Monday, 14 July 2014


This post is about the resources I found most useful when planning my pilgrimage.

Planning the route through southern England 
I used the 1:50,000 OS maps, including the online version available on . Recent editions show long distance cycle routes. have an online map of long distance cycle routes. This can be expanded to a very large scale. However, there was no convenient direct route from St Ives to Hertford, and the London-Brighton route headed too far west for me as I wanted to reach Newhaven. So I plotted my own route, using the official cycle routes for only part of the way. The Lea Valley route proved to be very rough for several miles, and was the cause of the problems I had with my pannier bag disintegrating. Signposting on these long distance routes was erratic and confusing.  For example, I lost the route in the Isle of Dogs, at Catford, near the Croydon Tramway, and in New Addington.

Planning the route through France
IGN maps at scale 1:100,000 show all minor roads and contours, and are ideal for planning a route avoiding hills as much as possible. 'Tourisme et Decouverte' series
At an early stage, I tried the online version but ended up buying printed copies from Stanfords bookshop in London, which I carried with me on the journey. I used a standard road atlas of France for the macro planning i.e. establishing a direct route between Dieppe and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port broken into days covering approx 60 miles (100km).  I was keen to visit Amboise, final home of Leonardo da Vinci, and also to call in on my cousin near Marmande. Both these places are off the regular pilgrim routes. Having established the ideal stopping points, I sought campsites at these locations using a Google search. In fact, most town and many villages in France have a municipal campsite and it was possible to simply turn up and pitch the tent. The only major place we visited in France which didn’t have a campsite was Mont-de-Marsan.

Planning the route through Spain  
I used the German-language guide Jakobs-Radweg von Pyrenaen nach Santiago de Compostela. 2009. Radingersdorf: Verlag Esterbauer. 978-3-85000-166-3; and   The Way of Saint James : a cyclists guide from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela (by John Higginson). 2nd ed. 2005. 978-1-85284-441-7 Milnthorpe: Cicerone. The German guide has details maps of each section of the cycle route through Spain, with a very approximate gradient profile, list of accommodation and other facilities in towns and villages en route, including campsites. But both books were quite old and so some of the information was out of date. Although the Higginson book has the advantage (to me) of being written in English, the maps are less detailed than Jakobs-Radweg. Gradient profiles were better, but still it didn't give enough detail about certain hilly sections of the road. I didn’t try to cycle on the walkers’ path, which is often very rough, and used normal roads instead. 

Another cycle pilgrim showed me the guide book he was using - St Jacobs Fietsroute (by Clemens Sweerma). It’s in Dutch, but the layout and detail looked excellent. The guide is in 3 volumes - Haarlem to Tours, Tours to the Pyrenees, and the Pyrenees to Santiago. Available from Europa Fietsers. I plan to buy a copy out of curiosity.

The Junta de Castilla y Leon publish a series of booklets describing several of the pilgrimage routes into Santiago. I have Route de Santiago: the silver route: a practical guide for pilgrims. This route comes up from the south via Salamanca, so only part of it was relevant to my 2014 journey. The booklets include tables of distances, facilities at towns or villages, photos, websites, what to see, gradient profiles, list of useful addresses. And they are very compact, so don’t add much weight to your pack.

The ‘Maps with me’ app proved handy as it could be enlarged to show local roads and street, marked campsites, shops, and hotels, and functioned independently of a wifi connection.

Before setting out from home, I located campsites by internet searching, and took a printed list of them with me. I did this because I wasn’t sure how reliable internet access would be (it varied). Booking ahead is unnecessary, at least at the time of year I was travelling (May/June), and you need to allow some flexibility to cope with weather conditions, injuries, accidents, and breakdowns. 

I varied from the suggested routes in several places because I found that the main roads were generally quiet, having been bypassed by new motorways.

Confraternity of Saint James
The Confraternity is an association of pilgrims and others interested in the Camino. It publishes the Bulletin, a magazine with news, informational and reflective articles, about 4 times a year. The Confraternity will supply members, on request, with a Pilgrim Record which can be used to collect evidence of places visited en route, and presented to the Pilgrim Office in Santiago in order to obtain the 'Compostela' or pilgrim certificate.

Online groups
The Yahoo group santiago_bicicleta was worth joining as it put me in contact with other cyclists who had  made the pilgrimage.

What to take - a friend gave me a copy of her packing list when she cycled the Camino 17 years ago. It gave me some useful hints (e.g. about having some string and wire for emergencies). There are plenty of examples on the internet of what different cyclists have taken with them. My toolkit was the one I carry every day when cycling near home. However, because I had a support team (i.e. Brendan in the car), I didn’t need to carry a tent or sleeping bag or indeed my spare clothes on the bike. On the Camino, I noticed that some cyclists were loaded with a huge amount of stuff. Others were travelling light, either because their belongings were being moved for them by a van or minibus, or because they were staying in hostels, refuges, or hotels.

