Compostela to Land’s End

P1070674Santiago de Compostela is full of the walking wounded – but they are the happiest, most joyous band of walking wounded you will ever see in peacetime. Under the watchful gaze of the statue of St James flanked either side by the two soaring lichen and moss-covered spires of the cathedral (okay, one was covered in a facsimile of its real self as it received a facelift but I do hope they leave the lichen where it is), the vast expanse of the Plaza de Obradoiro is the perfect place to sit and watch the extraordinary scene of pilgrims enter the concourse in pure celebration and sheer relief that their arduous journey has reached a momentous conclusion.

P1070460With knees bound or ankles in supports, some cast their hiking sticks or staffs to the ground to walk the last few steps of their pilgrimage unaided. Many hug each other to congratulate one another for their achievement, whilst others burst into gleeful song. Others sit or lie down deep in thought; occasionally shedding a tear and to savour the emotional crescendo of a defining moment in their lives. I have no doubt that the universality of emotions touches everyone who arrives in the plaza having completed a journey of many hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres but I do wonder what the scene was like centuries ago. Unlike the pilgrim of today – commonly dressed in breathable, waterproof walking attire and the latest technology in sports apparel – the tide of medieval pilgrims who actually made it to the plaza must have been a very different looking band of individuals. The spectacular Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, founded in 1492 and now an exclusive parador, once served as a hospice for pilgrims stands testament to the fact that El Camino de Santiago was literally a journey of life and death.

P1070476All the theatricality of a Catholic service is bestowed to pilgrims in the cathedral for Pilgrim’s Mass, which takes place at noon everyday. On the Sunday that I attended, the cathedral was packed to the rafters with the faithful and those that were there to soak up the charged atmosphere. The service concludes with the ceremonial swinging of a huge, ornate incensor that is first hoisted up by five clergymen and swung from the central knave across the east and west transept. The burning of the incense was a fragrant and dramatic end to the service but I couldn’t help but think how it must have originally served to mask the bodily odours rising from the great sea of unwashed pilgrim’s gathered in the congregation below.

After patiently waiting in the long queue to collect my certificate of accomplishment, or Compostela, from the Peregrino Office – which confirms I had completed my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles along El Camino Francés to Santiago – I turned my wheels west until there was no more land left to cycle. Joining the many pilgrims who continue their journey to the rock-bound peninsula of Cape Finisterre which literally means ‘Land’s End’ (not to be confused with its counterpart in Cornwall, England) and was believed to be the edge of the world during Pax Romana, I had only 90km-or-so to complete my journey across the entire breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. The following day, fuelled by the previous night’s delicious wild camp chorizo pasta cooked on the stove whilst the mosquitoes dined out on me during a wild camp under the eucalyptus trees outside the sleepy town of Pereira, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as I first made sight of the Atlantic Ocean. It was as if the poignant, heavy atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela was lifted and evaporated into the perpetual sea frets that make landfall.

P1070623In order to complete as circuitous a route as I could around the tip of Galicia, I headed northwest in the direction of the battered and scarred rocky promontory of Muxia to see the Faro (lighthouse) that still guides fishermen into its safe harbour to this day. The changeable Galician weather didn’t fail to disappoint and the blue skies quickly became concealed behind a fine mist that coated the bright yellow roadside gorse in a fresh dew. The Costa del Morte (Death Coast) is a wild, and still dangerous coastline for mariners to chart, with charming white sand beaches framed by high cliffs. It is a diverse landscape of mountains, shaded valleys, wildflower meadows and little villages dotted with old hórreos (stone granaries) and weather-worn cruceros’s (stone crosses). It is also easy to appreciate why humans for millennia have chosen to settle here and there are a number of megalithic sites, stone-age dolmens and celtic burial grounds to visit. There are many legends of saints arriving by boat; Cristo de Fisterra, Virgen de la Boca, Virgen del Monte de Camariñas amongst others, and even the myth of the forgotten city of Duium that disappeared under the sea many moons ago.

As it happens, it seemed like myth and reality actually did collide when I cycled through the popular seaside town of Fisterre enveloped in a P1070687dense fog. As I reached the end of terra firma on the Capo de Finisterre; there was no horizon, sea or sky to behold but only the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks below. Sitting at the ‘edge of the flat world’ to the acrid smell of smouldering walking boots (it is a recent custom to burn your boots or item of clothing when you reach the point – I did neither), I cracked open a beer to celebrate and looked out into the unfathomable nothingness as thick cloud swirled all around me. Maybe the Romans were onto something after all.

