The story behind the adventure:
Timmy is the Cycling Artist, he cycles hundreds of miles a year and uses his cycling adventures to look for and paint inspiring scenes. If you ever see a colourful cyclist with his paints, it’ll be Timmy. You can see the work his cycle rides inspire right here.Timmy’s cycled Coast to Coast, Hadrian’s Wall, East Coast of Scotland, across Northern Ireland, North Wales castles and coast, Hastings to Winchester, Chester to Chepstow, Canterbury Tales Pilgrims route and the Camino De Santiago.
I'm singing and cycling in the rain:
I start today. It’s a fine grey soft English drizzle. My tummy is in turmoil. Should I take this? Will I need that? It’ll all be chucked away as I get going and down to the bare minimum.
For the record:
2 panniers: 9 kilos
Painting materials: 7 kilos
Bar bag: 2 kilos
Day bag: 3 kilos.
Far too much?
Most important thing is a big smile. And my tie. Brother Martin always wear a tie to church and that’s where I’ll start! Buen camino!
The Pilgrim Prayer at The Holy Trinity Church, Cookham
The adventure starts at The Holy Trinity Church, Cookham. I rode my bike into church and got soaked! What else would you expect?!
Do I look nervous?
Rev Nick Plant sent me off from Cookham Church on the way to Santiago. I also look over loaded!
And then the chain snapped!
A mile into the adventure my chain snapped. Thanks Paul from Flat Harry’s Cyclery in Cookham who came and fixed it.
The adventure continues!
The adventure was rather delayed. But we came across flooded footpaths and lovely lanes. Made our way through beautiful Berkshire and happy Hampshire!
Meeting the Bishop of Winchester
I was delighted to be invited to meet Right Reverend Tim Dakin bishop of Winchester at his palace next to the cathedral. “Nice tie" he commented “where you at Christchurch college Oxford?" Sadly not, it was a gift when I met the bishop of Oxford and I'm wearing it in honour of Martin, thebest dressed Mallett in the family. “I was…."
Bishop Tim and I had a great conversation, and he put a Martin Mallett name tag on the altar and blessed my Camino. He also signed the pannier and have me a letter in Spanish from his chaplain Mat for the archbishop of Santiago Julian Barrio Barrio. Thanks for a wonderful meeting your support and encouragement bishop Tim.
After meeting Bishop Tim, I then cycle over the hills of Hampshire to Gosport and the ferry to Portsmouth. What a wonderful day. Hugely grateful for all the encouragement and support for this great cycling and painting adventure. Spring is here! I like this route, covered with gorgeous daffodils.
Martin's name tags…
We sew them onto clothes. So they won't be lost. So we know where they belong. Among Martin's possessions are his name tags. I hold them and feel the threads, the threads of family, of how much we meant to reach other. Time to take them on my Camino and let brother Martin share my adventure. Look at this photo of Martin on his bike. See him rooted in the here and now. Concentrating not on the path ahead but on the business of pedalling and steering. Enjoying the moment with me #youme. Well Martin is with me on this trip, enjoying the here and now of who we meet and what we see. His name tags Mark our journey.
Listen to Timmy’s interview on BBC Radio Berkshire.
He discusses his huge 2,000km cycle trip to Camino de Santiago and of course his dear brother Martin, who sadly passed away last week.
We reach the coast and my adventure starts with Blue skies, warm and springlike….
Is that Mont St Michel? Where are you going to stay Timmy?
We all do this when we get somewhere impressive. First thing we do is get out the camera, or in my case the paints. On a bike tour/pilgrimage you find yourself in unusual places, and Mont St-Michel is no exception. The tiny pilgrim hostel is right in the walls of the abbey, of course that means it’s up the street (there’s only one Street) is narrow, very narrow and there are 40 steps to get the bike up. This’ll be interesting. And what sort of place is Timmy staying? You are going to love this!
The Bayeux Tapestry
Standing on the huge ramparts of Mont St-Michel I was reminded how dangerous the sands are around this island. The tide sweeps in at an alarming rate. It’s got a huge tidal bore that sweeps all before it and fills this enormous bay in less than 2 hours. You could never out run the tide, anything or anyone caught in these currents would perish in an instant. I’m reminded that in 1064 these same tides made history. Duke William was in a struggle with a neighbouring Count and his guest warrior in that struggle was non other than Harold Godwinson earl of Wessex, shortly to be king Harold of Hastings fame. Duke William of Normandy was ‘hosting’ Harold as a guest warrior at this time and Harold knew a bit about big tides and quicksands and became a hero that day. He saw Duke William’s soldiers getting into difficulty as they crossed the treacherous channels and single handedly rescued them in the nick of time.
The Duke was delighted. He knighted Harold and the deed is recorded in the Bayeux tapestry. We know where it happened because the tapestry shows Mont St Michel and Harold giving a piggy back to clearly grateful soldiers. All of this was designed to show Harold as a traitor 2 years later at Hastings but I think it showed Harold’s humanity. Rescuing drowning soldiers at considerable risk to himself shows great courage and I think some sort of memorial at Mont St Michel wouldn’t go amiss. It would also remind us today that the tides here are dangerous and to watch out around these waters. And as the tide rushes I'm reminded about Harold of Wessex making the news headlines here in dramatic style. Wonder if something we'll do today will be remembered?
William the Conqueror's Old Railway Line Ride
The Camino de Santiago or Chemin De Saint Jacques has many routes across Europe… From Mont St Michel I chose the way of the Plantagenets which starts with the Normans and William the Conqueror's grand church in Pontroson then follows his old railway line to Henry 11 castle at Fougeres and onto Vitre in high Brittany. It's a lovely route along gentle curving pastures through cuttings, and valleys, the occasional tunnel and takes you through fragrant farm land!
Weather plays a part in our plans. Woke up to snow sleet rain and wind. Didn't leave Mont St Michel till the weather paused for breath after lunch. I needed 6 layers! Snow flurries and wild afternoon. Pontorson has William the Conqueror's church built in grateful thanks of the weather, or WiFi, and there's his old railway line. It's perfect for cycling all the way to Henry II's castle at Fougeres, so that's what I did.
The 100 Years War Ride
It felt like a 100 years. Which would end first? The cycling or the day? From the home of the nuns in Fougeres I followed the Voies Vertes along quiet country lanes that delivered lots of interesting things to stop and admire. I stuck a sprig of mistletoe on my pannier and pedalled past.
The open air old metal tools museum, Brittany churches with towers and steeples bigger than the village. Vitre is a stunning city with a medieval quarter to rival anywhere. The castle reverberates to the sound of the church bells echoing off the witches hat towers. The ride onto La Guerche is along the old railway line. These old railways lines are fabulous. Well maintained and easy surface. Fabulous. The two hotels in town were full (it's before the start of the season too so I'm surprised). So the end of the day I had another 20+Kms to ride to a gite you'd never find without GPS. And my paints bag fell off the bike and smashed. Bother! Got to my destination as the daylight ended and my battery showed 3% 6kms left…… I'm exhausted and need to rethink things…
The Way of The Plantagenets
Needed to recover from yesterday's gruelling end…. In the dark, in the middle of nowhere with the E bike down to last 3% and couple of Kms left. Today painted first, pedalled after. Following the way of the Plantagenets on the Chemin de St Jacques. The soft and gentle route leaves spectacular wonderful Brittany with one last hurrah – the ancient castle of Pouance. Like Wales, Brittany is full of great castles, most of them started by the Normans and expanded by the Plantagenets.
They all saw action during the hundred years war. The route drops into the Loire valley and the rich farmland of Anjou. Geoffrey of Anjou was Henry 11's dad and always wore a sprig of yellow broom in his hat. Hence Plantagenets. There were signs of blossom all along the route. Sadly no Apple blossom, just a chap cutting down 2 acres of Apple trees. It's not right! This is the lands of the beautiful Anjou and I came into Segres on the river. The churches are different. More baroque, less ostentatious in their towers. I ride into the delightfully named Lion of Angers, to find that the pilgrim hostel is closed on Wednesday cos everything is closed on Wednesday. Off to find somewhere by the river…… The Loire beckons….
It was brilliant cycling into the ancient medieval city of Vitre in Brittany. The streets look like something out of the 15th century. I expected to come across Baldrick and Blackadder at any moment…. Instead I came into the square in front of the castle. It echoed to the sound of the Church bells and looked eerie.
Why are they called Plantagenets?
Geoffrey of Anjou was a colourful character in the early 12th century. He was married to Matilda the empress, grand daughter of William the conqueror. It wasn’t the happiest of marriages but it did produce Henry 11. Geoffrey preferred to hang around France rather than get involved in his wife’s ears with her cousin Stephen in England. He used to run around fighting local barons, and usually she a sprig of yellow broom in his hat. He earned the nickname Plantagenet and the whole dynasty was named after his plant wearing. Cycling the way of the Plantagenets I thought it appropriate to wear a sprig of something on my bike…. I found lots of…… Mistletoe!
All over Brittany there are villages so small you could fit them in your pocket, with church towers that reach to heaven.
Henry 11 built this castle to impress the middle ages Still impressing today.
So many unexpected things today. The French air traffic controllers strike put paid to Mrs Mallett coming out to Poitiers for the weekend to give me encouragement. Disappointment all round. The stunning painting opportunity at my Chambre D'Hote. The old man Eric and his dog jumper playing the barrel organ. Several stunning chateau that just appear around the corner and ask to be admired. The 500 year old oak tree demolished by beetles and cut up by two welcoming woodcutters George and Damian. A tree that was a sapling in Henry VIII reign.
