Biking the Camino de Santiago – With or Without kids
Up for a cycle challenge? Have you thought about tackling a Camino de Santiago cycle route? There are loads of different ways to cycle ‘The Way of St James,’ reaching into all corners of Europe, some physically harder than others. But to claim your Compostella certificate you only need to cover the final 200km. My family is proof it is possible to do a big chunk of it with three kids. In fact, it’s an excellent way to see a slice of rural Spain and experience some of the Camino’s traditions and rituals. We took the family on the classic Frances route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenean foothills to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostella; the culmination of the route and the resting place of St James. Here are our top tips for cycling the Camino, in the run up to the important Holy Year of 2021….
A challenging bike ride or two
In our two decades as parents, we have tackled dozens of long-distance cycle routes. We’ve biked from Amsterdam to Venice, pedalled across the Pyrenees, across the Balkans and the Baltics, cycled end to end of New Zealand and picked off a few of the classic British Cycle challenges, like Land’s End to John O’ Groats. We’ve motched up some great short rides, like cycling the Velodysee and cycling the heart of The Lakes. And some wild rides like Iceland’s Dream Road. But our ride of the Camino was undoubtedly one of the best.
Can I cycle the Camino?
Yes you can! Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness can cycle the Camino. We did it with our three kids, a couple of tandems and a trailer. Oh and we did it alongside a few thousand people we called ‘clackers,’ – named after the noise they make when their poles hit the ground.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or Way of St James, is among the world’s most famous pilgrimages and attracts a lot of clackers! Every year for the last thousand years or more, thousands of people have left behind their material possessions, packed a few things into a small rucksack and headed to Spain to follow one of the ancient Pilgrim Routes to Santiago de Compostela. A pilgrim’s journey can be a potent combination of physical challenge, solitude, companionship, contemplation and spiritual enlightenment. It can also be a holiday, a chance to wind up and down the hillsides of northern Spain, eat tapas and be part of something bigger than yourself.
Why cycle the Camino?
Whilst the Camino de Santiago is famously about walking, many thousands of people cycle it. Why? Well, you can still follow the arrows and scallop shells, you can still meet pilgrims, and you can still do the landmarks on the route, but you get to see more of the landscape and avoid blisters on your feet and socks that smell of goats cheese.
The Camino Frances is the most popular route of many, linking St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the border of France and Spain with the city of Santiago, calling at Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. The French Way has an abundance of services, which makes it easier to find a bed and a meal than some of the lesser-used paths. We biked most of the route on the road, on two tandems kitted out with kiddy cranks with tires tough enough to cope with an occasional off-road adventure. We carried a significant amount of luggage including our daughter in a trailer.
For us it was a family journey, a test of parenting on the road, a summer holiday to remember, and a trip across a slice of rural Spain. It was a pilgrimage too, as all our journeys are. For you it may be entirely different but if you are thinking of doing the Camino by bike, you may value some of our ideas.
So here they are; our top tips on biking the Camino – how and why you should do it. And yes, you should definitely do it.
Top tips for Biking the Camino
1 Expect to be tested
A journey like this is always going to be about the physical challenge. With two tandems, two trailers, three children and the Pyrenees to cross in the first week, in intense heat, we got that pretty quickly. You don’t need to be a professional athlete to tackle the Camino Santiago on bike but it’s not a flat route; the Camino is undulating, and in places mountainous. While parts like the Meseta on the outskirts of Leon are pan flat, onward to O Cebreiro will have you climbing and falling. Roads vary between tarmac and gravel and you’ll pass more than a few deserted sunflower fields. So do yourself a favour and do some training if you sign up for this journey. Although having said that, our training was mostly done on the road as we travelled from the coast of Spain to the start of the route; a baptism of fire – you may find a few months on an exercise bike in the gym a lot less hot and hilly.
2 Book early in peak season, especially in Holy Year 2021
It’s recommended in most guide books that you walk or bike the Camino de Santiago Cycle route in May or September when the paths are quieter and the sun less fierce. It is perfectly possible to do it in August, which is when we travelled. Be warned though, it is very hot and exposed, especially on the Meseta. We coped with this (as do most pilgrims) by either rising early and finishing early, or more often starting and finishing late. But with everyone setting out at the same time there’s a bit of a pilgrim rush hour, which kind of defeats the solitude, and can get annoying if you are camping on the route and trying to sleep.
With a bike you will have more freedom to whizz on to another town or village if the pilgrim hostels are full, but you may still find booking ahead in peak season to be advisable. And before you decide it would be extra spiritual to go in Holy Year – beware the crowds this attracts – even getting into the cathedral at the end (via a special portico for Holy Years) becomes a physical challenge. In the last Holy Year, which fell in 2010, more than 270, ooo people reportedly did the pilgrim route, many sleeping in church doorways or taking taxis to out of the way towns to sleep in the last 100 kms of the Camino. The forums I have visited estimate this figure may rise to 500,000 in 2021, as it is eleven years since the last Holy Year, which makes it even more special.
