We once heard adventure described as, “a romantic name for suffering” and while we really enjoyed our two week bikepacking trip through northern Spain it often felt like the odds were stacked against us and it might have been easier just to stay at home! What was supposed to be our big European trip hadn’t gone to plan since the week before we were due to leave the UK.
First there was widespread flooding in England, particularly in Herefordshire, which temporarily disrupted all travel from our town, as roads and train lines were submerged. Then just as the water levels were subsiding we found out that the train we had planned to take to the ferry terminal in Portsmouth was no longer running due to a major landslide. A rail-replacement bus service had been put on to cover the disrupted service but technically bikes aren’t permitted on the buses, and even if the staff had allowed it there would be no guarantee there would be space available for them. Cue frantic searching of other, unaffected train lines and stressful phone calls to train operators to check if our purchased-months-ago tickets would be valid on different routes. After much discussion we had a new itinerary to get us to the ferry, it only involved 4 changes and several extra hours on various different trains. As it turned out our worrying had been for nothing as, luckily, Steph’s grandparents offered to pick us up from Salisbury, which was as far as we could go on our originally planned train, then would drop us off at the ferry the next morning. Stress levels back to normal pre-trip anxiety and we were on our way to stay with Steph’s family.
While spending the evening with Steph’s grandparents we hit our second stumbling block. Our ferry’s departure coincided with the arrival of Storm Jorge, the third named storm to hit our shores in only two weeks. At the time Jorge was in the Bay of Biscay, exactly in our path to get to Spain, making his way north towards the UK. Due to the ferocious winds out at sea we were informed that our ferry was delayed by 24 hours. The weather forecast was considerably better for Sunday morning, so we enjoyed a day with Steph’s grandparents instead, walking the dog near the beach (it was so windy and down on the beach the blown sand hit like bullets against any exposed skin!) and enjoying some family time.
In between checking for updates to our ferry we noticed on the news that the coronavirus that had been rapidly spreading through China had started to make its presence felt in Italy too. A couple of towns had been declared as hot zones, with their own mini-quarantines in place. Our thinking was that our travels through the North of Italy may be diverted because of it, but at the time Spain and most other European countries had just a handful of cases, it was nothing to worry about. The new sailing for the ferry had been confirmed and we could once again get excited about starting the trip.
It turns out that travelling by ferry with a bike is much easier than flying as it doesn’t need to be disassembled, of a certain size or weight, nor does it get manhandled on to a plane. Our general assumption had been that February is quite early to head to northern Spain to cycle so we were pleasantly surprised to see 5 other cyclists rolling into the ferry terminal with the same idea as ourselves. The couple of hours we spent waiting at Portsmouth harbour flew by as we got to know our fellow cyclists. As is typical when a bunch of cycle tourists get together we compared planned routes and trip itineraries, shared knowledge of good trails and must-see places, and (of course) examined everybody’s kit and packing methods. After the freight lorries had boarded it was our turn, rolling on to the frankly massive ship already with a renewed sense of excitement for the upcoming adventure.
We secured our bikes in the motorbike area on one of the ship’s car decks, which Ben was quite relieved to see was inside, the thought of the bikes being sprayed with salt water for 28 hours had filled him with dread. Because it was such a long journey we had opted for an above-deck cabin with a window to the outside world, which despite the boat being Brittany Ferries’ economy service was super comfortable. Having a nice cabin to retire to proved to be quite a necessity too as after 8 hours of travel through the choppy English Channel Ben started to feel quite the seasick and needed to stay lay down to reduce the effects. For Steph, who had sensibly taken seasickness tablets before boarding watching the waves crash against the side of the ferry as it rocked from side to side and watching the coats swing from left to right on the coat hooks had no negative effects. Despite the seasickness we both agreed that it was a more fun and pleasant way to travel with the bikes than getting a plane, but after 28 hours at sea it was great to be on dry land again, and in Spain!
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Santander, and we still had no real idea of where we were going from that first city. So along with Jon and Andrea, two of our new cycling friends, we found a place to stay and went out for some food, Ben’s first meal in around 24 hours. The feeling of being on tour came back strongly just in that first night. After 6 months of being based back at home wandering a new and unknown city with new friends, without any real purpose or direction for the foreseeable future felt awesome.
