So here’s where I will recount in gory detail our experience walking the Camino de Santiago from Hendaye, France, to Santiago de Compostela, and a bit beyond.
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Six
Day Seven
Day Eight
Day Nine
Day Ten

Day 1
Hendaye – San Sebastian
We started the Camino on August 9th after sleeping, barely, on the train down from Paris. We got off the train in the last town on the French side of the border, Hendaye. (map) It was 6:30 and dark in the early morning. We started to look for a church, assuming that we could go there to get our “pilgrim’s passport” or credentials. The church in town was closed and had nothing posted about the Camino, so we made our way towards Spain. The river dividing the two countries is spanned by the Puente de Santiago. It’s marked with a nice little sign that’s perfect for taking pictures next to. Puente de SantiagoOn this bridge we saw the first of the yellow arrows which are painted on all manner of objects to serve as indicators for the Camino.

After crossing the bridge we came into Irun and Spain. After some sleepy wandering we found the albergue and the very nice alberguista. The alberguista is the person, usually a volunteer, who is in charge of the albergue. (I’m going to use words in Spanish where it makes more sense. I think you will follow the codeswitching. It makes more sense than say the French loan-word auberge for albergue and the obsolete hospitaller for the alberguista.)

The alberguista set us up with our pilgrim’s credentials and explained how to leave the town. In the middle of filling out everything he said, “The Camino is like life. There are good days and bad days. there are times when you are with friends and there are times when you are very much to yourself.” It was well-spoken as we would find.

We refused the coffee offered by the alberguista, in his flecha t-shirt, as he went to walk what I think was some pilgrim’s dog. I figiured we’d find a cafe before leaving the town, but I was sorely wrong. Upon leaving Irun we crossed a little marshland and then began a steep ascent. For a stretch, the hill was easily a 60 degree incline. It was hard going with our backpacks.

After that we walked along a mountain ridge for a while. There were beautiful views all around. We took a short siesta at one point on the grass and then finally descended to the small port of Pasaia.

In Pasaia, which has these cool buildings built right on the water with tunnels through them for the road, we had lunch. Then we took a ferry to the other side of the port. It was a very short boat trip because the port has quite a narrow neck. It was our first case of “cheating” on the Camino. There are those who believe that a “real pilgrim” can only walk for the entire distance to Santiago. However, when we looked out over the industrial landscape of the part that we would have to negotiate, we saw no reason why that should be any part of anyone’s Camino experience.

We crossed to the other side and had only an hour’s walk to arrive in San Sebastian. DSC_0317 Along the way we passed a crudely painted sign for the “Camino litoral” (coastal trail). We thought about descending to make our way to San Sebatian along the beach and cliffs (“wouldn’t that be nice?”), but we were too tired to veer from what we knew was the right way. It turned out to be lucky, for the sign was a trick. One poor fellow took it and ended up almost in Irun before realizing his mistake.

In San Sebastian we arrived at 9:30 and the albergue would close and have lights out at 10. The alberguistas there were a young woman and an old lady. The old lady had done the Camino as well. She was busy telling us stories about the people she met and the experience while we were itching to go get some food so that we would have dinner.

We went out to grab some dinner. There we had our first taste of pintxos /peenchos/ northern Spain’s version of the tapa. Pintxos are usually left on the bar and one takes what one wants and the total is tallied afterwards. The tally is done either by the number of toothpicks or number of plates that you end up with. It’s a bit like a tapas buffet run on the honor system. We grabbed one with artichoke, one with a bit of tortilla topped with crab salad and a ensaladilla rusa (Spanish potato salad). We ate this in the darkened courtyard of the albergue, which was, in fact, a converted primary school gym.

Finally, we slept.
Day 2
San Sebastian – Orio

We left San Sebastian in the morning, with directions to find the Camino, but we promptly got lost. We couldn’t find any arrows and no one we asked seemed to know where the trail was. We spent an hour looking around until we finally asked the Youth Hostel which was a stone’s throw away from the trail.

This turned out to be the problem of the Camino in cities; the marking gets lost and no one knows where it is anyway. In the country it’s pretty obvious and if you ask someone they’ll tell you, “well, all the foreigners with backpacks walk that way.”

Leaving S. Sebastian we climbed a tall hill. tortilla and zumoAt the top we found a nice little bar with a terrace and a view. We stopped for some tortilla and juice. It was lovely.