Rediscovering Angers from my last visit over a decade ago with the football tour, and doing a dead fly by the castle. Tourist information help desk who went above and beyond to find me the perfect place to stay. Thank you Cecile. The cycle ride along the banks of the river, suddenly cut off by enormous floods.Helpful man Max from Poitiers who pushed the bike up the stairs with me to do a big detour. The mightiest river in France- the Loire just asking to be admired. Lovely Stephanie and Claudette who welcomed me to the island in the Loire where I am staying tonight. Alone in the diocesan house, that welcomes pilgrims on the chemin de St Jacques. A fabulous day of delights. Aren't I a lucky chap? Last time I was in Angers was a football tour and we arrived by train to be greeted by a particularly spectacular fountain. The stunning Candy Stripe castle is one of the medieval wonders of the world. After our football match (who knows who won, let's say we did) the whole team lay on the ground being dead flies. So arriving by bike it seemed appropriate to repeat it….The Chap taking the picture thought it was quite normal!
The wood cutters and the beetles
It was a young sapling when Henry VIII met Francis of France in the field of the cloth of gold. 500 years later this ancient oak tree toppled over a victim of the Capricorn beetle. I came across George and Damian engaged in the huge task of chopping it all up. This monster Oak tree would have been planted to provide timber for French navy or the grand palaces that are all over the Loire valley. Watching the two men at work every piece of firewood revealed the massive Capricorn beetles and their larvae that have feasted on this tree for decades. It’s a huge job and has taken the two men several weeks already. Of course I had a go! Result? A little dent. One swing of the axe from George and it was split in two!
No Apple Blossom this year?
I was saddened by what I saw. Along a pleasant country lane I came to a crossroads with a bus stop, a line of trees in the distance and a huge field of neatly piled logs in rows. In one row were all the tops of the trees waiting to be chopped into piles. I stopped to see what was happening in this abattoir of an orchard. The man was busy with his chain saw and didn’t look up as I approached: “Are they apple trees?” I asked. “Oui, pommes. They are all dead.” “They are now,” I thought as I looked at the trunks neatly piled in rows. “How many?” Two hectares. Not far short of several hundred trees. “Will you replant them?” “Non, agriculture.” He shrugged and carried on.Not my favourite sight on my Camino. And I wondered how people at the bus stop would never be able to admire all that Apple blossom in spring time….
Eric & Jumper, the street entertainers
Well these are Street entertainers from another era, another century… I saw them standing at the organ grinding machine that had definitely seen better days. Eric started to turn the wheel, there was nobody else around. Jumper the dog looked as if he’d never jumped for anything in his life. The whole thing was delightful. What a treat. And so real.
The mighty Loire
It's the mightiest river in France and flows through a valley of chateaux after chateaux. At Angers it meets the river Maine and they come together in an enormous sheet of water.
Loire Valley Ride
Started on my island in the Loire at the Diocescan house. Next door is the chapel on the rock showing lots of photos of the regular floods that affect this valley. Watch out, it's easy to find your path has disappeared under water. I decided to zig zag in fact I wanted to go back on myself and explore…. That's another way of saying I was happy to get lost. Interesting pieces of serendipity happen like that. Castles appear regularly around the corner. This is a landscape where castles are as likely to grow as crops. “Where will you stay?" That is a question I've been asked a lot and I ask myself each day…. I have a list of suggested accommodations from the Pilgrim Organisation in France. However it's early in the season and things aren't open, and the list may well be an old one. I usually check in with the tourist office in town and get their help mid afternoon. I thought I was in luck when they told me the next town had a dedicated pilgrim place. But it's shut on Wednesday afternoon and we can't get the key because everyone has gone home and nobody is answering their phone! That led me to a charming B&B instead and the host who drove me into a nearby town where the Lebanese pizza place didn't shut on Wednesday. I had the best pizza ever together with a wonderful simulating conversation with the owner/chef. I was the only customer all night. Then I arrived in the rose capital of France on a drizzly evening looking for somewhere to stay. My list had an English couple who aren't doing overnight stays anymore but invited me for a coffee, which turned into delicious homemade soup and beans on toast like never before flavoured with blue cheese and balsamic vinegar. “Please stay" said Katie and Malcolm: “we'll have to fix the shower first but you're welcome". Thank you so much for your lovely hospitality.
Martin in the vineyard
Martin ma bubba we are at a vineyard. It will be a good season. The wine will be excellent. Everyone will smile and say.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Of all the great women in the world none Comes close to the 12th century heroine Eleanor of Aquitaine. She appeared all over today's ride. At Le Puy Notre Dame in the Church is a relic from the holy land brought by her grandfather. In Montreuil Bellay there's a castle rich in chivalrous architecture. 20 kms on through the Fontevraud Forest and the military firing range is the magnificent abbey where Eleanor lies in state next to her second husband King Henry 11 and son Richard the Lionheart. I find her story impresses, inspires and moves me. It was worth the detour. So much so I went a further 30km out of the way to Chinon her castle and capital of the Angevin empire in the second half of the 12th century. Cycling to follow a story is a delight and the day ended with a 20km ride along a brand new cycle path on an old railway line. So new is only been open a few days. I was probably one of the first bikes on it. It will have cost millions. It's the sort of thing that tells you France likes its cyclists. Don't miss it. It's a dream ride.
The story of the first Plantagenets
The story of the first Plantagenets resonates through time. A family seemingly always at war with each other, desperate to reach their potential. Holding together an immense empire and being the catalyst and encouragement for the 12th century Renaissance. That's quite a claim. Henry 11, the dashing young king who inherited England from his uncle, married the glamorous and sexy older woman Eleanor. She had divorced king Louis of France to get Henry (ten years her junior) when he was 18 and she 28. She was in a hurry too. There was less than a month between divorce and me marriage! Ooh, scandal! They didn't waste any time and started breeding kings as fast as they could. Contemporaries called them the devil's brood because they were always fighting each other and their father. Henry's greatest achievement, aside from holding his disparate empire together, was to be the father of the English legal system and to put in place a system that worked when the king was away – which was lots.
Most famously with Thomas, a Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury cathedral Christmas 1170. Eleanor, was a diplomat, a politician, a schemer and a dealer. She came to the marriage with King Henry with the enormous duchy of Aquitaine that stretched from Poitiers to the south coast of France. Eleanor was wealthy, cultured and knew what she wanted. Throughout her life she promoted the arts. Architecture, poetry, music, chivalry. These things blossomed under Eleanor's encouragement. When Eleanor saw the family tearing itself apart over inheritance she took the side of her sons against the king. Disguised as a man, she fled the court but was captured and disgraced. For 16 years Henry had the queen imprisoned and humiliated. She never lost heart. Eleanor was always the dynamic Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine. When her son Richard the Lionheart succeeded to the throne, his first act was to release his mum and make her regent while he went on crusade to the holy land. In a man's world Eleanor rose head and shoulders above the men. She had been on pilgrimage over the Alps as a young woman, and went over the Pyrenees in her 80s. When Richard was captured and imprisoned in Germany, it was Eleanor who saw through the negotiations for his release. In April 1199 she held Richard in her arms as he died. It must have broken her heart. There she lies at Fontevraud Abbey, queen, duchess, wife and mother. A giant of world history. I love her.
It's only another 45 mins away. But it's in the wrong direction. Of course I went! I'm standing across the river in awe at one of the great fortress / palace of history. The yellow stone glistens in the late afternoon sun, the bare trees can't hide the tiny town beneath it's extraordinary walls. The reflection in the water shows up just how big the castle at Chinon is. And then I start to consider all that happened here over 800 years ago.
Martin Mallett moments
Each day I look for somewhere special to leave a Martin Mallett name tag. Actually that’s not strictly true. Each day my dear downs syndrome brother Martin comes into my thoughts and it becomes easy to spot the place to have a Martin moment. Today, I gave a name tag to the journalist who interviewed me. Clearly Martin’s story had an impact because he asked for a name tag for himself and of course I gave it to him. My friends Dominique and Sophie have an ancient second home that we have visited many times. It’s called Grosbot (big wood) and is on the chemin de Saint Jacques. In fact it was here 15 years ago I first heard of this pilgrimage route and my interest was sparked. My fascination has been growing ever since. So Martin is now on an old oak beam by the area we enjoy all our meals. It’s a real socialising place. Perfect for my dear departed brother….. You me. Along the road I see many memorials and roadside crucifixes. Martin had a strong faith and it seemed right to put one here looking out on the big sky and everlasting landscape. Everywhere is different. Everywhere is special. You me. Ma bubba.
I found a Good place for Martin, my brother, today. Next to King Henry 11 and Richard the Lionheart and alongside Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like them, Martin more than reached his potential and that's all we have to do in life. Among royalty. That's ma bubba!
Thanks to my lovely hosts Malcolm and Katie in Doue la Fontaine, the rose capital of France.
It's Blackie the Donkey!
Eeeoor, eeeoor, eee always calls me that!