Our initial rough plan from Santander was to ride west, straight into the mountains, through the Picos de Europa National Park before joining one of the ‘caminos’ to Santiago and then heading south into Portugal. We had been checking the weather for that region regularly for weeks before we left and it had been fairly consistently blue skies and sun, but in typical fashion the week following our arrival in Spain was to be a mix of storms; rain, snow and strong wind. We had had enough of miserable weather in the UK, it had been constantly raining since about October, so we decided we would head south instead and considered catching a train in the search for nice weather. We have always said, travelling by bike is great but travelling with a bike, especially fully loaded, is a hassle so while better weather appealed, more public transport didn’t. The indecision continued. As always, cost was a consideration and we worked out that the cost of the train tickets to somewhere further south plus somewhere to stay when we got there would be as much as we were likely to spend in 3-4 days of riding. The weather in Santander didn’t seem that bad, and after all we were there to cycle, so that’s what we decided to do; head south, yes, but by bike. Jon and Andrea had decided to get a train south, so the following morning we said our goodbyes and rolled out.
With the help of MapOut’s small roads planning feature, we found a route that would get us out of Santander entirely on cycle paths and linked up with some of Spain’s Via Verdes. These greenways are old train lines that have been repurposed for cyclists and pedestrians, and as such are usually quite straight and fairly flat. They also had places to rest and shelter which was appreciated when the wind picked up and we experienced our first head wind of the trip, much like our first few days in South America!
Although the forecast hadn’t looked too bad over the next couple of days we experienced all weathers from wind, rain, hail, sleet, snow, and sun, often all in one day. But the riding was amazing, even if the legs loudly complained after being relatively inactive for the last few months. From Santander to Burgos, we stuck to the mountains and followed the multitude of gravel roads that Spain seems to have everywhere. It didn’t take long and we had decided that Spain is a great bikepacking location, with so many opportunities to get off the beaten path and away from civilisation if that is what you want. While traversing the beautiful Cantabrian mountains, towns and villages were few and far between and even the ones we did ride through had seemingly very few people around. But even if we didn’t see a single person in the town there was normally a church, a water fountain and usually a park or benches to sit and rest for a while.
It was immediately obvious that we weren’t in South America any more. The towns were old, often built around a medieval or Roman church. The depth of history here presenting itself far more noticeably than almost anywhere we visited in South America. The irony is that without the Spanish conquest of the continent the much older tribes and civilisations that were present in South America might still be around today and the visible history would be a lot different to how it is now.
On the surface things were obviously different to SA, but one thing that was the same; the language! We didn’t realise just how awesome it would be being back in a Spanish speaking country again. After our ski holiday in Poland and Slovakia where we couldn’t say a word, it was a huge comfort to be in a country where we can communicate with the locals and for most of the everyday things that you need to say, it was like being on auto pilot. Even after 6 months of minimal practice (despite our guarantees that we would keep it up) it was nice not to have to translate everything in our head before even starting to speak. The confidence you get from being able to communicate is a really great feeling and our desire to improve has definitely been rejuvenated. There’s still a lot we need to practice especially when getting deeper into conversation, but it’s a good start.
After four wet and windy days of riding we reached Burgos with a plan to ride through the centre, see the sights then wild camp up on the hills about 12km out of town. But on our way into the city it started snowing and the temperature dropped below zero. By the time we arrived we were freezing and soaked, so the thought of a night in the tent went out of the window. The cheapest hostels we found were around €30 a night, which is more than we ideally wanted to spend (our minds were still on South American prices!), but being the start of the trip we hadn’t fully got back into the swing of things and were happy to pay for a real bed and a heated room to dry our clothes and warm back up. It did give us more of an opportunity to explore the city though, which has a medieval centre and is dominated by the colossal cathedral. Being on the Camino Frances route, the most popular pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Burgos is a touristy destination but as it was a freezing day in March the centre was fairly deserted. We enjoyed the view over the city from the castle, explored the city streets and after our recent diet of chorizo sandwiches and various rice dishes, we ate more exciting food! The forecast for the next day was much better and after a solid night’s sleep we were ready to get back on the road.
