Anne Sheehan recounts the second part of her walk from her home in Sheffield to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain.
Part one of my journey (covered in a previous article) began from my doorstep in Sheffield and took me to Portsmouth where I boarded the ferry for Spain across the Bonny Bay of Biscay-O, as it says in the old sea shanty:
‘At night in my hammock I will sleep
As I sail upon the briny deep,
Though the tempests rage and the wild winds blow
I'll dream of the bonny Bay of Biscay-O.’
After four and a half weeks of travelling on foot it felt very strange to be sitting on a ferry for 26 hours. The so-called Quiet Lounge proved to be good training for sleeping through multiple snorers in pilgrim hostels and, judging by the peculiar positions of my fellow travellers, I wasn’t alone in finding it absolutely impossible to get comfortable on the reclining seats. A hammock would have been far better. On the plus side, I was spared any wild winds and raging tempests; the crossing was calm, the weather was fine and I was pleased to see some dolphins.
By the time I reached Bilbao it was very dark and rainy and, as I battled to get my land legs back, I wasn’t even sure what day it was. Asking directions in my best Spanish, I eventually found the way to my rendezvous point: a shabby back street bar near the dark and moody looking River Nervion. However, nothing could dampen my excitement upon meeting up with Jill, my good friend and trusty Camino walker from many years back, who would be my walking companion for the coming week. We had a lot to catch up on over some very drinkable red wine before retiring to our rooms above the bar for a well-earned rest (in proper beds!)
The obvious route from Bilbao to Santiago would be to follow the Camino Del Norte as it winds its way along the green coast of Spain before striking inland for the city of St James.
On a previous Camino journey, I’d thoroughly enjoyed my experience of this coastal route. Happy memories tempted me to revisit old haunts, but the urge to explore new ground won the day.
Among the pile of books I’d read before setting off from home, I’d learnt about and been fascinated by a lesser-known Camino route through the Basque mountains. A path through a natural cave known as St Adrian’s tunnel was apparently used by pilgrims during the Middle Ages in preference to risking passage through the then war-torn areas of Navarre. This sounded so intriguing and the Basque mountains looked so spectacularly beautiful, I felt I had to go. It was another defining moment of my journey that reminded me of my decision to walk west instead of east of Birmingham on the English route.
Glutton for punishment
In order to link up with the Interior Basque Camino I was going to spend my first week in Spain walking the Camino Del Norte in the opposite direction to Santiago. Sometimes I’m a glutton for punishment.
Setting off with Jill the next morning the route was easy enough to find, if rather demanding. As we climbed steeply up and out of the old town towards the massive church of Our Lady of Begona, I couldn’t help thinking this was like an extreme version of the Whitby Abbey steps back home in Yorkshire. The green hill-top behind the church gave amazing views of the city below and in the other direction we were presented with too many choices of which path to take.
In Spain, Camino routes are well marked with ubiquitous painted yellow arrows and scallop shell signs. However (understandably, I suppose), they’re signed in one direction only towards Santiago and we were walking ‘de vuelta’. Once over the hill via a few minor detours it was soon plain sailing for the rest of the day.
We thought it was no big deal at the time, but as it happened, this was just a taste of things to come.
We soon discovered there’s a definite skill in reading guide book directions and reversing all the instructions; for right read left, for ascend read descend, and we also found if we asked for directions we were confidently sent back the way we’d just come! After a refreshing night’s sleep and with the sun shining brightly, we didn’t care too much to start with; the villages were incredibly quaint and the scenery improving every kilometre, with the surroundings becoming more rural and mountainous.
As the delightful footpath we were following petered out, we realised we’d lost the Camino yet again and after a baffling conversation with an ancient local, we settled on a 90-degree change of direction involving a steep uphill climb. Imagine our delight as we emerged from the undergrowth onto a minor road sporting a huge Camino sign pointing (correctly for us) in the reverse direction! Strangely, after a couple more hours winding along the same deserted road (still with Camino signs from time to time), we just couldn’t tie in the lie of the land with any of the descriptions in the guide book.
As two cyclists zoomed past downhill in the opposite direction with a cheery wave, the truth suddenly dawned on us; the roadside signs were nothing to do with the walkers’ path, they were signing the alternative Camino route for cyclists. Somewhat road-weary from the extra distance we’d covered on the winding tarmac, we finally linked back up with the walkers’ path for our final few kilometres into Gernika. Despite the detours, it had been a very enjoyable day’s walk.
Gernika, the famous Basque town, is famous for being annihilated by Mussolini’s Condor Squadron in the Spanish Civil War. Ninety per cent of it was rebuilt and it’s a buzzing town with a great atmosphere. The Peace Museum is a must visit, challenging and very thought provoking, and an excellent example of how the local population have turned a negative into a positive.
Off the beaten track
The following day’s long walk began with an up and down route through forested hills. Despite heavy rain, it was stunningly beautiful, more like the foothills of the Alps than a stereotypical image of Spain, and felt pretty much off the beaten track considering the increasing popularity of the Camino Del Norte.
