July 2017 Crisscrossing the Camino -
Five Weeks in Northern Spain (and Basque France) - Part 1
When I set out to put together an itinerary of Northern Spain including Basque France I knew of the Camino de Santiago but certainly it was not a focus of the trip. It was just coincidence that my trip was to be five weeks and that’s exactly how long most people take to walk it, if they do the entire route. But as the trip took shape I realized I would essentially cover most of the two most well known/well traveled Caminos, the Camino del Norte and the Camino Frances. And while I didn’t ‘walk’ either of them (technically) I did walk a total of 315 miles over the five weeks (the Caminos are ‘about 500 miles’, though you can get your certification for having walked it with as little as 112km/70 miles), and much of that was on one Camino or another. (My best day was 13.3 miles, worst was only 5, averaged 9.3 miles/day). But I traveled from place to place by bus and car and did my walking on day trips, and most of that exploring the cities, towns and villages rather than walking between them. As it turned out though, virtually every place I went was on a Camino – mostly those two main ones, but there are many more “Caminos” and I certainly found myself following the yellow arrows/ yellow scallop shells on blue background signs everywhere I went. Surrounded by pilgrims. It really became a focus of the trip much more so once I was there (as opposed to the planning stage) and I think made the whole trip more fun and interesting. They say the Camino ‘calls you’ and I certainly heard it, almost daily, saying ‘here I am’.
While I did a big loop that covered most of the Camino del Norte and Camino Frances, I did not do it in what most people would consider a logical sequence - but there was a logical reason for this. I can take a 5-week vacation but my husband can only manage about 2½ weeks. In previous years I’ve gone one or two places, then he’d fly over and we’d go another place (last year I went to the Baltics, met him in Italy and then we went to Greece, the year before I went to Malta, then we met and went to Italy, year before that I went to Norway, Poland and we met in Italy – you get the idea). But since this trip was to be just Northern Spain (with a few days in the Basque corner of France) I decided to do the larger cities on my solo portion (he prefers more rural areas, plus the cities are easily connected by bus) and then we rented a car for the second half. Thus I ended up crisscrossing the Caminos and doing more of a figure eight than a loop.
So – the itinerary ended up – Solo Part:
London (2 nights)
Bayonne (4 nights) (day trips to Biarritz, St Jean Pied du Port [Camino Frances] , St Jean de Luz)
San Sebastian (4 nights) [Camino del Norte] (day trip to Hondarribia/Hendaye) [Camino del Norte]
Bilbao (3 nights) [Camino del Norte] (day trip to Portugalete/Gexto) [Camino del Norte]
Santander (3 nights) [Camino del Norte]
Burgos (3 nights) [Camino Frances]
Leon (2 nights) [Camino Frances]
leaving Leon we rented a car and did: Astorga [Camino Frances] and Ponferrada [Camino Frances]
en route to Lugo (1 night) [Camino Primitivo]
Santiago de Compostella (2 nights) all the Caminos
Ribadeo (1 night) [Camino del Norte] Cathedral Beach and Cudillero [Camino del Norte] en route to
Oviedo (1 night) [Camino Primitivo] Ribadesella [Camino del Norte] en route to
Potes (1 night) [Camino Lebaniego] (Picos de Europa)
Santillana del Mar (3 nights) [Camino del Norte] (day trips to Comillas, San Vicente de Barquera,
Altima caves) [Camino del Norte]
Laguardia (1 night) Peunte La Reina [Camino Frances] en route to
Olite (2 nights/day trip to Ojue/Monastery Leyre, Castillo Javier) [Jacobean route of the Camino Frances]
and last night at Madrid airport (Barderas Real Desert Park en route)
The total trip was 34 nights, including the first two in London (last few years I’ve found excellent fares to London and then flew Easy Jet (or Ryan Air) to my ‘actual’ destination). This year I flew Norwegian (for $279), non-stop and it was great. Had almost no jet lag. There was no way I could get from the US to Biarritz without long layover/convoluted routes costing far more. (And had the same experience last year when my destination was Estonia). Anyway, I love London, know my way around, stay in the same hotel so it’s a pleasure to have a day or two there to start my trips. My husband flew Aer Lingus to Madrid and we flew that together on the way home.