The Camino Del Cid (Route: https://en.caminodelcid.org/way-cid/routes-btt-mtb-bikes/) is one of the longest mountain bike and off road routes in Spain at 1509 km long. It runs from just north of Burgos to the Mediterranean coast near Valencia. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid Campeador, was a famous medieval knight of the 11th century and the route is inspired by the Poem of El Cid. This medieval epic poem written at the end of the 12th century tells the adventures of El Cid Campeador from his exile and fighting to survive against Moors and Christians.
We followed the Camino Del Cid route out of Burgos. For large parts of it the trail follows the well established GR national hiking routes and was really well waymarked with both signposts and simple red and white trail markings. Riding this section of Cid’s trail was brilliant. It was 95% off road with a mix of double track and hiking trails, and it passed through some really nice rural villages and some beautiful scenery. If the first 100km that we spent on the Camino del Cid is an indication of what the rest of it would be like then we would definitely love to go back to ride the full trail.
As the El Cid took us to fairly remote areas of the countryside, we enjoyed a few nights of fantastic wild camping. The first night was more suffering than adventure though as the temperature once again dropped below zero and was a real test for our sleeping gear. As our overall plan was to ride from spring to autumn and follow the best season around Europe we hadn’t planned on needing our winter kit, so the camping kit we took with us was only rated to about 5°C. Ben kindly donated some of his clothes so at least Steph wasn’t shivering all night, but she didn’t sleep very well. This made the next morning even more difficult because as the partially frozen ground warmed back up in the morning, the trail became a sticky mud bath which clogged Steph’s tyres and drive train. After a few painfully slow hours in the morning we reached the quaint town of Santo Domingo de los Silos where Ben cleaned the bikes and Steph went to a small shop and bought lots of treats to cheer us up! Thankfully by that afternoon the sun had come out and while it was still cold, not being rained on was very much appreciated. Over the next few days we revelled in the glorious sunshine, the temperates started to increase (even over night) and the trails provided us with some excellent, secluded camp spots. By this point we were really finding our rhythm and our legs were getting used to the daily riding once again.
Our route south left the Camino del Cid after a couple of days as there were a few places on the way south that we wanted to visit, the first being the Ermita de San Frutos. Situated in the Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park, the hermitage was constructed in the 12th Century but the area’s human history dates back to at least the seventh century. One of the most impressive things about the Ermita de San Frutos is that it is built on a small outcrop of land surrounded by a series of 100-meter-high gorges formed by a river, which has since been dammed, and it’s free to explore. We rode our bikes down the rocky trail, stopping at the mirador for a view over the gorge and then down to the ruins proper. There was a lot more there to explore than we initially thought, we had assumed it was a total ruin. The chapel amongst the ruined outer walls is still used today with semi-regular services that are apparently quite well attended despite its remote location. There was also a necropolis with several tombs at the head of the church. With no layer of soil to properly bury the dead the tombs had to be dug straight into the rock and they would have then been covered with slabs after the bodies of the monks that inhabited San Frutos (until 1835) had been placed inside.
Ermita de San Frutos is not a well known tourist destination, not even amongst Spaniards. However if you have watched Netflix’s most-watched non-English-language series, La Casa de Papel (Money Heist in English) you should recognise it as the “Italian” monastery from Season 3 where where Berlin pretends to be writing his treatise on theological philosophy, but is actually planning the heist of the Bank of Spain. As massive fans of the show we Googled some of the filming locations months ago and when we realised that this was actually in Spain, not Italy, we couldn’t wait to see it in person. It did not disappoint and as we were the only ones there, Steph couldn’t stop singing “Bella Ciao!” (At this point we have to say, if you haven’t watched the show but are now in lockdown, watch this next. Just be warned it’s highly addictive and it is hard not to binge watch.)
