It was sometime in August when my husband announced that he had been selected to spend part of September and October in Eastern Europe learning Russian. ‘How exciting!’ I told him. ‘I get to come, right?’ ‘Well, that’s the thing’. Ten months earlier I had quit my job as a career park ranger and we had moved to Fort Bragg. As a new Army spouse, it was starting, the being left behind part.
In hopes that I would agree to this departure, he encouraged me to go somewhere myself. I squelched my nose and pouted; I’m not like you, I don’t like traveling alone I told him. But, no job, no kids, no dog, just the lone tomato plants, and the caterpillars were doing a better job at eating them than I was. Maybe I should go somewhere, when else would these circumstances align? After poking around at what my relatives had going on during that time, I settled on a tag-along trip to Big Sky with my parents. But that only killed 1 week of 4. I had earlier pondered walking part of El Camino de Santiago, so on a whim I looked up flights from my parents’ home, the Bay Area, to Spain. Woah, the nonstop flight was cheaper than flying back to Raleigh, NC. After a frantic phone call to my dad, the lone retiree I knew, and some persuasive comments from my mom, he agreed to go with me.
Trip planning commenced. I had about 3 weeks to figure this out. From our blog readings, we had determined that the Camino Frances, the most commonly traveled route, and the one portrayed in the film ‘The Way’, was the most crowded and maybe not the most scenic of long walks. Additionally, my uneasy dad needed convincing that we wouldn’t be walking two weeks on highly trafficked roads before he bought his tickets. I stumbled upon descriptions and photos from El Camino del Norte: long sandy beaches, bluffs, and distant peaks. The plan was synched when he read about the Basque’s renown cooked-fish fetish.
We flew in to Bilbao at the end of September.
Pre-Trip Days – Barcelona
Stayed in the Born section. It was perfect spot for walking in the old barrios, and along the beach. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting La Sagrada Familia. Buying tickets online was a huge time saver.
On to de Camino
El Camino del Norte
Day 1 – Bilbao – Castro Urdales
- We decided to skip most of walking in Biblao due to our time constraints and wanting to get out of the industrial zone. We had heard mixed comments about doing this part of the walk, but it saved us so much time by taking the metro the 6 miles to Portugalete. On our way out of town, we picked up our first chocolate pastry, consumed en route. A fun surprise Make sure to hit up the zipline in the park before getting on the bike/hike path. Enjoy the nice path, make sure to get a coffee fix at the top of the hill before heading down to La Arena. Beautiful walk through quaint casitas. Lunch at La Arena and revel in the beach scene.
- Leaving La Arena to walk along the ocean cliffs is a dream. The path turns inland to the cute village of Onton. There you walk on a busier road, uphill, cross the highway and back down hill to the beach. This part could possibly be skipped via bus. It was terrible, but long uphill on a noisy road. Beautiful last stretch to Castro Urdiales. We were so pooped we stayed at Agua Vida, despite it being closed to pelegrinos and only had rooms. We were very thankful for the ex-Pelegrino who lived on the corner at the beginning of town that told us of its presence.
- Blindly taking Gaia shortcuts leads to thorn bushes and backtracking.
Day 2 – Castro Urdiales to El Pontarron
- The walk-through town was beautiful. Visit the church and wander a bit. It was raining, but two Spanish friends from the hotel gave us a ride to town and showed us around. Didn’t get a chance to leave until 12, but we missed the harder rain!
- Going out of town was on a busy road for a while, and then on and off along the coast and on smaller backroads near the highway. Islares was a cute town to meander through. We had lunch at the last restaurant before deciding to skip the bus and walk the last couple miles to the closest Albergues. So glad we did! There would have been no other housing until we got to Liendo! Thankful the one bar in town had some yummy tortilla sandwiches and internet.
- The Albergue Donativo was very basic, but clean enough, and small, and fun to meet everyone there. We all went out for dinner and kept running in to each other the following day.
Day 3 – El Pontarron to San Francisco Monestary in Laredo
- Luckily a 9am departure meant that we arrived at the only bar en route was turning on it’s lights. Grabbed a coffee and pan and started the backwoods inland route. Beautiful! The road walking wasn’t too bad that morning, and then up the hill through the woods to an amazing country walk down to Liendo. The quaint homes and villages kept us entertained before we made it to Liendo for more coffee and a bakery. The Albergues here was right in the middle of the town and looked very nice from the outside. It would have been worth a stay.
- Up and down some more hills, walked next to a busy road for a bit, and then finally dropped in to Laredo. The monastery is wonderful. Small rooms, clean, and fantastic. Ate yummy chorizo sausages (tapas) and ice cream to top of the roam around old Laredo.
Day 4 – Laredo – Guemes
- 3 miles to the ferry. We left at 8:05 to catch the 9am ferry. A beautiful walk on the beach, but it was a bit of a rush to get to the first boat. We weren’t sure how often they ran in winter (later we learned every 15 mins or so), but it was good motivation for our first 3 miles.
