The Way of St. James is a pilgrimage that takes many routes, and many forms. The Editor takes the so-called Northern Route, across “Green Spain”, in a form that involves as little actual walking as possible…
I’m a fairweather hiker, and I don’t mind admitting it.
When the temperature is just right, not too hot and not too cold – and not at all wet, who doesn’t like dressing up in their favourite shirt and box-fresh trainers and paying one’s respects to mater natura? However when it’s wintry in the mornings, roasting at noon, and wet all day through, cognisant of the unfavourable conditions for venturing outdoors, a sensible city-dweller like myself simply fires up the fibre optica and enjoys the latest murders and machinations in Westeros, without ever abandoning the comforting caresses of his silk pyjamas.
When it’s wintry in the mornings, roasting at noon, and wet all day through… a sensible city-dweller like myself simply fires up the fibre optica and enjoys the latest murders and machinations in Westeros.
So when, by some strange twist of fate, this very same urbanite found himself marching endless kilometres* through the relentless drizzle of the damp Cantabrian coastline, his once beautiful sneakers soaked to the sock and covered with goat shit (nb: I refuse to own a pair of hiking boots – hideous looking things), and not a single independently-owned coffee house selling organic homemade pastries en route, imagine then how even a humble two-bit hostelry, winking mirage-like on the wet horizon, appeared to him.
In fact don’t bother imagining, because I’m going to tell you. It appeared like a 7-star Dubai palace, where every room was a presidential suite complete with caviar-and-champagne-stocked minibar and sock-ironing butler, and each bathroom had not only its own multi-speed Jacuzzi but also one of those awesome towel heater racks. Indeed, as we drew nearer, the delusions of grandeur I had imposed on this humble inn meant that I was fully expecting an elderly man in buttoned down red jacket with gold trim and ostentatious epaulettes to greet us with a doff of his beaked cap: however the “concierge” of this “hotel”, was a young man dressed in shabby combat slacks and sandals by the name of Jonathan. He welcomed us warmly to the Albergue de Guemes in a distinctive South African twang, and offered us a glass of water to allay the thirst of our epic journey.
However the “concierge” of this “hotel”, was a young man dressed in shabby combat slacks and sandals by the name of Jonathan. He welcomed us warmly to the Albergue de Guemes… and offered us a glass of water to allay the thirst of our epic journey.
The Albergue de Guemes in fact is one of the most famous hostelries on the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago, an alternative leg of the Camino that starts in Irun (France) or Hondarribia (Spain), and then hogs Spain’s dramatic Northern coastline until the town of Ribadeo before diverting inland, in a south westerly direction, to arrive in Santiago de Compostela. (The more popular “French Route” takes you to the same final destination but without ever touching the coast. This flatter and drier – but less scenic walk – starts by heading down towards Pamplona and then continues west via Leon).
And whilst it’s not the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the Albergue de Guemes is undoubtedly a very nice place to stay, especially if you’re a tired and wet pilgrim. Converted by the resident priest, Father Ernesto, from family home into a travellers’ refuge, the dorms are tidy and clean with comfy beds, whilst summer camp style bedrooms with ensuite facilities provide those pilgrims who arrive later in the day with a decree of privacy and even more comfort. (This inverting of the “first come first served” maxim is based on the premise that those pilgrims who arrive later have probably travelled further and are more in need of some extra tender lovin’ care).
I’ve been invited to enjoy lunch at the Albergue and learn a bit more about both the hostel itself as well as the route that discharges up to 100 tired pilgrims at its door every day during summer.
I am not – in case it’s not obvious – a pilgrim looking for shelter, I’m just a curious travel blogger, and so instead of a being offered solace for the night I’ve been invited to enjoy lunch at the Albergue and learn a bit more about both the hostel itself as well as the route that discharges up to 100 tired pilgrims at its door every day during summer.
Most of the volunteers, such as Jonathan, are one-time pilgrims too, who either decided to stay longer than one night, or else finished their Camino and came back afterwards to help out. The precise reasons why someone would want to get up at 7am to serve road-weary travellers breakfast, lunch and supper – not to mention make beds and tidy rooms – for no money vary, but, as we hoover up a delicious chicken and noodle soup and chat around a long table, a theme emerges. These volunteers needed an escape.
