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Published July 30th 2017
Europe's oldest trail now got easier
There are probably larger cathedrals across the world, and no doubt some that are older, more beautiful or refreshed. But sitting here in the warm afternoon sun of Santiago de Compostela, this is the one that is most important to me today. You see, this cathedral lies at the end of the Camino de Santiago, a 300km cycling pilgrimage from Leon, a town with its own majestic cathedral, and a town that I left five days earlier.
My journey started in Leon along the Camino, a world renowned network of trails that for well over a thousand years has taken pilgrims from France, Italy and Portugal across Spain to this Cathedral in the province of Galicia where legend has it that the remains of the Apostle St James the Great are buried. Many pilgrims have walked and beaten a path across hills, valleys and plains, with the most popular trail being the 800km 'Way of St James' starting in the Pyrenees. In recent times, bicycles have offered an alternative means for pilgrims as they follow the trail laid down many years before them.
Arriving at Leon six days ago there was a bicycle awaiting me in the hotel as I checked in. The U-Tracks team had promised this to me, but one is never sure until one arrives. While a 300km walk would've been possible, it would've taken a fraction longer than 5 days. A transfer of the essential items to the pannier bags, a quick goodbye to the suitcase as it made its way to the next nightly stop, and I was off. Well sort of.
Smiling, in reflection, I don't think there had been 2km travelled before I succumbed to the 'welcome' sign outside a coffee and pastries shop in the centre of Leon. It was going to be a long ride if this kept happening. Oh well, you only live once, and why not take another chance to admire the stunning Leon Cathedral while I am here. 'Buon Camino' the Barista shouted when I eventually departed. Not sure what he meant.
I soon learnt that getting lost on the Camino is difficult to do. The proliferation of yellow arrows and the symbolic scallop shell across walls, paths, bridges, roads and any other structures are hard to miss. And with a route that takes you away from the main highways and into many of the small off-the-beaten-path rural villages, the ride is comfortable and I get re-acquainted with my luggage at the day's destination, a hostel at a slightly larger town, usually between 3pm and 4pm.
A walk of the town's streets each evening and fellow visitors and pilgrims are easy to hear and see. Many are carrying the scallop, while others are reminiscing about the day just travelled or contemplating tomorrow's effort. The hiking shoes and bicycles are key indicators of their mode of transport and I settle down amongst a small group of cyclists for the meal that the restaurant refers to as a "pilgrim's meal".
In fact I had become quite used to a "pilgrim's meal" having succumbed to this temptation earlier in the day. Alongside a running river on the sides of a hill lay one of the villages, and with their livelihood relying solely on the passing pilgrims, the 3 courses plus wine over lunch that the restaurant was offering was sure to encourage most people to stop, enjoy the local delicacies and to take half an hour out for the afternoon siesta.
The O Cebreiro was triumphed on one day, while the stunning Lakes around Portomarin provided a relaxing place to rest for the evening. The eucalyptus forests brought made us feel at home with their enchanting morning rays and cooling afternoon suns while the market stalls, hamlets and small rural villages grew in their frequency.
The Camino passed through Sarria, a town of little significance except that it is 100km from the end, and Pilgrims can only receive their finisher's certificate at the Santiago De Compostela Pilgrim's office if they complete this last 100km. Not surprisingly a number of tour companies offer self-guided and guided tours from Sarria to the end, something that is noted each day as the number of walkers passed steadily increases.
In fact, on my final day, I passed some 1,600 walkers, with sounds of "Buon Camino" and "Bici, Bici" getting louder as the destination neared. On the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela the final climb takes us to the Monte do Gozo, the Hill of Joy, a cross which overlooks the town and the three spires of the Cathedral, and signifies a downhill to the finish.
The Cathedral formally signifies the end of the trail, and the nearby Pilgrim's office provides evidence of that achievement. Not everyone who undertakes the journey is a pilgrim but all are welcome to receive a certificate. The queue at the Pilgrims Office was long, but as the day nudged closer to nightfall, the incoming Pilgrim numbers lessened, and it was time to get mine.
A number of travel companies provide guided and self-guided walking or cycling tours of the Camino de Santiago. Cycle the Camino is a self-guided tour organised by U-Tracks, a company affiliated with World Expeditions. For further details on Cycle the Camino, refer to the U-Tracks website. Oh yeah, and Buon Camino.