Last year on June 29, I wrote that we were training for another 500-mile trek (El Camino del Norte) IF we met certain criteria by July 7. The main concern last year was whether I’d recovered enough from my skiing accident 5 months earlier to endure the long, and sometimes grueling, daily hikes in Spain. My physical ability wasn’t the reason that we ultimately decided to postpone our Camino last year. As it had been since March 2020, COVID was the ultimate concern.
What if Spain “closed down” while we were there?
What if we couldn’t see my Basque family?
What if lodging and restaurants were suddenly closed?
The criteria this year (same as last):
We are able to hike for 4-5 hours (12-15 miles) a day by the first week of July
Our good health continues
COVID is under control in Spain
Spain allows Americans into their country
We are able to make our travel plans without breaking the bank
Our potential schedule meshes with my Basque cousins’ schedules
We can find people to stay at our house and take care of the pups for 6 weeks
We’ve decided that all criteria WILL be met! I’m a bit nervous about my ability to hike for 4-5 hours a day, but I’m sure that I’ll get there by July. And so, as our skiing friend Bill says: Here we go again!
It’s been 5 years since our last Camino. Since then, we moved from Manhattan Beach, CA (sea level) to Park City UT (7300-ft. altitude), where it snows throughout the spring (and sometimes into the summer). We have 2 Labrador Retrievers, Sterling and Willow, who require daily hikes no matter how tired we are. Our training will be tougher and more consistent, but we will be better able to handle the hills on the Camino. At least that’s the plan!
I am encouraged by my lifelong friend Grace, who just completed her 6th Camino!
Camino Frances, which starts in St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues westward across Spain
Camino Portuguese, starting in Lisbon, Portugal
Via Francigena, in Italy, from Aosta to Rome
Camino del Norte, from the border city of Irun, along the northern coast of Spain
Le Puy Camino in France
Via de la Plata (longest Camino), from Sevilla
Thank you for following along during our training, and our anticipated journey. Encouragement and tips appreciated!
I didn’t anticipate being able to train for another 500-mile trek until July after my skiing accident. When I started hiking with Mike and the pups in May, I broached the subject of doing our next Camino THIS year if we meet a few criteria:
We are able to Hike for 4-5 hours (12-15 miles) a day by the first week of July
Our good health continues
COVID is under control in Spain
Spain allows Americans into their country
We are able to make our travel plans without breaking the bank
Our potential schedule meshes with my Basque cousins’ schedules
We can find people to stay at our house and take care of the pups for 6 weeks
All of the criteria except the first one, have been met.
The differences between training in Manhattan Beach in 2017 and training here in Park City are:
Manhattan Beach is at sea level ~ ~ ~ Park City hiking trails start at 7300 feet above sea level and go up to 9400 feet
We can walk about 20 miles on The Strand in 5 hours ~ ~ ~ Hiking 12-15 miles is a lot more strenuous in the mountains. 20 miles would take more than 7 hours on the trails here.
We didn’t have puppies in 2017 ~ ~ ~ we haven’t tried to hike for 5 hours with the puppies this year
We anticipate that our strenuous uphill treks in Spain will be a bit easier than we experienced in 2017 because we’re training on mountainous terrain, and at altitudes much higher than we will encounter on our Camino. One challenge here is the heat. We’re going to start out before 7:00 on hot days, hoping to hike for at least 3 or 4 hours before it hits 90°F (32°C).
I twisted my ankle a few weeks ago, and I took a few days off to give it the “R.I.C.E” (Rest. Ice. Compress. Elevate) treatment:
We may need to give it one extra week (Until July 7) before making the decision to start planning a 6-week trip to Europe. But we are getting closer to that “GO” decision.
In the meantime, we’re training as if we will actually go. Encouragement and tips appreciated!
Day 19, La Caridad to Ribadeo ~ Sept 22 Mike did this stage solo, as I badly needed an extra day to recuperate. After a massage, I felt much better, and I was grateful that Mike had suggested that I take a day off. Our hotel room overlooks the River Eo. I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise before breakfast.
Mike, in the meantime, didn’t have to wait for me to catch up or to stretch my legs and feet. He managed to do the 15 miles in 4½ hours, including a café con leche stop (he texted me the picture). We had a lovely lunch in the Parador dining room, and he told me about his hike. He said that it was relatively easy, with very few hills and a beautiful walk across the bridge over the River Eo. I wished that we could have gone to the Playa de Catedrales…. Another place to add to our list to do the next time we visit Spain.
Ribadeo is at the start of our time in Galicia, the last province on our Camino.
