Culinary discovery on the Camino

A walk through the Spain’s North Coast with an unlimited food budget would be a discovery indeed. The Spanish culinary Renaissance is in full swing and the Michelin guide has been complementary in it’s sprinkling of stars over this region.

For the moment, I’m better placed to review relative prices of jars of chick peas in Carrefour and Dia supermarkets.

That’s not to say that there aren’t revelations to be had. The other day I discovered that it’s possible to guzzle non-liquid foodstuffs (chocolate raisins… 2 packets) and that under the right conditions (no other food for 20k) the proteinacious brine surrounding beans can be surprisingly tasty in and of it’s self. I don’t think the palates at Michelin have anything to worry about.

I first saw this contraption at Castillo, walking from Laredo to Güemes. It seems to aerate the drink, adding, I’m told, to ‘El sabor’. Very nice it is too.

Santander and the midday sun

New strategy: the midday drawing. 

This is a bit risky because the camino del Norte is proving popular this year and albergues are filling up. Today I’ve phoned to reserve at a private albergue for the first time as otherwise there would be a 39 km hike between two public ones. I would be pushing my right at my limits with that – especially in the sun. 

La Catedral, Urban Coffee is the sort of place where you know that you’ll be overcharged for the coffee. Their cheesecake, however, is worth the hit. 

I don’t really do baked cheesecakes but I heard some other customers raving about it. The waiter concurred and promised it would be muy rico. It has a thin layer of quite tasty raspberry jam, and wasn’t too clawey. The coffee lasted considerably longer than the cake.


My constant companion on the Ruta del Norte is the Atlantic Ocean and I wanted to get some practice in with waves and the sea, to try too early away from a symbolic shorthand.

I’m getting better at fitting in some drawing in my walking day, and hope to get to some actual coastal scenes.  
 This was a quick attempt at an evening scene at Pobeña, although I didn’t implement any of my waves practice.

Guernica and the plague of Bedbugs

Bedbugs. In Guernica, but the Albergue are sorting it. Involving a full scale shutdown of the place.

The famous bed race of the camino francès isn’t often seen on the Ruta Jacobea but there was a bit of scrambling around the city, and some busing onto other sites.

In a €15 per night albergue, I got what I paid for. Sharing a room with 2 other walkers, the spainard noted ‘huele del tigre aqui’. While in English a tiger conjures no specific smell, for spaniards it is perhaps the odour teenage boys hope to mask with Lynx body spray, rather than actual washing.

Mostly, Guernica is a delightful city, it would be very easy to spend a few nights here, so I wouldn’t let the bedbugs put you off.

A life size ceramic reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica can be seen in the city. This journal page shows a fragment. It’s a disturbing piece of work all right.

Deba: The Steep City

It’s a steepness we are thankfully spared at the end of the day. An elevator in the street drops us around 7 floors, and another by around 5 to town level, where we stay in a well converted station building. An excellent albergue, which could have more clothes drying space! (Where is Albergueadvisor !?)

This is a15 minute sketch of the Iglesia de Santa Maria in the historic (and only) centre. Crowds gathered outside in black, too ‘alegre’ for a funeral and turned out to be musicians preparing for a concert in the nave. The conductor was an especially expressive chap.

El camino (del norte) sin miedo or 10 pre-camino fears debunked!

Here are 10 questions I asked my Andaluz students (the initially confident salesmen turned ill-informed instigators of this travel plan), prior to embarking on the Camino del Norte.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’d prefer something more informative than “¿Yo qué sé?” or  “¿En serio, te vas?”, so the answers are now my own.

  1. ¿Como voy a saber a donde ir?

I know, I know, I know: the yellow arrows. The question how to know where to go is one of confidence. You WILL know where to go, but until you experience it for yourself, you may not believe it (certainly my own experience). You’ve got a smart phone (probably), you can say at least “¿el camino de santiago por favor?”, and you may have a guide book. You are not going to get lost. Well not very often. And not at first at any rate.

If you’re starting from Irun or San Sebastian, and you’re walking with the Atlantic on your right hand side, you are  probably going the right way, and this holds true for a good majority of the walk.

The temptation is to walk on the promenades “not to miss an arrow”, but PLEASE release your feet from their sweaty bindings. Walking in the wet sand where the sea meets the shore is considerably less taxing than pushing through dry sand, and the sea and salt will soothe and strengthen your feet: nature’s natural blister remedy –  right where you need it most! One caveat: wash and dry your feet thoroughly at the many showering stations on any beach. Time taken looking after feet on this path is a sound investment. Remaining sand and moist feet will turn your socks into sandpaper and your feet into tender meat.