Returning to the Office of the Concello de Fisterra to collect a piece of paper which certifies that I had officially reached the end of the ‘flat world’, I was, well, flatly refused. It seemP1070682s that the paucity of stamps from Santiago de Compostela in my Credencial del Peregrino was enough to turn me away. A small price to pay I suppose for the free wild camps that I had enjoyed along the way. As I smiled at the futility of how I had succumbed to collecting immaterial souvenirs that get either framed or filed away as a sentimental token of certain occasions in life, a chap from Germany approached and introduced himself as Dennis. With a wild glint in his eye, it turns out that he had arrived ten months earlier and was so drawn to the place that he feels no desire to return to Germany. He now lives quite happily in his tarpaulin-constructed refuge on the western tip of the peninsula. We chatted about El Camino, the absurdity of ‘stamp’ collecting, and he suggested that head up to the Monte Facho to check out the white ‘moving stones’ and spend the night up there. And that’s exactly what I proceeded to do. “If you find the moving stones, you must make a wish!” Dennis vouched as he bade me a fond farewell.

As if the fog couldn’t get thicker, it surely did as I eventually gave up pedalling and pushed the Sherpa slowly up the steep climb to the highest point on the peninsula. P1070728Despite the fact that visibility was down to five metres, by a stroke of luck I managed to spot the two radio masts that Dennis had excitedly pointed out on the map, and struck camp nestled amongst a distinctive group of distinctive eroded rocks nearby. Whether it was close to the fabled seat of the Celtic crone-goddess Orcabellam, I have no idea, but it was a spectacular wild camp spot that was secluded and out of sight from another breed of officious ‘stamp’ collectors who prefer that wandering pilgrims keep to one side of the blue line.

P1070747My efforts were rewarded beyond belief as a change of wind cleared the fog almost immediately to reveal the ‘path of milk’ as the Romans referred to it – otherwise known as the Milky Way – stretching over the Atlantic. It was the best wild camp of the journey by far as I awoke early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Galician mountains that I had cycled across from Santiago de Compostela in the distance. And yes, I did find the moving stones; and yes, I did make a wish. All I can say is that whilst Capo Finisterre may not be the end of the known Earth, it is certainly a very special place indeed.

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road

and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

By walking on makes the road,

and upon glancing behind one sees the path that will never be trodden again.

Wanderer, there is no road.

Only wakes upon the sea.

Antonio Machato

P1070817

Buen camino

P1070086The familiar greeting of “Buen Camino!” (literally meaning ‘good road’) amongst fellow pilgrims personifies the friendliness and camaraderie amongst the wayfarers who travel along the Way of St James. Often carrying a scallop shell and occasionally a gourd to signify their pilgrim status – and to ward off thieves or those with less than honourable intentions – the vast majority of pilgrims walk whilst a minority, including myself, cycle the route. I’ve already met a Dutch couple who are travelling with their young son on brightly coloured recumbents festooned with flags; gangs of lycra-clad mountain bikers in search of the next adrenalin rush; cycle-tourers on tandem bikes; and even a group of German farmers that have driven their lovingly restored tractors all the way from Kesslingen, Germany. Whilst the mode of locomotion may be different, the sentiments in the shared goodwill of the expression, ‘Buen Camino’, amongst walkers, cyclists, and tractor-enthusiasts alike remains exactly the same.

The ride from Roncesvalles into the Basque stronghold of Pamplona, the first main city along the Camino de Santiago, was an exhilarating one. I chose to take the road so that I could enjoy the twists and turns as it unravelled through the Valle de Erro. Woefully lost trying to navigate the spaghetti junctions of dual-carriage ways that orbit the city, charitable locals clearly saw my increasing desperation with the map and pointed me in the direction of my refuge for the night. P1070010Thankfully, I soon found the Albergue de Peregrinos de Jesús y Maria close to the cathedral nestled unassumingly in one of the many narrow cobbled streets of the beautiful medieval quarter. It is here that I was first introduced to the chorus of snores that have become the nigh-time soundtrack to the handful of Albergues that I have stayed in along the way.

