Compostela to Land’s End

P1070674Santiago de Compostela is full of the walking wounded – but they are the happiest, most joyous band of walking wounded you will ever see in peacetime. Under the watchful gaze of the statue of St James flanked either side by the two soaring lichen and moss-covered spires of the cathedral (okay, one was covered in a facsimile of its real self as it received a facelift but I do hope they leave the lichen where it is), the vast expanse of the Plaza de Obradoiro is the perfect place to sit and watch the extraordinary scene of pilgrims enter the concourse in pure celebration and sheer relief that their arduous journey has reached a momentous conclusion.

P1070460With knees bound or ankles in supports, some cast their hiking sticks or staffs to the ground to walk the last few steps of their pilgrimage unaided. Many hug each other to congratulate one another for their achievement, whilst others burst into gleeful song. Others sit or lie down deep in thought; occasionally shedding a tear and to savour the emotional crescendo of a defining moment in their lives. I have no doubt that the universality of emotions touches everyone who arrives in the plaza having completed a journey of many hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres but I do wonder what the scene was like centuries ago. Unlike the pilgrim of today – commonly dressed in breathable, waterproof walking attire and the latest technology in sports apparel – the tide of medieval pilgrims who actually made it to the plaza must have been a very different looking band of individuals. The spectacular Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, founded in 1492 and now an exclusive parador, once served as a hospice for pilgrims stands testament to the fact that El Camino de Santiago was literally a journey of life and death.

P1070476All the theatricality of a Catholic service is bestowed to pilgrims in the cathedral for Pilgrim’s Mass, which takes place at noon everyday. On the Sunday that I attended, the cathedral was packed to the rafters with the faithful and those that were there to soak up the charged atmosphere. The service concludes with the ceremonial swinging of a huge, ornate incensor that is first hoisted up by five clergymen and swung from the central knave across the east and west transept. The burning of the incense was a fragrant and dramatic end to the service but I couldn’t help but think how it must have originally served to mask the bodily odours rising from the great sea of unwashed pilgrim’s gathered in the congregation below.

After patiently waiting in the long queue to collect my certificate of accomplishment, or Compostela, from the Peregrino Office – which confirms I had completed my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles along El Camino Francés to Santiago – I turned my wheels west until there was no more land left to cycle. Joining the many pilgrims who continue their journey to the rock-bound peninsula of Cape Finisterre which literally means ‘Land’s End’ (not to be confused with its counterpart in Cornwall, England) and was believed to be the edge of the world during Pax Romana, I had only 90km-or-so to complete my journey across the entire breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. The following day, fuelled by the previous night’s delicious wild camp chorizo pasta cooked on the stove whilst the mosquitoes dined out on me during a wild camp under the eucalyptus trees outside the sleepy town of Pereira, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as I first made sight of the Atlantic Ocean. It was as if the poignant, heavy atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela was lifted and evaporated into the perpetual sea frets that make landfall.

P1070623In order to complete as circuitous a route as I could around the tip of Galicia, I headed northwest in the direction of the battered and scarred rocky promontory of Muxia to see the Faro (lighthouse) that still guides fishermen into its safe harbour to this day. The changeable Galician weather didn’t fail to disappoint and the blue skies quickly became concealed behind a fine mist that coated the bright yellow roadside gorse in a fresh dew. The Costa del Morte (Death Coast) is a wild, and still dangerous coastline for mariners to chart, with charming white sand beaches framed by high cliffs. It is a diverse landscape of mountains, shaded valleys, wildflower meadows and little villages dotted with old hórreos (stone granaries) and weather-worn cruceros’s (stone crosses). It is also easy to appreciate why humans for millennia have chosen to settle here and there are a number of megalithic sites, stone-age dolmens and celtic burial grounds to visit. There are many legends of saints arriving by boat; Cristo de Fisterra, Virgen de la Boca, Virgen del Monte de Camariñas amongst others, and even the myth of the forgotten city of Duium that disappeared under the sea many moons ago.

As it happens, it seemed like myth and reality actually did collide when I cycled through the popular seaside town of Fisterre enveloped in a P1070687dense fog. As I reached the end of terra firma on the Capo de Finisterre; there was no horizon, sea or sky to behold but only the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks below. Sitting at the ‘edge of the flat world’ to the acrid smell of smouldering walking boots (it is a recent custom to burn your boots or item of clothing when you reach the point – I did neither), I cracked open a beer to celebrate and looked out into the unfathomable nothingness as thick cloud swirled all around me. Maybe the Romans were onto something after all.

