Camino Del Norte — Bilbao to Santander

Camino del Santiago — What is it, where is it, can i eat it?! Many questions queued up in my mind when my girlfriend (Jen) mentioned that she was planning on doing the Camino with her friend. Unfortunately her friend was unable to go, but the backup (me) was available.

To the non religious person it’s a long walk from a given starting point to Santiago. To the religious person (particularly Catholic Christians) it’s a pilgrimage.

I’m neither Christian or particularly religious. I sometimes go to the temple (my family is Hindu), and a feeling of serenity does comes over me when i’m there, so i have respect for religion.

Regardless of faith or beliefs, it is important that the Camino is walked with your mind set on it being a pilgrimage and not just a long walk. We found this out a little late (or at least I did), but to help you should definitely read John Brierley’s books before you go on your Camino — first pick a route, then buy the book.

We chose this particular route because of the perfect time frame (1 week) and the flight availability to Bilbao and from Santander. In future Caminos, we probably won’t be so lucky, but we could also do the whole Camino.

When researching the Camino, it was never completely clear what was needed, and how things worked along the way. Now though, we’d like to share our experience so that you may have a better idea, or at most it will remind us of our first Camino.

What we Carried

  1. First aid kit: Compeed; antiseptic cream; bandages; plasters; medical tape; scissors; paracetamol; ibuprofen; toe separators
  2. Socks and underwear for the whole trip
  3. Trainers
  4. Flip-flops
  5. Hiking boots
  6. Shirt
  7. Three t-shirts
  8. Two chinos
  9. Three shorts
  10. Long sleeved sweatshirt
  11. Toiletries: toothpaste; tooth brush; deodorant; shaving kit; nail clippers; tweezers; sun block cream; sun block spray; moisturiser; shampoo; shower gel
  12. Towel
  13. Camino guide book
  14. Print out of the whole route
  1. Three leggings
  2. Two dresses
  3. A pair of shorts
  4. Swim suit
  5. Hiking boots
  6. Socks and underwear for the whole trip
  7. Pumps
  1. Travel documents
  2. Credential del Pelegrino
  3. Sweets
  4. Chewing gum
  5. Cash
  6. Bank cards

Where we Stayed

Hotel Bilbi in Bilbao

Bide Ona in Portugalete

Hosteria Villa De Castro in Castro Urdiales

Hotel Ramona in Laredo

Posada La Rivera De Escalante in Escalante

Vincci Puertochico in Santander

Day 1 — Arrive in Bilbao

Our adventure began straight after work . I took the bus from my workplace to Jen’s, and bought lunch along the way from Pret.

I was a little anxious about the trip — I knew I hadn’t done enough walking or any sort of relevant preparation, and it was our first long trip away together.

Jen drove us to the airport, where we parked up and ditched some extras (water bottle, t-shirt and shorts to name a few) to lighten the bags and to give us some space for snacks while on the Camino. The flight was uneventful, but did involve some inflight treats — beer and crisps.

At Bilbao airport, we decided to get a taxi into town, which gave us a quick taste of the windy roads that would await us. Unfortunately it dropped us off at the wrong hotel, which meant walking through a very quiet unknown town — we walked to our hotel on high alert.

After checking in at our hotel (where we were welcomed by friendly staff) we freshened up in our simple, clean but relaxing hotel room, and then headed out for a light bite.

We walked into old town, where along the way there seemed to be a lot of university students on a night out. We think it was some sort of pre spring holiday event.

Since we didn’t research before heading out, we picked a friendly looking bar in old town. We were surprised to find that the wine was only €1.5 and it was fantastic! Seems like the best is kept in Spain and the dregs are sent to us here in the UK. We ate some pintos from the bar, which were satisfactory for a late snack. Finally after realising our eye lids were heavy, we headed back to the hotel.

Day 2 — Bilbao

The next day we were welcomed by the infamous Spanish sunshine. We headed into town, and soon realised that our previous nights anxiety was unfounded. Bilbao is a beautiful, lively, small town with friendly locals. We ate more pintos and had some drinks, including a popular drink which we can’t remember the name of (Aperol, sweet vermouth, dark rum). It quickly became clear that a small beer or glass of wine was acceptable at any time of the day — at least in Northern Spain.

Next we visited the Guggenheim Museum, which to an untrained eye can look odd, but after listening to the audio guide we came to appreciate it more.

That comfortable sofa in the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao)

My favourite exhibit was a comfortable sofa with a narrow view of the town. I’m usually more patient with art exhibits, but not this time. Jen was very involved in the audio guide and exhibits, which became clear when she was explaining the meaning behind them for me.

That eccentric exterior of the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao)

Like many museums and galleries, one day isn’t enough, and it is definitely worth a visit. After tiring ourselves out, we sat outside with coffee and biscuits, overlooking another angle of the eccentric exterior of the Guggenheim.

The final task of the day was to buy the Credential del Pelegrino (CdP) at the Cathedral, but there was a service going on, which we didn’t want to disturb, and decided to come back the next morning.

Before heading back to the hotel, we bought some essentials for the Camino — bananas, oranges, cereal bars and water.

