Every beginning is tough but is rewarded at the end
So after exactly one year, the long wait is over and the pilgrimage along the north coast of Spain continues – the Camino del Norte. Last year we hiked from Irun and the French border to Santander. Right there the pilgrimage will start again. This year my brother joined my father and me on the pilgrimage. Already a first advantage to the last hike: our luggage made it successfully to Spain! So we started hiking directly after the first night towards the Atlantic Ocean and Cudon.
Our goal this year: to make it from Santander to the airport Asturias near Gijon and from there flying back to Germany. But in the end, everything should turn out differently from what we had planned. More about it later.
As with any long hike, after a break of a good year, all beginnings are tough: self-management is the main focus. That means first of all getting used to the 8 kilos extra weight on your back and getting all straps and loops to the place where they offer the highest possible comfort. Also, the right clothing for the Spanish climate has to be found first.
Tip 1: Take your time and really adjust everything as it is comfortable and good for you: Your backpack has to fit properly, you should neither freeze nor sweat too much in your clothes, the shoes should not squeeze but offer sufficient support. In the first kilometers, you don’t notice it yet, but with further distances, the delayed decision will take its revenge.
To our surprise, we had the first shell that should show us the way directly in front of the door of the pension. So good planning is once again everything. To start the day strengthened we stopped at a small cafe “Peter Pan”. An absolute recommendation for everyone who is a guest in Santander. The pastries are prepared right next to the guest area. It couldn’t be fresher.
Filled up with coffee and croissant it was time to turn our backs on Santander. Faster than expected we were already at the beginning of a trail, which should accompany us for some time, after about 60 minutes. Finally, we left the hustle and bustle of the city and entered the unique charm of the Spanish coasts and villages: Deep breath for body and soul! The conversations quickly shifted from topics of daily life to much more relaxed ones up to absolute silence for several minutes. This silence was only disturbed by the Atlantic Ocean, which was becoming gradually louder. So we were on the right way.
Unfortunately, most of the pilgrims’ hostels were still closed at the beginning of March, and therefore we had to regularly switch to guest houses. Arrived in Cudon we were just impressed by the first pension. It was an old country house with a modern interior and a very warm host family. With a friendly smile, the hostel parents welcomed us when we, exhausted from the day, finally laid down our backpacks.
Unexpected sunshine and nice acquaintances
After an evening with tasty tempranillo in the beautiful pension, we continued our journey with the yellow shell. Unfortunately, we had to go by train back to Santander’s hospital because of a health problem, but we could continue shortly after. All-clear. The staff was so helpful and fast that we were only there for about 2 hours.
But the shortening of the trip should give us a great evening. Arrived at the pilgrim hostel in Viveda, we could enjoy a huge house with a view over the mountains all to ourselves after a small 15km ” walk”. In the only kiosk in the village, which was still open, we were greeted friendly and philosophized with the owner and the guests about which wine probably fits best to which kind of ham. A funny shopping crowned by a wonderful dinner at sunset with a view on the mountains and valleys of Cantabria.
With sunrise, it was already obvious that we will start in short clothes: Not a cloud in the sky and hardly any wind. And one of the most beautiful places of the tour right in front of us. Santillana del Mar. A city that seems to be frozen in the charm of the middle ages. Small alleys, overflowing fountains, cobbled streets. Simply everything here takes you back to another time.
While having coffee on the market place we met some other pilgrims from America who joined us. They confirmed the opinion that we had heard from many others before.
Tip 2: The most popular and well-known pilgrimage route in Spain is the Camino del Frances. If you would like to meet many new people, especially other pilgrims, you should go to this one. If you prefer a more charming landscape, the Camino del Norte is an absolute recommendation and much more varied.
