I don’t think I wrote quite as much about my pre-Camino planning this year as I normally do, or what my process was like deciding how I wanted to spend my summer, but I was, in a word, conflicted.
I’ve been feeling both a pull to do something new and to go some place totally new, as well as a small tug to spend a little more time at home. So there was all this pulling and tugging when I’d been thinking about Summer 2019 plans, and I kept thinking: “Is this the year for another Camino? And if it is, which Camino do I want to walk?”
There wasn’t a clear answer, and that’s the first time this has happened. I’d felt really certain about each of my previous walks. That’s not to say that I don’t spend time researching and flipping back and forth between various options, but I usually have a feeling in my gut about where I want to walk. But I just didn’t this year.
And yet, it had been several years since I’d been in Spain. Without any obvious answers coming to me, I wondered if maybe it was time to go back to the Camino. I planned a 10-day walk on a new-to-me route (the Aragonés, read more about that here and here), but I’d still have more time to walk. I wanted to walk for a month. I didn’t want a route that was too crowded, I didn’t want a route that was too isolated. I wanted the Goldilocks of Camino routes, and there was one I couldn’t get out of my mind: the Camino del Norte.
I’d walked the first nearly 500km of the Norte in 2015 and most of the remaining 300km in 2016 and I loved it, especially the first half. It’s not a perfect Camino, and there are a few things I wish could be different or “better”, like maybe a stronger ‘Camino’ feel, a few more albergues especially in some key places. Walking in the summer can be tricky as tourists as well as pilgrims flock to the beach towns, and lodging tends to fill up. Prices are a touch higher than in other parts of Spain. There’s a lot of asphalt walking.
But there was also so, so much that I loved. When I first walked I thought that it had nearly the perfect amount of people for me: just enough so that I could form my own little Camino community, but not too many that I would constantly see other pilgrims throughout the day. I loved how solo it felt, and I also loved the friends that I made. The food was really great. While at times I may have wished for more of a Camino feel, it was also nice to walk through parts of Spain that didn’t feel dominated or defined by the Camino. More locals tried to have conversations with me, curious about why I was walking alone, making sure that I was okay and having a good time.
And, most importantly, the scenery. Another caveat: just as the Camino del Norte isn’t perfect, it’s not 100% beautiful views either. Every time the path dips away from the coast, my heart sinks. Sometimes the Camino runs nearly parallel to the coast but also frustratingly just out of view. Sometimes it rains. But the rest of the time, it is just so, so beautiful. I’m not sure I’ve found anything on any walk that I enjoy more than rounding a corner and arriving at a small, pristine beach with perfectly worn sea glass and gentle waves and not a person in sight. And it happens over and over.
When I walked the Camino del Norte in 2015, I learned how to truly be independent on a long-distance walk. I learned how to ask myself what I both needed and wanted, and I learned how to give that to myself. I learned when I needed to show up for others, and when I needed to go my own way. I sort of figured out that I loved the freedom of being alone on the Camino Francés, but I gave myself that freedom on the Camino del Norte, and I’ll never, ever forget what that felt like.
So the Norte has had this special role in all of my Camino-ing, and for the past several years I’d been adding to a document on my desktop, making notes for my next walk on the Norte, knowing that someday I’d return.
All of this and yet, even though I’d sort of decided that I would probably walk the Norte after I finished the Aragonés this summer, I wasn’t totally convinced. In fact, I didn’t make a final decision until the day before. I hesitated and hesitated because I didn’t quite feel ready to repeat a walk that I’ve already done.
There are so many other walks out there! There are so many other experiences to have! Despite sometimes feeling like I could live forever, I know that I won’t. Despite feeling young and strong, I know that I’m aging out of my youth (maybe already have). And what if my situation, having 8-weeks of freedom every summer, what if it changes? Because surely, one day, it will. Maybe soon. And all of these thoughts made it really difficult to say with any certainty: “Yes, I’m going to walk the Norte again.”
So I hemmed and hawed and honestly one thing that made the decision kind of easy was that, as I was finishing the Aragonés, I was walking through a heatwave. It was intense. Sitting at a table surrounded by pilgrims in the albergue in Puente La Reina, I could feel the sweat rolling down my back, my legs. I wasn’t even moving or exerting any energy, it was just that hot. I looked at the weather app on my phone and checked the temperature in Irun and it was significantly cooler and my decision was made. Go north. Go to Irun, start walking.
This has been a long introduction to a post where I wanted to talk about what it was like to repeat a Camino, so here we go:
It wasn’t what I expected.
It felt nearly like a totally new experience.