From Richelieu to St Benoit
Today I am heading for our twin town of St Benoit near Poitiers. It's a glorious spring morning, I hear cuckoos calling and it's still March. Blue skies, temps up to 15/16 Deg. I can wear shorts and don't need my jacket till late in the day! I even need sunglasses. This is a first on the whole of this trip. Richelieu is my first stop, home to the Cardinal from the three musketeers, designer of the first grid shaped town. On through the garden province of Indre et Loire. I'm heading for Poitiers and a lunch date with my pals Dominique and Sophie. The landscape opens out and is tree less, vast under immense intense blue skies. Occasionally adorned by Simpson clouds. It's weird how the vista changes as you come over the brow of the hill. All the restaurants are closed (it is Sunday after all) so we eat poor pizza and chat in the car park! Sophie and I ride to an old castle belonging to their friends…… Who are out. Not a great success so far! So I paint their castle and we ride through Poitiers to St Benoit where I'm greeted by a fabulous banner to mark my journey. “Go Timmy Go!" 11 days from home to our twin town and I'm hugely proud of the effort and not a little daunted by realising I'm no where near half way!
Brilliant new cycle track!
It's been open a matter of days and it's a dream come true. Investment in leisure is the mark of a courageous country. This old railway line had been converted to a voice verte, a green way, with wide smooth finished surface. It runs for over 30 miles from Chinon on the Loire to south of Richelieu. Everyone I meet on it was smiling and calling excited greetings to me. I felt like the first cyclist. There was no debris among the way. Trees had been sympathetically trimmed and I sped along a wide valley lined with trees thick with mistletoe. Even the old station was under going a makeover with seats and refurbishment. All this for leisure. Well done France!
Big skies, big adventure!
Coming over the brow of the hill into a new region – Haute Poitou – I noticed the big skies, tree less landscapes. Have a look and tell me what you think…
Cardinal Richelieu and the three musketeers
That's all most know about the Cardinal. Except he was also a town planner! He also knew how to get other people to pay for it. He got the nobles of Louis XIV to buy a house each in the town he designed and Richelieu is the result. It took barely 10 years took complete and was so successful every town in America in based on the same grid system. Clever chap our Cardinal…. But he couldn't catch the musketeers could he??!
Timmy visits Avantan Castle
“We have a friend who owns a castle, do you want to visit it?" “Of course I do!" Avantan Castle on the north of Poitiers was bought as a run down ruin. The owner had spent loads doing it up beautifully and renting it out to groups or to single night visitors. Sadly he wasn't in when we called by. And he didn't appear in the next hour as I sketched. So enjoy this instead and tell me which you prefer.
Timmy in his twin town
What a welcome! 800kms from home I rode into my twin town of St Benoit to be met by Dominique Clement the mayor. Thank you for a fabulous welcome and a spectacular banner! Are you sure it doesn't mean go away Timmy!?
The welcome at my twin town…
Or is it an instruction?!!
The sun always shines on TV
Woo, that's weather. It lashed down all day. There was an hour or so when it paused and I'm reminded that this is springtime. The wind in my face, the rain coming sideways, ooh this was a tough day. I said farewell to my twin town St Benoit, and cycled south west on the chemin de Tours. Komoot plotted me a great route on quiet roads, in Saint Savante the library was open and worth a look inside. Painted ceilings, ornate furniture and kids and seniors playing games together. What a little treat. But the rain didn't stop. This was a wild wet day. The blessing came at the end. I met my first pilgrim. Gretel from Ghent. Staying at the alberge.
Reasons to undertake this big adventure
This pilgrimage route to the tomb of St James the Apostle has been around for a thousand years. And in another thousand years someone else will be doing this. Pilgrims are leaving home and putting themselves into the unknown whilst trusting in their own abilities and fortitude.
Life is made up of so many variables and our spirituality is one of them. My dear Down’s Syndrome big brother Martin is my inspiration to make the most of every day and to reach my potential. Despite Downs Syndrome, Dementia and learning difficulties, Martin never ceased to make the most of every day. We have shared our lives together. Martin passed away at the start of March. I am carrying him in my heart, and his name tags in my pocket to remind me every day that all I have to do is be the best Timmy I can be. And that’s my Camino de Santiago. Six weeks or so during spring time, the new beginnings of the year, to see what is going to happen.
The unexpected Library
I came across this impressive building in a tiny village. It looks like one of those scary horror homes in the movies. It's open briefly for a few hours a week. Today it just happened to be open hours. Inside were frescos on the ceiling and ancient original furniture. And seniors and kids enjoying each others company playing games. What a treat.
A minute's silence
The gendarme volunteered his own life for the hostage. In last week’s terrorist attack in the south of France this man was courage we exemplified. “You can die in your struggle against France. Well I can die for my country” he said as he offered to change places with the hostage. The terrorists accepted and then shot him. It’s affected everyone. Such manifest courage seems unusual these days. So there was a minute’s silence across France. I went to the Gendarmerie to watch, it was very moving.
Why am I doing this big adventure?
Timmy pushes on with his journey in strong winds and heavy rain.
Meeting the Vicar General
It sounds like a military figure – the vicar general – turns out he's the Archbishop's fixer. It was a pleasure to spend an hour with Jean Paul Russeil at the Archbishop's palace in Poitiers. We talked of St Hillary, and his pal Saint Martin, the confessional visit that led to the building of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre and he signed my pannier. Turns out there are 15 Archbishop's in France which sounds like overkill when we are quite happy with two. It was fun to test him on where they all were and naturally there were several that he couldn't remember. Well would you remember Besancon? Me neither! He joins the French President and prime minister in supporting my efforts through France on the Camino. Can't have too much support…
Why do you wear a tie cycling?
It’s a strange thing to wear at any time but cycling? Are you nuts Timmy? Of course I am. When I went to Christchurch Oxford to meet the bishop for his blessing for this trip, the Porters in the lodge gave me a Christchurch tie. What a great good luck charm! My big Brother Martin loved to wear his suit and tie to special occasions like weddings, church, going to the office, the shops, mowing the lawn etc.
In fact Martin was always the best dressed Mallett of we three brothers. I thought it would be fitting to follow his example and wear the tie to Santiago. Glad I did, the Bishop of Winchester is an alumni of Christchurch and was very keen to know what I’d read there. Well I read the menu in the canteen…..Turns out there are 15 Archbishop's in France which sounds like overkill when we are quite happy with two. It was fun to test him on where they all were and naturally there were several that he couldn't remember. Well would you remember Besancon? Me neither! He joins the French President and prime minister in supporting my efforts through France on the Camino. Can't have too much support…
How about a little meander?
Melle is a lovely town with a world heritage Romanesque church, favourite spot of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. Incidentally it's Richard the Lionheart's anniversary today – the day he met the man with the pan at Chalus and got an arrow through his shoulder. Gangrene set in and a week or so later he was dead. On that cheery note I stopped to draw the church and then headed on meandering between my pre planned route and the chemin de St Jacques way markers. It's a lovely flat route and out of the wind and the rain a real bonus. The road goes through many pleasant valleys and the rivers are exceptionally full. They've had all their winter rain this month. Aulnay has another world heritage church but as I'm finding all along this trip it also has unpredictable opening times for the tourist info and pilgrim hostel. Onto St Jean D'angely where Easter has arrived and everywhere is booked out. It's a motel by the motorway tonight then.
Daniel came to interview me for the regional paper. He arrived bringing macaroons and when asked what he’d like to drink said ‘Pernod please’. Crikey! The interview naturally went swimmingly….
Martin Mallett Moment
Found you a spot in the spotlight Brother Martin And the ladies are arranging the flowers for you.
Cling film day
Set off in rain, the short that lasts all day. Cling film wrapped around my shoes… Poncho on….. An hour later as I left the pretty town of St Jean D'angely the sun came out and it was April showers along the way of St James. Tried the track. All that rain made it tricky and muddy. Went for the road instead. Not without visiting some highlights along the route into the Roman city of Saintes. There I had big surprise. A visit from my pals Steve and Lorraine bringing goodies from Mrs Mallett and more painting materials. Bother. Now I'm overloaded again.
The lantern of the dead
It seemed fitting to find myself at Fenioux – the lantern of the dead. This is a huge church with spire and a matching stone lantern nearby. The church has fabulous carvings around the door and nicely weirdly a spare door on one wall that is set above ground level! Investigating the lantern revealed an door and a narrow set of steps to climb. Of course I’ll do that. Why is it there? What’s it for? I think it’s for the inquisitive to go explore and contemplate and leave their mark somehow.
Discovering new towns
Saintes is a dream city on the Charente half way between Poitiers and Bordeaux. The Romans liked it and built the usual, an Arc De Triumphe, and amphitheatre and a temple or two. Later the locals used the stone for their churches and castles. Either way it’s still a fabulous city on the Camino De Santiago. I stayed a couple of nights with French friends Philippe and Anne Brizzard. “We are out at work, let yourself in, have a shower, explore.” The old town is pedestrianised full of lovely shops and a good place to people watch. Philippe and I took to our bikes to explore. The blue door was where she lived growing up. The river is in flood. Thanks for a great stay and for showing me your fabulous city of Saintes!
Today my great host Philippe took me around the ancient city of Saintes. We had a brother Martin moment for Easter in the crypt of St Eutrope. Perfect spot. To the Abbey of Dames where Philippe and Anne we married as childhood sweethearts 40+years ago. There was the flooded Charente to admire and the day warmed up nicely. The Chemin De St Jacques is well marked across Charente-Maritime.
