When i signed up to walk part of the Camino De Santiago over 8 days, i thought that the walking would be the difficult part. I was wrong.
Maeve and Myself first considered walking part of the historic camino de Santiago last March. At the initial planning stage there was going to be 5 or 6 people going on the trip and October was the month that seemed to suit everybody. Since flights from Dublin to Santiago only run between March and September, we decided to fly into Santander and take a bus to Leon in Spain and start the walk from there. Easy, until life got in the way and our time was whittled down to 8 days. Now, whilst 12 days might (just about) have been ok to walk from Leon to Santiago, 8 days was really cutting it fine. This new, shorter trip necessitated a new route. Instead of the much travelled French route we would walk the less travelled Coastal route known as the camino Del Norde. Whilst we were excited to be walking such an scenic route, we were concerned by the lack of (read no) guide books written in English on this route. After much trawling through the web, we eventually found a very good, and very detailed blog on the northern route in Spanish and through the magic of google translate we had a pretty good idea of where we were going and distances etc..
Joined by our friend Renee and my boyfriend Mark, the four of us set off for Santander where we met our first obstacle on the trip- the Spanish tourist information office. Throughout our trip the tourist information office was unfailing in its ability to disappoint and frustrate us. Either the office was closed, nobody in the office understood English or the people running the information office were just unhelpful. In Santander, the problem was the latter one. Although we explained that we were pilgrims, they did not tell us that we should get our pilgrim passport in Santander, and for the next couple of days all we heard from the pilgrim hostels was that we should have got our pilgrim passports in Santander. For the uninitiated, the pilgrim pasport is the document you present at the alberque (pilgrim hostel) to prove that you are walking the camino. Its also a pretty cool thing to have as you can get it stamped in all of the towns you stop in. As it was 3 days into the camino before i got my pasport, i didn't bother getting it stamped. The staff in Santander tourist information were also quite unhelpful when it came to telling us about the towns and stages on the Northern route and it was up to ourselves to figure out by the internet pages we had printed out where would be a good town to stop off at.
First stop Santilla Del mar. After treking for 11 km through rural country roads, we arrive at Santilla Del Mar. It feels like arriving at an oasis. We are tired and weary from the plane journey, the train journey and the walk. The flag stoned streets and buildings are beautiful and there seems to be an abundance of places to rest our weary heads in and restaurants to eat in. We stay in the Alberque where we are quizzed about our lack of pilgrim passports by the very rude owner of the hostel. A very pleasant evening is spent eating and wandering around the town. The stars are shining in the night sky. It is going to be an amazing trip.
The next morning, we arise and go at the very early hour of 10am, all of the other pilgrims have already vacated the hostel and are about 5 hours into their day's walking at this stage. We take a more leisurely approach to the camino. After a hearty breakfast of coffee and pastries we follow the yellow arrows out of the town. The camino route is littered with yellow signs directing pilgrims on the route, which is a good thing considering the tiny roads you have to walk through. You know you are going in the wrong direction if you do not see a yellow sign for a km or 2. Very useful. Today we walk for about 15km towards Comillas which is a small coastal town. We pass some fabulous scenery on the way. The landscape of Northern Spain reminds me somewhat of the west of Ireland. The rolling green fields and small bodhreen's. We pass two farmers leaning by a gate looking at a donkey discussing something important. I could be at home.
Comilla's is a lovely seaside town and their alberque is much nicer than the one in Santilla Del Mar. Myself and Mark decide to take a dip in the sea. A word of warning, the sea in Northern Spain is much colder than you might think. I turn blue.
The following day sees us do our longest walk- 21km. We trudge uphill and navigate through small rural roads, we see some amazing scenery- mountains, coastal view, lemon trees, orange trees and corn fields. None the less, we are delighted to finally reach San vicente de la barquera. A larger seaside town than Comilla's. A lovely evening is spent hanging out in cafe's and going for a walk by the sea.
We are running out of Camino time at this stage so we cheat somewhat by getting the bus to Gijon from Ribadesalle. However we still walked 15 km which is no joke considering the challenging landscape. Gijon is very posh. Yachts litter the beautiful coastline and we feel very out of place with our by now manky backpacks! The most delicious meal of the trip is eaten in a lovely and not overly expensive italian restaurant. FYI I had a life-changingly good aubergine lasagne and tiramasu.
Things became a little more difficult at this point. We got the bus from Gijon to Aviles in the morning, after which we walked a very long uphill 15km without water or food for hours. Lost in the middle of the spanish Asturia´s for what seemed like hours, we were rescued by a guardian angel of a bus driver bearing chocolates. He brought us back to the civilisation of Avilles. Our souls worn we got a bus to a ghost town called San esteban de Pravia. Due to the lack of facilities in the town we have a not very substantial bag of crisps for dinner.
Desperate to get out of San Esteban de pravia we got the first bus to Cudillero where we spent an hour wondering how we would get out this prettier but equally dead town. Out of nowhere our ever helpful and by now bemused bus driver appears and takes us back to where we came from. We get a bus to Luarca where we have a yummy lunch, meet a crazy russian lady and get the train to Ferrel. Due to an abundance of blisters and a lack of time our camino has turned into more of a public transport tour of northern spain. One way or another we will make our way to Santiago.
After a good night´s sleep in a lovely pension we explore Ferrol and decide that it is time to make our way to Santiago. Blistered and broken we hobble onto the bus and sleep for two hours. At the bus station Maeve askes about buses into Santiago. She gets a funny look. A couple of Caminoes wave to us from outside the bus station. They have probably walked more than us. We hobble to James´s cathedral and take some pictures.
I was under the impression before i started the trip that getting to Santiago was the difficult part. Once you got there you could kick back, pat yourself on the back and relax in the knowledge that your papal indulgences were good for at least one mortal sin. FYI you need to walk 118km to receive a papal indulgence and that is only good for one mortal sin and there are a lot of them. You are probably commiting one right now. Needless to say that we did not work up enough km to warrant an indulgence on our express tour of Camino del Norde. Whether it was due to this failure or not, out time in Santiago was not easy. First of all, it rained all day and all night. It was torrential, it was Galway rain for crying out loud. Second of all, it was not so easy to get accommodation in Santiago- either there was no room at the inn or the prices were exorbitant. Finally we settled on a pension ran by an elderly woman who had no english, and didn't clean her rooms very often. In the middle of the night, we found some kind of strange bugs running around the mattress of the double bed. Totally creeped out we consider sleeping on the floor, but settle for the tiny child sized bed instead. Hoping against hope that those small red bugs were woodlice we try to forget about it and book into a nice, clean modern appartment for the following night. Turns out those bugs, weren't woodlice at all, but bed bugs. Two days back in Ireland I explode in swollen bug bite marks- they are everywhere- my face, my arms, my legs, my neck, my feet. To make matters worse, i appear to be the only one who has been bitten. Out of four of us, what are the chances? I boil everything in site and throw away a lot of the clothes i was wearing on the trip. I hope against hope that i have'nt brought them into my appartment. I don't think i have ,at this stage i would have notices.
Santiago is a beautiful city, full of flag stone buildings, and streets. A magnificent Cathedral and a lovely tapas bar. It is just a pity i will always associate it with nasty bed bugs.