Camino Del Norte, (the Northern Way) is a pilgrimage walk in the far north coast of Spain. This route will take you from Irun, on the French/Spanish Border, and follows the coast west onto Santiago de Compostela. This is approximately 825km’s though it depends which book or site you look at. An absolutely stunning walk and is considered to be the most difficult of the pilgrimages through Spain.
A Very Brief History.
It has been said that the Del Norte Route is in fact the original way that was followed by pilgrims in ancient times. I can’t confirm this but will say the route is old! I have also read that it was once the safest way for the pilgrims to travel to Santiago and visit the final resting place of St. James. So who is St. James? He is one of the disciples of Jesus and he was considered the first apostle, of the twelve apostles, to be martyred. He is also the Patron of pilgrims and laborers. His death was by beheading in AD44 in Jerusalem and his remains were taken back to Santiago de Compostela in Spain for burial. Pilgrims would walk from all over to get to the cathedral in Santiago to pay their respect at the shine of St. James. There are also a few other stories of why people would take a pilgrimage to Santiago and how they go about it. A pilgrim would walk, ride a donkey or horse and now in modern times they will even ride bikes.
Not all pilgrims necessarily walk these days for their religious beliefs, there are a multitude of reasons why one would embark on this long walk across a country and every year the numbers are growing. With the pilgrimage (or also known as a Camino) now a lot more popular as people are becoming aware of them from movies and films, like Emilio Estevez’s ‘The Way’, the film ‘Walking the Camino: six ways to Santiago’ and sites like social media and personal blogs. Last year (2014) was over 200,000 pilgrims that walked into Santiago from various routes and distances compared to 2001 (when I walked my first pilgrimage) of a little over 5000. The most popular of the routes being the Frances Route, (over 160000) followed by the Portuguese Route, then the Del Norte.
Starts in Irun on the border of Spain and France. You will find you walk through some incredible countryside with cliffs and ocean views on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other. You will see some quaint fishing villages and isolated farms, it travels through four regions, The Basque, Cantabria, Asturias and the famous Galicia.
You will walk through towns like San Sabastian, Bilbao, Gijon and Ribadeo before heading down and inland to Santiago. These are all towns I would suggest you google and get more information on them. You might find they are great places to stop and take some time exploring.
Be prepared for this route as it can be hard going at times though well worth the effort. It’s quite rugged and hilly, even mountainous, with some of the tracks being rather challenging with the mud. You will get road walking, some people had told me they felt it was more than say the Frances route, I however didn’t feel it was a bother or too much. You must remember that these routes have been around a lot longer than the roads and infrastructure so I go with the attitude that it’s just the way it is and now it is part of the way.
Maps and guidebooks;
There are a few different ones to choose from, would be a matter of research to find the one that is suited to you. With guide books I can’t stress enough that is what they are ‘Guide Books’. They are not always the same so the route may vary slightly it just depends on the author of the book and the route they chose. Maps however can be more accurate if you can read them. You must be sure you get up to date information as routes can change from time to time for various reasons. Be informed and your trip will be less stressful.
Books; ‘The Northern Caminos, the Caminos Norte, Primitivo and Ingles’ by Dave Whitson, Laura Perazzoli, published by Cicerone in 2015.
Online information; http://www.caminodesantiago.me There are plenty of other sites, just google but I find this one to be very helpful as it is a forum and everyone on there a helpful and they have walked one route or another.
Waymarking or signs;
Like any of the Caminos throughout Spain the Waymarking or signs are varied though mostly are a yellow arrow pointing the way. These can be painted anywhere, and when I say anywhere they really are. It’s like a game of where’s Walley? though it’s where’s the arrow? Could be on a rock, a fence, a tree, signposts, houses anywhere they can paint them. There are also the symbol of the pilgrims shell, or Concha, this can be on sign posts along the way and sometimes with the distance written below it. The Concha, or scallop shell with the Cross of Santiago painted in red on it, is also carried by pilgrims. This symbolises the walker as a pilgrim and in the days gone by the pilgrim would use it as a bowl to eat and drink from.
There also are the official signs that you will find along the way saying what region you are in etc. Do note as well you will come to signs that will give you a choice of which route you want to choose, most often the choice is take the highway (usually quicker but on a busy road) or the scenic way (longer, harder but quite often well worth the effort). When you come to these it’s your choice and you need to take into factors like weather, time and how you are feeling. No way is right or wrong it’s what works for you at that moment.
