Wednesday 14 March 2007

Hit the Trail, Pilgrim!

A Cycling Trip Along the Camino de Santiago

In 2002 I undertook one of my greatest cycling adventures. Here, for the first time on the Web, is my account of this fantastic trip.

An Introduction to the Camino:

For 1200 years, Christian pilgrims have travelled across Europe to reach the small city of Santiago de Compostela, near Spain’s westernmost shore. There in a magnificent cathedral reside the bones of St. James, or so the story goes. And any story that has run 12 centuries must be interesting. The Way of St. James has, in its long history, combined the medieval cult of holy relics, commercial tourism, Spanish nationalism and, ultimately Pan-Europeanism. In 1987 it was declared the First European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the stretches crossing Spain and France (in 1993 and 1998 respectively).

A booklet from the Xunta de Galicia, the provincial government, says: “Due to the encounter on the Way of peoples of such diverse backgrounds, a culture was born, based on the open exchange of ideas and artistic and social trends, in addition to a socio-economic driving force which boosted the development of a number of areas in Europe, especially during the Middle Ages.” This is a very positive view, since the heyday of the Pilgrimage (from the 11th to the 13th Centuries) was followed by civil war, the eradication of Moorish culture, the expulsion of the Jews and the Spanish Inquisition. But there is no question that the Pilgrim Route had a great influence and the vast number of surviving architectural monuments bear witness to this.

But what of St. James himself? Very little is known of this Apostle who apparently obeyed Christ’s instructions to spread the word of the bible as far as possible and ended up preaching unsuccessfully in Spain. He returned to the Holy Land where he was martyred in 44 AD. The thread of the story unravels here somewhat, but supposedly some of his followers turned up with his remains in Northwestern Spain. The bones were buried and completely forgotten until 814 when a Bishop Theodomir, guided by a star, rediscovered them. One of my reference books notes the importance of stars in the Santiago story and it has traditionally been thought that the name “Compostela” is a derivative of the Latin “campus stellae,” or “field of stars.” Sadly, the latter theory was undermined after the Second World War, when excavations under Santiago cathedral revealed an ancient burial site or compostum, a word from which is also derived our rather unpoetic term, “compost heap.”

Pilgrims began arriving soon after the Bishop’s lucky discovery to visit the saint’s tomb and the primitive church above it was soon expanded and improved. The St. James legend took another twist in 844 when St. James appeared on horseback with his sword to help the Christian King Ramiro defeat the Moors at Clavijo, a battle which seems to have been totally invented. Now the story was of Santiago Matamoros, “St. James the Moor-Slayer,” and a tax was imposed throughout Spain, the Voto de Santiago, forcing everyone in Spain to pay to support the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. This tax continued until the 19th Century.

There were several different routes to get to Santiago but the most heavily travelled was the Camino Francés, the French Road. For the medieval pilgrim, the road was a long one, with the traveller expecting to be away for months, if not years. There were many dangers en route and pilgrims often travelled in groups for safety. The pilgrim’s equipment included a walking staff, a gourd for water and a scallop shell. It is not clear how the shell came to be associated with the pilgrimage, although scallops are very popular in Galicia, the province where Santiago is located, but the image of the shell is ubiquitous.

Many hours of continual prayer awaited [the pilgrims] on their arrival at Santiago, where they would be awarded their precious Compostellana, a document which was much more than a mere record of their great journey; it was also a plenary indulgence, offering remission from purgatory. It had in addition the practical value of granting trading rights along the Camino Francés, a fact which led to its being frequently sold on the black market.

The Black Death, the Reformation and other events meant the decline of the Pilgrimage, although building still continued in many of the towns as evidenced by all the baroque architecture. By the 20th Century it was nearly forgotten until a revival of interest and the attention of the Council of Europe helped bring it back to life. The rules are that to qualify today as a pilgrim one must walk the last 100 kilometers, or cycle or cover on horseback the last 200, to Santiago. In 2001, 61,418 people did just this. 81% were on foot and 19% on bicycles. The greatest number of pilgrims were Spanish (64%) but France (4,278 people) and Germany (3,693) were well-represented. Nearly 60% arrived in July and August and 91% travelled the French Road.

Why did I, as a non-Catholic, want to do this pilgrimage?

I first heard of the Camino Santiago in 1990, when I watched a BBC television documentary series on the history of Western art. The segment on the Gothic focussed on the massive cathedral in the little French town of Conques. The presenter, Michael Wood, explained that this huge building, completely out of scale for the surrounding settlement, was there because Conques was a collection point for the Camino Santiago and he briefly explained the importance of this pilgrimage in the medieval European world. Since then I have collected many books and articles about the Camino. A bibliography is included here.

