Santiago lies in the Province of Galicia in Northern Spain,the name a shortened version of Santo Iago, or in English, Saint James. The disciple, James the Greater of Biblical fame, later to become Spain’s Patron Saint arrived in Spain as an evangelist, and his bones are now believed to be in a casket housed under the Cathedral’s altar in Santiago, brought from Palestine by his followers after he was executed by Herod. The word, Compostela, translated as ‘field of the stars’ refers to the legend from the 1X Century that a star indicated the point where his remains were to be discovered, the present-day site of the cathedral.
In the middle ages, when Jerusalem was besieged and impossible to visit and Rome, just as difficult, Santiago de Compostela became the leading destination for Christian pilgrims. It would have been a long and difficult journey at that time, across this mountainous region of Spain. Pilgrims would have to deal with wild animals, robbers, sickness and injury, and for that reason, Pilgrim Refuges sprang up across the country. Many are still in use today. The Cathedral of Santiago would witness thousands of unwashed pilgrims who had journeyed for weeks without a change of clothing on their long treks to visit the tomb of Saint James. Enter the giant incense burner known as a Botufumeiro and principally used to try to mask the smell of a church full of unwashed bodies.
There is not one but many pilgrim routes from all over Europe and the one rising in popularity is the Camino Frances and the Camino del Norte sometimes called Camino de la Costa. As the name suggests this route follows the coast along the French border at Irun before turning inland at Ribadeo or thereabouts to reach Arzua and the main route into Santiago.
There is now a chain of pilgrim refuges along the coast; where else would you get the chance to sleep in a monastery? The scenery is superb, it is not too hot for pleasant cycling, there are plenty of interesting towns and architecture and because so many new motorways have recently been built in the north of Spain, there are miles and miles of superb roads with hardly a soul on them.
I first did the Compostela de Santiago back in 2007 not long after my mother died and my caring duties were over. It is a journey I would like to repeat one more time if I can and if I have a little more time left. The following is my account of my first journey.
The idea to cycle the Compostela de Santiago had come about after watching a documentary on television about a long distance pilgrimage across northern Spain. I decided this was a trip I must go on. To qualify the pilgrim must complete at least the last 200 kilometers into Santiago, on foot, on horseback, or cycling. Furthermore, the Pilgrim’s record card must be stamped with the sello, a rubber stamp, obtained at monasteries, churches or refuges along the way. It was also significant that a member of my cycling club, Eric Walker, was a leading light in the Confraternity of Saint James, and a great help in the preparations for my trip.
"But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:31
How many times will that verse have been recited, at the start of a journey such as this? A thousand, possibly hundreds of thousands of times down through the ages.
In the early days of May, my tickets arrived from the European Express, along with departure dates and labels for my luggage. For the first time it all started to feel real, I was going off to Spain. The next weeks saw me charging around bike, clothes and chemist shops purchasing everything from a soap dish to puncture repair outfits and an ever-growing pile of stuff started to appear on my living room carpet. All this would have to find a home in two greedy pannier bags on the rear carrier of my bike. Everything was now ready, bike serviced, panniers bags packed and packed again. I did intend weighing myself, then the bike, but decided against this idea, the shock may have been too much.
I had to be at the European-Express pickup point in Bramham by 07.45. Not wishing to be late I did several dry runs and calculated it would take me around two hours from my house to Bramham. What if I have a puncture? Yes, maybe I should add half an hour for unexpected breakdowns or punctures, headwinds, well yes, better add another half an hour for headwinds and half an hour for tailwinds. It seemed unfair to leave out tailwinds since they are such helpful friendly souls.
At the Club run to Otley CC on the Wednesday before my departure date, Eric asked how the preparation had gone and I had to admit my concerns about reaching Bramham on time.
“Why don’t you take the van?” he asked.
“I was not all that keen on leaving it sitting out at Bramham for over two weeks,” I told him.
“If you don’t mind me driving your van, I could come with you and drive it home, then simply drop the keys through your letterbox.”
I could have kissed him, well maybe not.
The Journey Over
The large double-decker coach pulling an equally large bike trailer arrived in good time and quickly and efficiently my bike was on board, (the coach will take any size of bike, tandem, tricycle even tandem tricycles without them having to be dismantled in any way). The coach was extremely comfortable and squeaky clean. By the time we arrived at Dover, I had made new friends and all were excited about their planned trips. I, however, was the only person on the Compostela de Santiago; do they know something I don’t?