Day 3 Orio – Zumaia (Urain)

After leaving Orio across the river and walking through vinyards and high hills with verdant valleys, we finally arrived in Zumaia (map) where we treated ourselves to a luxurious menu del dia. The menu del dia is a fixed-price lunch that comes, usually, with a started, a main dish, dessert, wine and bread. In Spain they are a really good bargain for some tasty food. DSC_0441We had Chipirones en tinta (cuttlefish in their own ink), bonito con pucha de cebollas (tuna steak with a onion sauce), and txotxara (another type of fish I can’t find the name of in English. I may have the spelling wrong). For dessert we had a granizado of mandarin orange and a dulce de leche tart.

We stayed in an Eco-albergue just a bit outside the city in Urain. It was a cute old country house that the owner, Josefran, had converted into an albergue/rural tourism house. the cool tomato-growing thingy at Josefran'sBut to reach it we had to walk up a short, but very steep hill. In Spanish, una cuesta que cuesta.

Day 4

Zumaia (Urain) – Markina
We started out refreshed the next day. We passed through the town of Deba, which has elevators to descend from one part of the city to the other. We bought some very good cheese from Navarra at a fair that was going on there. We had a coffee and then crossed the river on a little bridge.

After climbing upwards again we stopped for a picnic lunch in Calvario. beautiful picnic foodWhile sitting there we met Javi from Burgos who came up the trail. We passed him later in Olatz in the last bar for several kilometers.

We had some sidra there and took a siesta. (More on sidra later) We saw Javi there, too, and talked for a while.

We then took off for Markina which was the town with the next albergue. Javi thought he would stay but then he passed us on the trail, not wanting to be outdone by some youngsters. We walked until it started getting dark. We were on top of a tall hill that is the beginning of a very steep descent into Markina. We thought that we would just sleep outside in a town up there, but it turned out that the “towns” up there were composed of two or three houses and nothing else. We stopped a car passing by, intending to ask them where we could find some place to sleep that would be protected from the rain. In the car was a family that lived nearby.

The mother of the family insisted on driving us down to the town. We hopped in as the rest of the family got out. (See, we’re “cheating” again already). It was a long way down to the town, so I am glad we took the ride. As it was we got to the albergue to late to be let in. The albergues all close around 10p.m., if they are serious about closing at all. Well, the mother of this family took us around to bar where she knew someone who’s mother rented rooms. We went to that person’s mother’s house, it’s #2 on some street in Markina if you ever want to stay there.

This woman was a little crazy; very frantic, but also very nice. She spoke the whole time insisting that we eat something (she made us cheese sandwhiches and colacao), talked to the television and gave us four apples and one orange to eat on the trail (”what are you going to do when you’re on the trail and your mouth gets dry?) and said that she regretted having to charge us ten euros.

We had a room to ourselves, with a shared bathroom. In the morning this crazy guy was telling us that we took too long in the bathroom even though he started knocking right after we got in there. He said something to the effect of his (obviously small-bladdered) wife having to piss in the bed. Then we realized that he was in the adjoining room to ours and had to pass through our room to get to his. It was a strange experience for the morning.

Day 5

Markina – Gernika (Guernica)
We had breakfast in a nearby cafe in Markina that featured the world’s fastest bartender. I swear that he had my coffee made and my change in my hand before I finished saying “…con leche.”

We left Markina and took a rest in Bolibar, named after the general. Curious, I thought that a town would be named after a person renowned for fighting against the Spanish for independence. Then I realized that we were in the Basque country and it all made sense. We ate a little snack in the central plaza since the bar was closed.

We later arrived to the monastery of Zenarruza. There we used these nice public bathrooms that they had there complete with showers. I shaved my beard partially off.

We arrived in Gernika late and we were tired but there was no place to stay for the night because of a big fiesta and concert happening at the same time. In the end we stayed long enough to eat in an expensive and not too tasty restaurant. There we had dinner with a Frenchman who turned out to be a journalist from Reunion Island. He gave us some very useful info that he had in Spanish (which was no good to him) and invited us to come visit while at the same time suggesting that Madagascar is much nicer. We had one waitress who was Argentine so Dalia and her had something to talk about. The other waitress was a foreigner who didn’t understand too much Spanish or the concept of service.

We ended up by leaving the city to sleep in our newly-purchased hammocks. They turned out to be substantially uncomfortable to spend the night in and our sleeping spot wasn’t the best. In the end it was a rough night of little sleep.

In the morning, we went back into town and had some breakfast before taking the bus directly to Bilbao.

(”But Trenton, wouldn’t that be considered cheating?” “Yes, and I don’t care.”)

Day 6 Gernika – Bilbao (well, mostly Bilbao, really)

In Bilbao we bought braces for our ailing body parts – my knee, D’s ankle- and took the bus to the albergue. Their albergue is a huge youth hostel with 7 floors; it looks like a hotel.

