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Cycling the Camino Portugues *Backwards* from Santiago to Lisbon, Central route

Camino(s) past & future
Camino Frances (Aug 1, 2019)
I just finished cycling Santiago to Lisbon, the Central route, Sept 15-28, 2019. Here’s the ride report:

My Bike Iberia rental bike rocked and they were a great company to deal with. I was able to fill out all their forms without computer (iphone only) access by screenshotting their application pages, then typing what the pages said into an email and filling in my information, then emailing to Bike Iberia. I used iphone’s photo “Edit” “writing on photos” function to sign the necessary waivers. They delivered my bike early in Santiago and picked up my box into which I put my backpack and other unneeded items after walking the CF. Everything was safe and sound at their office when I arrived in Lisbon 2 weeks later :)

Bike Iberia’s bikes come with a serious lock, a helmet, and a bell mounted on the handlebars. Use a rear view mirror on your helmet or glasses. Not one driver ever honked or yelled at me the whole way. This is because I pay attention and move over when I see cars behind me. That goes double for big trucks!

You NEED the big tires Bike Iberia puts on their “Camino Mountain Bike.” You will be pedaling right over (and pushing the bike up - and down) rocks. Didn’t fall once the whole way. Though the bike skidded out from underneath me on the wet cobblestones one morning in a public square, I stayed on my feet. I’m an experienced and strong rider who has crossed the U.S. twice and ridden to Alaska on a mountain bike with panniers. Several other cross countries on a touring bike and a dozen 200/300/400km brevets and Double Centuries on a road bike. But on previous mountain bike trips, we mainly had paved roads except Alaska which was mostly wide gravel or dirt roads. Never rode anything like the rocky trails of the CP!

On the whole route, I saw exactly 5 pilgrims walking my way (N to S) and one cyclist. At least a thousand coming the other way. None of the *my way* walkers were doing the whole route and the lone cyclist had a friend driving a VW bus they were camping in and was using his own maps, not always the CP route.

As a road rider, when I looked at the route and saw it was *only* 640K (400 miles), I thought to myself, "Well, that should take about a week doing 60 mile days but to give myself time, I'll rent the bike for 2 weeks." Uh-uh. If you're sticking to the CP route and not riding the roads, you'll need every minute of 2 weeks! Two Brierley stages a day is about what you should plan. If you're not that strong a rider or want shorter days, better to plan 3 weeks. I got in one rest / rain day in Porto, an extra day in Tomar to go see Fatima, and only because I rode the roads a lot the last few days, was I able to arrive in Lisbon a day early also.

My overnite towns were:
1. Santiago de Compostela
(Blanco Albergue, is right near the Pilgrim's Office and the post office (Correos) which is open all day Saturday to buy a box to put your stuff in that's going to Lisbon with the Bike Iberia courier. Bike Iberia will only deliver to lodgings that have someone at the front desk all day during business hours. Blanco Albergue was on a short list Bike Iberia sent me as possibles, convenient and easy to book on Booking.com).
2. Padron
3. Pontevedra
4. Tui
5. Ponte de Lima
(You are now in Portugal! The Municipal Albergue in Ponte de Lima does not accept pilgrims on bicycles until after 6pm - if they still have space. They won't, when I came in at 4pm there were 2 spots left. I don't know it works this way at all Portuguese Munis cuz I never tried another one).
6. Barcelos
7. Porto
8. Porto
9. Albergaria-A-Velha
10. Coimbra
11. Ansiao
12. Tomar
13. Tomar
14. Vila Franca de Xira
15. Lisbon
16. Lisbon

Pointers:

1. Do not take Bike Iberia’s handlebar bag. Not only is the Camino too rocky-bumpy in places to have it flailing around up front, you need to be able to see the path in front of you and your front tire without impediment. Put it in the box with your things that you’re shipping to their Lisbon headquarters.

