Pedallers’ pilgrimage

Santiago-200x300October 27, 2012. http://www.smh.com.au/travel/pedallers-pilgrimage-20121025-286wf.html

Lizzie Enfield and son climb on their bikes and turn the challenging Camino de Santiago into a family-friendly affair.

‘Five years ti-i-ime.” My nine-year-old son is showing Noah and the Whale chords on an air ukulele to sixtysomething Liverpudlian Jack. Both play real ones back home.

“Santia-a-go!” They change the words to match the moment and Lucas’s demonstration appears to be winning Jack round. He is sceptical about our presence here. We’re in the garden of an albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) in the hamlet of A Rua, on one of the world’s most famous pilgrimage routes, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St James). Jack, like most of the 250,000 annual pilgrims, is walking the route.

“Some things are not for children,” he says, when I explain we are on a new cycle touring package for families: our luggage is transported daily and sturdy all-terrain bikes make the 20-kilometre average mileage easy.

“It’s not about being easy,” Jack says.

My latent Catholic sort of agrees. I was brought up thinking pilgrimages were all hair shirts and suffering. I’m long lapsed but still there’s a part of me that feels bowling carefree along the camino is somehow cheating.

I had also expected that pedalling furiously after a kamikaze kid would not be conducive to quiet contemplation. I was wrong.

Yes, sometimes we’ve been bombing down bumpy mountain tracks with Lucas shouting “Buen camino!” at walkers he’s almost taken out but on others we’ve moved at a more leisurely pace, in companionable silence. Now we are seated round a table in the Casa do Acivro hostel, communing with an assortment of adults, definitely not Lucas’s usual social circle.

And he is holding his own. Lucas is enjoying the cycling but also the camaraderie and is quick to grasp the concept of pilgrimage. “It’s not just about getting there,” I say when he asks why people don’t just go straight to Santiago cathedral, where the bones of St James the Apostle are interred. “It’s about the journey and what happens along the way.”

“Like The Wizard of Oz,” Lucas says.

The folk we meet are mainly driven by various forms of spiritual and personal motivation. Not everyone knows why they are doing it, or what they will take home, but they are convinced it will be something.

Santiago can be reached on foot from France, Portugal or southern Spain but the most popular route is the Camino Frances, which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and runs some 780 kilometres before reaching Santiago. Many pilgrims walk the entire way; others choose to complete shorter sections. Our cycle route runs 100 kilometres from Sarria, a small city in the Lugo province of north-western Spain. The camino is marked with yellow arrows and the scallop shell of St James, making it virtually impossible to get lost.

But pilgrimages shouldn’t run too smoothly, and our first obstacle comes when we find that two adult cycles have been delivered to our hostel. This turns out to be a bonus as we end up walking the first part of the way, experiencing it as most pilgrims do.

We chat to retired couples, Californian hippies and elderly Spanish women who offer olives and ruffle Lucas’s hair – an occupational hazard for a small blond boy in Mediterranean countries. To my surprise, my son, who doesn’t eat vegetables, tries an olive and masks his discomfort long enough to put distance between himself and the giver before spitting it out. Later he samples the local speciality, pulpo a la Gallega (octopus with herbs and olive oil) and gives it the thumbs up.

Taking delivery of new bikes, we’re off next day, pedalling in the slipstream of the macho Lycra brigade.

The route is beautiful but not easy going. We bounce along mountainous dirt tracks, dodge tree roots in eucalyptus forests and sink deep into mud in fields awash after several days’ torrential rain. We are soon saddle sore, but no real pilgrimage passes without some pain.

As we near Santiago, off-road tracks give way to quiet country lanes. After the village of Lavacolla, where traditionally pilgrims washed themselves in the river, we climb Monte do Gozo (Mount of Joy) and are rewarded with our first, moving sight of Santiago’s cathedral. The sight of the golden granite spires stretching above the UNESCO heritage city gives a real sense of what it must have been like for early pilgrims who had been walking for weeks with this in mind.

Up close, it’s just as impressive. Lucas is awed by the stonemasonry, the gilded interior and the vast botafumeiro, reputedly the largest incense burner in the world, but underwhelmed by the main attraction. We join a queue to shuffle down steps and peek through a grille at the silver tomb of St James.

“If I’d walked 500 miles, I’d be disappointed,” Lucas says. (I think he was expecting actual bones or a saintly apparition.) “It is like the Wizard of Oz: he wasn’t what they expected.” Exiting into the early evening sunshine, we buy ice-creams in the Praza das Praterias.

Here we meet Jack again, in flip-flops. His blistered feet and limping gait testify to the arduous nature of his journey.

“Was the cycling fun?” he asks.

“Yes,” Lucas replies. “But I’d like to walk it, when I’m a bit older. That would be more satisfying, somehow.”

“Five years’ time?” Jack winks and strums his imaginary ukulele.

“Composte-e-la,” Lucas strums back, their brief exchange a tacit acknowledgment of their individual achievements.

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