Camino de Santiago BicycleTrip Article
THE ANCIENT CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA.
© by Marianne van Toor
Hola. Buen Camino.
These Spanish words become my refrain to notify backpackers that I will be cycling past them and to wish them ‘happy trails’ as we travel together on the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
I have come to Spain in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims who, from the 10th century onwards, came from all over Europe to trek across the Pyrenees and westward through northern Spain to visit the legendary tomb of the biblical disciple and martyr Saint James (Santiago in Spanish).
Theirs was an ordeal of devotion, mixed with deprivation, disease and danger, in the belief that this selfless act would earn them the right to enter the pearly gates of heaven upon death.
In the 11th and 12th centuries over half a million people annually made the pilgrimage.
The way to Santiago was an old Roman trade route and, although some sections are now on modern asphalt roads, much of the trail passes through the same villages, and crosses the same streams and mountains.
As a modern peregrino (pilgrim), I am using a mountainbike since I neither have the time nor the desire to walk the 900+ kilometres from St. Jean Pied du Port, in southern France, with a heavy pack on my back.
To make it even easier, I have signed up with a company that books accommodations, provides a support vehicle for luggage, arranges bicycle rental, and supplies route maps for our 10-day, 500-kilometre ride that starts in Burgos, north of Madrid.
My responsibility consists of cycling the daily distance - however long it may take me - purchasing my own meals and air ticket, and fixing my own flat tires, if required. Not exactly a true pilgrim in the medieval sense, but then I am not doing the Camino out of religious fervour but out of a desire to experience the sights, sounds and smells of rural Spain from a bicycle seat.
For years I searched for reasonably priced European bike trips, not realizing that a local company - Gabriola Island Cycle & Kayak (GCK) - provides such a service (www.gck.ca).
GCK owner Ana Lopez says that the company appeals to healthy, fit, self-sufficient adventurers of all ages.
“We try to provide as much freedom and as many options as possible to our fellow travelers,” she says. “We attract a range of cyclists, some very strong, some relatively recreational.”
My cycling companion Trudy and I arrive in Burgos and meet the other members of our group. Many are long-time GCK fans, who have participated in bike trips in France, Mexico and Hawaii. We are first-timers.
Under heavy cloud cover we start our first ride: 43 kilometres to Castrojeriz. Handpainted yellow arrows and signs of scallop shells point the way.
Scallop shells have traditionally been associated with Saint James. It was also a pagan symbol of fertility, and down the centuries many young couples desiring offspring undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago.
Yellow arrows are modern waymarks that spring up in the most surprising places – on ancient rock walls, lichen-covered fence posts, roadside pillars, telephone poles and other surfaces along the Camino.
The first stage leads through high plains with wheat fields accented by bright-red poppies, yellow mustard seed, white daisies and miles and miles of sky. Some sections of the trail are hard to negotiate due to heavy mud - the result of a torrential downpour the previous day - and, judging by accounts of some walkers, we count our blessings that we did not depart yesterday.
As we near our destination in the early afternoon, we pass a barefooted 20-some Swede who is giving his blistered heels a temporary break from his heavy hiking boots. He has walked the same distance we cycled today. I see him again the next day, in Carrion de los Condes, 48 kilometres ahead.
The Camino attracts young and old, the majority baby boomers from all over Europe but we also meet Canadians, Australians and a handful of Americans. Some peregrinos complete the route in sections, over several years, because it takes about four to five weeks to walk its entire length. Many Dutch pilgrims (some in their mid 70s) cycled all the way from Holland.
In 1985, fewer than 2,500 peregrinos completed the journey; in 2007 there were some 100,000, mostly in July and August.
The second night of our trip we are housed in a monastery dating back to the 5th century. It is one of the Camino’s administration centres, and I apply for my Credential del Peregrino (pilgrim passport) that confirms my peregrino status and in which I will start gathering sellos (rubber stamps) at all our stops – churches, bars/restaurants, hotels. Besides following yellow arrows and finding good espressos, collecting sellos now becomes a daily ritual.
We pass ancient hamlets set in rolling landscapes of farms, fields, flowers, and wide-open vistas with storks nesting on chapels, churches and anything else high. The solitude is broken by rhythmic clanking of cowbells, soft bleating of sheep, faint calls of a cuckoo bird, and distant church bells.
Beyond Astorga, once the centre of Spain’s chocolate industry, we head into the mountains to the highest point of our route – Cruz de Ferro at 1,505 metres. At the summit is a simple iron cross atop an oak pole on a mound of stones.
In keeping with an ancient pagan rite, pilgrims have been adding stones to the pile as a mark of respect and gratitude. I drop my bike and scramble up the mound to place my special rock from a Tofino beach close to the pole, grateful that I reached the summit without having to push my bike uphill.
Along the Camino are remnants of ancient hospitals, monasteries, hostels, and forts that provided for the needs and protection of pilgrims. This tradition of caring continues today in the form of reasonably priced accommodations and restaurants that offer a three-course menu de peregrino with wine or water and coffee/tea for around 10 Euros (approx. $15).
Unlike the southern region of Spain, this area of the country is not known for its fine cuisine; however, in the ancient mountaintop village of O Cebreiro, with its strong Celtic roots, I taste my first tarta de Santiago – a pie-like regional specialty with a filling of ground almonds. I immediately become addicted to it and add it to my daily coffee routine.
By the tenth day, as we near Santiago de Compostela, we ride the last recognizable stretch of the ancient Camino before hitting asphalt roads into the suburbs of the city. After the serenity of the dirt trail, it is hard to get used to noisy traffic again.
Narrow cobblestoned streets, alleys and plazas lead to our destination: the cathedral of Santiago and the final resting place of Saint James, who has inspired millions down the ages to complete the Camino.
Trudy and I get one of our cycling colleagues to photographically record our moment of completion. I feel exhilarated, excited, a touch emotional and also a bit surprised there are few walkers in the square. I am not sure what I had expected – throngs of tired but triumphant walkers, perhaps. Maybe they try to time their arrival to coincide with the 11 a.m. daily mass.
I feel compelled to complete the ancient rituals for arriving pilgrims.
First, at the Portico de la Gloria built in 1168 AD, I touch my right hand in the middle of the central column depicting the Tree of Jesse to give thanks for my safe arrival. Next I head down the aisle beside the high altar, climb the narrow set of worn stone steps to the 13th century jeweled bust of Santiago Peregrino and touch it from behind. For the final act, I visit the crypt to view the silver casket said to contain the remains of the saint and two of his disciples.
As I walk out of the church, I recognize two walkers deep in prayer in the pews.
For ten days I have cycled over rocks, gravel, streams, mud, rutted tracks, asphalt roads, and up and down steep mountains; past fields and vineyards; under canopies of oak and eucalyptus trees; and braved spring rains and winds while doggedly following roughly painted yellow arrows.
Was it worth it? Would I do it again? Absolutely.
The Camino has given me time for recreation and reflection, and my life feels richer for it.
- THE END -
Marianne van Toor is a Nanaimo travel writer
who, together with her partner John Lund, frequently publishes travel
destination stories in Canadian and U.S. boating magazines.