Friday, 31 December 2010

Junin de los Andes - mini update

I'm in this gorgeous but expensive lakeside mountain resort mustering the strength to cycle over the Andes into Chile. I may need some more artisan chocolate ... just for energy!

Click on map to enlarge

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - thanks for following, for your comments, support and donations. Keep reading in 2011!

It´s not too late to get me a Christmas present - just click the link to my Oxfam Justgiving page and make an online donation. Thank you.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

El Bolson, Argentina - In the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

When I cycled out of Buenos Aires what seems like a lifetime ago, the plan was to hit the Andes at Bariloche and turn right for the long haul north. But "the bicycle diaries" in a fit of spontaneity has turned left! I´ve cycled south from Bariloche for three tough days of riding to Cholila, an unassuming little town hidden in the mountains, 20 miles along a dirt road. You´ve probably never heard of Cholila but, unless you just arrived on the last lightbeam from the Planet Zorg, you´ll have heard of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the American outlaws. And it´s in their footsteps that I cycled south.

The excitement started long before Cholila as I left Bariloche on Argentina´s most famous road - the Ruta 40. Imagine a road that begins at the southern tip of a continent and meanders north for over 3100 miles, keeping close company with the mighty Andes and passing through some of Argentina´s most spectacular landscapes before delivering the long-distance traveller to her northern border with Bolivia. This is Ruta 40 and over the years it has acquired legendary status. Recognising its tourism potential, the Argentines have been a little bit naughty and "moved" bits of the original Ruta 40 that were unsurfaced and passed through unappealing terrain onto the surfaced road further west that hugs the mountains more closely and conveniently services the tourist hotspots. However, nothing can detract from its unique character and stunning scenery.

One advantage for me of riding on Ruta 40 is that there are more visitor services - in my case, I´m talking campsites and service stations, as opposed to opulent hotels and fine dining! Another advantage is that I´m meeting the occasional long distance cycle tourer like myself. It´s brilliant to pull off the road for a few minutes and exchange stories or information about the route ahead. South of Bariloche I cycled on Ruta 40 passed beautiful lakes, through vast forests and below snow-streaked peaks to the town of El Bolson. On the way I met a German cycle tourer going in the opposite direction - I was able to give him my Bariloche map and he gave me his El Bolson map!

El Bolson is an attractive, mellow little town of wide streets and single-storey buildings and wherever you look, your eyes are drawn up to the mountains. It has a touch of the wild west about it and perhaps that´s what attracted America´s most famous outlaws! In 1901 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with Etta (or Ethel) Place, Sundance´s girlfriend, arrived by boat in Buenos Aires and travelled to El Bolson. On the run from their crimes in the States, they had assumed false identities. They continued south to Cholila and bought a ranch. It was a few miles out of town but still handy for the weekly shop! From 1901 to 1905 they ran this ranch, apparently very successfully, in what appears to have been an attempt to make an honest living. They even acquired local respectability. I´d read that Butch Cassidy´s cabin was still standing and could be visited. With this mission in mind, I continued cycling south on Ruta 40 from El Bolson towards Cholila.

I don´t know what the journey was like for Butch and Sundance but it was hell for me! Much of Argentina´s road network, even today, remains unsurfaced and many significant towns like Cholila can only be accessed by gravel roads. So I had to cycle for nearly 20 miles along an appalling road with a surface like corrugated iron and a top layer of loose gravel and grit that swallowed my wheels. Every now and again a vehicle would pass and I´d be enveloped in its cloud of choking dust, my view ahead obliterated. But it was a spectacular route that crossed big, wide Rocky Mountain scenery. Cycling along here I was just thinking to myself "gosh, aren´t I the adventurous and intrepid traveller, riding my bicycle along a dirt road into remote South American landscapes" when a vehicle passed pulling a caravan and shattered the illusion! The road eventually descended into the beautiful, green valley of the Rio Blanco where the two outlaws ran their ranch. As I rode through the valley, two gauchos on white horses were driving cattle ahead of me - this is still ranching territory and probably some aspects have not changed much in a hundred years. It had been a tough ride and I was mighty relieved to pull into the cluster of buildings that calls itself Cholila and to find a campsite. It was a pretty spot on a farm, just out of town. The owner recommended pitching my tent on the lake shore but I remembered from my map that the lake was called "Lago Mosquito" and plumped instead for a spot in the old orchard!

Next day, armed with some vague information, I set out on foot from Cholila to find Butch´s cabin. I´d not gone far before I was offered a lift, as is often the way in rural Argentina. I was dropped off and pointed in the direction of a rough, hand-painted sign at the start of a grassy track that said simply "Butch Cassidy". The track meandered by the Rio Blanco whose wooded banks were flush with pink and purple lupins, and below the beautifully sculptured mountains of grey rock and scree, still holding patches of spring snow. After a bend in the track a little wooden cabin appeared in a copse of trees - Butch Cassidy´s house! If the cabin had been in Europe, there no doubt would have been the circus of a car park, coaches and a visitor centre. But there was nothing and you could hear the wind rustling the trees, the gentle gurgle of the river nearby and the whinnying of horses in the field. And the cabin sat quietly, looking out over the mountains, much as it had always done. What a fabulous little piece of history! And how wonderful it was to push open the cabin door and sit inside, imagining the scene over a hundred years ago - Butch and Sundance riding along the track or chewing the fat on a warm evening as the sun sank behind the mountains.

They may have had a lot to chew over because the Pinkerton Agency were eventually on their trail and landed in Buenos Aires. Butch and Sundance somehow got wind of this and quickly sold the ranch in 1905. They fled north through Bariloche, probably picking up some artisan chocolate on the way, and crossed into Chile. The details of their lives in the intervening years are vague but on 4 November 1908 they undertook a payroll robbery near Salo in Bolivia. Two days later they were shot at San Vicente by a Bolivian military patrol.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I´m now heading north, back through Bariloche and across the Andes into Chile. I may even catch up with them again in Bolivia!

There are more photos in the Argentina folder on my Flickr site.

Click on map to enlarge.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bariloche, Argentina - The chocolate wars

I´ve lingered longer in Bariloche than planned - partly due to waiting for a parcel from Scotland with a replacement piece of kit and partly due to a spell of bad weather that brought snow and freezing temperatures. Bariloche itself is not a pretty town but it has a likeable hustle and bustle, and a good outdoorsy vibe. Of course, it's famous for its stunning mountain scenery - snow-capped, pointy peaks rise to 2000 metres from a base of sparkling lakes and green pine forests. It's also famous for something else . . . and honestly I didn´t know this until I arrived . . . artesan chocolate making! 

All along Mitre, Bariloche´s busy main thoroughfare, are the colourful little shops of the chocolatiers who compete with each other to produce the most exquisite designs in chocolate, or the prettiest packaging with hand-painted tins and lavish bows, or simply the biggest selection of chocolate this side of the Milky Way! The shops are especially appealing just now as they try to out-do each other with flamboyant window displays for Christmas. Of course, I never eat chocolate but Tigger bought some and assured me it was delicious. 

