Category Archives: Santiago de Compostela 2000kms: a Celtic route
Finisterra to Santiago 91kms (57m)
As I crept out of the albergue in Finisterra, where people were sleeping on bunkbeds ‘cheek by jowl’, there was a massive crowd waiting at the bus stop. Finisterra had truly been the end of their journeys, and they weren’t tempted by the 90 kms trek back to town. As I set off, the friendly 30mph wind of yesterday blowing me southwards, was now directly in my face……and there was a lot of uphill to boot! Half way to Santiago I stopped at the same bar as on the way out, because the lady owner had fed me jamón and chorizo without charging me. She was delighted to see a return customer, chatted incessantly and added a little cake to my coffee (again without charging). Such are the little kindnesses of people. She was full of interesting tales about passing pilgrims.
Along the way, I chanced by other pilgrims, some already friends of the Camino, but others new faces.
Ole, from Denmark, was struggling up the hill out of Finisterra, and when he saw me, he started extolling the merits of the flatness of Denmark, and tried to persuade me that it would be a good cycling destination for me. When he revealed that Denmark had only one mountain, and that was only 200 metres high, I quietly told him I was never likely to go to Denmark for a cyling holiday. He smiled wryly and took my point.
Antonio, a walker, and I had coincided in Lourenzá (he’s from Cádiz) and I said if we were to meet again on this trip, then something was seriously wrong…..! We did meet again…………and he coyly admitted he had caught a bus. I said to him “Qué más da?” (so what?). Everybody should do the bits of the Camino that suit them. He wasn’t chasing a
“Compostela” just for the sake of proving he’d completed the journey.
Irek, from Poland, had a serious language problem. His only other language was Russian, and he knew so little English that we resorted to sign language and common international words to get by. I gathered he had done the whole of the Camino francés and was about to return by bike to Lourdes. He certainly understood my farewell greeting of “buen camino”. But he must have spent several weeks communicating his way across Spain with minimal language.
José and Lucía had cycled the Camino portugués from Lisbon, and we had met in a restaurant in Finisterra as I was tackling a plate of chipirrones en su tinta (cuttlefish in its own ink). José turned out to be a fan of Barcelona, and he was trying to convince me that Man U had no chance in the Champions Final. He realized quickly that he didn’t have to try too hard. Like many Spanish men,
he was utterly puzzled as to why I had no interest in football nor in supporting a team. The next day, we met by chance in Cathedral Square (Plaza do Obradoiro), and marked the occasion with this photo, and an invitation to visit them at their home in Tenerife.
Marc (from Tarragona) turned out to be one of those larger than life characters
who was bubbling all the time, and you never needed to find a topic to keep the conversation going. We met at the pilgrim’s free meal at the 5* Hostal Los Reyes Católicos, where we went for breakfast this morning. This is a fringe benefit of being a “Compostela-holding” pilgrim. For three meals each day, this luxury hotel opens its doors to ten pilgrims (and no more) and you make your
way through the refinement of the hotel to a staircase that takes you down to the basement. Entering the kitchen, a waiter will serve you, and you take your food to a small dining room to dine with your fellow pilgrims. This morning we enjoyed a huge tray of pastries and churros, with as much coffee and colacao as you wanted. This time, there were only five of us: a Brazilian, German, Argentinian, Spaniard and me, and the common language had to be Spanish. The poor German was reduced to sign-language! Even his English amounted to only five words. This tradition of giving free meals to pilgrims dates back to medieval times when the Hostal had formerly been a hospital for arriving pilgrims, and food and clothing had been dispensed, as well as being a place for recovery from the trials and tribulations of the journey.
As I draw the line under this final post, having a few non-cycling days in Santiago is a huge attraction. It is such a monumental city that you need a quiet time of contemplation to absorb it. But before I sign off, for those who live in or near Kimbolton in the UK, where Catherine of Aragón died, I heard a very interesting story from one of the Cathedral guides this morning. When Catherine came on pilgrimage to Santiago, before heading north to marry Prince Arthur, the huge censer (botafumeiro) fell from its moorings as it was being swung during the pilgrim mass. Remember, this is a huge 95 kilo weight! Enough to kill a few people. Apparently it has fallen only twice in its 1000 year history. The people at the time thought this was an evil omen for their Princess. Mmn…..now that’s an interesting thought.
A few statistics Some in the world of cycling keep detailed records of statistics, including altitude, average speed, heart rate etc….. My only interest on these long journeys is distance and number of days. My daily mileages through France were high, occasionally just short of 100 miles a day, but once into Spain, a
combination of terrain, weather and interesting diversions kept my averages to about 65 miles per day. Overall, the journey to Santiago was 1262 miles (2013 kms) over 18 days, averaging about 70 miles (112 kms) per day. Amazingly, my journey from home to Rome (via Canterbury) last year was almost exactly the same distance (1284 miles), and now that I am in the phase of assimilating the current ride, I’m beginning to see all kinds of parallels.
A false summit? For many, the arrival in Santiago is but a false summit. Some will pack their bags and bikes and go home from there, but perhaps the most intriguing leg of the journey is still to come. The journey west will only conclude when there is no more land to traverse. That’s what the pre-Christian Celts did in search of their promised land. They sought the point at which the
setting of the sun was closest, and getting their was their pilgrimage.
Santiago to Muxía 52m
As I headed out of Santiago, the weather had turned very warm and sultry. Climbing the many hills on the route west proved particularly challenging in the heat, but it didn’t prevent taking a diversion to follow a trail to an iron age dolmen that took me along a dirt track for a couple of kms. This part of Galicia is littered with dolmens and castros, to such an extent that trails have been created and mapped out for those who want to take an extended tour.
As I approached Muxía (pronounced “Mushía”) the effect of the wild Atlantic
had an immediate effect on the weather. It turned very cold suddenly, with a sea fret creating a fine mist in the air.
At the albergue, there was a fascinating assortment of people, many of them travelling
solo. The most intriguing was a young Japanese lady who, with only a smattering of English, left her job and came to spend two months walking the Camino from France. Despite her challenges with communication, she was radiantly happy with her experience, and intends to make some radical changes to her lifestyle when she gets back home. One change will be to move out of Tokyo. A diminutive lady from Colombia, Paulina, had walked across Spain on her own, and is now going to walk back to Barcelona, where she lives. Patrick, from the French Alps, is the first pilgrim I have met who journeys these routes on horseback. Having come as far west as he can, he is about to turn eastwards and ride back home, which is on the border with Italy.