There they had free internet and a cafeteria that served us up some bad paella. We stashed our stuff when the rooms opened for the day and then took off on a walk across town. Bilbao is a fairly large city and parts of it have that rundown city look to them. The nice part is along the river and especially the Gothic neighborhood.

We spent the whole day out, wandering around the old part of town, the twisted medieval streets. Then we started looking for a restaurant that was recommended to us, but we never found it. What we did find was this awesome Spanish restaurant with bright lights, tiles everywhere and uniformed waiters. (Ours looked like a very friendly junkie of the iggy pop variety) I had the bonito with two sauces and Dalia had gambas a la plancha (grilled crawfish-like shrimp).

Day 7

Bilbao – Pobeña

The next day we stayed in Bilbao, figuring that we would give ourselves a good break. We had breakfast in the Hostel. It was better than lunch. Then we took the cute little tram that they have there to the Guggenheim. A tram! With the tracks embedded into a swath of grass!

(Oh, the Basque spelling for Bilbao is Bilbo. A Russian kid we would meet later on the Camino was convinced that hobbits were based on the Basque. It’s probably not way off the mark, they are a Celtic people, after all)

Everything else was closed this day, too. Apparently because yesterday was a fiesta, or perhaps they had been closed yesterday because today was a fiesta. Anyway, in the museum we saw these pretty awesome steel sculptures by Richard Serra. (a one trick pony?) They apparently frown on letting people run around on those huge curved surfaces like we all want to. There were all sorts of opportunities to slide and run and do Matrix-like moves against the walls.

Anyway, Serra’s mega-sculptures were cool, but Albrecht Dürer is THE man. Described by his name in Latin, Alberto Durero, for some kooky reason, I almost missed seeing this exhibition that they had going on. It was an absolutely amazing collection of woodcuts and etchings spanning his career and including his entire series on the Apocalypse. Interestingly, we had a seen an exhibit at the Getty in Santa Monica a couple of months earlier on that referenced Dürer’s famous rhinocerous.
It started to rain while we were inside the museum. Neat to see rain falling over Gehry’s torqued and contorted surfaces. We had lunch in a little restaurant and then coffee at this corner cafe (Cafe toucan?) that was pretty cute and mellow.

We took a bus to Pobeña. This is two towns away from Bibao and effectively skipped walking through and industrail wasteland that feeds the hungry mouth of the port of Bilbao. We had to change buses to get to the albergue. At the second bus stop we met this trio of older women. Among them a mother, who proudly told us that she was 92, and her daughter. The daughter told us how she had to pull double duty looking after her husband and her mother. They were all very nice. They asked us where we were from in what I found to be a very common way outside of cities; “You’ve come from a long ways away, haven’t you?”

Pobeña’s albergue was small but cute. The friendly hospitalero explained how to go on the next stage and let us sleep on a mattress on the floor in the already overcrowded place. We dined on some tortilla and bread from a bar and soup from a package. And some leftover cheese. Breakfast in the morning of coffee, cookies, bread and jelly was also included, essentially for free. The albergues run by the local association of friends of the Camino are almost always free whereas the municipal ones will charge a set fee. In the case of the free ones, they always do ask for a donativo, which, of course, you give because they’re nice and you’d feel like a real shmuck otherwise.

It was here that we first met the German guys, Christopher and Andreas, and this German girl with long, blonde hair. We also met the Belgians, Frank and his girlfriend.

Day 8

Pobeña – Castro Uridiales
We left after breakfast in the morning to start walking along a paved walkway along a seaside cliff. They view were quite nice and the going was easy. We stopped in a place called Saltacaballos to have a colacao in a roadside cafe. Saltacaballos itself was not much more than the area adjacent to a certain curve in the road. (where does the name come from though? I think we saw another town named something similar.)

Leaving that cafe we walked on the highway for about 50 meters in order to turn off onto the trail. (there’s a lot of walking on roads and highways, sometimes even large freeways, on the Camino del Norte; a big difference from the Camino Frances) In that short distance a car pulled up and the driver told us, “Vais mal” – Not that way. It turned out he thought we should be on the left side of the road to be facing the oncoming traffic. OK, fair enough, I think that is the general rule. However, we were by that point only meters away from the start of the trail and as pedestrians on a highway we were acutely aware of cars coming from all directions. I had actually held out my stick so he could see us as he came around the bend. I think the locals took a perverse delight in telling the guiris “Vais mal!” It wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear it.

