What’s the best day of your life? The day you got married? The birth of your first child? That’s what most people expect you to say, but today I experienced a full spectrum of emotions and raw happiness. It was the best day of my life.
- Total Distance today: 145km
- Total Camino Distance today: 120km (Wrong turn cost me dearly!)
- Total elevation gained today: 7,740 feet
- Total Camino Distance elapsed: 815km
Freezing in Sanabria The plan today was to rise around 5am and have a high-mileage day. I woke up and took one step out of the door and quickly scarpered back to bed. It was minus 7 Celsius. (Less than a week before I was sweating my balls off at 42 Celcius in Seville!) I was eventually the last person to leave the albergue. I think the cleaners wanted rid of me. It was 0830 by the time I set off; my latest start during the camino. Puebla de Sanabria to Lubian (28.5km) I knew that today was going to involve some big climbs, and the first was Padornelo, with an altitude of 1,345m (4,413ft). The sun was bright but it was deceptively cold. I had two Fappas (like a Buff neck tube) and used them as mittens. The climb up to the summit of Padornelo was pretty easy, and I was happy to sit in the granny gear and spin up to the top just to keep warm. Climbing with plenty of layers on meant I was a sweaty mess by the time I reached the top. I stopped for a café solo and allowed myself to dry out before the fast descent.
Lubian to a Gudina (25km) During this stage I saw a lot of Spain’s wind farm energy, as well as the construction works of the high-speed railway line. This stage also marked 500 miles in 5.5 days. The climb up to Alto de A Canda altitude 1,281m (4,202ft) was again relatively easy and traffic-free. The road was lined by old, derelict houses and gushing small waterfalls from the melting glaciers above. From this point on, a lot of the trails were steep, with big rocks that required a lot of effort to negotiate down. During this time, I was craving thick, chunky mountain bike tyres. After several unsuccessful attempts climbing rocky tracks, I decided to make the best of the road. After all, it ran very close to the camino itself, so I wasn’t missing out on too much.
Before descending in to A Gudina, there was another climb (Canizo, 1085m) that involved diversions due to construction works. A Gudina to Laza (34.5km) This is was the beginning of the best part of the whole Via de la Plata. Its difficult to express just how good this part of Spain is to cycle in. Incredible scenery, complete peace an solitude, rewarding climbs and perfect terrain. I got extremely lucky as the weather was absolutely faultless: No wind, no rain. For the most part after leaving A Gudina, the Via de la Plata follows old, unused roads and gravel tracks that skirt around the tops of hills and meander through the valley, passing tiny hamlets and old villages that seem to be forgotten about. The spectacular views of the lake below, Embalse Das Portas were breathtaking. I wasn’t expecting it; the water, the rolling mountains of the Parque Natural O Invernadeiro, the blue sky. I would cycle 100 metres, be completely awe-struck and stop to take a photo, then the same thing would happen again and again. What surprised me most was that there was a complete absence of people. If this place was in England it would be the most-visited piece of natural beauty. It would rival the Lake District as a holiday destination, yet I did not see a single sole. In total, there was two small boats on this vast lake.
I stopped at a café just outside of Laza. It was 3.30pm and I hadn’t had any lunch. I was starving, but I didn’t care. I was riding a wave of exhilaration. The ladies in the café couldn’t have been more pleasant. I indulged in 7 café solos, a ham and cheese baguette and was treated to some sugary waffles. I couldn’t believe the bill came to just over 4 Euros, and the lady wouldn’t accept my tip. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Laza to Xunquiera de Ambia (60+km) I felt like Lance Armstrong as I turbo’d out of Laza except my drug of choice was caffeine. I tackled the steep 500m climb with absolute ease, and was rewarded with panoramic views of the valley below. I saw a path in the valley and hoped that the camino would soon follow this track. I carried on further along the road but there were no camino signs. I knew my superhero climb just minutes before had been in vain, and the prospect of having to descend it seemed like a waste, so I tried to use the Garmin to point me in the right direction. After several failed attempts, more wrong turns, dead eneds and wasted time and miles, I had to turn back and descend the steep climb.
Halfway down I noticed an old road, closed off to the public. I was intrigued. Did this lead to that path in the valley? Taking Risks: Off the Beaten Track I was well ahead of schedule and knew I could afford to spend the afternoon exploring a little, so I decided to hop over the barrier and make my way down this old track. For the first 4km the road seemed perfectly normal: A sheer cliff to the right and a riveting drop to the left that was protected by a barrier. As I continued there was more and more evidence of avalanches, and after 7km on this track, the barrier was no longer there. After 11km I came to another barrier. I hopped over to check it out and the whole road had been completely wiped out by a huge boulder that was not lying about 200ft down the valley. I didn’t want to turn back, so I took the risk of lifting my bike over this narrow ledge. It was a stupid idea. If I had fallen, nobody would have found me for ages: I was in a deserted part of Spain, off the camino, on a road that was blocked off… But stuff like avalanches only happens on films, and today was MY day. Everything was fine!
On the other side of the valley I had no idea where I was and unsure of which direction I needed to head. I continued up and out, and again, the views at the top were exquisite. Everything was so still and utterly silent. I had it all to myself Lost and Euphoric Everything was so beautiful and I was torn between feelings of wishing I had someone to share the moment with, whilst feeling to blessed that I was able to experience to myself. I had earned it. I had never felt so alive. I was really tired but engulfed in euphoria. I’ve never felt such raw emotion as I did during this ride. I spent a lot of time following old tracks and disused roads and it was hours before I finally saw signs for towns again. I was starting to resent the constant undulation and was cursing the hills in the heat. I was ready to stop.
I passed through the small town of Vilar de Barrio and all of the tiny bars were completely packed full of locals, all squeezing in to catch the deciding fixture of La Liga, where Athletico Madrid clinched a draw with FC Barcelona to take win the league. I wasted 45 minutes in this place trying to find the albergue. Once I found it, there was nobody there – No manager, no pilgrims – so I hit the road for one last push to Xunqueira de Ambia.
En route out of town, I took a turn too sharply, did one of those slow-motion falls to the ground and popped my blisters on my hand that I had earned 5 days before. What an idiot!
Xunqueira de Ambia It was around 8pm when I finally reached the albergue. All of the shops in town had closed so I missed the opportunity to buy some stock for breakfast. I went through the usual ritual of stripping the bike of its luggage, taking a shower, then made my way in to town for some food. I had a couple of beers and they went straight to my head. I ate and chatted to two middle-aged ladies from the south coast of England, and headed back to the albergue at almost 11pm. Everyone was asleep.