Published by Andrew on 29 August 2019
Bob Zeller reviews a guidebook for cycling the Camino de Santiago from St Jean-Pied-du-Port.
Cycling the Camino de Santiago by Mike Wells
Published by Cicerone
Not so long ago, I read Mike Wells’ Cycling the Loire Valley published by Cicerone. By the time I put it down, I had decided that the Loire Valley would be perfect for my next tour with my mate from Canada, Jim Burke ... and indeed it was. (Route report to come!)
Wells’ wonderful description of the Loire Valley and the joys of riding its roads got me planning right away – and it was his good advice that made the results of that planning so much more interesting. Now, I must confess, having just read another of Wells’ cycle guides, this one Cycling the Camino de Santiago, I suspect the same might be happening to me again.
The St Jean-Pied-du-Port to Santiago section featured in this book is the most commonly walked/cycled of the various Camino routes (more here on all your options).
Of course most people doing the Camino walk it, but about 25,000 every year ride it. Mind you, you don’t have to ride the full 800km from St Jean-Pied-du-Port in the French Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in the north west of Spain to get an official certificate describing you as a ‘peregrino’. Complete the final 200km and that will be enough.
However, unlike other cycle routes, some of those who ride this one do so not just for the joy of touring but because they are searching for a spiritual component as well. But even for those who start out looking for little more than an interesting tour, Wells says few will complete it without experiencing the spiritual element as well. According to Wells, “... the journey is still one of discovery, both of new places and of the inner self”.
Mind you, whatever your motivation for having a go, it will be a great deal easier for you than it was for the pilgrims of earlier times. For them just getting to the end presented enormous difficulties – in those days there weren’t any maps, sometimes there was dreadful weather, thieves, dangerous animals and often polluted water, just to name a few horrors. Then, even having survived all that just to get to Santiago, they had to turn around and face exactly the same to get home.
And here I am wondering if I could manage the first day’s 1100 metres of climbing with loaded panniers. Mind you, Wells assures us that it gets easier as you as you progress towards Santiago. Of course, you could always start at a point further along the route. Many do and he provides first class advice about getting to a number of intermediate starting places. And then, to complete the job, he suggest the different options available to get home by train and plane when you have completed the route.
Wells provides readers with two routes, each divided into 18 stages. One route, the Camino, is best used by cyclists riding mountain bikes. The other, which he simply calls the road route, is much more suitable for those with road and touring cycles as it is almost entirely asphalted. But both have stages that start and finish at the same place so, if you wish, you can chop and change without complication.
Making navigation easy, both routes are downloadable if you use GPS. But importantly, individual maps for each stage covering both the Camino and road routes (1:100,000 for stages and 1:40,000 for urban ones) are provided in the book. In spite of containing plenty of detail, they are exceptionally easy to read and follow and the book size of 11.5 X 17 makes it an easy fit in a handlebar bag ready for instant retrieval as required.
Then there is information about the many options for accommodation. Some are provided by religious organisations; others by local government agencies and some are run as a business by individual operators. Food is another topic. The variety, he says, is huge. But again, Wells provides excellent descriptions of local menus so you can set out looking forward to an interesting, and probally new, food experience.
And finally, and perhaps for many readers most importantly, the book has a concise but wonderfully written section on the history of the region. The Camino de Santiago is different from just about any other tour you might consider. But to get the real essence of the Camino, you have to understand its history just as much as you do the route. Wells does this and this extra bit of homework on your part would, I suspect, make this tour a wonderful and unique experience. I know it would for me!
Camino de Santiago by Mike Wells
Published by Cicerone
About our reviewer
Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.