Since we got home and began telling people about our trip we discovered that few had ever even heard of the Camino. Now I know I’m a travel nerd and spend an inordinate amount of time on Fodors and other travel sites, but that still surprised me that so few knew of it. If you search ‘Camino’ on Fodors you get lots of threads, and I know there are numerous Fodorites who have walked at least portions of it. And I know a couple of ‘actual’ people who have walked it. So here’s the basic info on it.
The Camino de Santiago, (the “Way” of Santigo), is the longest-established “tourist” route in Europe, a thousand year old medieval pilgrimage route to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the tomb of St James is located. There are actually many routes, back in day you began the pilgrimage from where ever you lived, but today there are more than a half dozen well-known routes. Collectively the Caminos are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The most well known is the Camino Francés, a 500 mile (798 km) route which begins in the French Pyrenees town of St Jean Pied du Port (63% of people doing a “Camino” do this one). The Camino del Norte, also about 500 miles, which begins at the border of France and Spain and follows the coast (16%) is the oldest, sometimes referred to as the “Original”. The Portuguese Camino starts in Lisbon (18%) and the Camino Ingles (3%) is the route English pilgrims who arrived in Spain by boat would follow. There are several others.
St Jean Pied du Port, France Puente La Reina Sansol LaGuardia Burgos
Leon Astorga Ponferrada Santiago de Compostela
CAMINO DEL NORTE
Hondarribia San Sebastian Bilbao Portugalate Santander
Santillana del Mar San Vicente de la Barquera Cudillero Ribadeo Cathedral Beach
The history of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela stretches back more than 1000 years to the discovery of the body of St. James during the reign of King Alfonso II (792-842). St. James, one of the apostles closest to Christ, was already revered, but with the discovery of his relics it became a focal point for pilgrims. A hermit named Pelalyo saw in the sky what looked like masses of stars falling on the fields – a ‘campus stellae’ and in that place the remains of St James had been buried. By the early 12th century, Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. Although the shrine was visited by the great – Fernando and Isabel, Carlos V, Francis of Assisi – you didn’t have to be rich to do it. The various roads through France and northern Spain that led there, collectively known as El Camino de Santiago were lined with monasteries and charitable hospices. Villages sprang up along the route, and an order of knights was founded for the pilgrims’ protection. There was even a guidebook – the world’s first – written by a French monk called Aymery Picaud, which recorded, along with water sources and places to stay, such facts as the bizarre sexual habits of the Navarrese Basques (said to protect their mules from their neighbors with chastity belts). It was an extraordinary phenomenon in an age when most people never ventured beyond their own town or village.
Today the Spanish government has made a huge effort to promote the camino, maintaining an extensive network of inexpensive pilgrim hostels along the separate routes that converge on Santiago. Private companies have gotten into the act as well and there are many ‘tour’ groups, as well as companies that will transport your pack from inn to inn, etc. While many pilgrims stay in the ‘official’ albergues (aka hostels) which feature dorm room type accommodation with bunk beds, shared bathrooms, etc. there are also other options in most of the villages, towns and cities such as pensiones (aka hostals) which are family run small hotels, posadas (same only in historic buildings that have been refurbished), casas rurales (essentially a B&B), and Paradors (luxury hotels that are state run usually in historic buildings such as castles or monasteries). Oh and regular old hotels.
As Galicia is on the coast, there is a lot of shellfish. In the Middle Ages, whenever pilgrims finished the Camino, they would pick up a scallop shell off the beach and carry it back with them as proof of having walked the Camino. Today, most pilgrims begin the walk with a shell attached to their backpack, and virtually all of the way markers and guideposts feature a yellow shell on a blue background. Most cities and towns have bronze scallop shells imbedded in the streets marking the route through town. And of courses every shop along the way sells scallop shell trinkets and jewelry, as well as the actual shells. I actually cannot understand why anyone would need an organized tour, the Camino is so well marked I can’t see how you could get lost.
