Travelling Along The Camino Frances (OLD)
I recently returned from my trip to the north of Spain to travel one of the many paths to Santiago de Compostela. These paths collectively form the Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James, which has been traveled by pilgrims for over a thousand years in a quest to visit the remains of St. James, aka Sant Iago from the Latin, one of Twelve Apostles. His history is interesting in and of itself but I’m not a historian, you’ll have to read a book.
I originally learned about the Camino from a book called Travels With My Donkey by Tim Moore. I read this book several years ago but had always kept the idea of this trip in the back of my mind for when there might be nothing better to do.
While its not implausible to procure a donkey in Spain and then hike the Camino, I was working under a time constraint that limited me to about two weeks on the trail, including travel from Atlanta to Spain, getting to the trail, and getting home again. Normally it takes a pilgrim about 30 days to walk from the starting point at the Spanish-French border to Santiago de Compostela, though there is no official starting point. Traditionally a European pilgrim would start from their front door and some of the pilgrim’s I met along the way, from Austria and Italy, had done just that. Those of us that aren’t good swimmers have to come up with an alternate starting point. For most people, that’s St. Jean Pied de Port, a tiny town on the French side of the border.
In order to make it to Santiago in the time I had, I decided to ride a bicycle. There are a number of acceptable ways for a pilgrim to complete his pilgrimage. As I mentioned you can take a donkey, ride a horse, walk, or ride a bicycle. Donkeys and horses aren’t very popular these days though they’re not unheard of. I was told by several pilgrims that there was a donkey a few days ahead of me though I never caught up with it.
Having considered my options for obtaining a bicycle in Spain, I decided to take my own bike. I have a Trek 7.5FX hybrid that I imagined would be great on the smooth dirt and gravel paths of the Camino like those always highlighted in books and online, a long winding path across an infinite plain. My bike doesn’t have any suspension. It has a carbon front fork and 700cx38 tires which were the largest, most dirt-oriented I could fit on it. I had dedicated myself to the trail. Most cyclists who are doing the whole Camino use road bikes and travel not directly on the Camino but on the smooth asphalt roads that usually run nearby. As it turns out the trail is a wonderful, if sometimes impossible to cycle, mix of rural road, dirt path, gravel, baseball-sized stones, exposed rock, mud, and every other conceivable terrain. But we should start at the beginning…
Before I left for Spain I investigated how easy it would be to travel with a bike by rail. Spain has a great rail system that I’ve used in the past but as it turns out its not easy to use the high-speed rail with a bike due to limited space and while the slower trains can accommodate a couple of bikes (three bike hooks in one or two rail cars per train) you usually have to make at least one connection along the way. I decided it was easier and more exciting to rent a car in a country I had never driven in. A country with weird road signs and lots of roundabouts and gas stations tucked behind large concrete barriers directly off what we would call an interstate. To make it more exciting it was raining when I got there.
Above is the Berlingo made by French car-maker Citroen. For its small size it has an amazing amount of headroom. Sure it drives like a shopping cart and while it grunts like it has power, it has almost no go-factor. But its a “leisure activity vehicle” according to wikipedia, not a sportscar, so it was perfect for carrying the bike from Madrid to Pamplona.
Several hours and several thousand dollars worth of diesel fuel later, I arrived in Pamplona. Up til now the bike had remained in its box which looked like it was in pretty good shape having crossed the Atlantic, been pitched on and off a plane, and ridden on several conveyor belts. When I unpacked it and got everything back together outside the car rental place the back tire wouldn’t hold any air. Of course I brought two backup tubes and a patch kit, guessing in advance that flat tires might be a problem in middle-of-nowhere Spain.
With the bike back together and a new tube I set off to explore Pamplona. I had made some semi-confirmed arrangements to take a shuttle to St. Jean Pied de Port the next day so I had a wet afternoon to spend riding around Pamplona before retiring to a hotel. All of which, I found out later, were full because it was the weekend before a national holiday in Spain.
The morning I started the Camino in earnest I left from Albergue Roncal on the outskirts of Pamplona. I had intended to travel to St. Jean Pied de Port and ride across the Pyrenees but the shuttle I had arranged did not show up at the bus station. I later got an email informing me they couldn’t show up that day, which was partially my fault because I didn’t confirm the reservation early enough. Albergues are low-cost (or donation-driven) hostals for pilgrims hiking the Camino. To stay here a pilgrim displays their Credencial, which is a sort of “pilgrim passport”, which is stamped by the albergue staff. You can stay in the albergue for one night and generally need to be out by 8am the next day. There are dozens and dozens of albergue spread along almost every town and city along the Camino.
In the first 10km of the Camino I had to climb about 400m to the top of Alto del Perdon (excuse my lack of accents) and down the other side. It had been raining for two days here so the trail became more and more muddy as I made my way up the mountain.
The scallop shell is the traditional symbol of St. James and pilgrims on the Camino. Many pilgrims wore (and still wear) large scallop shells as pilgrims of St. James. You want the biggest one you can find because in the days before rubber stamps and Camino tourism:
The pilgrim … would present himself at churches, castles, abbeys etc., where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one [scallop] scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine. Thus even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened.
The mud was so sticky it would bring stones up with it as the tire rotated, jamming the tire in the fork. I had to stop every couple dozen feet to clean the front fork and the rear brake out. Eventually some pilgrims I had passed in the last small village caught up to me and passed me.
The great thing about going up, is going down the other side. There were many downhills on the Camino, some of them I could fly down without worry, others were very rocky and required heavy usage of the brakes. This way down was fast but rough and with all the mud around the brake pads they faded quickly.
Puente La Reina. The bridge was built by the wife of the King of Navarre, Sancho III in the eleventh century to make it easier for pilgrims to continue their journey. Its in pretty good shape for its age.