What gripped my imagination was the depth of the faith that the pilgrims must have had. To give up the familiar world and go out on foot for so many months, perhaps never to return, and cross mountains and sun-baked plains, to meet unfamiliar customs and languages and people, in the hope of seeing tangible evidence, the bones of a saint, to bolster that faith. To pass through great soaring halls of the many cathedrals and churches en route, with priests and their mysterious Latin, past the convents and hospitals and fortresses–a physical journey of a lifetime paralleling the spiritual one that is a lifetime, with difficulties and setbacks and ultimately success and enlightenment. In a very small way, I wanted to recreate that spiritual quest and share the physical effort of the pilgrims. I wanted to concentrate only on the Road and not the modern world at all. At who am I to laugh at the cult of the relic, with my autographed concert program of Aaron Copland and Eddy Merckx-signed cycling jersey? Their faith confirmed by the tangible–I think that this is what the pilgrims once sought. In a time when most Christians only had access to the Bible secondhand, filtered from the Latin by the Established Church, the pilgrimage must have been a way to get closer to the roots of one’s beliefs.

One of my weaknesses is that projects initially excite me but as they progress, I gradually lose interest and nothing is ever quite finished. There are times when I feel that my life has not moved at all in the direction I had hoped and I have suffered from the disillusionment and disappointments that are typical for the middle-aged. The youthful middle-aged, anyway! On the Camino, I would have a goal to work towards and success or failure would be easy to measure. A success would be to reach Santiago de Compostela safely, and get a feel for the country en route. Success also meant preparing a record of the journey and sharing my pilgrimage experience with others.

Preparation for the Ride/On to Bayonne

As someone with cycling experience, it was natural for me to use my bicycle for the Camino Santiago. I have a reasonable amount of vacation time each year but even cycling across Spain, to say nothing of walking, would use up a good part of it. This decided, there was now the issue of exactly where to go and how to get there. I planned to begin my trip in the French town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, located near the Spanish border and a traditional waystop for the pilgrimage. This meant I would ride the French Road across the Pyrenees and then continue across Northern Spain. The distance on foot was supposed to be about 850 km from St. Jean. I booked off two and a half weeks leave, giving plenty of time to stop in interesting places and to allow for bad weather and/or mechanical delays.

1. The Credencia
2. Navigation
3. Getting There and Getting Back
4. Finding Fellow Travellers
5. My Packing List

The Credencia

In order to stay at pilgrim hostels along the Camino, it is necessary to obtain a Credencia, a sort of passport for pilgrims. I joined the Deutsche St. Jakobus-Gesllschaft e.V., at Harcampstrasse 20, 52062 Aachen, Germany, which provided me with a Recommendation, in Spanish and French, showing that I was travelling the traditional pilgrim route, and the Credencia, which has on one side spaces where rubber stamps are applied at the various hostels or other locations en route and on the other has maps showing the different ways to get to Santiago. The Credencia is also the evidence that will be used to obtain the Compostellana at the end of the trip.

The Gesellschaft in Aachen is just one of the many Societies or Confraternities of St. James found in Europe and the Americas. It produces an interesting quarterly publication, Sternenweg, and organizes events related to the pilgrimage.


Much of the Camino Santiago is simply not suited for cycling, even with a mountain bike, let alone a sports/touring bicycle such as mine. I went through my guidebooks carefully and then drew up a route that paralleled the footpath wherever possible. Generally this did not seem to be a problem, although I was a little worried by the lack of small country roads in Spain, which meant I would have to follow some of the larger national highways. I took a yellow highlighter and drew up my route using Michelin road maps Nos. 442 and 441, scaled at 1/400,000. I found the maps to be quite suitable and easy to handle. As well, I had a Freytag & Berndt map, No. 4, showing all of Northern Spain at a scale of 1/500,000 and I used this while at home to get a general overview of the route and to consider my options for returning back to Berlin.

Getting There and Getting Back

Using the Internet, I found that there was a train from Bayonne, France to St. Jean every morning and that it carried bikes. The idea of taking a train from Berlin to Bayonne was dismissed quickly as that alone would take up two days each way and, from what I had read, French railways were not bike-friendly. So, it was time to get out the hardshell bike case and go flying.

The only airline that flies to Bayonne is, unsurprisingly, Air France, and I learned that the airline does not have special rates to carry bicycles. I would be on the hook for overweight charges if I checked more than 20 kg, and since my case weighs 12 and the bicycle 10, this seemed very likely. At 10 Euro per kilo, this could be very pricey. However, I could find no alternative as Iberia, which would charge 100 Euro for the bike round trip, did not seem to fly to San Sebastian, the nearest town on Spanish side but rather to more distant Bilbao. The airfare was also considerably more than Air France wanted.