Why is Muxía on the Camino? The colourful legend describes how the apostle Santiago, who was unsuccessfully trying to convert the people of these parts, had a vision of the Virgin Mary coming to shore in a stone boat. And the proof of this? If you look on the shore, there are rock formations that look like an upturned boat, a rudder and a sail. These legends are the stuff of life!
Muxía to Finisterra 35m
A gentle saunter soutwards along the coast, with a strong northerly
wind behind, took me to the most stunning coastal views of the whole journey. Theory has it that Cape Tourniñán may be the most westerly point of the peninsula, but the crosswind was so strong I couldn’t stay on the bike to get out to the lighthouse. Heading down to Finisterra, I passed what is reputedly the best surfing beach in the whole of Spain. The conditions were wild but the sun was shining, and a dozen brave souls were
surfing the waves, in waters that were (I’m told) about 16 degrees C. If I had been a surfer, I would have been sorely tempted.
This lady from Austria (Nicole) was on the last leg of her journey, but feeling an intense loneliness. She had set off on her own from St Jean Pied de Port, but teamed up with a truly international group of about 8 people, and had enjoyed their company for more than 7 weeks. Finisterra had been the end of the Camino for most of the group, and they had to say their farewells. The friendships formed along the Camino can be very strong, and she was going through withdrawal symptoms.
Finisterra is a strong emotional draw for people nearing the end of their long journeys. The Cape and the lighthouse are officially recognised as the most westerly point of the peninsula, and people trek out to the end of the isthmus to catch
the setting sun (which will be about 10pm tonight), to leave their boots or items of clothing they have travelled in, even to burn their clothes, and for the hardy, to take a very refreshing swim in the sea (and it was very refreshing!!!). The last little ritual will be to pick up a scallop shell from one of the beaches, but today the scallop shells have such commercial value (1 euro each!), the nearest you’ll find are cockle shells.
As I scrambled down the rocks beneath the lighthouse, many pilgrims were
having their quiet moments sitting on the rocks looking out westwards. It seemed intrusive to talk, and even more intrusive to be talking on a mobile. There was an atmosphere of quiet contemplation that had as its only backdrop the crashing of the waves hundreds of feet beneath. Thankfully, the commercial impact of tourist shops and food stalls was kept well away from this almost sacred area.
The name of this peninsula, Finisterra (the end of the world) is well named for the end of the Camino. The people I have met here have now settled to the full realisation that it is time to go home, and in those immortal world of T.S.Eliot that I have quoted before: “the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for
the first time”. We should all go home and see our familiar home environment with new eyes. That to me, is the whole purpose of pilgrimage, to go back to where we started and know the place for the first time.
Miraz to Santiago de Compostela 93kms (58m)
The British Confraternity of St James recently took ownership of a parish house in this littlevillage and, with the help of generous donations from members, they have extended, furnished and equipped this new albergue to a very high standard. It stands stretegically to provide the walking pilgrims with another choice of albergue, on a stretch where there is little in the way of basic accommodation.
The reception at Miraz was warm and friendly, from volunteer hospitaleros who come out at their own expense to do a few weeks service on behalf of the pilgrims. On duty were Bob and Barbara, with Ted and Avril there to help with a lot of practical issues, including the assembly of furniture and repairs. Although we were welcomed in to stay, the albergue doesn’t officially open until June 7th, when the Bishop will come to give the house a formal blessing and inaugurate its future role as a pilgrim hostel.
Reaching the goal
The end of a long, arduous journey brings a mixture of conflicting emotions. Any pilgrim will understand this. There is adeep sense of relief that the journey is over, that you have attained your goal, but there is also a “what next….?” feeling that dogs your heels. I have only spent 18 days getting here, but many
walkers take several weeks, if not months to arrive. Although cycling/walking for several hours every day is exhausting, there is something blissfully simple about the process. You have only three basic needs: travelling, eating and sleeping. Life is shredded down to simple fundamentals for a few weeks, and when the journey is over, there is the almost immediate prospect that all those other things that keep us busy from morning till night will reappear in our lives, and we have to acknowledge our responsibilities (family, work, domestic duties etc….).
For me the journey is not quite over. After a day in Santiago, I plan to head out to Finisterra, believed to be the most westerly point of the peninsula and, in pre-Columbian days, it was the end of the world. In medieval times, those pilgrims who could make it (at least another 6-10 days
return) would go out to Finisterra, pick up a new scallop shell, burn the clothes they had travelled in, and bathe in the fresh waters of the Atlantic. Symbolic acts to herald the start of a new life as they headed back for home.
This was also the route taken by the Celts as they sought the land of the setting sun. So in the last stages of my journey, I will be picking up some of the pre-Christian pilgrim traditions and seeking the land of perfection that may lie beyond the horizon.
Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrimage is a major industry here. Groups travel from all over the world to visit the Cathedral and the shrine of St James. Peppered amongst all these groups you will spy the tired dusty walkers and sweating cyclists who will arrive like planes into Heathrow, except they are limping or struggling to pedal up the last steep hills. To cycle into the Plaza do
Obradoiro and stand in front of the great Cathedral is breathtaking. But to my surprise, the square was largely given over to a major protest by young people, protesting about the lack of job opportunities in the current economic crisis. Just like Parliament Square in London, the Plaza is a sea of tents, posters and food kitchens. I believe that in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, they have the protest so organised that they have set up nurseries for children, clinics and other essential services to keep the protest going in the long term.
The big spectacular event in the Cathedral is the pilgrim mass at mid-day, which is packed daily with thousands of people from around the world. The real pilgrims will be carrying backpacks or wearing lycra and will struggle their way through the crowds to line up to “hug” the statue of St James high up behind the main altar, and wait for the amazing feat of the swinging of the huge censor, the botafumeiro, which wafts incense throughout the Cathedral. This is an inheritance from medieval days when the incense was needed to mask the intense smell of unwashed pilgrims, and to kill off the many parasites they would bring with them. I stood right underneath this huge swinging censor (that weighs 95 kilos and needs six men to operate it) as it whizzed only a few feet above me, and inhaled the full strength of the incense as it billowed out from all sides.
Monumental Santiago is a place to spend a few days in. When you collect your pilgrim “Compostela” from the
Cathedral Office (a certificate of completion written in Latin), you can use it to some benefit in museums and claiming your free meals at the 5* Hostal de los Reyes Católicos on Cathedral Square. Dirty pilgrims, however, don’t eat with the five star diners upstairs, but downstairs in the servants’ quarters, and they can only cater for 10 pilgrims per meal. So you have to plan you stategies.
