Compared to slogging it out on foot, the road to Santiago looks different from a bike seat.
The pilgrimage across northern Spain—known as the Camino de Santiago, or the route of Santiago de Compostela—is a monthlong trek through vineyards, meadows, Sherwood-esque forests, and barren mountaintops. Starting in the French Pyrenees, the Camino winds through hundreds of villages that have sprung up like crocuses along the route. It ends at the sandstone cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of Saint James are said to rest. Traditionally, Catholic pilgrims halved their time in purgatory by braving the 750-kilometre, bandit-haunted route.
Of course, by 10-speed mountain bike, the journey to penance zooms by a lot quicker. This struck me last spring as my girlfriend and I struggled to pedal our pannier-strapped bikes to the highest point on the trail, the Cruz de Hierro in Galicia, at 1,517 metres. Two weeks into our ride, we were still several days away from the saint’s bones, but after surviving mud, rain, sun, and copious glasses of local wine, I still felt we had earned our place in the pantheon of peregrinos (pilgrims). After all, we had stopped at countless churches, rubbed blisters between our toes, and slept in 60-person hostels. We had even sacrificed a digital camera in a bumpy section near Pamplona, when it popped out of the pannier while our eyes were glued to the road.
Yet after reaching the crest of the Cruz, I still felt guilty over my comparatively easy ride. I tied down my gear, adjusted my sunglasses, and raced downhill past hundreds of walkers who carefully stepped along the rubble-strewn trail, leaning on walking sticks, their backs bent under 60-litre packs. I urged them on with a cheery “Buen Camino!” but felt sheepish as I watched the scenery unfold from my bike seat, wind cooling my face.
Was this nagging guilt a form of penance?
Traditionally, the entire Camino was a journey of atonement. Kings, queens, knights, and peasants all trekked the Way of Saint James mumbling prayers and walking in hushed contemplation. (After my iPod batteries died, I too spent hours in silence, thinking of nothing, staring at the wide blue sky and endless meadows above my handlebars.)
Apparently, the road was a meandering one even for Saint James himself. The Museo das Peregrinacións in Santiago de Compostela and my reference book, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago, tell the story. According to the medieval Jacobean legend, after preaching in Spain, Saint James returned to Jerusalem and was killed. His followers carried his body to Jaffa, where it was placed on a boat that sailed to Iria Flavia, near present-day Santiago, in seven days.
After arguing over possible burial sites with Queen Lupa of Iria Flavia, Saint James’s followers were forced to place his body on a cart pulled by wild bulls. After the cart was hitched, the bulls became calm. This miracle converted Queen Lupa to Christianity, and the body was buried in a nearby hill. “Rediscovered” in the ninth century, the Apostle was named the patron saint of Christian Spain. Since then, queens and peasants alike have carved a trail to pay tribute to the relics.
Building on Roman-era roads, their steps seeded towns, while faded routes offer braided side paths along the main Camino, passing ruined bridges and villages. Most peregrinos came on foot, but others took horses or stagecoaches. They came armed with the 12th-century version of a Lonely Planet guide: Book V of the Liber Sancti Iacobi, which breaks the journey into 13 stages, noting towns, hostels, local culture, and legends along with advice.
As the route became more popular, the early tourist industry flourished. Beginning in the 12th century, the knights of the Order of Santiago protected pilgrims against thieves, and people from across Europe journeyed to visit the saint’s relics. In 1668, the Italian ruler Cosimo II de Medici left Florence with a 40-person entourage, while the Italian priest Domenico Laffi left from Bologna in 1670 and kept a diary of the illnesses, bandits, bad food, and tough river crossings he encountered along the way. Now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the trail has thousands of visitors every year, most of them coming on foot.
I imagine that early pilgrims who covered the route by stagecoach, such as Cosimo II, felt as I did. Hoisted in a saddle or bike seat, you gain panoramic views of the vineyards of La Rioja and the stone houses of Galicia. But you also lose the satisfaction that comes from sweating out the journey, step by step.
I’ll always remember rolling along the trail, wild poppies and grapevines lining it, with the sun high overhead. Walkers sweated beside us as we bounced over roots, stones, dried-up creeks, and muddy flats, passing miles of foothills, tiny sheep, and patchwork fields. For hours, we followed trail markers—yellow arrows and tiny concrete pillars embossed with a blue-and-yellow scallop shell. We slogged up steep hills in ankle-deep mud, and rolled down cobblestone streets. We cursed inclines with every pedal, but there was always a strange burst of energy when we reached the top, as we took in views of mist-filled meadows, oak forests, and round, thatched-roof stone huts.
When we reached the Camino’s crest, we were greeted by a massive stack of stones of various sizes, carried there by pilgrims (some all the way from home) to represent their earthly burdens. It was a blazing-hot day, and even with the bike I had spent about five hours doing the brutal climb.
The subsequent drop in elevation took about an hour, and I remember my ears popping.
But several all-too-short days later, we cruised into the shining, white-bricked city of Santiago de Compostela. Strolling into the cathedral, we paused to glance at the welcoming pillar, where five tiny holes have been worn into the marble by the fingers of pilgrims marking the end of their journey.
After touring the cathedral and enjoying a massive bowl of gallego stew, we splurged on a night at the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, a converted 15th-century hospice facing the cathedral. Built by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, it is said to be the oldest hotel in the world.
Funnily enough, after I had stripped off my grease-stained biking gear and tossed it in our room’s gilded garbage can, that last speck of nagging guilt melted away.
Access: It’s difficult to take bicycles on Spanish trains, so if your budget permits, rather than bringing your own consider renting a bike and having it delivered to the trailhead at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Ron-cesvalles. A number of Spanish travel companies offer guided tours of the Camino by bike. Visit www.bikeiberia.com/ or www.bikespain.info/en/d_santiago_en.asp for information.
Travellers biking the trail independently should visit www.goxploring.com/camino/. David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson’s The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (Griffin, 2000) gives a comprehensive overview of the trail’s history, art, and architecture.
Save up for the Hostal dos Reis Católicos; a standard room with two beds costs around 225 euros per night. For info, see www.parador.es/english/paradores/ficha.jsp/. Hostels (aka albergues and refugios) range in price, but are generally cheap—from five to 15 euros per person per night. You don’t need to book in advance, and there are hundreds marked with signs en route; however, you’ll need to arrive by nightfall to ensure there’s room. To stay at these hostels, you’ll need a Pilgrim’s Passport; see www.caminodesantiago.me.uk/albergues.html for more information.
Late spring and early summer are the best times to be on the trail; July and August can be hot.