Europe 2015: Cycling From San Sebastián to Avilés, Spain

Another SwissAir flight pulls me away from Turkey, allowing my belly to accommodate even more flight-ending chocolates in the process (I've learned to ask for more - the stewardesses seem all too happy and proud to oblige), and then I'm back in Madrid... where it looks like the predicted boil that I've miraculously missed twice won't be bypassed a third time 'round. Already, lots of folks have bolted the inferno to head where I'll soon be, too - lazing about Spain's North Coast - but I'm game to still spend a last couple days in the big city, something of a final hurrah with Millán and Fayna before dusting off my bike for its second Roll of Glory [TM - All Rights Reserved].

One positive development in my absence that prompts my staying a spell is that Millán's foot has healed, something which allows for some good company in walking about Lavapies during the day. Then on one night, too, us merry three go to check out an outdoor movie - Hablar - with some of M&F's friends. Ah, back to that heavenly flow of salty tapas and beer/wine at cafe tables - YES! (The movie isn't bad, either, an extended one-take of a night in Madrid - Lavapies, actually - with many well-known Spanish actors.) The rest of my Madrid return is spent in similar fashion, setting myself to table at Al-hambra again for some couscous, plus ever more tintos veranos nearby in the 'hood. I'm quite happy to be back in Spain.

Nevertheless, I'm also jonesing to be back on my bike, ride-itchy now after nearly a month and a half spent off the saddle. And the fun will begin exactly as I move to leave Madrid behind, butt immediately meeting seat for the brief ride necessary over to Atocha Station. There I climb aboard a Cercania train to return to Charmartin Station, where the trains to the north leave from - a good thing, since I'll be heading about as north as it gets. That'd be to San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain, coincidentally also practically at the French border, but especially in the heart of Basque Country (which all Basques will remind you straddles both sides of the border).

It takes about 7+ train hours to cover this distance, a convenience I'm not less than ecstatic to enjoy since I won't have to do any of this on the bike. I thank the powers that be yet again that I've got one of the three allotted spots on this Media Distancia train (the fast trains don't allow bikes). Making the ride infinitely more pleasant, en route I meet a beautiful and engaging young woman - apparently an actress on a well known Basque soap called Goenkale - on the train. We while away several hours chatting away, and in Janire I have the perfect company to give me a primer on what's her home turf. What can go wrong in such a scenario? Answer: nothing, except my wishing I were a lot younger so that I could sling her over my shoulder and take her to my cave.

Instead we'll settle on gazing outside the windows of the train as we exchange stories, me of "exotic" travel and her of acting and her beloved Basque country, as the green outside steadily increases. Actually, this terrain rings a rather familiar tune to me, what with my being from the Pacific Northwest (U.S.) and all. Yep, I'm headed to the wet part of Spain, albeit fortunately during its drier months. Here's hoping it's a lot more like Seattle in August (almost guaranteed sun) than Seattle in July (where anything's possible, precipitation-wise). Meanwhile I'm guessing there's a local tradition similar to Seattle's where non-local folks only think about moving here during these brief halcyon days of high summer.

The dictates of a train schedule eventually forces an end to our parade of amicable travel chat, of course; it's unfortunately time to leave behind our picture window and its ongoing backdrop of countryside that's framed our dialogue like a movie screen. We pull into San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) in the early evening, and I say goodbye to pretty Janire. There's no time for lengthy, wistful sighs, though, not when it's time to get back into bike mode. So I give her the pecks goodbye and immediately start with zigzagging about the handsome streets of the town, my legs receiving their first warning to stretch back into shape right from the get-go.

Among other things, such tooling about serves to get an initial feel for this fabled burg, true, but honestly the most important item on the agenda is to slowly readjusting my derriere to its soon to be close companion, a.k.a. my bike's seat. I'm nevertheless quite glad to move at a pace faster than a walk again, so I deftly check out the old town area with its narrow lanes, then use the numerous bike paths about town to run along the beaches for which San Sebastián is famous. Each of the main three areas seems to have a different vibe, with one being more for surfers, another for families, and another (more or less) for some boats to approach - while even hosting something of a tiny nude (well, topless) section in between. This crucial survey complete, I return to the old town to hunt down my friend's restaurant, where he's working as a chef.

It turns out that Kaiola works in one of the older and better known spots in town to get pintxos - the Basque word for tapas, hereabouts - and Kaiola/Xavi (seems like about everything here has both a Spanish and a Basque name, and my friend is no exception) is soon grabbing a massive leg of a pig (or other beast - I don't really know!) hanging down from the ceiling, wrestling it down to cut me off some slices to accompany some red wine. Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout! Waiting doesn't have to mean suffering, that's for sure.

Toward midnight he gets off work, so we head to another pintxo bar for more of the same happy pintxo nonsense while catching up. A friend I made on my last trip to Argentina, Kaiola was a regular along with myself at the Buenos Aires Art Hostel's rooftop bar, where I practiced and sometimes even played music with the house band of sorts. Here he's been doing the chef gig now for some years, learning the art from scratch, yet already his thinking is that this'll be his last tourist season. After running the job to its proper ground, slaving through its denouement into winter, he's thinking of heading to Thailand and becoming a SCUBA divemaster under his friend's tutelage. This all sounds like a grand idea to me, of course, although - to be frank - I'm still rather in the newbie glow of thinking San Sebastián's pretty damned awesome. [Cue the visual of Seattle in December to regain proper focus. Yecch.]

My infinitely less grand travel plan, however, is to take it easy around San Sebastián, at least for starters. I'll take in its highlights on a slow burn, theoretically mentally (and a bit physically) preparing myself for the big ride to come. And yes, I do know what the ride is, finally: I've officially committed myself to following the Coastal Camino to Santiago de Compostella! Well, more or less, anyway. That's where all the foreshadowing in Portugal has gotten me.

Fortunately, and more to the present, my visit here in town is coming at the same time as an annual and notably big jazz festival, the 50th Jazzaldia - one of Europe's biggest. What a lucky and relatively unexpected coincidence - okay, Kaiola mentioned it to me while I was in Turkey - to attend to a pile of pintxos and glasses of red! I quickly put a half-assed plan together of surveying the stages each night, hopefully finding something each time worth giving a listen, and away I'll go.

In practice it works slightly differently, of course, particularly in the case of the main stage which, oddly enough, strangely seems to be more devoted to rock than jazz or world musics. Fortunately this doesn't stop the plan, as a number of acts that take place at the stage behind the main cathedral at Trinidade Plaza fit my bill. This is one of the pay stages, unfortunately where one has to shell out some pretty good coin to get a spot in the small and picturesque courtyard in which the stage lies, but I soon find my way around this in poking around a map. I discover a lane that curls around some buildings which deadends into a spot with a peekaboo view of the stage. Yay me! A handful of others, all locals from the looks/sounds of them, and seemingly all having done this before, join me, so it looks like I'll have to hold off on planting a flag. A few people even sell beers from a cooler, asking a mere Euro as some of us trade off in taking the few spots that have a view of the stage. Most importantly, the sound quality here is perfect, so it's from this vantage point that I'll enjoy several shows. (These include The New Standard Trio (Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow, Bobby Previte), Dee Dee Bridgewater/Irvin Mayfield With The New Orleans Trio (who do a phenomenal House Of The Rising Sun cover), Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Grupo, and Melody Gardot. That a good number of trumpets figure into this is a very happy, only "sort of" coincidence.)