“I left my job and my apartment in Brighton before I came to Spain,” says Jonathan. “I was looking for a change. Most of the reason was to clear my head a bit. I was working too much as I was starting to become stressed and annoyed all day every day.”
“I left my job and my apartment in Brighton before I came to Spain,” says Jonathan. “I was looking for a change. Most of the reason was to clear my head a bit. I was working too much as I was starting to become stressed and annoyed all day every day. It was just to get away and change my routine and change what I was doing.”
Judging by the zen-like way Jonathan goes about his duties, it seems like things are going according to plan. But I ask him if is has worked all the same…
“It has. It has. It’s nice very calm, very relaxing, good people every day come through so it’s definitely working.”
One person who is even more effusive about the life-changing power of the Camino is Ciara, an Irish girl in her twenties who has also prolonged her stay at Albergue de Guemes as she heads towards Santiago de Compostela. “The Camino provides,” is her mantra, which seems to apply not only to friendships and a general feeling of well-being but even to physical possessions. She tells me that fellow pilgrims have donated her a tent, rain jacket and even the clothes she is wearing, often at exactly the time she needed them… happenstances that she joyfully refers to as “synchronicities”. And whilst she is relentless in her enthusiasm for everything the Camino has to offer, even she has to confess that sometimes it doth taketh away as well… it seems like one naughty pilgrim ran off with her iPhone last night.
“The Camino provides,” is her mantra, which seems to apply not only to friendships and a general feeling of well-being but even to physical possessions. She tells me that fellow pilgrims have donated her a tent, rain jacket and even the clothes she is wearing…
Nonetheless by the time a second course of breaded chicken fillets and tomato salad is brought out and my wine glass is refilled, I find myself being swept along by the camaraderie of the Camino. We take turns in serving each other food, talk about our various travels and about life in general. I’m very conscious of the fact that my interlocutors are the hardcore, and I’m very much a pretender, but there are no judgements on the Camino. You can be doing a small stretch as a hiking holiday, the whole 800km Northern Route for religious reasons, or you can even be a spoilt travel blogger like me, being ferried from attraction to attraction by private transport, with only a small taste of the hardships of hiking in between – it really doesn’t matter. The message is that every way is a good way, everyone is welcome and every reason for being here is valid.
As the volunteers wash plates with a smile on their face, and I struggle with my 3G connection (there’s no wifi at the Albergue) to see if I’ve missed any important marketing opportunities arriving in my inbox, I’m even a little jealous of these folks’ hardworking but stress free lifestyle. The pilgrims who start to arrive at the hostel, just as we’re finishing eating, all seem in good spirits too. Maybe it’s their Nordic sticks, waterproof jackets and appropriate footwear, but they don’t seem phased by a spot of bad weather and a few blisters and they’ve travelled much further than I did to get here.
As the volunteers wash plates with a smile on their face, and I struggle with my 3G connection to see if I’ve missed any important marketing opportunities arriving in my inbox, I’m even a little jealous of these folks’ hardworking but stress free lifestyle.
It definitely gives me food for thought. I start to think that if I invested in a pair of waterproof trainers (I’m not budging on the hiking boots) and a vaguely practical, non-vintage jacket that I too might enjoy the daily thigh burn and the sense of both freedom and achievement that walking the entire Camino seems to bring.
One thing that everyone agrees with is that along this mighty pilgrimage lie a thousand treasures for the curious traveller to discover, as the route leads you across the four regions of Northern Spain – also known as Green Spain, thanks to its lush vegetation and yes sometimes wet weather – that fill the gap between the coast and the Cantabrian mountains. Whether you like city breaks, historical sites, pastoral farmland, natural forests or wild beaches this diverse region packs it all in, offering a really rich and varied travelling experience. Oh yes, and did I mention the food? The region is famous for its amazing seafood, fresh vegetables, beef, cider, sparkling wines and cakes, to name but a few specialties.
Whether you like city breaks, historical sites, pastoral farmland, natural forests or wild beaches this diverse region packs it all in, offering a really rich and varied travelling experience.
