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.
- ¿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.
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?
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 🙂