When I talk about the El camino with people who don’t know much about it, they always think there is only one way one can walk. Apparently there are hundreds of caminos one can walk. I happened to choose two of the most difficult ones, but they are also known as the two most beautiful ways. This article is about the northern route of the camino, Camino del Norte.
El Camino de Santiago, or the way of Saint James is a series of pilgrimage routes across Spain but most of them are extended or linked with other pilgrimage routes, so basically you can start to walk from anywhere in Europe. I met people on the way who walked more than 5000 km starting to walk from Germany, France or Austria.
These pilgrimage routes have been used for over a thousand years and hundreds of people walk it every year, even now during the pandemic. I was waiting for two years to be able to walk the camino and finally got the chance, so I basically left everything behind just to walk in the wilderness with a single backpack.
I spent 39 days walking through quiet fields and murky forests, medieval towns and cozy villages, and often asphalt roads on the Norte mostly alone but also made some amazing connections for life.
My camino started on the norte but continued on the primitivo (at one point you can decide if you want to keep walking the north route or detour to the original way of St. James).
Camino del Norte
Originally the camino del norte starts in Irun but i had some issues with the train tickets I bought and had to get off in San Sebastian. So I decided to start my Camino from there. I headed to the cathedral to get my pilgrim passport and hit the road with my Buen Camino! application. To find the path of the Camino you have to follow the yellow arrows and shells which point you in the right direction. This part of the Norte was one of the most beautiful as you keep walking for days in the mountains, through ancient stone paths and lush forests. You have plenty of time to be with yourself and reflect on your life (there’s rarely wifi and the connection is usually poor, so it makes the perfect time to disconnect.)
As amazing it seems at first to walk hundreds of kilometers in the wilderness, sadly after the first few days the wonderful green scenery turns into endless roads of asphalt. If you want to take the original Camino route, get ready for walking 5–8 hours on the car road every day, otherwise there are plenty of alternative routes on the beach which are just as beautiful but usually longer and much harder.
What makes the camino a unique journey and different from your average hikes at home is definitely the picturesque scenery and the people (though speaking Spanish is a huge advantage when making friends and you also have to pass through some big cities as Bilbao or Santander).
Being gluten-free vegetarian on the camino
The food in Spain is magnificent. As someone with Celiac disease I was very worried about food but they always have gluten-free options or they go out of their ways to provide you with alternatives. However if you are vegan, you might have serious problems. Northern Spain is not the heaven for vegans (South is better): if you ask for a vegan dish they will try to feed you eggs, fish, cheese and some times even chicken. You can cook for yourself in some albergues (pilgrim accommodations) but due to COVID restrictions many places are closed and restricted, so you cannot rely only on this. As a vegetarian you will have less issues.
The albergues are the best friends of the pilgrim—but not during pandemic. Most public albergues are closed or operate with 50% of their beds, so you can’t just show up anymore and find a bed. Best is to book but that kind of ruins the experience as you have to be there on time and you might end up wanting to walk less or more kilometers than planned etapas (stages). The time I was walking the Norte the bigger towns and cities were full with vacationing Spanish people, which resulted in sharing expensive hotel rooms with newly met pilgrim friends or even sleeping outside on church porches or even at the beach (as it happened with me few times). Anyways, prepare yourself with a good quality sleeping bag, you might as well need them in the albergues.
Walking solo as a female
Although everyone I knew was so worried for my safety, I can confidently say that the camino always felt safe. Even on days when I walked completely alone I never felt threatened, everyone was super nice and helpful and the men I met were always looking out and taking care for me. The most challenging part of being a female on the camino is having your period. You will walk for hours without finding a cafe or restaurant so often you’ll have to handle it in the forest which is hard because other pilgrims might walk there or there’s nowhere to stop and hide ( this makes peeing also harder for us girls). I used a lady cup because it is easy to use and clean with a wet tissue and you don’t create garbage.
Blisters are an inevitable part of the camino for nearly every pilgrim. I recommend using good quality hiking boots which you have worn for several months before and broke in well. If I would know how much I would be hiking on the asphalt I would take different shoes with me as the hiking boots were horrible on these parts for everyone.
Always make sure you have enough water. There’s one part of the norte where you won’t find anything for 12 kilometers. Also nice to keep some nuts with you for extra energy when you need it.
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Photo: Imola Toth