As we cycled steeply up from Baños de Montemayor towards to pass in the bright but cold morning we left Extremadura and crossed into Castilla y León. We opted to take the road route up to the top as it had a much gentler gradient than the direct route taken by the walkers and it was also in the sun which slowly warmed our frozen hands.
Near the top we went back off road and did a big double dip, each time by about 300 m as we crossed the two passes between the snow topped hills. The track down was very steep and the loose surface was covered in tennis ball sized rocks which made for a nervous decent.
Once over the second pass we kept the height and cycled across a high plain. It was immediately different from Extremadura. Gone were the evergreen oak woodlands and fertile grasslands. In their place was deciduous woodland and infertile looking rocky scrub.
The villages we passed through looked very run down with many of the old houses in total ruin. The only bar in the first village we went through was closed but we managed to get a coffee 8 km later.
The cycling was surprisingly easy here, mainly on firm rocky tracks, but 10 km from the end we met a mountain biker who told us to turn round as it was too dangerous to go on. Apparently there were some hunters ahead who were shooting dangerously across the track. This added about 3 km to our day and meant we had to go round by road.
We stayed in an Albergue that night which was pleasant enough but when all the walkers came down for breakfast in the morning we found no breakfast and the door locked so we couldn’t get out. Lucky there wasn’t a fire! We did eventually get some breakfast and we will make sure we check the fire escapes at the next Albergue.
It was an easy 23 km cycle to Salamanca through some pleasant countryside. We stopped for a couple of hours to visit the impressive cathedral and to look around the old town along with coach loads of tourists then had a slow cycle around the centre before heading out.
The countryside after that was intensively farmed cereals with no trees, shrubs, flowers or birds as far as you could see in any direction. From a distance it looked flat but it was in fact steadily rising from 800 m and concealed some very steep and rocky climbs.
The Albergue where we spent that night had a small farm attached and when I asked about the animals I got taken off for a couple of kilometres in his car to visit his Arab horses that are the pride of his life. Like the previous night there was a community of walkers staying from different parts of the globe. Many of them walk over 40 km a day with heavy packs. The ones we met here had already been walking for over a month.
Quite a few of the walkers seemed surprised that we hadn’t spent longer in Salamanca, but the following day we did spend the night in the slightly smaller and less famous city of Zamora which was just as beautiful and wasn’t ruined by coachloads of tourists.
Even though we had a long way to go the next day we seemed to start later than normal. The roads out of Zamora were very quiet as it was a Sunday morning and it wasn’t long before we were back on the tracks with the horrible sandy grit surface that we are coming to hate. The morning started easily and after about 25 km we started to pass the walkers who are all early risers. We stopped at the first village for a coffee with a couple of them who we had met at the last Albergue.
Setting off again I stupidly started to wish that the route would get more interesting. Well, of course, that sort of wish always comes true. Our route directions had warned us that there were a lot of possible routes today so we didn’t worry unduly when we turned left following our gpx route even though all the arrows pointed right. For the next 3 km we had a nasty time slithering around on deep pea gravel then we arrived at a motorway embankment and our track just ended. We doubled back and followed the signs we had ignored earlier to find a bridge across this new and almost empty monstrosity.
Now actually following the arrows we found our route blocked again. This time by an old stone bridge that had been reduced to a heap of stones. There were another couple of cycle tourers there so they helped us get our bikes over. Then after a bit of a scramble through some undergrowth and up a bank we found the track again. For some reason we had to cross the motorway 3 times before our track turned away from it.
We didn’t get a good start the next day as the breakfast was a bit grim with stale bread. Added to this my legs felt tired after pushing against the loose surface the previous day. We also haven’t been sleeping well as we are having to eat supper so late. Although everyone in Spain eats very late in the evening, further south we were able to get an evening meal between 8 or 8.30 even if we were the only people eating. But in the north the restaurants don’t even open before nine so its usually 9.30 before we order and we don’t finish eating before 10.30. We are usually starving when we finish cycling around 4.30 and everything in the town is firmly shut for the siesta. So from now on we are going to try to get a better lunch, not just the grim looking tapas congealing on the bar and have a picnic supper when we want it. Although we are enjoying Spain good food is not something we have found here and the lack of any green vegetables is a problem.
