Sunday 31 October 2021

Camino de Santiago Week 1 summary - Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port to Logroño (Electric wheelchair style)

Week 1 of the Camino de Santiago was an awesome experience. I travelled about 170km from Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Logroño in northern Spain alone on my 2 wheeled electric wheelchair. It took me 7 days including a mad trip back into France to collect my VW van from a French campground. Starting in beautiful high mountain meadows I watched the scenery change to woodland, mixed arable and vineyards. I met loads of lovely people who were interesting, kind and open and discovered a beautiful historic Spain full of incredible architecture and culture that I didn't know existed

When I started I didn't know that I would be able to go the distance with my wheels, both literally with the battery capacity but also the capability of negotiating this route. It starts by going uphill for about 18km to an altitude of 1430m. This route is closed by law on the Spanish side throughout the winter months as conditions can be treacherous. Although it was a mild autumn day when I was there I encountered terrain I couldn't pass and was helped by some Spanish pilgrims who literally picked up my wheelchair and moved it past the steep rocky bit

Route markers used in many towns

In distance travelled I have probably done about 1/5th of the Camino but in terms of the challenge I am well on the way. My Genny wheelchair coped with difficult terrain and I can't imagine there will be unpassable terrain ahead although I'm sure there will be difficulties. There were bits where I took an alternative route when the going looked extremely difficult or I was advised by fellow pilgrims but in all I feel like I did my stuff

I feel like I have been on this path for many years having only just begun a few weeks back. I will continue to the end and maybe beyond...

- Buen Camino -

* To view all these posts in chronological order please scroll down or click HERE

Friday 8 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 6 - Los Arcos to Logroño (Electric wheelchair style)


This was to be my last day on the Camino so I left at dawn for a head start to the day. The countryside was similar to yesterday, arable fields, scrubby woodland and small villages connected by good footpaths

I breakfasted in in a Torres del Rio and came across this unusual 12 century church with 8 sides
12th century octagonal church

Today marked the end of Navarra and into the famous wine growing region of  La Rioja

The route was mainly on footpaths rather than agricultural tracks which was mostly ok with some exceptions. Having previously worked as a countryside ranger I have been responsible for constructing and the maintenance of many paths. Successful builds are about the management of water as erosion so easily destroys paths

Over the last few days I have discovered a method for negotiating obstacles that are either too steep, too rocky or just too narrow for my wheels. Genny wheelchairs have a riderless balance mode that is integral to the Segway core. This provides some assistance whilst not sitting on Genny and I frequently use this whilst loading my wheels up ramps into my van. It offers some drive capability but has low power when negotiating difficult terrain. Putting my wheels into slow mode (4mph, 6.5kmh), activating the seat switch so it behaves as though I'm sitting on it, and pushing from behind whilst steering gives me great power as well as control. I have become adept at this method and providing I have the energy to keep it all together, I'm overcoming all sorts of difficult terrain. If it all goes wrong I just release the seat down switch  

This magnificently built bridge offers pilgrims safety across the road, unless of course you are on a wheelchair. The addition of some planks was obviously an afterthought for cyclists. A short detour and a mad dash across the road was the final obstacle before reaching the small city of Logroño

Crossing the bridge to the city of Logroño

This was to be the end of my Camino adventure for 2021. After getting my credentials stamped at the tourist office I headed for the bus station looking for a ride back to Puente la Reina where my VW was parked

Camino credentials

Your credentials work like a Camino passport and you get them stamped along the route to demonstrate and record your progress. I understand they are inspected at Santiago before you receive your Compostela or certificate of completion. There is something uniquely satisfying about this document and I will treasure it, keeping it safe till I'm back in 2022


Thursday 7 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 5 - Estella to Los Arcos (Electric wheelchair style)


Leaving Estella you come across the Irache Monastery and the famous Bodegas of Irache wine fountain

The sign on the right translates as "forbidden to drink wine to minors under 18 years"

Historically the monks received pilgrims with a glass of wine used as a restorative. In the 1990's this evolved into the wine fountain of Bodegas Irache. The fountain has taps for both water and wine and apparently the fountain is filled daily with 100 liters of young red wine to quench the pilgrim's thirst. You smell the fruity young wine as you approach. I understand the etiquette is to drink from your Camino scallop shell but I opted for a small bottle. There is a live webcam showing the fountain that can be reached from the link below the picture

Todays walk was a delight. After commencing in woodland, the landscape opens to tracks across gently rolling countryside with stunning views in the distance

Just before entering the village of Azqueta you pass this 13th centaury fountain built by the Moors
Fuente de Los Moros - Medieval fountain  

A stunning days walking finishing in Los Arcos

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 4 - Puente la Reina to Estella (Electric wheelchair style)


Many of the small Camino villages like Puente la Reina, have hung on to their formal historic departure gates and are grander than the towns where your exit is through developing urban sprawl. 