Day 20, Ribadeo to Lourenzá ~ Sept 23 This is where we start our trek inland. The terrain is hillier, and the elevation pretty much stays at about 1000 feet. This is a very rural part of Spain, dotted with small villages, not too many places to get café con leche, and fewer peregrinos. Many of the people doing the Camino del Norte jump down to the Camino Primitivo after Gijon, and we’ve noticed a pronounced decline in the number of people that we see.
The terrain was mostly pavement, and the uphill climb was pretty tough. At one point I stopped at a park bench to rub my feet while Mike continued up the hill to try to find a café. Lo and behold, there was one! We stopped for a bite to eat and a café con leche, and met a bunch of young folks who seemed to be traveling somewhat together, meaning they all seemed to have the same daily destinations and it seemed like they were pretty much staying in the same albergues each night. They were from the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, the UK, and Canada. And the 2 guys from London also showed up.
We finally arrived in Lourenza, had a bite to eat in a small bar, and found our guesthouse. Casa Gloria had potential, but things went south pretty quickly. First: no hot water. Mike took a cold shower, but I went to find the innkeeper who had to call someone to fix the problem. Poor Mike never really got warm. Second: we had a double bed. We sleep in a queen-sized bed at home, but when we’re away we usually book a king-sized bed. Third: the walls are very thin. Just saying. The positive: the guesthouse is owned by a person who also owns a bakery, so they left some yummy pastries and juice for us in the self-service kitchen.
Day 21, Lourenza to Abadín ~ Sept 24 We started out walking up a surprisingly pleasant trail in the rain. Up until that point, the forecast had been for 7 days of non-stop rain that never really amounted to anything significant. Because there were very few puddles on the trail, it was pretty easy. The trail had dozens of little lizards. Very cute.
Walking with headlamps is easier than I remembered from 5 years ago. This time, we also had rain jackets, backpack covers, and ponchos. The rain only lasted a few hours. By the time we reached Mondoñedo, it had cleared up. Mondoñedo has one of the Camino del Norte’s most beautiful Cathedrals. Wish we’d been able to go inside.
We started seeing windmills, which we didn’t see on the coast. On the Camino Primitivo 5 years ago when we’d see the windmills we could be guaranteed that we’d have to climb up to them. This time, we walked on paved roads around the mountain. And we didn’t have to climb all the way up to the windmills.
Since we ended this stage in a very small town, we took a taxi to Vilalba where we were staying for the night. The next morning, a taxi took us back to where we ended up, and we walked back to Vilalba. The logistics seemed daunting until we realized they made sense. And it was nice to be in the same place 3 nights in a row (including an extra rest day).
Day 22, Abadín to Vilalba ~ Sept 25 After our ride back to where we ended up the day before, we started out in the rain again. We passed lots of cows, lots of baby calves. The mist in the valley was mystical looking, and the mixture of sun poking through the clouds and darker rain clouds was beautiful. We met one of the “kids” that we’d met a few days before. Carmen, from the Netherlands, walked from her home in June, through France, to the Camino del Norte in Spain, and will finally finish next week in Santiago de Compostela. When we saw her she had been walking for 112 days! Wish we’d gotten a picture with her. We had a nice chat over café con leche.
We also met a couple from Arlington Virginia who were heading to Vilalba and will get to Santiago a day before us. We’re taking a rest day tomorrow, so we’re a day behind most of the people that we’ve met this past week. We were surprised to see a woman who is doing the Camino on horseback! She walks the horse through the villages.
We had a delicious comida at LarOs Píos, after seeing a small parade of people wandering around the Plaza, dancing to bagpipes and a drummer. They came into the restaurant where we were dining… after they danced outside for about 15 minutes to the bagpipe music. No idea what that was about, but they seemed happy, all dressed up in fancy clothes. Before heading back to our hotel, we stopped in at the Church of Santa Maria to light a few candles, say a prayer, and take some pictures. Many of the churches have automatic [electric] candles. I imagine it’s to make sure that nobody inadvertently starts a fire. But it is odd to put a few coins into a slot to light a candle.
We decided to do laundry so that we could have a day to relax on our last rest day, and gave ourselves a tour of the Torre dos Andrade, which is now part of the Parador where we are staying.
Vilalba ~ Sept 26 It was very nice to have an extra day of rest! We walked around the town; Mike bought a sweater, and we found a Michelin-rated restaurant, Meson dos Campo, for lunch. It was a wonderful meal! The building is beautiful, the food (a tomato salad with figs, onions, and goat cheese; tuna tartare with guacamole and salsa; and beef tenderloin) was outstanding. Best part: Mike went down to the wine cellar to choose a bottle of wine, a 2006 red blend.