We had walked 14km before we reached our first place of habitation. Little did we think we’d find the bar, chemist and shop mentioned in our guidebook all under the same roof in this tiny village. Despite minimal advertising (the only clue outside was a small sign by the door saying Taberna), the place was packed with people, goodness knows where from, buying everything from toilet rolls to local cheese, drinking at the bar and all speaking Euskadi, the Basque language. We’d stepped into a different world.
Refuelled, we continued on our way along the dripping forest paths that climbed up to a monastery in the mist where a monk let us into the church for a look around. It was breathtaking, very peaceful and still; yet another world we’d stepped into all in the same day’s walk. And, several kilometres of medieval cobbled pathway later, we arrived in the small agricultural town of Markina Xemein without having got lost once.
Lulled into a false sense of route-finding security, we laughed that the date of the next day’s walk was the 13th. We had a long day ahead of us and more rain (in contrast to an English heatwave back home) but, actually, the route finding went really well. We made good time and thanks to a village confirmation party, a bar with reputedly erratic opening hours was well and truly open when we needed it. The sun came out and for the first time since Bilbao we could see the sea again.
Even as we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune, we unwittingly went horribly wrong and by the time we realised it, we’d almost climbed to the top of a large forested hill. Although aware that we were now decidedly off piste, we pressed on, aiming to descend the other side of the hill, where we hoped there’d be a valley with a road that would take us to our destination for the night.
We found a small, overgrown but excellent path to take us down through the trees. It was marked with red paint splashes and was ingenious as it skirted outcrops and took us ever plunging downward. Without it, the descent would have been impossible. From time to time we passed spent cartridges on the path so we figured it was probably for hunters.
Quite suddenly, there was the most blood-curdling noise coming from about 200m away and a rustling in the undergrowth. We froze!
It sounded like a cross between a cow and a pig and we were utterly scared to be honest. We both suddenly felt very vulnerable as well as lost. Pushing on to make as rapid progress as we could, we continued down the overgrown path and gradually started to come out of the trees. I was relieved to see a meadow and sheep grazing as I figured this meant we were probably out of the territory of predatory creatures.
Sure enough, here in the valley bottom was a road. We breathed a sigh of relief that turned instantly into a groan of despair. It wasn’t a road, it was a motorway! With a huge fence to keep out sheep, wolves, wild boar(?) and us. We walked first one way along by the fence, then back again the other direction, but there was absolutely no way through. It felt like there was no solution, we were well and truly stuck.
Then I noticed a large drain covered with a grill. On closer inspection it turned out to be a metal gate covering the entrance to a huge pipe stretching all the way under the motorway. Crouching and shuffling forward in the dark, holding our rucksacks in front, we made our way through the pipe until out we popped out into the daylight, Peter Rabbit style, finding ourselves in the middle of a vegetable garden. Luckily for us, the allotment gate was unlocked and, once through it, we were finally on the road in the valley bottom.
The next thing we knew, a van pulled up and a young Spanish guy asked if we’d like a lift to Deba (our destination for the night) and apparently about 20 minutes away by car. As we climbed in he saw the scallop shell on my pack. He told us he was once a pilgrim. He’d cycled the Camino a year before to say thank you for his dog having pulled through a difficult operation. He laughed and slapped the steering wheel as I explained about our little detour. He soon confirmed our suspicions about the wild boar saying we were lucky grandmas with a sense of adventure. He dropped us off at our accommodation and drove on down to the sea front to sleep in his van overnight.
We were glad to be alive and back on course. There were some raised eyebrows not to mention some wrinkled noses as we checked in for the night, looking more like pot-holers than hikers on the Camino.
You can’t go wrong
From Deba to San Sebastián, the Camino Del Norte follows the coast quite closely. This is a beautiful stretch of coastal walking and of course from the point of view of walking de vuelta, route finding is simple; just keep the sea on your left and you can’t go wrong. As we walked the coast, the weather also improved, making the second half of the week and our arrival onto the beach-front at San Sebastián memorable for all the right reasons.
San Sebastián is undeniably beautiful, decidedly chic, oozing with character in the old town, and has a perfect crescent-shaped beach. It was also the point at which I waved Jill off on her bus back home and set off on my own to find the Basque Interior Camino.
I took a day off to find out more detail on the Basque route. In England information was scant. I’d brought a little booklet with me written by a cyclist who’d done some of the route on foot but it was quite out of date. I knew I was by now only about 10km away from the route but it was unbelievable that no matter where I enquired, the only Camino anyone could tell me about was the Camino Del Norte. I couldn’t even find out how to get from San Sebastián to the town of Hernani where I was sure I’d be able to pick up the route. Everyone rolled their eyes and said I’d have to take the bus. The only maps in the shops were town plans of San Sebastián or maps of the whole of northern Spain. Not for the first time, I appreciated how lucky we are in the UK with our wonderful Ordnance Survey maps.
Having tried endless bookshops, outdoor shops and totally given up on Tourist Information, I saw an advert for mountain holidays and followed some steps into the back office of a small company. It was run by two female mountain guides who took groups climbing in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Caminos and local urban walking weren’t really their forte but at last I’d met people who seemed to at least be in tune with what I was trying to do. They persevered with google maps on their PC and eventually found me a way out of San Sebastián that didn’t involve walking a major trunk road or motorway.