The other facet to Bariloche that you can´t fail to experience while you're here is the wind. The wind is born in the snowfields of the high Andes. It races down the slopes in an avalanche of cold air and is chilled further as it blasts across Lake Nahuel Huapi, turning it into a frothing mass of white horses. Icy fingers of wind then squeeze through the lakeside forests and sneak under the flysheet of my tent, causing me to reach for the duvet jacket and woolly hat in a month equivalent to June in the northern hemisphere! 

A break in the weather gave me the chance to spend a couple of days cycling what must be one of the world´s most scenic routes - the Circuito Chico. A mix of tarmac road and dirt trails took me further west along Lake Nahuel Huapi at the very foot of the mountains I´d been gazing at from Bariloche. The route meanders around sapphire-blue lakes studded with emerald-green islands and always with a backdrop of snowy peaks towering above the road and stretching to the far horizon. The route also passes through the funky village of Colonia Suiza - the Swiss Colony, as it was when it was originally founded by Swiss settlers in 1895. I left the main road and bumped along a rough, forest track. After a few 
miles, the forest track became the village main street and I cycled into a little slice of heaven tucked away in the forests. The village dwellings are pretty log cabins and colourful timber cottages and, as luck would have it, I arrived on the day of the artesan market, a cross between a farmer´s market and a craft fair with folk music thrown in. I really enjoyed wandering along the stalls with a big bag of delicious handmade fries. The other interesting thing about Colonia Suiza is that it enjoys a warm micro-climate relative to the rest of the cold, wind-scoured landscape around Bariloche. And so there are small plots with neat rows of raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries that will mostly be made into jams - the Argentines love their "dulces". I got chatting to one of the growers and she knew all about Scotland´s own tradition for growing strawberries and raspberries! 

Beautiful though Bariloche and the surrounding area is, I´m hopeful that my parcel will arrive in the next couple of days and I'll be able to tear myself away from Bariloche and Tigger away from the chocolate shops!

More photos in the Argentina folder on my Flickr site.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Bariloche, Argentina - Don't cry for me, Argentina

I gaze across the deep blue waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi and suck in the sweet coconut aroma of the yellow gorse. The lake is framed by snow-capped Andean peaks and behind me is the lively town of San Carlos de Bariloche. The hardships of the last ten days have melted away. What hardships, you ask. Well . . . picking up the story back in General Acha . . .

I got my ride across the central desert of La Pampa in a rusty, old jallopy with Shirley half in and half out of the boot. They say nature abhors a void and so did the driver, filling the 200 miles of emptiness with deafening Latin music and an ominous burning smell from the engine. It was a grim place in many ways but what I´ll remember most were the rotting corpses of horses in the roadside verges. This ride had taken me across the most barren stretch of central Argentina but I still had six days of desert riding ahead.

It was absolutely desperate and dire cycling that made me cry at times with weariness and frustration. The roads runs in a straight line to a distant horizon for mile after monotonous mile; there are no trees, no shade or shelter; there is nothing to break the monotony of red dirt and sparse scrub.

But the thing that really pushes you to the edge and demands you summon up every last shred of will power, is the wind. An unrelenting headwind cuts your speed to a crawl and saps all your energy. Gusts blast stinging grit onto your legs and into you face, and you're forced to slam on the brakes before you're blown off the bike completely. The windblown dust gets everywhere, choking up your lungs and sticking to your suncream. On the more exposed sections of road, the wind is so strong you just have to get off the bike and push. It's torture and you become desperate for it to relent but it never does. Well, it did once, for a few hours. My days´s ride had fallen short of the next town and I camped out in the desert with some modest bushes for cover. In the early hours, I unzipped the tent to total calm, not a whisper of wind, and a night sky ablaze with stars. I watched a beautiful sunrise whilst nursing a mug of steaming coffee. By the time I was packed up and pushing the bike back to the road, the wind was back to full power, I had a nasty gash in my shin as a result of falling off the fence that I was trying to lift the bike over and the bike had a puncture from a sharp thorn. Not the best start to the day.
It was 8am and I honestly asked myself - right now, would I rather be on my bike zooming up through the trees of Holyrood Park, scooting across the Meadows to Starbucks then saying "good morning" to Greyfriars Bobby before flying down into the Grassmarket and into the office? Hmmm, it's a tough one.

Cycling across this barren plateau was only possible because it is punctuated with occasional "oasis" towns providing water, provisions and my first proper campsites in Argentina. The first town I came to was Neuquen, the provincial capital. The road descended into lushness, tended fields and orchards, all irrigated by the Rio Neuquen. The area is famous for growing apples but I preferred the big bags of plump, ripe cherries on sale at roadside stalls. I didn´t see much of the town as the road passed on the outskirts through commercial developments and a McDonalds, would you believe. I could have cried again when the assistant explained it was too early in the day for fries!

Of the oasis towns I especially liked Villa El Chocon. It´s an exclusive, smart little village nestling on the shores of the enormous sea-sized reservoir, Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexia (try saying that with a mouth full of cherries) whose sapphire-blue waters provided striking contrast to the surrounding red sandstone. It's this sandstone that's made the place famous as the "dinosaur town" for the rocks around here have yielded many spectacular dinosaur fossils and footprints, all of which can be seen in the excellent local museum. Everything in the place has taken on a dinosaur theme - I particularly liked the giant dinosaur footprints painted on the road leading you into town.
I stayed at a nice wee campsite in El Chocon and the owner, Ignacio (who I quite fancied) took me on a bicycle tour of the sites. We raced across the top of the dam that holds back the reservoir, the wind blowing spray into our faces, and along the red sandstone cliffs as the sun sank, before sharing barbecued fish with the other campers to end the day. I could have happily pottered around El Chocon for a couple of days but I was keen to put the desert behind me and escape the amorous advances of my host!

The other oasis towns had their charms too. Picun Leufu was a scruffy place but I stayed in an idyllic campsite a few miles beyond. It was run by a lovely family who'd set it up as an extension to their smallholding. Set in a wooded glade, it was sheltered, peaceful and decorated with farmyard paraphernalia. Then Piedra del Aguila was like an American wild west town - a one-street place of squat buildings with the wind howling through, blowing up smothering clouds of dust. But it nestled below a beautiful ridge of bizarrely-shaped red rocks onto which lovely Indian images had been carved.

It was at Piedra del Aguila that I hit another desert dead-end. Ahead lay a stretch with no settlements and a high mountain pass. In normal circumstances, it could be cycled in one and a half days and I can carry enough water on the bike for that period. But factoring in the headwind that would become a three-day ride and I decided it was not wise to attempt it. I booked a bus ticket for the two-hour hop to the next settlement. It was disappointing to be forced off the bike again but I had to remind myself that this is quite difficult terrain and the most important thing is to be safe.