- The short ferry and then a short walk through the city just starting to arise. Of course, the Panederia was open and smelled to good to pass up as we walked by. Eating our samplings on our way out of town. We walked on the main road, but it looked like we could have actually taken a small road out of town. Then it was to the beach and straight to the bluff for a muddy and slick hill climb and descent towards Noja, but it was so worth it!! A wonderful stroll down the beach and then a lady told us to take the shorter way and bypass Noja. She said there was nothing there to see. We listened and sort of got lost, had to take our shoes, which we should have done at the very beginning of the beach anyways, and then sorta bypassed town. It didn’t feel much shorter, and we missed all the Supermercados and coffee shops. We meandered on small roads from there all the way to Guemes. Stopping in one small town in the only coffee and lunch place…thank goodness. Lots of amazing figs to pick, blackberries, and once we reached Guemes, a lovely farmer had left pears and apples on his fence! The private Albergues before Guemes looked lovely, but we are glad we made the hike (almost 20 miles!) to get to the Albergues…It was quite the evening with a history lesson from the priest that was born there 8- years prior, a wonderful dinner and wine and good company.
Day 5 – Guemes – Santillana Del Mar
- This was a bit of a cheat day. So it was roads for a bit as we left Guemes, then finally the sea came back in to view and our spirits lifted…the light rain had stopped as well! We came to our first town, poked around the church and ate chocolate bread as we walked out to the cliffs. Another beautiful coastal trail, not as muddy and flatter today. More surfers out and we leap frogged with some other pelegrinos from Guemes. The coast turned the corner and there before us was Santander and a long beautiful beach. Our shoes came off and we frolicked in the waves as we walked towards the ferry. Santander was fair enough, but we decided to make our way to the train station to check on train times to skip ahead and away from all the pavement and big city walking. We had just enough time to eat lunch and hop on the 4:15 train to Torrelevega. The walk to the bus station took us through a nice looking smaller city with a quaint downtown. Unfortunately, the bus to Santillana Del Mar had just left, the next one being in 2 hours, so we just opted to take the 12 E cab instead. Coming in to the picturesque town via cab was a bit of a letdown after our days of walking; however, we were very glad to have gotten out of the city, not walk on pavement, and enjoy our last days in the places we came to the Camino to see. Plus, walking around Santillana put my mind at ease. We did end up stating in a double room at ___ instead of the main Albergue, which we later found. We may have ended up at the other one if we had looked around first instead of taking the first place. But ours was nice as well, sooooooo quiet, towels, and my dad even had a bed with sheets, all for 15 each.
Day 6 – Santillana Del Mar to Comillas
- We had a lovely early breakfast in the square before departing, despite the grumpy old man serving. We then walked a while with a Laguna Beach woman, carrying her son’s ashes to spread. The walk was beautiful. Peaceful, hardly any cars, through small villages. A lovely coffee and seconded break at the bar in Caborredobde. A nice looking Albeurgue after the bar. Nuts, figs, blackberries along the way to much on as you pass by many ancient churches in the countryside. We did follow a busier road for a bit before coming in to the nice town of Cobreces, grabbing a banana and beer as we walked towards the beach. Another nice Albergue at the begging of town it looked like. We ended up taking some fresh bread and local cheese and ham for lunch at the beach before heading back up the long coastal route. We followed high up on the coastal headlands with beautiful vistas overlooking the ocean. The Camino turned to go back down to some villages and we choose to make our own way staying with the ocean views. We ended up at an old church high on the hill and next to a wonderful cute restaurant for some coffee, beer, and internet. It was a short walk in to comillas after that. We had heard bad things about the Albergue, so we opted for the second place we found in town. The villas for $40 for a double. Nice to have a bed with sheets for a night. Town was interesting, and a wonderful walk to go up to the cemetery and then down to the interesting harbor, probably the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Our late dinner was at one of the only restaurant open in the main historic square. Everyone seemed to be there, and the food was amazing! The best salad I’ve had! (although once again too much dressing- this time at the bottom. Note to self to get the dressing on the side.)
Day 7 – Comillas – San Vicente del Barqueria to Cabanes
- We started the rainy morning our normal way with two coffees and pastries at the first bakery we came across. The House of Gaudi didn’t open to after 930, so we decided to skip it. We didn’t really want to walk on the road out of town, especially in the rain, so we hopped in the taxi and took it 2 miles to the bridge. We bypassed all the early bird hikers we saw pass us while we sipped our coffee. The walk wouldn’t have been bad, it was on a bike path next to the road, but taking the taxi actually meant that we made it to San Vicente by 1100am, and could take the bus to Potes at 1120! The rest of the walk to San Vicente was beautiful; along the sea and then we took the beach route right in to town (the Camino stays on the road for some reason). It was still dizzily when we hopped on the bus and headed towards Potes. As we entered the gorge, the sky’s opened to blue and sun. We decided to get off early and walk the rest of the way. We had the bus stop in Lebena, and started uphill right away. A couple apples to eat while hiking up to Cabanes, amazing views, and solitude. We finally crested the pass and could see Cabanes. We came first to the Albergue, and it was so nice looking that we decided to stay the night instead of continuing on to Potes. The selling factor was probably the lone snack machine with Fanta and snickers in the middle of the wilderness. We were sold. We had a lovely time drinking and eating and enjoying the company of the rest of the guests that slowly arrived. This is where we first met our German friends Phillepe, Annabelle, Mike.
