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Christian charity on the way to Orio
Christian charity on the way to Orio

A tale of two caminos, unemployment, dodgy knees and a sweaty middle-aged woman called Kate

The Camino del Norte runs from Biarritz and along the Spanish coast through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias before heading inland to Santiago de Compostela. Despite its challenges, the route is becoming a popular alternative to the Camino Francés. Kate Williams sets out to find out why, and in search of solitude and a personal challenge.

An oppressive, overcast Thursday morning in the French Basque Country in late June 2018. Residents of the pretty little town of Urrugne were surprised to see a lone middle-aged woman sweating up the main street, bent under the weight of a large backpack. Reaching the square, she ignored the imposing 16th-century Renaissance church in favour of the nearest bar. Demanding coffee and cognac in severely mangled French, she gulped them down while staring disbelievingly at a crumpled map and plotting the demise of someone called Mike.

I first heard of the Camino de Santiago in 2004, as a fresh-faced(ish) English teacher in Barcelona. ‘You walk across Spain,’ my new friend Mike said, ‘and stay in hostels, so it’s cheap. Fancy it?’ I liked walking, I had no money; I did fancy it. That September we walked the final week of the Francés to Santiago de Compostela. We discovered Galicia, laughed a lot, drank a lot of cheap wine, had an amazing time and met some memorable characters. We even carried on to Finisterre, despite him suffering blisters that elicited concern from medical professionals. Over the next 14 years Mike returned to the Camino several times, walking the full Francés and the Via de la Plata. I, however, never did.

Day 1. Warm light on the appropriately named St-Jean-de-Luz
Day 1. Warm light on the appropriately named St-Jean-de-Luz

Back to the future in 2018, I found myself unemployed and casting around for my next move. Once again, Mike planted the seed. ‘Do the Camino,’ he suggested. Despite good memories, I wasn’t sure.

I still did regular day hikes, but was older, wiser, warier of the risks of solo travel, unsure whether my dodgy back and dodgier knee could cope with a heavy backpack and out of practice at roughing it. (Could I share a bunk room with strangers again?)

I shelved the idea until I enrolled on a volunteer program in South Africa later in the year. Suddenly, I needed a fundraising challenge. A light bulb pinged in my head, “Birds, stone...” I set a date and started spreading the word. I was committed to the Camino.

I decided to do the Camino del Norte. Nobody I knew had done it so I’d be first to tell the tale. My partner and I were considering leaving Barcelona and it seemed like a good opportunity to check out the Basque Country. Plus, I’d heard horror stories of 3am starts and overcrowding on the Francés. Consulting my Spanish guidebook, I decided to start from St-Jean-de-Luz in France. At 14km to Irun it looked like a gentle introduction.

Day 1. St-Jean-de-Luz to Irun

And it might have been, but for the heavy weather and the small house on my back. I was convinced the B&B owner in St-Jean, the wonderfully named Madame Portrait, had slipped me a rock along with her parting gift of a loaf of bread.

To make matters worse, the French Camino was obviously unpopular and poorly maintained. In Spain, the blue signs with their yellow conch shells are big, loud, bold and colourful. Spanish, basically. In France, they are small, unobtrusively placed, faded and often hidden by bushes. It was like a particularly fiendish Where’s Wally.

The Camino led a merry dance around the back streets before emerging onto a main road (which I realised I could have followed from town) and branching off down country lanes to the Chateau d’Urtibe and Urrugne. And so I found myself in the bar at 11am studying the guidebook, incredulous at how far I hadn’t come, and cursing Mike. I was beginning to think this had been a bad idea…

Eventually, after meandering past whitewashed Basque farmhouses with their colourful painted shutters, I came to the estuary separating Spanish Irun from its French sister, Hendaya. Crossing the border, a celestial hand seemed to reach down and turn the volume up. Still, it was good to be back in a country where I could understand the language. Until I heard Euskera, that is…

Reaching the hostel by 2pm, I learned Camino lesson Number 1: nothing opens until after lunchtime. I sat down to consol myself with beer and the World Cup in a nearby bar.