Back on the bike and my route at last left the dreary high plains and descended into the amusingly-named, Confluencia. It may sound like a nasty pulmonary disease but it's actually a road junction with a service station that takes top marks for camping. For the adjacent camping area sits in a copse of trees on a promontory in the aquamarine waters of the Rio Limay at the head of the "Valle Encantado" - a beautiful, forested valley hemmed in by towering ridges of rock moulded by the elements into weird shapes. Mind you, the cold wind fairly howled through and the duvet jacket and gloves were brought into service! Next morning, in the chill air, as the rising sun kissed the topmost peaks and a film of mist drifted above the river, I enjoyed a fabulous ride through the valley.
A few miles further on and I crested a ridge to come upon a view of snow-capped peaks - the Andes at last! A climb over the next rise won me a fabulous panorama of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the surrounding mountains and tucked into the shore, the town of Bariloche, where my compass needle had been pointing since I left Buenos Aires.

I´m now settled into the pleasant campsite where there are some other crazy people who are cycling around Argentina. I plan to spend the next few days just chilling out and feeding up.

Talking of eating . . . you're possibly wondering how somebody with coeliac disease is coping on a gluten-free diet in Argentina, or perhaps you´ve got more important things on your mind such as whether or not to stick to a single colour theme for the Christmas tree decorations. But the answer is - pretty well. Supermarkets in medium-sized towns have a modest gluten-free section, the "gluten-free" symbol is used more widely on foods in Argentina than in Europe and food labelling is generally very good. Í've even been able to buy rice cakes everywhere! I´ve also discovered the joy of polenta, as opposed to the joy of sex had I stayed in El Chocon. It´s a kind of maize semolina. It cooks instantly which makes for a happy camper; in the morning I can have it with chopped fruit and honey; in the evening I make a filling polenta and vegetable sludge.
It´s so very versatile! A bit like Argentina itself - it does rainforest, desert, mountains, glaciers, big modern cities and small wholesome towns. My introduction to Argentina has been pretty tough but I'm slowly and surely falling in love with her . . . and there is still so much to see!

More photos on my Flickr page.

Click on the map to enlarge it.


Friday, 3 December 2010

Piedra del Aguila - mini update

Making slow progress towards Argentina's Lake District in battle with headwinds and desert. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Click on the map to enlarge.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

General Acha, Argentina - I'm an Argentinian TV star

You might think that cycling across the vast, flat farmlands of central Argentina would be a bit boring - you would be wrong! Since I set out on my bicycle from Buenos Aires, life has been a whole world of adventures. It's been really, really tough cycling and pretty stressful at times - a very different ballgame to my pleasant pedal across Europe. There are huge distances between towns, some terrifying traffic, no campsites, a scorching sun and headwinds that blow tumbleweeds across the road in front of me. However, I've made it this far thanks to two things. Number one is the overwhelming warmth, friendliness and helpfulness of the Argentinian people that I've met and number two is their extensive network of service stations!

My first challenge in Argentina was simply getting out of Buenos Aires safely and this is where I encountered the first of many acts of incredible kindness. Setting out early on a Sunday morning, I was soon intercepted by local cyclist, Juan - dashingly handsome in skin-tight red lycra to match his swanky red mountain bike. Juan cycled with me for over two hours taking me on a delightful and safe route out of Buenos Aires. Following a quiet back road adjacent to the motorway, we were joined by hundreds of other local cyclists out for their Sunday club rides. At the next town, Lujan, I had another bicycle escort who took me on a quiet, scenic route to the other side of town.

The next few days were, frankly, horrendous. In my research I'd read about other bicycle tourers cycling in Argentina on roads with wide hard shoulders that made cycling safe. But there were no hard shoulders on my road, Ruta 5, and the traffic, including monstrous trucks, was constant. Alongside the adjustment to a new country and a new continent, my totally inadequate Spanish and the enforced rough living, I was feeling pretty low at this point. However, I was cheered up by another act of kindness when a lovely couple in the pretty little town of Alberti put me up in their spare room - they even gave me a tour of the town in the evening and fed me supper! All I had to do was babysit the dog, Catalina, in the afternoon.

Beyond here at least I was able to pick up some quieter roads and to begin to enjoy the cycling. Although my route passed through mile after mile of flat farmland where a bend in the road was a major cause for celebration, there was always plenty to see. All around were beautiful, colourful birds. Without a weighty field guide, I can't put names to them except the flamingoes clustered in small flocks on the shallow lakes and the noisy parrakeets that gather above my tent in the evenings, the rays of late sunshine illuminating their irridescent green plummage. I'm also regularly spotting armadillos scuttling around in the roadside verges.

I like pulling into the little rurals towns in this area. There are no tall buildings, except for the main routes the roads are compacted earth, and with a slightly scruffy but likeable appearance, the overall ambience is a bit "wild west". Because the towns are set out on grid systems with no traffic lights, what few vehicles there are must go quite slowly, so there are hundreds of locals out on their bikes in these little towns. Everybody seems to know everybody else and soon after my arrival in a town, everybody seems to know me! It's thoroughly delightful!

There is not really much tourism in this area of Argentina which makes me a bit of a novelty, even more so being on the bicycle. I get a friendly toot and a wave from almost every car or truck that passes. When I ask for directions, people generally walk or cycle with me to my destination to be sure I get there. Due to the lack of tourism, there are no proper campsites and this has made this section of my journey all the more difficult. There is an informal system in Argentina whereby you can camp in municipal parks which usually have public toilets and running water and I've used these a few times. I ask for permission from the park-keeper if there is one or an adjacent house, if not. In the lovely town of San Carlos de Bolivar, the park-keeper and his wife insisted that I pitch my tent in their garden and they even put the bike away in the toolshed overnight. I could never imagine anything like this happening back home but the difference with the Argentine people that I've met is that they don't care about some of the daft stuff we get worked up about - they are genuinely pleased if they can be helpful in any way and seem to love meeting foreign visitors, especially crazy ones on bicycles!

The other place where I've been camping is ... service stations! I know this will sound alarming to readers back home but again there is an informal system whereby you can pitch your tent or pull your car over beside rural service stations at the end of the day. There is an extensive network, they are open all night so there is always somebody around and you'll find a few truck drivers also catching some shut-eye.

The service stations have toilets, a small park area with picnic benches and grass perfect for the tent, a cafeteria and a clever machine that dispenses hot water for a few pesos. I've even been given free coffees at service stations just for arriving by bicycle! Service stations really have been my saviour, not just for camping but also for stocking up on calories, water and rest. My favourite service stations are the YPF ones - they have big, comfy, leather chairs which are great for my saddle sores. Yes, just to add to my woes I have developed saddle sores. I think it's due to long days in the saddle because of the distances between towns here and the rough living which means I can't get my sweaty cycle shorts washed out regularly. Despite liberal amounts of Germolene, at the contact points on my bum, I have peeling skin and painful red raw patches. Apologies if this is too much information for some readers!

As if all these adventures were not enough, I'm now a TV star in Argentina. It was all quite surreal. I'd pulled into the backwater town of Tres Lomas to pick up some water. I started chatting with a couple of locals about the route ahead and before I knew it a crowd of about 30 people had gathered. Then out of nowhere a TV crew pulled up in a van! I answered some questions to camera about my trip and what I thought of Argentina before I was filmed cycling out of the town to a big round of applause. I was even given a gift of a bag of oranges. I didn't make much progress that day because at the next village I was hijacked by a schoolteacher to give a talk to her pupils and colleagues.