Often run by volunteers, an Albergue is basically a hostel for pilgrims that charge anything between 5-10 Euros or simply ask for a donation for the luxury – and I do mean luxury – of a shower and bunk bed for the night. This privilege is only afforded to pilgrims and the Credencial del Peregrino must be presented on arrival for refuge to be granted. In return, a distinctive stamp confirms that the pilgrim has stopped for the night before continP1070493uing their pilgrimage the following day. It also represents a record of the way-points that pilgrims have journeyed along the road towards Santiago de Compostela.

Having been used to starting my day at a leisurely pace which first involves firing up the stove for an invigorating brew before packing up the tent to avoid unwanted attention from a local farmer or the Guardia Civil, I was surprised to see pilgrims at the Albergue set out to begin their day’s walk before the sun had even risen. We all travel at our own pace and rhythm but, personally, coffee always comes before cycling if the day is to get off to a good start. Without doubt, Albergues are exceptionally social places and a great opportunity to meet fellow pilgrims even if the symphony of snores at night keeps slumber a distant prospect – even for even the heaviest of sleepers.

P1070110Following a day’s rest to explore the lively city – mindful to stay well clear of any charging bulls – and with only a few hours’ wakeful kip under the belt, I pushed on to enjoy a succession of wild camps that took me though the fertile grape-growing plains of Navarra and La Rioja. The first green shoots heralding this year’s harvest for wine-production on an industrial scale were beginning to emerge. Spring had indeed finally sprung and the roadside verges that fence off the few fields left to fallow were sprinkled with bright yellow dandelions and buttercups.

Stopping off in the historic town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada situated on the banks of the Oja River for a typical lunch of cheese and fresh bread, I got chatting to a local woman, Maria, who was sharing quality time with her baby daughter in the shade of the town square. As we talked, I beckoned her towards me with an encouraging ‘hola!’ and to her mother’s astonishment, Eva began to take her very first steps: It’s the small but extraordinary experiences on the road that take on the greatest poignancy. As in life, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but is it really the destination or the journey itself that truly matters?

One of the many striking features of the El Camino is the wonderful mix of natural landscapes, flora and fauna that it takes you through. From flat, wide-open agricultural plains that stretch out from Burgos as far as the eye can see to the fresh pine forests and carpets of ferns and wild herbs that cling to the mountain range of the snow-capped Montes de León; or the lush green rolling hills of Galicia that is so reminiscent of Wales or Ireland that I have had to continually remind myself that I am in Spain. P1070049The route takes you through small rural hamlets with crumbling centuries-old farmhouses covered in moss and creeping ivy, over ancient cobbled Roman bridges, alongside gurgling brooks and into quiet, peaceful town squares complete with ornate water fonts offering thirst-quenching respite for the travel-weary pilgrim. The journey has so far been undeniably a kaleidoscope of colour, sights and smells that lift the spirit, nourish the mind and rejuvenate the soul.

P1070159The rich experiences that camping affords along this geographical fused-storyboard of Christian and Celtic landmarks has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve camped under stars framed by the lofty arches of the 12th century ruins of the Convento de San Anton – that once served as a hospital to treat the sick and ailments of passing pilgrims during the medieval ages – and have taken refuge from the howling wind and rain in the shelter of small chapels that overlook the Atapuerca Sierra that was first inhabited by some of the earliest human settlers in Europe.

Nature always plays its inevitable hand too. I’ve been woken up more than once by the bad-tempered barks of what I can only imagine are from Wild Boar and have shared my breakfast with a curious Stoat. In so far as the elements are concerned, I’ve been frozen into my tent after being forced to strike camp close to the Cruz de Ferro on the ridge of the Montes de León in a freak snow storm. P1070266The next morning – after a freezing night of fitful sleep above 1500m where I discovered that a hastily prepared hot chocolate on the stove in the early hours can make the difference between cocoa heaven and the onset of hypothermia – I watched the sun rise above the clouds and was treated to a warm hug and coffee shortly after breaking camp by an angel from Normandy. As the feeling to my hands returned, she told me that her name was Anneline, who had been so touched by travelling the northern coastal route of El Camino the previous year that she had decided to give up her philosophy studies at university and practice a philosophy of life that revolves around living off the land and offering coffee and cake to pilgrim’s as they reach the highest point of the route across the Iberian peninsula.

