View Full Version : Irish Times, Tuesday July 17 2007

17-07-07, 13:42
Nice article in the Features Section - "Have bike, will travel, To Santiago A sort of pilgrimage, From Dublin to Spain on a bike. Peter Murtagh revs up"

photo of two aged ones, one 54 and one 66, on 2 R1200GS Adventures.
First part of a travelogue through France and Spain.

A trip that I intend to take, sometime soon.

Bin Ridin
19-07-07, 11:33
Have bike, will travel

From Dublin to Spain on a bike. Peter Murtagh revs up

This was Tony's idea. Not mine. But still, here I am - and he - outside Guinness's brewery in Dublin (St James' Gate itself) getting our special pilgrim passports stamped before we set off for Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

To say we are embarking on a pilgrimage is something of an exaggeration. "Sort of" pilgrimage would be more accurate. Our intention is to travel from Ireland to France, to Vezelay, about 200km south-east of Paris. This is the main starting point for one of the main pilgrim routes to Santiago. Many others also flow across western Europe from points further north and east, most of them converging at the western end of the Pyrenees and crossing into Spain.

From there, the main pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St James) goes west through Pamplona, and through the mountains of northern Spain, to Galicia, and the medieval pilgrim city of Santiago - Sant Iago, the city of St James, and to the great cathedral that stands there in his name. Purists, the truly devout, do the pilgrimage on foot. There has been some backsliding for sure: one may also accomplish the journey on horseback or bicycle - so long as the last 100km are done on foot or horseback, or the last 200km on bicycle. But my research throws up no references to pilgrims on motorcycle.

Forgive me Father, for I have not ridden a motorcycle for 34 years. The rush is fairly instant, however. My brother's Kawasaki 550GT, a former Garda bike that still packs a punch, clips along nicely. The brother waving goodbye soon disappears in the rear-view mirror as I whizz through the Vale of Avoca in Co Wicklow, over the hill, across Red Cross and out onto the N11.

The first feeling that rushes back is the incredible sense of freedom. It's a different sensation to other feelings of freedom - it's youthful and carefree, no weight, no responsibilities. There's an edge to it. And then, of course, by the time you see the first other road user, the first car or, worse, lorry, you realise how unbelievably vulnerable you are. One wrong move by anyone, including you, and you're hedgehogged into the road or spattered off a wall, the emergency services left hosing down the mess.

By the time I left the N11 at Greystones on that first ride after so many years, my hands ached because I'd been gripping the handlebars so hard, my whole body was rigid, unmoving . . . hmmm, many second thoughts.

But over weeks of practise, there's a return of proper confidence - a relaxed familiarity with the road, a healthy awareness of what could go wrong: the guy in the outside lane who decides to turn at the last moment (happens all the time where the M11 veers away left from the M50 and into Loughlinstown); the drivers who accelerate when orange goes to red (a good reason for the biker not to speed off the instant his red turns to green).

Forgotten skills are soon re-learned. Like the ability to turn without steering. Just lean into the bend, tilt to one side and, well, go with the flow. (There's another way of turning as well. Technically, it's known as the wriggly bum method. Keep your back straight and, using your pelvis, jut your backside over in the direction you want the bike to go. And it will. Promise.)

After a while, you become familiar with weather and parts of the landscape. A slight breeze in Wicklow becomes a buffeting gale when it licks off the Big Sugar Loaf at Kilmacanogue. Further along the N11, the elevated ground at Rathmichael at your left shoulder and Killiney Head northeast create a funnel for the northwest wind at Cherrywood.

I love riding with the visor raised, the wind whooshing into my face. Sometimes flies hit you and sting like an elastic band snapping hard against your skin. But other times, you get the pungent odours of the countryside - like the wild garlic in the Glen of the Downs.

Tony has been riding bikes for the past several years, always a BMW. He got a new one last week and the company lent me mine. It's some machine. Whereas the Kawasaki was recognisably the descendant of what I rode 34 years ago (Honda 50s mostly), the BMW RS1200 GS Adventure is a whole different animal.

