A view over San Marcos in Leon, Spain.

Introduction: Lifts are for wimps

Looking back on my travels to Santiago de Compostela, it’s the very first day that seems to be the most significant. It happened to me twice, that crossing the Pyrenees on that first day defined my whole expedition.

The first time I walked to Santiago, I had a guidebook that excluded the mountain passage between Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port and Roncesvalles. Obviously, this didn’t discourage me from walking. I presumed that the trail would be obvious. So, when I went to the pilgrim’s office in Saint-Jean-Pied-Du-Port, I didn’t even look at the map handed to me by one of the staff, nor did I listen to what she said as she forcibly pointed at the map.

I finally looked at the map the next day after three hours of lonely hiking when I didn’t even meet one other pilgrim and the Pyrenees were always beside me, never in front of me. That’s when I made a memorable discovery – there are TWO routes to Santiago, and I was walking the less popular one. Euphemism: the trail that was walked by only one person; me. Then, I started to have homicidal thoughts about those who suggested the trail on the map and who didn’t mark it properly making it is too easy to make a wrong turn. Well, at that point I didn’t feel like overanalyzing the thought that I am perhaps the only one who ever made the wrong turn. And I can tell you the exact spot – a fork in the road when, without a shadow of a doubt, I turned right singing “Don’t worry, be happy” while contemplating that I had spent too much time eating croissants, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes because it was already 10 o’clock. If by chance you get to that fork, turn left.

Anyway, the track I took is one route to Santiago, just an alternative one. And it is quite pleasant up to the point where it meets the tarmac mountain road. On the right, you have a steep rock and on the left a sheer chasm. No shoulder. I have no idea how anyone is supposed to walk this road. I gave up after a mile after stopping for a moment in a parking bay and seeing a truck rushing by at 50 miles per hour. Its trailer rebounded steadily from the rock and railing above the chasm. I realized that as I was not prepared to enter Heaven that day, I had to return to the previous village and hitchhike. This was a dramatic decision since before starting on the Camino I had decided to walk at all costs because taking a lift is for … well not for me.

Twenty minutes later I was sitting outside the monastery in Roncesvalles, driven there by a lovely Belgium family. Feeling gloomy, I watched yet another hero walking down the Pyrenees. I felt like a total loser. Of course, I had many opportunities to talk about it for the next five weeks as I was constantly asked about my blood-chilling first day. With a sense of calm that would make Buddha jealous, I explained to another pilgrim that, yes, I had started my journey in the Pyrenees, but I hadn’t hiked them, I’d driven them.

So, as expected, my second journey to Santiago, this time a cycling trip, didn’t start as planned either. You can imagine: when I should have been walking I was riding and when I should have been riding, I was walking; actually pushing the bike. For the last miles, I didn’t even pretend to be riding when yet another group of riders flashed past me. A few hours later, feeling just as gloomy as two years previously, I was sitting at a vantage point on the Ibaneta Pass one mile from Roncesvalles monastery.

Even though I felt disappointed, the real meaning of this experience was clear. There would be no glory stories about my lonely journey across Northern Spain. Not after day one. This journey would be a humble one. And yes, humility is not my greatest virtue. That was the missing element in my perfectly prepared rucksack – something I needed and received on the first day. Equipped, then, I flew over to Spain. Twice.

There the magic starts; and the adventure. In his book “The Pilgrimage” Paolo Coelho wrote that on the road to Santiago you meet good and evil. I only partly agree with him– yes, you meet the good; but you also meet that which scares you only to the point of experiencing the greatest good. So, for me, it was never an encounter with evil in spite of facing my biggest fear.

Well then, what I am trying to tell you is that the track to Santiago is totally different from any other trail. It will surprise and bewitch you with magic and beauty. And it will change your life forever. Because you see, what may look like a journey through Northern Spain, is a journey to your inner self.

Cyclists on Alto del Perdon, Navarra, Camino de Santiago

ABOUT THIS GUIDE: The French are walking the Way while the British cycle it!

I have to admit that I like the NA-1110, for cyclists it is a bit like dying and going to Heaven. But before you release the brakes shouting with joy I have to say that this road differs from a heavenly one by the presence of deep potholes in places you would never expect them.

