What It's Like To Cycle the Camino de Santiago
Leanne answers frequently asked questions about cycling the Camino de Santiago
UTracks Traveller Leanne Saward cycled the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Finisterre on a self guided tour. In her words, "it was the most wonderful time of my life!".
Read on to discover her first-hand account of what it's really like to cycle the Camino de Santiago and to view her answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about cycling the Camino
Why did you choose to cycle the Camino de Santiago?
I was introduced to the Camino by watching The Way
. Both Tom’s story and the inclusion of real pilgrims as the minor characters in this signature movie drew me in.
I love exploring quiet country roads and paths on my bike. At a local charity ride event, I collected a brochure from UTracks (a sponsor) and found the self-guided cycling options for the Camino de Frances route from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, which is two tours combined: Spanish Camino by Bike: the Pyrenees to Leon
and Spanish Camino by Bike: Leon to Santiago
. A perfect fit, as I was keen to have support, but the flexibility to travel at my own pace.
I added a 100km extension from Santiago to Finisterre to finish at ‘the end of the world’.
How did you prepare for cycling the Camino de Santiago?
I read books and studied websites about the Camino
, watched YouTube videos from previous cycling pilgrims and learnt some basic Spanish travel phrases. I cycled 60-100km for sets of consecutive days, in all sorts of weather and included some hills!
I also attended a UTracks information night
. Jaclyn’s experience of cycling this route instilled both confidence and a passion that I could take on this first trip to Europe … and solo! I also practised repairing and changing tyres.
How would you describe the cycling along the Camino de Santiago?
Seeing my gleaming black steed for the first time at Roncesvalles (after hiking over the Pyrenees) was overwhelming. The realisation dawned that it was just these two wheels standing with me in the gap between the start and finish of this journey. The trust I developed with my bike proved to be well founded!
I think the cycling is both easier and harder than walking. Easier because you can travel further each day, or arrive early and explore villages. Harder because the terrain and surfaces are sometimes narrow, strewn with boulders and so steep that you have to walk and push (or brake) and walk your bike.
I came across a steep embankment with a bridge in ruins at the base that took me an hour to navigate down, across and then up the other side. That situation was helpful in developing resilience and problem solving skills … and this was only the first day! On balance, most sections are smooth, flat and well-formed, so don’t be discouraged.
What were the landscapes you cycled through like on the Camino?
Stunning. Surprises at every turn that keep beckoning you forward and westward. High mountain vistas touching the clouds, hills rolling beyond the horizon, the quiet ‘whoosh’ of wind farms, vineyards dripping with grapes, peaceful dairy and sheep farms, quiet medieval villages paused in time, bustling towns and cities, towering cathedrals, significant monuments, lush green forests, the open meseta plateau, mystical moors.
What was your overall Camino de Santiago highlight?
I stopped in the small village of Sansol for lunch and left my wallet, passport and credit card in the bathroom. I only realised these valuables were missing when I stopped in Viana, 13km from Sansol.
Before I left home, a friend had suggested I meet the couple operating Chill Out Cafe there, a drop-in centre for pilgrims. Managers Terri and Lauren, who I had never met, generously offered to drive me back to Sansol to find my belongings. We checked and retraced my steps and asked around, all with no result.
Terri suddenly and with conviction said "We need to check all the possible hiding places – rubbish bins, bushes, rocks". We systematically began looking in all the nooks and crannies we could find. I was ready to give up this fruitless search when I spotted a small unobtrusive piece of wood propped against a wall.
I moved it forward and was stunned to see my forlorn wallet! When I zipped it open, I was totally shocked to find my passport and credit card. The cash was gone, but I figured whoever found it needed it more than I did. The sense of relief spilled into tears of gratitude and amazement. This truly is the heart of the Camino and how it gives back to pilgrims…
What was your favourite food or drink along the Camino?
At a brief roadside stop to take photos, a local woman emerged from her house, picked three juicy red tomatoes from her garden and gave them to me, all with minimal conversation. How thoughtful and delicious!
Did you have a favourite accommodation along the Camino de Santiago?
Villafranca del Bierzo provided the most ‘atmospheric’ accommodation, the Hostal la Puerta del Perdon. I was given the El Nidito room in the attic, boasting an overhead window opening to the starry sky.
The attentive owner’s son made up my breakfast in heatproof containers, walked the heavy precarious load up several flights of stairs to deliver it to my room the night before, so I could leave extra early the following morning to tackle the longest and most strenuous stretch of the Camino, 100km and 1,782m of ascent.
What surprised you the most about the Camino de Santiago?
I grew up on a farm, so the sights and smells of cattle, manure and grass were comforting and familiar. However, I was surprised to see giant tractors squeezing through the narrow village streets until I realised that farmers park their tractors in a paddock on the edge of the villages where they live, and drive them to and from their farms each day.
What aspect of the Camino de Santiago did you find the most challenging?
The Camino is very well signposted with yellow arrows, scallop shells, lines of stone embedded in the roadways, signs made of natural materials, locals always ready to direct lost pilgrims and detailed guide notes. Comments in the notes like this will try the patience of the pilgrim translate as ‘tough going ahead’.
On a bike, there are sometimes choices to be made - a busy bitumen road vs a rocky path. Which path to take? The safest route? Often no right or wrong answer … just part of the journey.
Do you have any advice for other travellers thinking about doing the Camino de Santiago?
Be careful what you wish for when you order paella. I made the mistake of ordering the squid ink option and was presented with a dish where each and every morsel was stained black! Looked very unappetising, but actually mouth watering. In fact, any food on the pilgrim menu is bound to hit the spot after a long day on the bike!
How can you Cycle the Camino de Santiago?
Have you experienced the Camino yet? Or do you have other questions you'd like answered? Let us know in the comment section!