Where do I start? Camino de Santiago is more than just a path. It’s a journey, a pilgrimage, an experience like no other! The Camino de Santiago is also known as ‘The Way of St James’. It is a network of pilgrim routes leading to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela from various points around Europe.
We only decided to go a week before setting off so we hardly had any time to plan. I quickly booked the flights and Mum organised bike hire. We chose to cycle as it is far quicker than walking and my time off work was limited. The logistics of taking our own bikes would have been stressful (if you’ve ever flown with a bike you’ll understand!). Although hiring bikes made what could have been (and was supposed to be!) a low-cost trip expensive, it was well worth it.
We flew into Bilbao and caught the first bus to San Sebastian – the gastronomy capital of Europe. We had to ensure we had enough fuel to get us across Spain by bike and what perfect excuse to fill our bellies with fine foods and wine.
When we weren’t enjoying Pintxos (small snack) and gallons of Txakoli (sparkling white wine poured from a height), we took a walk up to beautiful Mount Urgull and sunbathed in the park overlooking the attractive bay. San Sebastian has the most Michelin Star restaurants per capita than any other city in the world and so we had to visit one! We enjoyed a great fine dining lunch at Agorregi which was just 25 euros per person.
When enjoying a glass of wine and tapa that afternoon, Mum managed to lose my beloved down jacket. A prized possession of mine! I ran 5km back to the cafe in the blistering heat but it had gone. I then realised I had no water, money or phone battery and it was a job to find Mum again – luckily we managed to reunite after a somewhat stressful hour. San Sebastian was great, the weather fine and the food delicious. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there but we were eager to begin our pilgrimage.
When crossing the border from Spain into France we had a brief stop in the very charming town of Bayonne before catching the train to Saint Jean Pied de Port. Bayonne was lovely and we arrived just in time for lunch. Despite having downloaded the Google Translate App we really did fail in our order. We ended up with duck risotto and a very fishy seafood salad, both which we really disliked. We need to work on our french!
Saint Jean Pied de Port is a quaint little French town packed full of pilgrims. It has a unique hustle and bustle and there was an air of excitement as this is the starting point for the most popular Camino, Camino Frances. That night we stayed in an Albergue, the first of many on our trip. An Albergue is a refuge for pilgrims with shared dorms, showers and a kitchen. This basic accommodation costs between 5-15 euros and sometimes, they are completely free!
It was the shared space in the Albergues that challenged me most on this trip – no one likes to be sleep-deprived, especially when cycling long distances! Albergues did, however, provided me with some of the most memorable moments too. The kind receptionist at Albergue Gite Makila helped us build our bikes which had arrived a day before us. The next morning we set off down the cobbled streets through town, alongside lots of other pilgrims making the same journey. It was time to start our big adventure.
Climbing over 1400m on our first day in 35c heat was never going to be easy. It took us nearly 7 hours to cycle just 25km! Everyone was struggling, which made us feel a little more optimistic. There was a strong sense that everyone was in the same boat and that things would get easier. Although the going was tough, the scenery was absolutely incredible.
The path was full of walkers and a few cyclists. Everyone saluted us as we pushed our bikes up the hill at a far slower pace than the walkers. We saw some other cyclists on the verge of giving up – it was only day 1! Up the top of the first hill, still on the French side of the Pyrenees, was a restaurant with a beautiful terrace overlooking the green fields below. There was also a coffee van at the top of the mountain, just before we crossed into Spain. I got an instant coffee, a banana and a boiled egg.
As we whizzed down the other side my jumper got caught in my rear cassette (part of the wheel) resulting in me abruptly coming to a halt. From here on I was now sporting a unique chain oil fashion. We reached a gorgeous little village called Burguete with a handy ATM. Many places did not take card and ATMs were few and far between. For this part, the Camino ran alongside the road and the road was fairly quiet, so we took to the road to bank some extra kilometres.