For an idea about how little it’s possible to travel with, visit the blog of Frank Burns, on and you’ll see photos to show what minimal luggage looks like. 

Insurance - I joined CTC and used their insurance scheme. My bike is valued at more than what the household insurance will cover.

Mobile phone and internet access

Mobile phone coverage was excellent throughout rural France and Spain. My internet provider promised free online coverage in France, but this did not materialise. Most campsites, restaurants and bars had wifi access. Just ask.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The journey home. 25-28 June.

Unless you are like the German pilgrim by the name of Prosper, who died en route, and whose memorial stands by the roadside between Sarria and Portomarin, you have to return home from Santiago. Our original plan was to catch the ferry from Gijon on Friday 27th. But the ferry was fully booked, so a long drive proved necessary.

Our first day on the return (25 June) took us along the pilgrimage route known as the Camino del Norte, in reverse. This cuts overland and then follows the north coast of Spain. Few pilgrims come to Santiago this way, and they are said to be a more adventurous breed. Maybe. We saw hardly any of them. There is a fine motorway all along the coast, flying across valleys on spectacular viaducts, then burrowing through hills and under villages through innumerable tunnels.

Bilbao is bypassed by a series of incredibly long tunnels, yet hardly any vehicles seem to use the road. We encountered two different tolling systems. One, where you put money into a slot to make the gate open. Then one where you took a ticket and paid at the next toll gate. All very confusing, and nothing to explain.

We stayed the first night in Donostia, better known as San Sebastián. This is a large seaside town, with two beaches and new and old towns on opposite sides of a river. Hotel Record, really a B&B, was simple and comfortable. The receptionist was in the middle of walking to The Camino and had got as far as Gijon in the first week. She'll continue later. She recommended a couple of good streets for bars serving pinkos, and we ate in a small restaurant nearby. Great breakfast. Good wifi.

26 June. Busy motorway from San Sebastián across the French border near Bayonne. French motorway tolls are easier to understand. We rattled on through Bordeaux, then took the non toll motorway via Angouleme and Poitiers. Our second night's stop was at Azay-le-Rideau, a small town on the Indre river, with a spectacular chateau that we plan to visit in the morning. The hotel is called Les Trois Lys. The room was cheap, but is comfortable. However it has no view, just looks onto a sort of light well in the middle of the building. After exploring the town, we decided to eat at the hotel. The staff were friendly and charming, but overworked. The only waitress was having to double as hotel receptionist. This lent whole place a Fawly-esque air. The food was OK but not outstanding. My main was a cassoulet consisting of andouillettes done in a red wine sauce.

Our third and final day of the journey back to the Channel (27 June) started with a visit to Azay-le-Rideaux's beautiful chateau. It is surrounded by water and a landscaped park. In the old days, nobility had to be ready to receive the king as a guest. Louis XIII stayed here two nights and they still have the royal bed on display. Beautiful woodwork in the chateau's attic, with oak beams cut from the forest in 1518.
Leaving the chateau, we kept to ordinary roads for our journey to Honfleur, a small fishing port on the south bank of the Seine opposite Le Havre. I'd seen paintings of Honfleur. Its tall narrow houses arranged around a sheltered harbour basin are all unique. Some are brick, some are painted, but most are faced with grey slate.

There are dozens of bars and restaurants around the basin and in the narrow streets nearby. I wanted to try Tripes a la mode de Caen. Only two or three seemed to serve it, such was the dominance of fish and seafood on the menus. We ate at L'Hippocampe (seahorse). The Tripes were excellent.

Saturday 28th June. Our ferry from Le Havre was at 12.30. Leaving Honfleur about 9am we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on some French products. I was amused that 'trompettes de mort', a kind of mushroom known in English as 'horn of plenty', were labelled euphemistically as 'trompettes de Maure'. They are like black chanterelles. To get to Le Havre, we had to cross the Seine estuary by the magnificent Pont de Normandie. Le Havre is a huge container port - "la Porte de Europe' it calls itself. The town centre is post war, so I guess it was heavily bombed. At the far end of the town is a rather stony beach, where we parked and had a walk and a coffee. There are hundreds of beach huts, all painted white.

I can recommend Brittany Ferries. Their fast ferry to Portsmouth was very comfortable. We got seats at the front with a great view ahead. Good meal deal at the cafeteria too.

The drive back to St Ives took 3 hours with some slow traffic on the A3 and M25. We stopped by the allotment to pick a lettuce and some rasps, and survey the landscape. The whole place was under water. George told us it had rained solidly for 4 hours during the afternoon.

Back at the house, we were greeted by balloons, a bottle of bubbly and a huge 'congratulations' banner, and a jungle in the back garden!