October 9 – 12, Sahagun to Ponferrada
Breakfast at Viatoris the morning we left Sahagun was a delight with coffee, juice, a small wrapped pastry to take with us and the closer, thinly sliced Serrano ham on toast. Tanks full, we mounted up and took off for another day of riding through the Meseta, or as it was described in the guide book:
Leaving Sahagun in the Morning
Not an autonomous region, but rather a geographical area within the region of Castillo y Leon – the largest in Spain. This central high plateau makes up 40% of the country, with elevation ranking from 1,200 – 3,000 feet. There is a saying that the landscape of the Meseta is not found in the land, but in the sky with its diverse colors and expansive clouds. Dreaded by some, relished by others, the Meseta has a distinct reputation for being boring, repetitive and bleak.
The Endless Meseta
It was all of that and more and yet the flat terrain made for easy riding and it reminded us that we were lucky to be cycling through it as it made the passage twice as fast. Midway through the day we stopped in the small town of Reliegos for a snack, choosing what appeared to be the only place in town serving food. And what a place it was, owned and operated by a character referred to as the “Elvis Presley of the Camino” he was singing to himself to some classical music when I entered the shop and would continue doing so during our visit.
The Elvis of the Camino
I ordered a couple of coffee con leche’s and a ham bocadillo, which to our delight he carved directly off the large cured ham leg mounted to the counter. I can’t say whether it was Serrano or Iberian, but it made for a ginormous sandwich on a large, fresh, and crispy baguette, the meat salty and bearing the distinctive flavor of this style of ham.
A River on the Way
We finished up and rode the rest of the way into Leon, getting off track on the outskirts of town and only finding our way after asking a shepherd moving his flock through a highway underpass about the Camino. Back on course we made it into town and stopped in front of Check In Leon, our lodging for the night. This is a fairly new operation and we were immediately impressed, and would remain so throughout our stay with the facility, open, clean, well lit with good showers, a nice kitchen, cozy bunk pods and best of all, really good wifi.
Our Helpful Shepherd
It turned out there was a Carrefour a block or so away and given the well equipped kitchen we decided to shop for dinner, ending up with pre-made salad, baguette, and red pasta sauce with carrots, zucchini, onion, and red bell pepper that we served on top of beef ravioli. It also gave us the opportunity to buy a reasonably priced bottle of Rioja Reserva and stuff for breakfast the next morning. It was a nice way to end the day.
Reserva, Salad, and Pasta
As we began to work our way out of town the next morning we met up with two American woman, Liz and her daughter Jasmine from California and Billy C, a Spaniard living in Sevilla (born in the U.S. so he spoke excellent English) and his girlfriend. They were all starting out in Leon and planned to ride to Santiago and so we made quite the group as we pedaled our way out into the countryside.
Leon Cathedral on the Way Out of Town
After a stop for coffee we got separated from them, as I was trying to push the pace a bit given their very slow speed, barely five miles per hour. At the rate we were going we weren’t going to make our next destination, Astorga, until well after 4pm and with no reservations in hand for the albergue we planned to stay in, I wanted to get there at a reasonable hour.
Taking a Break
Concerned that we’d lost them, we stopped and Joanna rode back some distance to see if they were OK, but couldn’t find them. We took off again hoping we’d catch up to them in Astorga. We hit town and checked into the Municipal Albergue, sharing a small room that night with two thirtyish Spanish women. After showering we walked up to one of the plazas for a beer and best of all, a burrito of all things. Not quite like we are accustomed to, more like a flauta, but it was just what we needed to get us through the rest of the afternoon.
Pulling Into Hospital Orbigo
Our next task was to locate an outdoor shop to find a solution for the “Beast’, whose zipper I’d ripped that morning. Originally thinking we would strap it to delay further ripping, upon further consideration we realized we could actually put my hiking pack inside Joanna’s, stuff belongings in it, and use the straps to secure its waterproof fly to the outside and thus it could substitute for the “Beast”. And that is exactly what occurred, working to perfection for the rest of the trip.
We went back to the same square at dinner time in search of a pilgrim’s meal and found a good one at Café Abuela for 11 euros apiece. Along with our bottle of Rioja, Joanna enjoyed a gigantic bowl of mussel and potato soup and I a Russian Salad, then two main courses, both good but not memorable, particularly as we were really too full from the starters to enjoy them.
The Mussel Stew and a Russian Salad
We had to be out of the albergue pretty early the next morning and too dark to safely navigate the course, yet alone attempt to follow the Camino markings showing the way, we stopped for breakfast at a small shop advertising a 2 euro desayuno (breakfast) that included juice, coffee or hot chocolate, six churros or two pieces of toast. How do you say bargain in Spanish?
