El Camino del Norte: Deba to Ribadeo

dscn1575Monday, 5 September. Dawn came late as is usual in these parts. If it weren’t for the hikers setting their alarms, we would have slept until the sun came up after 0830. Spain occupies the same longitudes as England, but keeps Western European (Continental) time. During Daylight Saving Time, that makes the sun some up (and go down) two hours later than solar time. We never got used to that.

dscn1579The sun was low over the eastern hills when we set out across the river near the albergue/train station at Deba. We set our sights on Bermeo, a pleasant town just west of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. We figured that the Reserve would offer unusual and attractive views.

dscn1576As is often the case, the most spectacular views came from the top of the toughest climbs, and we were rewarded with stunning coastlines all the way to the Reserve. Then we rode along the eastern shore of broad beaches and sand bars, which gave way to the tidal estuary of the Gernika (Basque spelling) River. We crossed the outskirts of Guernica (Spanish spelling) and downed a litre of orange juice outside a supermarket before riding up the western shore of the Reserve to Bermeo.

dscn1589Bermeo proved to be a beautiful town, but to our dismay, we could not find any accommodations. We took the last train out of town to Bilbao, planning to come back in the morning. The train ran along the water’s edge on the western shore of the estuary, offering a much better view than we had gotten from the road. Using booking.com from the train, we found a clean, well-equipped room at the Sercotel.

dscn1623We overslept the morning of the 6th, partly from the exhaustion of the day before, and partly from the late-rising sun. Having seen the best views from the train the night before, we decided not to return to Bermeo, but to press on westward. After getting Cheryl’s credencial (Pilgrim’s certificate) stamped at the Cathedral, we took the metro to the edge of town. We still had to push through 12 km of industrial suburbs and ugly infrastructure before we reached the pleasant parts of the N-634.

dscn1591For the first time, I found myself outpacing Cheryl in the hills. She is still lighter, stronger and faster than I, but I must be better suited to the heat than my Canadian friend. I paused at the top of one of the more grueling climbs after locating some shade outside an old church in the hamlet of La Rigada. We enjoyed lunch and rested, then rode easier slopes with increasing tree shade until Castro Urdiales.

dscn1608Castro Urdiales surprised us with a beautiful unspoiled cathedral, a Roman bridge and pier structure still in use and a charming pedestrian area just off the wide, long paseo along the beach. We discovered Regma gelato on the paseo, which would turn into a favourite to look for in other towns. Chatting with a German touring couple coming the other way, we gained some intelligence about road conditions ahead. dscn1599Already the lack of reliable information for cyclists was beginning to annoy us. The staff at the various tourist offices were invariably friendly and courteous, but they simply did not have information or an awareness of the needs of cycling tourists. We got better information from bar owners with Vuelta de España posters behind the bar than from the officials who should know.

dscn1609We turned in early, feeling stronger, but knowing that we were still not up to peak condition.

Wednesday, 7 September, we rose early, and covered half the distance to Santander on the scenic N-634 by noon. After that, the road turned boring and stressful as it worked through the industrial suburbs of Cantabria’s biggest city. We got separated again, so I made my way to the hostel, braving the ramps of interchanges that rivalled the “spaghetti bowl” in Northern Virginia outside Washington. I found the hostel and checked us in, while Cheryl made her way to the hostel from the central park of the city.

The hills had not been as challenging going into Santander, but the longer ride took the energy out of both of us. We slept hard that night. The albergue was a disappointment and there was a storm front coming through. Camino rules limit albergue stays to one night anyway (keep the pilgrims moving), so we booked a room in a hostel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the 8th, we moved to the hostel Alexandre near the Market and the seaside paseo. We walked the beautiful and interesting downtown of Spain’s financial capital, admiring the well-dressed men and women, and the nannies picking up their cute charges at a private school. We walked to the Maritime Museum at the end of the paseo complex. The museum complemented the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich very nicely, providing the Spanish perspective to the naval and imperial faceoff between the two superpowers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

2016-casa-museo-de-menendez-pelayoThe Pelayo Library and the Museum of Modern Art shared a pleasant garden. The book collection of the Spanish writer was stunning, considering the cost of buying and preserving books in the 19th century. The Museum of Modern Art found an interesting niche in the contemporary art world with an exhibit of vinyl record sleeves 1941-2017. 2016-pelayo-librarySome of the records had been banned by various conservative authorities, not for their lyrics, but for their record jackets. I enjoyed seeing a retrospective of an art genre that brought us from Art Deco era into the computer age.

altamira-2016I very much enjoyed the Museo de Prehistoria, near the market mall. Almost every region of Spain boasts caves with Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings, and the Museum brought the information into focus from all of them. The exhibits helped me better see the contexts and reality behind the novels of Jean Auel, Michael and Kathy Gear, and Kathy Reich, some of my favourite authors.

dscn1635Friday, 9 September, we rode from Santander to San Vicente de la Barquera. The ride was grueling both for the grades and for the heat. Stopping at the quaint town of Santillana del Mar provided a welcome respite. The Romanesque church and cloister stood out as examples of that architecture, which at other sites is usually covered over with Renaissance paintings and Baroque plaster.