The route I describe is 500 miles long (790 km); it starts in the picturesque French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port and finishes in Galician capital Santiago de Compostela. The trail is the oldest European pilgrimage route and was made a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1993. It is called The Way of Saint James (in Spanish Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances) and it goes without saying that today it has experienced a renaissance; over two hundred thousand pilgrims a year, 90 percent walking and 10 percent cycling make this journey. The whole of Europe and the faraway parts of the world meet on the Way to Saint James. The crowd is cosmopolitan and diverse linguistically and in terms of outlook.

The route for the walkers is set and way-marked unlike the route for the cyclists. The latter or try to cycle the walkers’ route on mountain bikes which means great technical difficulties slaloming on stony paths in between walkers or slaloming between the cars while cycling the roads only. Anything goes really. The route for cyclists is not set, and that’s why it is important to have a very accurate guidebook which will tell you when to cycle the Way and when to switch to the road. Also which road to cycle and which to avoid because it is a favourite of the lorry- drivers, or will lead you straight to the highway. The Spanish are quite relaxed about taking off road signs leading to non-existent roads…

When you write any Camino guidebook for walkers you describe the way-marked trail, but when you write for cyclists you have to ‘design’ the route. And you can’t allow yourself latitude in doing so, out of respect for the trail that is 1000 years old. Everything has to be well-thought-out.

The way I formulated the guide was to give you the best experience of the Camino Frances by bike.

I walked the trail years ago and originally, I thought that cyclists should cycle the actual trail wherever possible. After cycling it, however, I realized that walking and cycling the Camino are very different experiences and in order to enjoy it to the full a cyclist needs his own space. And she/he can have it in the form of former national roads, now deserted because of the newly constructed highways. I also made sure that the cyclist could get in and out of cities in the most pleasant way possible, using existing cycle paths. In places like Leon, where cycle paths are non-existent I provide easy routes to exit the city quickly.

Personally, I believe that cycling the walker’s trail exclusively or cycling solely on national roads defeats the purpose of the Camino. The former generates great technical difficulties and constantly cycling next to walkers, while the cyclist needs some solitude and space both physically and mentally.

On the other hand, doing the latter, the Camino becomes just a long boring trail, frankly not the most inspiring one; the cyclist would miss out on meeting the walkers and not experience the stunning beauty of the trail.

The route as I describe allows a good mix of the Camino and roads – the cycle-friendly parts of the Camino and the remote and beautiful cycle-perfect roads. I always bring the cyclist back to the important Camino moments.

I wrote my guide from the perspective of a female cyclist, struggling at times just to make you realise that this route can be done by an average cyclist who commutes every day to work on a bicycle. And perhaps dreams about an exciting two-week holiday on a bike but doesn’t think that he/she will be able to manage.

From the very beginning, the idea behind this guide was to make you go to the shed take out the bicycle and set off to Santiago. There is no need for gear worth thousands to do this route and I make that clear; just a comfortable bicycle in good working order (decent hybrid, touring, trekking or mountain bike). The route is difficult in places so common sense is a must. Other than that, I put over that if you really want to do this route and spend some time preparing it you will succeed.

The personal experiences I placed in the guidebook are common experiences that every cyclist will go through doing that route –a sleepless night after a long cycle in a noisy albergue, bedbugs, problems with the safety of the bike, loss or situations you have to accept etc. I could mention them or say that they happened to me. Well, as they did. I chose the latter.

The cloister itself is the most amazing part of the complex. Its filigree decorations are a work of prime quality. On the plinths, the damaged statues stand in a dignified manner. The Knight’s Cloister is so delightful that it is difficult to imagine those mindless vandals who dared ruin such a beauty in the 19th century.

The cyclist on his way to Compostela passes through cities, towns, and villages that grew around the Camino. Each of them has their own interesting history. I write a lot about the history of Spain, the monuments on the Way, the differences between the Spanish provinces, as well as aspects of local cuisine and wines.

In the guide, I list all of the hostels on the Way and most of the bars and the restaurants. I also added my own recommendations for places I went to and appreciated. I very rarely advise against going somewhere – only if I found the place very problematic on more than one occasion or if a hostel is repeatedly criticised on the Internet by others.

At the beginning of the guide, I placed 17 mini-chapters in which I covered all the practical aspects of the trail like transport to get there, hostels, equipment, weather, and safety.