I took advantage of our downtime to upload pictures and catch up on our blog. Mike found the route out of Vilalba for our walk to Baamonde (about 12 miles) tomorrow. Now, to sleep! Thanks for following along.
Day 15, Ribadasella to Colunga ~ Sept 18 After a welcome day of rest (and laundry), we left the beach, and started our trek toward Colunga. The benefits of walking before dawn are seeing beautiful sunrises and walking before it gets too warm. We passed a bunch of hand-painted signs on posts, listing cities where fellow peregrinos were from. The man who owned the property had a make-shift mini golf course, and he asked us if we wanted to add Park City. We declined, but it was fun seeing all of the signs.
We’ve started seeing the hórreos in Asturia. These are buildings that were used to store and preserve food, specifically grain, away from moisture and animals (particularly mice and other rodents) and to keep them in an optimal state for consumption. They are characterized by raised pillars and grooves in the perimeter walls to allow ventilation. Hórreos are mainly found in the Northwest of Spain (Galicia and Asturias).
We walked through the charming little village of La Vega, where the townspeople have painted gorgeous murals on their houses. The walk was mostly on paved country roads, and we walked through eucalyptus forests. I learned from Ismael, my cousin’s son-in-law, that the eucalyptus trees are terrible for the environment. Brought from Australia, they grow quickly, and then are cut down for paper. Invasive and highly flammable, the trees dry out the land surrounding the forests, and are the cause of many of the fires in recent years. As you can imagine, the issue is political: the environment versus the economy.
We arrived at Hotel Mar del Sueve in time to take quick showers before having a wonderful lunch by the sea at Restaurante Vista Alegre with Charo, Ismael, Guillermo, and Martín. It was the last time that we will see our cousins until we hopefully return in 2024. Of course, we had rodaballo and a bottle of Rosé from Navarra.
Day 16, Soto de Luiña to Cadavedo ~ Sept 19 This was our final “jump-ahead”, where we skipped a few stages and cities (Gijon and Aviles among them). When we arrived in Soto de Luiña, the driver dropped us off at a café, where we could thankfully get café con leche and some food before starting our 15-mile trek. I told the café owner (who was full of advice for all of the peregrinos, and who reminded me of Seattle Chef Thierry Rautureau without the hat) that we had skipped those cities, he said it was a good idea, because that part of the Camino is “feo” (ugly).
By the time we had a “real” breakfast (eggs, bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice, café con leche) and socialized with the café owner, it was 8:45, 2 hours later than we usually start walking. We met a lot of other people that day, including 2 students from London who will arrive in Santiago 2 days before they start University.
It was a beautiful walk, along high cliffs above the sea. We should have looked at Google Maps a little earlier, as we passed right by our “Casa Rural” and kept walking in search of a specific restaurant…. which was closed. We ended up eating at a small place that had not-so-great food, but we were very hungry, so we would have settled for anything. However, I did try Martín’s favorite dessert, the tarte de la Abuela (Grandmother’s cake), so it was worth the stop. We backtracked to the Hotel Astur Regal, where they apparently also serve lunch! If only we had known…..
Day 17, Cadavedo to Luarca ~ Sept 20 We had a relatively short trek this day, but we still left very early. We passed a lot of churches, chapels, ornate cemeteries, and what we later learned were “paneras” (bread baskets) similar to the hórreos (granaries). The panera has a flat roof with an easel; hórreos have gabled roofs that join at the upper point. In addition, paneras are usually larger, and have bases of more than 4 “legs”.
As we walked into the gorgeous town of Luarca, we were awestruck by its beauty. The cobblestone streets, the views of the beaches, the energetic vibe of the town… and that was before we climbed up to our hotel, the Casona el Gurugu. As luck would have it, the owner was passing by as we were trying to figure out how to get into the lobby. AND, his sister and her husband, who live in Texas and speak perfect English, happened to spot us at the same time.
This hotel has to be one of our favorites along the Camino del Norte. It has been completely renovated, from the panera that is now a conference room, to each room specifically designed with an important historical person of Luarca in mind. We stayed in the “Gines” room, and later learned about the man for whom it was named and designed.