The Churros – Just Dip Them In Chocolate
Astorga Cathedral Early Morning
It was a great beginning to a long day, the start of what would be two of the most challenging of riding we’d do, this one uphill almost all of the way to the summit near Cruz Ferro and then a rewarding long downhill to Ponferrada. One positive element of an early uphill workout is the warming effect it brings and before long we hit the bottom of the harder steeper climb to the top. We stopped for a coffee and our first piece of Tarte de Santiago, a delicious cake like concoction with hints of almond and a dusting of sugar on top.
Sunrise on the Trail and the Tarte
After remounting and a long effort, we reached the summit and its signature totem, a tall wooden pole topped with an iron cross, said to be an ancient monument first erected by the ancient Celts, then dedicated by the Romans to their god Mercury, and later crowned by the cross and renamed as a Christian site by the 9th century hermit Guacelmo. For centuries pilgrims have brought a stone here, either from home or the flatlands below, to represent their burden and when reaching the top leave the stone and the burden there.
At Cruz Ferro
On the way into Sahagun we’d been extorted (in a friendly way) out of a euro by a gent sitting in his van in the middle of nowhere, who said he’d stamp our credentials and gave us a wood chip apiece, then said we had to pay. So we left our chips at Cruz Ferro and the burdens they represented. For me it was the cloud of guilt that had been following me since I decided to switch to bike riding, it seeming to be the easier route, almost like cheating, as hiking represented to me the true measure of a pilgrim. But as we were soon to discover, there is no easy option to completing the Camino. They are all equally hard, ours just allowing us to complete the journey a bit sooner than the hikers.
Leaving Those Burdens Behind
From there it was the long downhill into Ponferrada, with a stop halfway down in the small town of El Acebo where we enjoyed a large ham bocadillo and some drinks. This was a stretch that required caution, a narrow street paved with irregular stones combined with plenty of pilgrims and a car or two. We tried to enjoy the rest of the downhill but this one was tough, steep with lots of twisty curves so that one was compelled to constantly apply the brakes, glad we were to have disc brakes that apply even stopping power without concern for fading as they heat.
We entered Ponferrada and began our search for our lodging, Albergue Guiana, an effort made confusing by a combination of maps with no detail or no map at all and our overall level of fatigue. We got off track once or twice and finally stopped to ask a man and his daughter if they could tell us where the albergue was. A brief smile crossed their faces as they pointed at the building next to us which we discovered to be our destination.
This would also be one of the better places we’d say in; fairly new, clean and modern with a complete bike workshop in the basement (not that either of us felt compelled or qualified to use it), a large common area and a dedicated shower and separate toilet for our room of seven beds (three bunks and a single). We set our things down and promptly set out in search of a post ride beer, only to get distracted by the Templar Castle. Built in the 13th century over preceding levels of Visigoth, Roman and Pre-Roman fortifications, it was abandoned by the Templars soon after its completion when they were banished.
The Templar Castle
It was the Spanish National Holiday, Fiesta Nacional del Espana and so admission was free, the downside being that although we were quite tired, we felt compelled to go in and do a tour. Part way through walking the scant remains of a once great fortress, I pled fatigue and lack of will and so we walked back to the albergue, picked up some beers at a market on the way and returned to hit the laundry room and work on the blog.
Laundry is normally a mundane but efficient task; this time not the case as two German woman who’d arrived prior to us had taken possession of the laundry room to clean and dry every single washable item they owned having encountered bed bugs at a prior stop. They proceeded to throw off the entire washroom schedule by at least two hours.
Outpost on the Downhill
Joanna patiently waited in the room to access the equipment and do our cleaning and as the day grew later, I realized going out to eat was not an option, so returned to the market to pick up whatever I could throw together for dinner, which turned out to be a large can of white beans with mystery meat, a can of what was supposed to be green peas but turned out to be some other bean and a redemptive bottle of inexpensive red wine.
Many Miles to Go
It was camp food, not at its finest but really, how many great meals can you have and in the end, sometimes the most mediocre are the most memorable. We slept uneasily that night knowing we had the climb up to O Cebreiro the next day, potentially the hardest day we’d experience. How we’d face the challenge and what would become of us laid heavily on our minds.
Check In Leon: http://checkinleon.es/
Cruz Ferro: https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruz_de_Hierro_(Le%C3%B3n)
Albergue Guiana: http://www.albergueguiana.com
Templar Castle: http://www.spain.info/en/que-quieres/arte/monumentos/leon/castillo_de_los_templarios.html
Knights Templar: http://www.visit-medieval-spain.com/knightstemplar.html
Fiesta National de Espana: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiesta_Nacional_de_Espa%C3%B1a