Sunday, June 15, 2008

Chaves, Portugal

Friends: Seems that all roads in Spain lead to Santiago de Compostela. As I headed south out of Santiago towards Portugal I passed a trickle of pilgrims nearing the end of their journey, some waving with exuberance. The main plaza in Pontevedra, a sizable city half way between Santiago and the Portugal border, is named Praza de Peregrina (Pilgrim Plaza). One of the streets alongside it is the Rua de Peregrina. The church in the plaza is laid out in the shape of a scallop shell. There was a statue of a pilgrim along the road in another town south of Santiago.

Unlike most who must return to the routine of every-day life upon completion of their pilgrimage, I get to keep going on my own private pilgrimage. The 500 miles of the Santiago route will be less than 10% of the close to 6,000 miles I will bike these three months through Spain and France. My travels have taken me 2,000 miles so far. The pilgrimage is such an intense experience for many, they don't want it to end. I talked to a Canadian cyclist who was still in Santiago a week after he'd arrived, just hanging out in the huge plaza outside the church
greeting arrivals and asking them about their experiences on the Camino. He said he met an Italian who'd hiked the trail every year the past 14 years. The Canadian said he hopes to return and do it again himself. I too would be happy to repeat the experience, not that it altered my life in the way it does many others, but because it was such a rare experience to be amongst so many people who were filled with such joy and ecstasy.

It would be a much more powerful experience to walk the route than to bike it, spending four weeks, rather than one, immersed in the experience, and spending much more time off on isolated trails rather than sharing roads with motorized traffic. It would also be an entirely different experience, though not necessarily more uplifting, sleeping communally, rather than in the privacy of a tent.

I encountered the heaviest traffic of this trip as I left Santiago and followed the coastal route. It made me happy that I decided to avoid the coastal route back along the north of Spain. Coastal towns not only attract vacationers but they blend together and tend to look the same. I did get to take a dunk in the Atlantic and gave a look for the scallop shells that are sold along the route, but all that were to be found were dinky shells no bigger than a fingernail, a fraction of the size of the official pilgrim scallop.

I crossed the Minho River into Portugal without having to pause to show a passport or deal with an official of any sort on either side of the river. I had to quickly learn how to decipher the Portuguese signs. Portugal at first seemed to be a land of greater prosperity than Spain, but
as I dipped further into the country it became a cross between Switzerland and Paraguay. Tidy, stately homes scattered on the hill and mountains sides and towns with upscale stores gave indications of affluence. But there are also symptoms of the third-world--tractors darting out from dirt side roads rumbling along on the paved thoroughfares and the less well-off, bent-over, hoeing their small plots of land. It was hard to tell whether the cobbled streets of some of the towns were a sign of backwardness or of quaintness, until I came to a town where a crew of a dozen or more workers were laying fresh brick-sized cobbles on a several block stretch of the town's main street. They may serve as traffic-calmers and look pretty, but they rank among a bicyclist's worst enemies.

As is common in small countries, there is evident a strong national pride. With the European football tournament underway, the Portuguese are brandishing pride in their team. Flags are everywhere, dangling from balconies and out windows and on their automobiles. There was
none of that in Spain and I doubt I'll see any in France, though I saw a minor surge of it two years ago when France played Italy in the World Cup championship game. And common to small countries that don't attract too many tourists or touring cyclists, the locals respond to me with extra warmth and delight, slowing to wave as they pass and toot their horns with welcome and approval.

I dropped 50 miles to Braga and then turned east for 85 miles to Chaves, choosing the route as the map showed a series of inviting lakes along the way, just what I could use with the warm temperatures. But I didn't realize they were man-made, created by dams, and that the road climbed through a canyon high above all but the last of the lakes, which was beachless and without access. It was warm enough for a plunge, but I didn't really need to, as there were frequent spouts of refreshingly cold spring water flowing from the cliff sides and out of little basins, that I could use for drinking and dowsing.

Now its back to Spain, seven miles to the north and then a long spin across the country to France. Three weeks until Le Tour and not only without defending champ Contador, but defending sprint champ Boonen, who recently tested positive for cocaine in an out of
competition drug test.

Later, George

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