“We’ve got them” I shouted excitedly as I ran into the house, almost slipping on the step while clutching an envelope. John looked up from his book in alarm then smiled as he realised what I was talking about. He tore open the envelope and two thin yellow booklets fell to the floor. For a second we both stared at them, speechless. These were what we had been waiting for – the Pilgrims’ passports which heralded the beginning of our trip to Spain.
The Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain is becoming increasingly popular and the route is generally tackled by walkers, although there were other cyclists. We planned to cycle on the main roads, especially if the trails looked too dusty or muddy, or just very narrow.
And so one sunny July day some years ago, we left home with the two bikes and as few clothes as we needed, and were transported to our starting point having bought tickets on a large coach bound for Bayonne in France.
The first day was the most challenging because we set off from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port near the French–Spanish border. The trail takes you up and over the Pyrenees and much of the time we had to get off the bikes and push them up steep inclines. We might as well have joined those walking on the parallel path with heavy backpacks – we certainly walked almost as much as they did. John said that if ever I wrote a book about the trip, I should call it “The Walking Cyclist”. Such a comedian.
[Our fully laden bikes.]
Each night we’d stop at an albergue (Spanish for hostels) and sleep in shared communal dormitories, although there were separate toilet facilities for men and women. The only time we slept in separated dormitories was when we reached Leon and booked into the Monastery there. Run by nuns they obviously didn’t relish the idea of men and women sleeping in the same rooms.
Not that anything went on because everybody had just spent a very long, and often scorchingly hot, day walking or cycling and were exhausted. Come to think of it, there was one night when I was woken up from deep slumber and noticed a bed rocking around in a rather violent fashion. I simply closed my eyes and was soon asleep again.
We knew that cycling the Camino would be no picnic and some days were spent in a haze as mile after mile we’d sit on the saddles willing our legs around and around just to keep going. But most days were a delight. Like the time we found ourselves riding along a river valley with the occasional incline, hardly a hill, thrown in for good measure.
The stop at Roncesvalles was an education. Neither of us can speak Spanish very well, so didn’t bother with the usual evening tour. But refreshed after a shower, the village warranted investigation. The priest conducting the tour beckoned us to join them as they walked into an imposing building called the Silo of Charlemagne, the oldest building in the village. It is an unusual structure, square and low, and surrounded by iron railings.
[Silo de Charlemagne.]
Inside we were guided to a pit with a mass of human skulls and other bones. Wishing now that we could understand what was being said, we mused over this rather macabre spectacle long after the group had walked on. Only when the priest rushed back into the building motioning to us to follow him, did we realise that we had been in danger of being locked in for the night!
“The skeletons are the remains of peregrinos who didn’t make it,” one charming young lad told us later as we sat in the common room. The girl beside him scoffed and said “A likely story. I heard that they are the remains of brave soldiers who had fought alongside Charlemagne”. Having been half dozing in the corner of the room, I sat up, excited now that his name had been mentioned.
I recalled that, back in the confines of our tiny house back home, I’d pored over anything on the internet that I could find about Charlemagne. Pictures of him astride a rearing horse, with sword at the ready, flashed through my mind. “I heard that the old French poem ‘Chanson de Roland’ is about his son,” I said. “Yes,” the girl turned towards me, “He and his father were fighting the Basques who held sway back in 778. Roland’s father-in-law took the side of King Marsila who had vowed to overthrow Charlemagne. Marsila was the Saracen King of Zaragoza.” “Who won?” I said. “I don’t know” and we both laughed. Her parting remark was “But the poem apparently recounts the battle”.
Occasionally, it would be foggy and surprisingly cold when we left the comfort of an albergue. But it never stayed like this and soon the sun burned off the fog and concentrated on burning us instead. We rode passed fields of healthy-looking wheat and corn, and occasionally noticed hills in the distance that were littered with huge wind turbines. Far in the distance, their powerful arms appeared to move silently in the breeze.
