I arrive by train from Biarritz at St.Jean de Pied Port a little town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees where I am going to begin my Camino to Santiago. I book myself a room for two nights on the outskirts of town which should be time enough to organise things. My accommodation is at a family outdoorsy summer camp vibe kind of place. There are wooden cottages, camping spaces and an outdoor pool. All the guests have gone back to work or to school as its the end of the holidays and I appear to be the only person staying there. (Think of ‘The Shining’ without any of the snow, or the scary shit ).
The office is only staffed at limited hours and my instructions when booking online are that my room keys are to be found in a lock box for which I am given a four digit code. For my two day stay I never actually see a member of staff.
The morning of my first full day in St.Jean I head off to find a bicycle, having done my homework beforehand I know there’s a camping and trekking store in town that sells bikes.
I have decided to do the trip on a bike, its quicker that way and lighter on my crocky legs.
On arrival at the store I head straight for a row of gleaming machines, there are bags to choose from. No flies on me I’ve got it all worked out:- I am going to buy the cheapest mountain bike possible, then at the end of my Camino I am going to find a youngster who looks like they might like it and give it away, it kind of makes sense to pass it along to someone that will make use of it.
I am perusing a little number that has a price tag of 130 Euros, over comes an assistant, or maybe he’s the owner, I don’t know, but ready with my schoolboy French I say. Bonjour Monsier, Je vais faire le Camino, j’ai besoin d’une bicyclette, celui-ci.
Pierre, for that it transpires is his name raises his eyebrows and then replies in English, No. It is not possible. I assume it’s because this is the last one, I don’t mind, I’ll take the display model?
Non Monsieur I will not sell you this bicycle for the Camino. This bike is not for you.
The frame is too small, it is not well made, I will not sell it to you.
You need a bike like this, we head along the row of cycles which rises in price as we go along. This, this is what you need.
The bicycle in question is 795 Euros.
Pierre convinces me that I would be a fool to buy the inferior model, so he sells me the expensive one, along with extras: a bell, a heavy duty rack on the back to carry my luggage, a water bottle, puncture repair kits, spare inner tubes, tools & several other ‘necessaries’ as Pierre calls them.
I add a a waterproof in the French Rugby teams colours, blue and white, I leave the store an hour later with a dream machine and a card receipt in my pocket for just short of 1000 Euros.
That evening I have a big meal of pasta in the town figuring it will bulk me up for what is to come, heading back to my room I hear choral singing coming from an old church, I step inside and there is a concert in full flow, the folks are singing in Basque, the voices harmonise and intertwine, deep and resonant basso profoundos & tenors & sopranos weave in and out of each other perfectly.
I light three candles adding them to trays full of others already glittering away in the evening twilight, not as a prayer, I have no space for a God, but more for myself to remember.
One for the people I love, one for those I’ve lost along the way & one for myself as a bit of light to shine on the way on my travels.
The next morning I set off at first light, it is damp and misty and distinctly chilly and the road is all uphill. After four hours in I begin to wonder what the hell I was doing, I was already knackered and I’d hardly begun. I had well over seven hundred kilometres ahead of me and had never ridden a bike for more than an hour or two at a time before.
What was I thinking? I realised I was a bloody idiot.
But I was here now and I was going to carry on even if it killed me. By late afternoon I am up and over the Pyrenees, I’ve pushed my bike more than I’ve ridden it, then I reach a section of road and it is downhill – bloody marvellous! I whizz along for a couple of km’s, the road signs are in Spanish now not French. A new country………
For the entire length of the Camino there are signs to guide your way, little placards with the shell of St.James on a blue background and an arrow in yellow pointing the way. For the entire journey seven hundred and ninety kilometres over mountains and hills, along river valleys and ancient cobbled roads, though woods and across streams and rivers, through villages and hamlets and cities, not once do I need a map, not once do I need to ask for directions.
Along the route also handily enough there are plenty of places to stay. Houses turned over to Camino guests, spare rooms decked out with bunk beds, dormitories in monasteries & church halls, all offering a bed for the night for ten euros & a big hearty dinner of local peasant food with as much wine as you can drink for the same amount. That first night I take my fill of both, fearful of not eating again in a while, I limp off to bed with a full stomach and a brain nicely soused in local vino to my shared room, my three room mates are already asleep and I join them in the sleep of a pilgrim.