3 Go off road or on road but take a map and guidebook
The route for biking the Camino de Santigo is pretty well marked and the path well-trodden. There are also loads of shell and the arrow signs and symbols to guide you. You can find them on road signs, hidden in the walls, and written on the pavements. And there’s always the stick man with the pilgrim staff to show you the way personally. (See pic below.) But cycling opens up more options than walking. You can do it more or less all on road, like we did, or you can forge your own path over the mountains. In which case you will need extra help navigating as the shells dont get everywhere.
4 Research the traditions of the Camino, and follow them
There are hundreds of years of traditions associated with a pilgrim walk. It makes your journey more interesting to follow a few.
For example you should carry a stone with you. Not to weigh you down or ward off aggressive dogs, but to deposit at the famous Iron Cross near Astorga. The climb up to the Cruz de Ferro is fairly easy; you’ll find the cross around 3km after the village of Foncebadon, nearly 1,500m above sea level -and the highest point on the Camino Frances route. Since the 11th century, pilgrims have carried a stone to leave at the foot of the cross. The rock symbolises sins committed, and leaving the stone means you leave them there. In other words, you are absolved. Whether or not you believe the legends, it’s an interesting stop on your journey. Our boys solemnly wrote out the sins they wanted to shed on their pebbles, (mostly grievances against their sibling) and were rewarded with a nice downhill ride afterwards. I guess we will find out in due course whether they, or their sibling. got eternal salvation.
Another Camino legend surrounds Mount Gozo; said to be the first place on the final stretch of the Camino de Santiago from which you can see the towers of the Cathedral of Santiago. It is your first glimpse of the point and pinnacle of this incredible pilgrimage and tradition says that the first person to that sees the towers should jump in the air and shout ‘Mon Joie’. The towers aren’t that easy to see these days with all the development that has gone on. But, with a pair of binoculars, (or a zoom lens) you can still make them out. Furthermore, tradition has it that the first person to make the shout of joy becomes ‘king of the group’. Well, you can imagine how that went for us. Let’s just say it was a joyful moment. Before the fighting broke out.
5 Travel light and fast
Stages on the French Way can be 60-100 km apart in places, so it pays to travel light, with just a couple of panniers. You will not need smart clothes or fancy high heels. (You may need ear plugs to cope with the noise of dormitory snoring.)
Having said that if you are a slow cyclist, or doing the Camino de Santiago on bike with kids, you might want to take a tent for extra flexibility. You should definitely make use of the cheap pilgrim hostels (albergues) but not all accept cyclists and a tent will stop the panic if a town is full. We mixed and matched accommodation; we wild camped sometimes in order to afford a blow out at hotels like the magnificent Parador in Santo Domingo de al Calzada.
Villages along the Camino are used to travellers and you can find some unusual wild places to camp, if you ask nicely, including community spaces and churches. Early in our trip, we swept into the glorious cul de sac that leads to the Monasterio San Juan de Ortega. We arrived at sunset and a pilgrim playing the mandolin led us to a spot next to a picnic bench, set in the shadow of the convent and just 50m from a bar, next to a children’s playground in landscaped gardens. We couldn’t believe our luck – although this was slightly dampened by an early morning sprinkler system.
6 Learn to love churches
You can call in at a church every day if you want to. In fact, it is probably possible to make a stop every hour on some parts of the route. You can appreciate the variety and artistry of the churches and chapels even if you aren’t religious. They range from the huge gilded or gothic cathedrals like those at Burgos and Leon to the teeny tiny altars on a mountainside. Enjoy the architecture, the stories and the history. (One story the boys loved to retell until it got more and more embellished was about Saint Roch, the plague and a dodgy knee.)
There are also quite moving displays of crosses along the route, often very simply made with sticks and natural textiles. The boys enjoyed making their own and adding them to fences and fields.
7 Make use of the free water stops
Carry a couple of litres of water a day, and stop to fill up your bottles at villages; many town and village centres have a free water fountain or a tap you can use. And the really good news: on the route from Estella to Los Arcos there’s free wine. Well sometimes. You can claim it from the wine tap at Monasterio de Irache with a quick diversion.
We heard about La Fuente de Vino, the infamous fountain of wine, in guide books and gossip. The kids imagined it as something like the Trevi fountain, impressive jets of red wine so high they could dance underneath, if only I would let them. I was just after a free glass of red.
It wasn’t easy to find the Monastery of Irache which made me all the more convinced it must be true. I mean, you wouldn’t make a fountain of free wine obvious and easy to find would you? You’d have to restrict access somehow. So it was a disappointment, after hours of cycling around searching, to finally arrive and find the impressive fountain of our dreams was just a couple of taps. Everyone was happy when they saw one tap was ‘agua’ and the other ‘vino.’ But when we turned the tap the fountain was dry. Well, the wine tap at least. The other one was fine.
Were we too late? Had today’s supply run out already? Had the early morning stick-wielding walkers beaten us to it, filled their bottles and staggered on to sleep it off in the sun? Or was the whole thing just a hoax? The kids were the first to spot a vending machine behind bars next to the fountain. Having made them cycle miles in the heat it seemed cruel to refuse. Besides it was only a euro for a half bottle, that’s almost free. And there was red, white or rose too. We drank it while they filled up our bottles from the water fountain.