2. ¿Necesito una guia?

If you’re a nervy sort, then yes: you are going to need a guidebook. It is perfectly possible to do the camino without, although I think Spanish speakers would be in a stronger position. My students told me that it would be “muy facil compar una guía en San Sebastian”. And it was, very easy to buy A GUIDE IN CASTELLANO, in my native language, or indeed my pretty strong French: NADA.

The shopkeeper in Elkar pointed me towards a very neat, smaller than A5 volume, published by Rother. And it was an excellent recommendation. I had since written to the publisher suggesting they consider a French and English version in their next update, but Rother have sadly informed me that their only update in 2016 will be the German version.

3. ¿Que llevo conmigo?

Ah. The question which launched a thousand posts. Not to mention video blogs and forum questions. The ultimate guide on what to bring on the camino, is as elusive as it is searched for. The truth: as in so much in life, no one solution fits all. These guys have an excellent stab at it:

My personal favourite: Andrew Suzuki’s “Don’t stop walking”

Also commendable are Lindsey Cowie’s heavier, but probably comfier recommendations and a retrospective run down by the couple from “See you soon mom”.

Like the rest of the internet (!) I’ll be compiling a list of what I brought and what I would take next time. The main selling point of my list is that it was ultra cheap – having, as I did, a budget of around 150€ to prepare (including rucksack purchase!).

4. ¿Como es el clima en la costa en verano?

In theory the answer to this is: “it doesn’t really matter what the weather’s like, if you’ve got the right stuff”. In practice, even the for the ultra-high-spec-gear walkers, the major enemy of the peregrinos is the damp.

In my thirty days from San Sebastian to Santiago in June, I experienced 2 days of heavy downpour and 2 days of cloudiness with occasional light showers. The temperature seldom dipped below 18 degrees during the day, and although I saw a few of late afternoons with temperatures of over 30 degrees, the temperatures for walking were mostly closer to 25 degrees.

Things get pretty sweaty inside a waterproof, and bag straps can rub on skin. This is where your high tech fabrics wicking the sweat away from your the skin surface may have an advantage. I’ve mentioned damp feet, and on one day I actually stopped to dry my feet and change my socks before continuing onwards. Aim to pick up some sheets of newspaper at a bar prior to arriving at the albergue on a wet day: stuffing your shoes will help you avoid the misery of a cold, damp boot in the morning.

5. ¿Y si no quiero dormir abajo de las estrellas, podré encontrar sitio para dormir, sí?

Claro que sí.

There are more albergues on the ruta del Norte every year, although, you may have to walk further to get one than one might expect on the Camino Francés.

Sin embargo:

There is one particular area of “patchiness” in the Camino del Norte: depending on the distances covered and route: after Aviles, until and including Ribadeo. I stayed in more guest houses and private albergues in this part of the route than in any other.

Muros de Nalon:   Casa Carmina (Private Albergue, highly recommended – 15€, but some distance from any bars or shops)

Ballota: Casa Fernando (Low price hotel, shared room with 2 other walkers, to the tune of 23€ each)

Luarca: the closest I came to homelessness – on the wettest day of my camino. This stunning fishing village is a draw for travellers of every type, so it’s best to aim to arrive early  in the day. I found out to my cost : 45€, by far my priciest accommodation at the Hotel Baltico.

Arboces (La Caridad): this was a €5 albergue, seriously basic and quite isolated from any kind of provisions (which the owner took full advantage of: offering a free lift to his own restaurant in the town…)

Ribadeo: with only 12 beds, I didn’t manage to get into the Albergue de Ribadeo either. Another €20 down and I stayed in a retro-from-the-first-time-round, impeccably clean 70’s style hotel: Hostal Orol.

6. ¿Hay muchas fuentes en el norte?

Or otherwise worded “I have a 1.5litre SIGG bottle, will there be enough public water to keep this topped up during the day, or do I need another water bottle?”

I kept an additional 500ml bottle topped up, but only ended up using it on the following days:

Deba to Markina Xemein

Markina Xemein to Gernika

Castro Urdiales to Laredo

Ribadesella – Sebrayo

Lourenzá – Gontán (a particularly “dry” stage in my opinion)

Baamonde – Sobrado Dos Monxes

7. ¿Cuanto me costera, en tu opinion?

I had 800€ to last the month.

It was enough. With about 40€ to spare.

But I’ll admit to having had a more frugal camino than most. My eating requirements are irritatingly complex, but didn’t have to be expensive.  I mainly drank (free) water, bought food in local shops and supermarkets, and stayed in municipal albergues where possible.

8. ¿Es peligroso andar sola como mujer?