Through the gate and over the bridge starts a day of woodland into mixed agricultural landscapes and then vineyards as we approach Rioja. I enjoyed these gently sweeping hills and valleys with small villages like Cirauqui sitting on hilltops  

Hilltop village of Cirauqui

When travelling with a wheelchair there are many small obstacles in your way, even with the capability of my Genny wheelchair. This is an issue in most countries but generally its worse away from the more resourced urban centers in the west. It is easy to rail against the environment planners and builders for their lack of consideration. In the end it is down to the local building by-laws, government standards and the implementation of these mechanisms that make life accessible to those on wheels. With some diversions, my ability to get off and push and the assistance of others, the Camino de Santiago is a viable route for my 2 wheeled Genny Mobility wheelchair. 

There are probably a good proportion of the population right now who are stuck in their homes, unable to wage battle with the physical, practical and often economic difficulties that life with a disability can present. It isn't fair and its a tragic waste of humanity and we all suffer because of it. Our world is designed to work for the able bodied. The chances are that access or other sorts of issues will impact on us all sooner or later. I am very lucky in that my MS has not taken away my capacity and I can still maintain a good life, through work, relationships and activities and I have the means, motivation and ability to take on challenges like the Camino de Santiago  

As we enter the Estella the vineyards increase

Much of the architecture on the Camino is 12th centaury or even earlier. There are many instances of roman roads that still form part of the Camino route
Tourist Information office in Estella

Tuesday 5 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 3 - Pamploma to Puente la Reina (Electric wheelchair style)

 "Where the path of wind crosses with the stars"

After my night back in France I drove my van to Puente la Reina. I wanted to backtrack as far as I could so I took a taxi with my wheelchair to Alto de Perdón which is a prominent ridge about halfway between Pamploma and Puente la Reina. This iconic landmark sculpture by Vincent Galbete, depicts a group of 10 pilgrims in steel on their way to Compostela. the inscription "Donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas" translates to "Where the path of wind crosses with the stars"
Photo moment with Francois and Andy

This windy ridge commands spectacular views and is the site of many wind turbines. Its a photo opportunity and everyone lingers here. The descent westwards however was described as steep and rocky so I detoured by road to Uterga, joining the route again and on to Puente la Reina

The church opposite the Alberge showed nest remains from storks
I loved this little town and reconnected with the people I had traveled with from the start. I stayed in the Albergue Padres Reparadores where the host was willing to keep an eye on my van that was to remain parked opposite for a few nights.

I shared food that night with a team that included a Canadian pastor, A bright young Italian whose mother I spoke to, an elderly American with stock market tips and a Frenchman
There always seems to be an ancient bridge leading to the next destination

  * NEXT

Sunday 3 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 2 - Roncesvalles to Pamplona (Electric wheelchair style)

Roncesvalles to Pamplona is normally tackled over 2 day after the demanding first day crossing the mountains. These 2 stages are gentler as they are mostly downhill leaving the southern foothills of the Pyrenees. For me I was conscious of making it back to France to collect my WV van which was sitting in a campsite in Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port 

I was getting used to the flow of the Camino. Its a bit like a river in that is has its own momentum. People dip in and out in different stages and at different speeds but the course is always forward. This is when you get to meet your fellow pilgrims. Some start early and walk slow others set a faster pace. For me it's a negotiation of obstacles and forward planning

Steps are difficult for me and my wheels. Smaller ones I can descend with a thump, others I need to be off Genny. Sometimes I need another route altogether

It was lovely to be in the calm tranquility of the woodlands as the path meandered forward following the yellow arrows and scallop shell icon of the Camino

Occasionally there are obstacles that need a bit more thought with a wheelchair that weighs 89kg plus luggage. This fallen tree was passed with the assistance of a cyclist. I would have got over it in the end but I was saying yes to help when it was needed 

Most of the path was quiet and easy on my wheels and a pleasure. Living on the small Island of Jersey I don't get to experience large woodlands. I would mostly travel in the company of others but on occasion on my own 

Most pilgrims were stopping in Zubiri, I continued as the weather forecast for the next day was rain and I somehow needed to get back to collect my van. I finally stopped having clocked just shy of 50km on Genny and found an Albergue in the outskirts of Pamploma in a place called Villava where I ate the pilgrims menu that always seemed to include chicken and chips 

True to the forecast the next day it rained. It was a short damp hop into Pamploma through urban streets looking for a way to get back to Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port. 

Pamploma is meant to be a fine city with loads to do and see. On a damp Sunday in October it was not so inviting. The historic old town would have been great had it not been so wet. I checked out the train station but found the 14:30 direct bus was my best option however they wouldn't guarantee to carry my wheels until the actual driver gave the ok. 