The walker’s route went up a huge hill so we stuck to the road again as it was pleasant riding. We had already pushed our bikes over one mountain range that day so we weren’t overly enthusiastic about another hill! We were carrying 10-12kg of luggage each on our bikes and pushing nearly 30kg uphill (usually a rather rocky path!) really takes its toll.
In the village of Espinal, a professional cycle race was taking place and we stopped to cheer them past and wave to the TV helicopters above. It was an incredibly hot day again. After the village of Puerto de Erro the Camino path became so rocky it took us 2 hours to cover 7km! We had mountain bikes but we had opted for thinner touring tyres to make it easier on tarmac. The downside to this is that it made the offroad part of the route incredibly hard going!
It was so horrible we lost the will to live! It was 7pm and we were still cycling in the humid heat over tough terrain. It was taking us forever and we hadn’t had a proper lunch. We’d been cycling for over 11 hours! We had finally reached a village but we couldn’t get into the hostel there. There was no other option than to cycle to the next village of Larrasoaña and thankfully we managed to get into a 1* hostel called Pensión El Peregrino de Larrasoaña.
We were told the only restaurant in the village was soon closing, so we rushed there without showering or changing out of our sweaty dirty clothes. We then had to wait 30 minutes to be told we could sit down at a table. My legs were like jelly! Finally, at 8:30pm we ate our first pilgrim’s meal. A pilgrim’s meal is a set three-course meal with bread and wine shared with other pilgrims around the same table at a reasonable price of around 10 euros. It was just what we needed after a hard day of cycling. The wine also helped me sleep through the snorers in my dorm! What an exhausting first day on the Camino, I went to bed wondering if the next 14 days would be the same.
The next morning wasn’t much easier. We had to cycle 2 hours before any food or coffee as there was nothing open! It was really hard going. Luckily we went on the river cycle path to Pamplona instead of the Camino thanks to a tip-off from a blog we read. The terrain was better on this route and it saved us quite a bit of time!
We enjoyed our favourite Camino breakfast of tuna tortilla, an orange juice and a cortado at Earnest Hemingway’s Cafe – Cafe Iruńa. This was our go-to breakfast order, except in certain regions of Spain where tortillas completely disappeared! It was delicious and the venue was lovely so we took the chance to dry our clothes in Pamplona’s main square outside. No shame in that!
Thanks to a cracking breakfast, we made it up the infamous Hill of Forgiveness! It was rocky, steep and incredibly hot but it was SO worth it. Incredible views!
We found a cute Camino garden near the summit of Alto de Perdon. It was these little finds on our route which made the Camino so enjoyable. On the summit, we tucked into a supermarket-bought lunch of a tuna salad pot and a slice of cheese.
There was a crazy technical descent down Alto de Perdón. I was impressed by my mountain biking skills and my confidence was growing. My thin touring tyres often slipped on rocks, causing me to fall off. The terrain was a joke. Even with my new-found confidence downhill, I had to walk a lot!
We were eager to clock some more miles and often the walker’s path slowed us down, not only due to the terrain but the number of walkers we had to pass with care. Many had headphones in so they could not hear us or they were walking in groups, which made passing them difficult. To give the walker’s (and ourselves!) a bit of a rest, we took an N-Road which ran alongside the Camino. Despite the soothing tarmac on my sore bum, this route was unexpectedly hilly! At least it was beautiful riding and nice and quiet.
We pushed on to Cirauqui, a beautiful medieval village. We were lucky to find a space in the only Albergue for miles, Peregrinos Maralotx. It was just €24 for a bed and three-course meal including (unlimited!) wine. Locally brewed craft beer was sold here too! Amazing! We enjoyed a nice night dining and chatting to other pilgrims, although most on our table spoke French so we kept fairly quiet that night.
The beautiful historic village of Cirauqui is a must-visit for those on the Camino. It’s very hilly and the bells of the church ring not only every hour but every quarter of an hour, even through the night! The buildings are really old and what it lacks in facilities, it makes up for in character.
It was another challenging but exciting day on the Camino. We were exhausted and it was only day 2! Read on to find out what happened next. Surely it had to get easier? Or, we had to get fitter!