From Rome to Santiago de Compostela With Love

Augustin Peña Gago calls his pilgrimage Il Mio Camino.

(photo: Courtesy Augustin Peña Gago )

What distinguishes Augustin Peña Gago from many others making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, sanctuary of St. James the Apostle in northwest Spain, is not only the means he will use and distance he will travel, but his motive for going.

Gago, concluding his third year as a civil guard to the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in Rome, will be practicing his other profession this summer, professional cycling, to ride from Rome to Santiago. Pedaling a total of 3,605 kilometers, Gago will travel three historic pilgrim routes, passing through five countries.

Though his motivations are multiple, Gago’s principal inspiration is his grandparents, both born in Santiago and close to St. James, whose feast day is July 25. Both have passed away, and Gago is making the pilgrimage in their memory. He recently spoke with the Register about his work and his passion for cycling.


Would you explain the work you do now?

I work as a civil guard, a type of police in Italy. We are concerned with security of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in Piazza di Spagna. I have worked as a civil guard for almost eight years now, concluding my third in Rome this August.


Why are you making this pilgrimage, and what were the motivations behind it?

More or less, at this time last year, I began to consider going on bike pilgrimage from Rome. Initially, I thought Rome to Santiago — 2,000 kilometers. Then I discovered this was the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela. Keeping it in mind, I decided to change my course, initially taking the Via Aurelia all the way to France, to go to Assisi for St. Francis.

The motivation for Santiago is my grandparents, who were both born and lived there for many years. My father was also born there. Thus my connection is very strong, and I still have family there. My grandmother was a strong believer and loved St. James. After they moved away to the region near where I was born, Austurias, my grandmother went on pilgrimage every year to Santiago to pray in the cathedral.

Hence, Rome to Santiago is the clear the motivation. Then I added St. Francis Assisi for the 800th anniversary.


Tell me more about the route you will be taking.

Continuing on the Via Francigena [the first pilgrim route, from Rome into France], I move west toward Pavia, for the tomb of St. Augustine. I got married last year, Oct. 26, at St. Anne’s in the Vatican. Before getting married, my confessor advised me to start reading St. Augustine, which I did, and I have been close to him since.

I will follow the Via Francigena until Turin. Since, from Turin to Santiago, I must go through France, I began seeking religious motivations for my stops, as this is the principle motive for this whole pilgrimage.

In the Alps, it was not easy, but I found an unknown sanctuary called St. Etienne-Le-Laus, Sanctuary of the Sinners.

The day after, I arrive in Avignon for St. Catherine of Siena, to homage her story of protagonism, as mediator between the diverse popes in the 14th century. We are speaking of a historical moment in which there were three different popes in different places, an internal division to overcome. I want to remember it as something magnificent by visiting there.

For the next step, Narbonne, there was no sanctuary, but it has a strong link to St. Sebastian, his birthplace.

From there, I go to Andorra, having lived on its borders for four years [serving as civil guard], for the Sanctuary de Meritxell. It will be a challenging ride in the mountains, but there I begin the Ruta Amaria, [the second route], to complete five sanctuaries in the Pyrenees.

Then I descend towards Monserrat, for the Madonna of Catalonia. From Monserrat, I go to Torreciudad, a sanctuary linked to St. Josemaría Escrivá. The last book I read, being the The Way by St. Josemaría, drew me there. From there, I go to the Sanctuary in Zaragoza, Basilica del Pilar, for the Madonna of the Civil Guards, its 170th anniversary.

Next will be a very difficult step: from Zaragoza to the Sanctuary of Lourdes, a 250-kilometer ascent, concluding the five sanctuaries in the Pyrenees. Many ask why I choose to do it; it will be hard and difficult, they say. To me, if it was easy, it would be senseless and defeat the purpose to do it.


Why did you choose the way through Lourdes?

I also chose Lourdes because, in 2003, I was in a serious bike accident, and my friend, and fellow athlete, gave me a small Madonna of Lourdes. I carried her with me in my pocket from that day on. After such a grave accident, I think it is thanks to this Madonna I am here speaking with you today.

