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Biking 500 miles on Spain's ancient pilgrimage way

Email|Print| Text size + By Marion Lloyd
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2004

For more than 1,000 years, Roman Catholics have made the grueling mountainous pilgrimage to the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, enduring hellish torments -- from festering foot sores and hunger to attacks by bandits and wild animals -- in exchange for a heavenly indulgence. According to church doctrine from the 12th century, those who trek to the tomb of St. James the Apostle may shorten their stay in purgatory.

Not a bad trade-off. But my husband and I had more earthly motives when we set out in September to trace one of several ancient routes by bicycle: We were on honeymoon. Since we are both cycling fanatics -- and crazy about Spain -- the 500-mile coastal journey along the turquoise Bay of Biscay was sufficient reward.

Most of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who make the trip each year depart from France and then cut southwest across Spain's mountainous interior. We chose the less traveled northern route, starting in San Sebastián in the Basque Country, and followed mostly spectacular coastal roads before dipping south into the rugged interior of Galicia province.

A few things have changed since the first pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees in the early ninth century, when St. James's tomb was rediscovered by a local hermit. The pilgrims had to fight off bandits, navigate by the stars, and sleep on barn floors (if they found shelter at all). Today, the routes are well marked with signs bearing the scallop-shell motif of the pilgrimage. (The scallop shell is the symbol of St. James, and pilgrims in the Middle Ages were given one by their local church to use as a cup or spoon along the way.) Also, hundreds of hotels, ranging from bare-bones hostels to five-star paradors (Spanish heritage hotels), have sprung up along the way. This being a jubilee year, they may all be busier than usual in 2004.

Still, the Middle Ages left their mark on northern Spain. Thirteenth-century Gothic churches and stone taverns serving chorizo (Spanish sausage) and lentil stew rub shoulders with Frank Gehry's futuristic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Santiago Calatrava's soaring skeletal bridges in Bilboa and the Basque fishing village of Ondarroa (precursors to the open-air transit hub Spain's most famous architect is designing for downtown Manhattan.)

We got our first taste of modern Spain's practical side when we flew into Madrid with no idea where to stow our bike boxes and the extra clothes we had reserved for the trip's end. Within minutes of arriving, however, we found the airport's consignment lockers, assembled our bikes and gear, and set off peddling into Madrid.

Our visit coincided with the Vuelta a Espana, a race only slightly less prestigious than the Tour de France, and Spain was gripped by cycling fever. Even amateur cyclists are treated with respect, and I was amazed to see cars change lanes while passing us on the busy highway connecting the airport to Madrid. (I later learned the law requires motorists to clear cyclists by at least a meter, or face a hefty fine).

We rode down the elegant Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid's equivalent of the Champs-Élysées, with its gorgeous neoclassical and French-style townhouses and palaces. After stuffing ourselves with tapas and draft beer, we headed to Chamartin Station to catch the overnight train to San Sebastián.

Unfortunately, Spain's super-fast AVE train doesn't operate that route. So we spent a cramped, sleepless night bumping along aging tracks and wishing we had flown. (Air travel in Spain is quite inexpensive.) Still, it was worth the discomfort to arrive at sunrise and have San Sebastián to ourselves, especially when it was preparing to host its annual international film festival two days later.

San Sebastián is a fairy-tale city of frosting-trimmed buildings, ornate bridges, and its most recent edition, the ethereal El Kursaal. Designed by Mexican modernist architect Rafael Moneo, the cultural center is shaped out of sea-green glass in curved panels that appear to float above the Bay of Biscay.

The sea, which Spaniards call Mar Cantabrico, molds life in northern Spain. It inspires the imaginative seafood-based cooking and fuels the thriving tourism, fishing, and steel industries. The Basque Country is the wealthiest of the northern provinces and the most independent-minded, a reflection of the Basques' ancient culture and the persecution they suffered during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Nearly 30 years after Franco's death, the region is undergoing a cultural renaissance that includes lavish spending on the arts and beautifying public spaces.

We spent two days touring San Sebastián and the surrounding medieval fishing villages hugging the French border, about 20 miles north. The most memorable was Fuenterrabia (its Basque name is Hondarribia), a walled city with chalet-style houses and a 10th-century stone palace converted into a luxurious parador.

Leaving San Sebastián, we headed west toward Bilbao along a gorgeous coastal road, the N-634, which would take us all the way to Galicia. We stopped in walled fishing towns along the way, spending the first night in picturesque Lequeitio. From there, we detoured to Guernica-y-Luno, the revolutionary stronghold bombed by Hitler in 1937 that inspired Picasso's masterpiece. The town has a small museum commemorating the bombing, which was designed to aid Franco's troops during the Spanish Civil War.

From Guernica, we continued another 20 miles to Bilbao, Spain's industrial hub and one of the capitals of the Basque Province. The city has blossomed under the recent cultural renaissance and its beautifully restored old city (casco viejo) and sophisticated neighborhoods are unrecognizable from 10 years ago. Gehry's Guggenheim has attracted a design explosion in everything from park benches to art centers, and the city is overflowing with sidewalk cafes serving delicious three-course meals for a modest $9.

Leaving Bilbao two days later, I was struck by how well the city blends culture with industry. The steel mills that stretch for miles along the brackish, tidal river connecting the city to the bay are surprisingly picturesque. We took the first of many ferries to cross the river -- two-minute ride -- before continuing west toward Cantabria Province.

After the intensity of the Basque Province, where banners supporting the Basque separatist group ETA shroud the ornate balconies, Cantabria felt like a breath of fresh air. We rested for two days in the provincial capital, Santander, exploring the elegant streets and reading in pine-forested Magdalena Park, which juts out above the white-sand Sardinera Beach.

Asturias Province, farther west, offered the most beautiful rides. Our route took us along green pastures, jagged mountains, and plunging cliffs, punctuated by pristine medieval fishing villages. The regional delicacy, the fabada, is an impossibly rich stew made with fava beans, chorizo, and blood sausage ("morcilla" in Spanish). It tastes like heaven, but it's tough biking with a bellyful.

So we waited until reaching Llanes, a gorgeous fishing village framed by dramatic mountains, to indulge in our first meal of fabada and cider, another regional delicacy. From there, we continued on to Galicia, the poorest of the northern provinces. The contrast between Asturias and Galicia is a bit like that between Vermont and inland Maine.

The province is also the least Spanish, both in its culture and its landscape, the result of centuries of trade with British sailors. It has its own tradition of bagpipe music, misty pastures, and slate roofs, instead of the standard red tile.

Nonetheless, we were reminded of the Spanish Inquisition when we rolled into Mondonedo, a monkish mountain village that is the last cultural stop of the pilgrimage. We spent a memorable night in the austere Roman Catholic seminary, awaking to the sound of church bells. From there, we braced for the two-day, 100-mile haul over the mountains to Santiago de Compostela.

The unremarkable approach to Santiago does not prepare you for the emotion of entering its immaculate old city. Nor for the rush of standing at the feet of the Gothic cathedral and watching the streams of pilgrims arrive, weary, crippled by blisters, and elated.

We dumped our bikes and followed the crowds into church for evening Mass. A huge censer swung from the dome, sweetening the air. Some people trembled with fervor. Others, like us, were simply grateful to have completed an unforgettable journey.

Marion Lloyd is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.

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