The ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is a travel classic – and easy to do on a budget, reckons Jaime Gill
Who? Jaime Gill, 35, charity worker
Why? To escape modern life on one of the great pilgrimages
How long? Eight nights
Total spend: £248 exactly
I might have been about to attempt one of the world’s most ancient pilgrimages, but as a committed atheist I wasn’t expecting miracles. Yet there it was: my plastic-wrapped bike, coming around the luggage belt at Valladolid Airport, having survived the Ryanair flight from Stansted completely unscathed. In fact, it looked in better shape than most of the passengers.
Around 18 hours later, as dawn crept over the graceful city of León, I climbed into the saddle and began my journey west, following the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a network of pilgrimage routes criss-crossing Europe and leading to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
So why would an atheist cycle a Catholic pilgrimage on his own on a £250 budget? Partly in a bid to exorcise my mid-30s paunch, partly because of friends’ excited recommendations and partly to see if it was possible to undertake such an ambitious adventure on so little money.
But mostly, because after 12 years of living in the hectic, heaving heart of Brixton, eight days of plentiful solitude and silence seemed not so much a nice idea as a psychological necessity.
I’d built up a lot of expectations over the six months I’d been preparing. I’d also built up some nerves about whether my money or strength would last out. But eight days, 370km, two mountain ranges, 60 new friends, 1,200 photographs, 40 pages of diary notes, one minor accident, five staggering sunsets and 6,000 greetings of “Buen camino!” later, I reached my destination – Santiago Cathedral.
In between I had the most exhilarating and rewarding experience of my life and – perhaps even better – I was aware of that fact for almost every second. As for the strength and money, they both held out – just – on a cheap but fuelling diet of bread, chorizo, fruit and lots of water.
It’s hard to capture in words what the magic of the Camino is; perhaps ‘magic’ is the only word that fits. Part of it is the extravagant, raw beauty of the route.
I passed through sun-baked plains, verdant farmland, dense forests and over two mountain ranges. I found myself pulling over almost every hour for long reveries spent staring out over rolling peaks that rippled into the horizon like waves, or down onto green sleepy valleys, almost deserted except for pinprick flocks of sheep and LEGO farmhouses.
It’s not just natural beauty, either. Although a handful of towns on the Camino feature drab, modern outcrops (notably Sarria and Ponferrada), they are vastly outnumbered by the dozens of tiny, unspoilt villages you pass through, many in settings that burn themselves onto your memory.
There’s the sleepy village of Hospital de Órbigo, a jewel on the Spanish plain boasting an ancient arched bridge, where Spanish knights once jousted. Or there’s the cobbled, bric-a-brac village of El Acebo, clinging haphazardly onto the side of the highest mountain on the route.
Some of the larger towns are as beautiful. León’s grace and peaceful beauty has been mentioned, but 55km later you approach the lofty, walled town of Astorga, with an expansive town square where one of Gaudí’s more whimsical creations wrestles for visual supremacy with the older, austere cathedral.
Best of all was the exquisite Villafranca del Bierzo, a dazzling collection of medieval churches and cobbled streets cradled by the surrounding mountains. My heart belonged to it the moment I crossed a peak and saw it glittering in the sunset below me.
There is probably no better way to meet such a variety of people than on the Camino. Whether it’s in the extremely affordable albergues (hostels), where pilgrims carrying their credencial (pilgrim’s passport) can stay, or in the many cafés that have sprung up to service the pilgrims, almost everyone is friendly and only too delighted to exchange Camino stories or help out.
Among my travelling companions were a Portuguese doctor who had cycled from Porto, a retired NASA engineer from Texas, a young Polish priest-to-be, a gregarious Scot fuelling himself with regular beer stops, and what seemed like at least half of Canada. I had little in common with most of them except the Camino, but that was enough for long, generous-spirited and reverent conversations.
Within hours of setting off you feel yourself surrender to the Camino, becoming part of its ancient westwards flow. The stresses, deadlines and technological clutter of the modern world fall away. Many pilgrims set out with detailed itineraries, but few stick to them; a favourite expression passed between pilgrims is ‘you think you have plans for the Camino, but the Camino has plans for you’.
It was in this spirit that I found myself doing things contrary to my usual habits and instincts, such as setting off on my bike at 5am so I could cruise through forests in utter darkness and solitude, the stars dazzlingly clear and close above me. Little wonder that back when the Romans used the Camino as a trade route they called it the Milky Way.
Also out of character was my stay at the unique and irresistible Casa de los Dioses, an old barn just before Astorga that has been turned into a commune-like albergue by the generous-hearted Davide. The lack of toilet and electricity briefly horrified me. Yet it was here that I lay in a hammock as the sun set bloodily over the mountain, and herded sheep flooded the plain like a noisy and dusty sea, and I thought I might well be the happiest I’d ever been.
There was plain old luck involved, too. There were a thousand ways my bike could have gone wrong, yet I didn’t get even one puncture. And the weather was unseasonably perfect: eight days of glittering sunshine with enough cool breeze to make the ride comfortable. Still, I like to think that even if my bike had fallen apart within an hour and I’d had to walk 350km through rainstorms, I’d still have loved every moment.
There was much more to the experience than I’ve managed to capture here: the pristine tranquillity of the village of Molinaseca; explosions of colour in the fields of Galicia; the joy of swooping miles downhill at exhilarating speeds; kind strangers sharing food; joking with nuns; the jubilance of arriving at the spectacular Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. But you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. Maybe I’ll see you there – I’m already booked to return this September.
Access city: Various; León
Currency: Euro (€)
Language: Basque, Spanish
When to go: April-June and September are recommended for decent weather and less-crowded paths
Getting there & around:
A pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela can start from various cities. Jaime flew with his bicycle on a Ryanair flight to Valladolid (one way from £24; flight time 2hrs 10mins); the train from Valladolid to León costs £12.40 (www.renfe.com). He flew back from Santiago to London Stansted with Ryanair.
There are albergues (pilgrim hostels) all along the Camino; a bed will cost £4-8 a night, and washing and kitchen facilities are included. To stay at one you must prove you are a pilgrim (ie walking or cycling); for this you need a credencial (pilgrim passport), which should be stamped daily. For more information visit www.caminosantiagodecompostela.com.
Health & safety:
Drink plenty of water; pack a sun hat and sun cream for protection. If cycling, consider padded shorts; if walking, test-drive your walking boots well before you set off.
I wish I’d known...
That the weather was going to co-operate so I could have left all my jumpers and waterproofs at home