Updated: May 2, 2022
(Credit: Joce’s fabulous cousin @redsandsam)
Santiago de Compostela to Pamplona, 784km in 8 days - a new family record! Trip total to date: 2,404k
Every year, more than 300,000 brave souls set off on a trek of hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, from all corners of Europe towards the same city in northwestern Spain. It’s the Camino de Santiago - the Way of St. James - the human equivalent of the great wildebeest migration, march of the penguins or incredible salmon run (without the rotting flesh and dying at the end).
Ostensibly, the objective of these backpacked human hordes is to visit the remains of one of the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, said to be housed in the resplendent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. In truth, however, the modern adaptation of this thousand-year-old pilgrimage is all about the journey itself - to commune with those who have trodden these medieval paths before, and to connect with those currently treading alongside.
Back in 2008, we joined the walking-stick masses with four-month-old Heron on Jocelyn’s back (and everything else in Ed’s foolhardy 25kg pack), starting on le Chemin de St-Jacques in Le Puy-en-Velay in mid-France. “Le plus petit pelerin” was the star of the trail, sparking countless conversations with our fellow wanderers (ideally not during nap time, when we could pack in the most distance between play breaks). Passing grandparents would offer their best advice to the new mom and dad. Villagers would come rushing out of their homes to offer breadsticks to soothe his newly-teething gums. And over communal dinners at each night’s albergue, the little one in the onesie would be passed all round the table to be fussed over, on the pretense of allowing his parents to dine in peace.
That inaugural touring-with-kids experience taught us that the world’s love of children is the perfect icebreaker with total strangers, allowing us to get to know the places and people we were exploring like we never could alone. What we didn’t yet realize was that this specific path of pilgrims held a special power to bring wandering spirits together.
That first time, our Camino stopped short, as the snow came early to the mountains beyond Burgos, and we were forced to head south to Ronda and east to Amalfi for more baby-friendly hiking climates. So when we planned our Europe Epic bike trip fourteen years later, we plotted out a return to The Way - in reverse, from Santiago de Compostela to Santo Domingo de la Calzada - to finish what our nascent family had started.
We first got that communal feeling north of Porto when we spotted the telltale blue sign with a yellow conch-shell symbol on an old stone wall. We had unwittingly been following the camino portuguese for a few hundred kilometres already, so we decided to start collecting sellos - ink stamps in special Camino passports that prove we have completed the minimum 200 kilometres (biking requires double the 100km needed for walkers) to receive our “compostela” finishing certificates when we arrive in Santiago. Our overnight at the pilgrims’ albergue in Caminha ignited our enthusiasm, and we replaced Bom dia with Bom caminho as our daily greeting when we biked by large backpacks with conch shells attached.
Arriving in Santiago, we whisked through the narrow cobblestone streets and strode proudly up to the ancient stone Pilgrims’ Reception office in the shadow of the grand cathedral - where we were promptly turned around to upload our journey’s details on our iPhones using the QR code posted outside. Soon afterward, we held our compostelas 14 years in the making (rules state that one’s name must be written in its Latin form, which for Jocelyn is apparently “Guadelenam” and Ed is… well, Ed, while Romans appear to have not experimented with nature names just yet, so Heron and Sitka’s were likewise unchanged), and we quickly changed into less-sweaty attire for the evening pilgrims’ mass.
It was exhilarating to participate in this age-old rite, hearing the long list of countries from which today’s arriving pilgrims (us included) had come, and getting confirmation of what had been slowly dawning on us all day: we were about to travel along Christianity’s most famous pilgrimage route over the eight days between Palm Sunday and Easter. It was La Semana santa (Holy Week) on the Camino de Santiago. Like some higher power had planned it all along.
Our reverse pilgrimage began in an angry rainstorm out of Santiago - thankfully there’s a EuroVelo bike route on mostly paved road that parallels fairly closely the often rugged, mostly dirt (now muddy) walking trail. On that first day, we cycled past throngs in the hundreds of soggy hikers in plastic ponchos - their finish line within days or even hours, some had the look of those aforementioned salmon struggling gamely on bruised and blistered feet. But the vast majority were surprisingly ecstatic in returning our “Buen camino!” greeting without questioning why we appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.
The level of good cheer we absorbed from these pilgrims who’d trekked for days or weeks would have seemed absurd in any other setting. But the Camino has a certain magic that can only be explained by the word communion: sharing in a mutual, spiritual experience together unites strangers for a fleeting moment of connection. It’s a little (750km-long) bubble of human fellowship that makes even the most agnostic feel a tug of something bigger.