Like Anneline, there are many people who live on – and from – El Camino. Take Sergio from France, who said ‘au revoir’ to his Parisian life and has for nearly the past three decades lived on various sections of The Way of St James, picking litter as he goes. Soon to embark on his 24th pilgrimage to date. He told me that it is to mark the anniversary of St Francis of Assisi who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 800 years-ago this year. When I enquired how long it would take him to walk the route from the Italian spiritual centre of Assisi to Santiago, Sergio replied matter-of-factly: “Three months, give or take a few.” Or there is David from Barcelona, who renounced his life in the Catalan capital six years ago to live a life of simplicity offering service to pilgrims who should pass by and stop at his humble makeshift home outside the historic-walled city of Astorga.P1070213 “Life is process,” he mused as he broke up some wood to fuel the flames so I could enjoy a coffee brewed on the fire, whilst he drank herbal tea.

Apart from those that have decided to make a life from El Camino, there are of course the pilgrims themselves. Just like myself, all make the journey for uniquely personal reasons. I’ve met so many amazing people along the way, it’s not possible to accurately recount or do justice to the conversations I’ve shared but the common theme has been a desire to slow the pace of life down and reconnect with themselves, and others: There is Klaus, an art therapist from Munich, who says he is in need of some therapy himself. Or Bruno, from Lake Garda in northern Italy, who is cycling a furious 100km plus a day to carry a banner of get well wishes in his backpack for his ex-wife who is battling for her life after a heart-bypass.P1070225 Then there is Miquel from Logroño, who wants to give up his addiction to alcohol and television. Or Tina and Marchant from Australia and Poland respectively, who have decided to spend their honeymoon walking El Camino before they get married just make sure they are truly compatible in wedlock. Meanwhile, Zoe from South Korea is looking for love along the way. And then there is Ben, a happy-go-lucky horticulturist student who is walking the route before he starts his internship simply because it is “fun”! And it sure is fun.

For me, the penny truly dropped as I was talking to an Italian pilgrim, Mau, who had a monastic air about him and had met his partner, Nia, on the Way of St James six years-ago. He says they never reached Santiago but ended up settling in the peaceful town of Castrojeriz, in the central municipality of Castilla y León, just a few kilometres down the road from the Convento de San Anton. Aptly called the Hospital de Alma (Hospital of the Soul), they have spent the last couple of years restoring an old Castilian barn into a place of contemplation to remind pilgrims that the Camino is not completed by two feet or, indeed, two wheels; rather – the journey takes place within.

P1070367A striking photographic exhibition situated in the entrance to the building, Chasing the Shadows, takes an interesting perspective into the notion of pilgrimage and why increasingly more people each year are compelled to embark on one. The central message is universal. Just like the first steps that Eva took in the square in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we walk because it is both a naturally innate human desire to do so but also an external expression of our own inner state. It is in this sense that the repetition of walking – or turning of the pedals – becomes not just an act of simply getting from A to B, but a means of processing the habitual nature of life so that we can gain a deeper understand of ourselves. In short, we become the Camino.

Without any ceremony, I doggedly pushed the Sherpa into the Plaza del Obradoiro overlooked by the soaring spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela exactly on the count of ten; totally exhausted but elated. I was exhausted because I was recovering from a marathon night ride with only the brilliant beam of my headlight to light the way down empty lanes as bats swirled above, rabbits darted left and right, and owls hooted from the shadows of the trees in their familiar but haunting call and response. Jolted by the deeply sad news of the departure of my grandfather from this life – a kind, gentle Yorkshireman with a big heart and who always had a twinkle in his eyes – I could not stop until I had finally reached Santiago fuelled only by impromptu coffee stops brewed on the stove with lashings of sweet honey in the still of night.

I felt elated because I was entering a revered space that for centuries, countless pilgrims have risked life and limb to journey there. It is hard to explain, but is was as if the collective memory of emotions resonating in those worn granite stones embraced my heart in one singular moment, and I became overwhelmed with joy and sadness as I lit a candle for the loss of a dearly loved family relative. After more than 1200km on the road since arriving in Bilbao one month earlier, I had finally made it to Santiago de Compostela – almost to the day. P1070483Next stop… to the ‘end of the flat world’ at Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast.

Camino calling

P1070244It has taken a while but the bean is back on the bike – this time to follow ‘El Camino’ (also known as The Way of St James) across the Iberian Peninsula towards Santiago de Compostela.

My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.

P1060942Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

P1060958Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.

P1070492I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.

I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. P1060992That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.

El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. P1070450For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.

Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.

Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance.P1070171 I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.