To mark the end of journey, before having the obligatory photo taken in front of the Cathedral, I rummaged about in the depths of my saddlebag to find the small bottle of Iona Whiskey given to me by John Rawlinson (who had led the blessing at St Andrew’s in Kimbolton), to mark the meeting of two great places of pilgrimage. It was appropriate that it was from Iona, a place where Celtic christianity was diffused throughout our land, because I had been following a Celtic route through France and Spain to get to Santiago. As I raised the bottle and took a wee dram, I not only toasted St James, but also the Celts that had preceded him who had laid the foundation of this great journey through Europe.
Oviedo to Miraz 306kms(190m)
Being out in the Galician “wilderness” for the last three days has meant being distant from modern forms of communication, especially Cyber-cafés and Locutorios. But the traverse across the misty moisty lands of the north of Spain have proved more than a retreat from the ‘civilising effects’ of modern living. It has been another world, where the donkey is still a beast of burden, and a scythe is still wielded to cut the long grass.
Oviedo to Almuña 75m
I’ve never been charged so little for a bed for the night! The pilgrim albergue in Oviedo had almost every bed filled, with a lively mix of walkers and cyclists, not surprising when they were only charging a mere 3 euros for a bed. The economy of the Camino brings Spaniards out in their droves to travel the ancient byways. They can walk or cycle the length and breadth of their own country, and rest their heads on a pillow for the night (and have a shower) at less than an overnight camping fee.
The north of Spain was living up to its not-so-hard won reputation: cloud and mist have dominated the meteorology for
several days, the sun has been noticeable by its absence, but I find the heavy misty moisty atmosphere a magical backdrop as I look at the seascapes to my right and the towering Picos de Europa to my left. These weather patterns are certainly saving me several pennies on sun cream!
Then I hit the ‘north Cornwall-like’ ascents and descents of what the locals call “una costa muy accidentada” (a very rugged, indented coastline). No sooner had I climbed out of a deep river valley, but I was dropping down to the next, only to then have to laboriously climb out of that, and so on. In the space of couple of hours I had experienced the heights and depths of 12-15 such valleys, until I got to the point where I was screaming in my head at the sheer injustice to be visited with all of this at the end of a long day in the saddle. But, of course, as all things do, they eventually came to an end…………….. and I smiled when I saw the lure of a bit of flat in front of me.
To brighten up my recovery period from all this, I passed a couple of lads, Quepa and Roque, who were towing a trailer
carrying a surfboard. Before I could ask them “what on earth are you people doing with all this kit” I noticed that Quepa was carrying a little micro-camera, and he told me I was being filmed while I quizzed them. They revealed they were cycling the Camino del Norte and surfing all the best beaches en route. I told them I had been warned to look out for mad people travelling the Camino and, pointing to themselves, they proudly said “That’s us!” They then showed me on a GPS some of the beaches they were going to surf that afternoon. To meet people like these, you just have to travel the Camino…….you won’t meet them driving up the M6.
Almuña to Lourenzá 64m
This was a day for unearthing some of the Celtic traces here in the history of north Spain. I was initially convinced that most of the fortified “castros” were of Celtic origin, but I was left with some doubts after listening to a few local experts explain that the Celts were only one of several ethnic groups to settle in the area. My 10 kms diversion off the Camino, however, was well worth it. The Castro de Coaña is a carefully dug site that shows the structure of a tight community safely ensconced on high ground, and benefiting from luxuries such as baths and community areas long before the Romans invaded the Iberian peninsula.
As I climbed back up to the Camino, I stopped to chat to this smallholder who was wielding a scythe with consummate ease to cut the long grass around his property. When I complimented him on living on such a fine spot with splendid views across the valley, he looked at it somewhat bemused, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Pues lo tenemos todos los días, y ya estamos acostumbrados” (it’s there all the time and we hardly notice it). That made me think: does this sometimes happen to people who achieve the house of their dreams……………?
Then as I passed through a town, a man shouted at me: “Has llegado primero” (you’ve come in first!).
When I asked where my prize was, he told me to go to the Town Hall where they would give me a ‘chorizo’. I jokingly told him the Town Hall might be full of ‘chorizos’ (slang term also meaning ‘scoundrels and cheats’), he then came out with a current favourite description doing the rounds: “No hay suficiente pan para comer todos los chorizos en España” (there’s not enough bread for eating all the ‘chorizos’ in Spain). It doesn’t quite work in translation, but I’m sure you get the gist of it.
At the albergue that evening in Lourenzá, a German couple who had cycled all the way from Germany, not only impressed me with their journey statistics (33 days to cover 2,300kms), but 1,500 kms had been done with his bike’s downtube completely severed. Instead of doing the normal thing (ie. throw the bike away and buy a new one) he had done a series of repairs using ring-clips
to hold the frame together, and he was determined to get to Santiago on the strength of his Heath Robinson experimentations. As I write this, I have just met them in Santiago and they have made it.
Lourenzá to Miraz 52m
A brief stop in Mondoñedo revealed the Spanish equivalent of the Bakewell pudding. This larger than life gentleman took an idea for a tart, set up the production machinery and took out a kind of patent, or ‘denominación de origen’ on this recipe and had it franchised out under strict control. All I can say that its filling has something called “angel’s hair” (which I think is based on marrow or pumpkin) and it is absolutely delicious. It certainly put a few miles into the legs for the rest of the morning.
The albergue at Miraz was a wondrous discovery after spending a few hours wandering the small country lanes trying to find the way. My map for this stretch was totally inadequate in its detail, but I had caught up
with María José again (met in Llanés along with Igor) who had a better map, and we eventually stumbled on towards the tiny village of Miraz. (But more of that in the next post).
At one point, feeling totally lost, we stopped to ask a family party in a garden the way, and no sooner had they answered our questions but we found ourselves invited to join them in
the remains of their lunch, which consisted of “empanadas” (Galician tuna tart) “churrasco” (barbecued beef ribs) followed by cakes and “ensaimada” (Majorcan pastry). For half an hour we were feasted by this wonderful family party, and it was hard to leave their friendly company. They had drawn in these passing pilgrims and shared their table with us. That doesn’t happen up the M6 either!
At Miraz, we were only about 95 kms from our goal, so tomorrow had to be the run into Santiago.