Mostly, though, I stick to my main San S. program of wandering from seafood pintxo to seafood pintxo cafe/bar, moving from one glass of Rioja red to another glass of Rioja red. Often on my bike, I do venture on foot some as well to - on exactly one occasion each - delicately carve a path through the masses, plunking my pale self into the waters of the three main beaches (checking the appropriate box on the "visited" form, naturally). On the bike, meanwhile, I climb up to the few lookouts about town that give spectacular viewpoints. From each of these latter spots I take in to further scope out San Sebastián's unique lay of land, highlighted by its beach crescents fronted by noble buildings and capped by tiny Santa Clara island (which shelters the larger beach area (La Concha) with the port).

One thing's for sure: with the jazz festival going full tilt, plus a sizable bevy of Camino walkers passing through every day (there's a never-ending conga line of them trudging along the shore), in addition to the arrival of fine weather for the Basque Country's brief summer, the party is on. The only shame, really, is that my friend is working like mad on account of this influx of business. So I'm on my own under daylight each day, up until we meet for drinks each night at the bars near his restaurant - which each offer outdoor ledges that squirt out of their walls to accommodate more drunks (I mean clients). Actually, regarding these improvised wall-tables, I learn that this is a relatively recent, local compromise, one which allows for extra table space newly deemed necessary since some smoking ordinances went into effect. The it effectively adds a lot to the street life - albeit under a smoke haze at times - isn't a bad side-effect.

Adding to jam-packed atmosphere even more, I quickly find that the huge number of folks descending on San Sebastián is even reaching Kaiola's shared housing, where I'm staying. It sees an uptick in its resident count this time every year, especially now on account of leasing out a couple of rooms via AirBnB. So I get to know the Brazilian girl with the lap dog who's a bit nutty, but I also get to find that the Swiss woman visiting her family in the area will prove a better person to share some coffee with. The more the merrier.

Thus five days in lovely San Sebastián fly by in a blur of strolls, bike rolls, and an ever present coffee or red-filled glass near a plate of pintxos. But finally comes the time to roll and, with my plan to ride to Slovakia thrown to the wind courtesy of the Schengen Zone stuff, it looks like I'll be rolling my way back to my newly-beloved Portugal. The Camino To Santiago it'll be, and to the camino I now head. Well, sort of. I won't be on THE Camino, the main path or "French Camino". THAT's inland. I'll actually be attempting the second Camino, one of a growing list of Caminos (many with historical backing, some less so) which seems a far more appealing choice. It'll hug the spectacular North Spain Coast, for one thing, and, well, that's all it needs. Just as attractive a prospect as the shore is that I should also always be running into little beach towns with views galore all along the way, so I'm pretty excited to give it a whirl. Of course, and like I hear is the case on each of the Caminos, I know to expect a lot of hills, but when there's something potentially alluring around every corner, who cares? I'm ready for the visual feast! [Meanwhile, as far as recording this eye-popping bonanza, and with the latest of my small, cheap Canon cameras fatally exposed to water in Turkey, it looks like my newish minitablet will have an increased responsibility in being given the full honors of recording this momentous trek of a few weeks.]

I get a late start on C-Day, hanging out with Kaiola until he heads to work. As a parting gift I'm given a can of roasted peppers from his mother's home village, something I'm eager to check out ASAP - if only because the densely-packed thing is a brick (but a tasty brick at that, I'll soon discover). Now evidently outfitted with proper ballast, I get set on my journey westward, beginning my exit from San Sebastián via the bikepaths on the coast. I'm officially now joining the ranks of the Camino walkers - albeit while passing them by at a much more pleasant speed. We nod at each other, but I rapidly lose them in subjecting myself to the road's wiles instead of the coast's (which means that, even in doing the Second Camino, I'm not always even on The Camino). What this means in practical terms is that I'll often head slightly inland for stretches, overall following the coast while not precisely doing so. Other riders, it's worth mentioning, DO go very light, some using mountain bikes to actually follow the Camino more strictly and staying on its paths where allowed. Since I'm far more interested in merely performing a coastal run than wanting to adhere to any regimen of historical accuracy, I don't trouble myself with the extra trouble. And anyway, last I checked, the original pilgrims didn't have bicycles, either! (And this is not to mention lightweight gear, oh noble and historically-pure walkers, starting with those ubiquitous, nylon-wrapped backpacks and flyweight shoes.)

So off I go, if at times stopping to take the odd picture (often done blindly, since the sun won't allow me to make out the tablet's screen - which might make for a lot of digital trash as usual, especially as I throw away most shots, anyway). To the task at hand, leaving S.S. means finding myself heading along the less-traveled road to Orio. This comes in the form of a steady up with the sea not so far to my right, then this is eventually followed by a VERY steep and extended down to curl inland. The road here becomes so steep, actually, that the word "lavadero" has been painted onto the asphalt at its big hairpin turn. "Washing machine" would be correct, too, or "face re-arranger" would be just as apt, should anyone hit that sucker with any speed. It's as hair-pinny as hairpin gets. For the most part, however, that won't be happening, or at least not at this time of day: Almost the only folks I see are riders coming in the other direction, on very high-end bikes and wearing fancy jerseys. It looks like this is some kind of training area for near-death experiences or the Spanish Olympic Cycling Team, I'm not sure which.

In any event I bottom out at Orio safely, cutting through the quaint river town to continue on to Zarautz, Getaria, and Zumaia. Now back along the coast, the traffic zooms way up, with lots of folks hitting the beaches en masse and the towns just jammed with folks getting their drink or ice cream on. I'm not quite ready for either, though, instead next working on the nasty little climb to Itziar that follows - which is further followed by the long descent to Deba. Well, it looks like I've found an up-down pattern, I'm thinking, and then that gets turned on its head when I receive a flatter, coastal run to Ondarroa with its inlet-canal...

...and then it's back to the interior and climbing up, up, up (where I question the logic of those heavy pintxos and accompanying beer in Deba) before the big drop and down, down, down to Lekeitio (where I no longer care when the next pintxo comes). Indeed, by this time I'm pretty beat for my official, full Day 1 back in the saddle, a thought that's soon replaced with that of feeling a bit ripped off when I'm asked to plunk 26 Euros down for a bed at the one hostel I see at the outside edge of town. I guess maybe I DID get a bit too used to Turkey's prices... (26 Euro ain't rare in Europe in a touristed area in season).