The bus arrived and the driver was delighted to take my wheels in the luggage compartment. It was a 2 hour drive through twisting mountain roads back to France where I spent a night in a damp campsite feeling dejected. I had only been on the Camino for 3 days but I missed it and decided that I would drive to Puente la Reina the next morning leapfrogging to the next stage and track back to align with the cohort I had been journeying with

Friday 1 October 2021

Camino de Santiago 1 - Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port to Roncesvalles (Electric wheelchair style)

Back in October 2019 I made a blog post about a little mountain town in the French Pyrenees called Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port just north of the Spanish border. What I was actually doing was checking out the possibility of starting the Camino de Santiago on my wheels. This has been a goal that has sat with me for many years, since long before I used my wheels

Through the Porte d’Espagne, across the bridge to the Rue d’Espagne

The Camino is an ancient pilgrim path across the North of the Iberian Peninsula, starting in the lovely little town of Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port and finishing 790km away in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela 

The route is the red line at the top of Spain

The start of this pilgrimage crosses the picturesque bridge (photo) before ascending 1430m to the pass and down 650m into Roncesvalles 25 km away and across the Spanish border. This route commences  with a constant climb which is a big challenge for walkers. For me on my wheels it was relatively easy apart from some sections of the ridge at the very top. My challenge was trusting the capability of Genny and myself to take this committing leap

Attempting this crossing is no mean feat for a 2 wheeled battery powered wheelchair carrying everything you need for your journey. In October 2019 with a standard set of Segway batteries I didn't have the confidence to start this adventure. The Guardians at the pilgrim information office told me there was no possible way I should attempt this even by the easier tarmacked road alternative. People had died on this route and I doubt it has ever been attempted solo on an electric 2 wheeled wheelchair. I carried this doubt

Note: Since writing this I have discovered that Roberto Moretti has traveled 350 km of the Camino de Santiago aboard his Genny Mobility wheelchair as detailed HERE and HERE - how cool is that?

I need to say that although I use an electric wheelchair I am still able to walk to some extent and that I can get off and push when required. I am not trying to compare this to anyone else's journey, nor am I trying to promote my undertaking or the wheels I use. My posts have always been about what I am able to do with my wheels that I just wouldn't attempt without them

I left my VW van in a small campsite in Saint-Jean-Pier-de-Port having paid for 2 additional nights. I set off carrying everything I needed for myself and my wheels including some refreshments, sleeping bag, towel, tools, Genny charge cable, passport etc. and what felt like a lot of courage but could have been bravado. I guess this is the spirit of a pilgrimage. With any goal, making the decision is actually a big part of the process and having that made, you're already on the way

Rising views of the French side

Setting off was a great relief and the initial 16 km constant climb was ok for me and I passed a stream of other pilgrims on the route. The views increased in aspect as I climbed. I deviated from the usual walked route in one section where I chose a longer hairpin on tarmac rather than a steeper but rougher off-road section. This was a strategy I would use in several places over the next seven days of my journey

Approaching the pass into Spain the  road  turns to tracks and eventually a single rough footpath which was more challenging on 2 wheels. The hardest part was at the very top of this French side where the steepness and terrain was too hard to ride mounted and even too difficult to guide Genny in rider less mode
Rough terrain approaching the top of the French side  

It is possible after dismounting to put Genny into the Segway rider less balance mode which is designed to be used as a bit of assistance going up ramps etc.. It kind of self drives and you can direct it with a push. I will learn to perfect this technique over the next period but even clearing the worst of the rocks from the path by hand was not enough for me to pass on my own. I was overtaken by many walkers I had previously passed who all offered help. I eventually said yes to a lively pair of Spanish pilgrims who weren't hearing no and picked Genny up, setting it down at the top 

Wheelchair camino - Genny summiting with Spain ahead. Camino de Santiage
Genny fully loaded with rucksack and sleeping bag and Spain ahead

This spirit of kindness was ever present on the Camino and a joy to encounter. Although I was able to manage in most instances there were a number of places I just couldn't negotiate without help. I am fiercely independent however the acceptance of help was humbling and a gift

This wasn't the best way down
Entering Spain the route changes into high mountain woodland and you eventually reach the summit of Lepoeder at 1,430 meters which is the highest point for the day. My batteries were still showing just under half capacity at this point, well beyond the capacity of standard Segway batteries

From here there are two ways down, an incredibly steep rough footpath descending 650m over 4km or a long winding track that does it in about 8km. I took the easy track via a difficult path but soon it was a cruise to the bottom

This long winding track goes on to Roncesvalles at the bottom of the valley where you reach the pilgrim hostel. Unfortunately I dropped my phone and had to retrace my route 2km up hill to the point where thankfully, I found it by the side of the track
Albergue Colegiata in Roncesvalles

The beautiful Albergue Colegiata in Roncesvalles is a big and impressive old complex and sleeps 200 people. It was here that I met the fellow pilgrims I had been encountering all day and had the chance to sit, eat, talk and share a glass with