I’m going back for my third Camino this summer, but if we’re being technical about it, it will actually be my 4th. I walked the Camino Frances in the summer of 2014. In the summer of 2015, I walked two-thirds of the Camino del Norte and all of the Camino Primitivo. And this summer, I’ll finish the Norte and also tack on the small Camino del Salvador. Which makes four Caminos, in three summers. All in Spain.
There are other great Camino paths to walk in Spain, and beyond; the Le Puy route in France is #1 on my dream list, and I have a friend on the Camino Portuguese as we speak (and reports from the trail are stunning).
All this to say: if you want to walk a Camino, you have options. Lately, the Camino feels more popular than ever, but maybe that’s because it’s spring, and maybe because it’s been such a big part of my life for these past two years. I have lots of Camino friends, read lots of Camino blogs, am part of a Camino group in my area. So, it’s on my mind. But it sort of feels like people are flocking to the Camino, like it’s becoming more well known, that it’s become this ‘thing’ to do (then again, I could be totally wrong. Whenever I talk to someone about my summer plans, they stare at me blankly when I mention a pilgrimage in Spain).
In any case, popular or not, I’m here to write a post about the Camino del Norte, to talk about what I loved, and to give you some reasons to consider this route. A few disclaimers: first, this is not at all a comprehensive guide to walking the Norte. I’m undoubtedly leaving lots of things out. And this is also not meant to convince you to walk this route, or that any of this means that it’s the ‘best’ path to walk. Every person, every pilgrim is different, and no two roads are the same, either. And no two times on the same road are the same!
But, all that being said, I thought the Norte was pretty great. I’ve gotten a few emails from people who have stumbled across this blog, and they’re curious about the Norte. There’s a lot of information out there (the Camino forum is a great, great place to begin), but I thought it could be fun to highlight a few of my favorite things about this northern route across Spain. So here are 8 things I loved about the Camino del Norte.
1. It’s not crowded!
I have to start with this: the Norte is not crowded. At times, it feels rather isolated, like you’ve got the whole great thing all to yourself. I had a couple days when I didn’t encounter a single other pilgrim (though, keep in mind, I like walking alone and so would purposefully start before or after other pilgrims, or sometimes stay under the radar in towns/villages). But even if you walk with others, this path feels open, in a way that the Frances often didn’t. There’s a lot of quiet space to let your mind wander, and sometimes it’s amazing to feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.
Also, word from the pilgrim’s office in Santiago is that the Camino Frances is PACKED right now. The Pope declared 2016 a Year of Mercy, which doesn’t happen that often, and this means that there are many, many more people opting to take a pilgrimage this year. I’ve read reports that albergues are quickly filling up, that people are being forced to call ahead for reservations, that the crowds are unbelievable. Whether this is true or not is a bit up in the air; before my own Camino Frances in 2014 I read that summer was the worst time to go because it was sure to be crowded and I would have to race for a bed and that wasn’t my experience, at all (not until I got close to Santiago, but that was to be expected). But in any case, with more pilgrims on the Frances, the Norte could be a nice option for those seeking a quiet and contemplative pilgrimage to Santiago.
2. Despite the uncrowded nature of the path, there is opportunity for great community.
I personally think the Norte has the best of both worlds: days of quiet walking, and evenings of pilgrim community. The Norte isn’t crowded, but it’s not completely empty, either. In 2015, it was the third most popular Camino route (behind the Frances and the Portuguese), walked by 6% of pilgrims who arrived in Santiago (compared to 65% on the Frances, 16% on the Portuguese). Six percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but here’s the thing- it’s just enough to feel like there’s a great community of pilgrims who are walking with you. Because there aren’t so many people, you tend to recognize the same faces over and over, you really get to know your group. On a few of my Norte evenings I was in an albergue with just a couple other people (and again, that’s because I was often doing my own thing), but mostly I was within a pilgrim community of a few dozen others who I either knew or recognized. For me, this was a perfect balance: quiet days of walking, evenings sitting around a table drinking wine with familiar faces.
