From Cuba to the Camino Portugués

The bell of Lisbon’s Cathedral is tolling 8am as I pedal the first of 630km of the pilgrim’s trail towards Santiago de Compostela. As I bump over age-old cobbles on my well-laden bike through the first lanes of this old city, the historical basis to my coming journey is already clear. While navigating the cobbles does remind me of a decade ago, when my daughter Rachel and I cycled the Otago Rail Trail in the South of New Zealand and she named our 2 rented bikes, ‘Pain’ and ‘Agony,’ I have a deep sense of the privilege in being here.

The route ahead to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain has been followed by Pilgrims from as early as the 12th century, and I have gradually been learning more. Tradition tells that after Jesus’s death , his disciple James travelled to the Iberian Peninsula where his preaching failed to meet with much success, gaining only 7 disciples. He returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred, following which the story goes that his body was transported on a stone ship ‘carried by angels and the wind’ to Spain, where his disciples met the ship and buried his body on a nearby hill. The body of St James was forgotten until 813AD when a Christian hermit named Pelayo saw a light that led him to the grave. The relics were authenticated by the bishop, King Alfonso II built a chapel to the saint, and in 852 the apparent appearance of St James to assist the Christian Army against Muslim invaders at the battle of Clavijo increased interest along with the financial investment needed to maintain Christian domination of the region.

Arrival of Queen Elizabeth of Portugal in Santiago de Compostela, after finishing the Portuguese Way around 1325, after the death of her husband, Denis of Portugal.

By 1120 the current cathedral had been built and reports were of the arrival of 1000 pilgrims a day. Pilgrims came from all strata of society, from royalty and wealthy landowners by horse and carriage to middle class artisans and workers on hourseback, to peasants, paupers and beggars on foot, motivated to pray, to seek forgiveness, to fulfil a vow or ask St James for a certain blessing. For most medieval pilgrims, it was a journey of six months to one year, fraught with dangers such as finding drinkable water, lice and fleas, bandits, thieves and murderers. Infrastructure to support pilgrims increased and churches and monastries built hospices to provide lodgings including large straw mattresses shared by dozens of people.

While my own accommodation is more likely to be at private hostels found on Booking.Com, it is common knowledge bed bugs are a current hazard of this Camino; one I hope to avoid through diligent use of my own sheet and sleeping bag. Fingers crossed!

Within an hour of leaving the Cathedral, I am lost! The way is signposted with small yellow arrows yet I seem to miss them with regular frequency. My small handbook has individual maps of each section but I find a challenge to match this up with my location on Google Maps, so I’m getting better at circling around and retracing my steps. It’s been 8 weeks, a heavy bout of Covid, and delightful time with my grandchildren and their 2 families since I was last on my bike in Cuba, and it’s hard going up the hills. Regaining my fitness will take a while. At one point the way leads over a bridge and then veers off along a rough rutted rural track.

My new front panniers (to hold bike tools and snacks for the journey) make my bike better balanced, but take some getting used to.My sheer joy at the flora of my childhood, so different from that in Aotearoa, takes my mind away from my ‘job at hand’: instead of navigating the ruts, I stop suddenly, flying over the handlebars. Fortunately the sides of the track are soft and bushy, and as I pick myself up and dust off the panniers, I point out to Grandpa Bear, “This is definitely the moment to sample one of those snacks!”

The reality is that this is a trail made for walking and I need to respect there are parts where I too will will get more enjoyment and greater safety by dismounting. Only 6% of the 30,000 pilgrims in 2021 on the ‘Portuguese Way’ were cyclists and most of these ‘cyclegrims’ began the journey at Porto, the city north of here, just 260km from Santiago de Compostela. Yet when Vila Franca da Xira, the old town famous for bullfighting, comes into view and I know my hostel is just minutes away, I feel clear I have made the right decision to have chosen the longer journey. Achieving the ‘Compostela’ only requires a pilgrim to have walked a minimum of 100km or cycled 200km but I’m already looking forward to what the days ahead may bring. The landscapes, history wound into narrow village streets, Roman ruins and fulfilling my 2 pledges to myself, one of which involves ‘Pastel de Nata’, Portugal’s famous custard tart. But that’s a story for another day.



  1. Will be following your stories Jane, like I promised. 😉

    We met in the hostel in Vila Franca de Xira 👍👍 Enjoy your stay in my country!!!



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