Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Roland does the pilgrimage

Today was one of the days which I have been really looking forward to and I wasn't disappointed. I did a portion of the el Camino which is a pilgrimage (yes, christians have them too!) to Santiago de Compostela and as it turns out towns like Pamplona owe their roots to the pilgrimage because they started out as stops on the pilgrims way. I know it may sound a bit strange as to why an atheist would want to do part of a pilgrimage and I don't have an answer for that; I just do!

Roncesvalles is the first town on the route from France to Spain and as luck would have it, I have a personal interest in Roncesvalles because that is the location where the original Roland met his end at the hand of the Moors while defending Charlemagne's main force. The story is told in a poem called 'The song of Roland' and although I have heard of it before I didn't realise that it all happened at Roncesvalles.

The ride down from Roncesvalles was going to be about 40km but about 20km from Roncelvalles, on the way, Caron suggested that I ride the remaining 20km up to Roncesvalles and then do the 40 down. Sounded like a good idea to me at the time! Riding the el camino backwards turned out to be quit tricky because all the signs are set to be seen by someone going the opposite way so I eventually lost the path but by then I was pretty close to Roncesvalles in any case. The path up was pretty tricky and one section I would rate as unrideable; think slippery mud, wet smooth rocks and roots on a steep path which has a fall from left to right. Although I didn't attempt this particular section I did attempt a similar but much less steep section soon afterwards and was rewarded with a mud bath when my back wheel just slid out from underneath me. All the way along the el Camino one meets pilgrims trudging their way to Santiago de Compostela dressed up in foul weather gear because the weather here just can't make up it's mind.

Me at what is a popular start on the pilgrims road to Santiago de Compostela

I met some kiwi's doing the pilgrimage as well as a french couple and their daughter who was hating every minute of the route, not to mention her parents who basically forced her to join them on it.

The towns that the Camino went through are really beautiful, well cared for and just very picturesque but the people may be a little strange; we saw some people walking their sheep on a leash, just like a dog. Maybe the sheep has a habit of biting people?

At one point the path went right through a ploughed field and even though it wasn't very steep, because of the mud it was just impossible to get any traction. Even where the field flattened out and it was almost level I could only just get enough traction to go forward.

Eventually arriving in Roncelvalles we had some coffee and an potato omelette in 1/2 a bagette which went down very well indeed. While sitting in front of the roaring log fire we met some dutch pilgrims who were doing it on the road rather than on the actual pilgrims road but at 8 or 9 hundred km's who cares, it's a long way! It had snowed in Roncesvalles yesterday so there was snow on the hills and little bits on the ground and I think that it must be quite wet year round judging from the moss on the trees in the square next to the pub.

The way down was quite tricky because it was so slippery and wet and there were a couple of times where the bike was sliding around underneath me which is a very disconcerting feeling. The ride down was punctuated by freezing rain storms followed by bright warm sunshine so it really alternated between miserable and fantastic.

Caron and I tried to meet at each village where the el camino crossed the road but this turned out to be quit difficult and we kept on missing each other but we finally met where I had started riding and had to take a photo of 'pilgrim' mellman and I on the el Camino.

After descending down to Zubiri which was quite hair raising I jumped onto the road and rode the rest of the way back to the campsite mostly because I was absolutely filthy with mud and the thought of getting in the car and then having to clean up afterwards was worse than just carrying on. We saw at least 6 professional cyclists training for the giro or the tour de france going up and down the road to roncelvalles so it is obviously quite a popular training ground. All in all, 60km and 6:03 hours of riding of which 4:30 was actually one the move. Quite a good days ride!

Back in camp it took me the best part of 2 hours to wash my bike, all my clothes and me before life could take on a semblance of normality and the hot showers never feel this good without the pain and cold of a hard ride.

To finish the day we navigated the old fashioned way into pamplona to yamaguchi park, named for the city with which pamplona is twinned, which is absolutely beautiful.

We walked across the park to a supermarket, bought some food for the next couple of days and on the way back a gunshot rang out from quite close to us. I don't think anyone was hit because I could hear the bullet departing but it was not what I was expecting in spain. Two minutes later we heard sirens, I presume in response to the gunhot. Everyone else in the park carried on as if nothing had happened so I'm not sure what was going on.

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