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The Road to Compostela

A Bike Pilgrimage from France to Spain

After a long but easy ride from Paris along a network of excellent secondary roads and hours of pedalling up the northern slopes of Pyrenees, we arrived at the top of the pass that separates France from Spain. Tired, cold, and disheartened by the lack of a view, we eased our bikes over the divide and began the descent into Spain, still enveloped in thick mist. But after rounding a curve the clouds suddenly lifted, revealing the Camino de Santiago beckoning under a July sun. With renewed spirit we biked eagerly on.

The Camino is the ancient path which pilgrims traveled on their way to Santiago de Compostela--the town in northwest Spain where the remains of Saint James (Santiago) are said to be buried.

Many say the world’s first tourists were in fact the peregrinos making their way to Santiago--once as many as two million each year. In the Middle Ages, Christians from across Europe came to believe that a pilgrimage to Santiago would absolve the pilgrim of all sin. Judges sometimes commuted sentences on the condition that the convicted would make a pilgrimage to the relics of Saint James.

In recent years the Camino has experienced a resurgence of travel. For bicyclists, this 500-mile trip on single-track dirt roads, cobblestone streets, and the occasional asphalt path takes between two and three weeks. We discovered that the Camino offers countless opportunities to view Spain’s beautiful and varied landscape and to immerse ourselves in its rich past. Even when traveling by bicycle, the scenery and the experience rush by far too quickly.

After particularly challenging days on the Camino, we were happy to be able to count on the albergues de peregrino generously scattered along the route. These hostels offer weary pilgrims lodging for free, or for a very minimal price (perhaps $2 or $3). Some albergues are municipally run, like the beautiful one in Logrono; others are run by the Catholic church and are housed in monasteries or convents. The hostels are great meeting places. There is a spirit of common purpose, with lots of shared meals, card games, and wine. Conviviality, in fact, is pervasive on the Camino.

Although we saw countless pilgrims when we stopped for lunch or for the night, we ran into them only occasionally on the Camino. It never felt crowded, and mostly we were surrounded by silent countryside. The Camino is so vast and the pace of pilgrims so various that travelers are widely spread out; pilgrims may not pass each other for hours.

While guidebooks may offer brief recitals of interesting sights, they do not tell all. For instance, in the small town of Viana we found the grave of Cesar Borgia, the ruthless Renaissance prince who came to an unexpected end while visiting his sister, the Queen of Navarre in the entry to the cathedral.

Along the way we also discovered how rich and lively public life is in Spain. Gathering in plazas, taking walks, or sitting at outdoor cafes, people live far more sociably than we do. We come across impromptu marionette shows, church processions with the entire town marching through the streets, political demonstrations against recent Basque terrorism, and the week-long Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona--made famous in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Purpose, beauty, tranquility, and an open road--what more could one ask for?

Practical Matters

Travel time: If one starts in the Pyrenees, its about 750 kilometers to Santiago. Walking about 20 kilometers every day will get you to Santiago in just over a month. By bike, allow two to three weeks. Many pilgrims choose to do a portion and leave the rest for another vacation.

The best time to travel: If you like sun, heat, and crowds, your best bet is July and August. May, June, September, and October offer fewer crowds and cooler temperatures.

Where to stay: Although lodgings are not in every village, a pilgrim can count on finding one every 20 kilometers. Subsidized in large part by private donations or by city governments, the refugios usually provide a bunk bed, showers, and kitchen facilities; the cost of a night’s lodging is no more then $4 and often free.

Eating

Restaurants and cafes serve or midday meals. Many establishments offer a “Menu del Peregrino” for about 1,000 pesetas ($6-$7). We occasionally cooked but generally ate in restaurants since they were so inexpensive.

Resources

Histories, personal accounts, and guidebooks abound. For starters try: The Miracles of Saint James by Thomas F. Coffey, Linda Kay Davidson, and Maryjane Dunn (Italica, 1996) and see The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography by Maryjane Dunn and Linda Kay Davidson (Garland, 1994).

A UCLA professor offers a “virtual pilgrimage” on the web, a listserv, and links to bibliographies and maps at www.humnet.ucla.edu/santiago/iagohome.html.

Resources for bicyclists

Try picking up a guide that is specifically oriented to cyclists. El Camino de Santiago En Bicicleta,, published by Xunta de Galicia, Conselleria de Cultura e Comunicacion Social, is available on the Camino and through Informacion Xacobeo. Although the guide is written in Spanish, it has extensive maps detailing the condition of the camino (gravel, asphalt, dirt, grass), distances, and topographic change.

 
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