Güemes to Oviedo 222kms(139m)
Farewells were made with fellow pilgrims at the albergue in Güemes, and it was back to the hard reality of the Camino. The walkers had to make some strategic decisions about their destinations because of the distances between albergues. Few wanted to end up spending expensively at a hotel or pensión, so they made their calculations before setting off.
Güemes to Santillana del Mar 30m
I had decided to make today a half day rest, and spend a bit of time in Santander.The great highlight before arriving their was take a boat from Somo and cross the huge Bay of Santander (and cut
off a 21km detour!). It was a gloriously sunny day, with a cooling breeze, and the crossing provided perfect views of the city. Two other cyclists had joined me on the boat, José and Javi, both from Cartagena in Murcia. To get to their starting point in Irún, they had hired a car for the one way journey, and were planning on flying back from Santiago.
Santillana del Mar.This is probably the most visited town on the north coast
of Spain. Like San Gimigiano in Tuscany, the day tourists and school groups flood in by day, and then all disappear by 6pm. So the best time to visit is early in the morning or in the evening when all is quiet. A well known quip about the name of the town goes like this: it is neither SANTA (holy), LLANA (flat) nor DEL MAR (by the sea).
I intended to stay at the tiny 16 bed pilgrim hostel in the centre of town, and happened to arrive at the same time as José and Javi, only to find out that preference was going to given to walkers if they arrived before 6pm. We hung out till then, hoping our names were on the three remaining beds…………………. and finally we found they were. For the princely sum of 6 euros, I had a bed in an albergue that comprised two 8-bedded rooms and a bathroom. Nothing more. For a lounge to relax in, we sat outside, and listened to the local choir practising their repertoire in the next building. And yes, not only did we have a snorer in my room, but the Church clock, about 50 metres away, struck on the hour and half-hour throughout the night! Not a lot of sleep was had that night.
The day begins. Everybody was out of bed by 6am, and their was a bustle of activity, rustle of plastic bags, the squeezing of feet into boots, the grunts and groans of lifting the heavy packs for the first time………..and everybody had disappeared by 7am. I hung around and enjoyed a peaceful snack breakfast before climbing onto the saddle and discover where the sores were from yesterday.
Santillana to Ribadasella 64m
The route today was going to take me out of Cantabria and into Asturias, the land
of cider and coal mining. The town of Colombres taught me about the Indianos: people from Asturias who had emigrated to the Americas, made their fortunes, and returned to form part of the new elite in the community. To emphasise their
new-found status, they built huge houses, employing some of the country’s best architects. Some of these houses are now part of the protected heritage of the region, and they are quite outstanding, if sometimes a little garish.
A confluence of cyclists. As I was cycling out of
Llanés, I spied another cyclist having his snack lunch by the river, so went over to join him. Igor, from the Basque country, had started from Sevilla, and followed the route to Santiago called the Via de la Plata (the Silver Way), and from Santiago he decided to follow the Camino del Norte in reverse to get home again. As we were chatting, to our combined amazement, we were joined by a young lady cyclist, María José, from Huelva. We were amazed for the simple reason she was not only the first female cyclist we had seen, but she was cycling on her own to Santiago. Once all the news had been exchanged, I stepped back a little while Igor and María José exchanged details, and wondered if this conversation would be resumed at a later stage ;0) ………………. And sure enough, I learned from María José that evening that Igor had already been in touch! Watch this space.
A meeting over dinner. A local restaurant in Ribadasella was advertising a special pilgrim menu for only 8 euros. I sat at table with another lone pilgrim, Juan from Mallorca, and enjoyed his lively company for about an hour. When I enquired where he was aiming for the next day, he said “a casa” (home). He had done two of the Camino routes in the past, but he was finding this route particularly challenging, with long stretches between hostels, and very mountainous in between. At the age of 70 he was visibly beginning to accept the limitations of age, and I sensed a quiet sadness about the way he was adjusting to the reality.
Ribadasella to Oviedo 56m.
There is a diversion in the route that can take the pilgrim to Oviedo, and it was
my intention to visit this pivotal town in the development of pilgrimage, and the role it played at the beginning of the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims. However, the diversion is not a simple one. Amongst several climbs, there is a huge one up to 400 metres (1300ft) which seems to go on forever. But there was an architectural jewel on this route that I particularly wanted to visit.
San Salvador at Valdediós. Nestling in a valley at the foot of a steep hill, ensconced amongst the buildings of a Cistercian Monastery, is the stunning Pre-Romanesque Church of San Salvador, built around the time that the Moors were being expelled or Christianised. The design of the building itself betrays Moorish influence, and an artist’s impression of how the interior would have been
decorated leaves no doubt about the Arab influence. For 1 euro 50, three of us had a guide to show us some of the hidden details and explain the background to its construction. And when I detected that there was a pilgrim hostel there, I regretted not having scheduled it in to my route planning. The whole valley was far removed from the hectic routines of everyday life. There was something almost ethereal about it.
From Oviedo I will take a route a little off “the chart” to get me back to the north coast, where I hope to start picking up traces of a Celtic past in this area. My research has revealed that Celts from Britain came and settled in these parts in the 5th century, and I would like to pick up some of the clues as I travel through the know areas.
Bilbao to Guemes 102kms(64m)
Riding the Camino de Santiago puts you in touch with some extraordinary people and circumstances. The Camino del Norte is a much less populated route than the Camino francés, and some would say (rightly or wrongly) that it attracts a more adventurous, discerning type of traveller. I can´t comment on that, after only three days on the Camino del Norte, but I can say there is something special about the kind of pilgrim you meet on this route. The landscapes, and seascapes, are both dramatic along the north coast, but you have to accept that means long ascents that can seriously challenge the legs, particularly at the end of a long day.
The effect of added kilos. I chanced by Enrique again, whom I had met in Guernica, and he was having
serious trouble with his front wheel. He had left his bags at a garage and was cycling on to a town where there was a cycle shop. When we had shared a drink and pinchos in Guernica, he had quizzed me about my small saddlebag and how light I was travelling. He must have decided I had given myself an unfair advantage, only carrying 6 kilos compared to his 15 kilos, and he confessed that this morning he had posted 5 kilos of his stuff back home! I am frequently accused of “minimalism“………. and I confess to it unapologetically. After every trip, I analyse what has, and has not, been useful in my luggage, and I make modifications. It is well documented that amongst the thousands that start their journey along the Camino, the vast majority are carrying far too much, and Post Offices in the early towns are inundated with people posting things back home. The great ´sin´ we all commit is adding the “just in case” things, when many of them are superfluous. A great lesson on the Camino, and for life in general, is how to survive happily with much less. Travelling light is a supremely exhilarating and liberating experience.