Given my minimal Spanish, it was a very brief talk but I was able to show everybody the bicycle and my equipment and they seemed to enjoy my visit.

There is a new Argentina album added to my Flickr pages where you can see a picture of the kids.

While I may be pleased with my progress so far in Argentina, I have now hit a major stumbling block that is the central desert of La Pampa. I knew it was coming but thought I'd get local advice about the possibility of cycling across. I'm happy to accept the local advice that this would be extremely foolhardy and dangerous! So I have to resort to motorised assistance to cross the desert. I think what's happening is that I'm getting a shared ride in a minibus-style taxi but we'll see as every day in Argentina is a world of adventure!


Friday, 12 November 2010

Buenos Aires, Argentina - A life on the ocean wave

Ahoy! I´ve made land in the Americas. I must fathom out how I tell you the tale of my freighter voyage. It´s knot a short one. By my dead reckoning it´ll take us to the first dog watch. So offload some ballast and slice the main brace!

Well that´s all the naff nautical puns over and done with at the start. I do have a lot to tell you though. I´ll just start at the beginning, back in Valencia. A pleasant cycle took me from my hotel to the cargo terminal at the port where I was to join my ship. Because of safety and security concerns, I couldn´t simply just cycle up to the ship. Shirley and I were packed onto a minibus and driven across the port through a vast sea of multi-coloured containers and passed gargantuan ships being loaded and unloaded by enormous cranes. Everything in the cargo terminal is made on a massive scale and could feature in that TV programme "Big, Bigger, Biggest". I spotted the cargo ship that would take me across the Atlantic to South America, the giant letters on the hull spelling out her name, MSC Lausanne. She was reassuringly gigantic!

Pulling up to the ship I felt really excited about the voyage ahead - it just sounded so adventurous and romantic to cross the ocean on a proper noisy, dirty, working ship and not a namby-pamby cruise-liner. I was relieved to be at the gangway at last - I´d booked my passage months ago, one of the first steps in pulling my world cycle together. But there had been so many changes that I´d wondered if it would ever happen. I was just a tiny bit apprehensive - would I be sea-sick; would I even like being on a ship for nearly 3 weeks; would it be frightening if we ran into a storm, or even if we didn´t?

I´d no sooner been deposited at the gangway when a flurry of friendly Philippino crewmen hoisted Shirely and my bags on board. I was issued with my security pass for the ship which designated my rank as "supernummery" ie passenger. Then I was left to settle into my cabin. I hadn´t known what to expect for accommodation on board but certainly not the luxury I was landed with. My cabin had a spacious lounge, a double bedroom with ensuite bathroom and a cracking view to the front of the ship. If Lausanne was the Titanic, I would be in First Class with Kate Winslet. My lounge had comfy sofas and a large table where I could lay out my maps, pretending I was the captain plotting a course through rough, pirated seas. Talking of the captain, he was ruggedly handsome and I swooned in his presence, though it may just have been the motion of the ship.
The ranks "captain" and "master" mean the same thing and on this ship the crew call him "the master", a term which I always find a bit kinky.

There were three other passengers hitching a ride on Lausanne. On freighters the priority is always the cargo so most can only carry about four to six passengers in whatever cabins are not needed for crew. My fellow travellers were Dutch - very nice people who shared my interest in staring at the sea. Emile and Ellen were excellent bird-spotters and Harko had a wicked sense of humour. There are no special facilities on board for passengers - everything is shared with the crew including meals which fitted around the schedule of watches. Three substantial meals were served each day and lunch always included a piece of fruit so we didn´t get scurvy. There was also freshly-brewed coffee in the morning and afternoon - it´s a hard life at sea!

With no leisure activities provided, some people might find travelling by freighter boring but it suited me perfectly - no crowds, no noise, no traffic - just peace and the ocean. And there was always something to see. Our first exciting landmark was leaving the Mediterranean and entering the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar. I didn´t know it was so narrow you can see Africa and Europe at the same time.

The other main difference to a cruise is that passengers on a freighter are, with a few restrictions, able to go anywhere on the ship and this makes the experience so unique. I could go onto the bridge anytime, walk right round the main deck below the skyscraper stacks of containers (a round circuit of more than half a kilometre), climb up to the monkey island (the topmost deck above the bridge) or chill out in one of my favourite places on the ship, the fo´csle. The fo´csle is the most forward below-decks area of the ship and it´s here that you can peer down into the shafts that house the giant, rusty anchors and run your hands along the massive chains that they drop on, each link a foot wide. You can stick your face into the port holes at the very front of the ship for that "windswept and interesting" look and the water seems close enough to trail a hand through.
As the fo´csle is the farthest away point from the engine, it´s also quite quiet here - you can hear the waves, the wind and the plop of the flying fish on re-entry.

Most days I also visited the bridge, the command centre of the ship, to get an update on position and weather, and for the best seat in the house. There is a Starship Enterprise-style control desk with big leather chairs and a dashboard with switches, levers and radar screens. Rows of computers and printers collate information from the weather forecast to the layout of the containers, as well as the multitude of navigational data. Despite all the technology, the ship´s course is still plotted on paper charts and a hard copy log book is maintained. Experienced nautical types (like myself) know that the term "bridge" comes from the 19th century when the structure was much like a footbridge slung across the width of the ship. And Captain Kirk would tell you that "log book" originated in the early days of sailing when the ship´s records were written on wooden shingles that were then hinged together like a book.

Of course, there was the excitement of arriving in some exotic, foreign port, especially so if it was at night, as was the case in Las Palmas in the Canaries and Santos in Brazil. The approach to Santos was particularly memorable. The docks are located some way up the narrow Santos Channel and after spending two days at anchor several miles out, we got the go ahead to enter the docks at 4am. It´s not difficult to get yourself up at that time if you want to watch the ship berth because whenever the engine is started the entire superstructure shakes violently as if there is an earthquake. As we sailed up the channel, the skyscrapers of Santos were on the port side - they seemed so close and I was so high up on the bridge, that I felt I could almost peer into the windows. For the approach all the lights on the bridge were switched off, adding to the blackness of the night.
There was an air of excitement and suspense as our Leviathan ship was coaxed gently up the channel and into her berth under the cover of darkness. You could hear a pin drop or a flying fish plop.

When the ship is in port you can watch the comings and goings of other big ships or the loading and unloading of containers - thousands of identical metal boxes are moved around the port, put onto ships and taken off ships. Some global logistics nerd has a handle on what it all is and where it´s all going. It may surprise you to know that only the bottom row of containers is actually strapped to the ship - the rest just stack and click together like giant pieces of Lego.

The ship never really sleeps. In port loading and unloading go on through the night as necessary. Once she´s left port, the ship ploughs on without pause across the seas - through the dazzling brightness of day and the inky blackness of night, under a hot tropical sun or a sky full of stars. In this way, it took us five days to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries to Brazil.

