Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Pilgrim Motorway

Since we changed our daily timetable to avoid cycling in the heat of the midday sun, we have become part of something bigger than us. Whereas for the first few weeks we got up at ten and breakfasted late before cycling off in the afternoon, now we are up at seven and away by half past, in the company of an enormous stream of people.

They begin marching past us at six in the morning; you can hear them approaching by the clatter of their sticks in the dry earth. And by the time we’ve packed up the tent and cycled off, they are walking in a long line as far as the horizon like a stream of ants with backpacks. At each village twenty or thirty more rejoin the camino after stopping for coffee or lunch. As we are cycling roughly the same amount of distance each day as they are walking, we begin to see the same characters over and over; Jimmy Saville who bombs past with his long socks and white hair; the fifty kilometre a day boys- three cyclists who all speak different languages yet are doing the trip together at the same pace as us, the hooting pilgrim, who drives around honking his horn at other peregrinos and the English students taking holiday from university who spend all their resting time complaining about the hostel they spent the previous night in. And then there’s the guy carrying a large homemade cross who stopped Stuart to ask for water but had lost his bottle.

It’s curious to two people who’ve always travelled independently to become part of this enormous cultural phenomenon; the guide books tell us that by the time we reach Santiago a thousand pilgrims a day will walk or cycle the last few kilometres of the camino into the city. And people are starting to recognise us too; I’ve lost count of how many pilgrims have taken our picture. Today we are in Leon, and have merged into the city, no longer obvious pilgrims or cyclists, but a family of tourists. Tonight in the big city of Leon, we will leave the camino behind and go in search of a good bar for a litre or two of vino tinto. Spirits instead of spirituality I think. And we’ll be avoiding anyone with a backpack or stick...unless they’re Jimmy Saville.