In St Leger they've built a stunning pilgrim shelter. It really is a highlight. How generous to build something like this for passing pilgrims. Pons has an ancient castle that I enjoy painting, and a pilgrim statue on the outskirts where I saw my first signpost to Santiago. Only 1200 Kms to go! Not half way yet. Met a couple of pilgrims on the way. A first for us both. Through the ripening oil seed rape fields heady with scent and into the Gironde region that proudly boasts wine wine and wine. An old railway line took me to the outskirts of Blaye and a fabulous place to stay near St Martin Lacaussade. Long ride. Great day.
The brand new Pilgrim shelter
In the village of St Leger I came across an extraordinary piece of new infrastructure. A pilgrim resting place, a shelter, made out of stone and huge timber Beams with maps and sculpture and a visitor’s book. On the wall details of how it’s been paid for by the regional government, 25k for something that visitors will use once for a maximum of 45 minutes before moving on.
Where could the possible economic benefit be there? That got me thinking….. Cast your mind back…. A lot further than that….. Think back to the golden age of Aquitaine… Eleanor and Richard the Lionheart. The latter years of the 12th century were a golden age for pilgrims on the way of St James. People yearned to travel. They were drawn by their spirituality, and inquisitive nature. They had a passion for art, music, poetry and adventure. The Camino De Santiago was growing in popularity such that a quarter of a million people walked there and back across Europe every year. That is a big boost to any economy and the middle ages thrived on pilgrimage. It also inspired the robber barons who plotted and plundered. Poor pilgrims were often set upon and robbed by organised gangs. They appealed to kings Henry and Richard to protect them.
Which they did. This had a huge benefit to the regional economy. And that brings us back to why a regional government would invest so much money in something for such temporary and transient visitors. I think they believe this will have an economic benefit down the track and encourage more people to visit the area for walking, exploring etc. I certainly want to come back and see how this develops. Fancy that…a second visitor this year straight after me!
I’ve walked a long way then someone passes me on a bike
They were ahead of me on the muddy track. Plenty of rain in recent weeks… I knew they were pilgrims immediately. The rucksacks, goretex gear, the scallops shells: “Bon Camino!” They jumped in surprise. As well they might. Pascal and Francoise had left Brittany on February 9th. Nearly two months later they meet their first pilgrim on the long hike to Santiago…. And he’s a mad Englishman on a bike! There are big smiles, where are you staying tonight? How far have you come today? How’s it going? When do you expect to be there? How will you get home.
This last question produced an amazing answer:
Santander to Cork,
Cork to Roscoff,
Wow, that’s dedication.
Pons is a good place to stop and ponder. Fabulous castle. I could paint that! On the way out of town the usual little Chemin De St Jacques clues… The sign by the door, the circle on the ground. But on the outskirts of town is a big roundabout with an amazing statue of a group of medieval larger than life pilgrims on their traditional dress wide brimmed hat, walking staff, cloak and bag of stuff. Following the chap at the front pointing the way. Always onwards… Keep going…
It’s not far now. Well it is actually. Up the road is the medieval pilgrim hospital. Remember that many ancient pilgrims were walking to Santiago in search of a miracle. A cure for cancer perhaps or help with an ailment. And often they succumbed to the task of walking for weeks on end. At this large hospital where lots of pilgrims would have passed away, there’s a sign beneath the archway. My first sign post to Santiago and it’s a little short of 1200 kilometres. At which point of course, the medieval pilgrim would have turned round and walked home again!
Martin Mallett in a vineyard
The Bordeaux region is wine country. The best red wines in the world come from here and every field is given over to vines. I cycled asking looking at how the tired of vines were interspersed with yellow oil seed flowers. The flavour and the colour served up a dish of delights. This should be a Martin Mallett moment. So it was. Name tag ready, ancient vines ready. I love the fact this season’s wines will have something of the flavour of my dear brother in them…
Gironde and Dordogne
This is the wine region of France. Dating back squillions of years the Romans loved this region's wines and so did the English. For over 300 years, during the Middle Ages, this was English owned. Even today the major foreign owners are English. Reason being? Sunshine, fine wines. Fine wines and sunshine, and fine wines.
Ride the old railway line down to Blaye and the ancient fortress. It's cool pedaling over the cobbled bridge and into the old town behind the walls. I decided to follow the river in the North bank and meandered like the Chemin De St Jacques through vineyards and vineyards past the junction of the Dordogne and Gironde rivers to the bridges at St Vincent De Paul. There are at least four bridges in less than a mile and they are spectacular. Bordeaux gets better and better the closer into town. I followed the tram lines into the city centre. Great cycle lanes and over the river to the Richelieu inspired south Gate. Through the old gateway into the pilgrim hostel. Which is handy. It's next to the frog and rosbif pub! Happy days.
Imagine your face being seen and admired everyday for over 800 years
All around France are ancient fortresses like this. Citadels they call them and they all have a similar look. Designed by the great military engineer Vauban they are a legacy of that French king who excites derision and admiration in equal measure, Louis XIV, the sun king. He thought himself the embodiment of greatness and built such master pieces as the palace of Versailles. But he was also obsessed with protecting his growing European empire. He wanted fortresses around everything. Look at the coastlines of Normandy, Brittany, Gascony and the land borders with Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.
There are dozens of great fortresses most of which were never attacked until the wars of the 20th century. Blaye has a great fortress. A fabulous subject to paint! And it hides a weird story that connects my pilgrimage to France and Spain and it’s heroes.
The Ancient Fortress
All around France are ancient fortresses like this. Citadels they call them and they all have a similar look. Designed by the great military engineer Vauban they are a legacy of that French king who excites derision and admiration in equal measure, Louis XIV, the sun king. He thought himself the embodiment of greatness and built such master pieces as the palace of Versailles. But he was also obsessed with protecting his growing European empire. He wanted fortresses around everything. Look at the coastlines of Normandy, Brittany, Gascony and the land borders with Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.
There are dozens of great fortresses most of which were never attacked until the wars of the 20th century. Blaye has a great fortress. A fabulous subject to paint! And it hides a weird story that connects my pilgrimage to France and Spain and it’s heroes.
Bridges bring us together
Great bridges inspire us. Down on the Dordogne at the entrance to Bordeaux there at four great bridges in less than a mile. I stood in awe of them. Majestic, everlasting, imposing. They are meant to be impressive and I stood gazing at their size and stature. It was the least I could do to paint them.
The ride to eternity
I began with an inspirational ride through Bordeaux. I saw the massive water reflection along the river, and my first sign for Spain – even though it's still days away. How far away became very clear as the ride continued into the forest with a huge headwind. The way of St James never lets you get lost. The signs are everywhere, just keep your eyes peeled. The huge pilgrim statue gives a weird scale, and I'm feeling rather small in the vastness of this journey. The wind is immense. The track is tough and rough, and adds to the enormity of what I am undertaking. I'm inspired to follow the pilgrim route rather than the main road and wonder if I'll come across any pilgrims. Not a soul. Nobody. Barely a car either. It's as if this is a path to eternity and I'm the only one on it. The lovely Logis Hotel in La Murat is the perfect place to stop tonight. Tomorrow I expect more of the same and some surprises. There are always surprises…
Do you like trees? Because you'll see little else!
The lovely Isabelle at my hotel (Le Grand Gousier) gave me a packed lunch and a big smile to send me on my way. An act of random kindness that was such a welcome boost. At Moustey there are a pair of ancient twin churches – is one of them a spare just in case? And the impressive signpost reading Compostela 1000 kms. Just 1000 kms. Say it quickly it doesn't sound too far.
I stopped for an hour or so to consider this. Am I meant to feel joyous that I'm well on my way, when in fact I felt empty with the fact that it's nearly over. I ate the packed lunch and sketched the churches and had a little Martin Mallett moment. The long straight flat roads then run through ever lasting pine forests. Row upon row of pine trees forever and ever. The occasional tiny village tip their hats to the forests by polladiing their trees in the squares.
Finding accommodation is tricky again. The alberge is closed so I ride on another 20km to Lesperon and share the communal gite with 79 year Hans from Switzerland. I'm his first pilgrim! He's been walking for weeks. And he's carrying 15 kilos – a huge weight. But there is something really comforting this evening about sharing a meal and a bottle of wine together.
The ride through the uniform lines of trees is extraordinary. All the pine trees in all the world appear to be grown in South West France. Black trunks, grey green pine needles, the smell of pine, it’s amazing… And flat!
Has the Archbishop of Winchester been promoted?
Thanks to the French press for their support of my Chemin De St Jacques. I see the Bishop of Winchester has suddenly become an Archbishop. And why not?! Billy asks what league is he playing in now?
Click here to read the article.
Which way would you go?
Did you ever see the film Castaway starring Tom Hanks? He comes to a cross road and he stands and looks at the four directions and he’s unsure what to do. A car drives up and the lady says: “That way’s east, that way’s west, that way’s California and that way’s a long way off to Canada. Good luck Cowboy in making your decision.” This is one of those little moments where you stop and you think: “this is really good, which way am I going to go? It almost doesn’t matter.”
It’s a city that dates back to Roman times when they discovered the healing power of the thermal waters. Today it’s the thermal capital of France. The cathedral had undergone some changes over the centuries. It’s a baroque wonder with a medieval gateway that takes your breath away.
Met my Alberge mate Hans in Taller… There's a great photo opportunity! When I grow up I want to be Taller! Onto the Roman city of Dax and it's thermal baths. I like this town. It feels like a crossroads. My ride brought me the first glimpses of the Pyrenees with snow capped peaks.