Returning to the Office of the Concello de Fisterra to collect a piece of paper which certifies that I had officially reached the end of the ‘flat world’, I was, well, flatly refused. It seemP1070682s that the paucity of stamps from Santiago de Compostela in my Credencial del Peregrino was enough to turn me away. A small price to pay I suppose for the free wild camps that I had enjoyed along the way. As I smiled at the futility of how I had succumbed to collecting immaterial souvenirs that get either framed or filed away as a sentimental token of certain occasions in life, a chap from Germany approached and introduced himself as Dennis. With a wild glint in his eye, it turns out that he had arrived ten months earlier and was so drawn to the place that he feels no desire to return to Germany. He now lives quite happily in his tarpaulin-constructed refuge on the western tip of the peninsula. We chatted about El Camino, the absurdity of ‘stamp’ collecting, and he suggested that head up to the Monte Facho to check out the white ‘moving stones’ and spend the night up there. And that’s exactly what I proceeded to do. “If you find the moving stones, you must make a wish!” Dennis vouched as he bade me a fond farewell.

As if the fog couldn’t get thicker, it surely did as I eventually gave up pedalling and pushed the Sherpa slowly up the steep climb to the highest point on the peninsula. P1070728Despite the fact that visibility was down to five metres, by a stroke of luck I managed to spot the two radio masts that Dennis had excitedly pointed out on the map, and struck camp nestled amongst a distinctive group of distinctive eroded rocks nearby. Whether it was close to the fabled seat of the Celtic crone-goddess Orcabellam, I have no idea, but it was a spectacular wild camp spot that was secluded and out of sight from another breed of officious ‘stamp’ collectors who prefer that wandering pilgrims keep to one side of the blue line.

P1070747My efforts were rewarded beyond belief as a change of wind cleared the fog almost immediately to reveal the ‘path of milk’ as the Romans referred to it – otherwise known as the Milky Way – stretching over the Atlantic. It was the best wild camp of the journey by far as I awoke early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Galician mountains that I had cycled across from Santiago de Compostela in the distance. And yes, I did find the moving stones; and yes, I did make a wish. All I can say is that whilst Capo Finisterre may not be the end of the known Earth, it is certainly a very special place indeed.

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road

and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

By walking on makes the road,

and upon glancing behind one sees the path that will never be trodden again.

Wanderer, there is no road.

Only wakes upon the sea.

Antonio Machato


Buen camino

P1070086The familiar greeting of “Buen Camino!” (literally meaning ‘good road’) amongst fellow pilgrims personifies the friendliness and camaraderie amongst the wayfarers who travel along the Way of St James. Often carrying a scallop shell and occasionally a gourd to signify their pilgrim status – and to ward off thieves or those with less than honourable intentions – the vast majority of pilgrims walk whilst a minority, including myself, cycle the route. I’ve already met a Dutch couple who are travelling with their young son on brightly coloured recumbents festooned with flags; gangs of lycra-clad mountain bikers in search of the next adrenalin rush; cycle-tourers on tandem bikes; and even a group of German farmers that have driven their lovingly restored tractors all the way from Kesslingen, Germany. Whilst the mode of locomotion may be different, the sentiments in the shared goodwill of the expression, ‘Buen Camino’, amongst walkers, cyclists, and tractor-enthusiasts alike remains exactly the same.

The ride from Roncesvalles into the Basque stronghold of Pamplona, the first main city along the Camino de Santiago, was an exhilarating one. I chose to take the road so that I could enjoy the twists and turns as it unravelled through the Valle de Erro. Woefully lost trying to navigate the spaghetti junctions of dual-carriage ways that orbit the city, charitable locals clearly saw my increasing desperation with the map and pointed me in the direction of my refuge for the night. P1070010Thankfully, I soon found the Albergue de Peregrinos de Jesús y Maria close to the cathedral nestled unassumingly in one of the many narrow cobbled streets of the beautiful medieval quarter. It is here that I was first introduced to the chorus of snores that have become the nigh-time soundtrack to the handful of Albergues that I have stayed in along the way.

Often run by volunteers, an Albergue is basically a hostel for pilgrims that charge anything between 5-10 Euros or simply ask for a donation for the luxury – and I do mean luxury – of a shower and bunk bed for the night. This privilege is only afforded to pilgrims and the Credencial del Peregrino must be presented on arrival for refuge to be granted. In return, a distinctive stamp confirms that the pilgrim has stopped for the night before continP1070493uing their pilgrimage the following day. It also represents a record of the way-points that pilgrims have journeyed along the road towards Santiago de Compostela.