2. Buy a mountable map case that mounts on your left handlebar (move the bell to your right handlebar). I was (luckily) able to buy a map case at the little touristy bike shop right next to the cathedral in SDC. The map case needs to be big enough to contain Brierley’s maps-only CP book, your iphone, and a power bank. Besides the Brierley map book, you MUST buy Wise Pilgrim’s (green) “The Camino Portugues” app. The app will show you as a moving blue dot and the CP as a green line so you are able to see if you stray from the Camino. Even without internet service or wifi. With the book and app together, you will not get lost (or at least not til south of Coimbra, more about that later). I COULD NOT HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT THE BRIERLEY BOOK AND WISE PILGRIM APP.

3. Be smart about your phone use so you can use your phone (Wise Pilgrim CP app) all day. Charge your power bank when you stop at cafes, use “low battery” and reduce “screen brightness” when you can. On hot days your phone will overheat and peter out in that airless map case so you have to take it out and turn it off from time to time.

4. I am not a techie. I bought my first power bank ever in Caldas de Reis once I saw I was not gonna be able to keep my iphone charged. I do not know how to use Strava, Map My Ride, Relive, etc. I can download routes into a GPX file on my Garmin at home. But AFAIK, there isn’t a GPX file of the CP north to south. I was reliant on studying the Brierley maps pre-ride, the Wise Pilgrim CP app while riding, and the wonderful blue arrows to Fatima.

5. The wonderful blue arrows to Fatima! It is my understanding from these forums that there is controversy among the placers of the old spray painted blue arrows and whichever Portuguese governmental body is placing the new ones. I feel like I got lucky cuz reading on here says many of the new ones have been placed since May, 2019. As a N to S bike rider, they ALL rocked. The more, the better. In very few places did they contradict eachother, and when they did, you could usually get the drift. Like the old spray painted ones wanted you to go thru an overgrown path in the woods while the new ones kept you on a rideable road. Every single blue arrow was welcome and much to my happiness, they picked up in numbers south of Porto. Since almost everyone only walks from Porto to SDC, I had been mightily worried that there would be no / few blue arrows south of Porto. When in fact, that is where they really picked up - the large “silk screened” arrows as well as the ones on identical cement posts to the CF markers in Galicia.

My tip about those blue arrows is if the old ones are pointing you to or leading you down a questionable path, go back to the road and continue a little further cuz there may be new markers that you just haven’t come to yet showing you a better way. You don’t need to spend an hour like I did just below Mealhada following the old arrows into a vineyard where they end while the Wise Pilgrim app is showing me that each one of the 5 little dirt paths that I tried to follow from there are not the CP “green line.” Very frustrating and time wasting. When I finally gave up and went back to the road, just 1/4 mile further did new blue arrows lead me to miles and miles of new, beautiful asphalt all the way to the next town.

6. Tui is like the Sarria of the CP. A million people start from Tui. Above Tui, if you ever wonder which way to go, just wait a minute or so for walkers to appear.

7. I was glad I was riding a bike the “other” way above Tui. I can’t even imagine trying to gracefully get around the herds of people. I used my bell plenty of times as it was when I saw people up ahead walking with their heads down. Then wave and smile as you pass, much more pleasant and less scary than shouting or just blasting by. The bell is great for city riding too.

8. Sadly, south of Cernache (the next town of any size after Coimbra), you can’t use the blue arrows anymore. They begin diverging towards Fatima, no longer following the CP which goes thru Tomar, not Fatima. Though the closer you get to Fatima, the more you see blue arrows everywhere, leading people in on many different paths, too confusing to use. 4 million people visit Fatima yearly, but most come by car or with tour groups on big buses. If you wish to visit Fatima but not ride there, it's an hour bus trip from Tomar, very easy. Residential Avenida Hostel in Tomar is a 2 minute walk to the bus station, wonderful, and bookable on Booking.com.

I found out the hard way. It was raining so hard leaving Cernache that I couldn’t see / use my phone app so I decided since the blue arrows had been so useful / plentiful the last few days, I would just follow them to Ansaio, my next overnite town. Nope, that is exactly where those blue arrows diverge from the CP and start leading you towards Fatima instead. I wound up hours in the wrong direction and had to ride an “I” highway heavy with trucks to get to Ansaio.