In any event, I realize that this has been a bigger first day of riding than planned, already hoping against hope that I won't be prematurely saddle sore from not easing into this ride of weeks. Ah, screw that! Isn't there a beach here? Yes there is, and there's a bit of remaining sun to enjoy, too, so I immediately set to walking and make my way down to this town's rather oddly shaped bit of littoral. At Leketio's harbor/beach shore, waves are rolling in from a couple of sides, the effect of curling around a tiny islet a stone's throw away, while also combatting the flow coming from a river's mouth that drains to the sea also at this spot. The violence resulting in these masses of water crashing into each other at odd angles means that those of us in the water get tossed around a bit willy-nilly - a free ride or an annoyance, depending on one's point of view. As for me, I say it's a ride, finding a bright side in how it makes for some interesting and unpredictable floating. Although these are rather less buoyant waters after those experienced in Turkey, being tossed about in a sea is an activity I can do for nigh on forever. Indeed, I only wish I could somehow snooze simultaneously.

Content in my successful connection with the elements of nature, I get back to the hostel to find myself locked out for a while, ultimately building up a little steam as a result of being both wet and more than ready to shower. The hostel owner and I jaw at each other a bit when he gets back, something which he tries to ameliorate with a beer and some fried peppers, but I'm feeling a bit ornery and just want to hole up and play my trumpet softly instead. Which I do, slinking out to a bench in front of the hostel with horn in hand and of mind to listen to crickets as I reflect on my first day back riding. Not bad, not bad, I ruminate, but I sure hope it doesn't rain - because under these dry (but not dehydrating) conditions I could veritably spin endlessly down the road with days like this. And that's especially true when coupled with the possibility of a beach or tempting pintxo ahead.

Which means I awake to a goodly rain, of course, and it's one that doesn't look like it has any intention of slowing up, either. I stall in town for a couple of coffees, the requisite response, but this only leads to resignation after a couple of hours of window-watching - and pulling out the rain gear, anyway. Well, it's not feeling much like "Bilbao, here I come!", but that's nevertheless still the day's plan. So finally I leave town even as the rain increases to spite me, immediately both heading inland and climbing simultaneously for a good stretch to boot. In no time I'm surprised to notice that - is it just me?...or doesn't this rain taste pretty salty? Well, yes, it does (and how), but I decide against letting that or the substantial quantity of the wet stuff to withhold me from being taken happily aback by the sheer beauty of the terrain I'm passing through, rain or no. "What God's country!", I'm thinking, even as I inexorably begin to soak fully to the bone.

Even better news is that my wading-pool deep misery soon receives company in the form of a solitary, young German rider from Bonn. He catches up with me after one of my breaks for a wetted - if necessarily saline - gasp for air, and we agree to loosely ride together onward to the big city. After only some 20km of doing so, though, we're already ready for a pit stop in Gernika, praying to be able to somewhat dry ourselves while consulting our maps for the best route forward through this muck. We hunker down for what becomes an ever-lengthening stay at a cafe under some columns found in the city center, ordering pintxo after pintxo with their necessary (hot!) coffee accompaniments, before I finally get some advice from the cafe owner. A fellow (if fair weather) cyclist, he offers a reasonable route that should - hopefully - allow us to avoid the traffic that has now begun to pick up.

Girded for battle in the town Picasso made immortally famous for one, we eventually saddle up again and resume our journey. We're still heading south, but now we've added a west component as well, all of which starts with 4km of 4% climbing that's followed by a glorious and winding 13-14km of downhill magic. This propels us into Mungia, where we smile at each other while nodding our heads: So far so good. The rain's taken to mellowing a bit, too, as we reconsult our maps and load up on yet more coffee. Okay, here goes, we reassure each other, thinking of the big city ahead as we immediately enter a short climb which is followed by the drop to Derio - where things get confusing. Next finding myself asking various passers-by for confirmation of the best way to get to Derio - namely ones without getting on the dreaded (and likely illegal) highway - we get only moderately conflicting answers. Hmm.

And that properly explains what we shortly next encounter, when we head into just what we've been hoping to avoid: an absolute hell of riding unleashed in rain that's returned to heavy with a vengeance. What's worse is that we're reduced to sluggish climbing at a 8-10% grade before injury is further added to insult and we're forced-dumped onto a roaring highway. It's absolutely stuffed with cars all determined to surpass the speed limit, plus there's no shoulder to speak up and ameliorate things for us during the worst of it: construction! We look back and forth at each other with nervous smiles, confirming that we are indeed crazy, then some tens of minutes later we are practically kissing the ground after we make our harrowing descent into the city. By then we've taken to cheering each sign at the side of the road indicating a drop in the speed limit (even as the cars zipping by alongside us ignore them for the most part). Bilbao! We're alive!

By the time we've hit the city center, pulling alongside the famous Guggenheim Museum, we're truly overjoyed. We seriously almost can't believe we made it here in one piece, both of us having broken any number of cardinal rules we've independently established about riding in the rain, the dark, and in heavy traffic with lousy shoulder areas. In any event we're in Bilbao, we now can equally shrug, and I for one am not going anywhere beyond the hostel which I hope still has a bed waiting for me.

My newfound friend, however, only considers this overnighting option for a minute or two before - in true German male fashion (sue me for the stereotype!) - deciding on some further rolling. He wants to checkmark another chunk of kilometers before calling it a "proper" day. My jaw drops after what we've just survived, perishing any similar thought with an immediate, irrefutable, and resoundingly brutal mental squashing. Leaving my friend to his continued wet fate, I say goodbye to instead head to the delights of Hostel Akelarre's welcoming walls. In no time, my bike and gear are dripping away in an interior hallway as I luxuriate in a hot shower. All I can think is "Home, suh-weet home!"...

...which is fair enough, since "home" this shall be for a few days. That's because Bilbao both seems worthy of a bit of discovery, plus I have a friend in town. My lingual skills, meanwhile, will get no rest. They immediately find themselves getting a workout, particularly on account of the Camino walkers that are in good number here as well (much as they'll be everywhere on this entire coastal ride). Thus my French becomes German becomes Spanish becomes English and then French again as I a suddenly-necessary lack of sobriety on my part impedes or helps my keeping up. It's often hard to tell which is the case.

Such lingual shenanigans only get a break when I head out to visit the famous museum come morning, long a fan of this architectural standout. Indeed it's an impressive structure - I freely agree with any and all on what's virtually a universal acclaim - and this is especially true when taking it in from the outside. From the inside, however, I find a different story, with the grandiosity proving less practical and, exhibit-wise, I find myself practically breaking into a run from boredom. I fly on foot past the large Jeffrey Koons exhibit, massive abstracts, and other yawn-inspiring wastes of tracts of space. Someone needs to introduce these guys to pop surrealism, I'm thinking, surprisingly all too soon making my way to the exit.