They come in threes? I hope not! Half way up a long climb, I was hit by my second puncture, but not because of debris on the road. The tube must have been in a terminal state of decline and just blew around the valve. I sought shade in a shelter by the road to fix it, and Ramiro (from Marín in Galicia) was resting there in the shade. We easily fell into conversation, and he regaled me with stories and
personal reflections that kept me well entertained while I fixed the puncture. He had been a sailor all his life and I suspected he was illiterate, but he was a very wise man who had learned much from the ‘university of life’. I could have spent hours listening to him. I even ended up being grateful for the puncture! Otherwise I would never have met Ramiro.
Albergue at Güemes. I put in a few extra kms today just so I could get to stay the night at the highly recommended albergue at Güemes, about 12 kms from Santander. This had been recommended to me by one of the readers of my blog, and I am eternally grateful to him. The man running it is called Ernesto. The property had been purchased 100 years ago by his grandparents, who had had 15 children, the youngest of whom was his mother. He and his four sisters were born in the house, and now, with the help of a group of 50 volunteers, it has been extended and converted into a pilgrim hostel. And it is a stunning place!! Not only in its hillside location, but also in the quality of its accommodation. Large inglenook
fireplace with blazing fire, comfortable multi-bedded rooms with modern washing facilities, communal meals………… no charge was made, but you could make a voluntary contribution before you left.
Ernesto, who happens to be the local parish priest as well, gave us an illustrated talk about the Camino and its ecology. When he discovered I spoke both English and Spanish, he asked me to be his
interpreter. As I looked around the room at his ‘class’ of 26 pilgrims, I realized that nobody (other than me) spoke English as their first language. In fact the majority were German speakers, and not all understood English. As the talk progressed, I heard my words being translated into German over in one corner, and into French in another. It was a fascinating study in communication.
The evening meal, with a blazing fire in the background, was prepared by a local lady, and she had prepared portions that would filled any hungry traveller. And the wine flowed very freely, freeing the channels of communication in any language…..nobody cared. And when we discovered that a young German called Lucas, walking the Camino on his own, was celebrating his 21st birthday today, out came the cakes and ice-cream, sparkling wine and aguardientes (home-made digestifs), and the party atmosphere was raised another notch.
If anyone decides to travel the Camino del Norte, this albergue at Güemes is a ‘compulsory stop’. It represents the confluence of all the Caminos: both the physical journey and the interior journeys that we all travel through life. It’s a place to rest your weary bones and from where you can leave refreshed, physically, mentally and spiritually. I recommend it highly.
Hondarribia to Bilbao 173kms(109m)
The scorching heat of Les Landes and Gascony in France has now been exchanged for the notoriously fickle weather patterns of the north coast of Spain. While people in the UK are crying out for rain, the Basque country is currently awash. When I checked into the pilgrim bunkhouse in Zumaia last night, everyone was talking about how wet they had got, and the drying room was full of steaming clothes.
Hondarribia to Zumaia 42m
Mileages will now be moderated by a combination of weather and terrain (very hilly), and my
eagerness to take in a lot of places on the way. Now that I’m on one of the Caminos in Spain, meeting other pilgrims is a regular happening, and they come from the four corners of the world. Tonight I’ve just met my first Singaporeans, a couple who had heard about the Camino from a friend in Spain. They are loving the experience, something completely outside the realms of anything they’ve experienced in the past.
Today saw some big climbs, the biggest up to nearly 500 metres. The promised views were completely obliterated by the rain and mist. Once I’d recovered from that, I made my way along the coast to a little fishing village, Getaria, that claims a former inhabitant, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was the first man to circumnavigate the world in 1522 (I wonder how many other places in the world can claim the same?). But as I went to visit Getaria’s stunning church, I met Albino (a Lithuanian) in the church porch, all his worldly goods strapped to
a bike, begging for his next meal. We chatted for 15 mins, I put my loose change in his cup, and he offered to look after my bike while I entered the church. He was obviously a known face in the community, and people entering the church for a service rapidly filled his cup with change. He told me the sad story of his friend who had died recently, having literally drunk himself to death (5 litres of wine a day). Albino looked as if he had a grip on life, and my heart warmed to him.
Pilgrim bunkhouses. In Spain these are normally called refugios or albergues. They are usually converted old buildings, offering bunk accommodation (frequently in mixed rooms) with sanitary facilities of variable quality, but always adequate. The charge can vary from free (donation welcomed) to 10 euros, and breakfast may be provided for a few euros more. The great thing about these places (and I am a staunch fan) is that they bring like minded people together who will qualify to stay by producing a pilgrim credential. Sitting around a table sharing a meal with others on the Camino is both entertaining and instructive. But……….if you are not used to bunkhouse sharing, you need to know that these places may have bedbugs, and you will be sleeping midst the snoring, burping and other ‘leaded emissions’ of fellow pilgrims, whether you like it or not!
To be a pilgrim (part 2). When I met Michael (from Germany) this morning, I told him he
was the true image of a modern pilgrim. His reply was interesting: ‘And I’m not even a Christian’. This led to a short but interesting exchange of thoughts. The term ‘pilgrim’ is an ancient pre~Christian term meaning ‘traveller or wanderer’, a person who travelled in quest of something. The major religions have ‘adopted’ many ancient practices, and converted them to fulfil important religious functions. The Camino I am following at the moment was a pre~Christian Celtic route following the Via Lactea to Finisterra. The spiritual attraction of reaching the ‘end of the world’ was to get as near as they could to where the sun set, where they believed there was a land of perfection.
Since childhood, our lives have been surrounded by myths and legends. If you were to take away the power of these, our lives would be much the poorer. The truth about the legend of St James is not really that important. There is no historic evidence that he really is buried in Santiago, but for hundreds of years people have journeyed in the hope that the legend is true. Doing, in fact, what the ancient Celts had done for centuries……….journeyed in hope. That, for me, is the power of the Camino, and the power of pilgrimage in general……..to journey in hope. We owe a lot to our pre~Christian ancestors.
Zumaia to Bilbao 67m
Bolibar. This small village lay on my route, and I suspected it might have some connection with Simon de Bolivar, the
famous liberator of Latin America. And I was right. Although he had not been born there, his family had emigrated to Venezuela (where he was born) and his family carried the name of the village as their family name. His life has been honoured by the villagers by mounting a museum of stunning quality, that kept me from my journey for at least an hour.