It takes your breath away and makes you pause.The Pyrenees. The great barrier to cross before Spain. Along the undulating way I stopped briefly to take a photo of someone's house. A 10 second photo opportunity – It led to a cuppa, a painting and dinner and overnight stay! Wonderful. This has been a magical day. Another act of random kindness that will stay with me forever. I'm in something amazing now. A pilgrimage of encounters. It's never the destination…always the journey… the adventure… the opportunities…. Tomorrow in the rain I hope to make St Jean at the foot of the mighty Pyrenees.
The inspirational photo stop
I left Lesperon on a glorious sunny morning. Met my Alberge mate Hans in Taller. There's a great photo opportunity! When I grow up I want to be Taller! Onto the Roman city of Dax and it's thermal baths. I like this town. It feels like a crossroads. My ride brought me the first glimpses of the Pyrenees with snow capped peaks. It takes your breath away and makes you pause.
The Pyrenees. The great barrier to cross before Spain. Along the undulating way I stopped briefly to take a photo of someone's house. A 10 second photo opportunity – it led to a cuppa, a painting and dinner and overnight stay! Wonderful. This has been a magical day. Another act of random kindness that will stay with me forever. I'm in something amazing now. A pilgrimage of encounters. It's never the destination… always the journey… the adventure… the opportunities… Tomorrow in the rain I hope to make St Jean at the foot of the mighty Pyrenees.
In the Alberge
Along the Chemin De St Jacques there are Alberge for pilgrims. Inside is a kitchen, bathroom, great shower, and a beam lined dorm with sheets pillows blankets. They cost a few token euros a night, I arrived late into Lesperon. The hotel was full, the Chambre D’Hote a few kilometres away. I was shown the Refuge St Jacques and knocked on the door. 79 year old Hans from Switzerland welcomed me in with a smile.
“I’ve been walking from Mont St Michel since February and you are my first pilgrim at an Alberge” he said. We cobbled together bread, eggs, fish fingers, cheese and tomatoes and a bottle of rose. And we talked into the evening, priceless. In the morning he set off carrying 15 kilos on his back! He’s walked the Camino six times, he’s someone who reached his potential every day. This is a good place for a Martin Mallett moment. I left his name tag in the beams of the dorm. “You me.” God bless you Martin.
In the foothills of the Pyrenees
It's lush and fertile in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Everything grows. Because of course it rains… Not all the time. But when it does, it lets you know. My ride took me past Ancient Abbeys, a Saturday market, the cherry blossom ready to be painted, multi lingual road signs, spring blooms everywhere, old railway lines, up and down hills, into St Jean Pied De Port and the pilgrim capital of France.
My thoughts meandered today, just like the road. I began with Richard the Lionheart in the village I'd stayed in and then went shopping for delicious local foods in the market. There was an ancient abbey surrounded by cherry blossom. very difficult to capture in paint especially as the rain began. Called in on an old abbey and I'm noticing an increase in pilgrim signs.. After St Paul there's a way marker for the meeting of 3 Camino routes from across France. It's rather disappointing… and then I realise that in fact it's fitting as the rain closes in and the winds gets up. This is not a jolly. This is tough. In fact the final part of the ride today is filthy wet and treacherous. It's a long slog on busy roads into St Jean Pied De Port. The busy, bustling medieval town full of damp and soggy pilgrims searching for shelter. They are about to start their big adventure. I've been on the go for weeks.. Next stop the Pyrenees… The forecast is…
St Jean Pied de Port
The tiny old town of St Jean at the foot of the pass over the Pyrenees is small enough to fit in your pocket. It’s basically a steep cobbled street or two between three ancient stone gateways. It feels as if you are coming into an ancient time zone. I’d ridden up and over the hill from the next village past the ruined citadel fortress. And instantly I’m transported back to the early middle ages as I came through the gate. Narrow street, bumpy cobbles, Camino market in the roadway. A gateway wide enough for two people…. Just. Down the steeply curving Street with adverts for hebergements, alberges, refuges, pilgrim gear I came to the Pilgrim Office. Wet and dripping pilgrims queued to ask questions. What’s the path over the pass like? What’s the weather forecast? Where will I stay tonight? Everyone has a different budget. The two girls from Germany want to pay 10 euro, the man from Wales wants some comfort tonight in a hotel.
Maddi takes her list of accommodation and starts ringing for me. Some places are yet to open for the season, some are full, others not what I want or are too far out of town. They are all volunteers in the pilgrim office and do a week at a time. All with a smiling face and happy to answer the same dumb questions over and over. “When I was growing up in this town,” she said, “we hardly saw any pilgrims.” “Now there are thousands every year.” Possibly 100,000… I stay with Franck (from St Malo) and Patrizia (from Italy) the smiling couple who met two years ago walking the Camino. Now they run this pilgrim refuge with smiling faces and big encouragement. The was room for the bike, nice bed, good showers, washer dryer and good meal. Entertaining multi national company, eight of us in total. Happy days and just what I needed to set off over the Pyrenees. Thanks St Jean.
What's the weather like on the Camino?
It is, as I keep telling people, not a jolly… There is always weather you contend with, to begin with snow and Arctic cold. Last week biblical rain that Noah would have loved. This week sunshine and wind. Full on in your face headwind without a break, I cope with it by staying in the moment and just pedalling. Nothing else to be done… “Just keep swimming” said Dory in Finding Nemo. Just keep cycling I say. Dream big and your life will be big.
The ride of my life!
The Pyrenees… In the relentless rain… Come on then. After a morning painting in the shelter of the Alberge, hoping the rain will stop, I finally leave the comfort of my Alberge and kind host Franck. I head out of the steep walls and streets of St Jean Pied De Port through the archway to the mountains. Cobbled stones. Pilgrim signs. Buen Camino! It's up….and up….and up. Soon I'm leaving France and into Navarre. Following a route kings and princes and humble pilgrims have taken for centuries…I stop for a sandwich. It's a mistake. That's not a sandwich, that's cheese between bread. The road climbs, and climbs and climbs. Hairpin bend after hairpin bend. There are countless cascading streams and then snow.
Mountains steaming in the clouds. Soon it was time to say “Au Revoir” to France and “Hola” To Spain. The climb was relentless. The E-bike was amazing. It just gives more power to the pedal, round each hairpin bend with taxis shooting past, carrying dispirited pilgrims who can’t manage it. I passed three cyclists pushing. “E-bike” I called out… Encouragingly. The E bike is amazing. You drop down the gears and just pedal, patience gets you there and at the top, I still had 50% of my power left. Through the snow and then three hours later through the mist, the chapel at the top of the pass came into view. It’s the most amazing feeling to cycle up one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Talk about reaching your potential. This is a day that will live with me forever! I am so proud of my achievement. And I topped it off with a Martin Mallett moment. Ma bubba.
Three hours or so later I reach the pass. As high as Scafell pike, Snowdon, not far short of Ben Nevis height. I've pedalled up the Pyrenees. The sense of achievement is profound. I've reached my potential! There's a moving Martin Mallett moment at the summit. Then into Roncesvalles and the monastery for my stamp in the pilgrim passport. My pal Gary calls me he's in Pamplona ready to start his Camino. Shall I? So it's off again for another 50 kilometres to the capital of the region. And as I descend the mountains the sun comes out! Along wonderful fast empty roads with glorious views and warm sunshine. I'm in the zone. This is cycling. I come into the city of Pamplona along the flooded River. We meet at the bull ring and it's an emotional moment. I'm with my oldest pal and biking inspiration on this amazing adventure. And today I did it… Let's head to Hemingway's bar for a beer.
Foothills of the Pyrenees
The undulating rolling foothills of one of Europe’s great mountain ranges…. It’s a joy….. Until it rains biblical rain. This is a winter which doesn’t want to end and the weather has it in for the cycling artist.
This is a city famous for a mad week every July when the foolhardy take on the famous bulls to run the streets and try and escape death… Or worse! The great way to arrive in Pamploma is by bike along the side of the river. When I arrived the river was in flood and the path often submerged. It brings you right to the great of the city under the walls. Up advice is the huge stadium of the bulls and the cathedral. It’s not certain which is more important to them.
The promenading in the square in the evening as joy to watch and I was glad to make it two nights here. Partly to recover from several strenuous day’s pedalling and partly to bask in my own sense of achievement after climbing the Pyrenees on my E-bike. Either way. Some culture and inspiration was very welcome. I met my friend Gary here. He’s about to start his Camino and even though we are doing the she route this is such a personal journey we will cycle separately and meet up as and when.
I always ask the nice people at the tourist office what their favourite view of their city might be. In this case they did along the city walls… So that’s where I headed. I set up paints, brushes and board and began to work…
The rain in Spain falls mainly on….me!
After a day of recoverery I Left Pamplona on the Camino and headed for Alto del Perdon – the hill of forgiveness. The track was very rutted and had a running river down it, so after some treacherous muddy kilometres I chose the tarmac instead and was happy to do the detour up to the giant wind turbines. You know you are in a windy spot when you see these graceful turning in the breeze. Or whirring like demons in the freezing rain and gale force winds. That’s what was happening as I made my way up there. Alongside the turbines is a fabulous set off iron pilgrim statues. Stunning in any setting; here they had another eerie quality. The mountain is called Alto Del Perdon – the hill of forgiveness. Forgive me, it’s not a place to stop more than a moment.