I, on the other hand, did sleep ... very well. Though it was a little unnerving at first going to bed on the ship. Unlike cruise ships, freighters aren´t fitted with stabilisers so there is a surprising amount of roll on even a calm sea. You seem to notice it more at night, along with the deep rumble of the engine and the constant creak of the superstructure. But I got used to it quite quickly, along with moving up and down the external stairs which I found mildly terrifying at first - it just seemed so easy to fall overboard.

A lot of time onboard I spent sitting out on deck watching the waves, the weather and the wildlife. The day we sailed between the Cape Verde Islands and the African coast we ran into a pocket of hot, humid air that deposited a cloud of insects on the ship - cicadas about two inches long, colourful beetles, giant grasshoppers and even a dragonfly. It was slightly surreal to hear the dusk-time chirrupping of cicadas in the middle of the ocean. It was even more surreal the following evening to hear karaoke belting out across the waves as the crew enjoyed a night off.

The first morning I woke up in the Southern Hemisphere, I threw back the curtains to see a flock of boobies circling the ship. Boobies are handsome, black and white, gannet-like birds. I rushed up to the bridge where they hung on the breeze at eye level before folding themselves into dart shapes and diving into the sea for fish. I could even follow their progress underwater by the trails of aquamarine bubbles. High above the boobies there hung a dark, menacing shape - a figgate bird. It´s a pirate and steals the catch from the boobies by harrassing them until they drop it.

But the most special wildlife encounter happened as we sailed down the coast of Brazil. The morning had been grey with heavy rain but it cleared up to a calm, bright afternoon. A humpback whale was spotted on the port side and then one on the starboard side and then another and another until all around the ship there were whales. Whales breaching with an explosion of white foam or giant flukes slipping into the deep with barely a ripple. As the sun sank, the evening rays turned the blasts of spray from the whales´ blowholes into golden mists that hung above the waves before dispersing on the breeze.

Mostly the weather on the voyage was calm and sunny, though there were some days with rain and it was quite rough sailing thourgh the Straits of Gibraltar. Approaching Santos on the east coast of Brazil, we sailed into an electrical storm on an enormous scale. Jagged forks of lightning cracked across the night sky, sometimes blinding silver and sometimes with an edge of orange glow. With each flash the ocean for 20 miles around was turned from night to day. It would have been a beautiful spectacle anywhere but to watch it from the bridge of a big ship in the middle of the ocean was spectacular.

I´d really, really hoped for a big, wild storm on the voyage ... and I wasn´t disappointed though I had to wait until the last couple of days before we ran into a Force 8 storm. It had been a calm, clear day but later in the afternoon a strange line of dark cloud appeared across the horizon, stretching for about 15 miles. Then it started to evolve in the weirdest way - below the line the sky turned almost black but above the line an enormous wall of cloud built up with a surface like bubble-wrap and a tint of pink. As we sailed into this, I was out on the bridge deck and suddenly the wind blew up from nowhere, 0 to 60mph, calm to gale force, in about 2 seconds. I rushed inside the bridge as torential rain now joined the wind in battering the ship. The sea was all heaped up with a surface like meringue and streaked with foam.
Visbility was so bad we could barely see the front of the ship. I watched this, transfixed, on the bridge. I´d wondered if being in a storm at sea would be frightening but it wasn´t - it was obvious that a Force 8 storm was nothing to a ship of this size and Lausanne the Leviathan plodded on through it all.

At 09.30 on 11 November, 19 days after leaving Valencia, MSC Lausanne berthed in Buenos Aires, Argentina and my cargo ship adventure was over. I´d had a brillaint journey and a unique experience and was quite sad to say goodbye to the old girl. The cargo ship adventure may be over but a new adventure begins as I set out to cycle through South America over the next few months. If I can find my way out of the chaos of Buenos Aires that is!

The question that people always asked me when they learned that I would be travelling by freighter was "what will the cargo be?" I´m afraid I don´t know what Lausanne was carrying across the Atlantic (not even the captain knows what´s in the containers) but, if you look carefully, there may be a clue in my Flickr photos.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Santos, Brazil - mini update

A delay at Suape (another ship was in our parking space) meant we missed the worst of the bad weather but still caught torrential rain and a spectacular lightning storm on the fringes.

This is the second day that the ship has been at anchor off Santos - we are waiting in a big queue of big ships to berth at Brazil's biggest port. I'm happy with delays - I get to stay longer on the ship! The crew are happy - they've been fishing off the back of the boat!

Santos is the last stop before the final destination of Buenos Aires where I'll give you the full story of the freighter voyage and upload the pics.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Suape, Brazil - mini update

On Sunday at 18.35 the ship crossed into the Southern Hemisphere - it was dark, so I didn't see the Equator!

With only 140 containers to offload here, it will be a brief stop before we continue down the east coast of South America - though a delay will do no harm as there is bad weather forecast ahead. Yikes!




Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mid Atlantic - postcard from the edge

Having a brilliant time sailing to South America by cargo ship. Weather good - plain sailing so far. Food excellent and I've kept it all down!

My cargo ship, MSC Lausanne, is a giant of a ship at 275m long and 32.2m wide (that width makes her a Panamax, the widest ship that can pass through the Panama Canal). Onboard there is a crew of 23 and 4 passengers, including me. Of course, this is nothing like a cruise - it's a working ship and the priority is always the cargo. So there is no fancy restaurant or leisure activities. We eat our meals with the crew and are otherwise left to our own devices. With a few limitations we can pretty much wander anywhere on the ship and get a fascinating insight into life at sea on a freighter. I'm happy on deck staring at the sea for hours, spotting dolphins, flying fish and birds; watching the crew at work; observing activities in port; reading in a quiet corner; or visiting the bridge, trying to look like I understand the array of charts, printouts and computer graphics.

From the Canaries, we've sailed south between the Cape Verde Islands and the west African coast, and are now heading southwest to Brazil. Soon we'll cross the Equator and drop off the edge!

NB: There is no internet onboard ship. I have sent an email via the ship's communication system, then a satellite has bounced it down to base camp manager, Graham, in Edinburgh, and he copies it into the blog together with a map he generates. The previous mini updates have been sent to base camp by text whenever I pick up a signal near to land. Isn't technology amazing!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Las Palmas, Canary Islands - mini update

Our last port of call before crossing the Atlantic to northern Brazil. In case it gets choppy out there we have done an abandon-ship drill and even got into the lifeboats!



Monday, 25 October 2010

Straits of Gibralter - mini update

I've boarded the cargo ship MSC Lausanne and I'm having a great adventure as we sail west into the Atlantic ocean.

(This picture of the ship is off the internet, not my own)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Valencia, Spain - And the winner is . . .

Shirley, Tigger and I have arrived in Valencia by the power of bus. If all goes to plan, I should leave Valencia on Sunday on a cargo ship bound for South America, arriving in Buenos Aires 16 days later. My cargo ship departure was cancelled, then reinstated with a different ship, then moved forward by two weeks, back by a day, then forward by two days. All of this confusion left me without enough time to cycle from Burgau to Valencia and made me miss meeting my friend Andrew in Seville!