I could have ridden for hours, lost in my own thoughts and enjoying the view. Then we’d come across another quiet village and stop by a cafe. At Puente La Reina, we drank cokes at the foot of the bridge, then walked around the local church there. The Church of Santiago El Mayor, built around the 11th or 12th Century was later extended to give it a more Gothic appearance. It has a beautiful Romanesque main frontage with Moorish influences. Not to be outdone, we also came across a second church (the Church of Crucifijo), which was founded by the Knights Templars in the 12th Century. Although not well documented there is plenty of evidence that the Templars had a huge bearing in this area – and I was loath to leave. I have always been interested in the Knights Templars as there is evidence of their existence not only in many parts of Europe, but also in the UK.
The remains of a bridge, once a major contributory road from the Roman era and now part of the peregrinos’ trail made a welcome stopping point. All this time later and people still walk over the bridge towards Santiago. It was obviously not good for cycling so we didn’t stay long and were soon back on the tarmacked road.
[Pictured above: rare to find a path both cyclists and walkers can share!]
Village after village and soon we had reached Ventosa, where we decided that the path was luckily wide enough for walkers and cyclists, and also quite smooth so easy to ride on. This led us straight to an open-air stall, manned by a well-known local called Marcelino Lebato. What a character – him and his stall of boxes full of fruit and cookies flanked alongside scallop shells (the official icon of the Way of Saint James) and tiny smooth pebbles with yellow arrows painted on them. Everyone wanted to stop and talk to Marcelino.
At one point he turned to two young women who were walking with their own make-shift walking sticks. “Throw those sticks away” he remonstrated with them. “You must buy some of mine.” He turned towards a collection of brightly decorated smooth sticks. While I, privately, thought that Marcelino’s sticks were probably a better choice than the ones the girls had, they refused the offer, saying that they had managed so far with what they had. Marcelino seemed suitably offended and told anybody who would listen that the girls would soon wish they had taken up his offer. He was probably right because the sticks the girls had were rough and misshapen, whereas his sticks had been sanded to leave a smooth finish.
Halfway to our destination, we decided to book into a hostel with private rooms. For once, no snoring, no disturbed nights with others coughing or getting up in the middle of the night to use the facilities. Absolute bliss after a day’s ride in the heat. Sitting on one of the twin beds, we were examining the map and it suddenly dawned on me that we were about as close to Santander as we were to Santiago. I asked John if we should divert and make our way to Santander and catch a ferry back to the UK. He said that I had to make the decision. I was tired; indeed, exhausted would have been a more apt word. But still at the back of my mind was the thought that we had wanted to ride all the way to Santiago.
I rattled off a quick text to our eldest son, granddaughter, and sister, who I did not get a reply from. Son’s curt reply was just what I could have expected from him “Don’t be such a coward”. The granddaughter, bless her, wrote:
You can’t give up now, you’ve reached your halfway mark. Please don’t give up, you can do this. Just because the temptation is pulling you away, doesn’t mean you have to give up.
Her encouraging words galvanized us both and we decided to carry on.
[More than half way there.]
Some time later, we came across a stunning village called Castrillo de los Polvazares. It is famous for its location and well known for being used as a backdrop for Spanish films. This was easy to believe if only because of its aesthetics and building materials. The roads, houses and shops are made of local stones and slates typically in the Maragato style – low, humble buildings of one or two storeys clustered tightly together around winding cobbled streets. You could walk around the whole village within 45 minutes. It appeared to be deserted and no shops seemed to be open.
[Castrillo de los Polvazares.]
I am so glad that we decided to carry on riding. We had met so many amazing people on the way. Like the lovely group of French people who, when we were at our most exhausted (having just reached the top of the Pyrenees) shared their cake and coffee with us. A young nun who was on sabbatical near Pamplona who insisted on giving us both a blessing before we rode on. And the young cyclist who was riding the Camino because he was unemployed and the priests in Leon insisted on serving us personally because we just happened to be seated by him in the evening. He was the epitome of a true pilgrim.
Cruz de Ferro was where we left our stones. The small collection of stones that family members had given me from their gardens. There were quite a few other pilgrims gathered around when we had reached it and we had to wait our turn before we, too, could climb to the top of the mound to deposit our small collection of stones from home. An emotional experience for both of us.
