There is a lot of literature written about the St James’ path in Spain. Articles, travel guides, novels and even some movies have been filmed about this experience. There is an album by The Black Keys with this title, which unfortunately was not inspired by this path, but a car model. I somehow still like to fantasise about the possibility that this title could be a hidden hint to the way of Saint James.
How come this path attract so much attention? The truth is that there are many well-known pilgrimage routes in the world; in Japan, US or Tibet, but El Camino is without any doubt the most popular one. People from all around the world decide every year to walk this path from different starting points and follow different itineraries.
The pilgrimage initiated circa 9th century, when the disciples of Saint James wished to pay tribute to his remains in the Saint James Cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The path follows an earlier Roman trade route which ends in Finisterre, Spain’s westernmost point. Many hikers decide still today to continue walking until this cape, given the beauty of the landscape, even if the official pilgrimage ends in Santiago.
The variety of reasons people decide to walk this path is incredible; starting from the original religious purpose to more personal challenges or promises, or for the pure simple reason of having a fun, sporty and inexpensive holiday.
The official route, the French way, starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port, in France, crossing the Spanish border in the Pyrenees and continuing slightly south. It then follows a straight line through Castilla Leon and ends in Santiago. This official route covers 780 km and in order to complete it a person needs four to five weeks, allowing a couple of days to rest between the different stages. Most people walk the way but lately the number of people who complete the route by bike has increased very much.
Some hikers start the path further away; it is not unusual to meet people who started from some point in the north of France, in Belgium or in the Netherlands.
The French way is the most popular route, this fact has some negative aspects, like being more crowded, especially during the summer months. Some of the positive aspects are the diversity of accommodation options at different prices and facilities. This route is also quite flat so it is ideal for the not so experienced hikers.
There are other routes: the Portuguese way, the Primitive way and the Northern way. This last one is the one I am going to talk about. I find it the most beautiful and interesting one. I will tell you why. Even if deep inside myself I want to keep this region of my home country a bit hidden from the tourists. It is a precious gem and I would not like to see it exploited too much, mirroring what happened in other parts of Spain. But, what can I do? I am a generous person and I will share my secret with all of you.
El Camino del Norte, or Coast’ way, has its starting point in Irun just at the border with France, and continues drawing a line along the coast passing by San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Oviedo and ending of course in Santiago, although there is, as previously mentioned, the option to continue the straight line to Finisterre. The complete way is around 875 km. The difficulty is higher than the French way due to the fact that in some parts the path can be quite steep but the view of the sea at one side and the mountains at the other, make the effort totally worth it.
I chose only one part of the way because I didn’t have enough time to walk the complete path. This is also the good news, you don’t have to complete it in one go, you can choose to do it in different stages. This way you can better enjoy the hike, you can stop and visit some of the gorgeous villages (Isla, Santillana del Mar, Comillas, Colombres, Llanes, to name only some of them) and finish without being exhausted. Even though, I must say that each time I have done one of the stages and met some people that were doing the complete path I felt jealous. In reality, I would like to do the complete path once, I believe it must be an amazing feeling of achievement. And a unique opportunity to spend a lot of time with yourself.
You can easily find cheap accommodation along the Northern path although the hostels are not so numerous as in the French way. Sometimes there can be difficulties to find a free bed in the cheap hostels, so you will have to search for more expensive bed and breakfasts. The more adventurous ones would choose to sleep in churches or in a tent if you decide to carry one.
There are plenty of reasons to walk this path. Apart from the landscape which can be in some parts breathtaking, the food which is one of the best in the world, the quality of the wines in some of the regions, there is also people. The hikers, each with their personal stories, but also the locals, if you are lucky enough to speak some Spanish and can communicate with them.
You can walk alone and enjoy the silence, the green hills and the navy blue ocean. You have time to come to terms with the person you are, it is an ideal occasion to walk with yourself as your only company and put your ideas in order.
You have the opportunity to think without rushing, to laugh or cry alone if you feel like. The beauty of nature definitely invites to reflect on oneself.
When you choose to, you can share time with other hikers. You can chat while you walk with the person who happens to walk at your same pace in a particular moment. You can share experiences, you can talk about whatever you feel like because nobody knows you and you do not know anybody. You can learn from others’ stories which can help you to take that decision which scares you so much.
How wonderful is to arrive in the evening at the hostel where you have found a free bed, leave your stuff on the floor close to the bed and take a warm shower. You feel such a happiness in that moment, cleaning the sweat of your body and giving a treat to your tired muscles while you feel how they are slowly relaxing.
Then you feel exhausted and would like to go straight to bed but you do not do it because you are starving and you know that the restaurant close to the hostel serves what they call “Menu del Peregrino”, Pilgrim’s menu. A cheap and delicious three courses meal for 10 euros, including wine.
And there you eat and chat with other hikers until the tiredness comes back again this time with renewed strength as a result of your more than satisfied stomach.
Then you will get comfortably into your sleeping bag knowing that you will wake up very early with the sun. You will fall asleep almost immediately after putting your ear plugs in to ensure the neighbor’s snoring will not disturb your precious time to rest. In the morning, after putting your sleeping bag back in the rucksack and after collecting your stuff, you will put your hiking boots on again and you will hit the road, with that wonderful feeling of freedom not knowing which adventures the new day may bring. There is a fulfilling sense of redemption when you know you only have to continue further not looking back.
More information about the different routes and stages in English: http://www.spain.info/en/que-quieres/rutas/grandes-rutas/camino-santiago/etapas/camino-norte/
Detailed information about stages and hostels in Spanish: http://caminodesantiago.consumer.es/los-caminos-de-santiago/del-norte/
Photos: Elena de Francisco CC BY-SA