In beautiful sunshine, we continued our trip towards Cobreces, where we had problems finding a place to stay. We had to leave the road for a few kilometers to find something suitable. In the end, we were the only guests in an old half-timbered house with a beautiful garden full of lemons and oranges. There was nothing special about this place if we hadn’t met Antonio before: an exciting situation, we could barely speak a word of Spanish and he could not understand a word of English or German. With hand, foot and translation tools we had a funny conversation in which we learned a lot of Spanish and Antonio had a lot to laugh about. We really have to say that the Spanish people we got to know during the hike are extremely open-hearted and obliging.
Tip 3: Do you walk with question marks over your head and do not know where to go from there or how to get to a restaurant or a harborage? Just talk to the people directly! I have never met anyone who hasn’t offered help. Especially pilgrims and hikers are proactively helped a lot.
The breakfast the next morning was a lot of things but certainly not plentiful. Luckily the sun was shining again in the morning and so the mood was great. Our destination today was San Vincente de la Barquera. A harbor town with a beautiful beach where I wanted to spend an evening. But the burning heat on this day made us much slower than we thought. This should not be meant negatively. It was just nice to walk through the field paths and small villages and enjoy the sun in a very relaxed way. That is how it is with hiking and pilgrimage.
Tip 4: Do not rush. If you only want to walk as many kilometers as possible per day you will miss the most beautiful part of the whole hike. Enjoy the places you like. Stop for a moment and take a break and enjoy the breathtaking views that you have earned with sweat and hot soles.
And in the end this should be our luck, as we spent one of the most beautiful evenings about 5 kilometres before San Vicente in a small guest house at Playa de Oyambre. A breathtaking view over the mountains we partly still had to climb and the sound of the ocean right next to us. Just wow!
Asturias, we are coming
After a rich breakfast and rather wet weather prospects, we could give our sunburn a little break with long clothes. We had now almost completely gone through Cantabria and our destination was the river Rio Deva, which forms the border to Asturias. Quite early it started to rain and we could finally test our rain gear. Everything except the rain jackets and trousers remained dry, very good.
The ground was flooded by water quite fast on the field and forest paths because it couldn’t run off well on the loamy and rocky ground. So we could also put the shoes directly through their paces. After a coffee at the promenade, we left San Vicente quite fast behind us and headed for Unquera. During the day we passed many asphalted roads, which might have been a good thing in this weather situation. Except for the quiet crackling of the rain on the hood of the rain jacket, it was a quiet day. Few conversations and everybody was a little bit absorbed in his perception of the world. Because of the rain, we were a little more exhausted than the days before. Already on the way, we decided to stop at a pension just before the border and dry our clothes here.
Tip 5: Almost every harbourage offers the possibility to wash clothes. Use this as regularly as you can. If the clothes aren’t dry you can tie them to your backpack and let them dry again.
Warmed up and with sunshine, we crossed the Rio Deva in the morning and were welcomed in Asturias. A hard climb later then also by a nice old gentleman, who lit a candle for each of us at an altar at the wayside.
What should come now was a big surprise for all of us. One of the most beautiful coastal sections of the whole route so far. Steep coasts, beach, country lanes over pastures with horses, bridges over rivers where small whirlpools were created by the tides, and a kind of sea geyser. Behind every bend and every mountain top hid a new big surprise to wonder at. Really unique what we were allowed to see and experience on this day. I think the pictures speak for themselves.
Tip 6: Once again with emphasis: Enjoy the small and big things you pass by on the way. If you see a nice cafe, sit down and have a cup of tea or coffee. Not just to warm you up, but simply for enjoyment. Do you have a nice view over the sea and the sun is shining? Then put down your backpacks and enjoy the moment. Don’t rush.
After what felt like an eternally long mountain climb at the end of the day we finally reached the small harbor town of Llanes. Just in time. My brother and I were at the end of our powers that day. Having stayed in a super modern guesthouse, the shower did not stop for about an hour. We went to a fish restaurant and met another pilgrim there. That was also the beginning, with which the situation worsened a lot. We had followed the media about Corona and the current situation in Germany and Spain. Now, this pilgrim reported that the hostels will probably no longer open in the next few days due to the alert in Spain. After a long conversation about the beautiful topics of the hike, we said goodbye and started to do some more research in the hostel.
