The Camino de Santiago
If you’re interested in traveling to Spain and have done some research or follow travel writing, you’re probably heard about the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a medieval pilgrimage route, actually more accurately routes since there is more than one, that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. Santiago has tremendous religious significance and is believed to be the burial place of Santiago, or St. James.
I wrote a general overview of the what exactly the Camino is here.
My Camino Experience in 2007
My father, sister, and I biked the Camino de Santiago in the summer of 2007. We chose the Camino Frances that goes across the North of Spain, from East to West. We started in Roncesvalles, the first town in Spain next to the Spain-France border, and we biked all the way to Santiago. It took us two weeks and we timed our camino so that we entered Santiago on July 26, el día de Santiago, or the day of St. James.
On our way to Santiago, we passed through the major Camino cities — Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, and León. We were in Pamplona for a few hours the morning of an encierro, or a running with the bulls, during their yearly fiestas. We saw the grape vines in the vineyards of La Rioja, the dueling cathedrals in Burgos and León, biked through the wide open plains of the Meseta and up the steepest mountain pass on our way to O Ceibreiro in Galicia.
We had certain advantages that come from knowing Spain inside and out and from having a home base in the city of León. In terms of culture, food, and language, we were all set. But, traveling the camino is quite different from traveling through Spain, or even from knowing the country well.
We had to do a lot of research and think about certain logistics, like how to make sure you time yourself so that you’re in a town for the night, hopefully the town you plan to sleep in, but at least a town.
We brought our bikes over from the US. We considered buying bikes in Spain to avoid transporting them and I am so glad we did not do this. I would definitely recommend bringing your bike and any equipment you might need with you. We were all able to ride our bikes beforehand, to “train” on them. It’s not about speed or building up to riding a certain amount, although you will be riding a lot if you do the camino by bike or walking a lot if you walk it, and getting yourself used to that sort of physical experience is a good idea.
If you are walking, make sure you break in your hiking boots very well before starting the camino. You should also bring an additional pair of walking shoes, like old sneakers that you can wear if you need a break from your boots.
The most important thing is to get accustomed to your bike, to ride a good amount, to figure out the best fit, and to know how the bike works. If you’re carrying your belongings, it’s important to practice with weight on your bike. I would put water bottles in my panniers and go out on rides to get used to what my bike would feel like. Trust me, riding a bike that is weighed down, even if you pack lightly, takes some getting used to.
We each asked biked shops to break down our bikes and put them in a large, sturdy cardboard box. It cost us each around $80 to check these boxes. I would recommend checking this price again as I’m sure it’s gone up since 2007. Bike shops should be familiar with the idea of breaking down a bike to travel with. People who travel with bikes frequently either to compete or for travel have hard, plastic bike cases. I do not think this is at all necessary. All three bikes made the trip safely and without problems.
We carried all of our clothes and everything we needed on our bikes in paniers. In addition to clothes, we each had limited toiletries, a sleeping pad, and a fleece sleeping bag. We did not need the sleeping pad at all and I’m not sure why we each carried one. The fleece sleeping bag came in handy during the second half of the trip when the weather was much colder.
In terms of clothes, we each packed two pairs of padded bike shorts, a few moisture-wicking tees, a rain jacket, undergarments, socks, and one or two casual outfits. I think I brought a dress in case we ever went out to a nicer dinner or something like, which was was completely unnecessary. You will spend most of your time actually doing the camino, biking or walking. When you stop in towns to have a coffee or a meal, everyone will understand that you’re a peregrino, or a pilgrim, and will expect you to be dressed as such. That means you don’t need to feel badly about sitting down to eat with hiking boots on or in bike shorts. If you’re planning to go to a very fancy restaurant during your camino trek, then it makes sense to bring a nicer outfit. Otherwise, one casual non-athletic clothes outfit is fine.
Reflections on the Camino — What I would do the same and differently
For the most part, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I loved biking the camino and I’m glad that was our decision. I’m glad we started in Roncesvalles and traveled all the way across Spain, East to West, to Santiago. We were able to see so much and it was an incredible experience.
We timed things well and arrived in Santiago on July 26th, the day we had planned to arrive. Even though it was quite hot at the beginning as we traveled through La Rioja and Castilla y León and it was colder at the end in the mountains of Galicia, I think it was a great time of year to do the camino and I wouldn’t change that. If I were to do the camino again, I might choose early fall to enjoy a different season.
I think we had a realistic idea of how much we could do every day and it worked out well. On our longest day, we did 80 kilometers. The terrain was very flat and relatively easy. In the mountains, we did less each day. There are plenty of books that break down different typical stages and how much you might be able to do in a day during different parts of the camino. I think it is important to be realistic and to plan conservatively. Make sure you build in plenty of time every day for rest. After lunch around 2:00 or 3:00, you’re probably not going to want to do much more walking or biking.
One thing I wish we had done differently and that I would advise everyone to do is to pack for colder weather, no matter the time of year. Even though we did the Camino in July which most people associate with hot weather in Spain, the second half of our trek was quite cold. From where we started in Roncesvalles to León, when we were on the Spanish Meseta, or the central plain, the terrain was mostly flat and open and it was very hot. We need shorts, tee-shirts, good sunglasses and hats, and lots of sunblock.
Once we passed León and left the Meseta, we were in the mountainous region of Galicia and the weather was much cooler. I remember biking down from the mountains into Villafranca del Bierzo and not being able to feel my hands, and wishing that I had long pants instead of only bike shorts and a pair of gloves.
No matter how well you plan, there will always be something unexpected. Be prepared to improvise! If you need to buy a warmer layer, there are plenty of cities and stores in which to do so. If you have bad blisters, many doctors in cities along the camino are used to seeing peregrinos for all sorts of blister and walking and biking related issues.
Keep a flexible mindset and enjoy! Whatever happens, it will be an incredible experience!