After Lourdes, I begin the Camino [third route], beginning at Roncesvalles. It is always the Camino, however. I have called it Il Mio Camino (My Way) because it is something different, it is a thing very personal, and I did not want to follow anyone else’s story.

Next, I go to Santo Domingo de la Calzada for the wonderful story of St. Dominic, who did many pilgrimages. Then heading north I will go to the Sanctuary of Aparecida, for the Madonna of the region of Cantabria.

In the same region, I go to the Sanctuary of Liébana, where the largest known piece of the holy cross of Christ is found.

Then Covadonga for the Madonna of my region. I went there many times on bike pilgrimage from my hometown. Covadonga’s story began nearly 1,300 years ago, when Spain was under the control of Islam. When the Muslims pushed up into the mountain, a battle took place, the Battle of Covadogna, in which the Madonna aided them and defeated the Muslims [considered the beginning of the Spanish Reconquista].


What were other motivations?

Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, whose canonizations I had the opportunity to serve just months ago, have a connection to Covadogna. John XXIII visited 60 years ago in 1954, when still the cardinal of Venice, then on pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela.

In 1989, John Paul XII came as the first pope to visit, also pilgrimaging to Santiago. I was just 10, but remember this incredible moment well, watching the celebration of the Mass at my grandparents' [house].

Next, I go to Gijon, the city where I was born, which will be my shortest step, only 82 kilometers; from there to Ponferrada, a city inhabited by the Roman Empire for many years.

My last step, 217 kilometers, is from Ponferrada to Santiago, hoping I arrive with the help of God, to homage my dearest grandparents at one of the most important sanctuaries in the world.


When do you plan to start, and how long will it take?

If everything goes well, I will leave in the middle of July, scheduled on the 14th, but if all the logistics and practical things do not work out in time, I will leave Aug. 10. I will begin at the embassy, in gratitude to the ambassador for all his help; then I go to Vatican City, already two nationalities, after France, Andorra and Spain, passing through five countries all together and two of the smallest in the world.

In total, I will do it in 21 days. The first thing to remember is this is not a competition: It is a pilgrimage. If my health stays with me, I will start early in the morning every day and go until dusk.

This is cycling to me; it is like life. It is sacrifice. If not, if it was an easy thing, I would not be interested to do it.


Will you have a companion, on bike or in a car?

I will have a companion, not on bike, but with a car needed, logistically speaking: to carry clothes to change into, water to drink and food to eat on the bike. Time is precious, and often there won’t be time to stop.

I am still searching for someone to come with me. Initially, we thought my wife could do it, but due to circumstances and her work, she cannot.

It is difficult to find someone, because they need to have great patience. It is not easy to follow someone on bike for eight to nine hours, day after day, sometimes up hill and extremely slowly. Above all, I need someone who can join me in prayer.

Though many people I meet are interested, for work reasons, they cannot. Yet I am not worried. I do not know who it is still, but God has helped me so far, and I know he will in this as well.


Are you doing any special training now, before you begin?

For preparation, I am always biking, and in this sense, no. Now, however, I am adding longer distances, just last week doing a more intensive ascent. I decide day by day.


What do your wife, family and friends think about it?

Everyone likes it.

My wife is the most important thing in my life. She has incredible patience. She has gone many kilometers behind me. She followed me by car one day last year with my father, eight and a half hours to Santiago [237 kilometers]. Without her and her support, it would be difficult to go ahead with these things.


Is there anything that you would like to add, a message you would like to share?

Sport can transmit countless values, that, unfortunately in 2014, are lost, or nearly so. By cycling I learned sacrifice, I learned how to set goals, I learned fatigue and many other positive things. To me, easy is a word that should not exist in sport.

Above all, my message is this: Sport, not only cycling, but all sport, is a school of life. There are countless values one can learn, which, after, can be applied and help in life.

Register correspondent Cecilia O’Reilly writes from Rome.