This May we unexpectedly got the chance to go on another trip together. May is not really the ideal month for a trip to the mountains, it’s somewhere between winter and summer (you might call it spring), which usually means a lot of snow left and high floods from the snow melt.
So we decided to do the first part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage path, from the French/ Spanish border to Santander, or eventually even further.
What I brought
Originally I was going to bring my 45l Fjällräven backpack, which is the most comfortable I own. But since I also needed to bring a trail running backpack, for a race in Portugal I had signed up for, I ended up bringing just my 20l Ultimate Direction pack. It was a bit tight, especially if I wanted to bring more snacks for during the day. But overall it worked out alright.
Day 1 / Irún – San Sebastián (Donostia) – 23,4 km
Our first day started with terrible weather: a lot of rain and very strong winds. The trail was much more scenic than expected. The border to France and the area around San Sebastián are quite industrial, with a lot of factories and intense traffic. But on this stage I felt nothing of it. Just a lot of amazing sea views and forest roads.
In Pasai Donibane we had lunch in a little bar and took the ferry over to the other side of the harbour. From there it was a bit uphill again, until we finally looked down to San Sebastián – probably one of my favorite towns!
Day 2 / San Sebastián – Zarautz – 22,7 km
The weather had improved a lot and we continued westward. First we crossed the large bay of La Concha, which is quite fancy. The Basque people, especially older people, really like to dress up. So nothing unusal in seeing an old lady in a lace dress and loads of pearl jewelry doing her morning walk by the beach. After leaving the town we walked a bit uphill and could now follow another trail through the fields again.
We stopped for lunch in Orio, which was (as most of the times) abundant and delicious. Zarautz is another beautiful Basque town, but quite a bit smaller than San Sebastián. There is a huge beach with a lot of surfing going on and it hurt a bit to be here as a hiker and not with my board. We spent another night in a guesthouse, since the albergue seemed to be more of a gym with mattresses on the ground.
Since I walked my first Camino to Santiago in 2011 I have always been in a love and hate relationship with the pilgrilm’s accomodations. I really want to be more social, outgoing and talk to people… but the albergues usually drain all the energy out of me. I really, really don’t think I could do a whole Camino de Santiago just sleeping in these.
The problem for me is the sheer number of people. It would be so cozy to hang out with some new people, hear their stories and maybe have dinner together. But as soon as I come into an enormous dorm with anything between 20 and 80 beds, I immediately shut down and just wish for silence and privacy.
Don’t get me wrong: albergues are an awesome thing. It’s just not for everyone. So much noise, so many sweaty bodies and dirty clothes. No space to sit besides lying on your bunk bed and at night it’s a never ending chorus of snores and coughs. I use ear plugs and put a hat over my eyes, but it’s like I can feel the presence of all the people around me, going to the bathroom, tossing and turning in their bunk and reading with their LED headlight on. I usually hardly get any sleep at all and after a maximun of two nights I really need a guesthouse.
I wish there would be more camping grounds along the trails to allow for a proper camping Camino, where I can spend every night in my tent.
Day 3 / Zarautz – Deba – 22,1 km
Another beautiful day with a walk through the rolling landscape. A lot of the pilgrims were complaining about the constant up and down of the trail, on all the stages in the Basque Country. I’m quite happy that it didn’t bother me that much – having hiked the GR-221 on Mallorca just last month, these days were comparably easy. It’s always nice to feel how training makes you stronger and better prepared for new challenges.
At night we actually checked in to the albergue of Deba, which in this case was in the train station. Deba was a bit of a bummer, we didn’t really find a good restaurant and after I ordered some tapas in a bar they turned out to be old and hard. At least I got my money back without any problems. So we ended up buying some bread and cheese at the supermarket and had dinner on a bench in the train station. Which turned actually into one of the nicest evenings on our trip.
Day 4 / Deba – Markina-Xermein – 24,5 km
This stage is supposed to be one of the hardest of the trail, because there are no villages along the way. The walking was again really easy: you could basically do the whole thing in a 4×4. No difficult and almost no single track trails on the Camino del Norte.