I wake at around eight a.m. to the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the room, my roommates are long gone, the landlady is clearly irritated and wants me out. My first lesson of the Camino, get up early and be on your way, my second I learn is to finish your days travels in the early afternoon, find a bed in good time before everyone else does and relax for the rest of the day.
The French route of the Camino takes 30-35 days by foot, I figure twenty is plenty for me on a bike and leaves me time to do a bit of sightseeing along the way. The journey feels like a meander through time, the ancient kingdoms of Navarre & Aragon, of Castille & Leon, of the vineyards of Rioja, all these historic places are still alive and well and reinvent themselves, changed as they are by time.
Old men with battered motor cars tend to their precious vines, lone tractors ply their way up and down rows of corn, pumpkins grow fat in the September Sun, villages full of for sale signs – the young people have fled for the cities to neat box apartments one on top of another.
So many afternoons arriving in a village or hamlet to find them empty of people, I forget that siesta is a real thing and instead wonder where everyone is.
By late afternoon these little places come to life, a village bar and a shop open up, kids appear and play in the streets and voices ring out and the aroma of evening meals being cooked is carried out from open windows onto the stirring streets.
330,000 people a year take one of the camino routes each year by foot to Santiago, 20,000 by bicycle, 500 go by horse, a hundred or so somehow or other manage it by wheelchair. It’s surprising how few one actually meets along the way, there are days when you can walk for hours and not see a soul, or maybe just a few people along the way, by evening holed up in an auberge somewhere fellow travellers congregate and the evenings are spent in temporary camaraderie.
I walk for a while towards the end of day with a woman I meet, its a blessing to be honest to get out of the saddle for a while, my ass let me tell you is sore as hell, but I will spare you the graphic details. Anyway my companion is called Anna, she is from the Faroe Islands, a rocky little outcrop of land battered by wind and waves in the middle of the North Sea. She is doing the Camino it appears for a bit of excitement, I don’t think a lot happens in the Faroes.
We walk and talk and end up booking into the same Pensione for the evening, at dinner there is a big table with eight of us in for the night. On one side of me sits Anna, from the Faroes, on the other is Pedro, a gent in his sixties from Mexico City, he tells us he’s here for a bit of peace and quiet, Mexico City he says is just too busy. And me why am I here? Well, to be honest I couldn’t think of anything better to do at the time.
As the days go by I quickly slip into a kind of rhythm, early rise, coffee and onto my saddle and away. It becomes a kind of meditation, there’s nothing but the way, nothing else to be done, nothing else to think about, just the camino stretching out in front of me.
In an age where air travel means you can cross an entire continent in a few hours the camino is something else entirely, following the contours of the land, having time to absorb the surroundings as you travel through them, the changes in the weather, the scent of the air, the light as it moves through the day. All of these sensations have an intensity to them, they kind of seep into you and you feel yourself becoming part of them.
Making my way through the City of Leon it begins to rain, not just a shower but a bloody torrential downpour of biblical proportions. I am soaked to the skin in a minute flat. The rain is so heavy that the streets empty and even the cars stop attempting to drive, a City of 120,000 grinds to a halt except for one soggy Englishman who just keeps pedalling away. The gutters are like mountain streams, my waterproof is not waterproof. Ahead of me I notice one solitary figure walking with a backpack. He has the distinctive shell of St.James on his rucksack that marks him out as a fellow traveller on the Camino. As I draw up alongside him I ask if I can walk alongside him for a while. Sure he says.
Peter is a Kiwi, he is eighty-two years old, he was born in Paddington in London but moved to New Zealand as a kid. His wife of fifty two years had passed not so long ago and he had decided that he’d do the Camino, the kids weren’t so keen on me coming he said, but bugger them, I just fancied doing it, always had he said, and there was nobody and nothing to stop me.
God I bloody loved Peter, what a fellow, in his eighties to travel half way across the world and then walk all the way across Spain, in a pair of old army boots, a pair of surplus khaki shorts, an old pullover and an old school rucksack what a bloody inspiration, I hope one day if I make it to his age to have just half of his gumption.