It's a larger version of one of those bikes you see hammering through the north African desert regions on the Dakar Rally. It's a big, powerful machine and while it seems to weigh a ton (I'm in terror of it falling over because I doubt if I could lift it back upright), it moves effortlessly and gracefully.

The day I borrowed my bike, we rode from the northside of Dublin south through the city. Tony wanted to stop on Upper O'Connell Street.

"Why?" I asked.

"Have to get my picture taken for my free travel pass."

Tony is 66 but has recovered well from his heart attack. I'm 54. And we tell our children to be sensible . . .

Next: Rosslare to Cherbourg to Vezelay, and perhaps a detour to Cluny, the great medieval abbey whose influence popularised the Santiago pilgrimage 1,000 years ago

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
19-07-07, 11:38
Bikers look out for one another

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage (DUBLIN TO CHERBOURG): The camaraderie of biking impresses Peter Murtagh on his 'pilgrimage'.

Tzzzzzzzzzz-phat! The fly was probably only going at two or three km/h. But I wasn't. I was doing something a bit over 100 which means that when the fly and I met, the force of impact was considerable.

In the nanosecond of searing pain that followed, my right eyeball felt like it had been struck by a dum-dum bullet.

I pulled over to the hard shoulder. The right eye was stinging and weeping so much that the left eye closed in sympathy. I couldn't see a bloody thing. Tony was in front and hadn't noticed anything.

Three biker Good Samaritans pulled over. One of them, a fierce-looking fellow with a beard asked me if I was OK. "Are you broken down?"

No, fly in the eye, I said. I think I'm okay . . . just need a few minutes. I limped to the boat, barely able to see the road, my right eye streaming, looking like a cross between an over-ripe tomato and steak tartare.


Bikers are a community. They hang out together in the ferry lounges and restaurants. They talk about engines and makes and other stuff like torque.

It's definitely a world all of its own to which Tony, my accomplice on this sort of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and I have briefly been granted access.

By the time I got to the ferry check-in, the bikers who had stopped to make sure that I was okay had sussed out Tony and told him what had happened.

Branka and Pete, my roadside helpers, are on their way to Faro in the Algarve - to a bikers' convention, the largest in Europe, they explain next morning at breakfast as the ferry arrives in Cherbourg. There'll be 40,000 bikers there. 40,000!

Pete could not be confused for anything other than a biker. His head is shaven completely and he has a big hairy beard. He wears a vest-style T-shirt, a tattoo on his forearm and smokes roll-up cigarettes. You can tell from his fingers that he loves taking engines apart and replacing leaky seals and banjaxed gromits. He speaks softly, in an English midlands accent.

Branka is a slight woman with a warm smile and bouncy personality. Her blue eyes light up when she talks excitedly. Her memorable name derives from her Yugoslav Dad and German Mum. She grew up in Scotland.

Branka and Pete live in Galway. She's a gardener; he works for Boston Scientific on R&D and quality control of their stent production.

Pete's bike is a K class, water-cooled BMW, a big brute of a machine that looks comfortable for cruising. Branka's is a Sachs 805 ('cos it has 805CCs, she explains to ignoramus me).

Branka and Pete came to live in Ireland to escape the pressures of life in the UK and because they reckoned our education system was better then theirs. Now they have a daughter studying marine science in UCG and another off in Berlin at a summer school.


As we disembark on a sunny Normandy day, we say goodbye to Branka and Peter. They are lovely, gentle people.

And so if this morning, you are about to have a stent inserted into your thigh and pushed through tubes up your chest and into the blockage threatening to give you a heart attack (just like Tony's), remember that one of the guys that makes it all possible is Pete the biker, currently somewhere around Salamanca hurtling his way to Faro for a weekend of beer, fags and Joe Cocker.

u Next: Through Normandy to Orléans and Vezelay, the start proper of the road to Santiago.

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
19-07-07, 11:39
Even bikers fall under spell of beguiling chants

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage (CHERBOURG TO VÉZELAY): Peter Murtagh' s journey to Santiago takes a strangely religious turn.

Suddenly our destination is there without warning, even though we have been heading towards it for two days.

The road is winding its way through a hilly, forested area - a change from the undulating but uninspiring countryside of Normandy, followed by the dull, windswept flatlands around Chartres and on to Orléans.

