The Camino de Santiago or Way of St James as us Brits call it, is one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world, and is a major challenge for anyone who takes it on. People usually walk the main route, but cycling has become a lot more popular in recent years. But truth be told, I had never heard of it until I moved to León and saw people passing through the town with an impressive amount of gear. The objective is simple, get to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain. Simple right? That’s what I Thought…
I first developed an interest in doing it when one of my flat mates and a couple of mutual friends attempted it back in October of 2012. But their preparation of drinking beer and Vodka the night before their departure, didn’t seem like a wise decision. I was right. All but one of them actually made it to Santiago, while the others barely completed a third of the journey. I decided there and then that I actually wanted to give it a go myself. However the opportunity didn’t arise until March the following year.
A friend of mine from Brazil called Rafael mentioned during a night out that he was looking to do the Camino by bike during the Easter break. Somehow, this conversation ended up with us pledging to go together and a rough plan was in motion. The problem was he had ordered a brand new bike to do this trip, while I was trying to see if I had a mate who was brave enough to lend me theirs. I managed to get one the day before we set off, but I still felt underprepared. I had done some spin bike training, and we got the booklet you need to get to allow you to stay in the hostels. However, I felt like we hadn’t studied the route well enough, we didn’t know what to expect. We had spent just one day looking online before we set off.
The key advice we were given was to pack light, but with enough for almost any situation. My rucksack had quite simply: a sleeping bag, a rain jacket, a change of clothes or two, a small towel, the most basic toiletries, a small torch, and some rations. Nothing more other than the jacket and gloves that I would be wearing most of the time. We were both really new to this, and at least we knew if we needed more things, there were some key towns along the way that could help us out.
So we finally set off on the 30th March 2013 and we were super excited. Disaster struck just 2km into our trip when my bike broke down in spectacular fashion. Rafael made a desperate dash back to León to see if there was a workshop who could fix it while I waited. Interestingly enough I broke outside a pawn shop, and there I found a decent-looking bike for 40€. What the heck, I had to go for it, and it was certainly a morale booster for us. I also had to applaud Rafael’s patience and calmness during this delay and we continued with same energy as before.
The Camino takes a sharp climb up the hill where you end up passing through the various neighbourhoods before we were finally granted with open countryside near the airport. From there, we had two options, and we had no idea which one was better or shorter, so we took the option on the left, which turned out to be the harder option. From there you follow the descent to Fresno del Camino, a small farmer’s village from which we ended up on dirt tracks for some time. My Bike was not absorbing the bumps very well, so it was a relief to reach some tarmac some 10km later.
After passing through Chozas de Abajo, the Camino, for the most part became a very flat affair with snow- capped mountains in front and to the right of us far in the distance. For most of the day, it was cold and gloomy and we didn’t see many pilgrims around, which suggested that this route wasn’t particularly popular. I could see why. While it was a relief to arrive at a village, the lack of activity and facilities was ever present. It didn’t take long for the discomfort to become commonplace with this bike and I started to realise how much I had underestimated how tough this was going to be.
After 3 hours of riding, we had made it to our major rest stop of that day, Hospital de Orbigo. This was the largest village we had come across so far, and had a large roman bridge crossing the river which makes it worth stopping by for even an hour or so. This village also Had a few hostels, that were open, giving us an opportunity to get a taste of what to expect when we reached Astorga. A kind man called Eugenio allowed us in and was very happy to show us around, and we were really impressed by what we saw. It was like a typical youth hostel with bunk beds and facilities to allow you to do everything you normally can do. But the key difference is that only pilgrims can stay there.
These hostels are also where you get your booklet stamped, which is very important down the line. It works as a way to check your progress, to assure that you haven’t cheated in some way getting to Santiago, and all the stamps are unique, like something you get at immigration on your passport. You need to have it stamped twice a day when you are certain distance from your goal. We got ours stamped there just to be sure.
Upon leaving the village after what felt like five minutes, but was actually an hour, another choice was upon us, left or right. Rafael made the choice this time and it was a kilometer further than the other way, but he believed there would be more to see. I didn’t doubt his logic, and I was sure I wasn’t going to suffer much more. The route temporarily took us off road before reconnecting at Villares. From there, it was off road and with no contact with anyone else for the next hour. This was the hardest part of the day, and I realised that my bike disliked hills even more than I did. It was slow going and difficult to ride on, due to the mud. I fell off a couple of times, struggling to maintain control on these trails. At least only my pride was damaged.
By this point we were digging deep to get to Astorga, and we could feel that we were so close, when all of a sudden, we came across a stone cross and behind it, the valley opened up, where we could see the town! We took some time to admire the view, and finally saw some fellow pilgrims. Was it worth going the more difficult way? Absolutely! You won’t be disappointed. It was plain sailing getting down onto the main road again, and the final few kilometers were the fastest of the whole day.
We checked into the first hostel we could find in the centre of town and took the time to unload everything and check out the sights, for which Astorga has plenty for a small town. Like León, Astorga also has a Gaudi- designed building to see, the aptly named Palacio de Gaudi, which you can visit. The centre is built on top of a hill and is surrounded on most sided with fortifications, our hostel was right on the Edge of it, giving us views of the countryside. Not bad for a fiver a night. We also found more guides and information that was crucial in helping us plan the next few days and where to rest.
My legs by the end of the day felt like lead, but the family-sized portion of pasta that we made that night took the edge off. We also had the chance to talk to other people in the hostel, and you realise that people from all over the world were doing this. I ended up talking to an Australian woman and her boyfriend, who had met other people during the Camino and stuck with them for the last week. Bonds had been made, and I guess the more company, the better the experience. After a good chat with them, my bed for the night beckoned me. Early start tomorrow…