The Road to Santiago The Road to Santiago


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"Isn't it time," Alan Jones asks, "that your drifting was consecrated into pilgrimage? You have a mission. You are needed. The road that leads to nowhere has to be abandoned... It is a road for joyful pilgrims intent on the recovery of passion"

This trip came about, like most trips, in a series of events leading up to the mad dash to the airport. A bike ride to the gym, a conversation with a friend, an ending job contract. I was about to have some time off, and I wanted more than just another wander around some distant country.

"The easier it becomes to travel widely, on the wings of supersonic jets and via the Internet, the harder it becomes to travel wisely. We are left with plenty of frequent-flier miles and passport stamps, but the gnawing suspicion grows that our travels lack something vital."
-Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
This time around, I wanted two things: To challenge myself physically. And to challenge myself spiritually. There are plenty of physical challenges out there. Mountains to conquer, roads to follow, oceans to cross. True spiritual challenges are harder to come by in this day of packaged experiences and barren souls.

I lost my faith in religion a lifetime ago, and I can't honestly say I miss it. But more recently, I also lost my sense of wonder, my mind open to the mysteries that still exist both in the world outside and the path within. The static of modern life makes those difficult to regain.

I don't recall how the Santiago Pilgrimage came to mind. I remember reading about it years ago while travelling around Europe as a student. A friend mentioned it in an email. Now, I went back again to find out what this was. The Pilgrimage goes back over 1200 years. Medieval pilgrims came from all over Europe and beyond to visit the (supposed) final resting place of St. James. They took many paths, but all converged in one place, Santiago de Compostelle, Spain. Modern pilgrims and tourists still follow the many paths, but the French road remains the most popular. Most tourists travel to Roncevalles, Spain, and from there, walk the 800km to Santiago. This appealed to me, but I wanted more. As I read about the old ways, I found one, considered one of the harshest and hardest, that began in Italy and crossed the continent. This was what I wanted, but it was too far to walk at this time.

"Imagine your first memorable journey."
- Phil Cousineau The Art of Pilgrimage

My first trip to foreign lands was over 17 years ago on my bicycle. I still owned that bicycle, but for the last 12 years, it never went more than maybe the 10 mile commute to work with me. The idea of taking this pilgrimage, under my own power, across the continent appealed to me. The fact that I hadn't ridden more than five or ten miles at a time in over a decade made me hesitate a little, but I decided I would take my chances.

I arrived in Italy a few weeks later with a loaded bike and a tender rear end, ready to start my training in the hills of Tuscany.

"The world lies right beyond the handlebars of any bicycle."
- Daniel Behrman, The Man Who Loved Bicycles
This travelog isn't about the Pilgrimage to Santiago. You won't find any holy messages from God or religious epiphanies coming to me on this trip. My details about the history and meaning behind the towns and places I pass through is sketchy at best. That is not what this journey was about. The Pilgrimage is just the setting, the language the road spoke to me. This travelog is about one man riding a bike with open eyes and an open mind, eager to find what the world will produce when given the opportunity.

I hoped for, but I don't think I ever expected the experiences that awaited me in the weeks to come.

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©Copyright Seán Connolly