Day 2. Irun to Pasai Donibane

After a restless night courtesy of a snoring Swede, I was woken at 6am by religious music at full volume and ejected into an ominously dark dawn (clearly, these were the vengeful, Old Testament type of Christians) to begin the daily game of hunt-the-yellow-arrow. The signs were larger but no easier to follow, even contradicting themselves at times with arrows and crosses. A degree of guesswork and blind faith was involved; I was glad to have the guidebook as backup.

The Camino twisted through a nature reserve before climbing to the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. The saint offered little sanctuary from the drizzle that was threatening to get serious, so I ferreted out my poncho and set off along the 11km tunnel of dripping green that wound around the flank of Monte Jaizkibel. The grass was edged in silver and cobwebs were strung out along the path like glittering baskets of diamonds.

Eventually, I emerged onto a main road for a stretch before plunging to the jumbled little fishing village of Pasai Donibane, rising from the water like a charmingly un-gentrified miniature Venice. It had apparently also captivated Victor Hugo in its day (presumably before the large industrial port was built across the river). The sun was out at last and small children flung themselves like lemmings into the murky water. Abandoning plans to reach San Sebastián, I scaled the steps to the tiny pilgrim hostel at the back of the church that presided over Pasai. Here I met the people I was to run into repeatedly over the next few days: Eduardo the Uruguayan-Australian, Antonio the Italian and Swedish Vikings Molly, Emma and Emma’s mother. I sized up the snorers and placed myself as far away as possible. Lying awake later, listening to the rumbles of a retired South African on his seventh (!) camino, I learned another lesson: you can run, but you can’t hide.

Day 3. Pasai Donibane to San Sebastián

Assorted pilgrims piled onto the water taxi across the estuary as the sun was rising and set off up a steep flight of steps leading to a lighthouse. Summit attained, it was a short, pleasant hop over wooded headland to the city, the descent revealing views of Zurriola beach and Monte Urgull.

Reaching San Sebastian by 11am, I paid the price (literally) for having forgotten it was high season and San Juan, the biggest festival night of the year. Cheaper hostels were already full so I checked into a trendy backpacker place, wincing at the cost but consoling myself with the thought of a good night’s sleep. That dream died as I entered the shared room full of embryonic Australians trying to outdo each other with tales of vodka shots in Pamplona. Was that all travel was for young people these days, I wondered. An endless international pub crawl, each city rated on its happy hour. Feeling like my dad, I headed out for a dip and to explore the city.

The seafront and Playa de la Concha were rammed. ‘It’s like August already,’ muttered one elderly resident. It was a shock to the system so I made for some steps leading into the water near the harbour instead, where overexcited youth leapt head first into the worryingly shallow water. ‘They won’t be told,’ a pragmatic parent remarked. ‘But if they’re stupid enough to break their necks we’ll call the ambulance to take them away.’

Like any good seaside town, San Sebastian combined old world grandeur with plastic tack, hordes of tourists and overinflated prices. I escaped to the shade of Monte Urgull, glad to have experienced it but mentally crossing it off as a place to live.

Day 4. San Sebastián to Orio

Having survived the Camino’s greatest challenge, the Backpacker Hostel, I escaped along the sweep of La Concha and scaled the headland to Monte Igeldo. From there, the Camino followed country lanes through farmland before a long, gradual climb through forest and open country along the seaward side of Monte Mendizorrotz, before descending to the fishing town of Orio. The intense blue of the Cantabrian Sea below taunted me and sunbathing lizards shivered into the bushes as I passed. It was hot and I was glad to have reserved a place in the little hostel sitting in a cool garden above Orio with views across the valley.

By now, I’d abandoned the official 25-30km stages in favour of more realistic 15-18km days. Fortunately, while it made for a challenging walk starting from sea level each day, the rivers separating each hill and headland meant towns. And towns meant hostels. I was past the age of needing to prove anything, could afford to spend a little money and reserving ahead meant I could relax and enjoy the walk. Being an ‘in-betweener’ also had other advantages: hostels were rarely full and the smaller intermediate towns were more picturesque.