Flight home adventure
After a long night on the internet on the official pages of the Spanish government, we departed in the morning with mixed feelings. A lot of uncertainty was in the room. On the same day, the government was to decide on the declaration of a state of emergency. This would mean that public life would freeze for the most part and that you could only go out on the streets with good reason.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed our day and walked through many small villages and had a beautiful part of the coast in front of us. On the way to Nueva, we found an apartment early this time to have a confirmation in time whether it opens or not. With the most beautiful sunshine, we could enjoy the Spanish beaches and hike through winding forests. Arriving in Nueva it became clear which effects the whole thing had already assumed within one day. The supermarket in the village was opened only for a maximum of 3 people at the same time. All restaurants and almost all the stores were already closed, hardly anybody was on the street. Because it was Saturday we bought a little bit more for Sunday and had dinner together in the pension. Exactly at this time, the declaration of a state of emergency was decided. So it was clear for us: We had to find a way back to Germany to avoid being stuck in quarantine until our flight to Germany in the next week.
We booked a flight to Germany that evening and arranged a train and bus connection to the airport in Bilbao. So we could go to bed somewhat calmed. The next morning we started early to arrive in Bilbao in time. Luckily Nueva had a train station which should bring us one town further to one of the national long-distance bus lines.
Tip 7: The public transport network in Spain is very well developed. Even in the most distant places you can usually get to the bigger cities quite quickly and traveling domestically on the bus lines is really cheap. Therefore, you should always keep these options in mind if you want to get from A to B in Spain without hiking and without having your own car.
Arrived in Ribadesella, after a train ride as the only guest on the railway, we started looking for the bus station. On our way to the terminal, we noticed that despite the time and the Spanish mentality, there was not a single person on the streets. By this way, we were also straight stopped by the police and asked where we came from and where we wanted to go. Fortunately, one of the policemen spoke English, otherwise, it would have been a thrilling situation. They kindly pointed out to us that an absolute closing time is in force and that you are not allowed to be on the streets for tourist reasons. Fortunately, we were already on the way to the airport.
Tip 8: No matter how threatening the situation seems, keep calm and keep a clear head. This is the only way to maintain an overview in such a situation and make rational and smart decisions.
At the bus platform, we met other pilgrims who were looking for a somewhat different way out of the situation and wanted to get to the French border and the beginning of the Camino del Norte, in order to get from there to France and on to Germany by the TGV. So there were plenty of ways out of this situation. When the bus arrived we were lucky that the other two pilgrims were able to communicate with the bus driver. The situation was quite tense and also on the bus there was a very depressing atmosphere. In any case, we were not the only ones with the idea to return to our home country, because the bus was completely sold out.
Almost 4 hours later we arrived in Bilbao. Here the situation was much calmer, or rather the people seemed a little more relaxed and less frightened. That also lets us breathe a sigh of relief. With a nice lady at the ticket office, we got all information we needed about the current situation and the further procedure. I personally found the whole situation very helpful to us. Also, the other customers helped us directly to find the right counter and to communicate with each other. Everyone really pulled together here.
We quickly arrived at the airport and were able to check in our luggage. Again all shops were closed except for a small kiosk. Nevertheless, the situation was not panicked, but quiet. Everyone accepted the situation and followed the instructions for their own safety. Also, the flight itself went without further problems and we landed safely in Munich again. And Germany was not going to see the situation of the Corona epidemic worsen until all three of us had landed safely back home. Let’s all hope that the situation will calm down quickly and let’s thank the people who keep our daily life going. For my part, I am confident that next year we will be able to start where we left off this year.
Please take care of yourself and the people around you. We all want to get through this crisis with as little damage as possible. And you will do your best if you listen to the regulations of the health authorities and official bodies. If we can all leave this situation with a clear conscience that we have done the best we can, then in the end no one has to be blamed.