Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
Riding in the footsteps of the pilgrims
Pam Milliken and her husband Andrew cycled almost 900km in 12 days following Spain's famous Camino Frances, a trip with enjoyable challenges, inspiring scenery, and wonderful food, wine and people.
I had toyed with the idea of doing Spain's famous pilgrims' route, the Road to Santiago, or the Camino, as it is generally known, for many years but my interest was sparked when I read about a couple who cycled it – with children! What particularly appealed to me was that a) the 31-stage walk could be condensed into about 12 days by bike (including a rest day) and b) crossing the long, undulating, featureless (and potentially boring) 300 kilometres of meseta (high plains) by bike seemed eminently more attractive than walking it.
There are a number of pilgrimage routes in Spain. They all end in Santiago de Compostela but the one we had set our sights on is probably the best known: The Way of St Francis or the Camino Frances starting at Saint Jean Pied de Port near the border of Spain and France.
The walking route from Saint Jean Pied de Port is about 800 kilometres. Because we are not technically proficient mountain bikers and due to time limitations, we did not plan to ride the actual walking path; when we did so at some points along the way, we found it to be rough and rocky, and also slow due to the number of walkers.
|Sharing the road with walking pilgrims along the meseta into Castrojeriz|
We started in late August from Roncesvalles - missing stage one of the walking route - and we cycled almost 900 kilometres; this is longer than the official Camino, as the roads don’t follow the walking track exactly. We hired mountain bikes in Madrid and transported these on local buses to our starting point.
We have cycled a number of times overseas (France and Italy) but we look back on this trip as one of our favourites. While not particularly religious, we were nevertheless open to the possibilities of a spiritual experience as written about in the many books and blogs we read before going. By the way, there are a number of interesting books, some excellent guides and a wealth of information on the Internet.
We have a tendency on our rides to just keep going and not stopping much as we pursue our objective of getting to each day’s end, and while I initially had my doubts about doing the pilgrim “thing” of obtaining the credencial or pilgrim’s passport and getting this stamped along the way so we could obtain the much sought-after compostela (certificate) in Santiago de Compostela, we quickly took to the fun of stopping in each village and town, buying a coffee at a café, getting our credencial stamped, chatting to other pilgrims and so adding to the enjoyment of our journey.
Like any bike tour there are challenges. There are some mighty hills to climb. The first came on day one and we looked at these with some trepidation as the bus heaved itself into Roncesvalles late in the afternoon the day before we started. But fresh legs and adrenalin dealt with these the next morning and then there was a lovely rolling descent into Pamplona as a reward.
From here we followed the scallop shell and yellow arrow way markers through lovely towns and villages (although at times we puzzled over our maps where new expressways had wiped out roads – and the usual applied: the minor roads that were longer were very often the most pleasant to ride because they were so quiet), over amazing aqueducts, past (and into) churches and monasteries, all the time enjoying great food and wine along the way - even churros and hot chocolate one cold morning. Places like Burgos, Leon, Castrojeriz, Astorga are treasure troves of architecture. We enjoyed lunchtime picnics at wayside stops along the road, or in villages - often with a cold beer!
We criss-crossed the camino following generally good roads: some busy (although drivers are nearly always respectful of cyclists), many quiet, and sometimes on the camino itself where there was a good path. We contemplated the many walkers we passed (!), weighed down with enormous packs shuffling determinedly forward; but then we slowed to a snail pace ourselves as we huffed and puffed up the hills. The toughest climbs were in the second half of the trip but we cheered and celebrated with our fellow cyclists on conquering these, snapping ‘proof’ photos of each other.
It was hot and we got burnt down the left side of our body (as you cycle relentlessly west) but it was worth it. The route was crowded with pilgrims approaching Santiago de Compostela; many were weary but there was great camaraderie as everyone anticipated arriving at this destination - and the city does not disappoint. The famous Cathedral is immense and almost overpowering but the scenes of people arriving, some weeping (happiness? exhaustion? delirium? relief?), some lying down in the square, some kissing the pavement – the emotion is just amazing.
We continued to embrace our inner pilgrim, queuing at the pilgrims’ office to receive our compostela, now framed and proudly residing on the wall at home, exchanged stories about the journey with others and joined in the special pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral.
|Pam and Andrew arrive at their destination, the Romanesque cathedral in Santiago de Compostela|
This is a cycling journey to consider. It has everything: great riding, lots of variety of terrain, some challenges, lovely scenery and wonderful food, wine and people.
At the end of the day, wine and other drinks are often served with snacks or tapas. It is well worth researching local delicacies if you are “into” food: jamón (ham), cocidos (stews) and seafood is a specialty in parts.
We booked all accommodation beforehand by email because of time constraints and this kept us on track with our itinerary. There is a wonderful variety of accommodation, from the traditional albergue or pilgrim’s hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts through to the amazing (and more expensive) 4-5 star luxury paradors which are often in castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings. It’s nice to stay in at least one of these just to have the experience.
Avoid the busy times, June to August, as the Camino is becoming more and more popular: putting pressure on accommodation and the walking route.