Gines was in love with a local woman, but they were not allowed to get married because he did not have any money. He went to “the Americas”, ended up in Cuba, made his fortune, and returned to Luarca, only to find that his love had married somebody else. He stayed in Luarca and wanted to buy the grandest coche (car) to show off his wealth. The room was designed in a Habana (Havana) theme. The bar was designed as an Irish bar. The owner, Avelino, his wife Esther, his sister Isabel, and her husband Nelson, were charming, and happy to share the history of this gorgeous place with us. Based on their recommendation, we had a delicious comida at La Perla Negra (The Black Pearl). I mistakenly ordered lubina (sea bass) instead of rodaballo, but it was delicious.
Mike and I agreed that we’d love to come back to this charming town, and to spend more time at this equally charming hotel. PLUS, it’s at the top of the town, meaning that we didn’t have to climb up a hill to get to the Camino the next morning.
Day 18, Luarca to Navia ~ Sept 21 The walk from Luarca was relatively flat, with beautiful views, beautiful beaches, pine forests, and open countryside
The plan was to walk to La Caridad, about 20 miles, and then get a car to Ribadeo. By the time we reached Navia I couldn’t walk another step. We decided to stop at a bar for something to drink (cerveza for Mike, Coca Cola for me), and we called a taxi to take us to Ribadeo. I was very grateful that we were traveling through a town instead of a forest where it would have been impossible to get a ride. When we did the Camino in 2017, I was determined to walk every step. This time, I’m struggling a lot more, and I decided that there is no shame in cutting a few miles from our plan…..
And then Mike suggested that I may want to skip the next day (La Caridad back to Ribadeo) altogether. It was billed as a relatively short day, not many hills. But I was in a great deal of pain, and I opted to stay back at the Parador and have a massage. That rejuvenated me, hopefully enough to make it the rest of the way to Santiago de Compostela. Big downside of skipping that stage: I totally missed the Playa de Catedrales.
We were excited to spend another weekend with my family, this time in the beach town of Isla, in the Cantabrian Province. My cousin Marisa made a wonderful meal on Friday night. We spent the evening with Marisa, her husband Amador, her sons Josu and Iñigo, Iñigo’s wife Yoli, their beautiful daughters Lucia and Claudia, Marisa’s daughter Charo, her husband Ismael, and their sons Guillermo and Martín, my cousins Karmele, Mari Loli, and Andone, Andone’s daughter Amaia and her 2 also beautiful daughters Zoe and Xana. It’s amazing how much energy we had after a very long walk that day!
On Saturday we set out to find a laundromat in Isla, but the closest one was several kilometers away, and we decided to ask the hotel to do our wash for us. Worth it! We had lunch with Charo, Ismael, and their sons, and then cheered for Guillermo and his futbol team (Guille was fantastco!).
After futbol, we went to Santander for a ferry tour of this beautiful city. Being on the water on a hot day was a brilliant idea that Charo and Ismael had. Such a treat! I love ferries, and even though we couldn’t understand the guide who was explaining what we were seeing (and apparently cracking dumb jokes), Ismael helped to translate and to point out places of interest and historical importance. Afterwards, we had pintxos and wine, and made a stop at El Corte Ingles for a few bottles of wine for a family dinner the next day. If we lived here, I’d definitely spend time at El Corte Ingles! I remember going to that store in Madrid in 1973 with my Mom.
On Sunday, we planned to go to Marisa’s and Amador’s again, for a barbecue. Some of my cousins from Ermua met us at our hotel before walking to Marisa’s. We hadn’t seen Julen and his wife Arrate last weekend in Markina, and we were delighted that they were able to make it to Isla. Ismael, Inma, and Luken also came from Ermua, as well as Mikel and Ainara from Vitoria. So fun! In addition to the family that we saw on Friday, Josu’s wife Geno came, and their daughter María and their son Jesus. Besides a wonderful selection of barbecued meats, Marisa made Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding) for dessert! I heard that she makes “the best” arroz con leche, so I was really looking forward to that. On a scale of 1-10, I’d give it an 11.
Marisa is an amazing hostess. She made sure that we had plenty of sparkling water, wine, and food. Although it was a very hot day, they set up tents to keep us cool, and a breeze helped as well. I only wish that we’d taken more pictures of the family. I miss them already.
The only way to “catch up” and post pictures from the past week is to include everything from Monday through Friday. It was a tough week: hot, some rain, a few steep climbs, a few wrong turns. A typical week on the Camino. I also got my first blister. It is small but mighty. The sunrises are getting later, but we’re still trying to start each day before 7:00. Goal is to start at 6:30, but so far no luck.