Having been used to starting my day at a leisurely pace which first involves firing up the stove for an invigorating brew before packing up the tent to avoid unwanted attention from a local farmer or the Guardia Civil, I was surprised to see pilgrims at the Albergue set out to begin their day’s walk before the sun had even risen. We all travel at our own pace and rhythm but, personally, coffee always comes before cycling if the day is to get off to a good start. Without doubt, Albergues are exceptionally social places and a great opportunity to meet fellow pilgrims even if the symphony of snores at night keeps slumber a distant prospect – even for even the heaviest of sleepers.

P1070110Following a day’s rest to explore the lively city – mindful to stay well clear of any charging bulls – and with only a few hours’ wakeful kip under the belt, I pushed on to enjoy a succession of wild camps that took me though the fertile grape-growing plains of Navarra and La Rioja. The first green shoots heralding this year’s harvest for wine-production on an industrial scale were beginning to emerge. Spring had indeed finally sprung and the roadside verges that fence off the few fields left to fallow were sprinkled with bright yellow dandelions and buttercups.

Stopping off in the historic town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada situated on the banks of the Oja River for a typical lunch of cheese and fresh bread, I got chatting to a local woman, Maria, who was sharing quality time with her baby daughter in the shade of the town square. As we talked, I beckoned her towards me with an encouraging ‘hola!’ and to her mother’s astonishment, Eva began to take her very first steps: It’s the small but extraordinary experiences on the road that take on the greatest poignancy. As in life, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but is it really the destination or the journey itself that truly matters?

One of the many striking features of the El Camino is the wonderful mix of natural landscapes, flora and fauna that it takes you through. From flat, wide-open agricultural plains that stretch out from Burgos as far as the eye can see to the fresh pine forests and carpets of ferns and wild herbs that cling to the mountain range of the snow-capped Montes de León; or the lush green rolling hills of Galicia that is so reminiscent of Wales or Ireland that I have had to continually remind myself that I am in Spain. P1070049The route takes you through small rural hamlets with crumbling centuries-old farmhouses covered in moss and creeping ivy, over ancient cobbled Roman bridges, alongside gurgling brooks and into quiet, peaceful town squares complete with ornate water fonts offering thirst-quenching respite for the travel-weary pilgrim. The journey has so far been undeniably a kaleidoscope of colour, sights and smells that lift the spirit, nourish the mind and rejuvenate the soul.

P1070159The rich experiences that camping affords along this geographical fused-storyboard of Christian and Celtic landmarks has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve camped under stars framed by the lofty arches of the 12th century ruins of the Convento de San Anton – that once served as a hospital to treat the sick and ailments of passing pilgrims during the medieval ages – and have taken refuge from the howling wind and rain in the shelter of small chapels that overlook the Atapuerca Sierra that was first inhabited by some of the earliest human settlers in Europe.

Nature always plays its inevitable hand too. I’ve been woken up more than once by the bad-tempered barks of what I can only imagine are from Wild Boar and have shared my breakfast with a curious Stoat. In so far as the elements are concerned, I’ve been frozen into my tent after being forced to strike camp close to the Cruz de Ferro on the ridge of the Montes de León in a freak snow storm. P1070266The next morning – after a freezing night of fitful sleep above 1500m where I discovered that a hastily prepared hot chocolate on the stove in the early hours can make the difference between cocoa heaven and the onset of hypothermia – I watched the sun rise above the clouds and was treated to a warm hug and coffee shortly after breaking camp by an angel from Normandy. As the feeling to my hands returned, she told me that her name was Anneline, who had been so touched by travelling the northern coastal route of El Camino the previous year that she had decided to give up her philosophy studies at university and practice a philosophy of life that revolves around living off the land and offering coffee and cake to pilgrim’s as they reach the highest point of the route across the Iberian peninsula.

Like Anneline, there are many people who live on – and from – El Camino. Take Sergio from France, who said ‘au revoir’ to his Parisian life and has for nearly the past three decades lived on various sections of The Way of St James, picking litter as he goes. Soon to embark on his 24th pilgrimage to date. He told me that it is to mark the anniversary of St Francis of Assisi who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 800 years-ago this year. When I enquired how long it would take him to walk the route from the Italian spiritual centre of Assisi to Santiago, Sergio replied matter-of-factly: “Three months, give or take a few.” Or there is David from Barcelona, who renounced his life in the Catalan capital six years ago to live a life of simplicity offering service to pilgrims who should pass by and stop at his humble makeshift home outside the historic-walled city of Astorga.P1070213 “Life is process,” he mused as he broke up some wood to fuel the flames so I could enjoy a coffee brewed on the fire, whilst he drank herbal tea.