Only once outside again do I recover my spirits, and that's almost entirely on account of immediately heading for the promised land of pintxos and reds. Those are both to be found in the Casco Viejo (old town) area, where I'm eased along by the outstanding architecture smiling at me from both sides along the way. This is a more impressive story than the contents found inside the Guggenheim, here a city still making its well-noted transition back to some prominence since the museum came to life (an admitted catalyst). I'm impressed by how this city has preserved its past here in the Casco, while newer development nearby along the river showcases its future nicely. Not a bad switch for what used to be an ugly industrial town by all accounts.

Night, however, takes me away from the Casco and brings me out to my friend's neighborhood to the adjacent north suburb town of Algorta. Soon I'm saluting Heitz, a fellow traveler I met back in Ancud, Chile, a fun acquaintance made among a group which formed by fate at a small and friendly hostel over a few days. I vaguely remember a good amount of drinking, fresh seafood made unbidden by the owners for all to share (the hostel was new; they were far from jaded), and in particular I recall a clever kind of drinking game that Heitz taught the rest of us. To this day I can't remember the details, unfortunately, only that one had to intuit a pattern sooner than later if you wanted to exclude your yourself from further rounds of drinking (to which I succumbed, slow to the draw on how the game worked). I practically only almost only otherwise remember that there was a trip to a nearby coastal area, where we went to check out some penguins - and where only Heitz was crazy enough to jump into the frigid sea.

All of the above should indicate that this Heitz was and likely still is a good egg, and that's confirmed almost immediately upon meeting each other again at the train station. We ramble among Algorta's riverside cliffs as I receive a proper lay and history of this land that Algorta occupies, then we set to the more important task of pintxos and booze. (I'm still sticking to my reds for now, but Heitz goes for the almost-as-typical cañas of beer. I'm seriously beginning to wonder if a permanent shift in beverage choice is on its way to this traditionally wine-drowned country...) We catch up on our interim travels, plus I learn about his various jobs as a guide for extreme or semi-extreme sports along the rock walls of the coast. I'm impressed with all that he says his group does, but I don't entertain any thoughts of myself trying any such cliff-clambering in the least.

By very good fortune, I'm apprised of the fact that it turns out I've stumbled onto this Bilb-burg at a propitious time, exactly smack dab on the first of Algorta's fiesta days. True, I've already learned that many - probably all - towns in Spain have their local fiesta days every year, but here I've just happened to luck out on this particular one's. Cheering my good luck, soon Heitz's girlfriend and her girlfriends join us to help further the cause - next to be added to by some of Heitz's buddies - and we in turn join a mob of folks wearing blue/white (for mariners and Basque Country folk in general) or red (for Algorta) scarves. We make our way by random parades, with folks marching in traditional dress and with some playing instruments, plus we shuffle along quickly to avoid some guys in outlandish costume who chase kids around with feigned ferocity. They play around, to acting as if they'll beat them with, well, a scrotum. And their loose-y goose-y "clubs" look exactly likely that, too. Who am I to judge?

More importantly, we wander around from bar-cafe to bar-cafe to summon courage for continuing rounds of booze and pintxos - which one by now might rightly think of as a theme to this trip. Fair enough, but it's with a nod to culture - ahem - that I drink the local white wine called txokoli, plus I also gather the courage to eat a bomb of a sandwich called a talos - which is basically about a pound of bacon and chorizo jammed between bread. This sounds great on one level, and it is (BACON!), but I dare anyone to finish the thing and think that their heart hasn't taken a direct torpedo hit. All this precludes night descending further into some form of oblivion, with parades giving way to full-on partying and some music stages that we formerly saw being set up coming to life. Other stands in the middle of the street serve more booze and grub, too, and all is well with the world... which is meant to somehow infer how I barely make it onto the last metro train at 1:30 a.m., heading back to downtown Bilbao with a smile.

I'm not much more ambitious the next day, either, rather lazily (given the previous night) heading back into the Casco Viejo when I finally come to life. Such sluggish step might be why I decide on taking the short, shiny tram running along the waterfront, but it perhaps better explains how I only very belatedly realize that the drivers are on strike. It's not like I can't read the notice right in front of me the entire time. Eventually one comes by to rescue me from the daze I'm sitting in, although I really should probably be walking off the previous night's talos sandwich. Nah. Instead I'm back to more pintxos, coffee and wine downtown, each serving in turn to prepare me for more of the same come evening: back to Algorta!

On this second night I learn a lot more about Heitz's sport, coastering, although I'm still too much of a wuss to ever want to try it. Cliff-climbing above crashing surf and rocks? Not for me. No, I'm more into receiving insights into how he and many others feel about Spain's Basque Country separating from Spain. Like my friend Kaiola back in San Sebastián, he's all for it. Again I'm given a litany of numerous slights that Basques endure, first and foremost being the strong police presence. I'm again reminded that four different bodies of police are active here, not true elsewhere in Spain. Still, I can't help but wonder about ignoring the positives of the current situation, like how folks here are all bilingual in Spanish and Euskera. Or what would happen in cities that are historically considered Basque, like Pamplona and Navarre, but currently have heavily mixed populations and are physically nearer the border with what would become Spain. Ethnic cleansing can become all too real, and all too quick. No one ever expects the Inquisition, as they say, and violence is all too surprisingly close all too much of the time. My points get a listen, but the aggravation is perhaps too deep and old to want to truly think about that.

To our more immediate task at hand, however, again we traipse through a (different) assortment of bars and cafes for pintxos, txokoli, and yakking about. Different friends among the group have opposing ideas as to which are the best pintxos to be had, with samplings naturally required, but as an upshot let me just state that a lot of it is focused on seafood and anchovies in particular. Which is also to say that I'm game, just as I am for checking out the traditional contests of wit called bertsolaritza, where two people square off to kind of rap against each other without music in Euskera. It employs some kind of rhyming and rhythm that I can't detect - being a non-speaker and all - but I'm told that I'm witnessing one of the best at the game, a middle-aged man taking on a young woman who apparently more than holds her own. It seems both playful and serious, and that's about all I can say.

Eventually we call it a night a little earlier than the previous one; Heitz and his friends inform me that their big work schedule for the year begins the next day. They'll have clients every single day of the week for over a month, a punishing schedule that they seem ready - or merely resigned - to take on. Such are the demands of high season, and they have to strike while the iron is hot. The resulting higher sobriety of at least one of us means that this time I'm driven back into town late into the night, but this in'nt before being gifted a bottle of Heitz's father's homemade red wine - which apparently, for one thing, means that there are no lightweight gifts for cyclists in Basque Country (It's the law!). After two grand evenings in Algorta, I can only hope that I'm given a chance to offer equal hospitality in return someday.