S del Mar-Comillas
San Miguel de Meruelo to Santillana del Mar After another fun weekend with my family in Isla, we continued our journey westward toward Santiago de Compostela. Since we had veered off the official Camino to stop in Isla, we took a taxi to San Miguel de Meruelo, and walked to Somo, where we took a passenger ferry to Santander. Apparently, the boats that are on the shore next to the ferry have to wait until high tide to be of any use.
Mike got a kick out of a tractor that must have run out of gas. A petrol truck came to the rescue! The walk to Somo was mostly on paved roads, past beautiful rolling hills with glimpses of the sea. A local woman ran to tell us that there was a more beautiful trail that runs along the cliffs. We tried to find it, and ended up on a very sandy path that did eventually lead to the ferry dock.
We were happy to arrive in Santander, a city that we enjoyed with Charo, Ismael, Guillermo and Martín a few days earlier. We had rodaballo (turbot) for lunch again, and then took a taxi to Santillana del Mar. On our first Camino del Norte, we “jumped ahead” to miss some of the cities, and to make up for the extra time that we spent with family. We are doing the same this time, enjoying the countryside.
They say that Santillana del Mar is the town of the three lies: not holy (santi), flat (llana) or by the sea (del mar). This medieval jewel is in such a perfect state of preservation, with its bright cobbled streets, flower-filled balconies and huddle of tanned stone and brick buildings – it looks like a film set.
We stayed at the Hotel Museo Los Infantes, a beautiful and very old Inn in this beautiful and historic town, took a walk through the old town, had a glass of wine in The Parador, and took extra care on the cobblestone streets. A few tour buses filled with mostly older (than us) people came through.
Santillana del Mar to Comillas When we left Santillana, it was 82 degrees, not a great way to start. But the beautiful mountains and view of the sea were spectacular.
A highlight was Cóbreces, which “lights up with color”, dominated by 2 pastel-colored buildings: • the red Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, a striking Neo-Gothic structure with 2 prominent towers and an octagonal dome. A monument to pilgrims stands behind it. • The sky-blue Cistercian Abbey of Viaceli, distinctive for its rows of pointed windows.
We met Tom, an 82-year-old man from Maine, who was also heading to Comillas. He is doing his 7th Camino. His wife, who taught in Bilbao, was fluent in Spanish, and was an avid hiker, died in 2013. That’s when he decided to do a Camino. While he was walking, he believed that he saw his wife walking ahead of him. Such a lovely thought. Since then, he’s done 5 more Caminos, and has had several unanticipated interruptions in his attempts to do the Camino del Norte. We hope he’s able to complete it this time! Mike feels that meeting Tom was a sign that my Mom is walking with us on our journey.
A town with palaces and noble homes, Comillas was frequented by the Spanish royal family at the beginning of the 20th century. Its main attraction is an odd villa called El Capricho (“The Whimsy”), created by Antonio Gaudí and covered with green and yellow three-dimensional flowered tiles of his own design. It is a stunning combination of brick, iron, and pottery, displaying both Spanish and Arabic influences. Gaudí assisted with the general design and furnishings of the Palacio de Sobrellano, an impressive Neo-Gothic building. As in 2017, we didn’t make it to El Capricho in time to take a tour.
Comillas to Unquera Starting before dawn with headlights, we have seen some beautiful sunrises. The last time we walked to Unquera, we walked by the beach. This time, we walked (unintentionally) inland. But the walk through a golf course, a partial rainbow, and a Maxfield Parrish sky made our wrong turn worthwhile.
We walked alongside train tracks and on a lot of paved roads. The pavement is not the best for our feet, legs, and backs. I prefer it over wet and slippery, rocky paths, but I sure do miss the Midmountain trail in Park City. We met João Paulo from Brazil, who was doing a “fast” (as in fasting from food) day. Now that’s what I call poco loco!
Just as my feet were about to go on strike, we reached the Hotel Canal, and walked across the river to Casa Sein, where we’d had a wonderful meal 5 years ago. The food, service, and wine did not disappoint.
We were exhausted, but the room didn’t have a/c, and a pesky mosquito kept us awake for a few hours.
Unquera to Llanes This morning started with a steep climb up to Colombres. Mike thinks the tiny chapel at the top is a place to give thanks that we made it. As always, the sounds of roosters, cowbells, and birds accompanied us on our early morning trek.