Apart from those that have decided to make a life from El Camino, there are of course the pilgrims themselves. Just like myself, all make the journey for uniquely personal reasons. I’ve met so many amazing people along the way, it’s not possible to accurately recount or do justice to the conversations I’ve shared but the common theme has been a desire to slow the pace of life down and reconnect with themselves, and others: There is Klaus, an art therapist from Munich, who says he is in need of some therapy himself. Or Bruno, from Lake Garda in northern Italy, who is cycling a furious 100km plus a day to carry a banner of get well wishes in his backpack for his ex-wife who is battling for her life after a heart-bypass.P1070225 Then there is Miquel from Logroño, who wants to give up his addiction to alcohol and television. Or Tina and Marchant from Australia and Poland respectively, who have decided to spend their honeymoon walking El Camino before they get married just make sure they are truly compatible in wedlock. Meanwhile, Zoe from South Korea is looking for love along the way. And then there is Ben, a happy-go-lucky horticulturist student who is walking the route before he starts his internship simply because it is “fun”! And it sure is fun.

For me, the penny truly dropped as I was talking to an Italian pilgrim, Mau, who had a monastic air about him and had met his partner, Nia, on the Way of St James six years-ago. He says they never reached Santiago but ended up settling in the peaceful town of Castrojeriz, in the central municipality of Castilla y León, just a few kilometres down the road from the Convento de San Anton. Aptly called the Hospital de Alma (Hospital of the Soul), they have spent the last couple of years restoring an old Castilian barn into a place of contemplation to remind pilgrims that the Camino is not completed by two feet or, indeed, two wheels; rather – the journey takes place within.

P1070367A striking photographic exhibition situated in the entrance to the building, Chasing the Shadows, takes an interesting perspective into the notion of pilgrimage and why increasingly more people each year are compelled to embark on one. The central message is universal. Just like the first steps that Eva took in the square in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we walk because it is both a naturally innate human desire to do so but also an external expression of our own inner state. It is in this sense that the repetition of walking – or turning of the pedals – becomes not just an act of simply getting from A to B, but a means of processing the habitual nature of life so that we can gain a deeper understand of ourselves. In short, we become the Camino.

Without any ceremony, I doggedly pushed the Sherpa into the Plaza del Obradoiro overlooked by the soaring spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela exactly on the count of ten; totally exhausted but elated. I was exhausted because I was recovering from a marathon night ride with only the brilliant beam of my headlight to light the way down empty lanes as bats swirled above, rabbits darted left and right, and owls hooted from the shadows of the trees in their familiar but haunting call and response. Jolted by the deeply sad news of the departure of my grandfather from this life – a kind, gentle Yorkshireman with a big heart and who always had a twinkle in his eyes – I could not stop until I had finally reached Santiago fuelled only by impromptu coffee stops brewed on the stove with lashings of sweet honey in the still of night.

I felt elated because I was entering a revered space that for centuries, countless pilgrims have risked life and limb to journey there. It is hard to explain, but is was as if the collective memory of emotions resonating in those worn granite stones embraced my heart in one singular moment, and I became overwhelmed with joy and sadness as I lit a candle for the loss of a dearly loved family relative. After more than 1200km on the road since arriving in Bilbao one month earlier, I had finally made it to Santiago de Compostela – almost to the day. P1070483Next stop… to the ‘end of the flat world’ at Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast.

Camino calling

P1070244It has taken a while but the bean is back on the bike – this time to follow ‘El Camino’ (also known as The Way of St James) across the Iberian Peninsula towards Santiago de Compostela.

My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.

P1060942Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

P1060958Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.

P1070492I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.

I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. P1060992That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.

El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. P1070450For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.

Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.

Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance.P1070171 I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.

Back on the Road

One important lesson that I have learned over the last few months is that you never truly know what is round the corner.

After the indignity of a spiked drink temporarily turned my world upside down at the start of this year it has taken exactly 109 days, six weeks on crutches, four trips to A&E, three sessions on my sprained ankle from the healing hands of Acupuncturist par-excellence Tania Spearman, two x-rays on said ankle, one night spent in hospital with a suspected hernia later downgraded to a groin strain (Note to self: Do not attempt to lift a 50 kilo bike under any circumstance), copious amounts of Rioja (purely for medicinal purposes) and an unscripted detour back to the UK for physiotherapy – plus invaluable quality time spent with friends and family – I am back on the road at long last.

