) to take a picture of me next to the statue. "No, stand by the other side so she has her arm around you" I am instructed.

It's 11:35 and the tension in the Cathedral is palpable. It's almost quiet now.

The view while brushing my teeth
I have a prime spot as it turns out. First, I have a seat. Next, I am in the first row of the section. And now, best of all, a cathedral guardian has just come and blocked off the space in front of me so my view won't be obscured by people standing there. Later it will turn out that this was, indeed, too good to be true, although I do have an excellent view of the entire proceedings.

11:45 and the altar lights have come on. The gilding is very impressive. I now see the pulley system better and realise that the Thurible will swing the other way (in the transcept, and not the nave), so won't be coming overhead after all.

The Thurible is lit and the swing is set in motion
The mass is about an hour long; quite a show. It's a combination of singing (led by a nun with a good singing voice) and sermons by various priests including a short sermon by several different priests in each of their native languages; German, French, Chinese, Welsh (?) There's a sermon in Spanish by a priest with a decidedly Scottish accent. Quite an international theme, which in fact is the theme throughout the mass.

At the beginning there's a listing of the nationalities of the Pilgrims who have arrived the previous day, together with where they started their pilgrimage. All the Pilgrims are welcomed as friends. The collection bags are passed around and then it's time for the hosts; pandemonium breaks out as everyone rushes up to get theirs, but order is soon restored.

And then comes the main event; at least for most of the Pilgrim tourists if not the true believers: the filling, raising and swinging of the Thurible. Quite a show and instantly the 'no filming or cameras' rule is forgotten, as is the fact that the area in front of me has been roped off. All around cameras, phones and tablets are held up high to capture the moment.

In the afternoon I head off in search of a book store. Getting there I realise that I have made the classic 'foreigner in Spain' mistake of assuming that the shop will be open. Naturally it is closed when I get there at 15:30. But this one opens at the remarkably early hour of 16:00 so I go for a walk in the area. I discover that I'm in the grounds of the university; the different faculties are scattered around the streets with little green areas everywhere. A good place to sit and write some notes.

I immediately notice two things: everyone sitting in the park is glued to their smartphone (as, I have to acknowledge, am I as I write these notes), and although the place looks nice from a distance, it's unclean and unkempt. Broken bottles and rubbish spoil the ambiance. Still, it's turned out to be a glorious day and the sun is making an appearance. My washing will be drying nicely (must consider the important things).

Much later (but early by Spanish standards) I am having dinner at a little restaurant found with the help of TripAdvisor. Looking around at the other patrons it is pretty obvious that they are all Pilgrims of some sort. I hear French and English being spoken. I guess the local dinner service will start when we Pilgrims have left. Or only foreigners eat here. Either way, the food is good.The French-speaking couple leave; they're wearing bike shorts. I wonder whether they would have gone to a restaurant back home wearing bike shorts?
Evening performance has finished

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Day 14: San Xiao to Santiago (69km)

Yesterday while I was pedalling up some hill in Galicia the King of Spain abdicated. I have to admit that I didn't notice, and the two events were probably unrelated. In fact it wasn't until the owner of the albergue where I was staying indicated the television (all bars and cafés in Spain have at least one television permanently on somewhere on the wall; in fact as I type this I am sitting underneath yet another television) and with some distaste said "Look at that. What a waste of money they are" that I had any idea of what had transpired while I rode.

Made it to Santiago de Compostela!
While the abdication of the King is a big deal, the more important news for today is that I am writing these notes in Santiago de Compostela! Yes, this afternoon I rode the final stages of the Camino, through the forests around the airport and on into the cobbled streets of Santiago and its Cathedral.

The Camino avoiding the motorway around the airport
14 days and well over 800 km after leaving St. Jean in France I have arrived. Hard to believe really, but true nonetheless.





After passing the "Santiago" sign - the actual road sign was covered in graffiti - it was still another few kilometres riding through what proved to be fairly uninteresting streets before the Cathedral spires appeared above the rooftops and gave me a reference point to head towards. In fact, rather surprisingly, the Camino marking in Santiago turned out to be fairly hit and miss. So it was just as well that I had the Catherdral to use as a landmark indicating my final destination.

The path led me down some stairs - carrying the bike of course; why not make it difficult just at the end - and suddenly, there was the main square in front of the Cathedral.

I found my (pre-booked) albergue, checked in, unpacked, and headed straight for the Pilgrim Office. Thought I may as well finish things properly straight away.

And after standing in line for almost two hours (and I hate standing in line) I now have my official certificate (the 'Compostela' in Santiago de Compostela) to prove I've done it.
The queue of Pilgrims waiting to receive their Compostela

After a nice shower and a celebratory drink (and perhaps a non-pilgrim dinner) I will hopefully add some more thoughts about the whole thing.

The final stages of the Camino; outskirts of Santiago