Cycling the Camino de Santiago along the Camino Frances

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The Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) is a famous pilgrimage trail that ends up in the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. The pilgrimage, which is undertaken by more than 215,000 people each year offers several routes to the final destination.

We chose the Camino Frances, the most popular route, which passes through some charming medieval villages, scenic landscapes, beautiful cities, and the Cantabrian Mountains. It starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France, winding through the Pyrenees and the Rioja vineyards, and stretches 790km to the endpoint in the northwest of Spain. Our journey began in Leon instead, from where the pilgrimage involved six days of cycling and 330 kilometres. It was challenging, exhilarating and exciting!

As we didn’t have much time to research and plan the trip, we opted for using Camino Ways, a company which organised everything for us, including bikes and daily itineraries, luggage transportation and hotels bookings. We were left happy with their service – and would certainly recommend them if you’re looking for an easy, off-the-shelf solution. But if we return one day, to cycle the full 790km from St. Jean Pied de Port, we’ll self-organise the trip so we can enjoy the flexibility of making our own choices.

The Camino de Santiago is said to be one of the most challenging cycling routes in Europe. The majority of the route between Leon and Santiago de Compostela meanders through the mountains, and as such there is very little flat terrain along the way. We jumped into the adventure without much advance cycling preparation and coped well with it, but experience with uphill cycling would certainly have been beneficial.

Below is a summary of our itinerary and daily adventures.

Day 1: Leon to Astorga (44km) 

Despite the fact that it was a relative short day, this was one of the most difficult days for us, as our bodies had a lot of adjustment to do between working our semi-regularly and pedalling mostly uphill for 6+ hours a day. Most of the route is along the N120 from Leon, which was a rather hectic start to our ‘spiritual journey’, and we escaped at the first opportunity, cycling instead along the walking paths and replacing the concrete with forests and fields. We stopped for lunch in the cobble-paved Hospital de Orbigo, a home to one of the oldest bridges in Spain. We arrived in the charming town of Astorga in the late afternoon, feeling quite drained, but we were warmly welcomed by a symphonic orchestra’s on the lovely Plaza España where our hotel was situated. Our day concluded with a delicious dinner in Serrano followed by a quick exploration of the town, its cathedral and the Episcopal Palace, which was built by Gaudi and is one of only three buildings by the architect outside Catalonia.

Day 2: Astorga to Ponferrada (54km)

Day two was a picturesque day through the Montes de Leon, which began with more than 20km of uphill cycling, followed by a similar amount of downhill, at places very steep, route. We passed through the highest point of the pilgrimage, a summit at 1517m close to the Cruz de Ferro, a big pile of stones left by pilgrims to signify the unburdening of their sins. Shortly after that, the long decline began, taking us through small mountain villages. The highlight of these was Molinaseca, a charming and lively place situated on the river, which is dammed to provide a swimming pool during the summer. The river and its banks were dotted by groups of people sun-bathing and playing in the water. We watched them for a few minutes, slightly jealous of the fact that some have found more relaxing ways to spend the hot day, and then pressed on towards Ponferrada. After a series of steady hills at the 38-degree heat for the next 45 minutes, we were finally greeted by the not so welcoming, but very welcome, views of the industrial city and a relaxing descend into it.

Day 3: Ponferrada to O’Cebreiro (57km)

