26 June 2012

Camino de Santiago day 4: St Jean Pied de Port - Zubiri

A very early start this time. Got some ok-ish sleep in a crowded dorm full of snorers. We now carry ear plugs whenever sleeping in shared accommodation, but somewhere in the middle of the night I seemed to have lost one, but was so tired that could not be bothered to find it.

We were sat down at the breakfast table by 6 am, where an old charming French lady had prepared a simple but plentiful breakfast for everybody. This was included in the 8 euros that we paid for the the night in the albergue municipal. The weather did not look great out of the window, with a very thick fog which had settled in the valley, but we (well, I) were so excited about crossing the Pyrinees that we did not mind it that much. Some 1300 m (~4000 feet) of climb awaited us, all in one go, just short of 23 km.

The advice from other cyclists the day before was NOT to take the walkers route (the Napoleon's route) and use the road instead (the N135). The claimed it was very steep and rough in places. We then asked the hostelero and he said it was absolutely fine, except the last bit, where we would need to walk a bit. The weather forecast was not too bad, except for the morning fog. I had read that the walkers route was much more scenic and so I sort of persuaded Lucy into taking that...While having breakfast, other peregrinos confirmed that the N135 was not the nicest road, with plenty of fast flowing traffic rushing to St Jean, so there was no doubt we would tackle the walkers path. That's why we brought the mountain bikes also, isn't it?

Lucy getting her stuff ready in the albergue's backyard
Crossing the river Nive, still smiling
On our way down the main street Rue de la Citadelle of St Jean, we waved a few other (Dutch) cyclists in touring bikes. They surely were taking the N135. Very shortly after leaving the town, we encountered the first proper hill, which had us on our lowest gear pretty much immediately! This hill was in fact the steepest of the whole climb.

First hill of many
For the first 17 km the route took us on a single-lane super quiet road where we barely saw any motorised traffic. Plenty of human traffic though, as St Jean is the start of many peregrinos! When I say plenty I really mean it, it was probably the busiest day in terms of walking peregrinos, but everyone seemed in very good spirits on the first day! No pain, no blisters, no dodgy knees. All good. Some of them were carrying incredibly bulky and heavy backpacks which no doubt they either unloaded/sent home soon after that or have someone carry them for them.

Getting over the fog, Lucy takes a rest
Coming out of the fog
Funnily enough, we seemed to be catching up with the early risers from our albergue, and sometimes went at pretty much the same speed as them with all the stopping. This in a way was good, as I kept talking to the same people on a very comfortable way as I was pedalling on a very low gear. When the climb started to flatten, we pressed on a bit, losing most of them, only to encounter even more of them that had probably set out at night. We later learnt that loads of walkers fear not getting beds at the albergues, and so set off in the middle of the night to get a head start against the rest of the pack.

At one point the Camino seemed to take on a trail (full of walkers) and so I decided to stick to the road. Because of the fog, Lucy had not seen me and started going up the trail. When I shouted at her she fell. This was one clipless moment to add to her collection! Luckily she was going at nearly no speed, so no harm done, and all the walkers immediately went to help her. The road it was then. She was now full of mud, as the rain had left plenty of puddles from a few days earlier. 

Enjoying the hills
Despite the fog it was getting warm
The road continued uphill, and we had to take it easy so that Lucy could get some rests. She did not need to walk any hills, except when we stopped, when she found it difficult to get started. In one such occasion, she even got a push from some walkers, as if she was a pro!

Eventually we reached what looked like the summit. But of course, it wasn't. Yet we had another break and some food to take in the views.

Nearly there
Beautiful road
Eventually we crested the summit, but instead of a speedy downhill, we got walking again as it was way too rocky and too packed with peregrinos. We did not see any other cyclists on the day, but got some reassurance that we had not been the only ones when we got on the trails and saw some fat tyres tracks.