Day 5. Orio to Zumaia

A good night’s sleep at last! Evading a motherly Dutchwoman making everyone repack and adjust their bags before leaving, I slipped out into the muted early morning colours. Descending to the old town, I crossed the river by a footbridge and followed the road for a short, ugly stretch past industrial units before an information board sensibly suggested the GR121 through woodland instead. The two reconvened at a caravan park before a short, sharp climb over the headland to Zarautz. I stopped to refuel in a petrol station with a strong carajillo (coffee and brandy, a Spanish staple), wondering idly how many other countries permitted the sale of alcohol to customers who arrived at the wheel of a motor vehicle.

After Zarautz, another sharp climb led to the vineyards of the Bodega de Santabarbara and the church of the same name, which doubled as a lookout point in the days of Zarautz’s whaling industry. A man with a face like a raisin laughed as I sat puffing on a wall. I saw no whales, but there was a great view of the 3km beach and back towards France. Jaizkibel floated palely in the distance. It was gratifying to realise how far I’d come and survived.

The Camino dipped and rose along back roads and through vineyards, with the coastal town of Getaria and its curiously named ‘ratón’ (‘mouse’; a green spur reminiscent of Monte Urgull) below. Whether it was the alcoholic elevenses, the sleep or the lower elevations, this was the best day so far. I had come to terms with the backpack and was loving the headspace that walking alone afforded. The heat and noise of Barcelona seemed light years away. What a great idea of mine this had been!

Arriving in Zumaia by 1pm and with energy to spare, I considered pushing on to Deba but was keen to stay in the former Convent of San José. While I was deliberating, Eduardo and Antonio arrived. Eduardo had booked a boat trip to see the local geopark along the cliffs between Zumaia and Deba: layers of sediment known as flysch, deposited over 50 million years and forced upwards by the slow-motion collision of Iberia with Europe. I decided to join him.

That evening, I sat in the convent’s walled garden watching swifts dance over the town and feeling completely at peace. Reluctantly turning in, I passed Antonio airing some frightening looking blisters. Sporting an equally impressive cigar, he reminded me of the retired Don Corleone. I bid the Godfather goodnight and headed for my nun’s cell and the luxury of sleeping alone.

Day 6. Zumaia to Izarbide

I took the GR121 alternative along the coast to Deba. My guidebook promised spectacular views and a close-up look at the flysch (I skim read the warning ‘only for those with plenty of time and inclination’). The views didn’t disappoint, and the flysch was even more impressive close up, rising in great jagged ridges from the sea and poking up through the soil like dinosaur spines (which in a way, they were). However, it proved one of the toughest walks I’ve ever done; a rollercoaster of almost vertical ascents from sea level to over 100m and back down again (and again and again). In places, there were even ropes to haul yourself up! I regretted not bringing a second walking pole and understood for the first time the appeal of sending bags on by car (although I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it). Reaching Deba at last, I collapsed into the nearest restaurant for a mammoth lunch before reluctantly leaving the sea and tackling another mini mountain to the hostel at Izarbide. There I found a similarly shattered Eduardo and, for the first time since Pasai, the Swedish girls. The bar was open, so we drowned our sorrows and swapped horror stories while we waited for dinnertime.

Day 7. Izarbide to Markina

The extra effort paid off, however on day seven, with a hill and several kilometres already behind us. The Camino rose inland, up and over Monte Anu at nearly 500km, through dense forests and slopes scarred by logging, dotted with the occasional solitary farmhouse. The clouds were back, intensifying the dark green of the pine forests. I was beginning to think the Camino del Norte was an invention of the Basque Tourist Board; surely pilgrims flowed like water down the valleys and along the roads, not over half-mountains?

At the hostel in Markina – a cold, damp former convent with a welcome to match – I ran into a long-lost friend, Ramon. After scraping our chins off the floor, we retired to a nearby bar to catch up. The Swedish girls were there, enthusiastically cheering on their national football team and putting the coronary health of the elderly male patrons at risk.

Day 8. From Markina to Mendata

Hills behind us, day eight was all verdant valleys and dripping woods. Mist swirled low over everything, closing off the sky. I was particularly tired, thanks to a record number of snorers, and stopped for an alcohol-based second breakfast in the town of Bolibar. A large monument and a tiny museum paid homage to the origins of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America. Arriving in Mendata, I was pleased to be greeted by the Swedes, a friendly dog and a self-service beer fridge; less happy to find Antonio snoring in the bunk room.

