Christmas on the Camino del Norte

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Over the Christmas break, I completed six days of the Camino del Norte, the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage that Catholics and non-religious people have been walking for thousands of years. It usually starts in France and ends in the Spanish region of Galicia. However, there are many paths, and every person embraces the route in their own way.

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I started the journey in the border town of Irun in the Basque Country.  I stayed with a great couple who told me about their travels (they drove across the Americas from Argentina to Canada) and who took me to the medieval city of Hondarribia. We saw Basque Christmas processions including a parade with the Olentzero, the Basque version of Santa Claus. Various legends exist about the Olentzero. Some say he is the last surviving “jentillak,” a race of mythical giants who lived in the Pyrenees Mountains. Others say he is a miner who came down from the mountains to announce the birth of Jesus to the townsfolk. He gives presents to children and is dressed like a Basque peasant.

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The parade had other traditional Basque personalities: men dressed like sheep with clanging bells and children who were eager to give their Christmas letters to the Olentzero. After the parade, we went back to the couple’s flat and watched a Basque film about a miner and the devil that had elements of magical realism.

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Irun to San Sebastián

The first leg of the route goes from Irun to the coastal city of San Sebastián  or Donostia. It’s a popular place for surfing and has the beauty of larger Northern coastal cities but in a smaller, concentrated space. This route goes over two relatively small mountains which can be tiring. However, the route was gorgeous and full of surprises. At one point, I had to take a little tugboat to get across a large river leading out to the sea. The ride cost 80 cents, and the driver played American soul music while his Basque flag rippled in the breeze.

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At other points, I saw lighthouses and old palaces rising above the sea, mountain forests with Basque men leading their hunting dogs, and medieval bridges and fountains that have been around since the beginning of the Camino.

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I made it to San Sebastián  on Christmas Eve and stayed the night in a lively youth hostel run by Argentinians where I ate Ben and Jerry’s and listened to traditional Latin American Christmas carols playing on TV.

San Sebastián to Zarautz

This was one of the easier routes, only 22 km and mostly flat. I went through two towns, Igeldo and Orio, where I passed people dressed in traditional Basque clothing, enjoying Christmas Day with celebrations in the streets. I was able to make it to Zarautz in plenty of time which was lucky because when I got to the albergue (hostel for pilgrims) it was completely abandoned. I had set up a place to stay with a Couchsurfing host, but he went MIA at the last moment, so I was left on the streets on Christmas Day.  I called a surf hostel right before my phone died and ran to find it closed and locked for the holiday. Thankfully, a guy named Igor let me in, and we watched Home Alone in badly dubbed Spanish until a woman came to help. She told me it was her first day on the job, they were closed for Christmas, but since I was already here I could stay. I got the entire girls’ room to myself (with heating and a bathroom!) and ate a giant slab of chocolate while listening to American Christmas carols. It was extremely lucky I could stay there and the best gift you could ask for during Christmas on the Camino.

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Zarautz to Deba

The path from Zarautz to Deba took me through the coastal towns of Getoria and Zaimaia, villages I would recommend visiting for a day or two. The route seemed deceptively easy, only 21 km, but it took longer than the previous day due to some elevation change when you get near Deba. Also, my cough was slowly turning into bronchitis which affected my speed: what should have taken six hours ended up taking much longer. However, Zaimaia was a cute village, and I was slowly falling in love with Basque homes and architecture.

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When I got to Deba, I wandered around the village asking people where the albergue was since I saw it on the map but couldn’t find it. “It’s there, dear,” an older woman told me, pointing to the train station. Tucked away in the side door was a set of stairs leading to the top of the tiny train station. The nicest woman I have met so far in Northern Spain let me in and gave me maps, advice about the trail and a towel.

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“You can take the bus to the next major town if you want. You don’t have to walk it,” she said. “A lot of people do that. This is one of the harder parts, it’s all in the mountains and there are only a few houses and farms up there.”

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According to the map she gave me, it is not recommended to do this route alone, much less in winter when days are shorter. However, I decided to take the necessary precautions and keep going.

Deba to Markina-Xemein

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I got up extra early because I wanted to make it over the mountains by nightfall. It was eerie walking through the early morning darkness and having to shine my flashlight on every tree to find the yellow arrows. However, once I hit the forest and the sun started to rise over the mountains, the views quickly masked any leftover fear. Although this was one of the more technical days and zapped a lot of my strength, it was also one of the most rewarding. When I finally made it over the mountain,  I felt as if I had accomplished something.

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At one point, I was resting at a crossroads, when I heard the sound of chimes coming from the forest. Three beautiful horses with long manes and bells woven into their harnesses came galloping past me. A little later, two dogs with silky ears and little bells on their collars followed them. After that, an older Basque man with a walkie-talkie around his neck and a tilted black cap appeared. He seemed surprised to see me.

“Camino de Santiago?” he asked. “And you’re alone? No one does this part in the wintertime.”

I told him, yes, I had been warned, but I decided to do it anyway.

“You’re valiente. You’re brave,” he said.

We spoke a little longer about how the trees in this area had been taken over by an infectious disease, and they were slowly being cleared out. It was sad to see so many massive trees sick and dying, he said. He pointed out the right path and wished me luck on my journey. He was the only other person I saw during this part of the Camino.

Markina-Xemein to Gernika (Guernica)

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I made it to Markina-Xemein with plenty of time to spare. Although I wish I had sucked it up and walked the final seven km to an amazing old monastery where you can stay for free,  I was too tired from illness and climbing the mountain. I stayed at a hostel which was really an extra room in someone’s apartment. I bought the pilgrim’s meal for 10 euros and had red bean soup, a typical fish dish with potatoes, ice cream and a bottle of red wine. The only other people in the hostel were two work men since apparently really no one does the Camino del Norte in the winter.

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I got up fairly early to a drizzly fog. I’d had amazing luck with weather, and this was the first day it rained on the Camino. Despite the dampness, this part of the route was one of my favorites: extremely lush forest and well-crafted trails with wooden ramps to avoid the worst of the muddy ground undereath. When I finally made it to Gernika, I even had energy to go out and explore the city.  Gernika was the site of a brutal bombing during the Franco regime which was immortalized by Pablo Picasso in his famous painting ¨Guernica.¨ Thanks to Picasso, it has become an international symbol of anti-war efforts, and the town hosts a ¨Museum of Peace.¨ There was a lot of life in the city, with young people and families enjoying the city squares and parks and I stayed in a massive albergue and had all three stories to myself.

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Gernika to Bilbao

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The final push is always the hardest. My cough was worse. I was tired of being covered in mud and eating cheap ham. However, the route from Gernika to Bilbao was worth it, especially coming over the final mountain and seeing the city spread out before me.

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Bilbao may be one of my favorite cities in Spain. It´s well-laid out with beautiful natural areas around it. The city squares are impressing, and it has theaters, old train stations, parks and one of my favorite museums, the Guggenheim, which is worth a visit just for the architecture. I stayed the night in Bilbao, met a cool Italian woman who teaches French and a British techie who was visiting his daughter, and headed back to Oviedo the following day.

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Although I did get sick and started making up songs, like¨Damn I hope I don´t have to go over another mountain,¨the trip was a good start to making a dent in the Camino del Norte. I still have about two-thirds of the overall route to do, but I am looking forward to the challenge and seeing more of Northern Spain.

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Maps of the route for those interested in walking. About 150 km or 93 miles.

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