Camino de Santiago by bicycle: how to organize the trip
I've never traveled by bicycle before, but I've been attracted by those fearless bikers you sometimes cross on the road, with huge bags on their bikes, worn out clothes and a waving flag revealing their nationality. It's one of the images I use for defining Freedom. I've always admired them, with respect and fondness. So it's been some years I have been living with this idea of a bicycle trip alone and with no rush. The research and the choice of an itinerary were not hard: the famous Way of Saint James (or Camino de Santiago) by bicycle was all I needed... even more than that!
Introduction to the Way of Saint James by bicycle
The destination of this (not only) religious kind of tourism on foot, bicycle, horse or in general without a motor vehicle, traveling slowly through gravel roads is the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great (Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela). Cruising through small roads or country paths means to meet the harshness of the atmospheric conditions, the beauty of the views and the infinite surprises a person can meet by walking to a far destination. For this reason, you have to keep in mind that:
1) Who walks or pedals through the Way of Saint James is no hero nor a particularly physically gifted person;
2) The Way of Saint James shouldn't be challenged in an "I was there too" style (it's walked by thousands of pilgrims every year);
3) You have to travel for at least 30 Km per day for many days, so basic physical training is required. I'm not a believer, so I decided to face this journey by bike, not for devotion, spiritual quest or penance, but as a "spectator" and simple traveler, with respect for its history and sacrality, pedaling this 900 km in 15 days, without a detailed journey plan.
How to organize the journey along the Way of Saint James
The main challenge in the organization of this bicycle trip is to get to St. Jean Pied de Port - the starting point of the Camino de Santiago - in reasonable times. Many can reach this little town in the South of France by train: from Milan, it takes 10,5 hours (through Paris) or 13 (through Geneva) in order to reach Bayonne, where many 1-hour-train or buses lead to St. Jean Pied de Port.
With some research, I found the ideal solution: a Ryanair flight from Bologna in the afternoon landing in Bordeaux (France).
From there you can catch a train (reservation on www.tgv-europe.it) to Bayonne and arrival in the evening. One direction flight with special luggage (bicycle) and assurance: 105€. From Bayonne bus to St. Jean Pied de Port. Coming back is way easier: from Santiago de Compostela there is a direct flight by Ryanair to Orio al Serio (Bergamo-Milan).
Another very important thing is to prepare your bike in the best way and limit the luggage (further information on my travel blog in Italian).
How to travel on the Way of Saint James by bicycle
You can travel through the Way of Saint James by bicycle in two ways: by following the road or the original path where pilgrims walk. I've chosen this last one because I wasn't looking for a random bicycle journey. In order to follow the path, you need a mountain bike and a lot of willpower and training. To reach Santiago De Compostela by normal road is less complicated, less tiring and I can suggest a road bike. Following the original path means biking on a walking trail (mainly), with descents and ascents sometimes impossible to pedal, forcing you to step down from the bike and push it, and at the end of the day, you feel the effort.
My itinerary in 13 stages
- Leg1: St. Jean Pied de Port – Zubiri : 48 km
- Leg 2: Zubiri – Lorca : 56 km
- Leg 3: Lorca – Logrono : 59 km
- Leg 4: Logrono – Castildelgado : 62 km
- Leg 5: Castildelgado – Burgos : 61 km
- Leg 6: Burgos – Fromista : 65 km
- Leg 7: Fromista – Bercianos del Real Camino : 73 km
- Leg 8: Bercianos del Real Camino – Leon : 46 km
- Leg 9: Leon – El Acebo : 86 km
- Leg 10: El Acebo – Valcarce : 53 km
- Leg 11: Valcarce – Sarria : 55 km
- Leg 12: Sarria – Palais del Rei : 45 km
- Leg 13: Palais del Rei – Santiago de Compostela : 70 km
Bicycle journey details
The first thing to do before leaving for this journey is the “Credencial del Peregrino” (a special paper to be filled with stamps in the hostels where you're going to sleep), that you can ask for at a pilgrims office in St. Jean Pied de Port or Roncesvalles. It's not compulsory, but some hostels require it to access their structure. The first day is the toughest one because you will cross the Pyrenees and the ascent is pretty tiring (1000 meters of difference in height). From Roncesvalles, it's more reasonable.To be mentioned as well the ascent from Leon to Cruz de Hierro (the highest point of the Camino, 1.500 m high) and must of all Cebreiro, a 8 km ascent pass, between Valcarce and Sarria, to be faced with a lot of patience because very demanding (I strongly suggest the road when going up by bicycle, the original path is not practicable). Incredible legs are Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, and Ponferrada.