3. That beautiful blue water (and beaches!)
Since the path of the Norte runs mostly along the northern coast of Spain, this means that there are days of walking next to or near the water. My heart would always sink a bit when the Camino path dipped down and away from the coast, but it went back enough to keep me satiated. Before I started my Camino I imagined that I would have multiple days of lounging on the beach after a long day’s walk, and while this wasn’t the case for me (lots of factors influenced this, including not bringing a bathing suit or beach towel), I walked on many stretches of sand, and knew of other pilgrims who spent time on the beach. But mostly, I just loved when the path of the Camino ran close to the coastline, sometimes even hugging the coastline. It was a special kind of beauty.
4. The animals!
Was it just me, or were there many more horses and cows on this path than on the Frances? And not just like, “Oh look, there’s a cow off in the field,” but “Oh look, there’s a cow standing directly in my path, blocking the way.” Not just once, but many, many times. Horses, too, several of them, just sort of standing around as if they were waiting for me to pass by. Goats, too! At some point, I even began to say, “Hola la vache!”, a confusing jumble of Spanish and French but the cows didn’t care, they just blinked at me lazily and swatted their tails against the flies.
5. The food!
I’m probably not the person to be talking to about how to eat well on the Norte, but the thing is, I know it’s very possible. Overall, I think there are just more opportunities for pilgrims to eat better on this route (compared to the Frances, in any case). The towns and villages along the way don’t really cater to pilgrims like the Frances does, and while this has its drawbacks, it also means that when you sit down in a restaurant, you’ll be eating what the Spaniards are eating (rather than the hunk of meat and mound of fries that often define the pilgrim’s menu). And in the north of Spain, this means lots of fresh seafood. I’m fairly easily satisfied when it comes to food, and often preferred to eat simply on my Camino (think: coffee, bread, cheese, fruit, ham, wine). But I also had some beautiful salads and salmon and calamari and things I don’t even know the name of but that tasted oh-so-good. If you’re a foodie and want to walk the Norte, do a little research, and I bet you can eat very, very well on this pilgrimage.
6. The route, especially the beginning of it, is challenging.
So, this might be a drawback for some people, but it was an important part of my pilgrimage. Walking 500 miles is going to be difficult no matter how you do it, but after the Frances, I found that I wanted something that pushed me a little harder. And maybe it was because I responded to the physical challenge of the Frances in a way that surprised me: my favorite days were the difficult ones: over the Pyrenees, the alternate Dragonte route, my 40+ km day into Leon. So when I set out on the Norte, I welcomed the challenge. And boy oh boy, did those first two weeks challenge me. I walked with a huge blister on the bottom of my foot and the muscles in my legs groaned and I can’t count the number of times I stopped in the middle of a hill, looked up to the top, and muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Sometimes it just wasn’t fun, but the overall feeling I’m left with? I feel accomplished, and strong. And now I want to walk higher hills, I want to climb other mountains. The Norte helped me learn that I’m stronger than I think.
7. Fun, alternate forms of transportation
On the Frances, I considered myself a bit of a Camino purist (a standard I tried to hold to myself, and myself only). As long as I was able to, I wanted to walk every single bit of it, and I did. But on the Norte, I think I was on a bus after the first day of walking. Not to skip a section of the path, but just to get me back into San Sebastian from the albergue which was on the outskirts of the city. I did the same thing in Bilboa, but it wasn’t just those little bus trips. The Norte is just full of strange transportation options to help you navigate the trail. You’ve got to take several short ferry rides, there’s a cable car, there’s an elevator, there’s even a moving sidewalk. Also, many pilgrims take a short train ride to bypass a rather risky section of the trail. Buses, trains, ferries, cable cars, elevators, moving sidewalks… this time, I used more than my feet to move me across Spain, and I was totally okay with that.
8. An opportunity to practice my French
This is not going to apply to most people who walk the Norte, but for whatever reason, I was often surrounded by French pilgrims. Maybe the French are numerous on this route? Or maybe it was just when I was walking? But I often found myself in a group of French pilgrims, and this meant that I spoke more French than I have in probably the past 15 years, combined. It was a bit challenging, but it was also wonderful. I worked hard to learn a second language for a reason, and it was great to dust it off and to be able to communicate with pilgrims who couldn’t speak much English.
Ahh, just writing this has me excited, all over again, to return to Spain for another Camino. What will walk #3 have in store for me? Hopefully all of the above, and much more.