To be honest I had started to think that my journey to Ethiopia was ill-fated before I had even really got going. But then who said things were going to be easy?

On reflection it has been less of a false start and more of a turning of a page; this time with a greater sense of awareness, humility and determination than ever before. I now feel much more prepared (mentally and physically) and have managed to better equip myself with some essential gear (Katadyn water filter, Power Monkey solar panel, wind-up radio, anti-malarials etc) that will allow me to be as safe and self-sufficient as I possibly can on the road ahead. I will of course spare the long list of equipment that all too easily fills up the panniers with each mounting kilo but it does seem a rite of passage for the budding cycle tourer to metaphorically share the load in pictorial fashion before setting off (again). So here is my contribution folks…

The Pre-Pack
Post-Pack and ready to Roll

Most importantly, my good friend and fellow cycle-touring companion Richie Thomas had grasped the nettle in a moment of inspired life-changing decisiveness, quit his web design job in Barcelona, and has embarked on a round-the-world trip on his trusty Cannondale steed. We’ll be riding all the way to Istanbul together taking in Italy and Greece before reaching Turkey. You can read more about his adventure by visiting his excellent blog here.

So with four wheels, two’s company and a good measure of coffee-fueled, pedal powered gusto, Constantinople here we come. Next stop Italy.

A Small Corner of Coffee Heaven

Mesón del Café
Location: Carrer de Libretería
Crutch compatibility: 4/5 stars (the liberal sprinkling of sawdust on the ceramic floor provides ample traction for the crutch-enabled coffee enthusiast)
Beans on the Menu:
To quote: “‘Top Secret’ South American Mezcla”
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado, (glass of Catalan Mescaro, no ice), cafe con leche
Hit to the wallet:
€9 (and worth every eurozone bean)
Music playing: Radio Catalunya

Steadfastly resisting the contagion of brash souvenir shops that appear to be advancing from both sides, the Mesón del Café (Coffee Inn) evidently has its roots planted firmly in Catalan soil; and isn’t budging. Walk a few yards from the grandiose Plaça Sant Jaume down Libretería and it’s easy to miss this little gem. Patience and a keen eye do however pay off and you will find, nestled amongst the plethora of cheap ‘I ♥ BCN’ trinkets imported from China, a coffee house of the highest order.

Established in 1909, this unpretentious – almost rustic – establishment has been quietly picking up awards throughout the years. Correction. Decades. And for good reason. Aside from the tasty selection of pastries and churros on display, coffee is the real star attraction here.

It’s a lively little place. The chain smoking owners take turns between feeding their nicotine addiction and serving the brisk turnover of caffeine depleted customers. The clientele is as diverse as the conversations are animated. From starry-eyed lovers to fatigued day trippers; families spanning the generations to old friends confiding with each other in hushed tones; punctuated only by solo ‘sixty-seconders’ in search of instant fortification (because it takes that time to order, polish off a cortado, pay and leave). There are some real characters too. One eccentric regular, whom I presume lives above the Coffee Inn, occasionally pops in to converse with the customers and to introduce his petite two year-old mongrel dog affectionately called ‘Mimi the Terrorist’ to anyone who takes an interest.

Perched at the end of the narrow wooden bar that runs the three-quarter length of this cosy establishment, I decide to divert my body’s innate need to take a mid-afternoon siesta and order a cortado (from the Spanish ‘cortar’ or ‘tallat’ in Catalan). A popular pick-me-up in Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Latin America, a cortado is essentially an espresso ‘cut’ with a ratio of 1:1 steamed milk and a dash of foam to gently round off the edges of its intense, flavourful kick. It judiciously arrives served in a glass accompanied by not one, but two bowls of sugar.

The mid-height wall panels made from old hessian coffee sacks from the Merconta plantation in Brazil are just an understated nod to the provenance of the beans and their long journey to reach this exceptional cafeteria. Above, are faded black and white photographs of fresh-faced baristas of years gone by. A fascinating array of framed artefacts also adorn the wood-panelled walls and speak of the many magical moments that can only begin to describe this coffee house’s prestigious history.

On recommendation from the unflappable, but attentive owner, the next course was a superbly balanced 28 year-old Catalan brandy to soften the arresting volcanic blow of the cortado. Wishing to savour the moment a while longer, I finish up with an unhurried cafe con leche.