With an absolute ascend of 757m ahead of us (from 543m altitude at Ponferrada to 1300m at O’Cebreiro) we were braced for day three to be the most difficult of our trip. The first 21km until Villafranca del Bierzo took us, under grey skies, mainly downhill along the bumpy surface of a dual carriageway. We were keen to complete this stage quickly to allow ourselves more time for the latter steep part of the journey. We had a quick snack at Villafranca del Bierzo, energising ourselves as much as possible in preparation for the following 36km climb. The first 16km of these were mildly challenging, a steady but not very sharp ascend. In Ruitelan, on the doorstep of the next  relentless part of our journey, we stopped at a delightful little restaurant where we had a warm and very delicious lentil soup in a small family-run restaurant called Omega, a lovely treat on the colder and mountainous day. The following part of the journey until Pedrafita was ruthless and relentless, taking us through a steep, 16km route winding its way steadily through the mountains. We were headed for the new section of the road, which was perched 400m above us and visible during most of the ascend, as if our burning muscles were not a sufficient reminder of the challenging task at hand. After about an hour and a half, and a few stops to regain our breath, we reached the village of Pedrafita where we stopped for a coffee and cake. The remaining 5km up the steepest part of the day’s route were looming upon us, and we thought it’d be prudent to take a taxi number, just in case. But whether it was the fact that the past kilometres helped us develop a better understanding of how to use our gears to achieve maximum speed with minimum effort, or the astonishing views of the fields and valleys below us, the journey up the hills to O’Cebreiro didn’t feel as strenuous as we’d expected. In less than 30 minutes, we were proudly posing in front of a sign at the beginning of the village announcing the altitude of 1300m. We’ve made it!

Day 4: O’Cebreiro to Sarria (43km)

We woke up to surprising sight of mist swirling around the villages’ ancient houses. The 5 degrees temperature was a stark change from yesterday’s 35 degrees afternoon. The cycling ahead of us involved a short ascend to start with, followed by more than 15km descend, and we knew we’d need some warmer clothing to manage the latter part. We bought fleeces for a lack of anything else which would be appropriate and delayed our departure until 10.30, when the mist suddenly lifted, revealing the mountains in all their beauty. We descended as fast as we could, using spare t-shirts as scarves around our necks, and not pausing to take many photos as dark grey clouds were gathering quickly overhead and we were afraid we’d have to cope with rain in addition to the freezing temperatures. Once we had left the darkening skies behind, we stopped a couple of times at sunny patches, to warm our bodies up from the fast and freezing descend and take a few photos. There were a few steep hills on the way, but on the whole, the descent was beautiful and exhilarating, passing through bright colours – purple heather, yellow gorse, and rolling valleys, with sheep grazing. We paused for coffee, cake and sun-soaking in the village of Triacastela then regretfully sped on past the charming village of Samos, complete with a stunning monastery as we were keen to complete the shortest (43km) day of our trip and have some time to rest before the next day’s long ride. We felt stronger today and far less achey than before. It was also the first day that we were proud of our progress, and the miles passed by quicker than expected.

Day 5: Sarria to Melide (75km)

According to our guide, that was supposed to be the hardest day’s riding, and we were braced again in anticipation of pounding lungs and burning muscles. The day, however, turned out to be very mildly challenging, making us feel that perhaps by this point our bodies have reached a new level of fitness and strength. The day started with a long steep hill, followed by a series of short steep hills for the next 15km, and then a beautiful and refreshing 9km sweeping descent into the picturesque reservoir on the outskirts of Portomarín. The next part of the journey took us through small villages and charming countryside to Palas de Rei. We stopped there for a quick coffee, and pressed on to complete the last 15km of the day to Melide through rolling countryside. It was an exciting, challenging and full of anticipation day through Galician Spain. Half of our 76km journey was uphill, which we completed without much strain and arrived in the quiet and remote village of Melide in the late afternoon, just in time for a shower before sipping a well-deserved beer while watching the sun set on the penultimate day of our trip to Santiago de Compostela.

Day 6: Melide to Santiago de Compostela (58km)

The arduous hills and blazing sun we faced on our last day did little to discourage our bodies and spirits on the homestretch. The route was the least scenic of the whole journey, the only noteworthy part being the stunning eucalyptus forests after Arzua. We raced through the day, stopping quickly for a short meal, and arriving in Santiago in the early afternoon where we immediately joined the queue at the pilgrim office to obtain our pilgrimage certificates. After that we headed for the (underwhelming) cathedral for the obligatory ‘we’ve done it’ shot and Facebook post – and so we did! After 6 days of cycling, 330 kilometres, some 40 degree afternoons and some 5 degree mornings, we’d arrived in Santiago! It was an awesome and very enjoyable challenge – and we may be back for the full stretch one day!

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