Serendipity again! As I entered Guernica (the village blitzed by the Germans during the
Spanish Civil War) I spied a cyclist and correctly assumed he was on the Camino. We greeted each other and within a few seconds had agreed to sit on a terrace and have some lunch together. Enrique was gallego, from Galicia, and basically he was cycling in a homewards direction. On our way to the said terrace, we got distracted by pinchos(tapas) and wines on a pair of tables. At the sight of free food and wine, we went over to check them out, and it was the campaign table of a
local politician (elections are taking place in the Basque country) and we were invited to join them. We were literally plied with food and drink………..(yes, I know it’s against my principles to drink wine during the day!) and we didn’t even have a vote to pay them back! So that took care of our lunch, then it was time for a coffee on the terrace (not food).
Enrique and I shared conversation easily. We must have recognised something in each other immediately, because the sense of rapport was instant. And we both agreed that one of the wonders of the Camino were the chance encounters, and (in this case) the food and wine that entered our lives as if by magic. Not only did we spend time chatting to the local politician, but he was happy to be photographed with us (he probably didn’t realize how much he was being eclipsed by my yellow!). I learned afterwards that his party is the descendent of the formerly banned Herri Batasuna (political arm of ETA). If I had known that before the pinchos and wine………………..? And the wine, by the way, was a good quality Rioja. They were certainly out to buy votes!
Excuse for a fiesta. No other country can compete with Spain in the field of finding motives for downing tools and
having a party. As I passed through Orio, I noticed everyone was wearing a fiesta outfit, and people were standing around in groups laughing and drinking. So I stopped and enquired………………. One of the lads slapped me on the back and said ‘It’s the Day of the Whale’ (El dia de la Ballena). He must have detected the trace of a mocking smile on my face, so he explained. ‘Every five years, we celebrate the killing of the last whale 110 years ago, because that year the village was blessed with a long period of plentiful food as a result of the catch’. When he’d finished his explanation, all his drinking pals raised glasses and shouted ‘A la ballena’!
Arcachon to Hondarribia(Spain) 219kms(138m)
Arcachon to St Julien en Born 60m
As I left the Hotel de France, I noticed a proliferation of coquilles everywhere, and immediately assumed the owners were ardent fans of the Route St Jacques. When I asked the proprietor about them, he disappointed me when he said they simply served a lot of them in the restaurant and kept the shells for decoration!
Joy of joys! Rare is the long cycle expedition when I don´t have a puncture. I’d shod the wheels this time with special Marathon Plus expedition tyres that should have been puncture proof………….. But like a typical man, I was in denial at first, and pumped up the tyre to see if it was a phantom puncture. Guess what? Three kms later…………….. Two arms of an ‘industrial-sized’ staple had become embedded in the tyre. I don’t remember cycling through any office space…….
Don’t do this without a safety net! I was lured by one of those ever-so tempting restaurant promos you see by the side of the road(menu/plat du jour offers) so I sat on the terrace of a village eatery and had the plat du jour. Sadly, un quart du vin et painwere included in the 8 euro price. This breaks an important personal rule of cycling (ie. no alcohol during the day) but then I remembered that even Tour de France riders (60 yrs ago) used to drink wine en route, even spirits, to get them up the hills. However, the penalty I paid
this time was the consequence of eating some broccoli bake. I was burping the stuff for the rest of the day. Very nasty!!
Riding solo. People are frequently surprised that I ride these expeditions solo. I have lots of reasons for doing so, but one important one is having maximum flexibility. When I arrived in St
Julien en Born, the fatigue caused by my respiratory infection persuaded me to stop for the day, so I asked a passing gentleman if he could direct me to some accommodation. He immediately guided me to his office (headmaster of the village school) and began ringing people. He negotiated a specially discounted rate for me (being a pilgrim) and walked with me to the house. A young couple, Fabrice and Magali, with three small children, were just setting up their Chambres d’hote and had only moved into the village three months ago. Their house was seriously
under reconstruction, but one room was finished, which they let me have, and asked if I would dine with them that evening. New and enthusiastic to the trade, they spoilt me thoroughly. The two hour dinner tested my O level French to its unknown limits, but we handled topics like immigration, education and language learning with surprising ease. And Magali wouldn’t let me go the next morning without giving me sandwiches and fruit for the journey. If you come this way, I recommend you stay with them: 225 Rue des Ecoles, St Julien en Born Tel. 0558435229
St Julien to Hondarribia(Spain) 78m
A day for meeting people. You don’t expect to meet a 23 yr old lone walker, but I did. Christoph was from E. Germany, works as a carpet designer, and had started his walk on the Camino frances in Spain and was making his way north in France. Further down the road I actually met my first pilgrims going to Santiago (and this is after 1100kms). Two ladies walking,
about 200 metres apart , were together in fact. Marie Francoise (Fr Canadian) and Anne-Marie (French) had started their journey in Bordeaux and were expecting to take about 2 months. They looked set for the long-term.
Spain approaching. With the approaching Spanish border I not only expected it to be getting warmer (and it was in the low 30s) but I also
anticipated seeing road-signs telling me that Spain was on the horizon. On the contrary, all I saw were signs to Donostia (San Sebastian) and I assumed that an important political statement was being made. North of the border, I was already in the (French) Basque country, and as far as the Basques are concerned, the Spanish frontier is not their frontier. The first sign to Espagne
came just 200 metres before the Pont St Jacques which divides France from Spain. For the Basques you are simply moving from one region of their country to
First indulgence. No sooner did I see a churrería but I had to treat myself to a ración de
churros. Absolutely delicious, when they are freshly prepared. But these are much better eaten a breakfast time, along with a cup of very thick hot chocolate. Naughty but very nice!
Alberge Juvenil.My accommodation for the night was at the super-modern Youth
Hostel in Hondarribia, virtually empty but for a large group of special-needs children, whose uninhibited sense of fun (and making noise!) made the corridors ring into the late hours. I do admire the patience and fortitude of their carers. However, that night, my respiratory infection came to a crisis point. I coughed continuously, slept little and had to take a remedy for a nasty headache. As I write this (in San Sebastian) I’m certain the worst is over. So today is a
semi-rest day, but I still had to cycle over a huge climb in the severest of rainstorms I’ve ever experienced on a bike. The wind and rain simply enshrouded me. I had to take off my specs so I could see the way ahead!! When I
finally dropped down to the coast, very cold and soaked to the skin, I went into the first bar and ordered the Spanish equivalent of a hot toddy: a glass of very warm milk and a large brandy. It may have done nothing for the infection, but it puts a smile back on your face!!
