Category Archives: El Camino del Norte

A day off in Gijon

I took a last minute decision on Sunday as the sun was streaming through my bedroom window around 8am, to take a day off walking the Camino. The best part about making this decision was not regretting it for a second the whole day. Gijon is one of the biggest towns the Camino passes through in Asturias, and it took about two hours just to get from the outskirts into the city centre the evening before. A fellow Spanish Peregrino Carlos was also in town, so I actually had company and someone to enjoy the city with, as well as introduce me to ‘proper’ Spanish cuisine and culture.

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The town was buzzing with tourists and locals who were out either sunning themselves on the beach or filling the bars and eating the most delicious seafood and varieties of tapas I have tasted the entire trip. It was a perfect day starting with a coffee and pastry, a walk through the old part of the city, a sneak peak into the most beautiful church during mass, a walk on the beach and a siesta following a few hours of bar hopping. Language and an inability to communicate can really sideline you in a country like Spain where the culture is so rich and conversation is so enjoyed. Spending a day on the ‘inside’ of the city in the locals bars, watching football with authentic supporters and feeling a sense of belonging was incredibly refreshing. Like swimming amongst seals in the ocean rather than looking at them through the glass of an aquarium.

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Since Gijon I’ve only bumped into one other pilgrim on trail who speaks English, a man from Belgium called Ignace. Yesterday while walking through a tiny town called Soto, Ignace, Carlos and I joined forces and decided to end the day is a spectacular seaside village called Cudillero. It was only 2km off the Camino, but one of the most gorgeous villages I’ve seen along the way. The whole village has been built into the hillside with a labyrinth of tiny staircases which take you down into the centre of town.

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Even better than the stunning views of the cliffs, the seaside breeze and the smell of the ocean was the food. On a Tuesday night most of the restaurants were closed as it’s still a little early in the season, but the one that was open was superb, and thanks to Carlos, we had the best meal of the whole trip: clams, meat with cheese, ham and red peppers and something that looked like fried insects but tasted exquisite!

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The Camino for me is starting to feel something between a summer holiday in spring, a European backpacking excursion, and a hike. It’s been a mix of eating traditional Spanish dishes or fruit bars and gummy bears, sleeping in Albergues, my tent or a hotel, walking 43 or 18km a day, waking up at 7 or 10am, being alone and enjoying the company of others. The best part of it is now I’m not trying to steer the experience in the direction I think it should move in. I’m starting to let it take me, and if there’s one thing I learned from the PCT, it’s exactly the way it ought to be.

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The ultimate destination

I just witnessed a herd of cattle being walked along the beach by two farmers. It looked so out of place I had to take a video, which actually encouraged more people to come and take pictures confirming the spectacle was a little unusual. Today has been one of my favourite days on the Camino so far. The sense of peace I’m walking with today has been non-existent these last few days while I’ve been wrestling with my mind over unimportant matters. Receiving so many beautiful comments and words from so many of you made me realise I have such an unusual but strong support network. I count myself very lucky and also realise there are so many people willing to lend a hand if I’m prepared to reach out for it.

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I’ve started to panic less these days when I lose the way. Mainly because it happens so frequently to most pilgrims I come across and also because there seems to be so many alternative routes for bikes or wet weather that being on the ‘correct’ path isn’t that important. As long as the coast is on your right you know you’re heading the right way. There were two parts today however where I went off track. One where I should have been walking along the beach but missed the turn off and ended up on the main road. I got really mad at myself for missing one of the rare opportunities to walk on the beach, but after my small temper tantrum I realised I was still going to reach the same destination, even though the way wasn’t as picturesque.

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The second found me walking through endless tracks of mud, and from the trail on my map it looked like I was totally off course even though the arrows had led me there.

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It did get me thinking about the notion and importance of knowing my destination, even though my route may change many directions, many times. I tried to compare this to the way we live our lives and the ultimate destination we’re all heading towards. Is there one? Are we meant to know what it is and strive to reach there? How do we know which way to go if we don’t know where we’re heading? Education, career, family, retirement, happiness. Are these all destinations? Is there an ultimate destination in life?

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Because I went off track I have come across the most fantastic restaurant by the sea. A few pilgrims I’ve met recently have told me about these great places they’ve eaten at or have visited, and really have that ‘I’m on holiday’ way about them. I think I need a balance between enjoying the journey and staying focused on reaching Santiago. I tested out the approach of stopping whenever I want, waking up whenever I want, and eating and drinking whatever I want (like huge lunches that left me in a food coma and hating myself for the rest of the day), but after two days of making no more than 40km I realised it wasn’t sustainable and also made me miserable. I guess there is truth to the theory of having ‘too much of a good thing’.

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Tonight I was adamant about camping after meeting a pilgrim cycling the trail who carries a tent with him and told me he camped the last couple of nights. I was completely envious and realised I’ve actually stopped looking for camping spots and just head straight to the Albergues like everyone else. After two hours of walking and searching I was almost ready to give up until I came across the most perfectly situated, flat, non-muddy, well hidden spot. I’m still incredibly nervous like last time, but as it’s starting to get dark I’m feeling more and more comfortable. I was like a pig in mud getting back into my tent. I feel so at home again!

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Another wet day on trail

Some interesting things have occurred to me over the last few days. I’ve experienced many repeat moods from the PCT and very similar feelings towards documenting my journey as I did half way through the last. As I walked in the rain with a bit more gusto than the last few days I started reflecting on the first few days on the Camino when I thought it was only me and the trail.

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Initially when I started bumping into people I was shocked and excited to know other beings were out here too. Since Santander there have been many other Pilgrims along the way, and I’m finding it a little hard to adjust to the notion of sharing rooms with other hikers who snore, sleep restlessly and wake up before the crack of dawn. I have to say the first ten days of solitude have made me somewhat antisocial. A lot of the other hikers are also much older, and some of their English skills aren’t great, but there just hasn’t been that same feeling of community and people looking out for one another like the PCT. I think the big difference is that everyone out here is very self sufficient. You can’t run out of water or food for more than 10km at a time, if someone’s soaking wet you know there’s a hot shower at the end of the day for them, there’s no such thing as a trail name, hiker boxes or trail angels (although a sweet old man standing in his front yard when I passed by the other day did give me a non-alcoholic beer to take with me).

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I didn’t hike this trail expecting it to be like the PCT, but I’m starting to realise I’m hiking this trail partly to reflect on the PCT with space to think outside the noise of the everyday. I’ve needed to be back out walking to fully process all of what happened last year and fully appreciate what I achieved. I think it’s inevitable that I’m making comparisons, and sometimes I do have to stop myself from wishing I was completely out in the wilderness, but I’m thinking more about what I want to take away from this experience. Some people have asked me why I’ve come all the way from Australia to hike the Camino. I’ve fluffed a few different answers, but the truth is I needed to. I needed to go on a long walk to think, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

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The strange thing is that in the first week I thought I had it all figured out. What I want to do, where I want to be, and the things I’m looking forward to doing. Now I’m constantly wrestling with the part of my brain that likes to question everything and make alternative suggestions for me to consider. If anyone knows where the off switch is for that, please let me know!

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What I am somewhat confident about is my need for a base and to start building some kind of foundation for my life. I could be wrong, but there’s definitely something missing from my nomadic lifestyle which involves family, friends and community. Strangely enough my biggest sense of community actually comes from those who follow and comment on my blog. The consistent names that appear to share a thought, a question or advice. This is something I’m looking forward to building on in this ‘real’ world I’ve heard so much about.

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Somewhere near halfway

I’ve read over my day 15 post about five times now and I just don’t have the heart to post it. Coming back to the Camino after two days off was a bit of a struggle, but it also made me look at the experience in a different way.

I realised that labelling and counting days didn’t quite feel right anymore, as each day has started to flow continuously into the next, and perhaps that’s how it’s meant to be. Losing track of days and time seems like a necessity on this trail. It’s not about beating the snow in Washington, averaging 25 miles a day or racing to the end because my visa is going to run out. It’s a journey along one of many paths in Spain that all lead to one destination. And even then there is more, Cape Finesterre or Muxia which are beyond Santiago. I’ve lost the trail accidentally many times, and sometimes purposefully taken a different route over these last few days, which has helped me appreciate the freedom and flexibility of finding my own way on this journey.

I also think forcing myself into the routine if writing everyday was putting unnecessary pressure on myself. So I’ve taken a few days to reflect and am starting the second half of my journey with fresh feet and an open mind, and through this I hope to be able to share a more meaningful Camino experience, even if it is simply through a photo or video from time to time.

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Day 14: Tresviso to Santander

I didn’t sleep well last night so I stayed snuggled in my warm sleeping bag this morning looking at the snow on the mountains outside the window. The only bus departing Urdon left at 6pm, which meant there was no rush to get down the mountain until the afternoon.

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When I forced my bare feet out of my sleeping bag and onto the cold floor, I hurried downstairs to glue myself to one of the heaters before joining Ali and Agnes on the balcony for our standard bowl of warm tea. We then headed up to the bar where I spent most of the day editing a snapshot of the Camino so far through the Basque Country.

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I had terrible stomach pains today and spent a few more hours in my sleeping bag in the early afternoon before we started our descent down the mountain at 4pm. Tresviso is known for it’s award winning blue cheese, so Agnes took over 1kg down the mountain with her to share with Ernesto when she heads back to Guemes in a few days. Both Ali and Agnes are departing the trail as scheduled to head home, which meant we all ended up getting off the bus in different cities and continuing on solo. I went all the way back to Santander (80km) to start again on the Way where I left off tomorrow morning. It feels a bit weird sitting in the same bar and heading back to the same Albergue as I stayed in two nights ago, but I wouldn’t have missed this side trip with the girls for anything.

Here’s the snapshot of my first eight days of the Camino del Norte through the Basque Country…

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Day 13: Santander to Tresviso

Today Ali, Agnes and I set off on a two-day detour off the Camino to hike up to the small village of Tresviso, 900m up in the lower part of the Picos de Europa mountain range.

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The photo above was hung next to the fireplace in Ernesto’s living room, and when Agnes first talked about making the trip to go there, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. The trip to the base of the mountain consisted of a bus trip to a tiny place called Urdon, which is basically a stop in the middle of nowhere between Santander and a town called Potes. We ended up getting a lift some of the way by a priest who owns the Albergue in Santander thanks to some fine negotiating by Ali, then the bus took us on the windy road to the base of the mountain.

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It was the perfect day with the sun shining but the air still fresh. I left my tent in Santander so my pack was a little lighter which made the going up easier and much more enjoyable. It reminded me of doing the side trip of Mt Whitney in the Sierras, even though this was nowhere near as high. I can sometimes have quite a narrow focus and was surprised that I felt so relaxed about straying so far from the Camino. In a strange way I had the sense from the moment we made the decision to go, that this was always meant to be part of the journey.

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It was incredible how quickly the trail climbed with what felt like very little effort. Of course we passed people who had just run up the mountain and were on their way down all in a matter of a few hours, but it was so nice to have the time to take in the views, breathe in the mountain air, and admire the beauty of the peaks surrounding us.

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Even though we stopped for snacks and breaks on the way up, it took us just over 3 hours to make it to the top. There were eagles circling in the current of the wind above and below us, sheep with bells on to greet us on arrival, and horses calling to us from the snowy paddocks on the other side of the hills. There was probably about 10cm of snow at the top, just enough for Ali to write a birthday message to her youngest son Jake who was turning 22, and for Agnes to make a snow angel.

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I believe there’s less than 20 people who permanently live in Tresviso, the others just come up for the summer. The fresh layer of snow gave the whole village a mystical feel as we made our way to the bar at the top of the hill. We sat around the wood fire in the corner drinking hot chocolate and drying out our wet shoes and socks. Ali immediately made friends with the bar man with her impeccable Spanish skills, then we called Ernesto to tell him we’d safely arrived.

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When the man at the bar heard we were friends of Ernesto’s we were made to feel like guests. He showed us to the Albergue which had 30 beds, a huge living space and a small but industrial looking kitchen. We made bowls of tea, ate the biscuits and cakes we’d brought with us, then Agnes emptied all the half bottles of red wine left by past guests into a bowl and made mulled wine. We huddled together in the kitchen while the heating warmed up chatting like old school friends. It’s hard to believe that the three of us, an Austrian, Australian and English woman who only met less than a week ago, would be sharing this experience together up in a tiny village in the north of Spain.

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Day 12: Guemes to Santander

I had a slow morning today, wanting to spend as much time in this Guemes haven as possible. The group had breakfast at 8am and then people started to leave for the trail. I decided to stick around and explore the place a little more.

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Ernesto showed those who remained the hermitage and explained the history of the paintings inside and who helped him build it. He then showed us through the museum which contains the jeep he travelled in for 2 years alongside all of the photos from his adventures more than 30 years ago. I’ve never seen anyone’s life documented in such a way.

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I sat in a quiet room with my feet up, enjoying the warmth of the sun streaming in through the window and catching up on my writing. The place was so silent except for the quiet conversation of Agnes who was giving Ali a fresh trail haircut. Part of me wanted to spend days at this place, but another part of me knew this adventure must continue moving forward.

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Agnes and I chatted to Ernesto about the small village up on the mountain called Tresviso where he used to be the priest. He showed us a picture of the trail heading up the 900m climb and we excitedly decided we were going to take a side trip and visit there after reaching Santander.

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At around 2:30pm, after making the plan with both Ali and Agnes to visit Tresviso tomorrow, I set off for the 15km coastal walk to Santander. The trail wound itself right alongside the cliffs past many secluded beaches, and then led down to the sand for the last few kilometres.

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I made some pretty firm conclusions about the direction I want my life to head this year while I walked along the cliffs. More accurately I made a firm decision about where I don’t want it to go. I’ve spent many years hopping from one opportunity to the other, never really questioning if the proposition is actually something I want to do. I’ve decided to take full control of the reins and go with my gut on this one. What it has provided me with is freedom of time, and flexibility during this trip to head off the beaten track if the opportunity beckons.

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Once on the beach I met a woman walking her five dogs who I thought was going to tell me off for walking on the rickety walkway which had been fenced off. Instead she approached me as she recognised I was a pilgrim and spoke perfect English. She told me stories about her life in Africa, her first husband who she met at 16 at a barn dance in Ireland, politics in Spain, and about pilgrims she’s met along the Camino. This was all in a 2km beach stretch. It was a bit sad to say goodbye when we reached the end of the beach as I’d really enjoyed the company and conversation.

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After the cute little boat ride across the bay to Santander, Carlos, a Spanish hiker who was at the Albergue in Guemes, met me at the dock to guide me to the Albergue where Ali and Agnes who had left earlier were waiting. It was so nice to have company in a big city like Santander, and more than one Spanish speaker to help me order something other than tortilla de patatas for dinner!

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Day 11: Colindres to Guemes

Every step of the 35km I walked yesterday became worthwhile when I stepped foot in the Albergue in Guemes at 7pm, which unbeknownst to me is legendary on this particular trail. The history behind this place is quite remarkable, and from what I understood, Ernesto, who is the grandfather of this home, conceived the idea of Albergues for pilgrims along the El Camino. In comparison to the last two places I stayed, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.

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Last night all my great intentions of an early night were destroyed by the impromptu rehearsal of a brass band in the next room. Initially I thought it was someone practising the trumpet, but a cacophony of instruments begun and continued for at least an hour.

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The rain hit today about 30 minutes after leaving Colindres. The first few hours of the trail was on roads, some of them quite large with very little space to walk on the shoulders, which did not make for pleasant hiking next to speeding cars in the rain.

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The trail did eventually go through some very sweet little villages, some with incredibly old churches which towered above the rest of the town. But my only company were the cows in the meadows and the horses and donkeys who were also displeased about the persistent rain. I even saw a couple of sheep with two little lambs in tow, hurrying to find shelter in a small little barn. They looked at me wondering why I was not doing the same.

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I had the most incredible tortilla de patatas with bacon and cheese in a little bar in Gama, and while I was inside, the thunder and lighting hit so hard the lights went out. I went outside again once it had died down a little, but ended up stopping again a few hundred meters up the road to double check if I was on the right track. The woman inside didn’t speak English, so she got on a computer and translated every word she wanted to say using Google translate. Although quite a painstaking experience, as the simple conversation took almost 20 minutes, she gave me valuable information which came in handy when I found myself confused again later up the trail.

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After my comical meltdown the road turned into trail and led me up a steep cliff alongside the ocean. It was spectacular! I was so overcome with joy at the views and the chance to walk on the sand that all of the turmoil of the previous hours disappeared. The track to Noja is certainly one not to miss!

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I stopped about 1km from Noja in a little bar to warm up, then messaged Ali (who was waiting for me in Guemes) that I would try my hardest to get there. From this point I concentrated on walking. I was determined to follow the arrows and continue putting one foot in front of the other until I made it there. I stopped for a quick snack in a restaurant along the way and asked how far Castillo was. He told me I was already there which meant I only had between 10 – 12km to go. It was drizzling but not raining hard, and I felt alright until about 3km from town when my feet started hurting so much I changed to sandals and bare feet to make it the last little stretch.

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When I reached the huge looking house I opened the door and was greeted by about five other hikers all sitting around an open fire warming up. Ali appeared and gave me a huge hug, then I was offered warm tea, wine, and a seat by the fire. I was completely overwhelmed. I had been in such solitude I’d forgotten how to communicate, and was blown away that there were so many others on the trail I’d never bumped into. At least five others appeared after I had my shower and sat at the dining table for a feast of soup, fish, egg and potatoes in a broth and then apple strudel!

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At the end of the meal Ernesto told us the history of the Albergue and how the concept was developed. Last year he hosted over 7,000 pilgrims from 70 different countries, and relies solely on donations to keep the place running. There is a hermitage, a museum and a library here, all containing photos, painting and objects related either to the Camino or Ernesto’s travels from the past 30 years. I was so tired when I got to bed I had to go straight to sleep without writing, but I had one of the best sleeps on the trail so far.

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Day 10: Islares to Colindres

I slept really deeply last night but had a number of very vivid nightmares which I can’t say I’ve had for a long time. Maybe it was the canned meatballs I ate for dinner last night. I hunted down a bar with wifi tonight and sat next to a group of 7 older men playing cards who were obviously poking fun at one another because there was a lot of scowling followed by laughter going on. Here’s the video I took of the Albergue in Islares last night…

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I was on the road by 8am this morning as I wasn’t exactly sure how long this stage was going to be, and I wanted to get a head start on the rain. The forecast said the rain would begin at 10am which would give me a pleasant two hours of walking along the coast and 200m up to the Chapel of San Mames. Almost on cue, just after 10 the rain hit.

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I was confused by distances today as I walked 4km to El Pontarron and then saw a sign that said 24km to Laredo which was only meant to be 17 according to my notes. I had plenty of time regardless so I stopped for a coffee in a cute bar in Guriezo where the woman miraculously spoke English. I had so many things I wanted to talk about but she was busy with other things, hence my starvation of conversation continues.

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The trail was grossly muddy in sections and for the first time I was actually praying for more road walking. I think my feet and legs have really got used to the hard surfaces which is a blessing because the vast majority of walking since Bilbao has been on large and small roads. I took off all my layers except my t-shirt to go up the 200m climb in my rain jacket, but by the top the rain was hammering down, and once the wind picked up it was bitterly cold. Unfortunately I didn’t have ANY cover for another hour to even put an extra layer on as it would have got drenched had I stopped. Thoughts of the PCT in Washington came flooding back and I could only be thankful that a town with a cosy warm bar was only hours away, rather than days!

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Eventually I reached the outskirts of Liendo where I took shelter in an open garage where I found a man chopping wood. I was going to see if he minded me putting on a few extra layers but he jumped in and told me there was an Albergue 1km up the road. I moved at a pace halfway between power walking and jogging and reached the town centre with the kind of cosy warm bar I’d been dreaming about. I tried to dry off a little but still entered dripping wet with all eyes at the bar staring at me. I pointed at the hot chocolate packets and ordered tortilla de patatas even though I’m officially sick of it now.

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When I left the bar it was still raining but I put on my long shirt and vest and felt a lot better during the stretch to Laredo. The trail took a detour to a small town called Tarrueza which I think a car on the national route stopped to tell me to avoid, but I was already down the hill when they whistled at me. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to warn me of danger but like the theory of most hikers, backtracking is always the last option.

The trail also took a long windy way into Laredo, but the views were beautiful and there was a monument for the Camino right at the top of the hill. On the way down the hill I passed a sign for a restaurant called Cantabria with a Camino symbol on it. I thought they might have a Peregrino special, but when I arrived I found it was quite a fancy establishment. It was too late to make a quick exit as everyone’s attention was on the hiker with a dripping wet pack still attached to her back. I was shown to a table complete with white table cloth and cotton napkin and ordered the mushroom crepes and some kind of incredibly tasty fish which has changed my idea of Spanish cuisine completely.

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I drank a bottle of still water from a wine glass and ended the meal with the best coffee I’ve had yet. I thought I would feel completely lethargic, but I actually bounced out of the restaurant ready to tackle the last 5km to Colindres. I decided to go this route rather than worry about the ferry to Santona which was a great choice as I later discovered the ferry wasn’t running which would have been devastating. Instead I walked in the thunder and lighting for another hour, a little concerned my aluminium hiking poles might act as conductors, so I kept them as low to the ground as possible. When I reached the Albergue the door was locked but I had the number to call in my notes. The woman didn’t speak English but I managed to take down another phone number which she read out in Spanish to call. The second number was for the local police who also didn’t speak English. Somehow I managed to communicate that I was at the front door to the Albergue and about a minute later a police car showed up to escort me to the bar which had the key. It felt incredibly odd being driven in a cop car to a random bar to pay 5 euros for a key and get another stamp in my passport. They then drove me back again and wished me well. Gracias Carlos and the other guy whose name I couldn’t pronounce.

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It’s a bit weird being the only person in these Albergues which have beds for at least 18 people and must be bustling in summer. Even stranger is that this one has two doors which are locked and I think one must be the toilet. I’ve tried the key 100 times with no luck. I went to a pub close by to use the bathroom but I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do if I have to go in the middle of the night. You don’t even want to know the creative options which have been floating through my head!

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