The next morning I'm not in any particular hurry to part from Bilbao, nothing new, so I spend a slow morning engaging in a long discussion with a 'lost' Irishman who's trying to figure out what to do with his life. Granted, I'm also soliciting ideas for an upcoming trip to Ireland, but all's good in a winding discussion that ultimately results in my finally loading my gear onto my bike. Sigh. No, I'm still not quite willing to roll yet, so I head to reengage the Casco area one last time (going in the opposite direction of my overall travels, but I have my priorities). I return to a few of my favorite pintxo places, all so recently discovered, and only then can I take that deep breath to tell myself that yeah, it's time.

I curl lovingly through the Casco once more, then, now properly heading along the river downstream, make my way toward the coast again. This entails passing through the not-yet-disappeared industrial wasteland for which Bilbao was long famous, yes, but that comes to an abrupt halt when I eventually reach a convenient and landmark piece of architecture in the Getxo district: el puente colgante, the hanging bridge. Indeed it's pretty neat, an elongated and odd-shaped ferry car suspended by cables which effectively rolls it from one side to the other, and this seems a rather elegant way to part from this big city (especially for all of a mere 70c).

On the other side, I'm temporarily greeted by Bilbao's continued urbanity, but importantly I'm subjected to a steep hill which I must immediately negotiate. But soon I've climbed my way out, and once again I'm plunging into sweet countryside. Soon enough, too, I'm enjoying a zippy 6km descent to a beach, Zierbena, and then I'm rounding through small La Arena and then Pobeña - before picking up the national road again at La Haya, following yet another ascent. What follows is more up and down and all around hugging of the coastline until I get to Castro Urdiales, my suddenly intended stop for the night, not coincidentally a place where I can fast-talk my way into camping alongside my first Camino Albergue (the name for the hostels especially made available for those walking/cycling the Camino to Santiago).

This allowance is especially welcome news beyond a cheap price for shower access (as in 3 Euros versus probably 12 or 15 to have a campsite at the public campground up the road), however. That's because I can't help but notice what's located right next door to my new domicile of a night: a bullfighting ring (plaza de toros)! When I shortly learn that the albergue's host has the keys, it's all but over for the poor guy to submit to my brief pestering. Puh-puh-puh-lease? Puh-LEASE? Yessir! I'm in, and soon I'm in the middle of the ring and going through my repertoire of dramatic tunes of principally Spanish flair. For the record, that's principally the classic The Lonely Bull (made internationally famous by Herb Alpert), but I've got plenty more up my sleeve when playing to acoustics like these. For the effort, meanwhile, a couple of hostelers I've met in the form of an Italian and a Californian (with the most Californian of accent/speech possible) join us for what some (not I! not you!) might term a ridiculous moment. Joined by such a deep bond now, these two'll be the same folks to help me kill the requisite bottle of red at our ad hoc hostel campsite later.

Come morning, most of the albergue's walkers have already walked off unto their merry way, but once again the greatest advantage of cycling comes to the fore in allowing me to slough about as I so often do. This allows me to wait until the supermarket opens, eat a leisurely breakfast, yet still know that I'll end up much further down the road than the walkers - something true almost regardless of where or when I stop. (Another biking bonus, of course, is that I've got a trumpet, although there's the possibility that others mightn't be specifically jealous of such a detail.) It's also worth noting that the bicycle offers a particular advantage, too, in landing one of the limited beds available at the cheap Camino hostels each night (although they technically should only take cyclists last because of this very thing, but not always...). What this actually all really reminds me, however, is that I still haven't obtained the little booklet that says I'm officially following the Camino - fair enough, I suppose, since officially I'm not, nor can I be bothered for now with such details - but I'll see how it goes.

How it goes for the present is yet another spell of coastal rollin', now through Cerdigo, Islares, El Pantarrón, Liendo, and then Laredo after a final couple of up-n-overs. I sweep into this last town on a large downhill, albeit one with a hairpin turn that'll keep things honest, but even that's not encountered until after first stopping at a generous overlook of one of the bigger tourist towns on the coast. I take in the very long beach from above, trying spy the point at its end where I believe I can catch a ferry that the walkers should also employ, a king surveying his land. Or I'm just another stupid cyclist with delusions of grandeur. Whatever.

Cutting through the town below next is a slow slog, a goofy spin where I'm constantly crossing in front of folks who in turn are crossing my path with their coolers and umbrellas to head to the beach. There's a large boardwalk along the edge of the beach, an impossible omission in a tourist beach town, I imagine, plus there's an untold number of condos and restaurants (likewise), so it's not actually long before I almost feel like I'm back on the Aussie Gold Coast. But finally I finish cutting my way through this mayhem of full-throttle tourism, reaching the spit of beach spied from above. I dismount to next drag/roll my mechanical horse through fluffy sands that most definitely do not intend to be trod on in such a fashion, quickly reduced to reminding myself how this annoying effort will save me a chunk of riding around this inconveniently-located water by staying on land.

Then again, it's always cool to take a ferry, and that's true even if it's to be only for about 5-10 minutes. I thankfully receive some help in getting my mess onboard, schlepping the junkpile in pieces up the gangplank before getting to enjoy the brief ride that should come next... but until I test out the necessary pintxos and coffee that come first, which I immediately avail myself of on the other side of the short trip to Santoña. It's a much smaller town than Laredo, if similarly busy per capita, but most importantly I find a suitably bustling-but-not-too-much cafe on a backstreet to take latest break - which assuredly would be much better if it contained a siesta.

There'll be no rest for the weary, however, nor for this slacker goofing about the Iberian Peninsula. The good news is I that I resume riding again on some flats, all the better to beeline toward Noja... before correcting myself back toward Guemes, where I learn that the hostel really is. In Guemes, I notice that nothing short of full summer camp pandemonium reigns, even if all such frolicking is to be accomplished under a sky easily surpassing 90F/30C in temperature. That's fine: atmosphere! As for my supposed "hostel", however, it's really more like a restaurant with a lot of rooms above... and where the "hostel" part is just one forgotten section of it. In said quarters, in any event, I meet a British family traveling on the cheap who soon give me another perspective on who "does" the Camino (admittedly from the viewpoint of a rather religious lot). The father informs me that most Brits don't do the Camino because it's a Catholic thing. Huh?!? That's the first I've heard of such a thing, but I guess way back when that certainly would've made sense. But now? I dunno... but I doubt.

Such questions I'm content to leave to the wind, however, far preferring to head to the beach even as it's getting a bit late and the sun is thinking of setting itself down for a good snooze. I pass on my now-traditional escapade of floating around the waters like an idiot - no fun with such blustery winds, anyway - to instead walk the entire shore available. At its end I discover some ruins and limestone formations - plus the usual few crowd-avoiding nudists, of course - and that's that. So with the sun eventually signing off for the night, I wander back to the hostel and soon meet the only others who'll be crashing in my forlorn digs for the night, three Spaniards from Madrid, Zamora, and a town south of Alicante. They've formed an ad hoc trio on the road which is giving a whirl at the "real" Camino, where mountain bikes are just as necessary as employing very lightweight gear. They're knocking out 100km/day flat, they tell me, so I decide it's best not to show them my traveling house on wheels complete with trumpet, bottle of wine, can of peppers and apparently a kitchen sink in there somewhere as well.

