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

Codex Calixtinus

Codex Calixtinus (Liber Sancti Jacobi) is a marvellous and precious illuminated medieval manuscript dedicated to spreading the cult of Saint James the Apostle. We don’t know the exact date of its coming into existence, although it must have been before 1173 when a copy, today in Barcelona’s collection, was made. The 12th-century manuscript consists of five books. The first, a liturgical one contains church services, prayers, sermons and songs dedicated to Saint James. It is a unique source of knowledge about medieval polyphony music for the modern musicologist. The second book describes twenty-two miracles attributed to the Apostle’s intercession. The third book is dedicated to the history of moving his body from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela. The next one known as “Chronicles of Turpin” (known also as “Pseudo-Turpin”) can be called a medieval bestseller as there are almost 200 remaining copies of the manuscript, that prove its popularity. The book describes the story of Charlemagne and Roland and through their fights and battles takes the reader to the towns and places along the Camino Frances. The book, although the work of an unknown writer, is attributed to Turpin, a bishop of Reims, to give it a certain authority, just as the whole Codex is attributed to Pope Callixtus II, who surely approved or even encouraged the writing of the Liber Sancti Jacobi but obviously is not an author of the manuscript. Because “Chronicles of Turpin” were removed from the Codex manuscript in the 17th century and incorporated back only centuries later, the last book is sometimes referred to as ‘the fourth book’ while in fact it is the fifth book of the Codex and turns out to be a very interesting and extremely subjective guidebook for a pilgrim going to Santiago de Compostela.

A 12th-century guidebook for the pilgrim to Saint James of Compostela

The fifth book of Codex Calixtinus is the first known European guidebook. It describes in detail the route, places of interest, individual regions that the pilgrim travels through as well as the people who live there. The author even placed a glossary to help eager pilgrims communicate with the locals. The authorship of the book is unknown but there are at least three Aymerics, named as possible authors, although the main suspect is Aymeric Picaud, a priest from Parthenay, Poitou.

It is a good guidebook meaning that the author even went to the places he describes. His detailed account of the journey is very personal and powerful. He covers all aspects of the pilgrimage to Santiago – spiritual and practical. He writes with passion, which almost 900 years later still makes a huge impression on the reader. His affection for good art, the lives of saints and the idea of the Camino are extraordinary. While writing about his favourite saints he doesn’t hesitate to cast aspersions on the monasteries that claim to possess relics which, in his opinion, they don’t. His notes about art are full of deep admiration.

Accursed be their boatman! (…) Their boat is small, made from a single tree-trunk, ill suited to carry horses; and so when you get into the boat you must take care not to fall into the water.

The description of the route is rather detailed, he covers all practical aspects of pilgrimage, good places to stay overnight, good and poisonous rivers – crucial information for those traveling on horseback- he writes about individual regions and their inhabitants; he even notes handy words for communication with locals. 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; the nightmare starts essentially when you cross the Pyrenees. According to Aymeric, the Spanish are barbarians and villains, a thesis that he proves by examples. His outlook on the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula was probably partially formed by some negative experiences along the way, but mostly results from the deep and indisputable belief that nothing is as good as back home. So even when impressed for instance by the Galicians, after all the praise he quickly lists their shortcomings.

Unlike Aymeric, I love the world on that side of the Pyrenees, but I found his passionate report so amazing that I decided to incorporate his text into this guidebook to signify how the places you travel through looked in the eyes of a traveler 900 years ago. Personally, I find it intriguing hat the general idea of pilgrimage hasn’t changed since the 12th century. Pilgrimage is a result of great physical, mental and spiritual effort so much so that the pilgrim, regardless of his social status, gains a privileged position and should be taken care of. Aymeric places emphasis on responsibility to help, especially those who are poor and the sick. On the way, he experienced good and bad, was delighted by the art and beauty of the world and deeply saddened and angry when his horse was treacherously killed. What I find most interesting is that our own experience of the Way 900 years later may be quite close to his.


Hontanas - a town hidden in a small basin, Camino de Santiago, Province of Burgos

The Way of Saint James: Camino de Santiago

The pilgrimage called ‘The Way of Saint James’ started soon after the grave of Saint James was discovered. The first known pilgrim from beyond the Pyrenees was a German monk who reached Santiago before 930. The first fully documented pilgrim to go to Santiago de Compostela is known by the name of Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy, who set off on the journey from Aquitaine to Galicia during one cold winter, Anno Domini 951. In 1866 a Parisian archivist discovered a 10th-century manuscript written by a monk called Gomez from an abbey near Logrono, who while copying a book of Saint Ildefonso for the bishop, included a note about Godescalc’s pilgrimage. According to Gomez, Godescalc wanted to complete the Way because of his great devotion to Saint James on whose feast day he was born and later ordained a bishop. A century later, thousands of low and high ranks from all over Europe were making the pilgrimage to the grave of Saint James. Among them were Kings like Alfonso VII of Castile in 1138, Alfonso II of Aragon in 1195-96, future Carlos III de Navarra in 1381-81, Fernando and Isabel in 1486, as well as saints like Elisabeth of Portugal (14th century), Francis of Assisi in 1214 (in 2014 the church of Saint Francis in Santiago de Compostela issued a special document for those who completed the Camino de Santiago in that year in memory of the 800th anniversary of the saint’s pilgrimage) or artists, such as Jan van Eyck (15th century). Kings and nobleman built roads, bridges, and hospices for the pilgrims. Many of these structures remain today, representing first-class art. Some people spent their whole life serving the pilgrims like St Gregorio Ostiense, Santo Domingo de la Calzada or Saint Juan y Ortega.