The two weeks at my sister´s house in Burgau seemed to whiz by as I settled into a very enjoyable lifestyle there. Days were filled with walking the dogs along the beautiful cliff-top paths in early morning sunlight and along wild, windswept beaches in the afternoons. We pottered about in the busy little towns and colourful fishing villages that are dotted along the coast of the Algarve and generally relaxed, chilled out and enjoyed being a family together. I found a favourite little spot in Burgau at the Brizze Bar cafe, overlooking the slipway and beach. I loved to sit here with a coffee and gaze out over the ocean or watch the old, weather-beaten menfolk of the village bring in their little fishing boats. The second week of my stay coincided with the British half-term and the little beach at Burgau filled with Brits in bikinis grilling themselves under an October sun that was still fiercely hot.

I´ve managed to put some weight on after arriving in Burgau a little scrawny. This is mostly due to my sister´s fabulous cooking though she was ably assisted by Casa Padaria, the local Italian restaurant. I can barely believe that I cycled thousands of miles to the remote spot that is my sister´s house to discover that the only freshly-baked, gluten-free pizza I have ever had was only five minutes walk away. It´s fate - me and those pizzas were meant to be together!

It was another difficult adjustment leaving Burgau, similar to that required after my friend Graham left at the end of the cycle along the Camino de Santiago. It was so cosy and comfortable being in Burgau, in the bosom of family and with no worries. But again I had to say "goodbyes" as I was whisked away on a bus into the darkness of a Spanish night to be dumped out on my own in Valencia.

However, Valencia is a pleasant, vibrant, modern city. There is old stuff here and there but it´s swamped by contemporary buildings and traffic. My cheap little hotel is ideally placed next to the Turia Gardens. Valencia was orginally bisected by the River Turia but after a catastrophic flood in the 1950s, the river was diverted to the west of the city and the original natural course was filled in. This has created a beautiful, long, sinuous city park with cyclepaths, walks, gardens, fountains, playparks, ponds and skateparks. It´s full of life at all times of day - cyclists, joggers, walkers, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, school-children doing their PE classes and people practising yoga. Just before it meets the sea are the very space-age buildings and cool, blue pools of the Arts and Science Centre. It´s all very nice.

But it´s difficult to enjoy as I´m feeling very nervous at the moment. Not about crossing an ocean or arriving on a new continent - I´m really excited about that. But I´m nervous about making sure I don´t miss the boat! Afterall, we all know how to catch a bus or a train but how do you catch a cargo ship? Do you stand on the beach and stick your hand out - one and a bicycle to Argentina, please!

My nerves aside, what you all really want to know at this moment ... more than who´s been eliminated from the X-Factor ... is ... who has won "the bicycle diaries" competition. Well, I can reveal the winners are Sheila and Dougie McBride from Angus. They guessed that I had eaten 450 rice cakes during my cycle to Burgau, the closest guess to Tigger´s winning figure of 445. Sheila and Dougie have chosen Prize A, to join me for the cycle through South America ... oops, sorry ... I´ve muddled entries ... that should be Prize B, a surprise gift from Portugal. It´s on its way to you now.
I don´t know what the next few weeks will bring but it´s sure to be out of the ordinary so do keep in touch.

All photos from Europe on My Flickr page


Thursday, 14 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - Thorn in my ride

Gazing out over the blue waters of the Atlantic from the beach-front cafe in Burgau, I got to thinking that I was here courtesy of my fabulous little bike, Shirley - strong and sturdy and a joy to ride every mile of the way! So this is a plug for the people at Thorn Cycles who designed and built her - thank you.
I've added photos from my break in the Algarve to my Flickr page.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition - enter now

"the bicycle diaries" is pleased to bring you a free-to-enter, prize-winning competition. Many of you will know that I have coeliac disease and can't eat bread. Therefore my staple diet on my cycle across Europe has been rice cakes - yes, those things that look and taste like polystyrene coasters!

To enter the competition send your guess of the number of rice cakes that I've eaten on the European leg of my ride from Rosyth to Burgau by email to symaniak88@hotmail.co.uk. Please also include your full name and postal address*, your permission to be mentioned on the blog as winner and your choice of prize.

The winner can choose from the following two exciting prizes:

Prize A
The chance to join me on the South American leg of the ride. An arduous journey by bicycle over thousands of miles; you'll suffer saddle sores, malaria, yellow fever and altitude sickness; there'll be months of rough living, not washing for weeks and subsisting on only fried beans and rice. There is no cash alternative. In fact, there is no cash.

Prize B
A surprise gift from Portugal - it's really nice.

Closing date is 20 October and I think I also have to say something like "Tigger is the judge and his decision is final".

Good luck.
*full name and postal address needed for sending out the prize to the winner - it won't appear on the blog or be disclosed anywhere else

Monday, 4 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - Field rat dog

It was a relief to pull into the pleasant city of Tomar which marked the end of the mountains and the gateway to some easier, if hotter, riding. Tomar has an old centre of narrow cobbled streets that radiate from a central square that's paved like a giant chessboard. Overlooking the old town is the majestic Castle Templar, the last ever construction at the order of the Knights Templar. Many of the buildings in Tomar have beautiful tiled facades and host designer shops and trendy cafes.

As I cycled south out of Tomar, the landscape of steep, forest-clad mountains and terraced vineyards gave way to a pancake-flat landscape of olive groves and scrubby pasture - a parched land with rocky escarpments the colour of IrnBru and sparsley-dotted spaghetti-western towns. But this was great riding.

There are a couple of very endearing things about Portugal that I've forgotten to mention so far. First of all, in parks and squares the public seating is set up in little sociable clusters to allow people to sit together and chat. Compare this with, say, stern rows of seats in Princess Street Gardens. Secondly, many of the churches don't just chime the hour, they play a little tune. Though this always has you racing for your wallet, thinking that the ice-cream van has just pulled into town!

If Tomar was a pleasant city then Evora, my next stop, was a stunning one. An ancient settlement that once vied with Lisbon to be the country's most influential centre, it remains wrapped up in its solid city walls. Within its maze of streets are a cathedral, Roman temple, aqueduct, churches and lovely little surprise squares with fountains and cafes. A few more days of fabulously flat riding took me to the sting in Portugal's tail. Just when you think the mountains are behind you, the Serra de Monchique provides one last big climb before you descend into the Algarve and Portugal's southern coast.


The last stop before my sister's house was the busy seaside town of Lagos. I cycled along its smart waterfront esplanade, passing the expensive yachts and motorboats in the marina. It may have been tempting to hang around here and bag a millionaire but in my crispy T-shirt, sweaty cycle shorts and odiferous trainers, my chances were probably slim!

After a few more miles of easy pedalling, I was pulling into my sister's village of Burgau. I didn't know where her house was but at the first street I peaked into there was a row of colourful balloons spelling out "Pauline" and the welcoming party of my sister and my mum and Dougie whose holiday coincided with my arrival. It was really exciting and a bit emotional to at last arrive at this distant point that I'd been cycling towards for months. And I was relieved to arrive safe and well at the end of the European leg of my trip.