Rumour has it that the ‘house’ Picardía (a mix of espresso, condensed milk and whiskey) is also without parallel. But I had had my fill, content in the knowledge that I had found a small corner of coffee heaven right in the heart of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella.

And if anyone is still in need of convincing of the Mesón del Café’s grounded charm, look no further than the corner window above the entrance. There you will find pictured a coffee jar overflowing with a steaming fresh brew of coffee. Look a little closer, and carefully painted on the vessel is the faint outline of one of Kaldi’s very own legendary Ethiopian ‘dancing goats’. Need I say any more?

Bean on a Crutch rating: 5/5 stars

A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona

Nursing a chronically sprained ankle whilst periodically pounding the streets of Barcelona on a pair of standard-issue crutches does have has its own advantages.

Although not an exhaustive list, here are just some of the reasons why:

  • The polite (but not forgotten) tradition of having doors opened for you at the threshold of establishments is revived with gusto
  • You get your own personal ‘shopping assistant’ who will offer to carry your basket for you in supermarkets (most of the time)
  • Your faith in the spirit of human solidarity is restored… between other people on crutches
  • Motorists slow down – or even stop – as you cross the street
  • You have a perfect excuse to temporarily slow the tempo of life down, elevate the feet with a strategically-placed bag of frozen peas, and rest up with a good book

All well and good you might think? Here is the downside:

  • Stairs become your enemy.
    (In a city where the sheer density of living means the only direction is to build up – or down – there are battalions of them. Ninety-three from flat to street level to be exact)
  • Uneven or wet surfaces become a minefield of potentially backside-numbing proportions
  • Repeated obstruction caused to more able-bodied pedestrians merely compounds the urge to hobble around with a large sign that reads ‘El inválido que acerca: Ceda por favor’ (Invalid approaching: Please give way) emblazoned across my chest
  • Refer back to point one

In all seriousness, my respect and admiration for disabled people who face the challenge of negotiating an urban world designed for the able-bodied on a daily basis has shot up beyond recognition over the last few weeks. I dread to think what living in Barcelona confined to a wheelchair is like and have no intention of finding out.

Now, balancing up this veritable smorgasbord of pros and cons, I have – with the encouragement of former resident of Barcelona and fellow coffee enthusiast Anita Westmoorland – decided to emerge from this enforced period of convalescence and fight the good fight of the crutch-assisted quadruped.

And whilst the torn tendons in my ankle perform their miraculous physiological feat of repairing themselves back to full pedaling capacity, I have resolved to take on some of the the best (and quirkiest) Tapas bars that BCN has to offer; and drink coffee.

So for your delectation, here is the first installment of:

A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona (on crutches)

Bar El Paraigua
Location: Plaça de San Miguel
Crutch compatibility:
2/5 stars (put aesthetics to one side and the immaculately polished chequered marble floor makes the crutch-enabled dash to the baño a sure-footed feat for the brave)
Beans on the Menu:
Saimaza Colombian High Roast
feine delivery method: Cortado
Hit to the wallet: €1,65
Music playing: Motown

Put the steep ‘tourist tax’ to one side and this charming Cafeteria-Tapas-Cockteleria-Whisqueria bar is, as the description suggests, more than your average coffee house. Standing on the site of one of the oldest convents in El Barrio Gótico, it opened its doors in 1968 to the good people of Barcelona after a hugely ambitious renovation. In every respect, its beautifully carved wooden interior is a truly authentic homage to the spirit of the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau movement. Every light fitting, marble tile, wall fixture, including the splendid antiquated cash register (dating back to 1898) which sits in pride of place on the mahogany bar, was pretty much cannibalised from a turn of the century umbrella and fan shop down the road, relocated and lovingly refitted, with stunning effect. Setting the walls with floor to ceiling smoke-tinted mirrors is a stroke of pure genius, elegantly achieving the desired optical illusion of space and openness to mask the bar’s diminutive size.

For me, the evocation of this era would have been almost complete if were not for the newly introduced nationwide smoking ban. Call me nostalgic bit some places just have to be fully appreciated through the atmospheric filter of a soft, Gauloise-infused haze; and this certainly has to be one of them. The pricey Cortado was good too, if a little on the milky side.

Yet it comes as no surprise that in an establishment like this, it’s not the coffee that you pay for.