In Markina-Xermein (a name that basically no one could remember or pronounce) we stayed in the monastery. Here we got lucky and shared a room with no more than 10 other pilgrims. Right after having a shower and getting installed we decided to have a afternoon meal. So we got some more bread, salami and cheese from the supermarket and sat outside on a bench. Gustav drank a whole liter of beer instead of rehydrating properly, which showed it’s negative effects right the next morning…
Day 5 / Markina-Xermein – Munitibar – 11,8 km
When I woke up (a volunteer of the monastery had turned on the lights) Gustav told me he had felt sick all night and probably had a fever. He got some pain killers and after beakfast we decided to walk a little bit anyways. In the beautiful sunshine we walked until the village of Munitibar and decided that it was better for him to get some rest.
We took the bus to Gernika and then the local train to Mundaka, which is a famous surfspot by a rivermouth. Here we stayed in a little hotel we already knew from when we moved from Portugal to Sweden in 2015. Gustav got some well deserved rest, without a Mexican guy putting on his speakers on high volume early in the morning and scaring everyone with his sleep apnea all night (he snored like a walrus, but only got air about once every minute). Yes, in the albergues you get to experience the most unlikely things.
Day 6 / Portugalete – Bilbao – 14,1 km
After a break day, where we took the train to Bilbao and checked into another hotel, Gustav still wasn’t feeling so well, but actually had developped a fully blown throat infection. I decided to do one of the stages of the camino in reverse. So in the morning I took the train out of Bilbao and into Portugalete, which is basically an industrial outcrop of Bilbao. From there I ran back to our place in Bilbao.
Jogging 14 km was also a good training for my upcoming trail race, but of course there wasn’t much trails or elevations here. All flat and just concrete. It still was a pleasant run and I got to see a lot of the sights around Bilbao.
Day 7 / Pobeña – Castro Urdiales – 14,0 km
Gustav finally felt better and we took the bus to Pobeña, to finally leave the seemingly endless town of Bilbao behind us. Today would also be our last bit of walking in the Basque Country and soon we could come into the region of Cantabria.
The walk from Pobeña was surprisingly pleasant, see photo above. Always right by the sea, no traffic, excellent weather. Later on we took a shortcut over the national road in order to save some additional 10 kilometers in the hinterland.
Right for lunch time we arrived in Castro Urdiales, which is already in Cantabria, even if the name sounds Basque. Here we stayed in a little guesthouse and spent the evening by the harbour having another cold dinner from the supermarket.
Day 8 / Castro Urdiales – Laredo – 20,0 km
This was probably the hardest stage for me, since it was almost entirely on asphalt. The first kilometers after leaving Castro are still nice, but after that it’s just along the side of the road. No extra space for pedestrians and the drivers don’t usually keep a lot of distance.
After 20 km we came into a little village and had lunch. I saw the bus stop and that there would be a bus to Laredo – so I decided to skip the last 6 km of concrete and that I was done for today. Overall I can say that the trail in Cantabria is not very well maintained and that nothing has been done to make the walk more pleasant (or even just save). Compared to the Basque Country it was quite a dissapointment, even if the landscape is otherwise also stunning.
Day 9 / Laredo – San Miguel de Meruelo – 22,3 km
From the town of Laredo, which is where people from Santander have their summer houses, we started the day by walking 4km along the beach to the ferry, that would take us over to Santoña. From there we went past a prison and onto the hill of El Brusco. From the top we could already see the town of Noja and another long beach that would lead us there.
In Noja we stopped at a doctor’s office because Gustav had a serious problem with excema on his hands and got prescribed a cortisone creme. After this unplanned stop we continued another couple of hours and had a very late lunch in Meruelo. From there it was another two kilometers to the private albergue, located just outside the village.
Day 10 / Meruelo – Loredo – 17,8 km
From Meruelo, which is located inland, we walked now back to the sea. The first 10 kilometers led again over national roads without any sidewalk. But as we reached the sea, the more pleasant part of this stage started. From now on we just walked over the cliffs, as close to the ocean as possible. Again, there were almost no waymarkings, if I wouldn’t have known all these beaches from previous surfing trips, I would have probably missed out and walked along the road. It’s a shame no one invests some money into this trail.
Since we had another day before Gustav would take his flight from Santander back to Gothenburg and I would travel onward to Portugal, we decided to not walk all the way to Santander yet but stay in Loredo (not to be mixed up with Laredo, where we were two days before).
Day 11 / Loredo – Santander – 10,0 km
On our short, last day of walking, we went along the beach of Somo and then took the ferry over to Santander.
I overall enjoyed this trip a lot, but the hiking was at times a bit monotonous, I would have wished for more winding trails and less time on the concrete. I definitely want to come back some other time and continue from Santander to Gijon or even all the way to Santiago.