Around another corner, out of the woods and there, through a break in the hedgerow, it is: Vézelay, a tiny village perched on top of a hill. And at the very top of the village stands the basilica, mistress of all the surrounding countryside.

Vézelay, starting point for one of the main pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, is bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Tourists amble through narrow cobbled streets as Tony and I ride slowly up towards the church.

It is a simple enough mainly Romanesque building, nothing too ornate. The nave was built from 1120 to 1140, then the porch in 1145. The choir behind the altar (1165-1215) is Gothic. There's a 13th century chapel in the south transept and a cloister.

There are no stained glass windows (unlike the cathedral at Orléans with 10 huge depictions of the local heroine, Joan of Arc) and the only wall mountings are a line of six-foot high plain wooden crosses marking the stations. It is reputed that the remains of Mary Magdalen are interred here, in the crypt under the altar.

Some enterprising monks in the ninth century reckoned it would be a good thing if they brought her remains from their then resting place in Provence, where she had taken refuge in the mountains of Sainte-Baume having fled Jerusalem following the death of Christ.

Since then, the monks have never looked back. Vézelay rapidly became a place of pilgrimage and an assembly point for pilgrims going elsewhere, notably to Santiago.

As I stand in the porch gazing at one of the few stone carvings (a frieze that could depict a line of pilgrims), the sweet sound of singing voices wafts through the air like the aroma of good food in preparation.

Inside the basilica, 11 sisters of the Fraternities of Jerusalem, a contemplative community founded some 30 years ago whose members sing the praises of God three times a day, are doing just that along with eight brothers of the order.

They include Sr Clemence who, like the others, divides her time between her religious duties and her work in the community. She is a biology teacher.

The music has been composed by a Dominican, André Gouzes, who Sr Clemence later tells me lives in the south of France. Unlike much contemporary religious music, to my ear it is soft, gentle, harmonious and completely seductive. The sister and monks are all clad in pale cream capes. The sisters also wear pale blue pinafores and white headscarves.

A musical conversation between them and monks punctuates what I realise after a while is a sung Mass and Eucharist and I'm standing in the middle of it, clad in full motorcycle gear. No one seems to mind. There are about 100 people in the congregation, locals and tourists, some presumably walking pilgrims.

At the sign of peace, the sisters glide unhurriedly from the altar and move among us, clasping our hands with both of theirs and whispering in French what I think is "Christ be with you".

While this is going on, one of the monks, a small man who looks like he came from Indo-China, is playing the organ - Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist by Dietrich Buxtehude.

The whole thing is terribly moving and I'm close to tears. I don't know why. And then it's time for Holy Communion.

Now as it happens I'm something of a part-time Prod: I've never been fully able to sign up, preferring to remain outside, nose pressed to the window, curious but incurably sceptical.

But it seems the correct and respectful thing here and now to participate and so I do, clunking up to the altar in my boots and padded motorcycle jacket.

Sr Clemence and her colleagues dispense the host and strangely sweet-tasting wine.

Afterwards when the service is over, everyone chats amiably. The sisters and monks have time for everyone. They are without fault warm, welcoming, gentle and interested in anyone interested in them.

With that, it's over. A largely disparate group of people with little in common save this brief shared experience, scatter to wherever it is they will go.

Tony's back with word of an inexpensive Michelin-recommended hotel down the road within staggering distance of a family-run restaurant. There for €50 a head we have a bottle of local Burgundian red wine each and a feast of salad and prawns and dry cured ham and duck and kidneys and cheese. A perfect ending to a perfect day . . .

- Next: Towards the Pyrenees

© 2007 The Irish Times

The Foolish Fellow
19-07-07, 23:20
civil and myself did this pilgrimage a couple of years ago, starting in le puy en vallee ,, over the pyrenees and across the spanish countryside to santiago.(by bike) civil has never been the same since after being anointed at one of them quare ceremonies in santiago the very evening we got there.(he traveled in behind the inner sanctum but never told me what he got in there) a nice run but far from any big deal doing it by bike, thoroughly enjoyable as is any excuse to get away on the bike. I also recall some fierce winds coming in from the great atlantic and trying to blow us off our bikes when traveling homeward around the northwest corner via la corúna.

