Porto to Santiago de Compostela, 341km, total 1,620k
The kilometre countdown was getting more precise and frequent as we dragged our chamois-padded butts to the finish line.
It was a dreary, drizzly day, well away from the designated cycle route through gorgeous Galicia in Spain’s far northwest. We had last sheltered at a countryside bar for fries and soup 30km and two hours back. We were wet, sweaty and exhausted.
But we were also ecstatic. One more outrageously steep climb out of town, and we were gliding steadily down toward the coast and our destination: a two-day respite at a mystery cottage that Sitka had exhaustively researched months ago.
Downhills are awesome.
Joce likes to know when we’ve dipped below a given kilometre-marker. Any psychological advantage counts when you’re this zonked.
We forgot the rest of the countdown as our neighbourhood for the weekend came into view. Long sandy beaches. Massive, rolling waves and raging whitecaps. Rocky islets being pounded and enveloped by the surging tide.
“Three hundred metres!”
We felt like we won a dream vacation on The Price is Right (well, Ed’s mind conjured the image of a woman in a gown revealing the scene before us with elegantly animated wrists - the rest hadn’t a clue what he was talking about).
The “Bull House” is a beautiful stone cottage standing all alone on a narrow strip of grassy field that slants gently toward a boardwalk stretching along a vast beach 100m in front. The waves should have dozens of surfers riding them, but we’re too remote to be thought of.
It’s exactly how our newly-minted 12-year-old envisioned spending his birthday. After all, it was all his idea.
The house itself is shaped like a three-storey slice of birthday cake - its point facing the ocean, all windows for a full 180-degree view. The icing for Ed and Joce is the master bedroom that occupies the entire top floor, wide multi-pillowed bed facing seaward. The icing for the boys is found downstairs: an unexpected ping-pong table and boogie boards for body surfing on the wicked tide.
Six years to the day, Sitka celebrated turning six in New Zealand. His big asks that year were petting a sheep, a kiwi cake and setting a new daily km record (see our Oceania Odyssey book to find out if we succeeded). “This whole trip is the best birthday gift,” he said then and again this week, when his wish list included a live soccer match, a boat ride between countries and a dream stop on the ocean.
There is a special kind of magic when your kids do the bulk of the trip planning.
We would never have considered tracking down tickets to a real-life European football game - the ultimate cultural experience for two young sport fans and their closeted sports-nut dad. By some diligent web research and dumb-lucky scheduling, we landed in the magnificent city of Porto on a bi-weekly GameDay and scored online tickets in the midst of the Portuguese crowd. The mammoth, modern stadium was packed with the most people we’d been around in a half-decade (our whole Yukon Territory has barely more than the 30,000 souls in those seats, let alone the global distancing pandemic). We were not disappointed to find that Euro soccer fans were less rioting hooligan and more boisterous partisan - much like a pumped-up hockey or basketball crowd, motley but not dangerously so, with enthusiastic sing-alongs and team chants - nor by the 3-0 score for the home team that allowed us to witness, then actively participate in the jovial “Go-lo, Go-lo, Go-lo!” celebrations.
After a final ride along Portugal’s postcard Atlantic coast, we bade Adeus to our favourite country (for now) on a 12-foot rowboat with an outboard motor, our bikes and bags stuffed all around us. Hardly how we pictured traversing an international border (why did we bother with all these visas and EU Covid passports?) but exactly as Sitka had imagined in his now-fully-realized imagination. He giggled pretty much the whole way until we were ceremoniously dumped on a reed-lined beach on the other side of the inlet. Bienvenidos en España.
Sure, we would soon experience another mind-boggling snafu with the Spanish Renfe train system (live ticket agent assures us there’s enough time before boarding, but must split up between two trains an hour apart due to three-bike rule, then Ed and Sitka find metal detector, must remove bags so miss train, but couldn’t have taken train anyway because no camp knives allowed on trains, Ed re-mounts panniers, Sitka runs off to tell Joce, Ed can’t find Sitka, train man assures Ed there’s a non-metal-detector station 2km away for bikes with knives (while Ed panics seeking Sitka), Ed finds Sitka, we all go to other station, live ticket agent says no space for bikes, train man from before spots us and lead us to train, where there is plenty of space for ten bikes, let alone three, if you’re still reading this part you may have the patience to survive trains in Spain but we still don’t recommend it - we wish we had have just biked the busy highway instead).
But we did see the purely delightful side of Spain - its landscape and its people. Our first Warmshowers stay was in Pontevedra with the calmly wonderful David, who met us at the train station and guided us through town to his backyard where we set up tent for the first time, and his lovely parents who brought out a birthday tarta de abuela for dinner. David even took the day off work to help us navigate our next step of visa epic at the local bank. “La burocracia en España es un deportivo,” he explained to us. “Pero entre ciclistas, nos ayudamos.” (“Bureaucracy in Spain is a sport, but we cyclists help each other out.”)