But the wind and the rain and cold were relentless. I've never felt anything like it. By far the most difficult day I've encountered so far. The wind was so strong it blew the bike off it's stand. Coming down from the pilgrim statues I was accutely aware of cross winds and anxious about the balance on the bike. Then head winds so strong I had to pedal furiously just to go downhill! A two hour hot chocolate break didn't make much difference. I thought I might dry out or at least thaw? Hardly… I made the detour to the octagonal church at Enuate – and then into Puerto del Reiner. This is a nice town, I'm soaked to the skin…. Called it a day at the little hotel. Need to dry everything. Even though It’s a favourite photo stop along the Camino today… People hurried past. One pilgrim in his kilt! It feels like end of the world. I left a Martin Mallett name tag on the post. He’s there blowing in the wind.
Don't miss the village Church
Every village has a church and on an adventure like this I find I can’t go past without taking a look. Is it the history? The special story? The architecture? It can be anything. Take today. I was just as interested in getting out of the rain. But the was the rare octagonal church dating back to the 12th century, the unusual medieval crucifix with bent cross. The lacework in stone on the ceiling. The detail in the alabaster figures, the drama in the carvings of the crucifixion. The poetry of the skyline made dramatic by the church towers. They add so much to our communities and we take them for granted. Yes, I can’t cycle past without taking a glance inside. I’d hate to miss another treasure!
Water into wine
Remember the story of Jesus turning water into wine. It's another miracle along the way of St James! Just outside Estrella is a monastery with winery attached. Take your choice. Water or wine, or both! My ride took me over medieval bridges through vineyards and wild landscapes. Lots of hills, which are no worries to me on my e-bike! I enjoyed the little gems of villages along the way. The Camino is getting busier now. 70 pilgrims on the road today.
At least the deluge forecast didn't happen. Just the occasional shower and deep dark thunder clouds. The wind as usual is a test to my balance. I'm constantly aware of the weight on my bike. 20 kilos plus the bike itself. 2 full panniers, my paints and boards and a day bag. I notice how the afternoons become quieter as the pilgrims stop off at their accommodations. I like the changing light and the winding roads leading onwards through Rioja country. Deep dark clouds…threatening then clearing. I'm locked into the moment. Millions of moments. Noticing every bend in the road and knowing that if I never pass this way again I can recall every bit of it. And I can.
What does a bike ride have to do with Brexit?
I was cycling the Camino track and enjoying the constantly changing landscape. One of the highlights is the Van Gogh yellow oil seed rape and it’s overpowering perfume. In the south of France I saw acres of it, here in northern Spain in Navarre it grows wild along the roadside. That got me wondering…
This is the start of my 5th week. In Viane I met my first cycling pilgrim. Marianna from Holland. Mariann has pedalled on her own from Holland and her smiles are hugely encouraging. Viane church had the most impressive carved doorway and outside is the burial spot of Cesar Borgia a 16th century son of a Pope. (Didn't think the Pope had kids!) The ride into Logroño is glorious and cold. There's Snow on the mountains all along the horizon and oil seed rape lines the route in electric yellow.
The sun finally came out at midday and I painted from the back of the bike. It's a majestic entrance to the city and I'm pleased to capture it. The Museum of Rioja is a little provincial gem, and the lanes out of town wind around a lake giving great views through vineyard after vineyard. Quaint towns on each hill beckoned me in to discover more stunning churches and narrow streets. The e-bike is brilliant and handles the different gradients and terrain easily. I am so impressed with it. Blue mountains, white snow, yellow fields, Apple blossom, it's a spring like paradise today. Guess what I'll be drinking tonight?!
Roosters in the Cathedral
This is my favourite story along the way of St James. In Santa Domingo Cathedral is an ornate hen house with two live roosters in it! Why? It’s a story of sex, miracles, and incredulity. Santa Domingo was a good deeds monk from a thousand years ago. He built a bridge over the river and a refugee for poor pilgrims. In the middle ages a German family stopped here overnight.
The Inn keepers daughter fancied the hot teenage lad Hugonell. When he turned her down, she was hopping mad. A woman scorned type of thing. She hid a silver cup in his bag and reported him. The evidence was compelling and he was hung. When his parents got through the crowds they found him hanging there – still alive. “Santa Domingo saved me,” he gasped. And they hurried to the mayor who scoffed: “‘your lad is as alive as my dinner….”
And the roast chickens on his plate promptly jumped up and crowed! Yikes! Good tale. It led to a saying: “Santa Domingo where roosters crow after they’ve been roasted.” Wonder what happened to the inn keepers daughter? Hope she got her just desserts. Meanwhile they remain in the cathedral to this day…. Two roosters in their special hen house.
It rained again. That's not a surprise. The track led out to the edges of Rioja country and I was inspired by the vast empty landscape ominous under a threatening sky. The main N120 road is not to be recommended but the track alternatives are a delight (if muddy). Found an old ruined chapel for a Martin Mallett moment and came across storks nests on top of ancient churches and chimney attacks. Now that's recycling! Lots of miles to go. Into Burgos at the end of the long and challenging day.
Love the ancient city of Burgos. Great cathedral, El Cid, I felt that I needed some time to absorb it and have a rest…be a trourist. Then started to get itchy feet, and needed to get going again. So I cancelled my second night in the hotel and set out late afternoon along the track. Funny how my spirits rose as I pedalled. The villages are tiny. There's something about the big skies and small villages that has even more impact that the big cities.
You think the big city is the gem to aim for, but in fact it's the smaller villages that bring you the most.There are some for delightful climbs and big descents. I met some mountain bikers on the way. After three hours I stopped at the village of Hontanas at the best alberge in the Camino. Secure bike lock up, heated floors, small dorms, individual power points, great restaurant and all for the price of 8 euros. This is perfect!
The plains of Spain
The little village of Hontanas was my start point after an enjoyable morning painting and I followed the Camino walker's track all day. I met my second cycling pilgrim. A Hungarian lady on a fold up city bike! Sometimes rough and muddy, sometimes smooth and wide, it is always challenging. There was plenty of rain to keep me company. I can count the number of non rainy days on one hand.
I passed the ruined abbey of St Anton and stopped to do a watercolour. The rain forced me to move on to Casteljeriz to dry out and continue the painting in the dry. There's a monster climb up 10% – thank heavens for the splendid Giant E bike. Such climbs are not an issue. Coming down was 18%! Glad I have good disc brakes. Across the Meseta, the plains of Burgos, it's a wild, empty, windy landscape with a thin line of muddy track to follow. Featureless. Relentless. Stunningly lonely. The only company are the troll like figures in their ponchos trudging across the world, heads bowed into the never ending wind and rain.
Through some pretty little villages with storks on every church tower. Many churches dating back a thousand years. There's a lovely Martin Mallett moment in the church of St Martin in Fromista. I'm tempted to stay here the night but the light is good, I'm still in the zone so on I go. Finally into Carrion de Los Condes where I met Freddie the American, single handedly renovating an 11th century chapel! This will do. The plains of Spain… That should be a song… Oh it is. And the rain in Spain falls mainly on where? So show me how plain the plains are and if they ever get wet…
A relief to see civilisation again
I stopped and painted when I saw the distance church. It was a relief to know I was about to see civilisation again.
Martin in St. Martin's
I came across a famous St Martin’s church in a place called Fromista.
Looks just the place for a Martin Mallett moment.
Let’s take a look…
My ride didn't begin until after a haircut from a barber who won the lottery but kept on cutting! Then there was a painting opportunity with the spring blossoms of attractive Carrion De Los Condes. The straight Roman road after that was full of pilgrims. I counted over a hundred in the first hour. It's a never ending straight road. Flat and featureless. Sahagun is an ancient Roman city with a stunning gateway. It's also officially the half way point though I'm well past that, having started from home. I've already cycled 2000 kms. Late afternoon sunshine took me to El Burgo Ranero where I'm meeting Stevie at the Hotel Piedro Blancas to give him completed paintings and collect more boards. Hey, it didn't rain today!
The barber of Carrion
There’s a lot of pleasure in having your hair cut somewhere new. How about a different country where we don’t speak the same language? This barber is next to my accommodation and he’s just won the lottery! 50,000 euros. That’s his share of the winning syndicate. So I went in and watched as he took great pride with work. It was my turn….. Ola, haircut please… Qué???
And he began. A tape around my shirt to stop the bits going down my neck. Clippers, followed by cut throat razor. Keenly sharpened and tidy. Scalp massage, scissors, combing, brushing, trimming, checking, grooming, tidying. 20 minutes later and I’m feeling a smart man about the bike again. Cost? 9.50 euros. Bargain. I’m going again.
Martin Mallett and the legions
It’s half way along the Camino, but only if you start at Roncesvalles in Spain. As I started at home in England I’ve already cycled 2000 kilometres. Sahagun is an ancient Roman city and its gateway is truly astounding. Add it’s been here for 2000 years, I’m quite confident a Martin Mallett name tag in there will last for some time. Let’s see shall we?
Was woken up by the braying of a donkey. Cute. Must be Blackie the donkey. I went about 300 metres and found the perfect spot to paint early morning reflections on the lake. The road is delightful. Empty of cars for 25 km and the Poplar trees give a lovely sense of scale. Purple lavender or a heather in abundance by the roadside. There was a market in one town and lots of opportunity to people watch.
Then I met the donkey again with two French men walking with it to Santiago. Donkey's name is Salome and it was such a treat to meet a pilgrim on four hooves. “What happens to Salome when you get to Santiago?" Pause…. “Sausages!" Then the ride into Leon. That's a challenge and the traffic is rotten. Leon is a stunning city but like all Spanish towns it shuts between 1 and 4pm.