The second problem was how to get back to France (and the precious bike case) from Santiago. Spanish trains do not take bicycles at all unless it is an overnight train and the bike is disassembled. Strike one. An internal airline flight was extremely expensive and I still had the problem of shipping the bike. I did not want to send it on an airliner without a proper case. Strike two. Renting a car was not terribly expensive but would mean that I would have to shift a standard transmission, which I do not enjoy very much, drive right across Spain on my own and still not be able to get directly to Bayonne as the rental cars were restricted to domestic trips unless I wanted to pay a ridiculous surcharge. Strike three and out? Not quite. My last hope was using a Spanish long-distance bus line and although the first one I tried would not take bikes, the second one, ALSA, did, thanks to some assistance from my Spanish-speaking colleague, David Weiner. At least the bus would get me to San Sebastian in one long day and the cost was very reasonable. I would just bring the right tools to take apart the bike and try and find some bubblewrap in Santiago. Problem solved, but all of this took a lot of time and effort to figure out. But if it was easy, it would not be a pilgrimage, right?

Finding Fellow Travellers

With the logistics decided, I then moved on to the next part of my plan, which was finding someone to ride with. It is hard to remain motivated when cycling long distances alone and I was certain that there would be another cyclist interested. I ran a little classified advertisement in the bi-weekly TiP magazine in Berlin and then put an ad into the monthly magazine for sporting cyclists, Tour. I received one answer in Berlin, requesting more details of the planned trip, and heard nothing more. Strike One. I received two replies to the Tour ad, both from women. One was a teacher and she would not be able to go until later in the season (I had indicated May/June as my time). Going later meant facing the heat of a Spanish summer as well as having to organize my return to North America in August when my posting in Germany ended and I was not willing to do this. Strike Two. The other reply came from a nice lady in Aachen who had just taken delivery of a new Colnago racing bike. This sounded promising but she then talked about possibly borrowing another bike to ride the Camino rather than risk scratching the new bicycle. I had the impression that she had never actually done a long bike tour and I did not think starting off with the Camino was a good idea, especially with an unfamiliar bike. This would be my longest bike tour since I went from London to Munich in 1974 and even though I was a bit nervous about this adventure, at least I was using equipment I had grown familiar with over three years in Germany. So, Strike Three. On this journey of self-discovery, it was already clear that if I did not do things myself, they would not happen.

My Packing List

With my flight booked Berlin-Bayonne and return and my Santiago-San Sebastian bus ticket reserved, it was time to figure out what I actually was going to take with me. I draw the line on weight and I was determined to get by with my usual two rear panniers, a handlebar bag and my little saddle-mounted tool bag. I laid everything I wanted to take on my dining room table and immediately took away half of it. My final packing list is below and would be helpful for anyone considering a reasonably long bike trip.

In the end, this worked out quite well for my two-and-a-half weeks. I should have added another tube of laundry detergent, a long-sleeved shirt and complete rain gear as well as the wind vest I took. I also should have stuck with my original plan to use cycling-specific shorts and jerseys during the ride as they would have been easier to clean and dry than my touring shorts and cotton casual shirts at no additional weight. Then I probably would have taken my SPD racing shoes but this would have meant the added weight of two pairs of shoes rather than just using my SPD touring/walking shoes. Such is bike touring–decisions, decisions. And everything fit easily in the panniers and handlebar bag, with room to spare.

(For the uninitiated, SPD is the Shimano clipless pedal system that allows you to actually walk in your biking shoes as the cleats are slightly recessed and clever rubber blocks are installed around them. It has been superceded by SPD-R for racing pedals, but still is used, and has a large following, for mountain bikes. SPD-compatible pedals for road bikes are still made by other companies.)

My Packing List:

Two Moutain Equipment Co-op (MEC) pannier bags
One MEC handlebar bag
One saddle bag for tools
Rain covers for saddle bags and handlebar bags
Rear rack and fittings
MEC stuff sacks

Bike equipment:
two water bottle holders
two plastic water bottles
three spare inner tubes
extra valves for aero rims
Crank Bros.® SpeedLever tire changing tool
spare brake blocks
three-sided wrench
cable lock
bungee cord to hold sleeping bag on rack
pedal wrench

Personal care:
razor, extra blades
shaving cream
toothbrush and toothpaste
lip balm
nail clipper
bath & shower soap
Sixt Gesäss-Creme ointment
sun block
first aid kit

energy bars

a) for cycling
2 pairs gloves
touring shorts
SPD hiking shoes
3 undershirts
sport sunglasses
Gore-Tex® wind vest
leggings, arm warmers
b) for off-bike
four short-sleeved shirts
dark green pants
2 t-shirts
four pairs socks
swimming trunks
baseball cap
travel detergent in a tube

Plane ticket
hotel confirmation
pilgrim pass and accreditation
phrase book
guidebook and maps
address book and pen, business cards
cash, credit card and bank card
airmail stickers
reading material

Olympus camera and film (10 rolls)
cellphone and charger
Swiss Army knife and keys
travel alarm clock
sleeping bag
packing tape
scissors for packing tape
bubble wrap sample
picnic supplies (knife, spoon etc.)
Berlin teddy bear mascot

The next installment: we actually get underway!

No comments: