I walked the Camino del Norte in September/October 2019. Whilst I wrote a daily post along the way, I thought I’d summarise my experience in one post with lots of photos. Hopefully this will be of use to anyone thinking about walking along the Camino del Norte.
This is the 4th long walk in Europe that I’ve completed. I’ve also walked the Via de la Plata/Camino Sanabrés from Seville To Santiago. In Italy I’ve walked along the Via Francigena from Piacenza to Rome and along the Via Romea Germanica from Innsbruck to Rome. My views are coloured by this experience.
Meeting other Pilgrims
For me, this was the busiest route I’ve encountered. I left the Albergue at Irún with around 60 others on the 13th September and there would have been more staying elsewhere the night before.
I had the pleasant Camino experience of meeting lots of people and then often running into them again days or weeks later. This was something I missed on my last walk along the Via Romea Germanica when I met no other pilgrims in 6 weeks !
With lots of pilgrims as well as holiday makers along the coast, albergues were often very busy and on a few occasions totally full, requiring me to find alternative accommodation.
Also some albergues are quite a way out of town which is inconvenient if you wish to spend time in an interesting place. On quite a few occasions I ended up spending €30 or more on a room in a hotel or private home. Booking.com is very useful for this.
It’s also nice to have a night every now and then without snoring room-mates!
Later, in October, the number of walkers thinned out quite a bit as people on short holidays and university students returned home. Often albergues were almost empty.
Some of the albergues were of the traditional type with communal meals and quite memorable. For example I enjoyed my stays at Cabaña del Abuleo Puete in Güemes, Aves de Paso in Pendueles and Izarra in Caborredondo.
I heard that some albergues had closed permanently. For example I changed my itinerary as both the municipal and private Albergue in Vilela had reportedly closed. Others close at the end of September or in some cases August.
The Camino itself.
For the first three weeks, the Camino hugs the coast, although there are frequent sections which head inland for a day or so. The scenery is often spectacular.
Here you can see some pilgrims on the path at the top of the cliff.
Many pilgrims take advantage of the endless succession of beaches.
There are days with considerable climbing – up to 1,000m.
Sometimes there are alternative less hilly coastal routes although this can mean a lot of walking on asphalt. In other places, the official route is on asphalt a little inland whilst there are sign posted cliff pathways. It pays to do a bit research.
In Cantabria, there are wonderful views of the Picos de Europa.
Especially in the Basque Country and Cantabria, the Camino often follows ancient stone pathways.
I even enjoyed the day walking through the post-industrial landscape between Gijón and Aviles which some people skip by train or by taking a side trip to Oviedo.
Once in Galicia, the Camino turns inland, again with some significant climbs.
There are also ancient pathways along this part of the route
as well as modern hard on the feet asphalt.
All along the Camino del Norte, many days unfortunately have a reasonably high proportion of asphalt, which many find a bit hard on the feet.
The last 1 or 2 days, depending on the variant you take, joins the Camino Francés. This, was a bit of a shock for someone like me who has never walked that route. I saw almost more pilgrims in a day than I’d seen in weeks on the Camino del Norte. The purpose built pilgrim cafes were also something unexpected as along less busy routes you just fit into the local facilities.
This brings me to the topic of interaction with local Spanish people. I heard countless “¡Buen Caminos!” walking on the Camino del Norte. Many local people went out of their way to point out to me the way to go. One bus driver even stopped to point out which way I should be heading and another man took the time to draw me a map explaining an interesting alternative coastal track just before Ribadeo.
As I speak some Spanish, I also enjoyed many little conversations with people along the way.
These people I met in rural Galicia spoke only Gallego which I couldn’t understand but it was fun trying.
Towns along the way
The larger towns along the way include San Sebastian with its Belle Époque architecture,
Bilbao with its wonderful Gugenheim Museum,
You’ll also pass through many small towns. Many of them are fishing ports, such as Castro Urdales, Cudiullero (just off the Camino) and Luarca.
Many small towns boast fine churches such as at Sobrado do Monxces where you can stay in the Monastery’s Albergue.
San Vincente de la Barquera is another example of a town with a fascinating church complete with gargoyles..
Many villages have ancient parish churches.
The route is very well signposted with the ever present yellow arrows.
Once in Galicia, there are so many route markers that even I had trouble getting lost. They give the distance to Santiago with 3 decimal points – here’s the one at 150.092km !
At Baamonde, you’ll find an unofficial 100km point marker, just before the official one marking something like 99.893km visible in the background of this photo.
Of course, there are the usual local direction sign variations and signs of encouragement.
After a long day’s walk, or even sometimes during the day, I enjoy a good meal. On my last walk through Spain, I found the food in many of the villages in Extremadura was very simple. This was a big difference to my walks in Italy where the food is almost invariably good.
Along the coast, however, the towns generally seem to be more wealthy and of course there are many tourists and it most places it’s possibel to eat quite well. In the Basque Country, having some Pintxos, or large tapas, is an essential experience. Cider or the local white wine, Txakoli, goes with them very well,
All along the coast, the seafood is wonderful.
A short walk from the centre of the little community of La Isla is a Parilla where I indulged in this huge plate of pork ribs.
In Asturias, trying Falada, a bean stew or soup is a must as is the Caldo Gallego in Galicia.
For lunch and dinner you can often find an incredible value Menu del Día. One day I was walking through an industrial area and stopped at a Café frequented by workers. For just €9, there were 4 courses, a bottle of wine or beer and coffee. The images below are of the huge vegetable soup and the main course.
Spain is well known for its salads.
Not everywhere has ready access to food at pilgrim hours however. Some bars or restaurants don’t open until 9pm and on a few occasions I ended up in a place with no dining options at all. Usually I was prepared and cooked my own basic dinner. On one occasion a few of us were caught out we all had to resort to vending machine meals as the only bar was shut for a function. Many pilgrims cook for themselves every night when a kitchen is available but supermarket hours can also be inconvenient.
Breakfasts aren’t usually a big thing in Spain, but every now and then I came across an tempting impressive pastry shop open at pilgrim breakfast time.
The Camino del Norte offers a great experience with wonderful scenery.
In September and October at least there are enough pilgrims to allow a true Camino experience without being too crowded. There are many very pleasant albergues although many are only open from around April to September or October or for even shorter periods. In some places you’re competing with holiday makers for accommodation in warmer months. In a few places you need to be careful in planning your stages to ensure accommodation is available.
The scenery is much more spectacular than that on the other Spanish Camino I’ve completed, the Via de la Plata which however has its own beauty. The Italian caminos I’ve done are beautiful as well and in my opinion have more cultural interest along the way.
One drawback of the Norte route is the amount of asphalt which comprises almost 70% of the total and a few spots are a bit dangerous. This is similar to Italy. Perhaps this will slowly change as the route becomes more popular.
I found this route to be a very ‘young’ one. On other occasions my mid 60s was around the average age, but on this walk I was frequently the oldest person in the Albergue. There was a wonderful 83 year old I ran into however who arrived in Santiago on the same day as I did.
I’d certainly recommend the route but my personal favourite in Spain is still the Via de la Plata, and if you aren’t familiar with Italy pilgrimage walks, have a look at them!