Pilgrims and Drunkards: Cycling the Camino

A new chapter of our journey began at the buzzing French-Basque town of St Jean Pied-de-Port. Literally translating to ‘foot of the pass’ in Pyrenean French, it is the last resting point for pilgrims before the arduous Roncevaux Pass over the Pyrenees, the natural frontier between France and Spain. A well worn route throughout human history, it has been treaded by ancient traders, Roman legions, and Napoleon’s soldiers. These days its main traffic is from shepherds and a growing trail of adventurous souls seeking an inner and/or outer journey on The Way of St James pilgrimage. Commonly known as the camino (Spanish for path), it has been popularised in recent years with every man and his donkey writing a book about it, and pilgrim numbers at St Jean Pied de Port have risen from 1,264 in 1996, to almost 30,000 in 2008.

The most popular mythology of The Way of St James dates back to Jerusalem in 44AD, when the beheaded remains of St James (one of Christ’s first apostles) were said to have been transported by boat to the Coast of Death in Galicia, fabled by the Romans as the ‘end of the world’. The Romans believed the entrance to Hades was just across the water (but it turned out to be England instead). When St James’s remains were discovered over 1,000 years ago in modern day Santiago, a church was built on the site and a network of pilgrimage routes formed across the European continent. A less popular version has it that the pilgrimage route was conveniently hijacked from a pagan fertility ritual by the opportunistic Catholic Church.

Whatever you choose to believe, our reasons for travelling the Way of St James/Pagan Fertility Ritual were more pragmatic. If the medieval Catholic’s version was right it was one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven. Furthermore, if a Compostela (certificate of proof) was obtained, it would result in 50% off purgatory, or on a ‘Holy Year’, a full get-out-of-purgatory-free-card. Not a bad setup for the afterlife for all you sinners out there.

Cycling Up Struggle Street

Our camino (path) began on an overcast Autumn morning pedaling and pushing up struggle street at the speed of cattle. By the time St Jean Pied-de-Port became a distant dot in the valley we were exhausted and drenched in sweat, but buoyed by the newfound camaraderie of the camino. Friendly pilgrims from near and far, bringing different perspectives to a shared path.

With strong winds blowing drizzle in from the Atlantic, most of the pilgrims headed into the cosy warmth of an auberge midway up the mountain. With some envy we pedaled on until blasts of wind at the top of a bend had us motionless and clinging on to our bikes for dear life. It was too much for Zoa’s trailer, which flipped over 3 times before we could anchor it again with our fat bastard dog Jack. After regaining our wits back on sheltered ground we resumed our battle with the gale force wind, pushing up steep grades at a snail’s pace. Tension was growing and we started to argue about whether to keep going or go back. “Where are we going to put a tent in this anyway?” “I thought you said we were almost at the top!!” Our moods were not helped by a van who pulled up beside us on the otherwise deserted road. The momentary windbreak had me losing my balance and along with my bike I crashed down to earth. The driver amused by the bikes and the dogs continued on chuckling. For a religious pilgrimage we had certainly started off with an impressive rate of cursing.

When the paved road turned onto a grassy hill of jutting rocks, we took it in turns to haul each others bikes over the pass, while Jack and Paco found more interest in chasing a group of sheep into steep birch forest. A partially shielded section of muddy trail on the border of France and Spain was our savior, allowing us to cocoon ourselves in the tent, and listen in awe to the forces of nature at work. A sopping wet tent, and icy pack-up had our sailor’s mouths continuing, as we trudged along boggy tracks and steep rocky trails through beech forest shrouded in clouds. Our brief joy at reaching the misty summit was dashed when Zoa realised her brake pads were kaput and we were too frozen to consider changing them, meaning a 4km walk down the mountain to Ronsecevalles. A tough start, but only 750 odd kilometres to go.

Hola Espana (ahem… Basque Country)

It doesn’t take long to find out that many Spanish people don’t think of themselves as Spanish. They are Basque, Catalan, Galician, etc. Many dislike central control from Madrid and some can’t stand to be associated with the Andalucians and their ‘f…ing Flamenco music’. As a pilgrim you are certainly nothing new, just another in the daily stream of tourists and the locals can sometimes appear cold or numb. (Of course there are many exceptions to this!)