Burgau is a pretty little village, set around a sandy beach in one of the coves that provide a break in this otherwise rugged coastline. A steep, narrow road leads down to the beach where a few small fishing boats are pulled out on the slipway and a couple of colourful cafes overlook the Atlantic waves that crash into shore. My sister's house is a few minutes walk from the beach and is currently quite full - Karen, mum and Dougie, my niece Jessica, the cat and two dogs. There's Hamish, the pedigree black labrador, and the mongrel rescued with her family of starving feral dogs. Her name is Maggie May but my sister also calls her the "field rat dog" because she's still a bit wild and, like feral dogs from the fields, is constantly foraging for food and will eat absolutely anything. After three months of camping across Europe in woods and fields, developping an insatiable appetite and spending my days foraging in supermarkets, I can relate to Maggie. I think in a couple of weeks when I have eaten my sister out of house and home, she'll be calling ME the field rat dog.
More Portugal photos on Flickr.

Next blog - the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition.




Friday, 1 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - mini update


I've made it to my sister's house in Burgau - 2223 miles and 87 days. Woohoo!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Evora, Portugal - mini update

I've left the mountains and I'm zooming across wonderfully flat but very scorchio central Portugal. Yesterday I hit the 2000 miles mark so I'm celebrating today with a day off to explore the World Heritage city of Evora. There are many delights to Evora, not least gluten-free magdalenes (they're little sponge cakes in case you didn't know).



Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Arganil, Portugal - The Sweeney, Grace Kelly and Monty Python

When I left Santiago de Compostela heading south for Portugal, my mood matched the weather - grey and overcast. My friend Graham had returned to Scotland the day before and it was difficult to readjust to being alone. I suppose it was the sudden contrast between having and not having company and experiencing the benefits of a buddy - the shared memories, the laughs and somebody to watch your bike when you nip into a shop for groceries!

However a few days back on the road cycling through the pleasant, rural scenery of Galicia soon had me back to my old self. In these last few days in Spain, I stayed at one of the nicest campsites at Carballino. It was perched above the pretty gorge of the Rio Arenteiro and shared its spot with a few pallozas (if you were paying attention in the last blog, you'll know this is the vernacular architecture of the area). There were riverside and woodland walks and a machine dispensing Fanta Lemon. All this perfection for only 4 euros. The only downside was a little restuarant below that sent up smells of sizzling steak and rich sauces, the chink of cutlery on good china and the laughter of happy diners. All this as I sat alone at my picnic table eating rice, tuna and tomato which I think is called paella in these parts!

My route out of Spain climbed high into the Sierra de Xures and took me into Portugal over the 750m Portela de Homim. I wasn't sorry at this point to leave Spain as I'd had quite enough of this noisy country - the rockets, the fireworks, the all-night fiestas, the loud music and everybody shouting. At the border I turned back to face Spain and shouted like John Thaw in "The Sweeney" - SHUT IT! Then descended swiftly into Portugal.

The route into Portugal in the Geres National Park was stunningly beautiful. The little road descended through a forest of tall, aromatic pines and far below sapphire lakes sparkled blue in the sun. A long series of tight hairpin bends had no modern crash barrier for protection, just a few old-fashioned concrete bollards. As I swooped down this road at speed in contintental sunshine, I felt like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in those driving scenes of "To Catch a Thief".

I must admit that I thought the journey through Portugal would be a simple run down to my sister's home in the Algarve. How wrong I was! The mountains of northern Portugal are providing me with the most difficult cycling that I've ever done. Ranges of high sierras separated by deep ravines make every day a series of hot, hard climbs. Added to this, the road signage in Portugal is appalling and this has already caused me several unnecessary detours through difficult, steep terrain. On one occasion poor signage took me onto a road that, as it turned out, prohibits bicycles. After I'd cycled for a few miles in blissful ignorance, a police car slowed beside me, I was pulled over and informed of my error. But I then had a personal police escort for a good few miles further until the next exit. And that put a smile on my face! On another occasion, after failing to find the right road, I found myself by mistake in a beautiful valley near the isolated village of Foncelas. Here the mountains opened up to form a natural bowl with the hillsides cut into cascades of narrow terraces supporting vines and maize. Dotted along the terraces were little stone huts with terracotta roof tiles and in the middle of all this, standing on a promontory, was a beautiful white-washed church. I sat here a while in the afternoon sun and a local lady arrived with flowers for the weekend service. Amazingly she had studied English in Edinburgh! She couldn't figure out how I'd cycled all the way from Scotland and ended up in her remote, little village. Looking at the map, neither could I!

Inadequate road signs mean that I am constantly checking directions with locals and of course I don't speak Portuguese. However, Spanish is widely understood and a lot of Portuguese people speak French. So I find myself communicating in an odd mix of French and Spanish - I call it Franish! As well as the people I stop to speak with, there are many more that I just exchange smiles with as I cycle by - the teenage girl waiting for the school bus with a pile of books, her olive skin and long chestnut curls reminded me of my neice; the old man in overalls giving his dog's kennel a fresh lick of paint before the winter; the young woman wrapped in a pink shawl in the back of an open pickup truck on the way to work in the vineyards, a smile and the early morning sun lighting up her face.

These pleasant occurences aside, northern Portugal has been really, really tough. But we all know the saying - when the going gets tough, the tough get going! So I must steady the quiver in my lower lip and get tough. Even though my knees ache and my body feels old and tired at this point. Or, to quote a favourite Monty Python line -my knees are blind, my eyes are grey, my hair is old and bent!

Photos on my Flickr site.


Coming soon - the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tonda, Portugal

Ten days of hot hard cycling has taken me out of Spain and down through the mountains of northern Portugal.

If you're sponsoring me by country then this is now my 5th country. My Just Giving site is at this link:


Full blog soon.



Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Santiago de Compostela, Spain - Buen Camino

I´ve crossed mountain ranges, done battle with sun and wind, picked up my friend Graham along the way and now my journey along the camino is complete, here in Santiago. All along our route people have wished us "buen camino" and looking back on the journey, I can say I have had a "good camino".

The arrival in Santiago may not have been what we wished for with drizzly rain and heavy morning traffic but nonetheless we made our way to the end of the route at the cathedral where a statue of St James himself looks down on the pilgrims gathering in the square. Not being religious I would not have normally gone into the cathedral but a friend back home had asked me to light a candle for her at Santiago. With this little mission in mind, I joined the queue and went inside. Unfortunately the lighting of candles is not allowed in the cathedral to protect the ornate interiors. Therefore I bought a candle from a nearby shop in one of the hundreds of alleyways in the old city and left it outside the cathedral, burning brightly for all my friends and family.