Bin Ridin
20-07-07, 04:39
Wheelies and churches teach bikers humility

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage (VÉZELAY TOWARDS THE PYRENNES): A display of skill and arrogance is witnessed before coming across a medieval superpower's magnet for pilgrims, writes Peter Murtagh .

Yesterday we saw our first wheelie. It was a wheelie executed for our entertainment and was a display of skill and youthful arrogance worthy of a matador.

The rider was on a gold coloured Triumph, one of those aerodynamic machines where the rider's feet are resting somewhere around the rear wheel, he's lying almost flat along the petrol tank and the handlebars seem to be about half way down the front forks.

Basically, it's a bullet bike.

We were on a ring road round a town, he passing us, we passing him and stopping at traffic lights. He eyes our BMWs, we inspect his Triumph. We're cruising, he's racing. No problem. Respect brother, respect.

And then, after the final set of lights when the road is off straight again, he darts ahead about four or five cars.

And then, in what seemed like slow motion, the front wheel of his bike rose into the air, to an angle of about 45 degrees, and remained as he sped forward for maybe 100 or 200 metres. Between the cars, along the road in a 70 km speed limit area!

He lowered the front wheel once, maybe twice, each time raising it again. It was like a hand waving bye, bye. And with that he was gone in a scream of power, surging into the horizon.

The road from Vezelay in southern Burgundy, where our sort of pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela finally got under way, goes south-west towards the Pyrenees through Perigord.

From Clamecy to Bourges it is a route of almost unrelenting boredom. Great sweeping flat upland fields that stretch almost as far as the eye can see, most of them planted with cereal crops, many of them harvested, rampaging combines mowing through the others as we pass.

The landscape is pock-marked by clutches of small forests and the occasional oak tree but not much else. It's a single carriageway road and so passing the five-axel trucks is testing.

But then the roads drop down into the Loire valley to a place named La Charité-sur-Loire and the most vast church you can imagine, set a few metres back from the banks of the river.

In its heyday, it must have been beautiful and it must also have exuded vast power simply by being there - an arrogance that would knock a wheelie biker into a cocked hat.

This place, known simply as La Charité was built by the Abbey of Cluny, the regional superpower in the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries, a religious enterprise that was crucial to the popularisation of Santiago as a place of pilgrimage.

The Cluniacs were imperialists. At the height of their power, they had 300 dependencies in France, Portugal, England and Constantinople. When they decided to expand their influence into Iberia, they did so by promoting Mary Magdalen - she of Vezelay - and St James - he of Santiago - because of their established appeal for pilgrims.

Sponsorship took the form of bankrolling construction, in the case of La Charité a place of worship so vast that it was said when completed in 1204 (building began in 1052) to be one of the largest churches in Europe, on a par with the great abbey at Cluny itself.

Hundreds of monks prayed and sang praise to God seven times a day and were preoccupied with the poor, a preoccupation they believed symbolised Christ among them.

With this sort of appeal, it wasn't long before La Charité became a draw for pilgrims en route to Santiago. The Cluniacs believed in the importance of the remission of sins and this sparked, as Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel of UCC has written, "an unprecedented wave of pilgrimage throughout Europe".

And 500 years after building started, La Charité was partly destroyed by fire. Sometime later, a bright spark had the notion of using some of the rubble to build houses where bits of the church used to be. Another genius wanted to put a road through the nave . . .

The end result today is an engaging mess, a wreck of a religious settlement that remains huge but broken, surrounded by tourist cafes and narrow streets.

Part of the nave remains but little (if any) medieval stained glass. (There is one small rose window showing two men in a boat who look like Celts or Norse raiders perhaps: they have green flowing robes and one has what might be a Celtic pattern design on the lower edge of his cloak.)

From La Charité, the pilgrim route goes through Bourges and Châteauroux and Argenton-sur-Creuse.

We fast track down the motorway to grind down the kilometres and spend the night at Thiviers.

- Next: The Pyrenees, with luck . . .

© 2007 The Irish Times