dscn1632People along the Camino welcome pilgrims, They seemed willing to help us collect the stamps in our credenciales, which we needed to prove that we had ridden the route correctly. After the church and downtown of Santillana del Mar, we discovered that the Altamira caves were nearby. This is a famous site of Paleolithic cave paintings. We could not miss a rare chance, so we rode out, and visited the site. The caves are in bad shape, so the operators commissioned a true-to-life mockup for us to visit, which proved very interesting, along with the videos and exhibits.

img_20160909_192934The ride into San Vicente a la Barquera capped a very long day, but it was worth it. The barquera turned out to be an island in the delta of the Brazo River, so that the medieval town resembled nothing more than a great stone cruise ship anchored in the roadstead. img_20160909_193534Most of the town is strictly pedestrian, and very steep, with the albergue located at the very top, next to the cathedral. The views were worth the climb. The seafood in the restaurant at the foot of the hill met our expectations for a city on the water.

Saturday, 10 September. With an early start and cool temperatures, Cheryl disappeared in the first few kilometres out of San Vicente. I caught up with her as the day heated up. dscn1641We rode as far as the seaside resort town of La Isla, where the lady operating the public albergue rudely blew us off to take in three Spanish tourists instead of us valid pilgrims. We rode across town to the private Albergue El Furacu, which had a pilgrim menu, bed linens, shower and a beach right out front – breakfast included. dscn1645There was a panic in the morning, when someone accidentally locked the bathroom during the night. Eventually, we all found another bathroom in a nearby dorm room and everything settled down.

Sunday, 11 September, we rode a hot and hilly 50 km to Avilés, which turned out to be an ugly industrial area. I rode to get our credenciales stamped at the local albergue. 2016-cudilleroMeanwhile, Cheryl booked us into the Alvaro hostel/hotel/apartment complex near Cudillero. We caught the narrow-gauge FEVE train to that bucolic spot and rested in a clean, comfortable suite.

Monday, 12 September. We could see that a serious front was coming as we rode along the coast. We made good time to Navia, but there was no albergue. We decided to ride on to the village of La Caridad, where we got our stamps and accommodation for only five euro. When the albergue was full and we knew that no more travellers would be arriving, we pulled our bikes inside before the rain started. Sitting there, we decided to take a side trip while the weather blew over. We booked a hotel in León and got bus tickets to Oviedo online.

img_20160913_143839Tuesday the 13th, we rose to see that the front had arrived late. It rained lightly on and off all day. We pushed our loaded bikes up the steep, broken road to the main square to wait for the bus. Although the ALSA bus line policy clearly welcomed bicycles in the luggage hold, the driver tried to keep us from boarding. I finally talked him into letting us on, promising to get off if there were more luggage to put in the hold. This being a commuter run, I knew that we were safe with that offer. We made it to Oviedo, only to be rejected by the bus driver for the leg from Oviedo to León. dscn1667The station personnel were afraid to buck the driver, so we found ourselves on the curb in the rain, with no refund for the ticket to León. We pushed our bikes up the hill to the Oviedo train station, and booked tickets for the evening train. We took advantage of the setback to visit Oviedo in the rain. It is a beautiful and interesting city, with a stunning cathedral. It is also the origin point of the original Camino Primitivo, and today it lies on one of two branches that pilgrims on the Camino del Norte can take to turn south towards Santiago. A stamp from the Oviedo Cathedral felt as special as any other in in my credencial. 

The passes and ridges on either side of the train from Oviedo to León overwhelmed me with their beauty, even in the rain. We decided to ride back to Oviedo from León if the weather allowed us on Thursday.

I noticed a pain in my right heel on the train, which I blamed on all the walking on the medieval stones. Settling into the Hotel Conde Luna in León provided a welcome change from the increasing cold and damp. We treated ourselves to a five-star dinner at the restaurant next door to the hotel.

dscn1671Wednesday, 14 September, we slept in, but still found time to visit the Cathedral and to admire the stained-glass windows before the lunch break. The Basilica of San Isodoro was open during lunch so we went there, before walking through the old town. The city was like a ghost town between 1300 and 1700, something we observed in other cities in Northern Spain. dscn1712We took refuge from the rain in the El Grupo tavern near the square by Santa Maria del Mercado. We lunched on tapas while the rain rinsed the 500-year-old stones of the beautiful medieval square. After lunch we went back to the Cathedral to visit its museum and the historic Romanesque cloister.

On Thursday, 15 September, we rose to find that the front and the weather system from the Northwest was much larger than expected. The weather was even worse on the north side of the mountains. We took the train back to Oviedo and switched to the FEVE train to the Costa Verde (the “Green Coast” of Northern Spain – so named because it is well-watered). The scenery was still breathtaking, but the slippery, wet highway would have been deadly in the crosswinds and rain. Though I wished that we could have ridden it, I was very happy to have seen the marvelous cathedrals of León and Oviedo.


The horreo is a sort of above-ground Galician barn.

It stayed cold and wet all day as we rode the train to Ribadeo. This is the town where pilgrims not on the Camino Primitivo turn southwest to Santiago. We took refuge in the three-star Casona de Lazúrtegui and looked forward to resuming our Camino in the morning.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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