When I announced my intentions to walk the camino, a concerned friend forwarded me information on Denise Thiem, at that time missing, now known to have been murdered on the Camino Francés.

It was news which unsurprisingly devastated the camino community, and has had a lasting impact on the solo peregrina. Safety is something that you should take very seriously, although I do believe that it would be a terrible shame not to undertake the walk for this reason.

On one occasion, a still drunk from the night before Spaniard tried to strike up a slightly leery conversation.

Other than that I can really say that I had no problems at all. I was glad to be walking with a stick, which did help me feel that I’d be able to whack any approaching wrongdoer. Some other walkers had whistles, and even simply to alarm anyone approaching, I think this is a great idea, and I’ll certainly be taking one on any future walks!

9. ¿Que voy a comer?

I’m vegetarian, I don’t eat gluten (secondary to bad acne breakouts). No bread on the camino is an inconvenience and an expense! It also renders a menu del día pretty inedible.

The provision of fridges in albergues is variable, and there may be a good few items stuffed into these shelves by the time you arrive. Don’t count on them, that’s what I’m saying.

I carried a small knife, a vegetable peeler, and to the amusement of many other walkers, a miniature colander clipped to the side of my bag.

What I ate on the camino:

Bananas – by the truckload. 6 bananas in one day? easy.

Other fruit and veg: paraguayos (I called them “flat peaches” translating directly from French before discovering they are more exotically named “saturn peaches” in English), plums, carrots, cucumbers, peppers (the occasional treat of an avocado or even a mango) anything not requiring cooking really.

Five hundred gram jars of chickpeas or haricot beans cost about 50 cents, and can be washed at any drinking fountain with your handy colander! I added a can of “pisto” (a Spanish relative of ratatouille), cold of course. I would say that this was a staple lunch.

I would sometimes push the boat out with a can, or packet of “espinacas con garbanzos” (spinach with chickpeas).

Cheese didn’t travel well, and was relatively expensive so unless I bought it with someone for immediate sharing, it wasn’t high on the comestibles list.

Initially, I managed to avoid chocolate and crisps, as I would usually try to keep to a healthier diet: but the calorific demands of the camino would not be satisfied by the pure veg that I had time to prepare!

My camino indulgence was an expresso with a slice of spanish tortilla. Having since found out how this is made (with A LOT more olive oil, potatoes and eggs than you’d think), it’s unsurprising that I was unable to resist it come 10 or 11am.

10. ¿Necesito estar en forme?

Not really.

The real question is how much time and how big a budget do you have? The camino del Norte involves quite a bit of “up and down” and some official stretches  can be long, but by taking it slow at the start I think that most people could work themselves up to it during the walk.

If you don’t have the time or money for that, get out walking for at least a few weekends before. For the sake of your feet if not your fitness!



Reading, investigation and preparation are all part of the camino journey, but ultimately, the questions we ask ourselves can best be answered though experience and reflection: on camino as in life 🙂

A delicious slice of Morroco in Spain

 Thank you Cafe Alsafir (Calle Castillo de Maya, 39. Pamplona).

Twelve and a half hours of changing scenery and family friendly movies have brought me to Pamplona, home of the controversial San Fermìn bull running extravaganza. I’m no expert but I recon British health and safety would make pretty short shrift of it: see example gougings and crushes here.

I’m just passing through though and on a ration of tapa sized tortilla, pisto and 2 peaches, sightseeing was not a priority.

I’d walked by, discounting a Marrocan style meal, usually heavy on the kebabs (from my Andalusian experience) but was powerless to resist the aromas of coffee , cloves and mint following me with the warm breeze.

I was looking for a small but filling plate which wouldn’t be too heavy before sleeping. The waitress recommended the €3 ‘potato salad’. A revelation in taste! Potato, green olives, a shallot (it could have been a mild, pink onion, I’m not great on my alliums), olive oil and a dusting of paprika! Not a large serving , but more substantial than a typical tapa – exactly what I was looking for. I couldn’t identify any other ingredients and yet it was a taste masterpiece. 

I’m the sort of person who likes to finish a meal with a coffee – the Arabic coffee served was DIVINE. The scent lingers with me, and I feel all the more exotic for it! So with a soft drink it set me back €7 in total. If your camino is heading through Pamplona and you can stretch your food budget just a smidge, consider a short respite from some of the camino staples and treat yourself!

The drawing tonight was a slightly secondary affair but ups and downs with the drawing, the path and life!


keys handed in. 

1 hour to spare, me and my rucksack (again, I think there will be a theme) and a quick sketch.

Downsizing also in ambition because I  traded my A4 book for a more manageable A5 size. The reality of sketching on the road won out!