Gratefully, I returned to my pension and rang ahead to book a bed in Hernani for the following day. My spirits lifted when the lady on the phone asked if I was walking the Basque Camino. It DID exist, after all.
The next day I followed the guides’ suggestions and walked along the side of the River Uremea which, just as they’d predicted, had a smart cycle/pedestrian path along it taking me right the way out of the city. At first, I was still suffering from the misplaced helpfulness of locals pointing me back towards the coast and the Camino Del Norte, but eventually I came to a village and there, before me, was a yellow arrow signing the Basque Interior Camino. I didn’t even have to follow it backwards, it was pointing me exactly in the direction I needed to go.
At last I’d made it onto the route I’d been heading for ever since I’d arrived in Spain. Briefly, my elation at being on the route made up for the scenery, or lack of it! But not for long. If Bilbao reminded me of Whitby Abbey Steps, this reminded me of the Lower Don Valley directly after the demise of Sheffield’s steel industry. It was grim. I was completely alone in the hostel that night. The warden came to let me in and then disappeared; it was an all-time low of my journey.
In the next morning’s sunshine, the town seemed a little less dour but I still felt very much alone. As I followed the river through factories and warehouses it was a far cry from the beautiful mountain valley I’d imagined. The good news was that the route was well signed and there was a decent network of hostels for accommodation, even if they were deserted with not another pilgrim in sight, let alone a warden.
After a couple of days, I realised I’d got the scale of things totally wrong. The river valley I was following was gradually becoming less built up and industrial and the mountains in the distance were slowly getting closer; it was all going to work out after all. Then I met Tatsuya, a Japanese guy walking the same route, and we became walking companions for the next few days. Each day the walking got better and the mountains got nearer.
Eventually, the day arrived for the big ascent and St Adrian’s tunnel. We’d been soaked to the skin the previous day in a prolonged thunderstorm so we were extremely lucky that morning to have excellent weather for the 8km uphill climb. It was big limestone country and every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. The path was excellent and the views breathtaking as we climbed nearer to the cave.
The cave itself was incredibly atmospheric with a little half-derelict chapel building inside it. An unexpected bonus as we climbed out of the back of the cave was a superbly preserved stretch of Roman road that we followed up steeply through the trees to the top of the ridge. The descent was probably twice as long in distance as the ascent, making for a long but spectacular mountain day, well worth all the inconveniences of the previous few weeks. It was the geographical and spiritual high point of the whole adventure.
After that Tatsuya and I kept pace with each other for the next few days through Alava province as far as the beautiful city of Vitoria, where we parted.
Walking out of Vitoria on my own again I was in quite a different frame of mind to Day 1 of my Basque walk and was soon striding out, looking forward to the next scenic high; a promised view of the whole of the Rioja region from the top of a mountain pass.
On this occasion I was less fortunate with the weather, walking for most of the day through a spectacular thunderstorm with lightning crackling around the hills. With the sky turned a sickly yellow, the storm crashed around the valley-head like a caged animal looking for a way out. To my relief it must have finally found an exit because just as I reached the Coll of the pass, the clouds parted and out came the sun. I was rewarded by such a splendid view it really did take my breath away.
It was a Saturday afternoon as I descended to the first vineyards of Rioja and all the local families were out, painstakingly checking their vines for storm damage and looking worried.
I passed a couple of opportunist older ladies foraging for snails for their evening meal and looking a lot happier.
Haro (the wine capital of Rioja) was my last stop on the Basque Camino and the following day's destination was to be my first stop on the most trodden of all Caminos, the Camino Frances. I walked with my eyes firmly fixed on two points dead ahead of me: first, the spire of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which was my destination for the night and, second, a huge black cloud coming directly towards me! I almost ran the final few kilometres in an attempt to dodge the next thunderstorm and arrive dry.
Passing through some waste ground near the edge of the town I met a local man walking his dog.
‘Are you walking the Camino?’ he asked. ‘The Camino is over there.’ (Pointing towards the town.)
‘I’ve come from Haro, I’m walking the Basque Camino,’ I explained, pointing back the other way.
‘Never heard of it,’ was the reply. ‘It’s that way, you need to be over there. That's the Camino!’
It was happening again. The Basque Camino was sinking back into its mysterious obscurity even as I walked into Santo Domingo.
Appreciating the journey
A great many feet have trodden the historic Camino Frances and many words have been written about it, too. I don’t intend to add many more. Suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of following a well-marked route and lapped up what I felt to be the sheer luxury of the infrastructure; everything a pilgrim could ever wish for and more besides, without straying from the path.
I loved the variety of the terrain and the indulgence of the weather that now became better by the day. But most of all I loved the people I met, both locals and pilgrims from all over the globe, the stories we swapped, the amazing mix of cultures and the feeling of comradeship.
It’s nothing that hasn’t been said already a million times but I think my personal experience of the Camino Frances was made all the richer by my own experience of what had come before. Walking over 1000 miles and for 12 weeks continuously, first on my own route through England, then on the Northern Camino and the Basque Camino, made me truly appreciate my arrival into Santiago along the French Way.