After this experience, the next time I'll hear about the term “pilgrim” used in a negative way, I'll get upset! Because pilgrims are tough people. Firstly, they GO, this is their main feature and this elevates them in comparison to the static world. Then, it's the way they GO to be respected more: they walk, slowly, silently, undaunted. They walk under the rain or the sun, with technical shoes or sandals, on normal roads or mud, in every possible condition, they always walk. Head down, in silence, without any publicity or public nor enemies. And they are always ready for a big smile for anybody, a good word, a hand sign... It's rare and remarkable, especially nowadays. Respect for pilgrims!
Bicycle packaging: ask your local bicycle handler: these shops usually have cardboard boxes used for shipping the bikes, which you could re-use for packing and shipping your bike. On the majority of European trains, you can carry a bike, but it's better to ask for this information before purchasing the ticket. On some flights, bikes are accepted (if properly packed) by paying an extra fee (almost 30/40 €). In order to come back from Santiago de Compostela, it's possible to ask some packaging and shipment shops (almost 100 €, including picking up the bike from your hotel). One of these is called Envialia and you find it in Rua do Pombal 6 or you can ask for the only packaging (15 € plus 20 € for the transportation by taxi to the airport) to Velocipedo, Rua de San Pedro 23. Another possibility is to go directly to the airport by bike: there you will find a big space dedicated to cyclists and for packaging bikes. With some bubble wrap and tape, you can pack your bike in order to check it in on the plane. This is for sure the cheapest method.
Hotels, hostels, pensions: the most popular choice by pilgrims on the Way of Saint James by bike or on foot are hostels for pilgrims. From St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela you have more than 150, one per village. They can be private or public, but in any case, they are very cheap (from 3 to 8 € per night the public ones, or from 10 to 20€ the private ones). It's some simple structures, where you will be sleeping in 4 to 10 beds rooms, you eat all together and you have to live with other pilgrims. The other solution is little pensions or rural houses, more similar to a hotel, so you'll have your private room with your bathroom or shared, based on availability or offers. The price can vary from 20 to 40€ per night. You don't find many of these along the Camino. Finally, there are some hotels and motels, but only in the cities or particular locations (near big roads or cities). They vary from 25 to 45€ per night.
Miscellaneous: it's very useful to have a bell on your bike, in order to signal your presence to the walking pilgrims. Take with you a repair kit for your tires: along the journey, only in the big cities you will able to find tubes or bike shops for assistance, so on the Camino, you have to be 100% independent. It's really important to stay hydrated, doing so much exercise each day under the sun: I suggest preparing the bike with at least 2 bottle mounts/cages. Drink mineral salts and supplements (better to buy them at home and carry them along because you won't find them on the way). When entering a new city it's better to reach as soon as possible a tourist office (“Oficina de Turismo”, well signaled and very active). Here you can ask for a free city map, with all the information you need, and most important the right way to reach the Camino again.
Information updated in May 2011.
Matteo Gracis, the author of this article, made this bicycle touring adventure on the Camino de Santiago in 2011, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in 13 legs.
He wrote a very detailed blog about this journey. Other than this, he writes on his personal blog, about a sustainable lifestyle and much more... go check him out, it's really enlightening.
Recently Ryanair introduced a direct flight to Lourdes from Bergamo airport. In Lourdes and Orolon-Sainte-Marie you can find some hostels for pilgrims, and from there you can reach Saint-Jean P.P. in 2 legs.
ENG - I'm from Piedmont and I'm 31 years old, I have been living and working in Lombardy for a few years. After a start without any competence in this field, I then approached the bicycle world more and more. Today I can call myself a bicycle traveller and videomaker who would never ever stop. Cyclo ergo sum, I cycle therefore I am. I ride my bike trying to understand why it is so beautiful, rich, therapeutic. And every time I try, I do not understand it. So I must leave again...
ITA - Ho 31 anni e sono piemontese, anche se da qualche anno vivo e lavoro in Lombardia. Dopo un inizio da totale inesperto in questo campo, mi sono avvicinato al mondo dei cicloviaggi e della bicicletta sempre più. Oggi posso definirmi "cicloviaggiatore", e assieme all'altra mia passione - il videomaking - non mi fermerei mai! Cyclo ergo sum, pedalo quindi sono, per cercare di capire perché andare in bici sia così bello, terapeutico, ricco... E ogni volta che provo a capirlo, non ce la faccio, e sono costretto a ripartire sui pedali!
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