¨It is spectacular. It´s very isolated. The views are unbelievable. But it´s a lot harder than the Camino Frances.¨
These are just a few of the things I had heard about the Camino del Norte, the main alternative route on the wildly popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It´s worth discussing this route because it is becoming more popular. Much more so, in fact.
I have just completed the first week on the Camino del Norte, running from Irun, through San Sebastian, to Bilbao. And I’m here to tell you that the Camino del Norte is for real. The first four days we were routed along the coast with dramatic cliffside, imperial views from the Basque Mountains.
The climbs are generally steeper on the Camino del Norte than the Camino Frances. This is not due to sadistic trail designers, but rather the mountainous terrain in which the pilgrims ambulate. Hour after hour, day after day, pilgrims confront lush, green hills that they scale and descend. In fact, it reminded me of the Galician portion of the Camino Frances, but on steroids. On a typical 25 kilometer day a pilgrim might scale two 500 meter (1,500 plus foot) climbs.
I had worried that due to its bruising reputation the Camino del Norte would attract only ´young guns´. But fortunately this has proven to be false. Like the Camino Frances, the pilgrim population on the Camino del Norte is widely international and includes all ages. Obviously this means that a lot of people are in for a struggle, and that´s exactly what they are getting. Alas, some of the troubles seem self-inflicted. Because of the Camino del Norte´s ferocious reputation, many pilgrims have shown up in heavy boots. This is a recipe for trouble, and specifically blisters. Everybody, even the least of the Spanish speakers, is seemingly familiar with the Spanish word, ampollas (blisters). I have seen many hikers make this same mistake on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. In albergues I gingerly walk by decrepit pilgrims and suggest low-cut trail running shoes, or even sandals. In fact, I have seen several pilgrims walking up the trail in sandals, with their heavy boots strapped to their backpacks. Indeed, these are bittersweet scenes.
Nonetheless, most pilgrims are doing a good job of hanging in there in circumstances that are probably more difficult than they have ever been in. That, of course, is the spirit of pilgrimage at its best.
¨There are not any albergues on the Camino del Norte,¨ is another warning I had often heard before beginning. Fortunately this aviso has proven to be completely false. While there are not albergues in every single pueblo as often seems the case on the Camino Frances, there is at least one pilgrim´s albergue available at the end of each etapa (daily stage). Usually these albergues hold between 20 and 50 people. The price is bargain basement cheap, usually either 5 Euros or else ´donativos´. Just as is the case with the Camino Frances, these albergues fill up quickly. However, the pilgrim towns on the Camino del Norte usually feel the same obligation to serve the pilgrim population as on the Camino Frances and offer alternatives, including opening up polideportivos (gymnasiums) as well as private albergues at a price of around 15 Euros.
Germans are out in droves, inspired by German comedian, Hape Kerkeling´s widely read, I´m off Now, which has sold over 3,000,000 copies in Germany alone. The French also are heavily represented, which is unsurprising given that the Camino del Norte begin right on the other side of their border.
The bottom line is that refugees from the Camino Frances now have a great second act in front of them. So many Camino pilgrims return from their initial journey on the Camino Frances flush with fulfillment, but wondering what to do next. Now they have an answer.
This blog piece is specifically directed at Americans. Many have noted the increase in the number of American pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Alot of this may be due to the recent Hollywood film, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. But all the traffic is going to the Camino Frances. My compatriots seem to yet to have discovered this majestic sea route on the Camino de Santiago, as I have only met one other American on the Camino del Norte. But I can offer my firm assurance that the Camino del Norte, which is almost the exact distance as the Camino Frances, is worth crossing the Atlantic again for a second pilgrimage. Buen camino.
Bill Walker is the author of The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). Walker is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010), and Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Walker, who is just shy of 7-feet tall, is now working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.