So I didn't stay. I headed past the parador and got stuck alongside the N120 for the rest of the afternoon. It's a wretched road and you can't escape the traffic. There's a perfectly good motorway alongside but the lorries won't use it, as it's a toll road. Into the pretty village of Hospital D'Orbigo with storks on the roof and the longest bridge on the Camino. Stayed at an artist alberge. Really nice and reflective.
To the highest point on the Camino
Nice morning in the alberge painting. A slow ride in the sunshine over the track with lots of pilgrims. A school party was walking 17km to Astorga. Nice school trip! Found a great spot to paint the Olive Green trees and ochre coloured hills. A herd of sheep blocked my way. Wierd procession caterpillars formed lines 6 metres long. Onto the fruit and drinks stand above the town. Jose was entertaining the pilgrims with his guitar playing. Astorga is one of my favourite towns. A glorious cathedral and museum. Plaza mayor is a treat.
In the growing heat of the afternoon I set off gently up the road through pretty sleepy villages and the road got steeper. It's strange to find myself in hot weather. Where did that come from? It's been arctic conditions forever and now this. It's 17km to the iron cross, the highest point on the Camino. At 1500 metres it's higher than Ben Nevis.
There's a tradition that you bring and leave a stone from home and it was strangely moving to do that. I had brought my own stone from home and a piece of glistening granite for Martin's home in Aberdeen. As I was there at the end of the hot afternoon there were very few other pilgrims around. Then a delicious downhill to El Acebo and my overnight shelter looking across the valley. Feeling very good at the end of today.
The Guardian of the bridge
A great monument deserves a great story. The longest bridge on the Camino is at Hospital D’Orbigo and the story involves a Knight in Armour, a fair damsel and a scrap for love! Back in the middle ages some brave Knight smitten with love for the girl said he’d protect her virtue by challenging everyone who wanted to cross. Hundreds of challenges and fights later he’s still standing! Every year they re-enact the story. I think this bridge deserves a modern day guardian. Brother Martin and I used to play Knights and warriors as kids and I have a great recent photo of him running me through with an invisible sword. Time for a Martin Mallett moment…
Blokes at the bar
I needed a cuppa and a piece of tortilla. I stopped at the bar and sat down to refresh. And standing at the bar were a group of friends putting the world to rights. It was such an easy subject to watch and people watching is one of life’s great pleasures. What are they taking about? Football? Things they should be doing? They were just enjoying each others company and the way they were standing told me these were old friends at peace with each other and the day. Get the paints out Mallett…
Entertaining the Pilgrims
Every person you pass calls out: “Buen Camino!” Which translates as ‘good trip.’ It’s a really encouraging greeting and makes you feel like you are doing something special and worthwhile. “Buen Camino,” we all call to each other. I’m passing several hundred pilgrims a day and it gets more each day the closer I get to Santiago. It’s a greeting as old as the hills and dates back to medieval times. However, being serenaded by a musical local….that’s something new. Jose and his guitar entertained me on the way into town. It’s a wonderfully uplifting moment.
Animals on the Camino
This route passes through lots of rural Europe so you can expect to see animals along the way. I’ve seen pilgrim donkeys, but this was a first. Sheep sharing the road with me. Lots of sheep! Unbelievable!
The iron cross – highest point on the Camino
It’s 1500 metres up to the iron cross in the mountains of Leon. Higher than Ben Nevis. I cycled up it on my lovely Giant E-Bike. You pass by spiritual tributes in the fence and climb and climb. At the top is a huge mound of stones surrounding a tall wooden pillar with an iron cross on the top. Since the early days of the pilgrimage people have carried a stone from home and laid out at the foot of the cross as an atonement for sins. So the pile of stones confess from every corner of the globe. I prefer to use my stone from home as an opportunity to count my blessings. You won’t miss my stone. I painted it! And it may be there hottest day of the year so far but there’s snow up there.
The Winter Camino
This is the second part of the day. After riding down from El Acebo to Pontferrada the battery ran out on my Elemnt. Now it's decision time… The Camino Frances carries on over the mountains instead I decided to follow the lesser known and lesser used Camino Invierno – the winter Camino. It avoids the snow capped peak of O Cebereo and follows lovely valleys through Galicia. It's an ancient route but only very recently sign posted (in the last 18 months) and added to the official list of Caminos across Spain. It begins though with a climb on a rough track that is a lot tougher than anything I've come across recently on the Camino Frances. But soon I'm on the road and going through quiet villages where the sight of a pilgrim is unusual. So unusual the greeting 'buen Camino' is replaced by 'buen viale' after a look of astonishment at a fully laden cyclist coming past.
Delightful ride, stunning scenery. Very few places to stay. The medium sized town on the border with Galicia (Domingo) has one hostel. So that's where I'm staying. All this will change in years to come as the route gets busier and better known. But right now I feel like a pioneer!
In the valley of the river
It's a ride through heaven and for some reason at least 40 miles appeared to be downhill! That of course is after it began with a steep climb on the track. My bike is too heavy (with all my gear for the winter adventure I've been on) so after 3 challenging miles I went back to the road. However, the track gave me brilliant views of the lake and river, and a perfect spot for a brother Martin name tag. The signage on the Camino Invierno is new and very good. In lots of places there are benches to sit on and paint or just admire the view. There's a railway line that runs through the valley. At Sobradela there's an impressive railway station with 2 platforms – 1 and 5! But only 2 trains a day stop here in each direction. There are slate works along the road and wine cooperatives.
The Galician spring has come to life in 2 days. Colourful flowers and blossoms everywhere. It's a delight to cycle this never ending valley. I found myself on the N120 today. This road has followed me since Logrono 500 Kms ago. Once on it I seemed to freewheel downhill for mile after glorious mile, as it wove it's way down the valley criss crossing the river again and again. At Quiroga at 5pm I still had the energy to carry on. It was a much tougher ride in the late afternoon heat. Up hill and down dale for over 20km to the hostel at Pobra de Brollon. Very satisfying day.
The vineyards experience
Morning was spent painting the spring blooms in the garden of my lovely hostel. I am of course the only one staying here. Last week they had 7 pilgrims in total. In two weeks time the hostel will close with the owners retiring. Shame. I will one of their last ever customers. The cycling was made easier today by cloud cover keeping the temperature down.
Among the highlights was the parador at Montforte de Lenos. An old monastery turned into an upmarket hotel. Brilliant. There's a climb through the villages. An opportunity for a Martin Mallett moment at a well and again at an ancient chapel with the bell pull outside the locked doors. Great! Martin was a bell ringer at his church. Perfect. Huge long free wheeling downhill into Belesar on the river. This valley is lined with vineyards and is pretty as a picture.
“Make sure you follow the road right down to the bottom…” Said my hostel host. Bellasar is worth a visit. I was enjoying a pleasant descent which became a 10 kilometre free wheel whizz down through the trees and past a big dam. Suddenly there was a choice. Stay on the road over the massive viaduct to my next town 6 km away or drop down to Bellasar as recommended. I carried on down down down 3 kilometres through a spectacular chasm of vineyards cut into steps across the hillside. Clearly this valley is a sun trap. It’s beautiful. White walls, tiled roofs, and ancient stone steps. At the bridge over the river there’s only one option, climb up steeply the other side. Make sure you look down! It's a fabulous steep climb up 4kms with the vineyards all around. No problem for my Timmeeeee bike. At Chantara the rain struck. Just the wrong time for continuing another 20km to the next accommodation possibility.So I cut short the ride and I'm now 100 Kms from Santiago. Tomorrow a big push…
The road is long… Santiago beckons
Galicia was a joy to pedal through today. A unique and impressive roadside memorial led to a special brother Martin moment early on. Lots of weird looking huts on mushroom shaped posts. Couldn't work out what they were for but they are a prominent feature of this part of Galicia. Apparently known as Heroes.
Lots of hills as you'd expect, and some big steep climbs too. So much so I decided to give the Timmeeeee bike battery an extra charge over lunch. Glad I did. I didn't realise how important that charge would be. Lots of families enjoying long lunches in every town. It is Sunday after all. I stopped to paint the spring colours and the roadside marker. I planned to stop about 25 Kms from Santiago which would have given me a full days 75 km ride but there's an issue with the promised accommodation along this camino. My guide book showed where the alberges and hostels were to be expected but they were either not there or shut.
I was constantly going on to the next stop. That's when the battery level dropped and my energy level too. I ended up cycling 102 Kms, my bike battery ran down to 1%, the elemnt GPS had to be charged from the bike, and my phone was hovering about 5%. Hmmm not a great technology day. So I ended up in Santiago earlier than anticipated and more stressed than I would have liked. Shower, food, sleep and refreshment will make things look a lot better tomorrow. Now I find myself thinking… Have I really cycled 2430 Kms from home?
Why are roadside memorials so impressive?
I stopped because of the carved figures in this glorious memorial.
With clasped hands in prayer I am reminded of brother Martin…
The Latin certificate
Along the way pilgrims are supposed to get their pilgrim passport stamped to prove they’ve actually done what they claim to have done. I’ve filled up three passports cycling through England, France and Spain. I went along to the pilgrim office. It’s like queuing up at the post office and someone asks lots of relevant questions like:
“Where did you start?”
“What’s the reason for your Camino?”
