Monday, April 18, 2011

Day 9. Rabanal del Camino to Cacabelos (48 km)

Last night it started raining. I could hear it from my bunk at the hostel. Fortunately the sound stopped after a few minutes and I slept the sound sleep of the ignorant. It had stopped raining because it had started snowing! When we got ready to go in the morning the whole world had turned white! Well, if you must, you must. So we got on our way . . . wait . . . my front wheel was a bit low, so I had to pump some air in it. Raúl was of the opinion that we should change the inner tube right then and there, but I was eager to start and poo-pooed the idea. Famous last words!

We got on our way, on foot, pushing the bikes against a freezing head wind. The slope was too steep for us to ride, so we walked, and walked, and walked, all the time pushing the bikes up an 8% slope. Then I realized that there were little bubbles coming out from every little crevice on the front wheel. Rats! I hate it when Raúl is right!

By this time we were close to the pass, and we were facing a serious gale that, blowing through the pines, chilled us through the bone. Fortunately we found a frozen town near the crest, and after forcing our way into an abandoned porch we were able to shelter ourselves out of the wind to change the inner tube (a 3-ring circus in itself, because the crappy wedges the rental company had given us would bend each time we put any stress on them).

We pushed on. Exhausted and chilled to the bone, we faced what had now turn into a blizzard that was sweeping the crest of the high mountains. We were tired beyond tiredness, and pushed on out of pure piss and vinegar, neither of us willing to admit that we were dead tired or stone cold. The landscape was surreal. The kind of icescape one would expect in the exploration of Antarctica. But we pushed on, laughing and taking pictures, while our limbs became numb with the cold. Finally we made it to the top, and from there we could ride the bikes. But it was like riding down from the high Sierra, with the cold wind biting our faces, legs, arms, and hands. Crossing the mountains has never been for the faint of heart, but this time we outdid ourselves.

Of course, there is a certain reward to doing feats of courage in Europe. A mesón is never too far away, and we did find one 10 kilometers down the road, in a small hamlet called El Acebo (16.5 km). As soon as we walked in, the friendly bar woman placed big plates of steaming soup in front of us, and at my request warmed some wine with sugar and orujo (the local Schnapps) in the microwave, and a few minutes later we were able to thaw from the inside out. I could have stayed there forever, in this small warm heaven inside the frozen wilderness of the Cantabrian mountains.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, so after an hour of heaven we went out there, to brave the elements. By then, however, the furies had relented, and all we saw were the last flecks of snow turn into a light, cold rain. Incidentally, while we were there we had adopted a young Spaniard, who was freezing on the bike, so we jerry rigged some plastic gloves for him with an old supermarket bag, and shepherded him down the mountains until the slopes became more genteel, just as we reached the town of Molinaseca (25 km). Nice town, Molinaseca, with a narrow “Main Street”, and very nice views over the river.

Eventually we made it to Ponferrada (31 km), where we saw the castle of the Knights Templar, and the Basilica of the Blessed Mother Mary. Legend has it that one of the Knights Templar came to the town, and inside an old tree trunk he found an image of Mary, and that is why Ponferrada was established. For us it will also be the place where we had another fine meal of rice and calamari cooked in their own ink, some type of veal cordon bleu, and pimento peppers stuffed with fish. And then there was the wine, and the dessert, and the coffee, and the . . . What a civilized place is Spain!

We pushed another 15 kilometers to Cacabelos (48 km), where we found a wonderfully luxurious hotel to recover our strength. We are going to need all the recovery we can muster, because the daily effort is beginning to tell, and we still have 180 km or so to Santiago.

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