Lucon to Arcachon 280kms (175m)
From the rolling hills of the north, I now hit the extreme flatness of the Marais. Just like cycling across the Fens, but I was in favour today with St Jacques….. the wind was gently supportive! As I continue south, names evocative of the ‘fruit of the grape’ pass me by: Cognac, Riberac, Chalais, and the Medoc
looms on the horizon.
Small acts of kindness. At a Carmelite House, I was spoilt by the lady running their shop. She tried to find accommodation for me (but not in the House, because it’s an enclosed order) and she treated me to coffee and biscuits made by the nuns. At an internet café in Lucon, I told them I was a pilgrim on the Route St Jacques, and refused to accept payment for the use of their computer.
Bio-rhythms. I know this a bit technical to occupy a simple cyclist’s mind but, long journeys like this always alter my sleep/waking patterns. After a couple of days, I begin to fall asleep earlier in the evening and wake up in the small hours. Last night I fell asleep at 9pm and awoke at 3am, ready to go! Ah well, maybe I should regard 2-3 hours dozing as a welcome lie-in!
Royan. Nothing remarkable about this town, apart from it being on the estuary of the Gironde. In the 19th century, it used to be the most fashionable resort for Parisians. In fact, Paris used to migrate there for the summer. Sadly, it was extensively bombed during the war and was one of the first towns to be rebuilt according to a master-plan.
Royan to Arcachon (94m)
To avoid a massive detour around Bordeaux, there is a handy ferry (bac) across the Gironde Estuary to Verdon, which will launch me directly onto the Voie Littorale or the Voie Anglaise which will follow the coast along the flat forested expanse of the Gironde and Les Landes. Cycling in forest for a couple of hours can be fun, but in front of me lie 370kms of tree-enshrouded cycling. The forest is criss-crossed by a network of pistes cyclables, which means you could ride the length of the peninsula traffic-free.
People I met. Ahead of me I spied a be-panniered cycle-tourist and guessed he would be British. He had, in fact, also spied me behind him in his wing-mirror, and we pulled over to chat. Darrell, like many tourists was carrying far too much luggage (including a tent which he hardly used), but was enjoying the freedom of being retired as a butcher, and was on a 3 month, 3000 mile trip down to Spain and back, raising funds for Help for Heroes. Then I met a couple of
Germans, who gave me guidance on the pistes cyclables, and when I revealed my ultimate destination, one of them (who happened to be a church minister) asked me to remembered them when I arrived in Santiago. Then, at the end of the day, enjoying well-deserved beers, I bumped into a group of three (Flemish-speaking) Belgian cyclists who were riding from home right
down to Marbella, allowing 24 days for the journey. The early part of their journey was on the French Route St Jacques starting in Vezelay. In Spain their route will take them through Zaragoza, Cuenca, Albacete and Granada. They were such fun company for half an hour, I nearly joined them!
Etaing de Carcans. After 50 miles, covered in the dust of the forest and sweating from the excessive
heat, the lure of the freshwater lake was overwhelming. Lycra shorts make great swimwear, so in two minutes I was off the bike and into the water. Pure bliss!
Voie Littorale (Anglaise). This was a favourite route for British pilgrims in the middle ages. They would disembark at Verdon and begin their walk to Compostela. Today, it is still a largely unknown route, with very few pilgrims, but there is much evidence of its ancient use in the past. Several churches have preserved their statues of St Jacques, and there are the remains of former hospices and hospitals, including the Fontaine de St Jean with its curative waters.
Film “The Way”. This film should be launched in the UK this weekend, starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son Emilio Estevez. It is a story based on the Camino de Santiago (The Way), and it is my bad luck that I’m not there to see it. If you are intrigued by this journey, I’d highly recommend this film. As I head south through France, I am wished bonne route (not bon voyage) by all I meet. When I cross the border, that will change to buen camino.
Half way point looms. Today I will pass through Mimizan, where there is way-marker telling me the remaining distance of 1000kms (625m) to Santiago. I’ve just completed 7 days on the bike, so the going has been brisk. But without a doubt, the hilly terrain of the north coast of Spain will detain me with their challenges. Wish me buen camino!
Nantes to Lucon 120kms (76m)
After a long day yesterday, today had to be shorter, and I could tell I was incubating a headcold (probably picked up in the Youth Hostel at Jordans…..the likely culprit prepared the salad for the BBQ).
Landscape. It was changing as I forged south. Brittany was what would be termed in the cycling world as “lumpy”. Now into the Loire et Atlantique, followed by a traverse of the Vendee, the contours were much gentler, fresian cows were much in evidence, and now I am cycling through extensive vineyards, the buds of the new growth just beginning to show, heralding the autumn al harvest.
Auberge de Jeunesse, Nantes. When I proffered by membership card to the lady warden, her eyebrows lifted and she said in that beautiful gallic way: “You must be a very important person”. When I enquired why, she said “Because you ‘ave a gold card”. So I expected to be presented with a bottle of the best champagne, but didn’t want to burst the ‘bubble’ of her surprise by telling her that becoming a life-member of the YHA back in the 80’s only cost me 25 pounds!
As I was settling down to sleep last night, two late check-ins came to disturb my early slumbers, followed by a din of ‘teenage-hood’. I recognised the sounds of sweet merriment of teenage girls on a school trip abroad! Their German leader was profusely apologetic, but I told him over breakfast he
had nothing to worry about, they had settled very quickly and I wasn’t phased by teenagers on holiday. “Been there, done that, but didn’t have the tee-shirt with me to prove it”! We shared a lot of chat about things educational and international, and he bemoaned the gradual demise of French in German education (everyone wants to learn English) and was mildly astonished at the growth of Spanish (yes, I said to myself!)
Nantes. The cathedral had a side altar dedicated to the forthcoming World Youth Day, to be held in Madrid in the
summer. And I noticed the logo of Santiago had been inserted into the publicity. The altar was brightly decorated with the Spanish flag and colours. But a question that’s been nagging me as I approached Nantes, and it’s still unresolved. If Nantes and its surrounds are in the Loire
region, why do so many towns and villages have “….en Bretagne” as part of their name. And why do many places have their names written in Breton as well. Perhaps some expert can post me a reply.
