Challenging Myself on the Camino del Norte
There was a swell of emotion in me as I prepared to move to Spain and it certainly followed me all the way back to the Camino de Santiago. This Camino was an extreme mental and physical challenge for me, to a much greater degree than those 800 kilometers on the Camino Francés.
My two summers on the Francés were magic and I imagined in its own way, the Camino del Norte would be the same. Maybe I brought too many expectations, was less organized, and physically prepared, but the start of this journey to Santiago was just…different.
For one, the terrain was a challenge. I decided to start a few days from the actual beginning of the northern route in order to skip the walk to San Sebastián. I had already explored these stages and didn’t want to back track— that and I had exactly 10 days before Filippo would return from Rome and wanted to make it to Santander. In doing so, I had bypassed a few days of strenuous mountain climbs, but as I passed through País Vasco, the landscape would keep me climbing and descending for days. Day 2 began with a downpour that left me sopping wet and sulking the rest of the day. (Wet socks all day are not a part of my blister-free foot regimen.)
I wasn’t prepared for all the highway walking— ugly, dangerous, and un-Camino like, it was a challenge to just keep going kilometer after kilometer with cars and trucks zooming by.
And I wasn’t prepared for the final blast of summer heat. Walking in June on my past Caminos had awarded me with perfect weather, so the mountains mixed with asphalt and cloudless, hot days increased my exhaustion and irritability.
The pilgrim cammraderie was different as well. At times, the groups of pilgrims felt very segregated. I missed the afternoons after walking spent sipping wine in the plaza and welcoming every passing pilgrim over for a drink. On the Norte, there were many afternoons and evenings I spent alone.
Language was a factor. The English speakers I met less than a handful of times seemed to vanish as quickly as they appeared. And while I was thankful for my command of Spanish to converse and make friends, often in all the exhaustion, I just wanted to be able to speak English.
It was a different kind of pilgrimage, maybe one that more accurately mirrored the lows in life and effort it takes during hard times to keep going— and look for that silver lining.
And silver linings there were. I walked with some wonderful Europeans that definitely grew on me. I learned about Basque culture from a chatty Basque man, spoke Spanish with Spanish girls my age also walking alone, and fell into a daily walking routine with a kind, happy Italian woman.
This Camino makes you work for the views, but when those heavenly coastal views loom up beside you, you can’t help but appreciate the whole journey.
I think my attitude was characteristic of more than the challenges of the Camino below my feet, but of the Camino behind and before me as I made such a big life change to move to Spain. In a way, I needed a pilgrimage more than ever.
Here is my journey day-by-day through silver linings.
Day 1: Zarautz to Deba, 21.8K
Stunning views along the coast today, but not many towns to stop in for food (any!) I was really starting to feel hungry when I came up to a spread of jarred peanuts and bottles of cider along the trail. Sitting down for a snack slowed me down and put me in pace with the only Americans I ever walked with during my 10 days.
Day 2: Deba to Markina, 24K
The rain starting the day was awful, but a huge rainbow came out in the storms furry. I met and walked with a Igñaki the Basque and Miguel from Murcia. We stayed at a church with the sweetest hospitalero, Gabriel taking good care of us. Igñaki, Miguel, and I went from bar to bar drinking vino tinto, speaking Spanish, and laughing a lot.
Day 3: Markina to Gernika, 24.6K
Tough, beautiful walk with the highlights being a field or spiderwebs glistening in the morning sun, passing through the birthplace of Simon Bolivar, and stopping in a lovely monastery. Igñaki and I got lost and had to cross a river by moving rocks to step on, trample through a kiwi farm, and walk down the road (off the Camino) an extra 5K. On the dramatized verge of death, I asked for a Camino miracle. Within moments, a young girl in a car pulled up beside us and drove us the last 2K into town. There, I explored Gernika (spelled the Basque way) and had a much needed massive menú de peregrino with Magdalena from Sevilla and her crazy stories.
Day 4: Gernika to Lezama, 20.8K
I said many, many Hail Mary’s this morning and my prayers were answered with the pain in my feet dissipating. I walked 18K without stopping and walked the whole day solo and loved the alone time. A Spanish woman in the town where I stopped for lunch called me brave.
Day 5: Lezama to Bilbao, 10.8K
It was a short walk today into Bilbao. The city was beautiful right away. Paula, the Italian woman and I shared a pensión and later we explored the city (together with Rolph, the German) eating pintxos and walking to the Guggenheim.
Day 6: Bilbao to Pobeña, 24.7K
Ugly, boring walk (but flat!) along the river to Portugalete where we crossed the Puente Cogante (Hanging Bridge), an UNESCO World Heritage site. A terribly hot walk and sunburn later, I met Silvia, a Catalan born just 18 days after me.
Day 7: Pobeña to Castro Urdiales
Beautiful walk in the morning along the coast and then more highway walking. We took the wrong route and walked an extra 4K (to the above number). The walk through town was long, but quite cute. We ended the day by cooking together at the albergue.
Day 8: Castro Urdiales to Laredo, 25K
I loved my morning walk alone as the sun rose over the water. The serene coastal walk turned into more hot highway walking with Paula. We stayed at a convent with the sweetest Peruvian nuns and attended a pilgrim mass and it happened to be my favorite reading.
Day 9: Laredo to Guemes, 29K
The day began with a 5K walk along the bay to a boat that would take us across the other side. A steep mountain climb with killer views, then a 5K walk though the sand, and then a never ending hot walk to Guemes. The albergue was isolated away from the town, so we were all able to dine together that evening at a long table. Here, on my last night, I met two young Americans. I’m still trying to forget the feeling of the huge bug scurrying across my body as I fell asleep that night.
Day 10: Guemes to Santander, 11.8K
It was one of the most beautiful coastal walks. Words just can’t do it justice. The last 4K I walked barefoot through the sand, then took a boat across to Santander where the World Sailing competition was taking place. Paula and I had one final meal and she gave me a tiny shell she found on the beach that day. As my bus pulled away from the station to take me back to San Sebastián, Silvia was standing there trying to say goodbye as we had lost each other days before.
Final silver lining: I lost weight!
And as hard as the Camino del Norte was, I want to finish and make it to Santiago de Compostela again. The Camino never ends….