The first big city of the pilgrimage is Pamplona, a city most famous for its annual running of the bulls festival, and less famous for its running of the nudes animal cruelty protest). With traffic and roadkill (a badger, fox, and many cats) increasing closer to the city we luckily stumbled onto a pedestrian/cycle path on the River Arga where old men peed in bushes, and a young woman lunged and flexed her buttocks in a tight velvet jogging suit. Cycling through 16th century walls into the city centre of Pamplona had us among affluent architecture, bustling crowds, and a definite rise in mullet numbers (a hair cut I hadn’t seen since the 80’s in suburban Australia).

We enjoyed 2nd breakfast at Parque de la Taconera where teams of workers raked up leaves, and trimmed and tidied the geometric, hedged flower beds. At a tapas wine bar next to a bull ring things weren’t so uptight, with rubbish strewn proudly across the floor of the bar, a love affair with litter that also extends to Spanish roadsides which are treated as convenient rubbish-tips. The coffee and tapas were delicious, but for a hungry cyclist eating tapas can sometimes feel like feeding peas to a Grizzly Bear. An expensive proposition to fill your stomach. As the sun went down, the city sidewalks came to life. While chopping vegetables on a park bench (my new favourite pastime), we people-watched and endured 20 minutes of an accordion busker wailing the same tune. We weren’t sure whether to be happy or feel sorry for him when a group of teens started heckling him.

Detouring away from the yellow camino arrows at Cizur Minor we soon found out that any slight deviation from the camino will have the locals earnestly trying to get you back on THE PATH. THE PATH is often gravel, steep or rocky, so it is best suited to hiking, or a lightly loaded mountain bike. Heavily loaded cycle touring is sometimes difficult and we often found ourselves choosing roads, even if it added many kilometres. So we ignored the well meaning Spaniards and headed towards freshly tilled fields where a lack of trees meant the views were HUGE. It felt like we were going at a snail’s pace towards white, red-roofed villages on the horizon but it was new and it was exciting and we didn’t care.

Beyond Belascoain and its romantic arches and veggie gardens we rejoined the River Arga over a one-lane stone bridge. Running parallel to the river, the NA7110 road started off as a cyclists dream. A new palette of silver, plum, and rust, accented by fiery reds and yellows were painted across a canvas of exposed brown earth. A metre long snake enjoying the late afternoon heat of the road had us apprehensive about camping, but we made it through to dawn to a thumping remix of techno and gunfire ricocheting across the valley. The smells of pine forest and wild rosemary guided us to a 725m pass beyond Guirguillamo, where we had the barren hills and hay-bales all to ourselves. Our first olive and citrus trees, and plenty of bright red chilies took us back to the camino, where fresh faced pilgrims now seemed tired and less enthusiastic.

Humdrum cycling brought us into lively Estella, (where a friendly dog lover had Jack and Paco gorging themselves on dog food and chicken carcasses) and continued all the way to Los Arcos, where we suffered a blow to the ego, trading bonjours with a silver haired French woman who walked past us long ago at the top of the Pyrenees. Wow, we were really going that slow! Zoa suffered a second blow to the ego in quick succession when the big dog Jack had diarrhea (with all appropriate sound effects) in the middle of a busy cobblestone street. Zoa tried to save face by picking it up with a plastic bag, but it proved beyond the laws of physics.

Into the Vineyards

The quiet and hilly N111 (which follows the camino) had us stocked up on wild figs and passing a pair of tired and damp pilgrims trying to hitch a ride. Logrono’s sprawling, ugly exterior made way to a beautiful interior, surprisingly lively for a Sunday. Packed wine bars overflowed onto cobblestone streets where families, and large groups divided by gender laughed and bar-hopped.

