I was sitting outside a cafĂ© in Castrojeriz; in the middle of northern, back-country Spain, having a beer and writing in my journal, surrounded by a German woman on my right and an Aussie woman on my left. I remember writing, âHow often is this going to happen!â
We were cycling the Camino de Santiago, which is a medieval pilgrimage going back almost 1200 years. Over 800 km in length, it takes most hikers about 6 weeks. On mountain bikes, we did it in 15 days. The adventure actually started in Toronto waiting for our flight to Madrid, where we met a few people with large backpacks, who would be hiking the Camino. Discussions about the uncertain adventure, promises of emails along the way filled our time in the waiting lounge. Actually, the most memorable part of this trip, we realized later, was meeting people from all over the world and their reasons for this endeavour.
Our first day was difficult. After the 9 hour overnight flight, we had to push our bikes through downtown Madrid, including an escalator and trains, to get to the bus station.
âSeĂ±or, you canât take bikes on the subway during rush-hour. That is the law,â exclaimed the security guard at the gate, loosely holding his sub-machine gun.
âBut we have to get to the bus station to catch our bus to Pamplona. Weâre cycling the Camino,â I whimpered.
The guard looked at me sternly, and then slowly glanced away from us in the direction of the corridor from where we came. I heard him whisper, âBuen Camino,â as he gazed upward. We just casually but quickly pushed our loaded bikes through the gate and boarded the train.
We slept in on the first day in Pamplona because I forgot to turn up the volume on my iPod alarm app. The B&B owner was really upset and denied us breakfast that day. But that was OK because we had to get going and there would be lots of food along the way.
Very soon after Pamplona, we came upon a fork in the road. One way was paved, the other, a narrow loose gravel trail.
âWhich way?â I asked Chantal.
âLetâs take the gravel road. From the map, it looks shorter and easier,â she replied.
So we took the rougher trail. Then the light gravel turned into rocks; then large rocks and mud. And it started getting steep. Pushing my bike up the mountain, I fell over twice into the mud. This was the Alto del Perdon, with its beautiful peregrino (pilgrim) monument at the top.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient trail, made for walking. But there are also paved roads that can be used, by cars and cyclists who donât dare to risk the walking trail. We brought our own modified mountain bikes for this journey, because there is much more to see and more people to meet on the trails, as well as numerous shrines, churches and fountains. The water fountains, flowing with pure spring water, which dotted the trail every few kilometres were popular pilgrim gathering places. When we were on the paved roads, however, I noticed right away that the motorists were very respectful of cyclists and gave us lots of room. The spirit of the Camino is on all the roads to Santiago.
Meeting many people, visiting Templar churches, having lunches in fabulous surroundings â that was our daily routine, along with peddling 50-90 km per day.
On day 4, we got to Santo Domingo de Calzada, where we wanted to stay at the nunâs albergue (hostel), but it was full, so we went to the Casa del Santo Albergue. There were a group of peregrinos ahead of me in the line, but I eventually got to the front and talked to the albergue manager.
âAre you a pilgrim or a tourist?â he asked me.
I had to really think about that, and quickly, on my feet, but I didnât want to lie or sound stupid, so I replied, âWell… a little bit of both.â
âOK, thatâs a good answer, you can stay.â
âHow much?â I asked.
âThere is no charge, but donations are accepted.â
So I gave him 10 euros. He replied, âMucho gracias, seĂ±or, you and your wife can lock you bikes over there and leave you shoes over there. No shoes allowed in the albergue.â
âWhy not shoes?â I asked.
The next day we encountered a chain link fence on the trail, where peregrinos wove crosses out of sticks to honour the Christian spirit of the Camino. Chantal and I made our own woven crosses for our mothers. Weâre not religious but itâs easy and normal to become spiritual on this trek. The Camino is like that. Thereâs so much history, warmth and congeniality that seems to be present in the air. I canât think of a better way to describe it.
After an 85 km day we arrived at the historic albergue at San Juan de Ortega. We checked in and went to eat. This is a very small village with a few homes, a church, the albergue and one restaurant. We got to the restaurant door, where the waiter stopped us, âPerdon seĂ±or, no more food, we ran out of food.â
We were starved, after a long day with many hills. You canât argue with a Spaniard, so I asked him, âWhat do you have?â
âBeer and peanuts, but you have to sit outside on the patio,â he replied.
âOK, bring it on. Gratias.â
So after a few beers and bags of peanuts, he later came out and signalled me with 2 fingers up, and pointed into the restaurant. Ahhhh, we did have dinner!
On another day, after a long, hard climb, mostly pushing the bikes up the mountain and thinking we were lost, we got to La Casa de los Dioses, which is mentioned in Shirley McLeanâs book âThe Camino: A Journey of the Spiritâ. We met the hippie who ran the outpost and who offered us drinks and snacks. Shirley talks about the hippie in her book, but this one would have had to be the son of Shirleyâs hippie.
Then it was downhill into the town of Astorga, where all accommodations were full except for the convent.
âYou have to be married to stay in a room here. Are you married?â asked the sister at the convent door.
âYes, weâre married. Weâre cycling the Camino and would like to stay the night,â I replied, but that didnât work this time.
âIf youâre married, then where are your wedding rings?â she argued. We never wear our rings when travelling, especially on bikes.
âCan you at least prove that you live together?â she insisted, but started to soften up.
We had to show our passports to prove that we live together and were eventually admitted to the convent, where we shared a room, even though the single beds were on the opposite side of the room and we kept getting suspicious looks from the nuns that evening.
We finally made it to Santiago, where we went to the pilgrim mass at the cathedral of Compostela de Santiago. I called my mother that day and told her that we arrived in Santiago with no sins.
âReally?â she exclaimed, âI donât think I believe that!â
In this year of non-travel, I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of our journey. The story continues in the photo captions.
[Click on any photo for the slideshow. Please leave comments at the bottom of the page]