The second place we had seen photos of and wanted to visit was Segovia. This Unesco World Heritage city centre is surrounded by medieval walls, has a Gothic cathedral and a former royal palace which looks like something straight out of a Disney film. But the real highlight of Segovia is the Roman aqueduct which runs through the city. The huge and intricate structure consists of 167 single and double arches, and at its tallest it reaches an impressive 28.5 m, including nearly 6 m of foundations. It was constructed of unmortared granite blocks in the first century, exact dates are unknown but its estimated to be around 100AD, so it’s just shy of 2000 years old. Those Romans really knew how to build. The purpose of the aqueduct was, unsurprisingly, to transport water from the mountains 17km away into the city where there was a distribution system, believed to be underground. Sadly it’s not still used, but that doesn’t detract from how impressive the structure is.
We really enjoyed spending a couple of nights in Segovia, in the first hostel that we found with a lounge and kitchen. While this might not sound like such a big deal after multiple days of living on the bike or in the tent somewhere to cook exactly what you want to eat and comfy sofas to relax on are features we always look for when choosing where to stay. Especially in places like Segovia where there are literally hundreds of hostel options. It felt like we had finally come far enough south to find the kind of weather that most Brits would associate with Spain; mid-to-high twenties in the days and lovely warm evenings. Wandering the city, soaking up the atmosphere, along with great food and cheap beer was about the perfect recipe for a day off. We almost stayed longer.
Unfortunately after 8 consecutive days of riding in a state of blissful ignorance of the world outside our little travelling bubble current events had caught up with us. The night before we were due to leave Segovia the news was saturated with stories about the coronavirus and the spread of Covid-19 through Europe, including the fact that our next destination, Madrid, had become one of the cities with the fastest growing infection rate. What had been an abstract concept, a far away problem in a distant land, had become something so real it was going to be affecting our decision making and our movements going forward. We had wanted to visit Madrid as we have a friend there that we met while travelling in Brazil and it would have been a great place to have some downtime, but with the realisation that the situation there was rapidly deteriorating we almost changed course and avoided it completely. It was only because of the Couchsurfing invitation we had received from Carlos and Leti that we ended up going to Madrid at all. That evening was spent in a state of stressful indecision, unsure of where to go from there. We had not expected the virus to spread so fast, and have such a catastrophic effect on the European countries hardest hit, looking at the situation in Italy really made us think about what we were going to do next. After exchanging lots of messages with Carlos about the situation in the city we decided to go. This turned out to be the most fortuitous and significant decision of the trip.
An early start saw us making tracks towards the Sierra de Guadarrama, part of the Sistema Central mountain chain, and our final challenge before reaching Madrid. The climb was long, but we opted for an offroad route on wonderfully secluded trails through the national park that covers much of that section of the mountains. The only other traffic we saw that whole morning was other cyclists. The same can’t be said for the afternoon. Our priority had become to get to Madrid to see how things were unfolding, so after our morning climb up to 1800masl we chose the paved way to Madrid so that we could cover the rest of the 100km ride more quickly. Thankfully that included 35km of perfect unbroken cycle path (take note UK!) and upon reaching the capital there were very few cars on the roads, a clear sign that all was not business as usual.
Carlos and Leti were amazing hosts and warmly welcomed us when we arrived that evening. They were cyclists themselves and they had just got back from a tour that had taken them from Spain to Iran. Sadly they arrived in Iran just as the virus was taking hold so they made a hasty retreat back to Madrid. It was great to have the company of other cyclists again and we spent the evening sharing stories and experiences of our respective adventures. It’s safe to say that after hearing their tales places like Oman and Iran have jumped up a lot of positions on our list of must visit destinations. Hopefully they now think likewise about some places in South America.
Friday 13th is often considered to be an unlucky day in Western superstition and our trip did take quite an abrupt U-turn on that day. Over breakfast we learned that the number of coronavirus infections in Madrid had doubled over night, with the death toll increasing rapidly. There was talk of restaurants and bars being closed from the weekend and rumours circulated of a city-wide lockdown. Things were getting serious and it became quite apparent that we weren’t going to be able to stay in Madrid with Carlos and Leti for the few days that we had planned. The last thing we wanted was to get locked down in the city, becoming a burden on our hosts (even though they were super generous and had said that we could stay as long as we liked). Had coming to Madrid been a terrible decision?