It’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you. I remembered this stage from 5 years ago as difficult, but very pleasant, a mostly even walk on the high cliffs above the Cantabrian Sea before a tough descent to Llanes. Maybe because we had 2 hours of heavy rain and we were walking in very wet shoes, maybe because we took a coastal trail instead of staying on the paved roads…. In any case, the last 5 miles of this stage were really hard. Lots of ups and downs, the town seemed like it was getting farther away rather than closer. Thankfully the rain stopped and our clothing dried out a bit before we walked to a restaurant for a welcome meal, cold water, and wine. Hotel Sablon is very nice, but once again, no a/c. We put our shoes, insoles, and clothes on the balcony to dry, and decided to deal with a hot room rather than mosquitos. Longing for a good night’s sleep.
Llanes to Ribadasella This was our longest trek since starting our Camino. My cousin Marisa’s son-in-law Ismael walked the 36km with us. Ismael has a great eye, and he stopped to take some beautiful photos on the way. He also helped to keep our minds off the long walk. I felt badly that Ismael had to take a bus back to Llanes to get his car, and then to drive more than an hour back home. But it sure was nice to have him along for the day!
Yesterday, and again today, we ran into Miguel from Madrid. He speaks a little bit of English, and he seems to be walking with an older guy who takes his shirt off every time they stop for café con leche. Not a pleasant sight.
We passed through “Poo” (the town), walked next to beaches, and stopped a few times for café con leche and, later, for bocadillos muy grande and cokes. Including the walk across the river to our hotel, we ended up walking 23 miles. Thankfully we have an extra day in Ribadasella to do laundry and rest our tired legs and feet.
Portugalete to Castro: 26.5km / 16.5 miles / 7 hours Sunrise 7:42 Weather: 63°F / 17.2°C, Sunny Start: 6:40 Total Ascent: 1408 ft. Arrived at 13:45 Difficulty Rating: Terrain 3; Waymarking 4 Scenery Rating: 4
After a brisk and very early climb up from the beach in Portugalete, we walked on a pretty cool pedestrian and bicycle path that crossed over a crazy amount of freeways. The vast majority of our walk was on paved paths, which was a change from the rocky, sometimes slippery terrain that we’d experienced during our first couple of days on the Camino. We climbed a very long stairway, which we remembered from 5 years ago. Our training hikes on steep trails made us more prepared this time!
When we got to the Hotel Las Rocas in Castro Urdiales, we saw a gentleman who looked familiar. We were busy checking in, so I didn’t say anything. Later, when we went back downstairs the man was there again. I asked him a few questions: “Do you speak English?” (Yes) “Are you from Ireland?” (Yes) “Is your name Garrett?” (Yes)
We met Garrett 5 years ago on the Camino Primitivo, walking and chatting. We ran into him a few times, in hotels and again when we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. We couldn’t believe that we saw him again! On a different Camino, in the same hotel where we were staying. What are the odds?
We asked Garrett to join us for lunch, but he wanted to stay closer to the hotel. We had a good meal at La Marinera, walked around the castle ruins, the Gothic Santa Maria Church, and harbor, and went for a walk on the beach. The cold water was just what our sore feet and swollen ankles needed.
Later, we had a glass of wine with Garrett, and compared our Camino plans. We’ll be crisscrossing each other a few times during our Caminos, but probably won’t see him again. He will drop down to the Camino Primitivo as we did in 2017, and we’ll continue on El Camino del Norte.
Castro Urdiales, called Flavióbriga by the Romans, is set on a cliff by the sea. A long-inhabited area, with remains dating to 12,000 BC., a Templar castle stood here. The Parish Church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion is a very famous sight. One of the Norte’s finest Gothic churches, its exterior is spectacular, with buttresses flying in all directions. Strange iconography on the main entrance’s frieze harkens back to Templar time, with rabbits kissing oxen, dragons eating serpents eating birds, and so on.
Lezama to Bilbao: 9.5km / 5.9 miles / 3 hours Sunrise 7:44 Weather: 65°F / 17.2°C, Sunny Start: 6:40 Total Ascent: 1128 ft. Arrived at 10:45 Difficulty Rating: Terrain 2; Waymarking 4 Scenery Rating: 2
This stage includes walking through the city of Bilbao and a transporter bridge from Getxo to Portugalete. We aren’t fond of schlepping through cities on our Caminos, so we typically get a taxi to get to our next destination. This was one of those days.
We went to the Cathedral, but Mass was about to start, so no pictures from the inside. Then we wandered to the “old town”. My legs and feet were begging for an easier day, and I was delighted that we had decided to cut our day short.
We could have walked some of the route and then taken a taxi to the “ferry” to get to Portugalete. As it was, we stopped for a café con leche and a bite to eat in a Plaza by the Museo de Vasca (Basque Museum). The museum is closed for renovations; otherwise we would have spent some time there. Instead, we took a taxi the long way around to Portugalete.