Credential or Pilgrims Passport;
What is your credential or pilgrims passport? This is a must have if you wish to walk this or any of the Caminos as a Pilgrim. It’s the way of identifying you to being a pilgrim and allows you to stay in the various pilgrims accommodation along the way. They also have spaces on them for you to collect stamps from different places to say you have walked and when you arrive into Santiago you are then entitled to receive your testimony or certificate of completion. This is quite a fun thing to do and the pilgrims treasure them as a reward for their journey.
You will find Pilgrims Hostels or Alburgues along the way as well as Monasteries, as I had said earlier if you wish to stay in these you must have your Pilgrims Passport, if you don’t choose to then you will find in some of the bigger towns hotels, Pensions etc. Be aware that sometime it might read to be a town on your map but it could just be a farmhouse with nowhere to stay. Try to be informed. The cost of these Pilgrims places can vary from a donation up to €30. Some include dinner which can be a rewarding experience as you will sit down like a big family and share a meal with people from all over the world and not feel like they are strangers. To me this part of a pilgrimage is just as important as the walk itself and extremely enjoyable. Don’t feel like you have to stay in these places all the time, we personally will mix it up now and then with a hotel room just to have a bit of our space. The Alburgues etc will have you more often than not sleep in a shared room with bunk beds, though some do have private rooms if you choose, usually at an extra price. The facilities are shared, some with kitchen and dining areas.
When to go;
As this route is on the coast the weather can be quite harsh at times. Summer can be warm and popular with walkers on the trail, winter the weather can be wet, very windy and cold and even snow through the mountainous stages. I always find the I between seasons to be the best time. Do remember weather is something we can’t control and can change at anytime. Always just be prepared for anything and everything then you will be a happy walker.
What to take;
Less is best! I’m not going to tell you that YOU MUST only carry 10% of your body weight! I don’t agree with this, it is what you and your body can handle and if you choose the right pack then it makes to world of difference. I carry a 75Lt pack and the weight for each trip varies from 13kg to 19kg, it depends on what I need. Only carry what is essentially needed for the trip and you will discover along the way that you probably still took too much. When purchasing gear, clothes etc choose lightweight and practical as well as multi purpose, for eg I take a sarong on every trip, this is something I can put on after my shower, tuck it up under the bunk above me and have some privacy below (my cave), scarf to dress up at night or keep warm, make a top to wear or even a bag To carry, soak it in water and drap over me when it’s too hot while walking, can use it as a towel, an extra blanket and so on. It dries very fast and is light weight.
The basic list;
- Boots or shoes you will be walking in.
- spare light weight shoes or Sandels for evenings.
- underwear (just a two pairs as you will wash them every day)
- two sets of socks.
- two hiking tops.
- long pants or zip offs (2)
- pair of shorts if no zip offs
- hat, gloves if you get cold and I take a buff.
- poncho or rain jacket
- something to sleep in. (as you are sharing accommodation along the way)
- thermal (if cold season)
- Silk liner and sleeping bag (though if warm only silk liner)
- 1st aid kit.
- hiking sticks (if you use them)
- water bottles.
- head torch (to find your way to the toilet etc at night so your disturbing people)
- earplugs (you will need them)
- Map and Guide book
Extra stuff is up to you as you are carrying it and it depends on your personal needs are.
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela;
This is always a day of mixed emotions, as you are ready to stop but not ready to end the journey. You find that you spend the last day walking and reminiscing of the past weeks/months walk. Some don’t want to stop and quite often will continue their way for an extra few days walk out to what is considered the end of the world, Finisterre (you will find the final km marker there) or Muxia. In Santiago, pilgrims would head to the main arena in front of the cathedral to celebrate the end of what is an incredible journey, followed by going into the church to pay respect to St. James as well as sit for the pilgrims blessing where all the names of the countries that arrived that day are read out. If you are fortunate enough you will also see the swinging of the Botafumeiro (smoke spreader) this is incense burning in an urn swinging high in the Catherdral and is to cleanse the pilgrims (and believe me some of us need it by then). You will also visit the Pilgrims office where you can get your final stamp and testimony or certificate of completion. They now have a certificate of km’s if you would like to get that.
Helpful information you may like;