It was an anxious morning, mostly spent reading the news and getting in touch with folks back home to get a better idea of the situation there. With so many unknowns and a global situation that was unlike almost anything in living memory the stress levels had started to creep up. We decided to get away from our phones and get some fresh air, it was a beautiful day and Madrid was pretty much empty so we thought we may as well go and enjoy it. After some sightseeing with Carlos and Leti as our guides we found ourselves in a tapas place for lunch. Somewhere in between the croquetas, the pinchos, and the tortillas we learned that Spain’s Prime Minister had declared a state of emergency and all shops, bars and restaurants were to close from the following day. Lockdown was imminent. It was the last thing we wanted to admit but it was dawning on us that going home was rapidly becoming the most sensible thing we could do. Our plans to travel around Europe already lay in tatters after many of the borders, particularly in the East had been closed. Being stuck in Spain sounded fairly appealing until thoughts of, “What if one of us gets ill?” and, “What if family at home get it?” entered our heads, then the choice became clear.
By this point it was late afternoon, with the decision made to go home we figured there was no point in delaying, but if we could help it at all we didn’t want to fly home without our bikes. Like an absolute hero Carlos spent ages glued to his phone calling around all of the bike shops in the city to see if we could get some boxes. After dozens of calls and miles of walking we had 2 decent bike boxes. It was only on this walk around the less touristed areas that we realised how much the city had already been affected, despite there being no official lockdown. Streets were empty, both of cars and people, and it was pretty much 50/50 whether a shop would be open or have a sign in the window saying that they were closed for the foreseeable future. We jumped on the metro to get back to the apartment, being among the small handful of people on board hammered home how much of an affect the virus was having here, it should have been Friday evening rush hour. With the empty stations and regular billboards urging everybody to stay at home it felt like some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario.
The evening was spent booking the flights, packing the bikes and generally being terrible and distracted guests. We were incredibly lucky to end up staying with Carlos and Leti. They really looked after us, offered us so much help and ultimately made sure we could get out of Spain once we had decided that’s what we wanted to do. Even during the 5am lift that Carlos gave us to the airport we were having mixed feelings about whether we had made the right choice. Would the situation really get that bad? Could we have carried on and waited it out/avoided it by travelling around? By this point everybody knows the answers to those questions, and coming home when we did turned out to be the smartest decision of the whole trip.
12 hours after booking our flights home we landed back in Gatwick. It felt like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Madrid airport was virtually empty, all staff and many regular folks were wearing masks and gloves, there seemed to be a real sense of the scale of the outbreak. London on the other hand was exactly as it always is, crowded and bustling. We had thought there might be temperature scanners or at least somebody asking some questions when we got off the plane, but there was absolutely nothing. (Steph had a recurring nightmare the night before we left about being stuck in one of the airport scanners with an alarm and red lights going off, but luckily this didn’t happen either!) If we hadn’t just come from somewhere deep in the throes of dealing with the virus we could almost have thought that we had made it up. The thought was very disconcerting. Throughout the next few hours of train rides we both felt incredibly guilty. We had only been in Madrid for a bit over 24 hours, but what if we had caught it and were spreading it on our travels home? Trying to keep away from everybody on a packed train is quite impossible. Arrival at home was a weird one; relief at being back somewhere familiar; strangeness at not being able to hug family; and still the guilt of being potential spreaders. We isolated ourselves for 7 days as per the guidelines, even keeping away from our family that we were back living with, while every day reading the news of how things were getting worse and worse in Europe and the UK. Spain went into lockdown the day after we got home, so all of our decisions instantly became vindicated.
So, what now? Well, like everyone else in the UK we are staying at home, only going out when necessary and washing our hands dozens of times a day. Rather than thinking about what we can’t do now, we’ve been focussing on what we can do. For instance, there were plenty of things that we wanted to do before we left for this trip so we are finally catching up on some of those: reworking our website; improving our Spanish (obviously); sorting through the thousands of photos from the Americas; and generally organising our travel gear. When this is all over we will be ready to hit the road again.
Until then, stay safe. #stayathome
Steph and Ben