Friday, September 18, 2009

Discovering Galicia on Bike - Connecting with the Way of St. James!

Ever since we vacationed here in the fall, I had a burning desire to explore the surrounding area by bike. Santiago is considered the third most important pilgrimage site (behind Jerusalem and Rome) of the catholic church, and hundreds of pilgrims stream in each day on bike or on foot along the "Way of St. James", which leads across Spain from the Pyrenes in France to pay their respect to the (supposedly) interred remains of St. James the Apostle. All told, there are about 5 different routes leading into Santiago, but all roads converge at the Catedral in the city center. I rented a mountain bike on the weekends, and set out to explore the different routes and see more of the Galician countryside. For me, this was the "sweet spot" of my Galician experience - out alone on a bike, connecting with nature, discovering new villages and people, getting lost - exploring the area in detail as a local might. The surrounding countryside was lush and beautiful, filled with thick pine and eucalyptus forests and peaceful, gurgling streams. At times, it seemed I could not escape the hustle and bustle of the city and would be stuck far too long in industrial areas on busy motorways (Rua de Ingles). On other routes (Rua de Plata and Rua de Frances), I felt like I was in a garden paradise, with post-card perfect little towns, rolling hills and spectacularly-preserved stone houses and churches in the middle of nowhere, where people still washed their clothes by hand at the local watering hole. The routes on the Way of St. James were marked with a characteristic scallop shell tile on a blue background, pointing the way to Santiago. It was always a welcome sight to come across one of these markers on many an obscure pathway, knowing I was still going in the right direction. On the way back from my last ride, I passed through a tiny village called Santa Lucia, where I was lured by the sound of bagpipes and singing. I got off my bike and found myself in the middle of the Feast of Santa Lucia. They were serving up sardines grilled on open flames served with warm crusty bread and lots of beer to wash it down. The local kids were dressed up in colorful costumes and were putting on a wonderful dance and singing performance accompanied by a bagpipes, flutes and a drum band. And of course, what festival would be complete without a life-size statue of the Virgin (adorned on the back of a flat-bed truck!). I got a few surprised stares from the crowd, probably wondering what a sweaty foreigner in bright lycra bike gear was doing at their festival, but overall it was just one big party. I headed back to Santiago, thrilled with my discovery and content that I had enjoyed more than my fill of festivals and could return to the States with no regrets!

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