Cycling Spain’s Pilgrim Routes
Spending several days on the Spanish Mediterranean beaches was to be the start of a dream cycling vacation. These beaches are where the “beautiful” Europeans go to play in the sun. However, on that April morning the only people on the beach were me and my four cycling friends. Contrary to our expectations of warm temperatures, we were dressed for the cold-wet weather as we departed Malaga. We spent 2 months cycling in Spain and France following the many pilgrim routes that lead to the city of Santiago di Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. From there we headed east on pilgrim routes to Pamplona before crossing the Pyrenees Mountains into France. Finally, our nearly 2,000 mile cycling journey took us halfway across France to the city of Le Puy.
Spain is crisscrossed with many pilgrim routes that date back over a thousand years. Over the centuries, pilgrims traveled from all over Europe to Santiago di Compostela to visit the burial site of Saint James. While the routes were developed by walkers, many can be cycled. In addition, cyclists have mapped out highway routes that are easier to traverse with touring bikes. For an overview of these pilgrim routes (called caminos) checks out http://www.mundicamino.com/ and the cycling books available on the internet.
The Journey begins
We left Malaga on Friday the thirteenth but were not thinking of superstitions; rather our thoughts were of the big climb we faced on our first day. We headed east along the Mediterranean for about 20 miles before turning north into the mountains on our way to Granada. It was great getting started but I was not sure that a 15 mile climb was the way to get over jet lag. Along the route we were rewarded with the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms that permeated the air. (Orange trees decorate the roadways in many of the southern towns we passed through.) At the top we had relative flat cycling to our first night’s lodging about half way to Granada. It was then that we realized that their may be something to the “Friday the thirteenth” superstition. By the time we reached our hotel one of our cyclists reported having a medical problem (that we later found out to be very serious) and would not go on. We debated the implications of his return to get medical care and how we could help. It is scary to be in a foreign country with worries about getting care and getting home. We did all that we could to assure his safety but felt bad about continuing without him.
The next day’s journey was filled with anxiety about our friend and the three climbs that led us into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unlike the previous day’s ride, these climbs were followed by some great down hills and large chain ring cycling. Our cycling fun diminished somewhat with the increased traffic as we approached Granada. While in Granada we visited the famous Alhambra Palace which overlooks the city. It was the residence of Muslim kings when they ruled Spain and gets its name from the red clay used to form the palace’s bricks.
Leaving Granada we went northwest toward the city of Cordoba (120 miles away). Again we faced traffic getting out of the city and had to contend with thick fog—something that plagued us on many of mornings. However, the day quickly turned better as the sun came out and we cycled into the rural areas. Our climb was rewarded with grand vistas of the Sierra Nevada peaks and tens of thousands olive trees. It took several days to cycle through this area where olive trees were the only trees to be seen. Further on our way to Cordoba we cycled on a rail trail called Via Verda. While Via Verda means “greenway” the trail was in a mountainous-arid region with little in the way of green plants and trees.
Cycling the pilgrim routes in Spain led us to many old cathedrals and churches. However, the most unique structure was Cordoba’s Mezquita (Mosque). It was built in the 700s as a mosque but was changed to a cathedral when the Muslims were driven out of Spain by the Christians. The Mezquita is very unique with over 1000 interior columns in its cavernous interior. However, I was more impressed by spirituality that overwhelmed me. I left the building with a wondrous sense that was not duplicated in the many other cathedrals I visited.
Cycling out of Cordoba we again encounter traffic, overcast skies, and typical urban scenery. We were heading to the city of Salamanca about 300 miles northwest. It was on this section of the ride that I had a meal straight from a TV reality show. In the larger cities language was not too much of a problem but in small towns it was sometimes difficult to communicate. To further complicate eating, meat dominates Spanish meals but I prefer meatless meals. However, I enjoy fish and the meal from hell was ordered as “fish.” Up to this point in time, ordering fish brought me filleted trout but not tonight. My “fish” was a plate of sea creatures and creature parts that I did not recognize. Furthermore, the meal had an unappetizing green-gray appearance. In the spirit of international relations (and my hunger) I tried my best to eat some of it, but soon gave up.
The rain and cold weather continued as we cycled another 320 miles from Salamanca to Santiago de Compostela. Putting on my rain gear was becoming a morning ritual. However, we still had many pleasant experiences. For example, we made one stop to look at some ruins that dated to the 1500s and were rewarded when the caretaker offered to let us enter and explore on our own. The building was constructed as an Abby but now just housed some farm equipment. It was interesting to wander through the remains and climb its walls without a guide telling us what to see and where to go.
Along this section of the ride we saw lots of wind turbines that dotted many of Spain’s mountain tops. While they are picturesque, most cyclists recognize them as a forewarning of the head winds to come. Come they did one morning as we climbed to over 4,000 feet. Don Quixote would have been proud of us as we attacked the wind and the hill. Not surprising, as the wind and elevation increased, the air temperature decreased and we froze. After we topped the mountain, our expectation of a great 6 mile downhill ride was destroyed by sleet and rain. I road my breaks all the way down and could see the pads disintegrate faster than my descent.
