Spain

The Road Less Travelled to Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is one of the world's most famous pilgrimages. Andy Symington, author of Footprint's Northern Spain Handbook, reveals a lesser-travelled alternative to the main pilgrimage route: the Camino del Norte.

(c) Andy Symington
View from the coastal path near Elantxobe.

All Stops to Santiago

The astonishing revival, over the last couple of decades, of the medieval pilgrim route across Northern Spain to Santiago continues to go from strength to strength, with well over a hundred thousand every year arriving in the Galician capital on foot or by bike. Today’s peregrinos come from all backgrounds; some seek spiritual redemption, others time to think, and yet others just a great long walk. Whatever your motivation, it’s a fabulous way to see the region and to meet interesting people along the way.

Most of the early pilgrims were from France, and the main route across Northern Spain came to be known as the Camino Francés (French way). This is still the principal artery for those travelling to Santiago, but, increasingly, people are choosing to walk one of the many other routes that were used over the centuries. Big improvements in facilities and waymarking these alternative paths have been made in the last few years as local authorities see the potential for luring walkers away from the sometimes crowded main route.

(c) Andy Symington
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Northern Route

Perhaps the most scenically spectacular route of them all is the Camino del Norte, which follows the green northern Spanish coast westwards from the French border before cutting inland in Galicia. It’s around 500 miles from Irún to Santiago, and the undulating contours of the Basque, Cantabrian, Asturian, and Galician hills mean it’s a solid challenge, with regular detours inland to cross estuaries, rivers, and ravines. All the thigh-strengthening climbs and descents, though, come with plenty of rewards.

(c) Andy Symington
Restaurants and bodegas in Santiago.

Gastronomy is one of these. Just because you’re following the footsteps of medieval pilgrims doesn’t mean the Camino is all about mortification of the flesh. The Basque lands offer some of the world’s finest restaurants and the peninsula’s best tapas scene in the gourmet capital of San Sebastián. Cantabria’s seafood is famous throughout the country, and the curious and wonderful traditional cider culture of Asturias has its towns and cities buzzing with Celtic cheer.

Another happy feature of the Camino del Norte is the temperature. If you walk the French Way in the summer months, you’ll be scorched on the searing plains of Castilla. Here, on the coast, things are much cooler, and there’s a lot more shade from the abundant trees. All that greenery does get watered pretty regularly though; be prepared for drizzle even in summer.

(c) Andy Symington
The sun also rises over Gijon Marina.

The splendid coastal scenery also makes this walk special. Jagged cliffs give way to perfect bays; petite fishing towns huddle around small harbours, and the mighty spine of the Cantabrian cordillera offers some epic mountain views where it approaches the sea at the Picos de Europa. Intriguing port cities – San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón – alternate with charming historic villages, and there’s a wealth of outstanding monuments, from 8th century Asturian churches to the latest Basque architectural marvels. Many of Spain’s prettiest and most secluded beaches too, are along this walk; there’s nothing quite like shrugging off the sweaty backpack and clothes and plunging into the sea to give you strength for the next leg of the walk.

(c) Andy Symington
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Practicalities

The total route of some 500 miles translates to a walk of four to five weeks or a cycle of a fortnight. Many pilgrims make the journey in stages, a week each year, or just do the last bit to Santiago. To use the network of albergues (pilgrim hostels), you’ll need to be an accredited pilgrim. This status comes in the form of a Pilgrim Passport or credencial, issued by various organizations outside Spain and many places on the route itself. This document should be stamped daily at albergues, churches or town halls to help prove you’ve travelled the route. At Santiago, presenting a completed pilgrim passport at the Pilgrim Office entitles you to a compostela, a Latin certificate of completion of the pilgrimage. To be eligible for this, you have to have walked at least the last 100 km, or cycled the last 200 km. Religion is not a requirement.

(c) Andy Symington
Sunset near Tapia de Casariego.

There are albergues at most of the overnighting places along the camino; these are typically simple, friendly establishments that ask for a small fee or donation (€4-10) for dormitory accommodation. Most also have cooking facilities and some serve cheap meals. You’ll need your own sleeping bag for most albergues; a sleeping mat is also advisable as you may need to kip on the floor. Sturdy walking boots, sun protection, a weatherproof jacket, first-aid kit and a decent level of fitness are essential.

In Britain, the Confraternity of Saint James, www.csj.org.uk, is a useful organization that issues Pilgrim Passports. The website is also helpful for further information on the camino. Various easily-located online resources describe each stage of the walk.


    

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