And I guess that makes sense, though I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would feel that way. But maybe I should know better: I don’t have the greatest memory, and I marvel at people who can remember specific details about their long-distance walks, especially details of the landscape. I think back on my walks and I can certainly remember the bigger picture, and the memorable moments are etched into my brain, and I take photos and write in my journal (and blog!) to try to remember the details, but so much of the daily walking just gets lost.
I just didn’t realize how much of it escapes my memory, I didn’t realize it until I went back to the Norte. Because once I started walking, there was so much I didn’t remember. In fact, there was a point where I was convinced that the path had been altered considerably since I’d last been there, like they’d rerouted big portions, because I just had no memory of it! I arrived at an overlook over the beach of a sizable town and… nope, nothing. Had this part of the Camino even existed in 2015? Had this beach even been there at all??
But, also there were other parts I remembered, some things were so clear. One day, I was walking on the path and rounded a bend and looked up at a slight hill and thought- ‘This is where I saw that white horse.’ And then I looked to my left down the field and there was a white horse, hanging out by the trees! And it dawned on me that it was probably the same exact horse, and something about that made me really happy.
And that kind of thing happened a few times, when I’d be walking and not really remembering the specific part of the trail but then be suddenly hit with an intense feeling of familiarity, and remember all at once exactly where I was.
So it was this interesting mix, of things I’d completely forgotten but also things I’d remembered. But there was another layer too, and that was that most of the things that were familiar were also different. It’s because I was often walking different stages than the first time, staying in different albergues, passing things at different times of the day, in different weather, with different people, and it all adds up to a new experience.
Sometimes, I recreated an experience. I love a good tradition, and walking a Camino twice is enough for me to start up traditions. And so, I took the detour down to the little beach in Onton to look for sea glass, like I did in 2015. I had the really good tortilla in Liendo. I got ice cream before the long walk along the boardwalk in Laredo. I ordered tostada con tomate at the beachside café in Noja. And I took a lot of the same photos. Sometimes this was intentional- I remembered a photo from my first walk on the Norte and came to the same place and couldn’t resist snapping another. But now that I’m home and reviewing all my pictures, from both 2015 and 2019, it’s shocking to see how many times I took the same photo in the same place, unintentionally (ahh, that photographer’s eye!).
Then there were other times when I purposefully set out to do something different. And this, I think, is the beauty of returning to walk a Camino for a second time. There were a couple towns and albergues that I wanted to revisit, but mostly I tried to stay in different places. I discovered new and wonderful albergues (I have a post that lists my favorite albergues on the Norte, which I’m going to update soon), and I discovered new villages and towns too.
I also hit the beach more. Last time, in 2015, I walked on the beach when it intersected with the path of the Camino, and sometimes during the walk I made little detours to small beaches along the way. But I never really took the time to go down to a beach in the afternoons or evenings, and I didn’t plan my stages to end in towns by a beach. This time was different. I love the feeling of my feet in the sand and the sound of the waves and I wanted more of it. I stayed in villages that were on the coast, and after finding a bed in the albergue, I went down to the beach and lounged on the sand. After much hesitation, I went swimming at a little secluded beach in Pendueles (there are two things of note: 1. To access the beach you practically have to rappel down the trail with a provided rope; I was in flip flops but I made it. 2. I’d decided not to pack a bathing suit and it turns out that there’s another handy use for the buff I always bring!). That little swim in the sea was one of the highlights of my Camino. I also went for several evening walks on the beach, after everyone had packed up and left for the day and I had the stretch of sand all to myself.
Another goal for my return to the Norte was to take more coastal alternatives. As mentioned above, the route of the Norte sometimes veers away from the coast, and while often it’s not very far, it’s far enough that you can’t actually see the coast. After some searching on the Camino forum, I discovered a great document that lists out a bunch of coastal alternatives; some I’d already explored when I walked in 2015, but there were more I wanted to find for my second time around. One very fun day was when I walked the 36km coastal route from Santander to Boo. It wasn’t an official “Camino variant”, but with some detailed instructions I’d found online, I was mostly able to find my way, and so much of the route was stunning.
I had a thought as I was walking the Norte this summer, I wondered if I could try to come back every 5 years to walk. Wouldn’t that be fun? To see how the route has changed, to see what has remained the same. To return to my favorite albergues and to find new favorites. To take the same photos, again and again, to sink into my traditions. To find that white horse. To walk more of the coast, to brave the chilly waters, to meet new friends, to remember who I was when I last walked.
It would take a lot, to return to a place and commit time to repeat a long walk and to do this continuously throughout my life. I may never walk the Norte again; to walk most of it twice was a gift. To walk like this at all is a gift, and I wonder how long I can make this last. I dream of having enough time and enough health to walk all the long walks on my list, to walk the walks I haven’t yet discovered, to return to walk the paths I’ve already been down.
Maybe all of it will happen and maybe none of it will, but I know this: I’m happy I returned to the Norte.