Portugalete is not a tourist town, but we did climb the stairs to see one of the 3 churches after having lunch at an Italian restaurant with a very rude waiter. The restaurant that the lady at our hotel recommended wasn’t open, and since kitchens typically close at 3:00, we stopped at the first place with availability.
Gernika to Lezama: 24km / 15 miles / 7 hours Sunrise 7:40 Weather: 63°F / 17.2°C, Sunny Start: 6:40 Total Ascent: 2076 ft. Arrived at 13:45 Difficulty Rating: Terrain 3; Waymarking 4 Scenery Rating: 3
Getting out of cities is always a challenge, and today was no different. We’ve been trying to start as close to 6:30 as possible in order to arrive at each day’s destination before it gets too hot. So far, it’s been very hot in the afternoons (high 80’s). Mike was wondering how to say “my wife is grumpy” in Spanish. Making a wrong turn first thing isn’t the best way to start the day’s hike. Thankfully we had a relatively easy day, no steep hills, no knee-breaking descents.
We got to Hotel Rural Matsa earlier than expected. On a hot day we were bummed to discover that the room had no a/c. “Mi esposa es gruñona.” We took a taxi 2½ miles to a restaurant and then sat outside at the hotel before meeting up with my cousin Mikel, his wife Ainara, and their 2 gorgeous daughters Lucia and Malen.
Seeing my “little cousin Miguelito” (I met him when he was 7 and I was 17) with his daughters was fun. The girls are smart, charming, and smart-asses like their father. They were curious about exactly HOW we are related. My grandmother Bernardina and their great-grandfather Gallo were brother & sister My father and their Abuelo Julian were first cousins And then we can argue about whether we are 2nd cousins once-removed, third cousins, etc. It doesn’t really matter. We are all “family”.
Total Ascent: 2045 ft. Difficulty Rating: Terrain 4; Waymarking 3 Scenery Rating: 3
We walked to the city of Guernica(Basque: Gernika), passing through Bolibar (named after Simón de Bolívar, from the village of Bolibar in Bizkaia). He left for Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, sometime around 1559. More than 200 years later his ancestor, known as the Liberator, Simón Bolívar became a national hero to many South American countries. Under his leadership, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama gained their independence from Spain. He also became president of what was then called Grand Columbia, encompassing the modern countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador.
On The Way, we met a very nice Padre at the Monasterio de Zenarruza, a “serene spot for rest and reflection” where we stopped 5 years ago. We had a nice chat and continued on our Camino.
We arrived in Gernika (sister city: Boise, Idaho) very hot, very tired, and very hungry. A local man guided us (walked all the way with us) to a restaurant for a mid-day “Comida”, but we had to wait for an hour for a table, so we went to a nearby restaurant and had rodaballo before heading to Hotel Gernika for the night.
I wrote about our previous visit to Gernika with my cousin Mikel and his wife Ainara in a previous post. I was happy that we were able to explore this historic city when we weren’t too exhausted to appreciate the importance of it.
After enjoying pizza with my Basque cousins on Friday night, we found a laundromat to wash our clothes and then spent Saturday with my cousin Mikel and his beautiful wife Ainara, touring Gernika and then visiting a few seaside towns before heading back to Markina for more – you guessed it – pizza.
We knew that we wouldn’t be able to see the Peace Museum in Gernika when we walk there on Monday, and I really wanted to see the town and the museum. It’s a wonderful city, filled with beautiful buildings and plenty of pintxos bars.
Guernica was brutally attacked in 1937 on a peaceful day while the townspeople were at the market, going about their business. The German Condor Legion introduced saturation bombing, pummeling the town with incendiary explosives before passing a second time to strafe the fleeing townspeople. The town was destroyed and thousands were killed.
As a result of the bombing, Guernica has very few historic buildings. However, a sapling of the old oak tree survives in the park surrounding the Casa de Juntas, the seat of the Viscayan Provincial General Assembly.
Picasso’s famous mural depicting the atrocities of that day:
A historical novel, Guernica, by Dave Boling, is a good read. It provides an interesting take on life in the Basque Country during that time, as well as the details of that horrific day.
The next day, we visited the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, and the Ermita de San Miguel de Arretxinaga in Markina-Xemein before heading to a delicious Paella feast at the cabin of my cousins Isma (y Inma) and Jon (y Loli), along with more cousins (Mikel & Ainara, Marisa, Miren, Joken, Charo & Ismael and their sons Guilllermo & Martín, Jon & Sandra, and Luken).
