We got on the road late at 8:30. It was a steep climb. Strangely we found ourselves caught up with all sorts of other cyclists, notably a team of six Italians, an older French couple who seemed to have packed everything they owned, and an older German chap, Harold, who became our ‘Dad for the day’. I first spoke to him when he was stood by the road, sweating profusely, as I thought he needed help. I asked if he was OK. He said, “fine, it’s shady here”. I pedalled on and later Lou walked with him up the mountain.
As we reached Foncebadon which our big, fat, granny pants book says is abandoned but actually has a refuge with a bar and café. I stopped there to wait for Lou and Harold arrived, calling out to walkers “Agua?” and as he looked knackered I quickly offered him a spare bottle I had in my panniers. He said he didn’t need it, he just wanted to check that he could get fresh water before he threw the hot stuff out. Lou caught us up and after an emergency cigarette break we set off together for the top. The first top! There were two – unfair. The first was marked by a pile of projectile sweating cyclists and a couple of chipper chaps from a Basque cycling club who had overtaken us many times along the route.
Another climb, the first on which I’d got off and walked, partly because we met up with the Madrid guy from the previous evening and I’d stopped to talk to him. From there we cycled on to the Cruz de Ferro, a cross on a pile of rocks, left by pilgrims as a symbol of unburdening themselves of sins and asking God for forgiveness. Oddly there’s no need to carry the rock or even a pebble there in any kind of penance, you just pick one up there and throw it on. That seemed rather shallow to me. The pile is older than the cross and the Christian tradition, but no-one seems to know how or why it started.
I poured on the last of the wine from Irache and sat and looked for a while in a moment of reflection for everyone who has helped us on our way. There have been lots of them, from Captain Birdseye at St Jean, through all sorts of direction givers, translators, bike fixers and accommodation finders.
The Italian bike team had lots of fun taking comedy photos whilst a couple of other folk adopted meditation positions that they appeared to be taking way too seriously, and they adopted seriously sanctimonious attitudes towards everyone else.
Down an alarmingly steep descent and we took a break to cool the rims, but too late. As we got ready to move on Harold’s tyre burst. The rim heat had melted a hole in the inner tube. We waited with him while he fixed it. It seemed mean to leave him, although every passing cyclist offered help and he had 2kg of tools to work with, but no tape, so we were of some use as he could fix his odometer with Lou’s insulating tape.
I’d been looking forward to the descent but it was horrible. It was absolutely terrifying. We stopped frequently to cool the brakes and rims, but it was tough to stay below 20mph and my fingers hurt from all the braking. We wound our way down to El Acebo where Harold wanted to wash his hands and we stopped for lunch. It was the best sandwich in the world – yesterday’s spicy tuna mix bocadillos, dipped in egg and deep fried, served tepid.
Descending then on cobbled streets was dodgy but not as dodgy as the super speed descent through the hairpin bends. Terror. When we got down to Molinaseca there were people swimming in the river. It was dammed at one end to allow enough water to build up for swimming. I took off my shoes and vest, leaving on my cycling shorts and bikini top, and went in very gingerly. It was icy cold and the cobbles were dangerously slippery. Lou’s ear meant that she could only paddle, but Harold was off and away, whittering about childhood holidays by the Rhine. He hadn’t been able to swim as a little boy and had always wanted to swim in a river, this was his first chance.
Into Ponferrada where we said goodbye to Harold. We booked into a schmanzy hotel in a quiet square, with a great balcony for laundry drying. Unfortunately it was only quiet because it was siesta time, and turned out to be the main square. There was a statue right in front of the hotel that people wanted to have their photo taken with, so everyone’s photos had our underwear in. We even saw some people taking their photos deliberately at an angle to be sure to get our laundry in shot.
We strolled about looking for somewhere to eat, but nothing until 8:30. After a drink in the Chelsea Bar, a strange take on an English Sixties theme bar we walked up to the Knights Templar Castle, which was impressive, but we were tired and the ruins were badly marked up so it was difficult to understand what was what. Then it started to hail, great big chunks of ice that hurt when they hit, although it was still warm.
The Basilica was quite unpleasant and had ‘candles’ that you lit by putting € in the slot and then a bulb came on for a time allotted according to how much money you had paid. I left, outraged.
We headed back to the hotel for tea, lots of tea – squid in ink, prawns, mussels, and mushrooms, washed down with yet more rosada. I regretted that the moment I woke up when the seafood fought back. I sat in the bathroom feeling shivery and cold and hot and faint – not a good mix. Luckily we’d packed Imodium, which did the trick.