Then they give you a Latin certificate with your name on and date and send you on your way. Except I had a girl who clearly didn’t care much. Wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in my adventure or the stamps from the bishops and the prime minister, spelled my name wrong and failed to smile. So I stopped her right there and said let’s begin again. Give me a warm smile, congratulate me, write in the distance travelled and spell my name correctly and kindly write it neatly like it’s important… Because it is. If you want the distance travelled, you have to pay three euros. Honestly, you couldn’t make this up! And if you want a tube to put it in that’s another two euros. So here’s my certificate in Latin that says: “You must be nuts to have Cycled all this way!”
The hand of St James and the cathedral of Santiago
I’ve cycled 2430 kilometres (1500 miles) from home to Santiago de Compostela. The target is the Great Baroque Cathedral where the cousin of Christ, St James the apostle is said to be buried. Everyday they say a pilgrim mass for the hundreds of pilgrims who arrive in the city each day. Last year 300,000 finished their Camino at Santiago. The highlight of the pilgrim mass is the giant swinging incense burner – the Botafumeiro – eight men are needed to pull on the rope. They try to get it to swing high across the nave from north to south. It’s spectacular and dates back hundreds of years.
Then the pilgrims queue up to see the tomb of St James. You’ll know from following previous blogs that I’ve revealed not all of St James is in Santiago. His left hand is in England at St Peter’s Church, Marlow. I wanted to take my photos of the hand and reunite them with the rest of him. So I took my photos to the tomb. Then I shared them and the story with the Dean of the cathedral, Jose, and his cathedral archivist and librarian Francisco. We discussed the history of the hand, how it came to be in Buckinghamshire, and how my bishops, prime minister and heads of state and royalty had shown an interest in my story and one of the inspirations for my Camino…
Through Eucalyptus forests to the sea!
This is a fabulous route to the Costa del Morte. It was recommended to me by Fernando the helpful chap in Velocipedo Bicycleta where he gave the bike a service (everything guaranteed for 10 minutes!) and we talked about routes to Finisterre.
He was right. 30 Kms from Santiago and I'm by the sea. Through glorious Eucalyptus trees with their pungent aroma. The road hugs the coastline and out in the bay are mussel beds and the best shellfish in Spain. I'm delighted. This was after a happy meeting with my old Piccadilly radio boss Tony Ingham who completed his Camino from Leon today. It's lovely seeing old friends and great getting back on the bike again after 2 days in Santiago.
The coast of death and the end of the world
The Romans named it the end of the world – Finis Terre. The Galicians shortened it to Fisterre. To the ancients this was it, the spot where the world ended and the infinity of sea began. Nowadays we may understand that America is the next place over the horizon but the idea of the world ending here had a sense of Drama and finality.
For those on the Camino it's a must see spot. Head as far west as you can go and see what happens. I cycled from Muros around the glorious Costa del Morte, bathed in spring sunshine, cooled by strong winds, and lit up in spring colours. Around each headland Fisterre became clearer and nearer. Along the way the villages each gave me a different delight and welcome.
This isn't much as the crow flies or the boat travels but around the coast it adds up to a major day on the bike. Pilgrims joined me as we got closer to our destination. A sense of excitement and anticipation. We are about to reach our furthest point. In the municipal Alberge I received another Compostela certificate. So much more worthy and enjoyable than the occasion in Santiago.
And then I was blessed as she handed me a certificate in Martin Mallett's name. That stopped me in my tracks and was a powerful emotional moment. At the lighthouse I reached the final signpost. The final way marker signifying I'd reached the end. And again for some reason this was a powerful emotional moment. I've seen hundreds of these way markers everyday usually covered in stones.
But this one…
Bare and by the lighthouse.
This one had an impact.
As did the other things to see. The boot where pilgrims burn the clothes, the signpost 'let peace prevail everywhere' I was at the lighthouse the whole afternoon. I'd decided to do a message in a bottle with a photo of brother Martin, his name tag, an Aberdeen piece of granite and some other poignant pieces. I got the perfect blue bottle in a recycling bin earlier in the day. But when it came to casting it into the sea, it was a boomerang bottle! This is a story with a part 2…
Mallett to Muxia
There are 2 spots that compete for the end of the world on the Camino. I started this morning from my lovely Alberge in Fisterre and cycled across the peninsula to Muxia. Along the way it was good to see signposts pointing in both directions!
And arrows marked F and M.
I enjoyed the abundance of Eucalyptus forests and the wonderful smell. They are cultivated as a cash crop and because they are very fast growing there is always work to be done. The weather was more what I'm used to at home. Cloud cover kept the temperature down and when a few drops of rain came in the middle of a painting it was time to put my jacket on for the first time in days. Muxia has an impressive chapel by the sea with enormous waves crashing in on the the rocks. It was a fabulous afternoon. Then I hit the wrong button on my Wahoo elemnt and so the days ride is split in two.
To the end of the earth
It’s the other end of the earth. They are 20 miles apart. And pilgrims tend to have a favourite. Finisterre for the Lighthouse and cape. Muxia for the Chapel and the waves. It is relentless, with the sea smashing and crashing huge rollers onto the rocks. The sound is all consuming and thunderous. The drama of Muxia is powerful and inspirational. I found a spot for a Martin Mallett name tag. And enjoyed climbing through the rock that is supposed to cure back ache! I enjoyed both places for their variety and now I can comfortably turn for home and head to Santander and the ferry 10 days cycling away.
Time to turn for home
There's something about turning your back on the west and heading the other way for home. Let's be clear. Home is still a long long long long long way away. And will take me nearly 2 weeks. But now I've turned my back on the end of the earth… And headed back through the Eucalypt forests. I'm on my way to Santiago and beyond. On this little ride I noticed how the way markers split. One sign points to Muxia. The other to Fisterre. I've been to both. It's time to head for pastures new.
Yippee! It's football day.
I've found the stadium at Muxia FC and a ball. Who's up for a game by the sea?
Misty morning in Galicia made a lovely subject for painting. I spent a busy morning with the paints enjoying the ever changing light. I rode through the hills stopping to chat with people working the land. I came across Marco the Frenchman who's been walking the Camino from his home in Picardy since October…
In Santiago a bike issue with my front brake pads sent me to Decathlon where they replaced the pads. Then I was caught in a torrential hailstorm on Mont Gosso by the statue of the pilgrims. This is usually the first sight of Santiago for pilgrims. For me it was the goodbye view. I left a Martin name tag pinned to a tree overlooking the city. Onto Pedrouso where Carmen and Jesus live, the parents of Andy Fernandez (my friend from home). Carmen kindly waited in the rain for me! What a great welcome! Lovely!
How popular is the Camino?
In the middle ages something like a quart of a million people walked the Camino from their homes. They would cross Europe and head for Santiago De Compostela and then turn around and walk home again. It was a huge mammoth sea of people. In the 19th century the pilgrimage almost completely died out. And then something happened about 30 years ago, people started rediscovering the Camino again. It’s become one of the biggest things in the world. Less than a decade ago the were 100,000 a year ,last year well over 300,000. Numbers are continuing to grow as people hear about it and want to test themselves. Every day from the end of February until November at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, people set off up the Napoleon pass on a 6 week trek.
In the height of the season over a thousand a day. But then numbers grow as you get closer to Santiago. They say you have to walk or cycle at least 100kms to get your certificate, so from Sarria onwards the numbers can be over 3,500 a day, all looking for a bed for the night and a unique experience.
The Pilgrim motorway
It's been a very wet day. Stayed with the lovely Fernandez family in Pedrouso and left after a painting morning and a bit of lunch… The track was full of pilgrims. Hundreds on the dash to Santiago, I counted over 700 in a couple of hours. I found it easier cycling on the road, then the hail started, and I had to shelter in a bus stop. The walking pilgrims look amazing covered from head to toe in enormous ponchos that make them look like trolls. It was so wet I called it a day at Melide. Now looking at the daunting map with all those hills between here and Oviedo… Is this a good idea to take the Camino Primitivo??
I've been anxious about the Camino primitivo. Everyone raised their eyebrows and talked of hills and difficulties… So leaving Melide this morning in the lashing rain I felt distinctly uneasy. Funny how concentrating on the moment reduces your fears and gives lots to enjoy. A watering stop provided free by the residents, with their planted boots next to it. The road climbed through lovely woods and evidence of farming.
After yesterday’s 700 pilgrims on the afternoon, today I saw less than 100 and George from Marbella stopped me in great discomfort. Acid reflux. I had something for him at the bottom of my bag and gave him enough for 4 days, together with a banana and a swig of whiskey from my little hip flask. George was a very happy pilgrim after that…
I came to a little church with a bell that needed ringing. Cue a brother Martin name tag on the big tree and some initials carved into the bark… In Lugo I visited the football stadium. The team are in league 2 and they kindly gave me a couple of pins for my tie.
I met a special pilgrim friend for lunch. Gretel from Ghent was the first pilgrim I met after several weeks travelling. I met her 5 weeks ago in Melle and here we are with our paths crossing again. Gretel will be in Santiago in a couple of days and flies home on Monday. The same day I hope to catch my ferry from Santander. She’s been an inspiration and an encouragement on what’s app so it was lovely to share a lunch together and I gave her a little water colour to remember our Camino. Lugo is a wonderful Roman city with walls 2km long.
Onto Castraverde with me realising that every pilgrim I meet is going the other way. All the sign posts are Backwards for me. Actually meeting pilgrims face to face (rather than seeing their back view first) means you meet with a smile and are more likely to stop and chat. And that’s my first day on the primitivo….