Today for the first time in 1220 kms we spent 50% of the day on sealed roads. There can’t be many countries in Europe where you can cycle so far off road. We passed through quite a few small villages with strangely wide main streets, dilapidated cob walled houses, all with shutters closed and not a soul in site. It was like the film set for a western just before the gun fight.
We started noticing what looked to us like underground houses built into the hillsides with chimneys sticking out above the grassy rooves. When I asked about the tiny underground houses they thought it was hilarious. They turned out to be bodegas or wine storage caves. This was also strange as in this area there wasn’t a vineyard in sight, just acres of arable land. They must have uprooted all the vines.
When we did get back on the tracks the surface was better to initially, with hard packed clay mud, and we were skirting round the fields and through poplar woodland.
It was only just before we got to La Bañeza that they came up with a new form of torture as they had put down a surface of large, sharp, white stone.
Like Benavente, where we stayed last night, La Bañeza looked really run down and a bit rough as we cycled in. The outskirts were not a place you would want to stop. The centre of town where we were staying was a bit nicer but still run down. Many of the shops had closed down and a lot of the buildings, although full of character, looked like they might fall down if they didn’t get some TLC. The towns here have a very different feel to those in Andalucia and Extremadura. Just a little less welcoming perhaps.
To say the next day was a horrible day would be an understatement. To be honest I have no idea why the GPX track we are following even came to León as it is not on the original Ruta de la Plata. Up to now the route has been very good so we didn’t question it.
The day started badly as the grotty hostal we were staying at had announced last night that breakfast and checkout were after 9.30 a.m. So we got given a tray of already stale bread (seems to be a regional speciality), some dried up jam and what by the morning was a flask of cold coffee. As we left the hostal we found their morning bread delivery hanging on the door so we could have had fresh bread after all.
We hoped to get some coffee in a village but the first three villages we passed through were as deserted and shuttered up as yesterday. But at least we were off road for the first 20 km. Eventually we went through Obrigo which had a lovely little cake shop with a lovely little beaming lady working in it. My day brightened up briefly.
But leaving Obrigo we found ourselves on a path that followed right next to a really busy road. We stayed on the path as much as possible but we were also battling a strong and very cold headwind. Strangely all the Camino de Santiago route signs were pointing in the opposite direction and there were a lot of walkers who looked as if it was their first day. We stopped to talk to a couple of cycle tourers from Mexico who were heading down to Sevilla. They were hating the noisy, busy road too and were looking for another route.
As we got closer into León we were now in the road and the driving was really bad. Many drivers using mobile phones and none of them really paying attention until yelled at. Learning Spanish is paying off here!
We eventually got into the historic centre and even in my bad mood I had to admit it was impressive. The good thing about following this route is you always cycle past all the interesting old buildings in a city, including in this case the Gaudi designed museum.
OK, so it was only one bad day and tomorrow we start to climb a mountain, so its going to get better (or so I thought)!
Well, our last day in Castilla y León was certainly different. We got out of León quite easily and quickly and soon found ourselves climbing the rugged hills that come right up to north side of the city.
The track was “ok” for a while but soon turned into the sort of surface I find difficult and to be honest a bit scarey.
It was covered in loose large, round pebbles like you find on a pebble ridge on the beach. As I cycled over them the bike slid off sideways which left me with a very unstable feeling especially when going steep up or down. Occasionally there was a smooth looking bit but this was usually deep sand. Then it turned into single track, still rocky but also with deep muddy puddles and low overhanging branches. I have to say that I was walking by now, my cycling confidence seeping away.
Then the track got ridiculously steep and crumbly. It had been signed as part of the long distance cycle route but if I had been on my own I would not have managed the next 4 km. Even with two of us pushing and stabilizing each bike the 4 km took us two hours. We were so tired by the time we reached the road we decided to stay on it.
So we only climbed up to 1100 m and not the 1300 m we would have gone to on the track.
We did have the excitement of a lot of tunnels instead. In the first one we were passed by a truck which sounded very loud and scary. But the road was generally quiet so we had the other tunnels to ourselves.
We were surrounded by snowy mountain peaks when we stopped at our hostal that has really good reviews for its food, so fingers crossed.
Well, tomorrow we will drop down into Asturias as we leave Castilla y León.