Now, please pass the Gauloises…

Bean on a Crutch rating: 3/5 stars

The Dark Side of Barcelona (parte dos)

I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of Barcelona in 21st century Catalunya. Would he have tilted at wind turbines? Or jousted with Gaudi’s larger-than-life lizards? Maybe, the Man from La Mancha, and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, would have shored up the city’s defenses with a two-man bulwark in an effort to repel the chaotic crowds that surge up Las Ramblas, believing them to be the advancing enemy?

And, as for a ‘plague’ of thieves and villains, what would have the knight errant resorted to in his chivalrous bid to rid the world of evil-doers and scoundrels? All said and done, only the late – and great – Miguel de Cervantes would know the definitive literary answer to this purely hypothetical question.

Now back to the real world.

Once the traders have closed their graffiti-art front shutters and the lively bars and nightclubs open up for another night of revelry in El Gótica, there lurks an unsavory element which, as sure as night follows day, soon emerges from the shadows.

It was the eve of departure before taking the ferry to Genoa, Italy. Our panniers packed and ready for the off, my friend and I decided to go for a quiet drink to celebrate our last night in Barcelona and toast our impending adventure on two-wheels. We excitedly talked about our anticipation of new horizons; the unadulterated freedom of being self sufficient with only the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. You could say that were were in high spirits. Until we met the ‘shadows’ in a certain jazz bar that dare not speak its name.

A whiskey for the road was the last lucid memory that either of us share. The ensuing 24 hours followed like a bad dream that you want to wake up from but can’t because the dream is real – only too real. I won’t go into details here as there isn’t much to report, only a handful of vivid flashbacks that replay like a looped Super-8mm cine film. You guessed it dear reader, we had our drinks spiked.

Struggling to piece together the fragmented memories of the previous night, I spent the next day in hospital with a severely swollen and bruised ankle.

X-Ray courtesy of Hospital del Mar

Sporting a foot that looked more like a specimen out of a medical encyclopedia under the chapter ‘Elephantiasis’ is one thing, summing up the financial cost of a mugging just adds insult to injury. Fortunately, no broken bones or fractures were sustained and the reality of an enforced stay in Barcelona nursing a sprained ankle soon began to dawn.

That said, this rich tapestry of life has a funny way of throwing cold water in your face just when you drop your guard. A wake up call if you will. So for now, I’m making virtue out of necessity in that it’s life in the slow lane until I can ditch the crutches and get back onto the saddle for the next leg (excuse the pun) of the journey.

It is often said that there is ‘honour among thieves.’ I disagree. Even the most professional criminal would sell his/her sidekick without hesitation if the price were right.

Disclaimer: There is no suggestion that the events described in this post are in any way exclusive to this great city. It could happen anywhere, in any place, at any time. It’s just that I happened to become another statistic, and it happened to be in BCN.

Speaking of statistics, Barcelona does however enjoy the dubious honour of being top of the list of petty crime capitals worldwide. Whilst muggings are sadly on the rise, it has even been said that if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport, Barcelona would take the gold medal. Hands down.

The Sunny Side of Barcelona (parte uno)

Flag of Catalunya

A Catalan new year was heralded in with a noisy fiesta of fireworks, lighting up the clear starlit night sky over Barcelona. Five floors up in the heart of El Gótico, the panoramic views from the bijou ‘atico’ flat of good friend (and Warmshowers host), Richie Thomas, conjure up a world-gone-by-vista punctuated with richly decorated mosaic church spires and rambling apartment terraces stretching as far as the eye can see. In the distance is the table-top hill of Montjuic overlooking the harbor. This unassuming terrace affords one of the best views of the Neo-Classical spires of the Correos (Post Office) in one direction and the venerated 18th century baroque Basilica de Mercè in the other. Inside, its interior houses a Gothic carving dedicated to the patron saint of the city, the Virgin of ‘La Mercè’. Legend has it that ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ freed the city from a plague of locusts in 1637. Well, I can tell you for a fact that I haven’t seen any locusts but the area is unfortunately plagued by a certain nocturnal swarm of ‘species’ of a different kind which I will come to later in part two.

Cycling the streets of Barcelona in the fresh sun-kissed early-January air on the unladen Sherpa has been an interesting, if slightly nostalgic experience; not too dissimilar to jostling with the cars and pedestrians on the streets of London. Except at a slower pace and, of course, on the right. There is however, a difference. Thousands of Barcelonians conduct their short-trips across the city on what suspiciously look like Royal Mail bikes; sadly now becoming more of rarity in the UK. These pillar box red, three-speed, ‘Bicing’ machines that zip along the well-marked cycle lanes are Barcelona’s answer to the recent introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ in London and have been a feature of this bustling metropolis years before the current Mayor had even set his sights on City Hall.