The European Express dropped me off in Bayonne (just inside France near to the Spanish border). I traveled on the D 932 to St Jean–Pied–de–Port the official start of the Composite, and a small town nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side of the border. I found my first refuge at the top of a very steep narrow street, and close to the castle. It was around noon and all the staff were seated at lunch when I arrived and kindly invited me to join them. Would I be staying there tonight they asked? It seemed absurd to me that I should stop in the middle of the day with lots of daylight in front of me. After my Pilgrim’s record card was stamped and I said my goodbyes I wobbled off down the hill once more. What was in that wine? I only had one glass full.
After a long coach trip and riding in the hot sun into St Jean-Pier -de-Port I really should have stayed at the refuge there, inexperience really. I paid for it on the climb into the Parageneses. The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.
The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.
Estella Lizarra was to be my refuge for the night and I estimated to be there around 1pm. It had been suggested that I take the minor road the NA172 rather than follow the N135 and skirt around Pamplona before joining the N111 (the new number for the N135) all the way into Estella Lizarra. Somehow I managed to get lost and ended up climbing some of the steepest hills in the area between Erro and Agorreta and ended up where I did not wish to be, in the middle of Pamplona. I was given a map by the girl in the travel agent in Pamplona and managed to find my way back onto a minor road that took me into Urroz then onto Eunate and onto the N111 for Estella Lizarra. It had been a terrible – hot – mountainous – and frustrating part of my journey and it was 21.30hrs by the time I finally pulled up at the refuge in Estella hot and despondent. This was my first experience of refuge having camped up until this point. The staff made up of a Dutchman and two lads from Belgium took pity on me, since the building was in almost total darkness, as everyone was already in bed or by now preparing for bed. I was shown the bike store, where to shower and a bunk bed pointed out to me for the night. I was instructed to join them in the dining room after I had showered, where a meal would be prepared. The meal turned out to be everything leftover from an earlier dinner reheated. Macaroni and cheese, then sausages and salad this was followed by cabbage and French bean soup. Boy, what a feast for a starving cyclist.
Next morning around 0500hrs I was awakened to a rousing choir of male voices. I turned to the person in the bed next to me, bunk beds were pushed together in sets of four to save space and your sleeping companion was only a matter of a foot or so from you. The he I had expected to find was, in fact, a she, oh well when in Rome; she had no idea what they were singing either. At breakfast, I found myself alongside a mother and daughter from Australia.
“You’re from Australia” I said,
“And you’re from Scotland,” she suggested. We talked through mouthfuls of hard toast like slices layered thick with margarine and runny jam washed down with mugs full of tea or coffee. The song I had thought was a Comino song was in fact a Basque song since we were now deep in Basque country. This piece of information came from the mother since she had already completed the Compostela once before and had been invited along on this one by her daughter, on her first Compostela. Unfortunately, the young maiden had caught the eye of a rather handsome Dutchman and they wished to go off together and meet up with her mother later on in the day. Mother felt inclined to say yes but it was clear that she was not all that happy at being left on her own. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising, a large percentage of those doing the Compostela are in fact women and around 75% of those are single girls alone or in small groups. Most walk around 25 kilometers a day, carrying oversized and overweight haversacks, with little effort.
Leaving the refuge at around six o’clock it was just getting light. The digital clock at the side of the road told me it was already 25 degrees in the shade. I made a mental note to stay out of the shade and pressed on to Najera for the night. I was really getting into a rhythm now and the loaded bike seemed so natural that I could happily trundle along at 10-mph with little effort and put in my120 kilometers a day by around noon. This I calculated would have me back in Bayonne in time to catch the bus home. Miss it and it would be another fortnight before the next one.
It was Sunday when I arrived in Burgos, around midday, a very large city indeed with a most beautiful cathedral. The refuge at Burgos was set in the middle of a park, on the grounds of the old military hospital. Wooden huts set out in a rectangle amongst trees, I have no idea what type of trees they were however they had white down like seeds, which fell like snow onto the dry grass. A fire had started and rapidly spread through the park. I sat at a table outside the refuge eating lunch, my floor-show a troop of firemen beating out the small fires that seemed to spring up almost as soon as they had been extinguished.
After lunch I set off into the city and found a fiesta in full swing. In the park surrounding the square children who had just attended their first communion were dressed up to the nines. Girls like young brides and boys in a form of military uniform covered in gold braid. Doting mothers, fathers and uncles were blissfully photographing the children in front of every conceivable fountain and flower bed. The girls happy enough to undergo all the attention lavished upon them, the boys less so and it showed on their faces.