My new friends are, of course, long gone before I roll away from Guemes at 9:30a.m., once again tacking a bit inland by necessity to regain the coast at Somo - where I'll find another ferry. Completely ignorant of its schedule, per the usual, I luck out in arriving shortly before one of these boats does the same, almost immediately turning around with me onboard. It's only by chance that I've caught the very last one before an impromptu cancellation of its schedule will stop crossings for the next few hours - apparently on account of another strike or something - so maybe there's an Irish drop of blood in me to go along with my surname after all.

Even better is the fact that this ferry-round involves no trudge through sand, only a jostling climbaboard from the dock instead, but then again maybe that's why it costs a whopping four Euros. Okay, even *I* can handle that, cheap bastard that I am, and I furthermore dunno or care when, fifteen minutes later, we've passed through this inlet mostly blockaded by sandbars (and sporting a lighthouse in the distance) to descend upon big ol' Santander. I kinda dig these ferry crossings, I gotta admit.

So... Santander! Santander. Hmm. Now, previously I've only heard crappy things about this key city on the northern coast (one of the four biggies, the others being San Sebastián and Bilbao, with Gijón to come), but my impression immediately upon landing is quite different. For one thing, there're pintxos (and I should say tapas again since I've just left Pais Vasco to now be in region two of these four Atlantic-facing regions, Cantabria). Also, there's coffee and wine. And there's no shortage of handsome architecture for ambiance. In other words, done! Santander, you're just my kind of gal.

Truly, this town is nowhere as ugly as anticipated, and I enjoy wandering about the town's historic area a bit in exploration. What IS less enjoyable is what'll come after the requisite tapas, when I'm briefly climbing the very steep hill necessary to access the city's interior. This comes on account of a local telling me I might find a bike shop there, just the thing since I've been looking at my rear tire for a while now in wondering just how low I can let its tread go. Now that the tread's completely disappeared from the center, well, maybe it's time. So I'm thus sweating out these bullets on the hill with a mission, zigzagging up its vertiginous streets to finally attaining its crest road with its views back toward the harbor (where I came in on the ferry). Criminy, that was a good pull up the hill!

Breathing a bit easier, I mosey along until I finally spot what might or might not be the bike shop that's sort of near the music conservatory I've been told about; I'm soon engaged in deep bike-centric conversation with the lone soul - the owner - who I find inside. Shockingly, he's actually completely out of new bike tires for my most common of bike tire sizes - a 26 - but he rummages through his pile of used tires to pull one out and put it on my bike in very short order, no charge. As a "reward" - bear with me, please - he gets a kick out of seeing the clips just taken of me playing the trumpet in the bullfighting ring, all telling me of his dreams to someday check out America. Well, he certainly has a place to stay out in my neck of the woods!, I tell him.

From the bike shop, and with some handy new directions, I plow back down the hill to meet the national road 611 somewhere a good ways from the downtown area. I follow this well-trafficked road of warehouses and warehouse stores that won't let up on such an identity for a good while, rolling steadily until about Barreda. At B-town I take a 5-6 km turnoff, now sauntering at a clip toward this medieval Santanilla-del-Mar town which I've heard of. It isn't quite "by the sea" as its name says, no, but it IS medievally quaint to an questionably perfect T (Q?), with enough cobblestones to hobble King Arthur's horse - and certainly a half-assed cycle tourist name TripTrumpet. One of my panniers deftly proves this point, actually, breaking off just as I pass the ancient well located near my hoped-for hostel. But, to perhaps further add to my indignity of a knight gone a bit TOO errant (if that's possible in the (much) greater Land of La Mancha), I find that I'm the 14th person to show up for this 14 bed hostel - and here there won't be any exception to my being on a bike, nor for not having the Camino booklet. So it goes at the round table, I guess.

The good news is that I find another hostel (of sorts) right on the main medieval drag, in what I believe must've been the former medieval quarters of some medieval higher-up in the medieval church from back in the day - which was medieval, I should note. For a fallback lodging, however, I seem to have fallen rather happily forward, I'm thinking, as I walk further into this museum of antiques to find myself quite deeply back from the street. In the process I'm attended to by a large, sweaty, and garrulous man at the desk who makes bad (yet jovial) jokes about my being American the entire time. (That he and another, similar-looking man together own this mix of antique store and B&B leaves me quite capable of exploiting other stereotypes to joke back rather easily.)

But a litany a goofy jokes aren't the least bother whatsoever when I next find myself enjoying the ensuing luxuries this place affords: a comfortable bed, a luxurious (truly!) shower, plus the ability to handwash my deep pile of laundry in peace before setting it all out to drip-dry in a copious and leafy backyard which sports a swimming pool. I should say FORMER swimming pool, as now it's been glassed-in by a bubble that allows it to house even more antiques, further proof that something eccentric is going on here, no doubt (where's the gimp?!?)... but I guess this fits, being a medieval town and all. (Reference the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, if you please.)

With evening arriving, more walkers and cyclists are similarly detoured our way, each no doubt finding their way here after being rejected at the tiny hostel. It's to them, then, that I soon play my horn for a spell with encouragement, only eventually deciding on setting out alone much later to check out this little burg obviously quite well-placed on tourist maps. One thing's for sure, I'm reminded at every turn: I'm now in Cantabria, where it's supposedly all about cider (sidra). So I dutifully quaff some of the local stuff, eventually discovering a small, unattended courtyard with a streetlamp to allow some notetaking on my part (and where (undoubtedly medieval) flies attempt to finish me off with their annoying swirling). Like a wino I take sips from my cider bottle as I jot away, coming to the conclusion that, no, this cider stuff's not bad - I'll grudgingly admit that much - but neither is it anything special. This, I'll find, won't change in the least in the places to come. The day where I prefer it over beer and wine isn't at hand, sorry, Cantabria (and Asturias). As for the POURING of cider, done from on high in the air to cascade like a waterfall into a waiting glass far below, THAT makes for good theatrics.

Vastly more to my preference is the local cheese, plus the milk cake called quesada which I discover is particularly promoted here, with many a homemade sample to try. Those are both winners, each sure to put on a kilo or ten if eaten on any regular basis. Nothing like some local fare. But easily the best thing going in this little town is the ancient stonework I'm surrounded by, so I make it a point to walk every lane of the historic area while doing this requisite sampling. Yes, the steady light rain can be done without, but at least I'm not on my bike for that...

...yet, since it looks like that'll be the case the next day, where a severely darkened room (thanks a lot, walkers!) finds me sleeping in far more than anticipated. As always, the walkers are long gone, trudging on down their beloved Camino as I groggily postpone leaving the burg until noon, this faithfully done mostly in hopes of the rain letting up - and with always with the prospect of another coffee to stay my sentence just a bit longer. Come to think of it, where's the medieval jail?