On another camino detour we headed for the vineyards of the Rio Ebro. Industrial areas and speeding cars were soon replaced by convoys of grapes and grape pickers. Vibrant rows of autumn colour had us drawn towards purple grapes bursting with juice. “Is it wrong to steal grapes on a religious pilgrimage?” I asked Zoa, “Or do the points gained for doing a pilgrimage allow for some extra sinning?” Hmmm… we decided that as pilgrims all our sins would soon be forgiven anyway and with guilty fingertips stained purple we became lost in the dirt roads of the vineyards. We stopped to ask some grape workers for directions, and were soon offered swigs from an unmarked bottle of red wine, straight from the source. Directed onto Elciego we passed ostentatious bodegas (including the Marqués de Riscal by Canadian architect Frank Gehry) whose fortunes were being amassed by a supply of cheap migrant workers, who had setup camp in the town centre.

We resumed the camino at Najera, a town where Spanish kings were laid to rest and African refugees were biding their time until their next meal. We enjoyed the company of a very merry Norwegian pilgrim, Bjorn, who despite shaving his beard, we correctly identified as Santa Claus. He was into his 60’s, his knees were heavily bandaged, and he found he could not keep up with most walkers, but there was still much to be merry about. As we walked through the vineyards he talked about making new friends every day from ‘the camino family’ where social status meant nothing. “It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor or a janitor here, we are all part of the same family.” But more importantly, he was loving the cheap wine. “In Norway the government controls and heavily taxes alcohol. A cheap bottle of wine might sell for 10 Euro. Here in Spain it is cheap (sometimes only 59 cents a bottle) and usually very good too” he said taking a swig from his hip flask before offering it to us.

While Bjorn settled into a cosy auberge for dinner and more wine, we continued on. We had planned to make another detour onto the road but were pointed back onto THE WAY by a well meaning elderly man. After unsuccessfully trying to explain our decision we followed his finger to the gravel trails of the camino like good little pilgrims. Before long a van pulled over among the grape vines and we had a new record. Three offers of wine from unmarked bottles in one day, this time a sweet rose coloured wine from a man with wild hair and his fly undone.

You Can Go Your Own Way

There are many ways to skin a cat, and many ways to travel the camino. Here are some of the more unusual pilgrims we came across… an elderly Finnish couple, the husband running the whole way while his wife cycled with the gear. A German minimalist walking with only a bumbag around his waist for his essentials. A paraplegic Spanish man cycling with a specialised hand powered bike. An Australian family with their 12 year old daughter. And last but not least a young French couple with their donkey Lulu. We came across Lulu in misty Atapuerca. She had been doing a fine job of carrying most of their gear along the camino, but landed the team in trouble for eating grass in an inner city Pamplona park. A joyless police officer told them they had to detour around the outside of the city, a difficult feat to accomplish from the city centre.

Buoyed by clocking up our milestone of 4000kms on the Meseta plateau of sparse shrubs and grasses, we rejoined the rocky camino with renewed energy. During one particularly social hour of cycling we met people from South Korea, Denmark, Brazil, Spain, Finland and Slovakia (a stylishly dressed woman who looked like she could have been directing an art show, not traversing a country on foot). Zoa got a kick out of overtaking four Spanish mountain bikers who were being held up by an exhausted and grumpy fat moustached man wearing a pink cycling jersey. Our chirpy ‘holas’ were not music to his ears. Before long we were descending into Hontanas, described in our guidebook as having medieval atmosphere, which seemed to translate to cranky old Spanish women scowling and letting us know that our dogs were not welcome for the night. Luckily the otherwise nice town was filled with a vibrant mixture of young pilgrims. A German/Swiss Camino love story, 2 Aussies wearing thongs (the foot variety) and working on their dreads and a surfer dude from Seattle in search of flour for an enterprising young French cook. “Crepes or something… who knows what those Frenchies are up to.”

The next 10km of cycling was like cycling to heaven’s gates. Soft evening lighting on a tree-lined street passing through crumbling ruins, and with a gentle downhill which let your ego believe you had just become really buff. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it didn’t end at heaven’s gates, just an overpriced campground at Castrojeriz which we passed up (who needs a shower anyway?!). In the morning we bumped into our Spanish mountain biking friends again, including the still grumpy fat moustached man in his pink cycling jersey. He must thoroughly hate us by now as he is overtaken on a rocky uphill by Zoa’s heavier bike and 40kg dog, while his friends wait at the top.