While back in medieval times most pilgrims walked the Camino for religious reasons (the journey guaranteed a remission of half the time in Purgatory) some did it for adventure, social fashion, or opportunities for marriage or even for crime. In the 12th century it is estimated that half a million pilgrims a year made the pilgrimage. Today most Peregrinos (pilgrims) are not religious, even if you include ‘spiritual’ reasons along with ‘religious’ reasons it accounts for less than half. Other reasons given are adventure/challenge, sport, Spanish culture/history, and actually for the majority it is ‘time out’, a chance to take a break from life. Whatever the motivation, the camino’s popularity has exploded in recent decades; by the early part of the 20th century almost no one registered to walk the Camino, in 1986 there were 2,491 recorded pilgrims, by 2016 there were 277,913 and 2017 so far is seeing about a 20% increase over 2016 (statistics mostly from the official Pilgrim office in Santiago). A huge amount of the increase in recent years has been in English speaking pilgrims. In total about 45% are Spanish, followed by Italian (15%), German (13%), American (9%), Portuguese (8%), French (5%), Irish (3%) and English (3%). 18% of Pilgrims are over 60 years old, 27% are under age 30. The male/female split is just about 50/50.
To do the ‘entire’ Camino, either the Camino Frances or the Camino del Norte, takes about 5 weeks (about 500 miles each) but actually only about 12% of those doing the most popular Camino Frances actually start in St Jean Pied du Port, more than half start in Sarría, 115km (71 miles) from Santiago, which is the last major town where you can start walking and still earn a compostela. And of those who do start in St Jean or elsewhere, many ‘hop-scotch or leap-frog’ taking buses or even taxis to cut out long stretches. The bus from Burgos to Leon was about ¾ full of pilgrims, and, as the bus followed the Camino, more got on at various stops along the way. Also, a lot of people walk stretches of the Camino at a time, a week or two, or even just a few days at a time.
One reason many people do not walk the entire routes at once (other than time) is that a good deal of the Camino is not all that pleasant. About 60% of the Camino Frances is on paths/tracks, the rest is on roads, sometimes highways. And even the paths/tracks often are within sight of, or even right next to, roads. According to one website, 95% of the time you are within earshot of car traffic. Another site explains: “This is an ancient pilgrimage trail that dates back thousands of years, way before there were highways, cars, or bikes. The trail was created since it was the most accessible, and easiest way across Spain to Santiago for trade and religious reasons. As the years have gone by the infrastructure ‘Gods’ have also recognized that this is the easiest and best way across Northern Spain, therefore roads sprouted up along the trail. So about 30% of the Camino is not pretty and some of it can be down right ugly and unpleasant includingwalking on the busy roads where there isn’t even a shoulder and sometimes walking through major industrial zones between factories. The entrances and exits to big towns such as Burgos and Leon can be mind numbing as you walk along and under/over major highways as well as past industrial parks”. www.ottsworld.com/blogs/camino-de-santiago-ugly-photography/ www.ottsworld.com/blogs/camino-de-santiago-faq%e2%80%99s/
Some people compare the Camino to major hiking routes in the US such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail but there is a huge difference. Those are wilderness trails and the Camino is not. Also especially in summer the Camino can get rather crowded so people seeking solitude may not find it. On the other hand, for many people that is exactly what they find so special about the Camino – the people they meet. But several websites talk about the ‘bed race’ and strategies to assure you get a place to sleep each night. I know many of the hostels I passed had ‘complete’ (no vacancy) signs on the doors. On the other hand, you don’t need to carry days or weeks worth of food as it is readily available every few hours, and you don’t need to carry a tent/sleeping bag.
I did some research on the Camino while planning my trip, but once there the Camino became a much more important part of the trip than I expected it would, and so when I returned home I did more research (see above statistics). I now realize that while I didn’t carry all my stuff on my back every day (many pilgrims do not, ‘tours’ carry the stuff for you and even many individuals have their packs transported for them), and I didn’t stay in albergues (many pilgrims do not, they stay in all manor of lodgings, especially those on tours but individuals too) and I didn’t cover the whole 798 km (only 12% do that) I DID ‘do’ the Camino.
Top: All the Caminos Middle: Camino Frances Bottom: Camino del Norte
Overall I enjoyed the trip immensely, saw some wonderful and amazing places, am glad I did it, probably would do the same itinerary again knowing what I know. In general I think 5 week trips are more enjoyable split between two or more distinct cultures/areas, and while this was a whole five weeks in just one third of one country (plus few days in Basque France which was pretty similar) there was quite a variety of landscape, weather and architecture which ranged from cool, green Galicia to the hot plains of Castile y Leon to Europe’s only desert.
Of course there is even more to see than I did, places I wish I’d had time to get to. And even in this small patch of northern Spain, the scenery and weather was different north of the mountains than south. But the food, the general ambiance, etc. – despite part of it being in Basque ‘country’ it was all pretty culturally similar. In fact, to me anyway, Basque France was clearly France and Basque Spain clearly Spain rather than feeling “Basque”. Only main difference I felt was the language. In Basque Spain everything was in Basque and Spanish. Elsewhere in Spain and in France it was Spanish (or French) but with English ‘subtitles’.
Language – I am terrible with languages, always have been (the only course I every flunked was French). But I type out ‘cheat sheets’ of common words and phrases and try to use local language to at least ask if they speak English or state that I don’t speak Spanish. Since I’ve been to Italy so many times I’ve found I can at least read at bit of Italian though I can’t say/understand much. Same with French. But in most of my travels I’ve found people in Europe do tend to speak at least a bit of English. This trip I found the least English spoken than just about anywhere else I’ve been including other parts of Spain. Still, I got along fine, everyone was willing to help. My best experience was the woman in Hondarribia who did the ‘chicken dance’ to tell me there was chicken in the sandwich I was buying. A few people essentially implied ‘if you don’t speak Spanish it’s your problem’ but most were more than willing to pantomime what they were trying to say and to try to understand me.
Weather – I’ll admit I am more weather – especially sun – dependent than most people. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s because photography is such a central focus of my trips (and with photography “it’s all about the light”). I can take it cool or hot and don’t much care, but I need sun most of the time. I guess that’s why I love Italy and Greece and Provence and southern Spain so much. Well I knew there was more of a possibility of rain in the north, after all it’s the ‘green’ part of Spain and places don’t get green without some rain. But I had quite a bit of rain/clouds. Of my 34 days only 14 were all or mostly sunny (and those mostly in Castilla y Leon, La Rioja and Navarra – only a handful of totally sunny days in the far north of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basque country). Not all the rest were complete washouts, but ‘partly sunny’ often meant only an hour or two.
Food – OK, to start off, I am not a foodie. I like to eat as much as the next person, but that has never been a priority of my trips. And while I do like to sample different and local cuisines, I actually prefer ‘street food’ types of things (and desserts) to elaborate, expensive meals. And especially in the summer both my husband and I like to eat light. And on top of that, my husband is on a low salt diet. We both love traveling in Italy because you can pretty much always get a great pizza or just have the pasta course in a restaurant. And gelato is everywhere. But generally food in Spain was way less satisfying than Italy – but also less satisfying than most other countries I’ve been to. Probably my least favorite trip in terms of food.
It’s hard to eat light in Spain - other than tapas/pinxtos – most places have a ‘menu de dia’ which was way more than we wanted. You could certainly order just one course – but then you get just one thing – for example once I ordered shrimp in garlic oil and got a huge dish of just that – good shrimp (swimming in oil with bits of garlic). But no salad, vegetable or potato. Had I wanted I could have ordered those but then it’s too much food and gets expensive pretty fast. Most of the salads all came with tuna, egg and/or ham. We hardly ever found just a side salad. Very few places had English translations, and the guidebook menu translators don’t have the regional names of things. And when we did figure out what was on the menus, most of them featured ham, squid, octopus, sardines and anchovies as well as tripe, pig trotters and blood sausage. None of which are on my list of favorite foods and all of which are very salty. The Iberian ham was wonderful, as were lots of the cheeses, but after a few weeks I got pretty tired of ham and cheese. Some of the tapas/pintxos, especially in the Basque region were wonderful, but ham and bits of salty fish featured heavily.
On any trip of five weeks I eat some meals from markets/grocery stores and did so much more on this trip. There were some excellent fruits and veggies available – peaches, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, and olives. Most of the stores also had packaged salads (came with meat, cheese, croutons, dressing). I bought a jar of wonderful honey early in the trip and it lasted till just the last day. Oikos natural Greek yogurt was in all the stores (at half the price it is at home), I ate a ton of that with the honey and fruit. I also frequently found whole grain croissants – don’t know if they are actually better for you than the regular ones, but sounds like they should be, right. And for dessert there were some wonderful pastries, éclairs, etc. And there is a Spanish chain of frozen yogurt shops called Smöoy that I found in every city and was delicious (and healthy if you got the fresh fruit toppings, not so much if you went for the chocolate.)
Coffee (café con leche) was excellent just about everywhere, every day. Panadaria, hotel, café, bar, restaurant – anywhere.
Driving – Roads were excellent and well marked (though the route numbers didn’t always match up with the maps, and they tended to change – and then often change back again). Drivers were mostly rather courteous – not as fast as in Italy, no imaginary third lane like we found in Greece, less tailgating than in France. We lucked out and got a Fiat 500, which we’ve had on several trips in recent years (and which we like so much we are seriously thinking of buying one at home).
We didn’t have GPS and didn’t get lost (at least not seriously) or for very long (or in ways that GPS would have helped). We actually intended to get a local SIM card so we could use google maps but the store we planned to get it in the day we picked up the car was closed and then we found we really didn’t need it. Before the trip I had google-mapped directions to all the hotels, and picked the hotels largely with the criteria that they be pretty easy to find (and have parking) and printed all that out and I had a couple of paper maps that I had purchased on Amazon.
We found every hotel with no problem although in Santiago we missed turning down the street and then had an awful time getting back to it. In Oviedo we found the hotel easily but then drove to the churches and got lost finding the hotel on the way back. And getting to the car return at the Madrid airport was a horror but that was due to construction and lack of signage and GPS would not have helped in that case. Everything else was a piece of cake.
The first half of the trip I went from city to city by bus. Alsa buses go everywhere in Spain, are cheap, comfortable and while it takes a bit longer than driving yourself it is way less expensive (especially when it’s just one person) than having the car, parking, etc. I booked all the reservations on busbud.com and some of the buses were full so I’m glad I had a reservation, but this was summer, I think other times you could have just bought your ticket when you wanted to leave.
I found it interesting that about 99% of the cars I saw on the whole trip were Spanish (E), and of the other 1%, almost all were “NL”. So I guess they don’t get a lot of visitors driving down from the rest of Europe.
General impressions: lots of street music in every city. Benches! – now that’s one thing that Spain does better than most countires. Every city had lots of benches. Water – I think a seaside is the best, but a nice river (as in Bilbao) is good too. Makes such a difference to have that focus. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for hot, dry, and sunny.
Siesta seemed longer (12:30 or 13:00 till about 17:00 in many cases) and more ‘complete’ than in most parts of Italy or France where it seems to be more like 14:00-16:00).
Beware of DCC everywhere in Spain – usually they asked (and plenty of the time it’s just done in Euros) but several times they snuck in the conversion without asking).
Storks and Swallows/swifts – Found throughout Europe in the summer, storks and swallows/swifts seem especially Spanish. I don’t recall any storks in the north, but all over the plains I spotted them, generally on top of church steeples, towers, even just tall poles, usually on the outskirts of cities. They build stick nests, often several on each church or tower. Swifts and swallows (they are two different types of bird from the same family and I’m never sure which it is I’m seeing) are seen all over Europe, especially on a balmy summer evening flitting through the sky as it turns deep blue, then purple, then black. They race around church steeples, castle towers, and ancient bell towers, usually screeching. They build their nests under the eaves or on old stone ledges much more commonly than on any modern structures. Remarkably, they eat, sleep - half their brain remains awake - and even mate on the wing. Swifts eat insects and windborne spiders and when the weather is hot and their food has been carried high on thermals, they follow it into heavens, appearing as tiny specks in the summer sky. I spent a good deal of time just watching them do their thing. Storks, swifts and swallows all spend summers (March to November) in Europe and migrate in winter to Africa.