I can't remember when I first heard about El Camino de Santiago. I think I had a vague idea of it from various past references, then some friends walked it last summer and then I checked out a book from the library. It's a medieval pilgrimage route from various parts of Europe (mostly Spain) that end in Santiago de Compostela where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried. Though not particularly Christian, I loved the idea of doing a pilgrimage on a trail that had so much history and carried so many devoted people for over a thousand years. On this current trip to Spain I don't have enough time to do the whole thing (usually 4-6 weeks for most pilgrims) but I figured a few days on the trail was better than nothing. Luckily my friend Cherie was up for it at the drop of a hat, and with a few preparations and purchases we set out early one morning to take the 40 minute bus from Bilbao to Castro Urdiales where we started.
We began walking along the stone waterfront promenade, then up onto cliffsides with sweeping ocean views, following the symbols of El Camino: yellow arrows and shells.
The trail wove through small towns, farmland, highways, forests, and footpaths, always feeling like a scavenger hunt as we looked for the small painted yellow marks for where to go next. You would think nothing of them if you weren't looking, but they were always there, along with random spigots of drinking water. We saw a lot of cyclists, lizards, churches, and old men walking dogs. We met a little boy who excitedly told us about a beach up ahead. We passed a herd of sheep on a bluff where the only sound was their cowbells, and the 2 lone goats were sitting atop a picnic table. It was a surreal day, walking between the Bay of Biscay and the hills of Cantabria, not seeing any other pilgrims.
We finally reached our destination of Liendo in late afternoon. At that time of day it's still siesta and the small village was quiet, just closed shops and hot sidewalks and a looming stone church in the center of everything. We found the albergue, a hostel specifically for pilgrims. Luckily there were still a few beds left, even though most pilgrims start walking early and arrive at their daily destination earlier than we did. We heard that on the Camino Frances, the "main" route, it can be a bit crowded and almost a race to get a spot in the next hostel. We were on the mellower Camino Del Norte so our schedule was more flexible. It doesn't sound fun to stop walking at noon anyway- what would you do the rest of the day? We were happy to call it a day though, as our feet were pretty sore, Cherie with blisters and my feet threatening the appearance of some. We walked about 25 somewhat hilly kilometers (15.5 miles) with packs, so a good rest was in order.
We went to the one open cafe to get a few pintxos to go. Pintxo is a Basque word (written pincho in Spanish) and is basically the tapas of the Basque country/northern Spain. They are usually a slice of baguette with some kind of meat, cheese, seafood, and/or roasted veggies on top. These were like little raclettes on bread, so along with hard-boiled eggs, snap peas, cheese, crackers, fruit, and beer, we had a good dinner picnic just as the town was waking up for the evening. We chatted with the other pilgrims- several French, some German, and a Brazilian couple. Every one seemed surprised to learn we were American. It seemed like about half of the pilgrims had done a different route of the Camino before, and I guess once wasn't enough. Everyone headed to bed around 9 though the day was still bright out. I stayed up til 10 drinking half a cider with a German guy. Wild night at the pilgrim hostel!
The next morning Cherie and I had a nice chat over coffee with a middle-aged German woman, then set out again in our matching outfits. Oh, didn't I mention that we matched? We had bought leopard-print tank tops, and both had brown shorts, so we were sort of a ridiculous sight.
We made it to the city of Laredo with has a huge beach. We were tempted to swim, but it was just cloudy enough that it didn't feel totally inviting. Instead we continued on to a little foot ferry to cross the bay to the next town of Sartonya. What did Saint James do to get across before the ferry?, we wondered. We met a nice group of other pilgrim women, one French with 2 Romanians.
They were all really sweet and we ended up at the same hostel. Cherie and I went out for dinner and were excited to see signs for Water for Elephants at the one-screen theatre. I didn't have high expectations for the movie but we both loved the book. Unfortunately it was dubbed instead of subtitled, so we decided to pass. Gelato was our consolation prize so I can't compain.
The next day we walked a bit more, but it started raining in late morning so we weren't as ambitious as we could have been. It had been a short but full couple days of walking, so we caught a bus back to Bilbao to rest up and get ready for Barcelona.