Over the centuries people from distant corners of the continent met on the Way of Saint James so there is no exaggeration in what Johann Wolfgang Goethe said that the idea of Europe was born along the road to Santiago.

The pilgrimage was at its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later the number of pilgrims gradually dropped because of the geopolitical situation, but they never disappeared completely regardless of the political turbulence or religious scepticism. In the 1970s less than one hundred pilgrims a year made it to Santiago. The situation changed diametrically in the Jacobean Holy Year of 1982 when Pope John Paul II visited Santiago. Soon after his visit, the Council of Europe called for the reconstruction of Saint James’ Way. In 1987 the route you are just about to follow was proclaimed the first European Cultural Route; in 1993 it was made a UNESCO Heritage Site.

From the 80s onwards, the number of the pilgrims began to increase and today we are experiencing a renaissance of the pilgrimage. Suffice to say that between the years 2004 and 2014, 1, 7 million people visited Santiago de Compostela; 215 856 pilgrims in 2013 alone. Most of the pilgrims walk the Way; around 10 percent cycle, less than one percent go on horseback or travel with a donkey and several dozens a year manage it in a wheelchair.

Mysterious Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, 12th century

Camino as the journey to the inner self

Camino de Santiago is a journey different from any other. 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 does change human lives. It is a commonly held belief that it shepherds you through three stages – physical, mental and spiritual. Although this is the usual experience, it should not be treated as the rule. There are no rules because we are one of a kind and the Camino like custom-made clothes will fit only us.

There are certain things that can be done to distance us from problems and duties. Personally, I found it very helpful to switch off my phone and not check e-mails for the entire journey – I only switch my mobile on when back in London. Doing this helps me to get out of the context of everyday life. Time is another important factor. A walker has an advantage over a cyclist because he needs four and a half weeks to complete his Camino while a cyclist takes only two. Time can be partially substituted by space. There are fantastic, long stages of the Camino in Navarra where you will cycle on completely deserted former national roads. Use these hours of loneliness wisely.

Tradition says that the Camino should begin on one’s doorstep. Centuries have passed and there are still those nuts I adore who set off on their journey from their hometowns – I met some of them on the Way and I still smile when I think about them. Most of us won’t be able to do so but we can treat all the time-consuming preparations as the beginning of the journey, already slowly disconnecting ourselves from the problems of our everyday lives.

Tradition also says that you should set off on the journey by yourself and there is great wisdom in that. To make changes happen you need to spend some time on your own. I would say that roughly 60% of the pilgrims go to Santiago by themselves. If you decide to cycle with somebody else – a friend or a partner -don’t be surprised if at one point your ways naturally part for a few hours or days (due to illness, a different pace etc.). It will happen because both of you need to spend some time alone.

Asked about the Camino every former pilgrim will tell you he met great people along the way. The Camino opens us up to others. Nobody on the Way is interested in your job, social or financial status. I spent weeks walking and chatting with others without knowing their profession. People tend to be interested in what is most important – somebody else’s character, personality and life. I am of the opinion that people we meet on the Way are exactly the same as those we meet in our everyday life just our attitude towards them is different. We are less judgmental, more open, understanding and tolerant. And in the end, although we started the Camino by ourselves we finish it off by walking/cycling with others.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter everybody experiences the Camino in their own unique way. It is important to be open to changes and listen to yourself. Things that you find the most important might be the last ones to happen so have trust and hope. I will quote an example – when I did the Camino for the first time, I left my job (like many others I met on the way), so the most important question was, what next? Pretty soon I realised that I wouldn’t have a moment of revelation, so I left my question unanswered, thinking that the answer would come eventually and instead of worrying I looked after the things that needed to be done on a daily basis. I was absolutely right – the answer came three kilometres before Santiago after four and a half weeks of walking as I was standing on Monte del Gozo.

Once a pilgrim said to me that if we were looking for a life-changing experience we shouldn’t put all our hopes into the Camino. I didn’t say anything, but I thought why we shouldn’t? Changes we wish for might happen on the Camino although it is more likely they start there and continue when we get back home. If life is really harsh for you it might take more than one journey to find the answers and a cure. I reached Santiago de Compostela for the first time in October 2007. I would never have guessed that it would take me another seven years to finally put my feet on the stones of the windy cape of Finisterre (Finisterre, around 130 km from Santiago was considered the end of the world by medieval pilgrims) in October 2014. When I got my certificate from the journey from the end of the world another pilgrim said to me ‘mission completed’. I thought, indeed it was.