8 Collect the right amount of passport stamps
Before you start off on your journey, pick up a pilgrim passport. You will need this to prove you have biked the required distance to gain your certificate of completion when you get to Santiago. You can also use it to get into the albergues at a pilgrim rate, and you can dine out cheaply by showing it for a pilgrims’ menu in bars. It’s also a useful record of where you went. And a fun thing for kids to do. We still treasure ours. Your passport, or credencial, is a long piece of card, folded into a little booklet. Find the pilgrim’s office at the start of your journey to get hold of yours and get your first stamp. If you start in a town without a Pilgrim’s Office, ask at the local church. Then collect stamps or sellos at albergues, bars, tourist offices and churches – one a day for the earlier stages. In the last 200 kms, be sure to collect more than one a day, because this is the leg where people are known to cheat, and the rules are stricter!
9 Sight-see while queuing for your Compostela
A walking pilgrim needs to hike a minimum of 100 kilometres to get their Compostela certificate. As mentioned earlier, to get your cycling certificate, you have to ride a minimum of 200 kilometres and if you only want to do the minimum you will probably start in Leon. But if you want to do more it opens up a whole raft of options. Whatever distance you opt for, be sure to collect your certificate. You do this by calling into the pilgrim office at Rúa das Carretas, 33, 15705 in Santiago. The office has gone high tech since we visited; there’s now a ticket machine that gives you a number with a QR code. You can go and enjoy yourself locally while you wait by scanning the QR code in your ticket with your phone. It will show the current number that is being attended and your number, so you can nip back in time for your appointment.
Hundreds of thousands of people do the Camino each year and the pilgrim’s office issues a limited number of daily tickets so in peak season go early if you want to get your Compostela that day. You will need to take your ‘credential’ paperwork and answer certain questions about the spiritual reasons for your journey in order to be assigned a Compostela (or an alternative certificado if you are not doing the ride for religious or spiritual reasons.)
10 Go at least an hour early to the Pilgrim Mass
There’s a daily ceremony for pilgrims at midday and 19.30 each day in Santiago Cathedral. Attending it will make you feel part of something special. Why wouldn’t you want to go to a party held in your honor and have your pilgrim number read out? But get there early if you want a seat. At least an hour early. Here’s what I wrote about the ceremony at the time:
“Carved wooden confessional boxes line the walls, each occupied by a priest in a white robe and a purple sash. People queuing can request their dialogue in any European language, but for many the hug or clasped hand in response to their confession seems as powerful as the words. The pipes of the organ fly over the congregation, each longer than the next, an ensemble that resembles the grey jagged teeth of a shark. More and more people enter through a small porthole in the grand wooden doors and rucksacks are abandoned as pilgrims sit or kneel on worn wooden benches and wait for a mass that is dedicated to them. In front of us a woman in sandals kneels, her now unwanted boots swinging from her backpack, still gravelled from the road after many, many miles.
The cherubs adorning the organ seem to blush as camera’s flash and flash. Tour guides with pink umbrellas or yellow fans say a last few words of interpretation. A priest comes forward and starts reading out the nationalities of all the pilgrims who arrived in Santiago yesterday marking the end of their journey on the Camino. Behind him, huge gold angels hold up the platform where Santiago Matamoros sits astride his white stallion. Fifty-six members of the Ave Maria Novia party who have been dancing and singing in the square take their places at the front.
We take up almost a whole pew. There are no seats now yet still the pilgrims come, filling aisles and squashing into corners. One or two of them I recognise from the last day on the Camino, most I don’t. All so different, from a jumble of places and backgrounds, yet each has reached this moment on their journey. I look at them and admire them. Despite my occasional irritation at the crowd of plodders on the road, I recognize that I have done it the easy way, whizzing down hills and rushing through villages. They have had to put one foot in front of the other, some of them for more than eight hundred kilometres, in the heat, the rain, the dust, their bodies bearing the strain of their weight and that of their belongings. On the altar, the golden statue of St James watches over us all. Every few seconds he is hugged from behind or someone touches his cloak as they file past, on the way to pay homage to his bones, in a relic case beneath us.
The priest reads out the Compostela list. An air of anticipation seems to hang over everyone who has come to this church today for all of their different reasons; to celebrate their safe arrival into Santiago, to confirm their faith and worship at a place that has welcomed pilgrims for thousands of years. Or just to rest and think, about endings, beginnings, and the long, difficult road that lay in between. As the final names are read out, the lights in the giant chandelier glow brightly, and the sunshine illuminates the dust that each one of us has brought into the church. I am overwhelmed with thanks for my little family unit. For the time we have spent getting to know each other for the last six weeks, for all the moments of pure energy and exhaustion that have gone into cycling the route, and for their quirks, differences and similarities. We have all followed ‘The Way’ and the way ended here. With the beginning of a ceremony. The organ strikes up and everyone stands.”