When the rain gives way to afternoon sun and the suburbs of Leon to open country I bid Peter a Buon Camino and set off on my bike once again. I find a room for the night, eat a great big plate of stew washed down with plenty of wine and sleep the sleep of the righteous.
Next morning I find myself unexpectedly travelling uphill again, there is though I don’t realise it yet one more set of hills and mountains to go through. I climb up for what seems like ages until I reach the Crois de Fer, an iron cross that marks monte Irago, 1504 metres, when I get there the whole place is surrounded in mist, distinctly chilly and devoid of travellers.
The Iron cross grows out of a summit of small rocks and only as you draw close do you realise that each has been placed there by a passing traveller. Some have words painted on them, some have photos wrapped around stones, some notes in ink that have faded in the rain and sun. There are tens of thousands of stones there, every one a prayer, a note of thanks, a remembrance, or simply the initials and the dates of a traveller who has passed by.
A little way from the Cross is a wooden shelter and picnic area, when it begins to rain I take shelter, there I find an old fella in a sleeping bag propped up against the wall, he has a dog for company, I nod hello towards him and roll myself a cigarette and sit at a bench, he asks if I have a spare cigarette, he explains it’s twenty kilometres to a Tabac. I say sure, but would he mind taking a photo of me at the cross? He obliges and I give him a big wodge of tobacco for his trouble.
I head down from Mt.Irago and it begins to tip it down once again, let me tell you Spain in early September can be bloody cold and very very wet. I arrive at a village once more soaked to the skin and am delighted to find a little bar with with rooms for the night, what’s better still it has a log fire blazing away, there I sink several large glasses of Spanish beer and steam my clothes dry by the heat of the fire.
Next morning off again early, its misty again but at least it’s not raining, then at eight in the morning I come to a little crossroads in the middle of nowhere, there is an ambulance, four police cars parked up, flashing blue lights blinking away.
A Spanish camera crew by the side of the road, a reporter miked up and speaking to camera. Something big is happening.
That evening I find a news report online, an American woman by the name of Denise had been missing and her body had been discovered there by that crossroads. Later I discover more of the story. Denise had jacked her job in Arizona and decided to travel around the world, part of her trip was the Camino, along the way she had the misfortune to cross paths with a man named Miguel Angel Munoz, unlike his name he was anything but an Angel, he robbed her and murdered her and hid her body. Nefariously he had put up misleading signs aping those along the Camino, with yellow arrows on a blue background pointing away from the route and towards the farm buildings he was living in, there Denise met her end. The Camino is remarkably safe, hundreds of thousands travel one or other of its routes every year and hardly ever does anyone come to grief, but for Denise it was a different story.
Somewhat shocked and saddened by the vagaries of life I continue on. At a chapel along the way I stop and light a candle for Denise. I’ve read that believers have it that if a pilgrim dies on the road to Santiago then they are carried straight to Paradise. Maybe Denise is already there.
After the town of Astorga the way grows easier, cycling each day has strengthened my calves and my capacity for the miles grows and grows. The weather is warmer and brighter. As I get closer to the end of my Camino I reach woodlands of Eucalyptus trees, the smell is delicious and I have to stop and pick leaves and crush them in my hands and drink in their scent so that I will remember the moment.
On my final days journey I start early as always, the hedgerows are full of spider webs covered in morning dew, they remind me of spun silk samplers laid out along the verges, I reach a stream with an ancient stone bridge and sit for a while beside the water and watch it running by, green fronds of weeds snake to and fro in the current, the birds are singing and I wonder what the point of heaven could be, when there are places like this here right now.
I reach the City of Santiago De Compostela, 790 kilometres after my journey began, in time for the 12 midday pilgrims service. An enormous iron ball filled with burning incense swings form chains high in the rafters of the Cathedral and spreads clouds of smoke through the gathered pilgrims below. I stay for a while to watch the spectacle and then leave the building.
I walk for a while around the square, I cry just a few tears, soppy old tart that I am, happy, thankful for my journey, of what it showed me along the way ( not the bed bugs which I forgot to mention ) and for having made it to the end.
I find a bike shop that will transport mine back to England, the two of us have become quite attached to each other after these last few weeks. And I prepare for my journey back to London and whatever is next.