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Camino del Norte – part 2

My official certificate says I walked 559 km in 24 days before putting my feet up in the Santiago cathedral plaza. That’s probably close although I took a few accidental shortcuts and detours.

Week two continued the dramatic coastal scenery of week one — crossing through the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. So this involved lots of walking inland to climb over forested hills then back out to the coast, up over windswept capes and back down into scenic bays with fishing villages or surfer-filled beaches. I also passed through a couple larger cities with their industrial and commercial zones reminding me that I was walking through inhabited areas rather than a wilderness.

After the first week I didn’t have any more days of constant rain. There were several rainy days, but I could cover up for the rain and then dry out again afterward. And my feet got much better after I went through 3 boxes of bandaids for the blisters.

I quickly figured out some things that I wasn’t going to use. So I mailed them to Lisa. Then figured out more things I wasn’t going to use so mailed another box. The pack became pretty manageable after that. Lots of people use an inexpensive service provided by the post office to ship your bag to your next stop. I could see doing that in the future.

By week three the route entered the province of Galicia and turned south to go inland. There were a couple days of long climbs before it leveled out again on the slightly rolling plateau of central Galicia. Finally the route joined up with several other caminos on their way to Santiago so I found myself walking among dozens if not hundreds of other hikers and cyclists for the last two days.

The most memorable part of the trip had nothing to do with the route. While walking out of a town on a cool rainy morning I saw a cat lying in the middle of the path. It didn’t move when I walked up to it so I expected that it had been hit by a car in the nearby road. But after a closer look I realized it was still breathing. It was striking to feel my role switch from a casual observer of my environment to a participant. I had become responsible for this cat and needed to decide what to do. A Google search showed a vet’s office 15 minutes back into town so after some deliberation I wrapped the wet, muddy cat in a bag and carefully picked it up. I kept expecting it to die in my hands, but every time I checked he was still breathing. I noticed he had a clipped ear so it was clear this was a feral or stray cat that had been spayed. I got strange looks from people as I walked into town with what must have appeared to be a dead cat, but he kept breathing. The office wasn’t yet open when I arrived so I had to wait another while for the vet to show up. When he did arrive the vet was sympathetic but not hopeful. However he said he would start the cat on intravenous fluids and I could call the next day. So I picked up my pack and headed back out on what ended up being one of the longest days of the trip. The following day I put off calling for quite  a while since I didn’t want to be told that the cat had died. However when I finally did call the vet surprised me by telling me the cat was doing well. Ha, this totally made my day! He sent pictures of the cat in recovery and then again a few days later when they released him back in the wild. The vet (Daniel) told me he has twelve cats of his own and he had decided to call this one Santiago.

Santiago in recovery

The pilgrim’s certificate you fill out to partake in the official walk asks what your motivation is: religious, spiritual, sporting, etc. I didn’t really know what my motivation was; it was none of those. But now I think it’s to remind myself that it’s worth it to inconvenience yourself to experience something wonderful and good in the world.

I met lots of warm, friendly, and interesting people who were hiking the route: a quiet, young Ukrainian guy, Alex, who loves walking by the ocean; a retired Spanish journalist, Jose, who wanted an easy, laid back vacation; Carlos, who spends all his vacation time walking different camino routes; a retired professor, Cristina, who began walking the camino in memory of her husband and was now on her fourth trip; Michael, a tall, gregarious American who pulled everyone he met into his circle of friends; and a group of six guys who hike part of the way every year and wear matching red jackets with their names emblazoned on them. For many people this was not their first time walking to Santiago and likely not their last.

Most nights I tried to stay in “albergues”, hostels, often specifically for people who are walking. The albergues were a good way to meet other pilgrims as well as to save money. Most provided bunk beds in dorm rooms, showers, and sometimes shared kitchen facilities. They ranged from new sleek hostels to old buildings lovingly restored (or not so restored) by people who loved the camino. One, in a building attached to an old church, operated solely on donations and the owner just enjoyed hanging out with people and volunteered his car to take people to the nearest grocery store if they needed. Several nights there were no conveniently located albergues so I stayed in “pensions”, basic hotels usually with a shared shower. A little more expensive, but providing the luxury of my own bedroom.

