Camino del Norte – Cantabria

A couple of days after Bilboa on the Camino del Norte, we moved into the Principality of Cantabria. I expected a large sign – Leaving the Basque Country, Welcome to Cantabria – just like “Welcome to North Carolina” but nothing. When we stopped seeing signs in two languages and noticed that the government shield had changed, we were in Cantabria.

Now tapas are called “pinchos”. We left the Basque country and many of the ‘x’ in words have disappeared.


We walked into Castro-Urdiales via the coastal route. This tourist town is hopping on a Sunday morning, with people in cafes, on the beach and on the boardwalk.

Cantabria is where we start to make long-distance friends, i.e. other hikers who will be walking long distances, maybe the whole trail like us.

The first was Pavel and Lenka, brother and sister from the Czech Republic. They were surprised that we knew enough not to refer to their country as Czechoslovakia.

“You folks split in 1993,” I said.

Pavel and Lenka

Lenka had spent two years learning Spanish for this trip and she was fluent. After we walked out of Castro, an old man approached the four us and tried to get us to take a different route.

Even Lenka couldn’t understand why he wanted us to do that.

Did he want to send us to his preferred lodging?

I didn’t understand why the other three hikers spent so much time worrying about what he had to say.

I walked away from the group and said “Let’s follow the markers, not the locals.” Soon, we found a wonderful pension – and it was on the trail.

No discussion of the Camino del Norte is complete without mentioning Father Ernesto’s hostel at Guemes.

This isn’t just a hostel; this is a large estate owned and managed by Father Ernesto and an army of volunteers. They serve three meals a day to pilgrims. The complex has a library, a common room and ermita where you can sit and reflect on your life.

Father Ernesto, now 80-years old, has served all over the world. His collection of slides covers the walls and ceiling of his study. Many guidebooks call this place the best hostel on the Norte. We’ll see.

The scenery is magnificent. The snowcapped mountains of the range south of us belong to Picos de Europa National Park. But we walk along the beach. See the picture at the top of the post.

My feet hurt. Cantabria has a lot of road walking. I understand that my feet will hurt for the rest of the trip. Everyone always say Walk your own Camino and I am.

I will cover my feet with pads, Compeed (European blister protection – look it up), Band-aids, duct tape, and walk through the pain, with the pain, and trying to ignore the pain.

Cantabria is also where I realize that I’m no longer interested in doing long-distance hiking between two sets of trees. I want to see people, culture, other ways of life and foods.

I loved Cantabria.

Camino Del Norte – In the Basque Country

Back home after seven weeks on the road, mostly on the Camino del Norte from Hendaye, France to Santiago, Spain. I couldn’t blog on the trail but I posted pictures on Facebook each day.

Now, I’ll try to choose some highlights of my pilgrimage to Santiago.

My hiking partner, Beth, and I started in the Basque Country of Spain. Our first walking day took us to the village of Pasaia via a steep route. From Irun, the trail goes up up, up to the church of Guadaloupe. Many day hikers start from here.

We hiked to Mt. Jaizkibel, a mountain range in the Basque Country located east of Pasaia, way past the Pyrenees, with several old forts and monuments. A large group of day hikers hop in and out in front and back of us.

Past all the monument, the trail starts down, pleasant at first, then becomes very rocky. It’s raining and slippery. A wire handhold is clamped on the rock. This descent reminds me of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I am slow and careful. Then the harbor comes into view. See the photo on top of this post.

But where is the ferry and the village? The tiny town of Pasaia is tucked away under the rocky slope. Finally down, we search for Santa Anna Hostel, our home for the night. The town is full of tourists but where is the hostel?

A middle age man approaches us and says “Camino? Albergue?”
“Si”, I answer with gratitude.
He points to steps up to a church on a rocky hill.

Up, up… I am exhausted. The church is closed. Who would go up there for Sunday services these days? No wonder they made the space into a hostel. Only hiking pilgrims would hike several flights of stairs.

The hostel is run by donation, with fourteen beds. It opens at 4 pm and we’re the second people in line, here before 3 pm. By the time the hospitalero, the person who takes care of the hostel, comes, there’s a full complement of 14 people. See the completo sign by the right of the door.

The facilities are very adequate with two showers, two toilets and sinks. It is Beth’s first time in a hostel but she seems comfortable.

The hospitalero assigns beds based on age; it’s obvious. So Beth and I both get bottom bunks.

We go down for coffee, then dinner in the only restaurant that serves before 7:30pm. We’re alone in the restaurant for a long time.

I have a gorgeous seafood salad but these late dinners are going to be the bane of my Camino.

To leave Pasaia, we take a ferry (70 cents) and face a set of steep concrete steps. Well, that makes sense. We went down into Pasaia, so now we have to climb up. That’s me in the picture on the left at the beginning of the huge set of steps.

sand sculpture for Easter

Beaches dominate this part of the Camino. First the cool town of San Sebastian, then a religious sand sculpture on the way out of town, not created by kids on a Sunday afternoon on the beach.

For most nonhikers, the most famous site in the Spanish Basque might be the Guggenheim Museum. We’re staying close to the museum and walk over to see the massive, quirky building.

But it’s much too late to go in, after many Camino miles.


We console ourselves with a great meal of tapas, or pinkxtos, as they’re known in the Basque country. The small plates are laid out at the bar.

Customers help themselves and somehow the waiters keep track of who got what and how much they owe.

Since there’s no tipping in Spain or in Europe in general, waiters don’t have to hover over clients, just be generally around and do their jobs.

Every sign, either governmental or commercial, is in both Spanish and Basque. The Basque language seems to have a lot of “X” and “K”; it could use a few more vowels.

Bilbao, the capital of the Basque country, is at the  general end of Basque. We’ll know precisely when the signs in two languages end.