Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Santiago de Compostela, Spain - Buen Camino

I´ve crossed mountain ranges, done battle with sun and wind, picked up my friend Graham along the way and now my journey along the camino is complete, here in Santiago. All along our route people have wished us "buen camino" and looking back on the journey, I can say I have had a "good camino".

The arrival in Santiago may not have been what we wished for with drizzly rain and heavy morning traffic but nonetheless we made our way to the end of the route at the cathedral where a statue of St James himself looks down on the pilgrims gathering in the square. Not being religious I would not have normally gone into the cathedral but a friend back home had asked me to light a candle for her at Santiago. With this little mission in mind, I joined the queue and went inside. Unfortunately the lighting of candles is not allowed in the cathedral to protect the ornate interiors. Therefore I bought a candle from a nearby shop in one of the hundreds of alleyways in the old city and left it outside the cathedral, burning brightly for all my friends and family.

This little ceremony ended an incredible journey and one of great contrasts. The first half of the route through Navarra, La Rioja and across the Meseta took us across an arid and parched landscape. The flatlands of the Meseta in particular were quite surreal. Dilapidated towns and abandonded adobe villages, more like the Third World than Western Europe, contrasted with beautifully restored churches, stunning cathedrals and the smart cities of Burgos and Leon. We beat the heat and winds of the Meseta by getting up at 5.30am and hitting the road at 7am with bike lights on. One morning we cycled out along a deserted back road with a full moon still high in the sky. As the sun rose, the combined light of sun and moon cast a beautiful, soft, peachy light over the landscape as we pedalled silently in the cool, still, dawn air.

The Meseta ended abruptly with a stiff climb into the attractive city of Leon. Leon is an ancient city with a majestic cathedral in its central square. A maze of narrow streets of pastel-painted buildings tease you away from the square with sneaky glimpses of spires and turrets. Beyond Leon we stayed in the Roman town of Astorga but only after tricky navigation through an area where all the towns seemed to have very similar names, something like San Viagra de la Vegan!

In Astorga we stayed in an albergue, the simple hostel-style accommodation provided for pilgrims. This albergue had a little courtyard within its walls and an old fig tree provided fruit and shade. Along the back wall of the courtyard was a pool of salt water and a row of little wooden stools to enable pilgrims to soak aching feet. I thought that if pilgrims walking the camino soaked sore feet in the pool then pilgrims like us cycling the camino, should soak sore buttocks - but I didn´t put this to the test.

The second half of the route changed dramatically as we climbed high up into the Cantabrian Mountains. The landscape was now green, lush and forested and the mornings were misty and cool. It was a lovely change from the heat. We had a beautiful wild camp at a spot called Cruz de Ferro where there is a tall wooden cross that marks the highest section of the camino at 1500 metres. We sat here in the evening in woolly hats and fleece tops hugging mugs of hot coffee as we watched the sun go down. We also stayed high in the mountains in a delightful little hill-top village called O Cebreiro. It had one street which was cobbled, a collection of colourful trinket shops and several thatched buildings unique to the area called pallozas.

As we descended from the high peaks the camino continued through pretty rolling countryside that reminded me of Perthshire and collected more and more pilgrims as we neared Santiago.

Looking back, riding the camino has been a wonderful and unique experience and I have so many great memories - crossing the Pyrennees; the beautiful cathedral in Burgos; shopping at the fruit and veg market in Leon´s central square; camping high in the mountains; the pretty churches that popped up in even the most rundown towns; being allowed to camp for free on the village green in the lovely town of Samos; and the hundreds of pilgrims on foot, bicycle and horseback following a trail of shells to Santiago. But when I´m as old as the camino itself and think back to this trip, there is one place that will stand out in my memories above all others and that is the abandonned village of Manjarin. Manjarin sits on a hill top in the Montes de Leon and is empty except for one ramshackle, crumbly old building that is run as a basic refuge and a teahouse for passing pilgrims. It´s adorned with colourful flags that flap in the mountain breeze and with brightly-painted wooden signs that state the distance from Manjarin to famous cities around the world. There are statues and trinkets and all sorts of colourful junk dotted around the place as well as a collection of mangy animals that doze in the dust. Graham and I spent an afternoon here with cold cans of Coke on a rickety wooden terrace with a fabulous view over the mountains and the pilgrims shuffling by. It was a great spot and one of life´s perfect moments.

Photos from the camino are on my Flickr site.

So now I have to say goodbye to Graham who returns to Scotland, re-adjust to being a solo traveller and turn directly south for Portugal and my sister´s house in the Algarve. I´m really excited about that. I don´t know what internet access will be like through Portugal but I´ll keep you updated as often as possible. Also look out for details coming soon of a prize-winning, free-to-enter competition for followers of "the bicycle diairies".


  1. Hi Pauline Seems to have great going across Spain. Loved the photoes and the blog. All the best in Portugal. Mickey

  2. Hi Pauline, Love this post. Very well written. Felt like i was there with you for a few minutes. Sounds amazing. All the best. Debbie x

  3. Hi Pauline, Great to read of your progress it sounds like your having a great time and sampling so many different cultures. Your posts are great, I really enjoy catching up on your progress - good luck and best wishes. Stuart.