In Castro we bought some veggies at an open-air market, including a lemon that we got for free. The man told Dalia that he couldn’t sell just one lemon and gave it to her free with a frustrated sigh. We checked our email and then headed to the albergue next to the plaza de toros (bullring) where everyone from the last albergue was laid out on the grass waiting for the place to open.

It was the first time that an alberguista, a woman employed by the Municipality, asked for our motives for doing the Camino. We just responded “personal.” She would later refuse to let people stay there even though there was space on the floor.

We went out to grab a drink and some tapas. We ate at a cafe-restaurant overlooking the port where there was a father and son fishing contest going on. It was all the rage in that town.

We saw the Spanish bicyclist who had taken the wrong turn before San Sebastian. We later found out that his email was correforrestcorre (Run, Forrest, Run) and so we started calling him Forrest. He was a little slow, er, mentally, and had the worse luck; he’d get lost, his bike would break, etc. Even though he was on a bike and therefore should’ve been able to do twice as much as us each day, we kept on running in to him on the trail. At one of those other times he exclaimed that he really just wanted to get the whole thing over with and I couldn’t blame him.

Day 9

Castro – Laredo
We left in the morning and started climbing. We passed through a type of oak forest called an encinal. We saw a family riding horses. As we rested on a beautiful cliff overlooking the sea we were passed by the Belgians and Ulf (sp?). Ulf asked me how to say bald eagle in English. It would be the last time we’d see the Belgians, but oddly enough I ran into Ulf at the end of the trail in Finisterrae.

We stopped by the beach in Islares. We ate up on a hill that overlooked this same beach. Coming down we took what was marked as the trail but it only lead to a nude beach. After taking some photos We headed off down the trail where we eventually met Eduardo from Catalunya and Jose from Valencia. We decided not to go to Pantarron (which it seems is un estercolero of an albergue) and instead humped it all the way to Laredo. There we stayed in a lovely alberguerun by nuns. the place was spotless, the showers were piping hot and we were the only ones in the whole place. Despite the fully equipped kitchen we went out for dinner and ended up in the Bar Buenos Aires. It was a dinky little joint and their patatas bravas and mejillones left us full, but not really satisfied.

Day 10 Laredo – Guemes

We had coffee in the morning with the two of them and then Ed had to say goodbye as his vacation time was over. We saw the Spanish Forrest Gump as we started walking out of town. We walked along the beach promenade. The beach was at least 3 kilometers long.

we took a ferry over to Santona where we stopped to have another coffee. After, we bought some necessaries and started walking out on the beach. There are two beaches there and between them is a finger of a hill that juts out into the water. I think it might be possible at low tide to walk around it, but we had to climb it. It’s actually called “El Brusco” and they were not kidding. The trail was a small singletrack that climbed over rocks and twisted this way and that all through this plants that are full of thorns. There is one particularly evil plant that we encountered all along the trail that is nothing but thorns. Every leaf is a spike and the whole bush is thick and and insidious and when they dry out they are even worse. Dalia later had a spike from one of these pierce her Chaco sandals! Jose said the trail must be for “cabras…o cabrones.”

After that lovely little experience, we descended to the second beach. There we sat down on the nice sand and had a picnic. The constant wind got sand into everything, but it was still great. Jose and I went to grab a coffee afterwards but both bars that were there on the beach had no coffee! I am writing a letter to the pertinent authorities, don’t worry.

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At the end of the say we were quite tired, but we still had a couple of kilometers to go. There was nothing along the way except for a campground, We found that it was a pretty large place and the bar was on the second level of a building with a nice view from the terrace. Jose and I had beers and Dalia took a hard cider. It was such a necessary respite after the hills we had marched through. It was only a little way farther to get to Guemes where the hostel was. We had read that this place was a top notch of the true Camino de Santiago spirit.

When we arrived to Guemes after a few more hills. In the town a young girl spotted us as pilgrims. This girl was related to Abuelo Peuto, the kindly, globetrotting priest who runs the albergue there. She told us that we should get a ride from her father. Her father was there with his car and told us we’d be late for dinner.

Wait a second, dinner?

This was the first treat of many that awaited us at La Cigalla as the albergue is known. It is more of a complex. There are living quarters and a house above and the albergue itself, along with the kithcen and dining room are down below. The half-basement area is covered in photos from Abuelo Peuto’s travels aorund the world.