Cruz de Ferro was at the top of a hill and we had been warned to be careful on the descent. I didn’t have to be told twice and set off gingerly following in John’s wake. I found myself simply trying to keep upright on the bike as the road twisted and turned at an alarming rate. It was all I could do to keep my hands firmly on the brakes, although John had reminded me not to keep the brakes on continuously. Bike tyres have a nasty habit of bursting under the constant friction of brake to tyre in such high temperatures as we were experiencing on that day, and we were soon to both witness this in action.
[Luckily no one was hurt!]
While I was concentrating on taking it easy, especially on the tight corners, I heard a massive bang in the distance – unmistakably the sound of a rubber tyre bursting. I prayed that nobody had been hurt. Eventually, as I cautiously turned another bend, I caught up with John and three very lucky young men who were in the process of fixing a burst tyre. After checking that they were all ok and didn’t need any assistance, we set off towards El Acebo.
This tiny village (if you could even call it that) has a rustic charm, with narrow streets, stone houses and slate roofs. But all I could do was flop into a chair while John went in search of some cool drinks. Just about everybody who sauntered in, whether walking or on bikes, looked as though they had stretched themselves to the limit. We must have all looked a sorry sight to the casual onlooker, and John and I were to spend a long time here, if only to recover from the heat and horror of the steep descent. A small plaque nailed to a wall tells of the death of a German cyclist who had over-compensated on one of the bends near here and crashed.
Another day, another ride but this one proved to be extra special. Shortly after we had left the albergue we rode through a thickly tree-lined area infused with the heavy scent of conifers, while being serenaded by a dawn chorus of birds busily singing with abandon.
The noise of these birds, delightful in their own way, was deafening. Indeed, we hadn’t realised just how loud they were until we emerged from the area where the road once again became barren of trees and we were greeted by an eerie silence. I had to stop myself from turning the bike around and retracing my steps back into the trees!
Occasionally we came across groups of young people singing and shouting over to each other as they walked along – not a backpack in sight these lucky youngsters must have had help. Now that’s the way to do a Camino – they were enjoying the experience with gusto. The going was quite slow in these sections, often bringing us to a complete stand-still because many people simply weren’t watching what was going on around them. I’m sure I would have been the same if I was walking, rather than riding. We both had bells that would give out a low, apologetic ring as the last thing we wanted to do was startle people. But these were often either ignored or not heard.
We came across a young family with a donkey. Of course, everybody clambered around them, interested to hear about their adventures. The young man, his son and his wife were from Australia and had walked all the way from St-John-Pied-de-Port.
Nineteen days after setting off from home, we reached Santiago. We had ridden the best part of 600 miles and I’d like to stay ‘staggered into Santiago’ but that wasn’t true. Excited at having reached our destination, and equally devastated that our tour was finished, we both had renewed energy. We stayed in a private room for three days. We visited the Cathedral, paid homage to St James whose remains are reputed to be housed here, and even attended an overcrowded service. We picked up our Compostelas which we had justly earned by having our Pilgrims’ Passports stamped at each albergue along the route. Santiago is a beautiful city whose cathedral takes pride of place in the city centre. The atmosphere was electric with so many people arriving each day, having achieved a trip of a lifetime.
Finally, after arranging for the bikes to be shipped back to the UK, we bought two backpacks for our clothes and made our way to the local train station.
As our train gathered speed we both found it cathartic to sit quietly and reflect on the wonderful sights and sounds we had encountered over the past few weeks. Looking out of the window, we were being transported through regions that we had been riding through only a few days before. Under the iron bridge near Astorga, through vine-filled fields, windmills grinding silently in the distance. So many memories came flooding back.
The first train stopped in Henday (just over the border between Spain and France) in the early evening. We boarded the second train (after a hurried bite to eat) to Paris and tried to get some sleep, although both still filled with thoughts of the sights and sounds we had experienced.
The terminal for the Channel Tunnel and our final train, was reached by taking a taxi across from one end of Paris to another. Preparing to board this last train, I handed my passport over to a customs officer who grinned broadly (I didn’t know customs officers could do that) and said in a strong British voice “well, you’re not trying to conceal yourself are you” – I was wearing my high-vis yellow cycling jacket used to keep me warm.
I replied proudly “We’ve been cycling through Spain”.
[John and me.]
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