Riding the Camino de Santiago puts you in touch with some extraordinary people and circumstances. The Camino del Norte is a much less populated route than the Camino francés, and some would say (rightly or wrongly) that it attracts a more adventurous, discerning type of traveller. I can´t comment on that, after only three days on the Camino del Norte, but I can say there is something special about the kind of pilgrim you meet on this route. The landscapes, and seascapes, are both dramatic along the north coast, but you have to accept that means long ascents that can seriously challenge the legs, particularly at the end of a long day.
The effect of added kilos. I chanced by Enrique again, whom I had met in Guernica, and he was having
serious trouble with his front wheel. He had left his bags at a garage and was cycling on to a town where there was a cycle shop. When we had shared a drink and pinchos in Guernica, he had quizzed me about my small saddlebag and how light I was travelling. He must have decided I had given myself an unfair advantage, only carrying 6 kilos compared to his 15 kilos, and he confessed that this morning he had posted 5 kilos of his stuff back home! I am frequently accused of “minimalism“………. and I confess to it unapologetically. After every trip, I analyse what has, and has not, been useful in my luggage, and I make modifications. It is well documented that amongst the thousands that start their journey along the Camino, the vast majority are carrying far too much, and Post Offices in the early towns are inundated with people posting things back home. The great ´sin´ we all commit is adding the “just in case” things, when many of them are superfluous. A great lesson on the Camino, and for life in general, is how to survive happily with much less. Travelling light is a supremely exhilarating and liberating experience.
They come in threes? I hope not! Half way up a long climb, I was hit by my second puncture, but not because of debris on the road. The tube must have been in a terminal state of decline and just blew around the valve. I sought shade in a shelter by the road to fix it, and Ramiro (from Marín in Galicia) was resting there in the shade. We easily fell into conversation, and he regaled me with stories and
personal reflections that kept me well entertained while I fixed the puncture. He had been a sailor all his life and I suspected he was illiterate, but he was a very wise man who had learned much from the ‘university of life’. I could have spent hours listening to him. I even ended up being grateful for the puncture! Otherwise I would never have met Ramiro.
Albergue at Güemes. I put in a few extra kms today just so I could get to stay the night at the highly recommended albergue at Güemes, about 12 kms from Santander. This had been recommended to me by one of the readers of my blog, and I am eternally grateful to him. The man running it is called Ernesto. The property had been purchased 100 years ago by his grandparents, who had had 15 children, the youngest of whom was his mother. He and his four sisters were born in the house, and now, with the help of a group of 50 volunteers, it has been extended and converted into a pilgrim hostel. And it is a stunning place!! Not only in its hillside location, but also in the quality of its accommodation. Large inglenook
fireplace with blazing fire, comfortable multi-bedded rooms with modern washing facilities, communal meals………… no charge was made, but you could make a voluntary contribution before you left.
Ernesto, who happens to be the local parish priest as well, gave us an illustrated talk about the Camino and its ecology. When he discovered I spoke both English and Spanish, he asked me to be his
interpreter. As I looked around the room at his ‘class’ of 26 pilgrims, I realized that nobody (other than me) spoke English as their first language. In fact the majority were German speakers, and not all understood English. As the talk progressed, I heard my words being translated into German over in one corner, and into French in another. It was a fascinating study in communication.
The evening meal, with a blazing fire in the background, was prepared by a local lady, and she had prepared portions that would filled any hungry traveller. And the wine flowed very freely, freeing the channels of communication in any language…..nobody cared. And when we discovered that a young German called Lucas, walking the Camino on his own, was celebrating his 21st birthday today, out came the cakes and ice-cream, sparkling wine and aguardientes (home-made digestifs), and the party atmosphere was raised another notch.
If anyone decides to travel the Camino del Norte, this albergue at Güemes is a ‘compulsory stop’. It represents the confluence of all the Caminos: both the physical journey and the interior journeys that we all travel through life. It’s a place to rest your weary bones and from where you can leave refreshed, physically, mentally and spiritually. I recommend it highly.
After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.
In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.
My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.
Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.
My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.