I divided the actual route into fourteen stages each one between 50 and 60 km and a few over 70 km to travel per day. The route can be done by a moderately experienced cyclist but also as a first-in-a-lifetime long-distance trip. I firmly believe that it won’t disappoint even the very experienced cyclist as plenty off-road cycling in amazing surroundings is involved. The cyclist will cycle on plateaus and also cross several mountains ranges. She/he will ride along river valleys, among vineyards, in forests, along canals and the bottoms of dry brooklets.

This is a barbarous people, different from all other peoples in customs and in race, malignant, (…) incapable of any good impulses, past masters of all vices and iniquities. They resemble the Getae and the Saracens in their malignance and are in every way hostile to our French people. A Navarrese or Basque will kill a Frenchman for a penny if he can.

I added fragments from “A 12th Century Guide for the Pilgrim to Saint James of Compostela” to my text, from the first known European guidebook. The French monk Aymeric quite possibly wrote this medieval guidebook. His account of the trip is far from being politically correct, however, because nothing you see is ever as good as in Poitou. In fact, the rest of the world looks bleak compared to Poitou with the nightmare essentially starting as you cross the Pyrenees. Unlike Aymeric, I love the world on that side of the mountains, but I found his passionate report so amazing that I decided to incorporate his text into my guidebook to signify to the reader how the places being travelled through must have looked to the eyes of a traveller 900 years ago.

And last but not least – Camino de Santiago is a journey different from any other for all of us. Many people rightly treat it as a life-changing experience or an opportunity to make a fresh start in life. I can testify to that – the Camino changes human lives. That’s why I gave my guide the title “Journey to the inner self”.

To sum up I believe that a good guide should be interesting enough to be read before the journey starts, tongue-in-cheek in places and very practical so that the cyclist doesn’t have to pull it out of his pannier every 5 minutes. I believe I reached these goals.

The author of this guidebook and her brand new black bike in front of newly refurbished façade of the Cathedral in Compostela. A few hours later Ryanair succeed in damaging my pannier rack. July 2018

And about me…I walked the Camino Frances 12 years ago and since then I cycled it numerous times. I can very honestly say that I know it by heart. I love cycling and I am clueless about bike maintenance. I have an MA in Art History and used to work as a journalist. Currently I am working as a public relations manager for Saint James of Compostela.

Buen Camino

Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Shell - symbol of the Camino. Torres del Rio to Viana

Shells, Credencials, Compostelas and Way-marking

In the Middle Ages those walking to Rome were called romero, those travelling to Jerusalem, palmero, while pilgrims going to Santiago were named pelegrino. As proof of reaching their destination pilgrims on their way back from Rome carried crossed keys of Saint Peter, those walking back from the Holy Land – palm branches, while pilgrims from Compostela brought home shells. The modern pelegrino no longer walks back home, so he/she attaches a shell to a rucksack or pannier at the starting point of the pilgrimage. A shell is an attribute of a pilgrim walking/cycling/horse-riding to Santiago and that’s how he is recognized as one along the way.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims carried letters of reference; today you will use a pilgrim passport called a credencial. It allows you to use a network of cheap hostels along the way and gives you discount in restaurants and bars. Every day you will need one or two additional stamps in your credencial, besides the one you get from the albergue you stayed for the night. Stamps are available in bars, albergues and churches along the way. When you stop somewhere for a drink or sandwich, just ask for a ‘sello’. You can obtain shells and credentials from the Pilgrim’s Office in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port. If you start somewhere else, ask for a passport in any albergue or big church.

A credential is essential not only because of the benefits it brings you along the way, but it also forms the basis for receiving the compostela, an official document issued by the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela that I will describe in greater detail in the last chapter. The compostela will be proof of your completing the Camino de Santiago and a very personal souvenir of that trip. To receive it you must walk or ride on horseback at least the last 100 km to Santiago (it must be the last 100 meaning starting in Sarria) or cycle the last 200 km (again it must be the last 200 km, so Ponferrada will be your starting point).

The Camino de Santiago (walker’s trail) is waymarked by yellow arrows →→ and occasionally in bigger towns (Carrion de los Condes, Leon among others) by decorative shells on the pavement. The last kilometres of the Way in Galicia are marked by small pillars with shells. Recently in some places Camino waymarking for cyclists also appeared; a very good sign for the future. When I write ‘Camino’ in this guidebook, I always mean cycling the walker’s trail.