A word about cemeteries. My several visits to cemeteries along the way have not been for morbid reasons. Any long distance traveller across France should know that cemeteries are a reliable source of fresh water and, carefully calculated, you should never need to buy the bottled stuff.
To be a pilgrim. What is to be a pilgrim. This thought has been occupying my thinking for years. If the authorites
in Santiago and Rome are to be heeded, walking, cycling or horse-riding the distance are the only qualifying criteria. But the debate amongst Confraternities of Pilgrims is still an unresolved one. In the modern age, travelling under our own steam is a refreshing, invigorating escape from modern means of transport. For medieval people, it was their only means of transport, and if they could have found an easier way of getting to their destination, they would have used it. Unlike today, they didn’t walk for the sheer pleasure and the freedom of the countryside. If Ryanair had existed then, they would have bought their cheap tickets and gone. So, why should we make such an issue of methods of transportation today.
I’ll remember that question the next time I arrive at a pilgrim bunkhouse and find its filled with car-transported “pilgrims”.
St Malo to Nantes 230kms (141miles)
St Malo to Montfort sur Meu 53m
A night sleeping on the floor in a ferry lounge, constantly disturbed by drunken Morris dancers, didn’t lend to a fresh start on the first day in France, and a 25mph head wind meant that Sant Iago was definitely not on my side!
I picked up the first traces of Brittany’s Celtic (even pre-celtic) past immediately, passing ancient dolmens and pausing for breath in
Dinan, a town of ancient Celtic roots ( later to be ‘colonised’ by incoming Brits in the 19th century). Further proof of Celtic roots was the Celtic Cross in an isolated churchyard outside Tressaint, but with obvious Roman decoration in its design. The Celts (Gauls) had been romanized (just like the Anglo Saxons), which led me to ask ‘why hadn’t Asterix and his crew sorted those Romans out’ before it came to this?
I wanted to make up for the lost mileage of yesterday, so it was “Nantes here I come!” Several interesting serendipities crossed my path today:
*First of all, the wind was still from the south, but not as strong as yesterday (phew!)
*I was constantly surrounded by birdsong that was so persistent, I couldn’t ignore it. The cuckoo announced several times that the sanctity of
yet another nest had been invaded. I was distracted frequently by hunting kestrels and kites, and villages were once again hosting the return of the swallows.
*In France today they are commemorating those who had died in WW2 fighting for the Resistance. As I sped through St SenouxI caught sight of an elderly gentleman proudly wearing his medals, stopped, took his photo, engaged him in
conversation…………..only to discover that he was profoundly deaf! We slapped each other on the back, bid each other farewell, and parted company.
*Picked up the riverside bridleway along the Vilaine, only to meet a couple riding tandem, and they were astonished to chance by someone on a dirt track cycling all the way to “St Jacques de Compostelle“. Being a tandem rider myself, we shared a lot of cycling experiences in 15 minutes.
*That very track alongside the river was closed at one point because of a fishing competition. I was tempted to
ignore their closed sign, but then remembered I was a pilgrim……………:O(
*Approaching Nantes I chanced by a major protest movement against the building of an airport near N.D. de Landes. It reminded me forcefully of the peace garden and mass protests against nuclear power at Molesworth, near where I live. (For those who remember them, they were led by Mgr Bruce Kent.)
My general impression of crossing Brittany has been one of enjoying the quietness of the open road, crossing huge landscapes marred little by passing traffic…………….and the road surfaces are smooth and clean. How do they do it?
Kimbolton to Portsmouth 211kms(132m)
The cleats clip firmly into the pedals, lycra makes contact with the saddle, and the rubber once again meets the road. It’s the start of another journey of serendipity. Santiago de Compostela lies 1200 miles in front of me, and I am once again gripped by the anticipation.
Kimbolton to Jordans (63m)
A heart-warming send-off in the company of friends, accompanied by a blessing at our village church, saw me into
the first few strides of the journey. Passing through Ampthill, I had to pay homage to Catherine of Aragon by paying a visit to the monument that marks the location of the Castle where she was briefly imprisoned. My route took me across the Chilterns, where the woods were still alive with bluebells, and onto Chalfont
St Giles, where I ‘stumbled’ across the cottage where John Milton lived, escaping the plague in London, and where he finished Paradise Lost and made a start on Paradise Regained. I was astonished at the number of Windsors who had paid a visit, their names proudly displayed in the visitors’ book.
Two miles up the road, next door to the youth hostel, is the Quaker Meeting Room, famous for its connection with William Penn, founder of the British colony which later became the state of Pennsylvania. Amongst the serried ranks of identical gravestones, you will find his grave alongside other members of his family.
My first night was spent at Jordans Youth Hostel, a “scout hut” arrangement of accommodation that is popular amongst itinerant workers
(land surveyors, TV production people etc) and they thought it novel that a long-distance cyclist should come for a single night. They invited me to join them in their BBQ, and we sat around the camp-fire into the small hours sharing small talk. The next day was Friday and they were all heading home for a relaxing weekend.
Jordans to Portsmouth (93 miles)
En route to the ferry port, there were a few obligatory stops. The first was to the ruins of Reading Abbey, with its legendary connections with the route to Santiago and repository of the alleged left hand of St James. Part of the site is now occupied by the church of St James, which seems to honour these historic ties. Interestingly, behind the church is the site of the prison where Oscar Wilde had been detained.
Though time was at a premium, I still took a detour to make brief visits to the houses of both Jane Austen (Chawton) and the naturalist Gilbert White, but the visits were brief. Both set in the delightful environment of the
South Downs. And one thing that puzzles me about the Downs…….having cycled across them, why were they never called the “Ups”? The impression was singularly one of constantly going up!
Going through Clanfield I chanced by another church dedicated to St James, which seems another clear indication of the traffic that must have passed this way in medieval times en route to Santiago.
And so to the ferry port, for a night crossing to St Malo. Boarding I meet a group of six cyclists (of a certain age!) who are off to spend five days riding, eating and drinking there way around Brittany. I reflect on this, quash a tremor of envy, but they bolster my ego telling me that I’m doing the real thing, that I’m a proper cyclist etc………. The next morning I charge off the boat bidding them “bon voyage”, but their
escapade stays in my mind until the heavens opened and poured its content on my bike, while I’m in a Tourist Office in Dinan writing this blog! What a lucky break!
Santiago de Compostela: a Celtic route
After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.
In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.
My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.
Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.
My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.