Here’s the route I walked. The little red pin markers are where I stayed each night.
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Camino del Norte – part 1

A week since I started walking in Santander, Spain, I find myself in Villaviciosa. I think I’ve probably been walking about 25 km per day but haven’t really kept track. The first days were hard since I got some significant blisters. They seem to have resolved now although my feet still ache by the end of each day. There’s also been a fair bit of rain–probably every day but two has had some rain and a couple  had solid rain all day. But all that rain creates a beautiful green landscape!

I’m still figuring out the lodging situation. The best stays are in albergues–basically hostels for walkers. But a lot of them are closed this year so I’ve also stayed in pensions and hotels. It takes more time than I expected to figure out roughly where I want to get to each day and then find an albergue or  cheap hotel at the appropriate distance.

The first day was basically walking out of the Santander suburbs. Then the subsequent days have alternated between rolling hills with farms, pastures, and orchards; and coastal forests and beaches with the occasional outpost of surfers. And then add in a few industrial zones along the highway (which I didn’t take many pictures of so you may get a slightly skewed impression of the pastoral nature of the route). 

I’m taking pictures and everything with my phone so forgive me if any of these photos don’t look as good as they seem to on a small screen.

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Over the mountains to the sea

Another quick update…

I left the hostal in Puente Genil after a good breakfast of coffee and toast with olive oil and tomato sauce. Rolling south I gradually climbed a little as the mountains came into view, but for the first part of the day I had a nice, strong tailwind. This seemed to be a constant feature as there was an abundance of wind turbines along the route.

After crossing the reservoir Embalse del Guadalteba-Guadalhorce my route took a sharp right and the climbing began in earnest. This is also where the lovely tailwind swept around the hills to become a headwind. Funny how that happens. I’m also convinced more than ever that when Michelin maps indicate a scenic stretch of road they simply mean steep.

Upon reaching Cuevas del Becerro, the climb got even steeper as the road headed up the side of an escarpment — similar to my experience heading up to Urbassa, but this time I had more daylight left to work with. The top of the pass came at 880 meters or so, and then I had a nice ride — mostly down — toward Ronda. I stopped at the first campground I saw, about 3 miles outside of the town itself and spent the night in the tent.

I enjoyed an end-of-the-day cup of coffee at the campground bar while a host of children loudly enjoyed a Christmas party, complete with waiter and waitress in Santa outfits.

My appreciation for a surprisingly un-cold night was dampened by rain, but the morning was nice and I packed up my wet tent to continue. A little further on I passed another campground which seemed a bit nicer than the one I had stopped at.

Ronda itself looked like a lovely city in a stunning mountainous setting. It also is clearly a tourist town. I saw busloads of tourists taking pictures of the town’s bull fighting ring, and there are more hotels, restaurants, and bars than you can shake a stick at. Continuing out the southwest side of town I passed yet another campground and saw signs for a possible fourth in town itself. No shortage of lodging options.

Ronda sits on a sort of saddle, I had crossed one pass to get into the area and then had another to cross to get out the other side. The second one took me up to 1000 meters and a desolate windswept landscape. The climb wasn’t too bad, though, and I appreciated the ride down the other side.

The descent took me down and up through valleys and ridges until suddenly I got a wonderful view right out to the sea with the Rock of Gibraltar on the coast and the mountains of Morocco far out on the horizon. I rolled on down to Gaucin where I found a really inexpensive hostal with a staggering view and decided to make it a short day. Also in Gaucin I ran into a pair of bicycle tourists from the Netherlands headed up the hill on a tandem. Forgot to get their names or picture, but they’re the first bike tourists I’ve seen since the American in Nantes.

The next day I didn’t have far to go and my warmshowers hosts in San Roque would not be available until 8pm, so I took a side trip up to the beautiful castle at Castillo Castellar. A colony of artists seems to have settled in the castle interior and it’s a great place to wander around in.

I arrived in San Roque at last and met Zigor, one of my warmshowers hosts, at a cafe near his house. I’ve had a great couple of days here, riding into the strange territory of Gibraltar and just relaxing and planning the next stage of my trip.

Tomorrow I’ll bike to Tarifa and catch a ferry from there to Tangier. Morocco awaits.

 

 


 

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