And then there was the Bull House - two gloriously relaxing days (the first of which we awoke to a vicious storm that we watched over a feast brunch - how’s that for perfect timing?) reading in cozy chairs by the huge windows, playing ping-pong tournaments, daringly body-surfing when the warm sun returned, gorging on just-cycled-three-weeks-straight levels of food, biking pannier-free into town to watch surfers and re-stock on snacks, and plotting our next stages across the Camino De Santiago, the coast of France (for Heron’s surf-camp birthday) and a whirlwind tour of Paris. It’s so exciting that we convinced Joce’s sister to come join us for a couple weeks!
It’s been a significant evolution to have the boys plan the trip - not just help, but actively plan the whole itinerary while Mom and Dad were fully occupied with flight plans, visa procuring and packing. Sitka’s fastidious research for Portugal yielded an awesome itinerary with extraordinary moments and highlights we would never have imagined. Now we can’t wait to see what he has in store for Italy and Denmark. Heron is all devious smiles about France (“Le Louvre est essentiel.”), so we’re assuming that means fun, right? More input has meant more buy-in, and it’s actually the boys who are carefully curating the budget, tracking every daily expense and calculating average spending to ensure their plans can fit the financial and logistical frame. They will often price-check and seek out cheaper options (city bus over taxi to airport, groceries over restaurant) to save for their bigger priorities.
And we’ve come to trust them to know what they’re doing (and it follows that they trust themselves and grow confidence beyond their years) - that their well-laid plans will lead us not only to places that exist, but to even more fantastic adventures than we would have otherwise dreamed of.
Like a cake-shaped birthday cottage on the Atlantic Ocean. With all the icing.
For those following the saga of our Spanish visas - the long-term solution to touring around Europe for longer than the oddly restricted three months in the so-called Schengen region - we have a happy and hilarious update.
You may recall from our Week One blog that we clicked the wrong box online in January when reserving a critical cita previa at the provincial police station - leaving us slack-jawed before the woman who insisted we had to return to the same spot four weeks later when the next appointment of the correct type was available. We had to start our bike tour and fly back to Malaga in order to extend our three-month Spanish residency to the full six we would need to not be ejected somewhere in Scandanavia.
Well, fly we did - from Santiago de Compostela, on a pair of hyper-discount Euro airlines, cheaper and faster than a high-speed train. We arrived back at the same airport and arrived at the same police station (minus the teeming rain) and held out our Cita previa documents to the officer in charge of the crowd. She led us directly to her cubicle, two to the right of where our old friend had refused us almost a month earlier.
Ed was armed with all the right forms, but we were clenched from head to toe, praying to Saint James of the Camino that we didn’t do anything wrong this time. She took all the forms and photos and nodded, betraying no indication as to whether they were correct. She had us press and roll our fingers (all four of us) on the fingerprint machine. She took out her stamp and started stamping. We were athletes in the sport of Spanish bureaucracy, and we were winning!
But then, the other team made a substitution. Ed didn’t notice in the moment, but Joce and Heron recognized an old nemesis - the Brad Marchand to our Maple Leafs - the woman we now know as “The Supervisor of No.”
She sat down next to our nice officer and began chatting quickly, shaking her head and grabbing documents. We tried following and are sure we heard an “este familia” or two - was she trash-talking us?
Just as the nice woman was finishing Sitka’s prints and stamping his form, The Supervisor halted her.
“Do you have the birth certificates for the children?” we understood after a few times reciting the boys’ birthdates.
Uh-oh. Joce shot Ed a desperate look. Ed had packed the copies we received back from our initial visa application, for no reason other than excess caution. But they were in a pannier back in Santiago. Mierde.
“En este momento, no.”
We received a detailed explanation about how we needed to prove that our kids are our kids.
“How are we to know?” she finished. “The government of Spain needs proof.”
“Yes, we sent proof to the Spanish when we applied for our initial NIE visas.”
“I need proof.”
That dejected feeling came flooding back. Then, Brad Marchand threw us a lifeline.
“Vale! (Fine!) When you return in 40 days to collect your residency cards, you must bring the birth certificates.”
“Si, si, gracias, si.” Phew.
We double- and triple- and quadruple-checked that photocopies were okay (that was apparently a dumb question - “Claro que si!”), then exactly the forms and documents we needed. We were pushing then upper limits of their patience, even the nice officer.
Hands raised like we just won a conference championship (we know the Stanley Cup is still 40 days away), we paraded through Malaga for a picnic lunch and back to the airport for our return flight to Santiago. We had won this round, but we still have one more return date to Malaga to plan.
For now, though, we’re starting to feel like our Spanish residency is well earned. 110 percent.