Day 8 – Cabanes to Refugio Aliva
- The morning walk down to Potes was lovely. The fog was in and out around the mountain peaks. Fresh cheese from the next village down for a snack later. When we arrived in Potes we headed for the information center. The lady informed us that the last bus would be today (it was the school bus) to Fuente De. She also said there was a Refugio way up high, accessible by the gondola. The bus left at 1, so we quickly ran for snacks and stamps and went to wait. The bus never did show up at 1, but instead at 230 as we figure out, that she told us the wrong time. A British couple had arrived early themselves, and nicely called to reserve a room at the Refugio for us. We then sat and had coffee and beers with them while waiting. They told us all about their trekking adventures in the area and recommended taking the beautiful long way down from the Refugio Aliva to Mogrovjo. The bus took us only part way to the gondola, and we easily hitched a ride to the top. At the top of the Gondola we enjoyed a nice beer and lunch and watched all the tourists with their dresses and high heels, and motorcycle outfits. We were glad we were continuing off the beaten path. We headed to the pass and took a detour to a beautiful overlook. The fog again, was moving in and out and was incredible! We continued down in to the swirling fog and ended up at the hotel…we were practically the only ones there!! $35 Euro deal per person for the room, breakfast, and the gondola ride! October only. We hit it just right with them being open for the weekend!
Day 9 – Aliva to Santo Torbino & Potes!
- A lovely walk from the hotel down. We passed the ultramarathoners who were doing laps around us back up to the gondola. They had left San Vicente the night before on foot. We branched off from the main trail to walk the gentler path towards Mosgrovio. It was just us and the cows walking on a bare ridge at the foot of the mountains range. The sweeping vistas were impressive. A quick lunch on some rocks and we were down to Mosgrovio for a beer, coffee, and to check in with mom and josh. It was getting late, when we decided to skip hitching to Santo Torbino and walk the path instead. It started out being a lovely walk with beautiful views of the peaks from the other side of the valley. An hour in to it, the map was not jiving with the signs we were seeing, but we kept going. Up, up, up, down, down, down, up, down, up, down. It felt like forever. Finally, we reached the monastery around 6:30, exhausted and ready to be done! At that point, we didn’t so much care about the monastery. We took a few photos, looked upon the true cross (and quickly escaped before mass started), and by happenstance walked through the door of forgiveness. It wasn’t until the next day that we realized we didn’t even get our passports stamped from our destination! We skipped staying at the monastery, thinking it may be full, and hitched a ride in to Potes. When we got to the Albergue in town at 715, we realized that the empty door room was locked, and the key was in the closed office. Freakout time. All the hotels were booked thanks to the weekend and the race. Luckily, our German friends were in the same boat. Thankfully, dad asked Mike (who had a key) to make one last round of calls to the numbers on the door of the Albergue. Finally, we got through to one of the info booth workers at home and she came at 930 to unlock the door. Dinner was a few snacks thanks to Annabelle, and gelato!
Day 10 – Potes to La Hermida
- We all got on the bus the next morning back down the mountains. Our plan was to go spend the day on the beach in San Vicente. I was soon convinced thought that we should stop in La Hermida to use the natural hot pools. Could there be any better way to end the trip?! We got a $30 double room at the hostel/inn with our friends, and dad and I set out to hike the historic mail route from La Hermida to Urdon to Tresviso, high in the mountains. The photos showed a narrow path switch backing up a three-thousand-foot cliff. We weren’t planning to hike the entire thing, we really just wanted to make it to where their photo was taken. 3 hours, 2000 feet and 20 figs later, we stopped and discussed the fact that the photo was probably taken from across the river, because we were pretty sure we were in the middle of the switchback trail. No turning back now, the beer is at the top! We finally did make it to the hot pools that evening, along with everyone else, but the hour soak and people watching was fantastic. Plus, my ducks needed a bath.
Day 11 – La Hermida to Bilbao
- We finally did get an ocean swim. The short dip, left us talking of our return to the Camino. Dad vowed to take Mom, and I talked of bringing Josh back to continue our walk. Our pilgrimage hadn’t started with a real purpose, except to have an adventure together. There was such a freedom in traveling in that way. No agenda, no plan. Each day unfolded itself, and we were along for the ride. We had no expectations, and we came away from the pilgrimage feeling refreshed, connected, an amazed at how things had fallen in to place. I can’t wait to get back.
Day 12 – Bilbao to Oak/Paris!
- We both caught the city bus to the airport…dad leaving early to make the 5:30 bus and eventually made our flight out of Bilbao after some air traffic cancellations due to the French Controller’s strike.