The silver lining was I was forced to use my maps. The Brierley book and the Wise Pilgrim CP app both show surrounding roads on their maps. Up til then, I had stuck to the CP route, puddle-by-puddle, rock-hill-by-rock-hill for fear of getting lost. Even tho there was some serious rock pushing between Pontevedra and Ponte de Lima, it was worth it to not get lost. It was close but I was able to push all the rock hills without removing the panniers but that was my Plan B: take them off, carry the bike up, then come back for the panniers. So keep your panniers light! I saw guys going shorter distances with small backpacks rather than panniers. They were probably able to wear their pack while carrying their bike.

Turns out getting lost and becoming a map reader came in real handy south of Cernache once the blue arrows stopped on the CP. There is no way you are going to find your way without them unless you are able to keep your head down watching the blue dot and green line continuously on the CP app.

On the maps I found some nice paved roads, the M-348 and M-365 come to mind. Miles and miles of cruising as bike riding was meant to be. Who knew Portugal had anything but cobblestones until you went off-Camino. My last few days into Lisbon were a mix of using good roads I found on the map (and could also see on the CP app) and following the Camino when necessary.

9. As a “wrong way” rider following the CP, which was designed for S to N, you will find yourself going the wrong way on many, many one-way streets. Luckily most are not busy and people in Portugal are WAAAY more tolerant of this than they’d be in the U.S. I rode sidewalks when I could. Only a few times did anyone say anything or point, and not in a mean way, just trying to let me know (I knew but couldn’t speak any of the language to explain myself 😬).

10. Another challenge the last few days into Lisbon is getting the bike thru those train station buildings designed to get you over railroad tracks. There are two that you have to do, and I went the wrong way and created a third. There was no way I could push up that many steps with no place to stop and rest along the way so I used the escalator to take the bike up and the stairs to take the bike down.

11. FYI, on your last day into Lisbon, shortly after the last of the railroad station escalators, you ride dirt paths thru fields. You will come to a place where the CP wants you to go down a very thin dirt path thru a field where the sign outside it says “PRIVATE PROPERTY” (in Portuguese). In that field is a large white Mastin (those big farm dogs you see everywhere that come in all colors and look St. Bernardish). I saw him but was hurrying to get to Lisbon and didn’t want to take the time to figure out a workaround. He just laid there til I was right near him, then started chasing. I hauled a$$ and prayed I wouldn’t fall while cooing “Good dog, you’re a good dog, see I’m leaving, good boy.” I didn’t look back or even down cuz my eyes were glued to navigating the path at high speed but I think he stopped at the property line. I don’t recommend it.

Anyway, I’m sure there’s lots I forgot but the main point is: if I could do it without getting lost, anyone can. It’s easy to follow the CP Central N to S at first but as it gets harder past Coimbra, you’ve also become much more experienced at finding your way.

Suzanne
 
Last edited:

Kanga

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Francés x 5, Le Puy x 2, Arles, Tours, Norte, Madrid, Via de la Plata, Portuguese, Primitivo
Very useful Suzanne, for anyone doing this. I have no intention of cycling, but thank you on behalf of other forum members. A good title too - should help in the future for anyone looking for information.
 
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Frances (Aug 1, 2019)
Ya, that’s why I did it. Even one of the “wrong way” walkers, an Australian guy I had met weeks ago walking the CF, told me he’d been unable to find any info even searching for walking the CP N to S. We were both so surprised and pleased by all the blue arrows. He was intrepid, walked all nite 80 miles his day into Fatima! (I took a side trip there by bus from Tomar). I also met a Frenchman out on his *first camino.* He had left Le Puy en Velay ~ July 15, walked to SJPDP, followed the CF to Finisterre, then Muxia, then started down the CP backwards. I met him in Albergaria A Velha September 23rd! 😱
 

Galloglaigh

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
Lycra tribe.
CF (2017/8), VF (2018/9), Old Way (2020), VFnS (2020), CP (rebooked) (2021), VdT (ToDo)
Loved the report and the insights. Very useful.

Will make mental note to take some tasty bits when facing a Mastin as my a$$ is likely a bit slower than yours.
 

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