Keep reading for some of the highlights of each of these regions, and remember to subscribe to stay tuned for more in depth information on each individual part of North Spain in the coming weeks…
The Route of the Northern Way
Hugging Spain’s northerly coast, El Camino del Norte runs from France through four distinct regions on its way to Santiago de Compostela….
– The Basque Country
The Nothern Route in Spain starts in Hondarribia, the first town in the Basque Country as you cross over from Irun / Hendaye in France. In fact, as the sun sets across Txingudi Bay you can see the lights of Hendaye and hear French voices wafting across the waters. The first 16km leg of the journey will take you to Pasaia, a twin town over the river, where Victor Hugo made his home, which is also the location of the fascinating Albaola sea factory, where you can learn about the Basque’s maritime heritage. From here you are close by to San Sebastian, arguably Northern Spain’s most glamorous city with its lively urban beaches, famous pintxos bars and galaxy of Michelin-starred restaurants. Who said pilgrims have to scrimp and save?
Keep going and you’ll hike across the verdant coastal hills of this ancient land through towns such as Getaria and Zumaia and Gernika, where the Lords of Biscay met under a sacred oak tree, before entering Bilbao, the cosmopolitan regional capital, famous above all for the Guggenheim museum. Finally, as you complete the first stage of the Northern Camino, you’ll cross the epic Bizkaia Bridge that links the towns of Getxo and Portugalete.
Check out our full feature article on the highlights of the Basque Country, along with more information on its cities, landscape, attractions and unique culture and cuisine.
Like most of Northern Spain, Cantabria is a land of green rolling hills and farmland, historic seaside towns, and many long stretches of unspoiled coastline and pristine beaches. The latter are popular with experienced surfers, as the waves that fetch in from the Atlantic are pretty tasty to say the least.
The Cantabrian slice of the Camino takes you past Castro Urdiales, a one time Roman settlement famous for its imposing castle lighthouse, through Santillana de Mar, which despite the name is a beautiful inland town, with cobbled streets, terracotta tiles and flower laden balconies and onto the impressive Santander, whose belle epoque facades stretch along the vast bay of the same name. Perhaps the most attractive town pilgrims will pass on their way through Cantabria is Comillas, a coastal town that boasts one of the few Gaudi designs outside of Barcelona, an evocative seaside cemetery and one of the most splendid university buildings you’ll see in Spain.
I would also encourage those “going their own way” to divert off the Camino to explore the mountainous national parks of the South of Cantabria, places of enormous natural beauty and rural charm. Check out this feature article full of Cantabria travel tips for more on this amazing region.
Llanes is the first significant town you’ll find following the Northern Way into Asturias. From here begins a wonderful stretch of rocky cliffs with crystal clear waters and golden sands stretching underneath that count towards some of the best beaches this blogger has ever seen. Keep going and you’ll arrive at the bustling port town of Gijon where you’ll have a choice… to continue hiking along the Camino del Norte following the coast all the way to Ribadeo, or take a diversion south to Oviedo, to follow the so called Original Way, or Primitive Way.
One good reason to continue along the Northern Route is the chance to take in the historic fishing villages of Asturias. El Pito is a real beauty, wedged into a hillside, with houses climbing above a central square full of restaurants and bars. Luarca is a bigger port full of bobbing boats with a proud history of whaling and fishing.
If you venture inland though, Oviedo is a place well worth visiting for its impressive cathedral, attractive squares and lively cider-serving bars and restaurants. It is from Oviedo that King Alfonso II set forth on the first ever pilgrimage to pay homage to the relics of St. James, and that’s why the route from here to Santiago de Compostela is called the Original Way. Check out all of the best things to do in Asturias right here.
Those who kept with the Northern Way are rewarded in Galicia with one of Spain’s most iconic beaches… the Playa de las Catedrales in Ribadeo. In fact it’s so famous now that you have to apply for a permit to visit during the summer months to prevent overcrowding (although its probably the only overcrowded place in the North of Spain!), but it’s well worth the hassle of getting one online to see these majestic rock formations arching over the sands and Atlantic sea.