After appetizers and wine, we had an amazing Paella made by Loli and Inma, and a traditional Basque cheesecake and Tarta de Manzana (Apple Tart), both made by Inma. After a wonderful afternoon, we were ready for a good night’s sleep to get ready for our 5th stage on the Camino.
For reference, we started our Camino del Norte on 30-August at the border town of Irun, just west of San Sebastian. For the most part, we have walked along the Golfo de Vizcaya. We will continue our journey past Gijon toward the Cabo de Peñas on the coast before heading inland after Ribadeo (23-Sept) toward Santiago de Compostela.
Deba to Markina-Xemein: 29.3km / 18.2 miles Sunrise 7:35 Weather 60°F / 15.5°C Light morning rain, overcast later Start: 6:40 Arrived @14:00 in town, 15:00 at Hotel Antsotegi
Total Ascent: 3202 ft. Difficulty Rating: Terrain 5; Waymarking 2 Scenery Rating: 4
Today we left the Cantabrian Sea behind to enter the Basque mountains and their hamlets. Luckily we started out very early! The beginning of our walk was beautiful, and we were feeling pretty good about our progress. It is one of the hardest stages since the continuous ups and downs were tough on our legs (knees especially). We quickly switched from the asphalt to dirt roads, surrounded by trees and among several hamlets so typical of this area.
While on this path 5 years ago, we missed a sign, and ended up following a very steep, very rocky path up, avoiding cow dung on the way. Then we saw lots of cows on the path. And cows leaping across the path. That should have been a hint that maybe we were no longer on the road to Santiago…. We continued up one route, decided that we took a wrong turn, back-tracked, and then took yet another path that was also wrong. Finally, we descended through the same wonderful (not wonderful) rocky path, avoiding the cow dung. At the bottom we saw the sign that we missed. By that time we’d lost an hour. This time, we paid closer attention. We knew that we had a grueling ascent ahead.
We planned to stop for a café con leche in the picturesque village of Olatz, what would have been our only opportunity to get food before we crossed from Guipuzcoa into Vizcaya, but the taverns don’t open until after 10:00, and we started out way too early that morning. So we made our way up to the tortuous “profanity hill” climb, thankful that we’d trained on Red Cloud trail in Deer Valley last month. The hill was paved since our last Camino, but the relentless switchbacks were just as hard.
With views of the Artibai valley we made it down the challenging descent, both because of the slope and because of the slippery cobblestone pavement. Our knees were screaming by the time we got to the bottom. The gentle meadow at the end of this stretch was a welcome relief.
Eventually we continued to the Urko River, which we crossed twice on our way to our destination, Markina-Xemein, considered the “university of the pelota” since many of the best Basque pelota players in the world are from there. We made it to a bar in the center of Markina, where we had a few sodas, jamon de Iberico and queso with a lovely peregrino from Alaska, Phyllis. (She was born in Milltown, NJ!)
We passed by the hermitage of San Miguel, an 18th century temple, built on top of another one at least four centuries old, is known for the three huge rocks that support each other, forming a kind of chapel. At the epicenter of this union is a figure of the Archangel Michael, protected by monoliths at least forty million years old. (I’ll post more about this later… we did go into the Ermita on Sunday.)
We stayed in Markina-Xemein for a few days to visit with cousins on my paternal grandmother’s side. Bernarda Arano Power was born in the little village of Berriatua. My father’s cousins’ children and grandchildren grew up in or near Berriatua. We first met them in 1973 when my parents, several aunts (Luisa and Bernie), my Dad’s Tio Jose, and more of my dad’s cousins (Marie, Viviana, Nieves) and their families traveled to Spain to see my dad’s Basque cousins Lucio (y Matilda), Severo (y Juli), Txomin, and Julian (y Karmele) Arano and their families. We’ve managed to stay in touch (haphazardly) for almost 50 years.
We’ve stayed at Hotel Antsotegi twice before, in 2017 on our first Camino, and again in 2018 with my mom, sister Jeni, and niece Maggie. My cousin’s son Josu told us that the pizza at the hotel bar was excellent. I can attest to the truth of his statement.
Some (23) of my Basque family arrived at 8:00pm, just in time for ensalada mixta, lots of pizza, wine, fun, and frivolity. The lady in charge happened to be from the US; Ainsley spoke English, Spanish, and Basque, and she arranged for us to have a private banquet room for our family “pizza night”. So. Much. Fun!!
From east (Deba) to west (Markina)… the uphill from Olatz and the downhill to Markina were pretty rough: