Well, hello again. It’s been a while. Longer than usual, anyway. I believe my last entry – roughly 7 weeks ago – left off with us sitting in San Sebastian on the Atlantic Coast of Northern Spain waiting for our friend, Leigh, to arrive to join us hiking the Camino Del Norte.
Well, he did, we celebrated with a few beer (just as I had so boldly predicted at the time) and the following morning we set out to walk across Spain for no particular reason, least of which being the weather at that exact moment, which that morning was, rather inauspiciously, an absolute shit-show downpour, coming at us sideways off the ocean as we set off on the long walk around the second of San Sebastian’s beaches, our rain ponchos flapping wildly and our hoods cinched up tightly around our tightly grimacing faces. Well, this isn’t quite what we imagined, our puckered frowns seemed to say.
However, there are many reasons why the Caminos de Santiago are referred to as, most of all, tests of endurance. One, most of them are long. Super-long. And this was certainly one of those long ones. 800 kilometres long. Second, they involve substantial levels of social interaction with people who you either don’t know from a hole in the ground or, occasionally, have actually shared a dorm room or three with and actually do know more than a hole in the ground. Third, throughout the course of the pilgrimage they pass through a very diverse variety of cultures, terrains and, yes, weather zones.
Which is why we knew, despite our complete inability to conjure up anything resembling enthusiasm at the time, that this ferocious and spirit-crushing storm that we were voluntarily subjecting ourselves to would, surely, be merely temporary. And, thankfully, this turned out to be the case. Throughout the first week we suffered through our fair share of rain, and really a lot more slippery, muddy trails than were strictly ideal.
But then things changed, and we got quite a few sunny days, then a lot of days that wavered uncertainly between clouds and sun, rain and sunburns, with a frustrating unpredictability that was, considering we were walking along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in a region famous for its changeable weather, ultimately quite predictable.
And, by the time it was all said and done, roughly 6 weeks later, we considered ourselves very lucky to have gotten the weather we did. Especially the week-long stretch of uninterrupted sun while hiking through the toughest, and prettiest, stretch of the Camino Primitivo.
Wait, what’s this “Camino Primitivo” we speak of, you may be wondering. Well, rather than do a strictly by-the-book Camino we ended up making a few minor, and then a few major, modifications to the standard route in order to better fit our personal goals, visions of variety and the ceaseless, though occasionally unfounded, belief that we can somehow improve on even the most popular and proven travel itineraries.
The gist of which, in this case, was that we would hike the first three weeks of the Norte, then diverge from the route, and the coast, down to the reputedly beautiful old city of Oviedo where we would tackle the very different Camino Primitivo (rural scenery vs long sandy beaches, rolling green hills vs expansive ocean views, spectacular ridge hikes vs spectacular cliff hikes).
Of course, we couldn’t quite do that normally, either, as after hiking 8 of 12 days on that route we suddenly, and rather impulsively, took a bus back across to the Norte (just half an hour apart by bus at that point, as the Norte had now turned inland as well) in order to celebrate a fellow pilgrim’s birthday (you only turn 33 once, isn’t that right, Anna?), finish with some of our Norte friends and join the Francés as late as possible.
Oh, yeah, right, then there is the Camino Francés, the one we hiked 5 years ago, and by far the most popular of all of them (closing in on 200,000 pilgrims per year now, I’ve read, as opposed to somewhere in the 10-15,000 range for the Norte and Primitivo). Since I have already dedicated an entire book to that topic I won’t go into much detail now, other than to say that back then, when there were roughly half as many pilgrims as there are today, the final few days were already fairly unpleasant, teeming with short-hikers, final-stagers and groups of boisterous Spanish partiers. We assumed doubling the numbers had probably done nothing to increase the overall tranquility.