For the past several weeks we had been leapfrogging with a group of Spanish mountain bikers that stayed to the trails whenever possible. Sometimes these trails became inaccessible even to the hardiest mountain bikers, forcing them to the highways. Each time we met their bikes had more layers of mud, documenting the condition of the trials. Our language differences did not stop us from communicating. One day we all ended up laughing when one of the Spanish cyclists compared his plastic bag shoe covers with similar ones worn by one of our riders. While both riders claimed that these “shoe covers” were effective, they were not fashionable. Later when we met the Spanish cyclists at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela they were heading off for beers and we were looking for some cultural enlightenment… hum?
Most pilgrims walk to Santiago de Compostela on the Camino Frances route that runs across the top of Spain from France. Leaving the city was like swimming into spawning salmon. The roads and trails were filled with pilgrims. All day long you would see walkers and wonder were they were coming from. They were always around the next bend or over the crest of the next hill.
Heading east the weather was getting better and for several days we cycled through groves of eucalyptus tress that perfumed the air. We soon found ourselves in a more arid climate as we increased elevations. One of our more challenging days included 3 passes that provided fantastic vistas. At the top of each pass I marveled at my accomplishment but I was quickly humbled as I viewed the trails that the pilgrims hiked to get to where I was resting. While that day assured that I slept well, the next day’s climb over Cruz de Ferro proved even more taxing. We started at 1,500 feet and climbed to 5,000 on a day the temperatures soared into the 90s. Near the top we faced 12 percent inclines before reaching a rest stop. There was only one food stop in the village—a closet sized grocery store--where a woman made sandwiches to order and provided cold drinks. Being refreshed I was ready for the final assent. It was only another 2 miles but the incline went from 12 percent to 18 percent. I was not able to peddle my loaded bike and even had difficulty pushing it up this incline. After that the ride leveled out as I cycled along the ridge line for another hour before stopping for the night. All night long I dreamed of the great downhill ride that I would experience in the morning. However, the downhill was very gradual and did not compensate for the prior day’s climb.
Late one morning I found myself at day’s destination. Either I was very fast or I did not “stop to smell the roses.” However, it was a beautiful day, it was early, and I still felt very strong. I left a note at our planned lodging telling my friends that I was going on an adventure and that I would meet them in 3 days. It was both exciting and a little scary to be on my own in a country where I could not speak the language. As I cycled out of town I knew that I would have to figure out my own meals and lodgings for 2 nights. My first night alone I spent in the city of Burgos. Burgos dates to the 9th century and has a great castle and Cathedral. Today the city is large and congested. Luckily a bike path cut right through the city and I was able to get off in the commercial district. I quickly dismissed the hotels with three and four stars and settled on one near the edge of the commercial center. With some trepidation I pushed the call button and told the receptionist that I was a pilgrim on a bike and needed a nights lodging. The response was somewhat in English and I soon had a room and a place for my bike.
The next day I again passed the group’s planned lodging location and cycled the pilgrim trail over the mountain to avoid the highway traffic. My second night was in a small town and my first 2 attempts at securing a hotel were not successful. While searching for an alternative I met a Dutch couple that had reservations at a boarding house nearby. I followed them and obtained a room for the night. The next day I cycled to where I had planned to meet my friends. We did not have a predestinated lodging for that night so I waited for them at town’s tourist center.
Our last day in Spain the weather was fantastic. We had a reasonable climb to get over the Pyrenees and into France where we planned to spend several weeks heading northeast to the city of Le Puy. As we neared the top of the mountain the weather changed. Looking back into Spain the sky was blue and the day warm. However, as we climbed the last several hundred feet to the summit we encountered thick fog. We cycled down the mountain in fog that was so thick you could not see 10 feet in front of your bike. Needless to say that slowed my descent to a crawl and had my heart racing. The farther down we got the fog lightened up but that the rain lasted for 2 more days.
It was only fitting that the end of journey took us through one of the most scenic and serene parts of this trip. We cycled in the narrow Célé Valley. Cliffs abutted one side of the road and the Célé River flowed on the other side. Despite going through many small villages cut into the mountain there was virtually no traffic for 3 days we spent in the valley. It would be a great place to spend more time. The river was used for canoeing and kayaking and most villages offered interesting cafés. Located near the town of Sauliac-sur-Célé we passed the “Museum of the Unusual” that possessed some of the strangest art work that I have ever seen. The museum was inhabited by an eccentric artist that chased us when we stopped to photograph his unusual creations.
Our journey ended with a few more climbs and a long decent into Le Puy. From there we took the train to Switzerland where I packed my bike and gear for the flight home.