Day 3 — Camino from Bilbao to Portugalete — 20km

“Why are we still walking?! Are we meant to be walking around this town?!” — read on.

After checking out of the hotel, we headed back into old town to the Cathedral to buy the CdP. Unfortunately they had sold out. That’s fine, the importance of the CdP comes into play closer to Santiago, so we started our journey without one.

This way to Santiago on the Camino ->

In the beginning we didn’t know what arrows to look for to find our way onto the Camino – we used the printed out map and the offline map on Google Maps to work out the route. After climbing many stairs, we finally found our path.

The route was steep, quiet and not at all like what we were expecting from our prior research. It was scenic with old disused manufacturing plants along the way, which we were expecting, but they were a lot further away from our path. after about 4–5 kms of walking we had to stop because Jen’s right boot started to fall apart. While Jen taped up her boot with medical tape and a hair band, i put on toe separators (usually used when painting toe nails) to try and help avoid blisters.

The walk was only supposed to be 10km, which is what most guides suggested — after 15kms of walking, something felt awry. We checked the printed route map and Google Maps, but everything looked fine. What was wrong? It turns out that there are at least two routes to Portugalete from Bilbao, one which follows the river (10km) and one which goes into the hills and back down (20kms). We had taken the 20km route. It was a little demotivating, but only because of the miscalculation not because it was physically straining — it would have been fine if we had been mentally prepared for the 20km. This was a good lesson on trusting the Camino’s golden arrows, even if it takes longer than expected.

The walk through Barakaldo was not fun as it’s a big built up town. This is where we realised that the walk was going to be longer than 10km. When we did reach Portugalete, we realised that the itinerary had actually planned for the 20km walk, and i had written it!

We stayed at our one and only albergues here. It was comfortable and exactly what you would expect from a hostel with shared dorms. We bought our CdP here and got our first stamp.

After a hearty meal at a recommended restaurant, we bought some more essentials — bananas, oranges, cereal bars and sweets. We hit the sack early, and found that most other Camino walkers were already in bed — possible sign for what was to come next?

The route we took was great, and definitely worth doing, as long as you don’t mind walking twice the distance of the more travelled route. If you’re not prepared then expect complaints like the one above.

Day 4 — Camino from Portugalete to Castro Urdiales — 27km

An early morning start greeted us with a cool stillness, and a sleepy town, only disturbed by the cyclists and runners on their way to Pobeña, which was also our first milestone of the day.

The path is just visible in the middle of the photo

The route was amazing! Unfortunately photos just don’t do it justice, you’ll have to take my word for it and go there for yourself to see. Also, we didn’t take many photos.

The first 10km was through the country side on a well maintained path for runners, walkers and cyclists. It ended at Pobeña, which is where we met our first Camino walker, Krista. We ate lunch and drank coffee, before heading along the coastal path to out next stop, Mioño. The coastal path was beautiful, and a popular walk with the locals too.

In Mioño we had a little rest, and a refreshing dip in the very cold sea water. It was refreshing but not warm enough for a swim, although Jen would argue otherwise. We sat at a small restaurant and drank some lemon beers in the sun, before our final hour walk to our destination for that day, Castro Urdiales.

In Castro Urdiales, we refreshed and then headed out for food. This is where I learnt to be less reliant on restaurant reviews. We ate burgers at a common Spanish fast food restaurant and ice cream at another eatery, and finally said good night to Day 4.

Day 5 — Castro Urdiales

The day before, we decided that it would be best to stay an extra day in Castro Urdiales — the next parts of the Camino were going to be tough. Luckily we didn’t sustain any physical ailments just yet, so we were in high spirits.

The day involved a lot of sitting around, talking, wondering whether we felt any closer to god or any significant feeling of spirituality. This is where Jen read the important parts of the book that helped her mentally focus on the Camino.

We had our CdPs stamped at the Cathedral, which now makes two stamps! This was quite encouraging and well worth doing along your Camino, even if you’re passing through the town.

We ate delicious sea food. I did find the olive oil to be a bit too rich, but easily balanced with some drinks.

Day 6 — Camino from Castro Urdiales to Laredo — 32.7km

Today’s Camino was mainly along the road to Laredo. It’s safe as long as you follow the high way code — walk on the side of the road that faces the oncoming traffic, and before sharp bends cross over to give drivers plenty of time to see you.

There were some hilly bits through a forest path, which is actually preferable to walking on a flat road.

We talked about this and that, but there was definitely lots of moments where we were able to absorb ourselves in the Camino. We had out first small argument about the speed at which we were walking at — best to be patient with each other, supportive, and the Camino won’t let you down.

About 10km from Laredo we met Krista again at an albergues in a small pretty village called Liendo. She had suffered from heat stroke the day before and was recuperating from it.

I can’t actually remember much of the day, because my mind was mainly occupied with the many blisters on my feet. I had double socked, which for me wasn’t necessary. This is why training before the Camino is so important, just so that you can work out what works best for you.

The last 5km were very tough! On the last 1km, it felt like we were stopping and readjusting every 10 steps. Jen’s feet were spasming, and she was almost in tears from the pain. For the rest of the Camino, Jen would massage her feet every 10km to avoid the same painful scenario.