It was a great day for sightseeing since the plaza was full of traders dressed up in medieval dress selling mostly craft goods. There was a baker, cooking these rather flatbread rolls with a sauce inside. The oven he had was made from clay and straw, fired by wood. I bought one cooked in seconds in this furnace, so hot, almost too hot to hold, however, it tasted superb. The crowning moment for me, however, was walking around the corner to be greeted by a long avenue of plane trees with their branches intertwining with each other to form an arch along the broad pavement. In their shade, people sat around outside the cafés. Why was it so special? I had seen that same scene as a boy. My Primary teacher had a painting on the wall of her classroom, it was the same picture, only this was in real-time. I now felt like Mary Poppins, when she and the children had jumped into the picture on the pavement. I was now inside that painting. I had to savour the moment so I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a glass of wine.
The next day I was buzzing around making porridge when this rather well turned out elderly lady came forward and peered into my cooking pot.
“Oh how lovely!” she exclaimed, “Porridge. My husband is from Scotland and makes us porridge every morning, how I do love my porridge”
When I answered, of course, she realized that I was, in fact, Scottish, and went off to tell her husband. Soon I was blessed with the company of an elderly man with a most welcoming wry smile.
“I hope you don’t intend to eat all of that on your own?” he said by way of introduction.
I scooped about half the contents of my pot into a bowl and pushed it towards him. We chatted and ate, and he told me how his daughter had married an Italian and moved to Italy.
“We seemed to be spending more and more time traveling backward and forwards to see them then later on the grandchildren. Our home in Scotland was becoming a liability so we finally sold up and moved to Italy, now the children and grandchildren visit us. It was the best move we ever made”.
It became plainly obvious to me at that moment that Scotland was not a place on a map or a place where a piece of coloured cloth flew from a flagpole. Scotland was in us, those who were Scottish, it was in our genes. Here in this small part of what they call Spain was Scotland. I will never meet him again but every time I think of Burgos I see the face of that old Scotsman with his wry smile.
“Thanks for the porridge” he said as he made to leave, “Just like mother used to make”, and after the perfectly timed pause, as if he was kindling up memories of his reverent old mother stirring the porridge with her spirtal, he said,
“The woman was a terrible cook”.
The joke was as old as he was but his timing was immaculate and I had to laugh.
The N120 took me over to Sahagun then on to the LE232 north to Cea and a minor road west again to St Miguel De Escalada and into Leon, where I stayed the night in a nunnery. It was a beautiful city and my new German friend and I visited the cathedral there. From there it was back on the N120 most of the way into Astorga and then on to the NV1 into Ponferradaand onto Leon. From there it is a hop-skip-and a jump along the N547 into Santiago de Compostela itself.
The journey back to Bayonne followed the coast along the north coast of Spain, I thought it would be flattish, being near the sea, but I was wrong. I did made it back into Bayonne with a day to spare though – this is a beautiful city and the coast has miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches, (and lots of daft laddies riding mopeds one-handed carrying a surfboard in the other, and crash helmets pushed up – the front now on top of their head, – must give them some sort of street cred).
I could go on forever about my trip and of course, it was my trip and will be very different for everyone who takes it on. You will never be alone on a trip such as this; the road to Santiago is a well-trodden path and you will all too soon find yourself in the company of like-minded people, whether you desire it or not. However, be warned, you will not go on the Compostela and return the same person.
I shall always remember the two girls that I met, one crying by the side of the road and carrying her rucksack on my back to the next refuge. The hippies that lived high up in the Sierra de Ancares Mountains in a wigwam. Chatting with two girls from Holland, in the next bunk to me, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I never once heard a cross word in all of the time I was away. There were no papers, television, or radio, it was an isolated world, yet open to the world. I met people from South America, Australia, Holland, Germany, France from just about every corner of the globe, all living in harmony, (there must have been no politicians amongst them). There were no cooking facilities in the refuge at Leon, possibly something to do with insurance since it was a very old convent run by nuns (and no hot water not even in the showers). There was a kitchen but no stove however there were lots of large pots, so I cooked up a sort of stew from tins of meatballs, packets of soup and fresh vegetables on my camping stove. Scooping out a bowlful for myself I passed it around the table to be eaten along with loaves of French bread. A Canadian lad had made a fresh fruit salad, dressed with yogurt, for us. Ulrich Kraussel from Germany managed two bottles of wine. However one of the most unforgettable memories for me came on my last night in a refuge. A group of German Girls who had been traveling together, whether part of a group at home or not, I never found out, but they sang a German lullaby that night just at lights out. Dropping off to sleep I could almost see the Austrian Alps with snow-covered peaks. You ask me what is the Compostela de Santiago and for you, I have no answer, for it is different for everyone who goes on this life-changing experience.