A picturesque street in BCN during the hours of Siesta

Go off the streets however and into the pedestrian maze of narrow alleyways of the city’s Barrios such as El Born or El Gótico and Barcelona reveals its true inner charm. Getting lost is half the fun; only to find that there is a high probability you will arrive at the place where you started hours previously. Stopping off for a  strong Café con Leche or an even more intense Cortado for refreshment along the way, the mind-boggling selection of tapas bars, cafes, craft shops, galleries, museums, ornate Basilica’s, pleasant open squares and colourfull street life make it hard not to fall in love with this intoxicating, yet beguiling city.

Stopover in San Sebastián

Never having straightened a wheel in my life before and reluctant to carry out my first lesson in wheel truing on the roadside, I resign to take the train rather than cycle the 100kms to San Sebastián.

This also buys me more time in Bilbao so it’s straight to the Guggenheim…


The railway follows the exact route that I intend to cycle and it takes me two guilty hours instead of two days.

Leaving the bike maintenance for mañana, some serious R&R follows. The next few days are spent refueling on delicious Tapas and pottering around the picturesque narrow alleyways in the Parte Vieja (Old Part). Bliss.

San Sebastián or - Donastia - in the Basque language oozes 'old world' charm

The walk up to the Castillo atop Mount Urgull overlooking the the bay was the perfect setting to stretch my sore legs and catch the evening sunset.

But all good things eventually have to come to an end.

With the back wheel still out of joint – and I later discover, a broken rear gear shifter – I learn from the officious chap at the ticket counter that I can’t take the Sherpa on the Renfe fast train. This leaves me in a real predicament. Especially, as I was looking forward to celebrating New Year with a good friend in Barcelona the following day.


  1. Blow a small hole in the budget
  2. Procure an economical, medium-sized family car
  3. Dismantle bike
  4. Load bike and associated accoutrements into the boot
  5. Drive the 600kms across the Spanish Plains in time for siesta

So folks, at the close of 2010 and after only one week on the road, I reluctantly have to conclude that so far it has Bean on a Bike, Boat, Train and erm… a Seat Ibiza.

Here’s to a more pedal-powered 2011!

A Boxing Day drop into Bilbao

Under a clear blue sky and with a keen wind behind me, the scene was set for a perfect ride. To one side was the Atlantic Ocean and the other, views of the snow-capped Cantabrian foothills in the distance. For the first time, I could feel the warmth of the winter sun’s rays on my face and felt like I had finally found my rhythm on the bike.

The road gently unfolded through quiet villages, pine forests and farmland pastures before hugging the rugged coastline again.

Stopping off only for a lunch, the entire day was spent blissfully on the saddle and I was confident of getting to Bilbao in time for Paella; or at least that was the plan.

Immersed in the liberating sensation of just moving through the countryside under self-propelled locomotion at a rhythm that feels completely natural, I had neglected to pay much attention to the route. The increasing frequency of – uphill – switchbacks was the first warning sign. My rather impractical large-scale motorist’s Michelin Map of North Spain soon revealed my folly and I had inadvertently taken a road where a snowy ridge of hills presented themselves, standing between between me and my Paella.

Having invested energy already into the ascent, I didn’t want to turn back. So committed to the climb, I pushed on. Or up. By the time I had reached the top, the sun had set and I was exhausted, stopping only briefly moment to take in the city lights of Bilbao below.

Now, it says in the Thorn brochure that the Schmidt 6v hub-dynamo headlight encourages ‘spirited’ riding at night. They certainly aren’t wrong. In fact, it is so bright that oncoming motorists will dip their headlights, no doubt in some confusion as to the source of the 3 LED high-power single beam. The brilliant Schmidt lighting the way, I felt the adrenalin rush of negotiating the downhill twists and turns into downtown Bilbao, sensing the Sherpa wanting to accelerate. On the way down, I manage to pass a clapped-out old lorry which had been belching out noxious fumes in my face for over a slow mile. In the process of performing this unorthodox overtaking manoeuvre before the next 180 degree switchback, my 26″ Rigida Andra 30 Carbide rims unfortunately took the full force of a well primed wheel-slaying pothole. Net result: Buckled rear wheel. On Day 5.

Limping into the outskirts of Bilbao my energy finally runs out. With my paella becoming distinctly less a reality by the second, in possession of an discombobulated rear wheel and the mercury dropping fast, I dive into the nearest budget ‘reasonably priced hotel’.

The irony was not lost on me: