Today, July 25, is the Feast of St. James, Christ’s Apostle whose remains are believed to be buried in the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela which has become a pilgrimage site for Christians since the Medieval times. I biked the pilgrimage route back in 2014 and this is what I went through…..
Finally, after years of procrastinating, I found myself on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, biking the whole 750km. route from Pamplona close to the French border. With a backpack filled with some clothes, a camera, some Granola bars and a bottle of water, I pedaled away on a bright morning along the highway headed west. Like millions of pilgrims dating back to 800AD, I would be making my way to a place aptly called “The Field of Stars” where, legend has it, St. James (the first of Christ’s disciples to be martyred) was believed to be buried.
King Alfonso II of Asturias declared him the patron saint of Spain and a church was built over his tomb. As his popularity spread far and wide in 11th century Europe, people started going on pilgrimage along the route that became known as the Camino Frances. The whole length covers some 789 kms, and the traditional way of doing it is by walking, taking over a month. I did it by bike in twelve days. Many go on pilgrimage for various reasons and some may not even be religious in nature; mine was to fulfill a vow made 10 years ago on a visit to Spain to give thanks to the blessings of what Life has given me.
The first day was hard. I had trained for six months but nothing prepared me for the challenging route over the low-lying hills of the beautiful Navarre province. I struggled doing 44 kms. until Estella, my first stop for the night. There are pilgrim hotels in every town called albergues. Check in for about 6-8 Euros per night and get a bunk in a 4 or 6-bed dormitory room with shared toilet/shower facilities which are cleanly maintained. Most have restaurants serving a pilgrim’s meal of soup, a main course of grilled fish or meat and a jug of wine. For the same amount as your room, you can eat well, albeit simply.
Most days, I woke up before daybreak, and headed out at 6:30am after a quick shower and light breakfast. I would pedal for about 8 hours with rest stops along the way, and stop at the next town at about 2 to 3pm. I usually visit the nearest church to give thanks and pray for a safe journey for the next day. Depending on the flat or mountainous terrain, I averaged 60 kms per day. The longest I biked was 110 kms from dawn till dusk on the flat plains of the Meseta between Burgos and Astorga.
I passed through all kinds of landscapes from plains with wavy grass, corn plantations, vineyards and wheat fields to high mountains with heavily-wooded forests and exposed bare scrub. The towns and cities were beautiful and interesting and it would’ve been nice to spend a couple of days more exploring each one. The exquisitely-designed towering Gothic cathedrals in Burgos and Leon built in the 12th century were a sight to behold while Astorga’s and Logrono’s Baroque facades were selfie-worthy.
I usually biked on the two-lane roads which had a meter-wide space on the side allotted for cyclists (the motorways are prohibido) but sometimes joined the walking peregrinos on the narrow gravel pathway exchanging greetings of Buen Camino! They all came in different nationalities – men, women and children carrying backpacks and pitching tents on the grassy knoll as if having a picnic on a weekend. Sometimes I joined fellow cyclists and we biked together then swapped stories during rest stops over a glass of wine or gelato bought from a roadside restaurant. Many had come biking from as far as Genoa, Prague and even Wales!
The weather was fine most of the time but there were three days when the heavens gave way to uninterrupted rain while I was on the open road. I experienced some bad spills, which made me wonder what I was doing out there – wet, cold and miserable. There were times when I wanted to give up especially in the hard mountain climbs from Villafranca to O Cebreiro when I thought it would be my last outing. But somehow – even surprising myself – I found the strength and determination to go on.
It was quite anticlimactic on the last day when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela. The rain was pouring white sheets, so could hardly see a thing in the horizon. The muddy road plunged downward from the last hill and save for my luggage covered with the black plastic garbage bag, the bike and I were drenched to the bone. It was difficult to read the signs so I tried to find my bearings through what I remembered from the map.
When I entered the Obraidoro (the main square), there loomed Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in all its baroque glory. Ah, mission accomplished! This must’ve been how all the millions of pilgrims who came before me felt as I gazed at the twin steeples: joy, sadness, relief.
I parked the bike outside near the imposing staircase, removed my backpack and carried it with me into the magnificently-lit interiors of the church. As I knelt and started my prayers, I felt a surge of mixed emotions. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion or perhaps just the relief that I made it safe and sound after 750kms, but I did what I had not done in a long, long time… I cried.