Over the Hump

We kept pace with a thick legged Spanish mountain biker most of the way to Leon. He was determined to stick to THE PATH at all costs, taking the gravel path even though it ran directly parallel to an empty asphalt road and offered exactly the same view. At one point where the arrows were not so obvious, he worried he had strayed off the path and he might be struck down by a lightning bolt.

After breaking the third kickstand of the trip in Hospital (the name of the town) we struggled into the beautiful centre of Astorga, formerly a Celtic settlement, turned Roman stronghold, turned Napoleon hangout. Within 30 seconds of dismounting we had 12 people surrounding us and snapping photos, including a fit mountain biker from Munich. Having been recently told of his part in his company’s cost reduction plan, he was seeking a spiritual and active holiday, and we enjoyed his company on and off for the remainder of the camino.

From Astorga it was up, uP, and UP to the highest point of the camino. A wonderful refuge/ cafe at Rabanal del Camino came just at the right time. We enjoyed a big carb hit of tortilla sandwiches in the warm and inviting courtyard. Recharged and with calm weather, it was surprisingly easy going up to 1500m altitude, cycling on gentle grades with views of oaks browning among carpets of purple heather and distant mountains topped with wind turbines.

The steep downhill provided one of the scarier moments of the trip. The arms of Zoa’s trailer worked loose. We thought the welding had failed until we realised that it was secured in place by screws that had worked loose in 4000kms of bump and grind. Outside a café we were invited to take showers and camp outside a pilgrim auberge in Molinaseca, but unfortunately the message didn’t make it to the receptionist. When Zoa arrived with a towel in her hand and tried to explain about “the man on the mountain who called the auberge manager, and he said it was ok to shower here, we have the dogs” the receptionist seemed confused at best. “You are from Canada, just speak French!!” Her butchered French didn’t do much better until a translator stepped in and the bewildered receptionist contemptuously waved Zoa through.

Galicia, the Land of Rainbows

32kms of mountain scenery and progressively steeper grades took us into Galicia and a spectacular sunset over the isolated medieval mountaintop town of O’Cebreiro (1300m). The lush green hills and stone architecture seemed more like Ireland, not Spain. This feeling was only reinforced by Celtic music blaring out of tourist gift shops and the smells of food roasting over open fires coming from cosy pubs. The town is said to have retained its Celtic origins and Gallego dialect due to its isolated position in the mountains, and is one of the more memorable points of the camino.

Just as we were talking about it not being the harsh, windswept Galicia we had read about, clouds pulled across the stage like a theatrical production. By the time we reached Portomarin that afternoon we were completely drenched and chilled to the bone. That’s more like it! Sun one moment, heavy rain the next. Galicia, the land of rainbows and cranky cyclists. The entry into Portomarin was spectacular with bridges crossing an empty reservoir richly coloured in layers of earthy browns and elven greens. Of course our camera decided it was time to hibernate, no matter how much I tried to jiggle and curse some life back into its batteries.

For the first and only time of our journey we decided to split the team up temporarily so I could go full pelt through some woodland trails (as pleasantly described on our map) while Zoa took the road to the next town in 20 kilometres. It turned out the ‘woodland trails’ were not what I had imagined though. In fact they were often steep and very rocky with large pools of water in the boggier parts. I soon found myself stuck trying to lift my heavy bike over some tricky boulders, and in the struggle the small dog Paco came free. Luckily an Italian pilgrim was not far behind who could help me out and Paco, over-excited with his unexpected freedom, eventually decided to come back to the bike.

Before long I was surprised to hear the familiar twang of an Aussie accent. A tall, fit blonde woman in her 40’s stood before me, an archetypal Aussie bush whacker, Steve Irwin with breasts. Her makeshift old bike, with luggage lashed on by bungee cords was leaning amongst a gum tree amidst eucalypt forest, and for a moment it felt like I was back home in Australia. Her back brakes were stuck against the rim and with a limited knowledge of bicycles she had been struggling along all day. While fixing her back brakes I learnt she was an animal rescuer suffering from chronic depression. When asked the ‘why the camino’ question, she responded “either that or a long swim”. As I’ve heard on several occasions she was finding ‘cycle therapy’ to be helpful, and was considering ”pissing off with my bike around Australia when I go home for snake season.”

Re-united we camped at a clearing amongst oak trees some 20kms away from Santiago. There was a definite rise in pilgrim numbers, with busloads of day walkers dropped off to join the last stretch of the camino, kind of like finishing off the last 400 metres of an Olympic marathon. At the grassy top of Monte Gozo overlooking Santiago, pilgrims sat in contemplation before the hectic entry into the city centre. As the traffic died, the charm of the interior increased infinitely, with a maze of streets that you would be happy to lose yourself in. A sunny day allowed for some prime people-watching at the stone plaza in front of the imposing Santiago Cathedral where weary pilgrims flopped down onto their backpacks, for 95% of them this was the end of their journey.

The End of the World

Burnt out after long, wet days on the saddle, a rest in a Santiago campground had us reflecting on our journey. Wasn’t this supposed to be some kind of spiritual event? Why do I feel so cranky? Why has the rest of our journey been more satisfying than the pilgrimage? How come we didn’t feel that there was something ‘special in the air’ like others mentioned?

We put our rain gear back on and headed into the crazy Galician weather patterns for the final section of the camino to Cabo Fisterra and the Coast of Death, better known as the Atlantic Ocean. That night we climbed to a prickly camp spot through bolts of lightning, claps of thunder and hail. It was starting to feel like the end of the world and the numbers of pilgrims had now died down to single figures for the day; the rough weather and 30km walks between refuges adding to the difficulty level for hikers. Everyone seemed weary and glad to be near the end. One Irish guy told us “I wasn’t satisfied to end at Santiago. It didn’t feel right. After travelling so long I wanted better closure. What better way than to walk to the end of the land? And what better day to end it on than Halloween, the day of an ancient Pagan festival?”

Galicia is an area rich in Celtic mythology; tombs of Celtic goddesses, traditions of Celtic sun worship (who wouldn’t worship the sun if you lived in Galicia?), and the legend of “St William’s Stone”, where barren couples have copulated throughout history in a Celtic rite of fertility (makes the Blarney stone look a little tame). The landscape is dotted with narrow rectangular stone buildings raised up on stilts. They look like small private chapels, but it turns out they are horreos, ornate storage sheds for corn, covered and raised off the ground to protect from moisture and rodents.

We coasted over gentle hills until we had our first view of the ocean. Yee ha!! We counted down the final kilometers along boardwalks and tranquil sandy beaches with salty air and seafood filling our nostrils. One final climb led to a wind battered cape crowned by a lighthouse, the end of the road, the end of the land, the end of the world. There is plenty of opportunity to find a private spot among the rocks charred black (from a new pilgrim tradition of burning an item of clothing) and enjoy the vastness of the open sea. We headed back to the beach for a late lunch and observed another pilgrim tradition when a brave woman stripped off for a dip in the Atlantic. After daring each other for a good ten minutes we took the plunge into the frigid Coast of Death.

The Conclusion

So, does the camino live up to its recent hype? It is what you make of it. It can be as social as you want it to be, with people from all over the world with plenty of free time to chat and reflect, sharing the same path. You can make it an inner journey or an epic multi-country adventure, a cultural exploration or an egotistical conquest. The landscape, weather and cultures are distinctive and constantly changing. The infrastructure and signage is great – you could fairly safely get by without a map at all, and safe drinking water is plentiful. There is history, mythology. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. From late Spring to early Autumn it can be incredibly hot and can become a race between pilgrim accommodations for those without tents. In Winter mountain passes can be covered in snow. In Autumn there are grapes to pick, chestnuts to roast and wild figs to devour. We would recommend walking rather than cycling to get the full experience. It is most suited to walking or mountain biking, but if you don’t mind detouring off the actual camino path, then a heavily loaded bicycle is ok too. Or for something completely different why not make up your own ‘pilgrimage’ from somewhere in the world to nowhere in particular?

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