So we had one night and about a day and a half hiking on the Francés before reaching Santiago. Then the plan was, after a brief rest and lively celebration, to continue on, hiking another 3 days to Finisterre, “The End of the World” (or at least it was back when the Earth was still flat, the even more westerly portions of Portugal were apparently not worthy of notice, and Native Americans were still blissfully unknown to anyone in Europe.
Well, we did eventually make it to Finisterre, but we definitely didn’t walk there and, judging by all those ships that head out every morning, it seems like the edge of the world must be somewhere else these days. Maybe Washington. Anyway, that will also be addressed in a later entry.
Unorthodox it may have been, but I think it worked out perfectly for us. The ideal mix of coastal views and hilly panoramas, social interaction and solitude, new friends and old, dorm life and hotel comfort. Just enough shitty weather to make sure we didn’t take the 80% great weather for granted (that much), and just enough unsettling weirdos to make us appreciate the mostly normal people. And provide a few good stories.
Camino del Norte / Primitivo / Finisterre Map
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All told, though, the photos tell the story much better than I ever could and, as you may have noticed, when I haven’t written anything in a long time it sort of builds up and suddenly I’m like a dog that gets let out into the yard after having been locked up in the house all day, running around in circles like an idiot, pissing on everything I see in my excitement.
So, I believe it’s time to move on the pictorial section of today’s ramble. Starting with the best of the daily stupendous scenery along the Spanish coast. Overall, we were a bit surprised at how much of the trail actually stayed away from the coast, which seemed like a bit of a waste, but on the bright side there were a lot of alternate routes that stuck closer to the water for those that prefer sea views with their daily dose of 7 hours of hiking. We went with about 5 or 6 of these side routes, which usually added a bit of distance and – occasionally – difficulty, but generally got us away from the road walking and rewarded us with some incredible scenery.
The Norte passed through a wide array of interesting beach towns, as well as a number of small inland towns and one of the best wine regions in Spain. After starting in beautiful San Sebastian the next big stop was about a week in at Bilbao, home of the famous Guggenheim Museum and place where a Belgian couple we met in Nepal came to meet us for a day.
Santander had gotten a bad rap in things we had read from other pilgrims, mainly based on it being a large place to walk through and having a distinct dearth of decent albergues (pilgrim hostels). We thought it was pretty great, though. Beautiful beach, lively malecón, and it certainly didn’t hurt that it was one of the places where gave ourselves a brief reprieve from dorm life by staying in a real hotel (a great last-minute deal at Hotel Chiqui which even had a beach view).
Our friend Barry, an American we had met on our previous Camino and who actually contributed to my book on the subject, had joined us by that time for 3 days (and 70 km) of Camino fun. Leigh was also there the same time as us, so all in all in it was a pretty enjoyable stop (unlike for some of our friends who spent hours searching out decent lodging and couldn’t escape fast enough the next day).
Plus, we opted for a 30 km coastal route the following day along with 5 other pilgrims which turned out to be one of the scenic highlights of the entire Camino. Medieval Santillana Del Mar is one of the most popular tourist towns in Northern Spain, despite being known as the “Town of Three Lies”. It is not named after a saint (“Santi”), is not even close to flat (“llana”), and is nowhere near the sea (“mar”). Pretty, though.
People and Other Stuff
I already mentioned Leigh, who we hiked with on and off (we often took different routes during the day but ending in the same places at night) until about Llanes when he decided to alter his route to get a jump on the more rural trails of the Primitivo, and Barry, and Celine and Benjamin (aka “The Belgians”), and there were many others we met for the first time.
One of the greatest aspects of the Camino is the social element, with many great friendships forged quicker than normal through shared experience. I won’t describe everyone, although many of our friends will find recognize themselves in these photos…
So that more or less sums up the Norte portion of our journey. Our next 10 days were spent hiking the Camino Primitivo between Oviedo and Lugo. A bit more rural, more hills, a different kind of Camino town (beach-free, typically). We also put together a 3-minute video of 3-second clips all the way along, if you prefer a more visual experience.
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