This little ceremony ended an incredible journey and one of great contrasts. The first half of the route through Navarra, La Rioja and across the Meseta took us across an arid and parched landscape. The flatlands of the Meseta in particular were quite surreal. Dilapidated towns and abandonded adobe villages, more like the Third World than Western Europe, contrasted with beautifully restored churches, stunning cathedrals and the smart cities of Burgos and Leon. We beat the heat and winds of the Meseta by getting up at 5.30am and hitting the road at 7am with bike lights on. One morning we cycled out along a deserted back road with a full moon still high in the sky. As the sun rose, the combined light of sun and moon cast a beautiful, soft, peachy light over the landscape as we pedalled silently in the cool, still, dawn air.

The Meseta ended abruptly with a stiff climb into the attractive city of Leon. Leon is an ancient city with a majestic cathedral in its central square. A maze of narrow streets of pastel-painted buildings tease you away from the square with sneaky glimpses of spires and turrets. Beyond Leon we stayed in the Roman town of Astorga but only after tricky navigation through an area where all the towns seemed to have very similar names, something like San Viagra de la Vegan!

In Astorga we stayed in an albergue, the simple hostel-style accommodation provided for pilgrims. This albergue had a little courtyard within its walls and an old fig tree provided fruit and shade. Along the back wall of the courtyard was a pool of salt water and a row of little wooden stools to enable pilgrims to soak aching feet. I thought that if pilgrims walking the camino soaked sore feet in the pool then pilgrims like us cycling the camino, should soak sore buttocks - but I didn´t put this to the test.

The second half of the route changed dramatically as we climbed high up into the Cantabrian Mountains. The landscape was now green, lush and forested and the mornings were misty and cool. It was a lovely change from the heat. We had a beautiful wild camp at a spot called Cruz de Ferro where there is a tall wooden cross that marks the highest section of the camino at 1500 metres. We sat here in the evening in woolly hats and fleece tops hugging mugs of hot coffee as we watched the sun go down. We also stayed high in the mountains in a delightful little hill-top village called O Cebreiro. It had one street which was cobbled, a collection of colourful trinket shops and several thatched buildings unique to the area called pallozas.

As we descended from the high peaks the camino continued through pretty rolling countryside that reminded me of Perthshire and collected more and more pilgrims as we neared Santiago.

Looking back, riding the camino has been a wonderful and unique experience and I have so many great memories - crossing the Pyrennees; the beautiful cathedral in Burgos; shopping at the fruit and veg market in Leon´s central square; camping high in the mountains; the pretty churches that popped up in even the most rundown towns; being allowed to camp for free on the village green in the lovely town of Samos; and the hundreds of pilgrims on foot, bicycle and horseback following a trail of shells to Santiago. But when I´m as old as the camino itself and think back to this trip, there is one place that will stand out in my memories above all others and that is the abandonned village of Manjarin. Manjarin sits on a hill top in the Montes de Leon and is empty except for one ramshackle, crumbly old building that is run as a basic refuge and a teahouse for passing pilgrims. It´s adorned with colourful flags that flap in the mountain breeze and with brightly-painted wooden signs that state the distance from Manjarin to famous cities around the world. There are statues and trinkets and all sorts of colourful junk dotted around the place as well as a collection of mangy animals that doze in the dust. Graham and I spent an afternoon here with cold cans of Coke on a rickety wooden terrace with a fabulous view over the mountains and the pilgrims shuffling by. It was a great spot and one of life´s perfect moments.

Photos from the camino are on my Flickr site.

So now I have to say goodbye to Graham who returns to Scotland, re-adjust to being a solo traveller and turn directly south for Portugal and my sister´s house in the Algarve. I´m really excited about that. I don´t know what internet access will be like through Portugal but I´ll keep you updated as often as possible. Also look out for details coming soon of a prize-winning, free-to-enter competition for followers of "the bicycle diairies".

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Leon, Spain - mini update

Pre-dawn starts and flat terrain have taken us easily across the Meseta and we are now enjoying a couple of days in the bicycle-unfriendly, difficult-to-navigate, one-way-systems of the otherwise very agreeable city of Leon. Next we continue west through the mountains to Santiago with some very high passes ahead.
Just want to say thank you to everyone who is reading the blog and for posting comments - it´s great to have all your support. I´m glad that people are enjoying the blog. It´s become a key feature of the trip for me - a kind of thread that pulls me through the journey. So please keep reading!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Castrojeriz, Spain - Don´t shoot, I´m a pilgrim

Well, I have slipped seemlessly into Spain but not without incident. My first night in Spain was a wild camp in a little wood on a Saturday night. I thought it was a good, concealed spot so looked forward to a lazy Sunday morning. The height of laziness when camping for me is to make my first mug of coffee without even getting out of my sleeping bag and to sip it with the door of the tent peeled back so I can watch the world go by from the comfort of my tent. But this Sunday morning at 7am gunshots started in the woods all around me. It doesn´t take a genius to figure out that it is not wise when there is shooting going on to be concealed in the trees in a tree-coloured tent! So I was out of there faster than you can say "hasta luego".

It´s amazing how quickly things changed between France and Spain - like the flick of a switch. The countryside is scorched to shades of ocre and gold; folds of hazy mountains stretch to the horizon; the little hill-top towns are now closely stacked with flat terracotta roofs and look quite precarious like the constructions you made as a child with a pack of cards. One of the most notable differences is that Spanish campsites provide toilet paper, although it tends to be one large communal roll outside the toilet block. This is a bit strange - how do you know how much you´re going to need before you go in? It´s sure to happen on occasion that you get settled in your little cubicle and realise too late that you´ve not taken in enough paper!

I´m now well along the camino and meeting lots of pilgrims. It´s a lovely feeling to have a shared sense of purpose and goal with all these strangers. I experienced quite a strange coincidence with one fellow cyclist, Hans. Like me he had cycled from Holland following an almost identical route through France along the Loire and down the west coast; he was now cycling along the camino like me; and amazingly also turning south through Portugal to a small town only 10 miles from the small town in Portugal that I´m heading to, where my sister lives! Isn´t that funny?

However the biggest excitement of the last week is meeting up with my friend and base camp manager, Graham. I met him off his bus in Logrono - him and his bubble-wrapped bicycle. It was great to see a familiar face, especially as he´d brought lots of my favourite gluten-free goodies! So now I have a companion for the rest of the camino to Santiago. We each have our shells tied to our bikes so people can see we are pilgrims - this gives us some discounts at campsites and encourages complete strangers to shout, peep and yell directions at us as we pedal along. Everywhere we go we look for shells - tied to other bicycles or walkers´backpacks, hanging above doors, brass shells embedded in the pavement, shell sculptures - all leading the way to Santiago. In the last couple of days we´ve passed through the swanky town of Burgos. We strolled along in the shade its wide tree-lined avenues and gazed in awe at its glorious cathedral. Now we face the big challenge of crossing the Meseta - a vast plateau at 800m scorched by the sun and scoured by the wind, where even water is not guaranteed. It will take us four days. Our ploy to beat the heat is to rise in the dark and be on the road at 7am as the sun is just coming up.

So stay tuned. Will we ever see the sunrise? Will we die crossing the Meseta? Will we make it to Santiago? If we do, will we still be speaking to each other?

New photos on my Flickr page.