Once you’ve paid your homage to Cathedral Beach its time to head inland where a series of beautiful towns, like Lourenza and Mondonedo, with their holy churches and monasteries create a sacred route towards the Camino’s final destination.
The pilgrimage ends at Santiago de Compostela, precisely in the Praza do Obradoiro square, underneath the cathedral where the remains of the apostle St. James are buried. Here the tired pilgrims gather to take stock of their journey and their achievements, and those who have collected all the necessary stamps at the albergues along the way can even go to the pilgrim’s office to claim a certificate. One young American girl, Kate, is travelling alone and asks if I can take a photo of her on the square with her certificate. I happily oblige and take the chance to ask her why she chose to do the Camino.
“I wanted to see something different, different to what a tourist would see. And I wanted to experience a country in a whole different way, and it opened my eyes to so many things – I loved it, it was great.”
“The best lesson? I started with trying to find myself… but I think the whole point of The Way is to lose yourself.”
“I wanted to experience a country in a whole different way and it opened my eyes to so many things… The best lesson? I started with trying to find myself… but I think the whole point of The Way is to lose yourself.”
As she tells me this the bells of the cathedral ring through the air, and an operatic voice wafts over the city. I can’t tell if this piece of wisdom is something she just made up on the spot, or a sound-byte she heard along the way… but it sounds pretty epic to me.
You can read more about the highlights of Galicia here.
You Can Go Your Own Way
What I learned during eight days of travel along the route of the Northern Camino is that pretty much anything goes. You’ll find 18-80 year olds on the route, and in fact the majority of people I ran into along the way were on the younger side. Since you need to take about 30-35 days to walk the entire route it helps if you are at university, on a gap year, taking a career break, or retired. I was also told that less than 50% of people do the Camino for religious reasons, meaning you don’t have to be a Sunday church-goer to turn up for the ride.
One common tactic for those with less time on their hands is to simply start nearer the finishing line, and your typical 9-to-5er is more likely to start in Asturias or Galicia, than the Basque Country. There’s also the English Way, which follows the route of pious Brits from centuries past who would arrive by ferry in the port towns of Ferrol or A Coruna and walk from there to Santiago de Compostela. These routes are 118km and 74km respectively, so again good for those with less time (although nota bene that you have to have walked over 100km to be eligible for a certificate).
Walking is not the only option, as around 10% of people cycle the route, whilst I also heard stories of people riding horses, or going with their family and a donkey, or even travelling with a caged canary. One thing’s for sure is that if you go you’re going to meet some interesting characters from all around the world on the way and have some great adventures.
Naturally the route abounds with accommodation along the way, but if you want to be able to sleep in the super cheap albergues (pilgrim hostels) then you’ll need to get yourself a Credencial (pilgrim’s passport) and stamps at each point of the way. You will also need the same stamped Credencial to claim your certificate when you finally make it to Santiago! You’ll find more and better information on this here and here. One thing you’ll quickly notice is that your passport, hostels and sacred sites en route are all marked with a shell, the symbol of Camino which you’ll also see on the road markers that appear on the way. The tradition stems from the habit of pilgrims picking up a shell in Galicia as a souvenir, and often carrying it back with them on a future pilgrimage.
Aside from walking, biking or riding there, you could approach El Camino del Norte as I did it, and hire a car / private transport and just stop off at all the highlights along the route! Less romantic certainly, but in many ways a lot more practical. In any case, over the next few weeks I’ll tell you more about some of the more interesting cities, towns, villages and areas of natural beauty that I discovered, including some awesome hotels I was fortunate enough to stay in.
North Spain is easily accessible via plane, and you can fly to Bilbao from London for example with British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Easyjet and be there in less than two hours. You can also fly to and from A Coruna, Oviedo, Santiago or to Biarritz in France, or you could even catch the ferry from the UK to the likes of A Coruna and Santander.
Whilst the weather is usually both warmer and drier in these parts than in England, even in summer you can expect some patches of rain, and rather chilly conditions in the mornings and evenings.
Duncan travelled with The Travel Mob across all four regions of Northern Spain as part of the #InGreenSpain blogtrip organised by the tourist boards of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, and the Spanish Tourist Board. All opinions are his own. More imagery in the video below…