Nearing the summit, shame it was overcast below us
Some more pushing required for the last few meters
A fountain on the downhill, peak time for walkers
The machacas at the summit
The downhill, once cleared of walkers, was pretty exciting. However, it felt a bit much for Lucy, having not been on a mtb for more than a handful of times, so she had to walk down some sections. I tried to teach her some of the basics, and at some point she did follow me and got a high on "mtb excitement". She actually said "I really am enjoying myself!". I was glad she was having fun on those downhills. I personally was having a re-encounter with my old days on the mountains of Madrid, going down on technical singletrack and all that. Not that we do much these days, but I just hope one day I can enjoy good trails near home. There were really nice sections through dense forests, and in no time we hit Roncesvalles.

One last, clear view, of the Spanish side before hitting the trail down to Roncesvalles
Steep downhill
Dense forests
Roncesvalles is the starting point of most Spaniards. It is a tiny little town on the Navarran side of the Pyrenees, but gets all busy with peregrinos. In fact, the albergue municipal is well known for being able to host hundreds of them in one single room. If you have seen the movie "The Way", it shows up at the very beginning.

Happy faces after having just crossed the Pyrinees
I popped into one of the restaurants to ask for a stamp on our credenciales, and asked the waitress about how hilly it was to Pamplona. I recalled the profile being mostly downhill, but I just wanted reassurance. We were not doing great with timing, as it had taken us a while to climb up and a bit more to make it down here. She said "va para abajo" meaning "it goes downhill". Good. Told Lucy and hit the path. Another cyclist from the Basque country was also starting here, and we would keep meeting up with him for the rest of the Camino.

The trail was really nice although very narrow. What we hoped it was going to be flat or downhill, turned out to be a "leg killer" or a continuous sharp up and downs that really tested our tired legs. Not only that, but also it got even more technical than ever before, with massive rocks, roots and singletrack. It was really taken its toll on Lucy, which meant more walking. I took the opportunity to chat to a walker, who turned out to be from Pamplona. He had just been made redundant in his job in finance, so had taken the opportunity to walk the Camino at slow pace to think about his next move. A nice chap, but we had to push on. He seemed very keen to learn English so it was nice to be able to give him some advice, and he even mentioned his plans to come over to the UK for a while. Lucy rode on some of the sections though, and seemed to be gaining confidence pretty quickly. "I seemed to be enjoying it" she wrote on the diary. Because of all the sudden confidence, she had a few close calls, and finally another fall, luckily at low speed. This time I even was behind her, so all good, only a cut on her knee with some blood dripping down her leg. She now looked like a proper mountain biker, full of mud, blood and a tired face! 

The path from Roncesvalles
We hit Zubiri some 50-ish km into the ride. It seemed like a pleasant town to stop, and so we decided to call it a day and check in to the most expensive (15 euros, with breakfast) albergue of the whole trip. Yes, it was nice and clean, but 2-3 times more expensive than the rest. We would be looking at cheaper options from here on.

 It was 4 pm and quite sunny. Our clothes were still wet from France, so it was an ideal time to dry them out, have a quick shower and enjoy the first day of proper good weather. The bikes too needed a good clean, as they had picked up so much mud on the downhill.

Garden of the albergue
While going around the village, we saw plenty of machacas on the roads. We later learnt that the road that passes through Zubiri is on a very common loop that people from Pamplona do as an after-work training ride. Wish I lived in such a beautiful and convenient place...

After a visit to the local groceries, we loaded up on local red wine and jamón, made our bocadillos and enjoy a quiet night chatting to other peregrinos. One of them was an American guy who seemed to have travelled the world. He was an interior designer who had worked teaching art in locations such as Kuwait. He described Kuwait as "soul-destroying", and was now living in Sri Lanka with his wife. He had also spent quite some time in México, yet his Spanish was not too good, as he spent most of his time with expats. We shared the local wines we had got from the local groceries, chatted over the horrendous weather he had on the Pyrinees and went to bed on the late side.

All in all it had been a fantastic day on the bike. For most this is the best stage of the Camino, so in a way I was feeling sad the high mountains were over. 

The stats for the day:

- Overall distance: 49.60 km
- Moving average: 8.6 km/h
- Overall average: 5.7 km/h
- Moving time: 5h 47 min
- Stopped time: 2h 54 min
- Max speed: 41.6 km/h

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