By midday, anyway, the rain actually has let up, so I begin what'll become a 75km stretch with pleasingly cool temperatures, all to be accomplished under the type of clouds that make for good and efficient riding. So soon it is that I pass by Camillas, with its notable monuments, stopping for a required coffee and pastry before I surprisingly reconnect briefly with some of the walkers who left so early in the day. We bump into each other at a sidewalk crossing, and they light up to see the goofy trumpet player now on his steed of sorts. I immediately enjoy many salutations of "Buen Camino!" while receiving an enthusiastic push from a few of them as I continue heading up the slight hill I'm climbing in passing them by.

San Vincente de Barquera, which comes next, is an even better seaside gem, a postcard of a town that's especially so with the tide out and its boats lazing on the ground just so. There's a castle to complete the picture, so I pull over to snap just such a thing, soon drawing a trio of Spaniards also on bikes who choose to do the same alongside me. They surprisingly afford me some pride, it turns out, as for once I feel my gear actually appears to be superior to another rider's: each boy/young man is astride a bike loaded down with camping gear circa 1980 or so. Sure, maybe they're just trying to outdo me in the "ol' school category", and I've just been taken down, so I can only confusingly wonder if should I smugly look down on them or shake my fist at the sky.

What'll actually come to pass is that I'll pass and be passed by this ragamuffin crew over the next couple of hours, ascending and descending as an odd tandem before hitting the good stretch of level road that signifies our crossing between Cantabria and Asturias. This latter province/state/county has a stronger reputation for its coastline, plus it's where the sidra is supposedly the best, but as to this latter claim the jury's out as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, we'll see, but here I'll cut to the chase and say that I'll find the quality of the beverages to be pretty much about the same - and thus equally unappealing. As for the *roads*, not of the typical claim-to-fame category kind of stuff, Asturias wins hands down and no questions asked - and this starts exactly at this border crossing. What lovely asphalt they have here, I marvel, as my bike positively whinnies from the smooth sailing to come over the next chunk days to be spent in this province.

This new reality spurs me to positively fly down my first section of Asturian tarmac, or that's what I do until I catch a practically instantaneous view of a pocket beach to my right. That'd be La Franca Beach, worth a curl back to serve as a spot for a leisurely lunch. This is merely the beginning of Asturia's coastline, too, I'll learn, as I'm next treated to quite a dramatic succession of rock cliffs with secluded beaches that one can only guess at at times. In so doing, and in shortly regaining the road from my repast, I come upon two Italians on cycles who look familiar. Ah, yes, these must be the two guys I saw at the side of the road when I was so busily and speedily passing them by with a mere wave to hurry and catch the ferry back in Somo. That wasn't the best cyclist etiquette, no, not where stopping is often the norm, but there WAS a ferry...

Here, however, there's no ferry to distract me, so next we're riding together in taking our time to reach the next town of note on the coast, Llanes. In the process, we notice that we're now beginning to roll alongside the dramatic Picos de Europa range of mountains, lying just inland, so we pause at times to behold them. As they'll beckon us to stop and snap a pic repeatedly, we do that, too, each of marveling in turn at the beauty of this terrain - just as we're next similarly appreciating the catacomb of streets of old Llanes, which shortly comes next.

The hostel part of this otherwise decent-looking hotel is a dump that's evidently something of an afterthought, lying adjacent to the main lodgings and obviously under normal circumstances a servants/storage facility that's now made available to the likes of us under no guise but greed. Once again here's proof that the Camino business is a growing industry unto itself, possibly veiled behind piety or charity for those making pilgrimages of whatever nature, but that can't mask the bald opportunity-taking that goes on when confronted with such utterly charmless places. Nevertheless, if only after the showers deemed necessary by proper civilization, our newly-formed trio is sufficiently re-animated to sufficiently discard its cold grip and walk into this pleasant town (albeit in the throes of high throttle tourism). It's high time for some celebratory glasses of vino and seafood, even if "celebratory" might be pushing it for just another day on the road.

One thing's immediately conspicuous upon reentering town, and that's that Llanes is unquestionably worthy of all the attention it gets. From its glassed-in balconies, to its antique balustrades and courtyards, there's history on the hoof here. Better still, there's a worthy local market, fully loaded with cheeses, olives, fish, and more - which means that each of us is soon loading up on provisions, not a one of us realistically thinking about how much space remaining we actually have in our panniers or how much weight our bikes should logically transport. So it goes.

For my Italian friends, such offerings get them thinking about pasta, of course, and rather unsurprisingly that's what's on their dinner plates when we stop at an outdoor restaurant to toast the day well done. I'm still focused on seafood, however and thank you very much, but it's only in unison that all three of us will nod our heads in appreciation of the waiters' skill in doing their pouring bit of sidra at every table - but ours. We make carafes of red disappear instead, each already convinced to best leave sidra to the Asturians.

Morning means that the Italians want to make tracks, but I'm not quite so eager to leave Llanes behind as quickly. Thus we part ways, guessing we might bump into each other further up the road. (We don't, if not counting Facebook.) No, the road can wait as far as I'm concerned, especially when I'm still up for meandering about the old district while draining more coffees. "When will I be back in Llanes?", I'm thinking, as no doubt my Italian friends should have as well. And by that I mean to ignore the fact that I'm already idly planning to be here every year to come for the rest of my life (if I were a wiser person, anyway). Then again, even I can only drink so much coffee, so I eventually abandon this coffee-induced strolling-under-whimsy program to get on my bike. It's time to check out some of the beaches for which Llanes is famous.

Unfortunately, the weather here again isn't exactly conducive for taking a dip, but I do find one beach, Playa de Toros, that's particularly dramatic. Its crashing sea is eminently worthy of a lengthy trumpet serenade of sorts, which I happily commence with as, over the short period of time that I spend at the beach, I notice that the violence attending an evidently high tide subsides somewhat to allow the sea to retreat a bit. This allows a growing number of morning beach walkers performing their daily regimen to enjoy a slightly longer stretch of sand to walk back and forth, upping its end-to-end crossing time from two minutes to all of three. Seriously. As fhe trio of sacked-out dozers in their sleeping bags, still snoring away nearby despite noon's approach - and plopped exactly just past the high tide line - THEY probably have a better idea, methinks... if only in serving to remind me that I don't *need* a hostel every night.

But leave Llanes I must, and leave Llanes I do, as I next resume rolling along this popular coast for some 15-odd kilometers more. I pass the beaches of Po (with signs each having an extra 'o' scribbled on them), Barro, and more. Each has a lay of land worthy of a stop, but in response to the mad parade of folks, to a one with beach towels slung over their shoulders, I pass on the festivities. I move on, more gleefully in favor of stopping soon enough to take in a lonely church with a dramatic presence that I soon spy, an edifice seemingly anchored in mud. Now that's a view!