Day 7 — Very short Camino from Laredo to Escalante — 12km

Our feet were still sore, and we had a choice, take the route that was originally planned (a long inland route around to Escalante) or take the easier route on a boat to Santoña with a short walk to Escalante. We both decided on the latter.

First though, Jen needed to send a couple of postcards, so we went to the post office. Afterwards, we started our walk along the promenade, which had an amazing beach! It's probably worth a stay here just for the beach and water sport activities.

We sat down for coffee at a cafe on the promenade, but decided that some nice pastries would go well with a coffee. We found Pastelería Elysees which had great reviews and (more importantly) a delicious selection of pastries.

On the way to the pastry place we found a sign for a hour boat cruise that stopped at Santoña.

After pastries, we bought a baguette only because everyone walking past had one.It turned out to be a great purchase — it’s safe to say we both love bread.

We decided to take the boat which was advertised, and not the ferry from the north west beach of Laredo – it’s located at the north west side of Laredo that goes to Santoña.

The boat trip lasted a little longer than expected, but it was ok since we didn’t have a long walk from Santoña.

From Santoña, we went off piste. Initially the route wasn’t great as it was along a road with a lot of fast moving traffic. Jen pointed out a country path that was safer for pedestrians. Eventually we got to Escalante, where we sat in the sun with some beers.

Our hotel was beautiful. Since we’re heading out early the next day, the owner told us that she would lay out an early breakfast for us.

We ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, where we finally remembered to order butter (mantequilla) for the breads that always arrive at the table first. We went to bed and mentally prepared ourselves for what would be the longest walk yet.

Day 8 — Camino from Escalante to Santander — 34.6km

Mornings aren’t great, and this morning wasn’t either. I was dreading the new blisters and new pains, but we needed to get to Santander, and no cheating this time!

Luckily the showers at all the places we had stayed in were excellent, which definitely helps and not something that should be skipped. After twisting the shower head and getting a massage from the burst of water, I was ready for the walk.

The breakfast for us was laid out and ready as the owner had suggested. We ate some, but saved most of it for the walk (fruits, jams, more bread and ham).

We were now back on the Camino, and it was a welcoming to see the golden arrows and (once again) let them be our faithful guides. The first bits of the Camino were along the same stretch of road we avoided the day before, but at this time of day it was quiet.

At around lunch time, which was after about 10km, we had coffee, lemon beers, and a few nibbles from the previous days purchases (biscuits and cereal bars). We must have made it just in time for lunch as a lot of cars pulled up full of patrons of the bar. Jen massaged her feet and then we were off.

Along the way we came across another albergues, where we met Krista again. She was feeling a lot better. After a conversation about our Caminos, we went inside to get our CdP stamped. One last goodbye to Krista, and we once again set off on our last leg of the journey. We ate the last bit of breakfast (ham sandwich) as a treat once we reached the top of a hilly stretch of road. These little games kept us occupied.

The Camino into Somo was along a very long straight stretch of road, but there is a walking and cycle path running parallel to it. Eventually we made it to Somo and just in time for the boat to Santander. We had time on the boat to reflect on the days walking, and the realisation that it was a lot easier than previous days. We had heard from other Camino walkers that the first week is the toughest, which meant we were just warmed up but now heading back home.

At the hotel we celebrated with the last bit of bread and jam. We later headed out for a nice meal and more cheap (but delicious) wine. The place we ate at had a good vibe and ambiance. There were huge kegs which in the past probably contained wine. We also witnessed the the first of the Easter processions. In all honesty it was a little spooky since they were wearing what essentially is the same cloak as what the KKK have since adopted.

Day 9 — Santander and home

We stayed at the Vincci Puertochico in Santander. I thought it would be a good treat to stay somewhere nice and comfortable after the weeks worth of walking.

We woke up late and ate breakfast in bed — a pot of coffee, a pot of tea and pastries. We checked out but left our bags at the hotel.

Jen found the Cathedral and we decided to find someone who could stamp our CdP. There was a service going on so no one was around to stamp our CdP. We bumped into two Camino walkers who were about to start their journey. They were Spanish and the less stressed of the two spoke English. The stressed man even had an argument with us for not looking like real Camino walkers since we didn’t have our bags with us, which was a little rude.

We wondered around some more to pass the time and then came back to the Cathedral to get our CdP stamped. We didn’t see the other Camino walkers, presumably already on their journey.

The new Camino walkers reminded me of when we tried to get the CdP and stamps at the beginning of our journey. We definitely were not stressed about it though!

We are lunch and then watched the Easter procession before heading back to the hotel for our bags and on towards the airport.

The trip back on the plane was uneventful, but we were well stocked with goodies from the airport for ourselves and coworkers. When we landed we bought some BK burgers.

What we learned

  • Practice walking at least a couple of 25km walks at home to find what is best for your feet and what you can carry.
  • Over reliance on the map and phone, should just trust the golden arrows
  • Try and go to the toilet well before the bus to avoid annoying girlfriend
  • A proper hiking bag that is well padded and the weight of the content is distributed vertically along the back
  • Definitely doing it again

On an adventure

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