Day 9. Mendata to Guernica

After being woken at 5am by the Godfather having a nightmare (guilty conscience?) I sluggishly said goodbye to my Camino friends. We were all going our separate ways after today. We swapped numbers and promised to keep in touch. I knew we probably wouldn’t, but that was ok too.

After a few kilometres through rural landscapes and round eucalyptus-blue hills, historic Guernica was revealed in the valley. The town had famously been lent to the Luftwaffe for bombing practice by Franco during the Spanish Civil War and a mural reproduced Picasso’s famous painting. I sat in the Parque de los Pueblos de Europa debating whether to continue. I wanted to arrive in Bilbao on foot, but I was shattered from a string of sleepless nights. This was the last chance for public transport for two days and I wasn’t sure how many more hostels I could take. I wandered around before accidentally coming across the Camino. Bewitched by the blue and yellow, I began to follow it without thinking. But then my tired feet made the decision for me, turning around and marching me to the station. As I sat on the train, I felt like a fraud, but it also felt right. I’d walked over 100km, proved I still had (some of) what it takes, completed my fundraising challenge and had a fantastic time, all without protest from either back or knee. They say you should always leave wanting more. So I did.

Two hours later, I stood waiting to buy a much-needed new t-shirt. It was the first day of the sales and I felt like a visitor from another planet. Battling culture shock, I spent the rest of the day mooching round the sinuously shiny Guggenheim and Bilbao’s rough-around-the-edges old quarter before catching a late train back to Barcelona and my own bed.

The Camino#2 was done.

Tips & advice

  • The adage "Take half of the stuff and twice the money" holds especially true on the Camino del Norte. It’s hard going with the hills and you’ll feel every gram when you’re hauling it up them from sea level. It’s well worth spending some money on the lightweight ‘serious hiker’ gear.
  • And take twice the money. The Basque Country is one of Spain’s richest regions, with a standard of living and prices to match, especially in San Sebastián.
  • Sounds obvious, but the Norte is a challenge, even for regular walkers. It helps to be in good shape and to get some practice walking with your full pack (remember to include food and water) beforehand.
  • Take a walking pole. In fact, take two. Whether or not you usually use them, trust me there are numerous times you’ll be glad of being able to haul yourself up the slopes using both your feet and your hands. Plus, they are a lifesaver for your knees and ankles on the steep descents.
  • Book ahead where possible at peak times, festivals and weekends, especially in the big cities. Many of the private hostels will allow you to do this, although they may require a credit card to hold the booking. If you realise you’re not going to get there, do the decent thing and call to cancel.
  • Check pilgrim forums, websites, guidebooks and local tourist offices for the opening times of hostels. Some of the official hostels run by the association Amigos del Camino (Friends of the Camino) don’t open until July. Others may only open in August. Similarly, opening hours and facilities vary widely so check.
  • If you don’t mind spending a bit of money to stay in the private hostels, it’s perfectly possible to break up many of the long days into shorter sections. While not always listed in guidebooks, many of the intermediate towns and villages have accommodation.
  • The donation to the pilgrim hostels is at your discretion; don’t be pressured into giving more than you want to (it happens). I gave 5€-10€ depending on how nice the place or the people were and whether extras like breakfast were included.
  • Make sure you take a reliable guidebook with a map. The signs can be hard to follow and at times contradictory so it helps to have a backup.
  • Weather: be ready for anything and everything. Conditions change fast and frequently in the Basque Country and you can go from rain and cold to blazing sunshine and back again in a matter of hours.
  • Plan ahead and check whether you will be able to refill water bottles or buy food along the route. Not all stages pass through urban centres so you need to be prepared. Hostel owners and volunteers are usually a good source of information on this.
  • Casual walking as a pastime is not as popular in Spain as it is in other countries. When asking for directions remember that not all local people will have actually walked the route you want to take or even be aware it exists. Beware of being sent by road instead and always check instructions against your own map and common sense.