While we took showers, we could hear this large group singing a children’s song that gets longer and repeats with each verse, like “the Tweleve days of Christmas.” Apparently some of the locals host orphans from Chernobyl, and this was a time for them to all get together at the house for summer vacation. After freshening up and laying out our stuff for the night we sat down for dinner at the long communal table. We had rice with fried eggs while the other pilgrims had something meaty. There was wine and dessert also. A sparrow had found its way into the room and people were chasing it from corner to corner trying to grab it. Eventually someone nabbed it and escorted it outside.

Padre Ernesto was there chatting with us all the while. He said he gives three masses a day. The first is in the church, the second two are in the two different bars in town where he has a glass of wine and talks to his congregants. This way, he is sure to see them all. He was also talking to a Swiss peregrina and said that he had been in Switzerland and it made him want to throw something on the ground. The place was just too perfect and clean.

Abuelo Peuto’s sister had lived in Mendoza, so she had something in common with Dalia. At one point she gave Dalia a slap on the butt as she walked by and said, “que guapa!” We eventually went to sleep on these mats that went around the edge of the room.

Day 11- Guemes – Santander
In the morning we had breakfast, another full meal at the long table. Then we left with Jos’e. In the next town we became a bit lost. Luckily we ran into Jaime _____, an architect vacationing there who was actually a hospitalero in this spare time. He not only showed us the way, but walked with us to the dock where we were getting the ferry over to Santander. He was very kind.

The trip over to Santander was nice enough. Once there we walked through town to get to the hostel. The way is well-indicated there with paving stones and signposts. The albergue was closed when we arrived, so we went to have lunch. We wandered around a bit and ended up in this old, very typical joint near the bus station. The food was good and cheap. We had a very nice fish soup.

We then went to the albergue. The alberguista was this French guy with a Portugal jersey and tattoos. He eschewed speaking in French, preferring Spanish for some reason.

Dalia and I thought we would treat ourselves to a movie so we left in search of the cinema. We took a bus all the way out to a Corte Ingles, the ubiquitous Spanish mega-department store. The one we went to turned out to be a hyper-mega-superstore, essentially an entire mall with other businesses in it, but almost entirely Corte Ingles. Evidently this is the sad path of progress in Spain. The place was a pesadilla and the movies they were showing were crap. We grabbed some food to cook dinner and skedaddled out of there.

So, we returned back to the hostel only to find that the little art-house cinema across the orad was now open. We bought tickets. We watched this movie called “Cafe Solo…o con Ellas” It was pretty bad, but really enjoyable at the same time. The tickets were cheap, we hadn’t seen a movie in a while and Jos’e (and about four bags of chips and snacks) came with us.

That night we cooked up some paste with pesto sauce, broccoli with garlic and followed it all with a Lindt caramel and fig chocolate square, dee-lish!

Day 12 Santander – C’obreces
We found a bar in a small hotel to have breakfast in. They had nice breakfast deals of coffee, OJ and a pastry. Afterwards we looked for a cybercafe that was open so I could take care of some things. We didn’t have much luck and wound up in the one we had gone to the day before, near the hostel. Then we took the path out of town.

The Camino was nothing special leaving Santander. For some reason, we both were feeling a bit tired. Passing through a small pueblo, an old woman first said hello and then asked us if we needed anything. We accepted her offer to have a drink and she invited us into her house. She was a little old Portuguese woman and she told us her story as she made us some juice. The juice was actually apples and pears blended with a little water. It was wonderfully refreshing. She was religious, but she didn’t speak to much about that, and her spirit was just so open and kind that it was impossible not to love her. She told us that she had never had much, but that she was happy because she had all she needed. She lived there with her husband, who unfortunately was feeling sick of late. He came downstairs to say hello and we saw how his hands had started, sadly, to tremble on their own.

We left there after accepting some fruit for the road and saying our goodbyes. We both felt rejuvenated and our spirits were renewed. It was a good thing, too, because that was just about the last nice thing that would happen that day.

It started raining. We arrived at Boo de Pielagos (pronounced /boh/) and looked for an albergue that only exists on paper. The place was a growing exurb of Santander that lacked all the charm of a typical Spanish pueblo. We took a commuter train and then a bus to Cobreces. There is a huge monastery there that houses pilgrims. We couldn’t find any of the monks to talk to and we ended up not in the main building, but in a smaller guesthouse. We had our own room, but it was a dirty, dingy little thing. There was some old man who lived there and he insisted that we move down the hallway to some other room because he didn’t want to disturb us with his noise. He then asked us what day of the week it was becasue he had to go to the doctor to get an injection. Methadone, pal? It was puzzling, but we didn’t really care.

We made dinner in the room with the Super Cooker. It was just a packaged soup and some bread. We played backgammon and then turned in.