Of course Ed is into this kind of thing. He’s the guy who offers a hearty (often startling) “Good morning” to everyone he passes over his bike ride to school in the pitch-black Yukon winter, and waves at every car he passes driving on the highway. In everyday life, the response rate is 50/50 - decent but disappointing. On the Camino, now, everybody returns the gesture, leaving Mr. Friendly grinning and bopping and waving all day long.
It feels strange to cycle the Camino backwards, having previously gone the conventional pace and direction. The medieval pueblos encountered every couple hours on foot now arise every fifteen minutes - always a noble stone church tower standing above a cluster of mismatched ancient houses. Sometimes they stand atop a steep hill, others are an oasis among the plateau’s canola and wheat fields, and our favourites like Vega de Valcarce are nestled into deep, verdant valleys with mossed-over stone fences and convex bridges that the sun doesn’t touch until noon, leaving us to feel immersed in the 15th century until we emerge back into the present again when we climb up and away. Just like the repetitive “Hola! Buen camino” human contact, cruising through these fascinating hamlets always gives a fresh rush of seeing something unique and particular, where lives have been lived and pilgrims have found communion for centuries - even if the time elapsed between passing the rectangular nameplate on the way in, then the same rectangular nameplate with a red slash signifying the town exit, is now a mere few minutes on bike instead of an hour or more by foot.
Indeed, the Camino’s hosts contribute greatly to the spirit of the place. Many like the lovely Dutch couple Martin and Merel in Villara de Orbigo are past pilgrims who settle along The Way so they can “give back” by offering comfy shelter, scrumptious homemade meals and warm welcome to the next set of wanderers. Others like the beaming Maria at Pensìon Fernandez in Vega de Valcarce find pure joy in hosting strangers with broad breakfast platters of two-bite, homemade cake niblets, fresh waffles, and egg-and-avocado-topped toast. Then there was Ivan and his son Yuri at the Pata de Oca in Torres del Rio, who claim their place as the last vestige of Knights Templar who’ve protected pilgrims since the Middle Ages. And finally Natalia in Iruña (Pamplona) who openly shared her fascinating Basque culture with our family of eager history buffs (then readily offered to mail ahead Sitka’s left-behind journal and e-reader).
Conventional Camino-goers tend to encounter the same people every evening at each albergue, so we backwards cyclists needed a conscious effort to seek out communal dinners and dig deeper into the stories of our fellow pilgrims. We were shy at first to invite ourselves into others’ mealtimes - especially without a baby icebreaker - but on Night Two we dined with two engaging Belgians and a Brit, and thereafter Joce started moving tables together and initiating conversations on all topics and all languages (folks were especially interested in hearing the boys’ perspectives on their Camino experience) until the nightly lights-out call signaled our return to the shared bunkrooms before our next early rise.
Turns out the collective 6:30 wake-up worked to our advantage. Having booked a birthday cabin in France for Heron’s big day in ten days, we had an ambitious pedal schedule to keep. Over the first five days we averaged well over 100km, no small miracle given that two of those days featured merciless mountain climbs with endless false summits. We were awed by our boys’ resilience, endurance and deep well of enthusiasm. Maybe it was all the knock-knock jokes being invented and re-invented. Or maybe the rewards (ice cream and other) at every glorious summit.
So it was that we did say “Holy” often over the past eight days, and admittedly not always followed by “week”. Sure, some of the road grades - both up and down - were pure evil, but it was the captivating views of extensive mountainous valleys and miles-wide farm plains that had us expressing ourselves. The Camino travels through such disparate and beautiful terrain that - even when it’s strikingly similar for long stretches - it’s impossible to be bored, especially at pedaling pace.
But the biggest rush by far this week was returning to the places we’d seen fourteen years ago with baby Heron. We celebrated with a huge brunch in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where we had regretfully paused our first pilgrimage, then atop the Alto de Perdon (Hill of Forgiveness) our full-sized teen posed on the same iron donkey sculpture he rode as a fleece-onesied tot. Mere steps from our albergue in Pamplona was the majestic castle gate where we recreated a favourite pic of Heron on Joce’s back. The flood of memories were near overwhelming as we reflect on just how far we’ve come - and all the places we’ve been - leading up to our baby’s 14th birthday next week.
This place in particular is so magical we had to come back - like the caribou and the salmon, we are called a species to commune together. Our beloved friend Joe Opatowski use to point out that a world with record numbers of population shouldn’t also have record numbers of people who feel lonely. We all could benefit from more moments of connection and communion, and the Camino reminds us that we can all do a little more waving and greeting in everyday life - without having to trek hundreds of kilometres to do it.