Rolling again, the upcoming beach of Salmonera seems as crazy a spot of sunbathers as the previous ones adjacent Llanes, so I continue on to Villahormes. This town offers the amenity of a rather abandoned hostel, up the hill and inland a hair, to make me think of stopping for the day after only a dozen plus kilometers completed. Frankly, I'm jealous of all this beaching about, so I figure that I might as well get another turn in as well. Fortunately this lonely lodging sports lockers, so with no one around I commandeer one to leave my stuff behind in hopes for the best. I make my way down to a less-trafficked beach a local informs me of, following its less-than-convenient access road to next employ dirt roads that probably immeasurably help in keeping its sands only of interest to a low number of people.

At the beach I happily drop my bike in the sand, ready and feeling overdue to jump in the water, in the process immediately coming to another conclusion about the numbers here as I note that maybe - just maybe - it's really about the huge amount of algae and other beach detritus in the surf that keeps the numbers down here. Or it's the fact that, to clear said muck, I need to swim out alone into far deeper and clearer waters - where I have a surprisingly (and unnervingly) hard time to fight tide and current to make my way back. I get my heart rate WAY up for the effort, next content to just hang out on shore and admire the stately sea arch closeby like everyone else. Whew!

So it's to be "Respect the sea!", I now remind myself, and it's not by coincidence that I'm the first person each time to duly move my towel back on a few occasions as the sea reclaims the beach in its entirety for the oncoming high tide. I ignore the confusion question about why the high tide here is out of sync with the one back in Llanes, instead better ignoring the question to help a mother with her son to escape the same. The son's been happily oblivious, with his mother looking on worriedly with a questioning look, until I tell her that yes, they *will* soon be cut off, and in no uncertain terms. The water swirls around her ankles already, with pools forming behind us that are quickly growing deeper, and pointing this out to her helps us to rally and corral her oblivious child while gathering their stuff. Nothing like a minor drama to cap what's been a very short day on the bike.

I make up for any shortfall in kilometers on Llanes-Villahormes day by deciding on roughly 80km for the next. This means charging over hill and dale to reach Colunga, then cutting through the pretty-if-overcrowded Lastres - where I decide on a l-o-o-o-ng lunch stop of octupus (of which I've gathered a new respect, now that I've been receiving it properly prepared) and, yet again, a try at sidra. And... it's still no. Enough of that nonsense, I've now finally pretty much decided.

Nevertheless, I'm sufficiently nourished to tackle some more up-and-down cycling, so I'm next blazing into Villaviciosa (what a name, Vicious Village!), a nice place to get a tapas or seven in - if I don't immediately decide to hug the river cutting through it, again headed back toward the sea. This propels me along some extensive mud flats, eventually reaching El Puntal, where I stop and chat first with a woman and then her daughter about the possibilities of rough camping it out in these parts. Acquiring some valuable advice on where to potentially crash for the night out of sight, I now with eased mind make my way to about the only other building in "town", an isolated bar-cafe at the marina up the road. While far from empty, it seems very much a local's spot, and it comes with a dull-roar kind of crowdedness that lets me take in the lazy riverside ambience in comfort. A few glasses of red allow the sun to descend enough to eventually think about my stealthy plans for the night.

Technically, I know there's a "townlet" of Liñero above somewhere - where I'm roughly headed - but I never find it in first navigating the climb up the lonely main road from the marina. So I cut off from this path more-if-only-slightly-more-traveled as soon as I get a chance, cutting into the countryside to resume my search for an appropriate redoubt to set up camp. A beanfield seems the right spot, especially when its rows of staked poles rise higher than my tent - even almost up to my eyes when I'm standing - so it's among the beans that I'm soon relaxing in the comfort of almost complete silence. Almost nary a car passes along the road for the night's entirety.

Morning brings a slight drizzle to greet me, something which'll stay with me for most of the day's ride. This scenario doesn't change, either, even after first stopping at a completely empty road bar in the morning to sample various tapas (free is always a good price), coffee, and ordering what the owner calls a "French omelet sandwich". I call it simply massive, but it's calorie punch is perfect for biking, and this is especially so when it's so wet out. And I might as well have a full belly if if it's gonna be miserable, I'm thinking, next continuing with my back road excursion toward Gijón to pass through Venta de las Ranas (a town called Frog Sales? can this be beat?) and Somio.

Eventually approaching Gijón from the east, this last big town on the north coast swings into view only after another beautiful and lengthy decline of road helps to offset the day's wet (which is finally thinking of ceasing). This descent serves to bring me to Gijón's modern (and thus, unfortunately all too often, boring) crescent of beach lined with highrises. Fortunately, an historic district on the far end of this same beach promises much more charm, so it's to there that I make a beeline while staying on the lengthy boardwalk. Then, just before making it there, good luck shines on me again: I discover a tourist information building on the way. How about that? Yes, it looks like I'll be obtaining my official Camino "passport" after all, now hopefully avoiding more hostel rejections like the one I received at Santanilla.

My Camino passport in hand, then, it's next time to wander Gijón's older streets, most of them located on the small promontory likely chosen for the original village because it could be easily defended (a common theme for all such sea-fronting rock outcroppings I've seen in the world). These bits of historical necessity are things to ponder, anyway, as I pause for the obligatory drying-out that almost always comes replete with coffee and a local pastry. Then I next wander on foot with my bike alongside me, further reconnoitring these older streets to eventually shift over to the ones that cut of the promontory. Here I find the old customs house, near the port, where there's also an odd sculpture/structure that looks like a Christmas tree stuffed with empty sidra bottles. Point taken, I muse, simultaneously thinking that Gijón - like Santander - has been given short shrift in being described as a crap hole. That's a bit unfair, even if Bilbao it ain't.

I nevertheless harbor no plans to stay longer myself to admire its charms, so I'm soon parting the city to its west through what I could only term is its... well... butthole. A crass appellation, true, but until YOU ride through that particularly nasty stretch of industrial hell - one entirely devoted to making steel, complete with a veritably large fleet of semitrailers that cruise through it without much care for dusting up a cyclist trying to stay on his narrow path - "butthole" it is. Intermittent rain doesn't help this scenario, either, as I grumble to myself about how I sure hope the nearby town of Avilés is better. Won't it have to be?

At first glance, it isn't, not when entering via its *own* industrial complex dystopia, picking up where Gijón's left off. But then there's a Camino Albergue to be had here for all of 5 Euros, and here I can straightaway use my shiny new booklet for a first time in being placed (by some miracle) in the room with 10 beds (the other has a complement of 60). I'll take what I can get - especially since I'm filthy and wet, where even the smallest of such luxuries are godsends. In minutes I'm happily washing the grit of rained roads and steelmaking off my body, ready to reenter the embrace of civilization and see what Avilés has to say in the matter.

Extra Cycling San Sebastian To Avilés Pictures
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