The quote “Life is a journey, not a destination” by Ralph Waldo Emerson is one which truly resembles the uniqueness of the Camino de Santiago. After I cycled Camino de Santiago, I feel that I have experienced so much more than just a dirt track, I have experienced what it truly means to be a pilgrim, and understood why so many thousands of people take on this route each year. I knew very little about the famous route before we started; I knew about the large “Albergue” hostels and that it ended in Santiago de Compostela, but apart from that I only had my imagination to rely on.
I Cycled Camino de Santiago
As we landed in Asturias airport and took the bus to the wonderful Ibis Budget hotel in Oviedo, the reality of the journey began to set in. We built our flat-pack bikes and after taking them for a spin around the town, we planned our route for the first time and then settled down into the hard beds.
The next morning, after spending a few hours trying to find our first stamp for our pilgrim passport and find the very discrete route itself, we made the first few pedals of the trip which lay ahead. The route itself can easily be done without a map (we only had a rough guide book) due to the scallop shell tiles built into the walls and luminous yellow arrows on the roads, guiding you along your way. After some very swift descents and a few towns to contend with, we met another cycle pilgrim who we travelled with till Avilles, where we parted ways, and after a quick stop in the shops, we were off along the coastal part of the Camino. Being very naive, we hadn’t realised that there was a separate cyclists route which avoided all of the ridiculously windy country tracks and so we really challenged ourselves till we reached our Albergue in San Esteban; although we did come across a laden orange tree which provided affection to our wounds.
The next day we left early, and through the humid fog, we cycled hard along motorways, reaching the town of Luarca in good time after many Amazing downhills and winding roads which cruised through the dank forests. In the morning we had foolishly tried to find a detour to avoid losing height, but our “shortcut” ended up 1km back on the track after 45 minutes of passing our bikes up a forest; during his little escapade Leo lost his pilgrim passport and I lost my solar panel. All in all, it was a lesson learnt that one should never try to be too clever. After arriving in Luarca and posting a few postcards, we booked a night in the hostel because the Albergue was full, but due to us being “menores” (under 18), the owner called the local police because she was unsure whether we were allowed to stay in her hotel, and we were interrupted by a policeman during our supper, which made us very worried as to what we had done and if we would have to be sent home, but after talking to them at 9am the next morning, it turned out there was no problem at all and we carried on with our journey (this process was happily helped by Chalk’s sweet talking with the chief about motorbikes and scuba diving).
We left this morning late due to the police meeting, but we cycled hard on roads and covered about 30km in a couple of hours. We then had lunch in a nice coastal town, and then the sun came out so we hit up the beach and had a swim (in the very cold sea!). After lathering on more Suncream, we cycled along the nicest coastal path which wound across cliff tops and through beautiful farms. Arriving in Ribadeo in good time, we found an amazing Albergue but sadly it was full, so with the help of a friendly German pilgrim we found a nice hotel run by these old men who were always singing and asking us lots of questions (all in Spanish) about our trip. That night was our first in Galicia, so we ate delicious pimientos del Padron and calamari on bar stools in the street. A fantastic festival was going on that night, which although did keep us up, it was amazing to see all the people in their beautiful vintage white outfits.
Saturday was our largest yet: 80km of distance, including the largest two ascents of the trip. Climbing a huge mountain in the early morning, and stopping to get breakfast and a pilgrim shell at a near shop, we bombed it down through single country footpaths which joined up the hamlets throughout the valley. Moving through Mondoñedo, a large flotilla of cars and lorries all peeping their horns swept past us as we collected our stamps from the church. A little bit bewildered, we began the largest non-stop climb of the trip, a whopping 800m. We weren’t expecting to do this because we thought we wouldn’t have time, but seeing as we arrived in Mondoñedo at 11:30 we decided to go for it. To say it was hard would be a little bit of an understatement, to say it nearly killed us would be more appropriate. As the temperature reached into the 30s, four hours of non-stop uphill cycling really starts to get at you. Luckily a farm was selling drinks and bread, so we sat in the shade with our fantas and talked to the first British person we had come across, who was there with his wife who had met on the Camino a few years ago; they were about to spend 2 weeks volunteering at one of the Albergues, a real life proof of the influence which the Camino can have on people. We made the final stint of uphill, and collapsed in awe; the views from where we were were outstanding, and we felt like we could see our whole route stretched out in front of us. Having arrived at Gontan by lunch time (the maximum we thought we would possibly be able to get on this day) we started to realise the fitness we had gained over only a few days. We cycle the next 20km along a dead straight road, covering ourselves in water every so often to stop sunstroke. We entered a packed Albergue in Vilalba of probably 40 beds in one room, both of us questioning how much sleep we would be able to get.
As the sun rose from behind the Galician hills stronger than every, we knew that the day was going to be very hot. We left Vilalba quite early, and with the sun at our backs, we arrived in Baamonde after 20km of cycling in just over an hour. Another big 40km stint of uphill on country tracks, and we made it to Sobrado des Monxes by late lunch time. Sobrado has one of the most amazing cathedrals from the tenth century, and it was still visible as we shot away from the city, enjoying the downhill we had been rewarded with after the last few days of uphill. Like a de ja vu from yesterday, we had completely overdone our presumptions, and we decided to do an extra 20km to Arzua, where we would join up with the Camino Frances; totalling this day to be 80km as well. The facilities in Arzua were incredible, Albergues and pilgrim bars lined the streets, and we easily found one for ourselves, sharing a 100-bed dorm with only 6 other people!
We were now on the Camino France’s, and seeing as we only had 35km left till Santiago, we made the decision to do the rest of the route on the walkers track. The experience was completely different to any which we had on the Camino Norte; instead of seeing a few pilgrims every 10km, we would see a few every 10m. The path was packed with people, many of them large school groups, and cafes lined the side of the tracks, it would be nearly impossible to get lost here. The cycling was challenging but very fun, and there were many other very serious bikers who we cycled with on some sections. After summiting the final hill, we looked down onto the city of Santiago de Compostela, and the realisation that our trip was soon to be over began to hit us. We bombed it down the hill, with our arms in the air above us in celebration like true cycling champions. Pedalling into the square of Santiago was an experience to remember, and as we collapsed on the stones in the middle of the square, we looked around us at all the other pilgrims, who were in tears on their knees in front of the cathedral. Although we did not cry, we both sat there in silence, soaking up the satisfaction and pure happiness of having achieved such an ancient but significant goal. Unlike the final stamp that was pressed into our pilgrim passports, it would be difficult to say that our Camino is finished, because the Camino de Santiago stays with a person throughout their life, and once you have made the first steps on such an epic, you are eternally bound to the indescribable magic of the way of St James.
Check out my article on What Gear to Take Cycling on Camino de Santiago!