The Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago

The author of the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th-century guide to the Camino de Santiago, didn’t think much of his walk through the Basque region. “The language spoken here is incomprehensible. The terrain is woody and mountainous with a serious shortage of bread, wine and other food supplies, except for plenty of apples and cider and milk.” He goes on to cast some (unprintable here) aspersions about its people.

Things have changed 800 years on from the publication of the ‘world’s first travel guide’. From its tapas to its chic seaside cities, the world loves the Basque region. But the language is still incomprehensible to many, and the hilly terrain can still be a challenge.

The 800km-long Northern Way, a branch of the Camino de Santiago, runs along the most famous part of the Basque Country – its coast. Then it continues into Cantabria, Asturias and then Galicia before dropping down to the city of Santiago de Compostela.
There are many reasons why people choose to walk the Northern Way – the Camino del Norte. Famous coastal cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian are a big draw, as are lesser known ones like Guernica. Then there are scenic sandy beaches, the wind-whipped coastline, and chances to climb into the Picos de Europa mountains. Though it’s not as busy as the French Way it’s still very well known, well trodden and well serviced – there are signposts, cafes and services all along the route.
“The northern route is incredible. You start off in the Basque country, visiting two of the greatest cities of Spain, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Between them you’ve got some amazing villages and towns like Guernica.” Bronagh Carroll runs walking vacations with our Camino specialist, Magic Hill Vacations. They recommend the best sections of the Northern Way: the hilly Basque Country is one of their favourites, the other is the ‘flattish’ middle region along Cantabria’s green, rolling coast. “People never hear about these places. There's golden sand but no high-rises. Nothing like southern Spain.”
Many people come back from completing the Camino Francés to start again on the Northern Way. It was the first Camino trail that Bronagh walked, and it started a love affair with the Camino that has seen her walk over 2,500km of its trails since 2014.

What does this trip entail?

The Northern Way’s official starting point is Irun, in the French borderlands, but there is another designated start point at the chic coastal city of San Sebastian in Spain. The route joins the French Way just outside Santiago de Compostela.

There are two particularly nice sections of the Northern Way to follow. If you want to start at the ‘beginning’ of the Northern Way, you can choose an eight day walk from San Sebastian to Bilbao– a very respectable total walking distance of 125km. This is great if you’re looking to come back and walk the rest of the trail in stages.
Alternatively, you could walk the middle section of the route. The very pretty, gently undulating trail between Santillana Del Mar and San Vicente de la Barquera is backed by the limestone peaks of the Picos Mountains, and the walk can be extended to end at the estuary town of Ribadesella. The countryside around here is variations on a theme of idyllic. There are sandy paths that trail from the beach into the forest, and open meadows. The restaurants in Llanes serve large, chilled glasses of sidra – local cider, whilst in the village of Comillas you can visit one of the few houses outside of Catalonia designed by architect Antoni Gaudí.
The best way to go is with a responsible operator who will arrange all your accommodation and luggage transfers, leaving you with some detailed instructions and a day pack. You’ll need the day pack, which you can fill en route with pastries from local shops, and water from the frequent tap points (take a water bottle with a filter). You might not use the directions very much, as the signage is generally good.

How fit do I need to be?

“The northern route is quite up and down, it’s not the hardest route, but it’s not for first timers,” Bronagh explains. The beginning of the Northern Way, from San Sebastian, has daily ascents and descents of 250-350m, so you need to be relatively fit. If you choose the middle of the Northern Way, the terrain is less challenging. To prepare your feet for multiple days of walking on a hard surface, it’s good to do a few weeks of training before you go. Most trips with good operators are designed to start walking at 9am; you can then comfortably finish around 3pm, with a couple of breaks for lunch, coffee and cake. It is a vacation, after all.

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Keeping it responsible

Make your trip to northern Spain low carbon, and low on food miles. If you’re traveling from the UK, you could arrange train travel to reach Bilbao before taking a bus to get to the actual start of the walk. Once you reach a village on the route, make the most of it; support small, locally owned shops and cafes as you seek out their most popular specialities. In San Vicente de la Barquera it’s easy to forget about your sore feet when a fresh lobster from the Bay of Biscay is sitting on your plate.

When is the best time to hike?

If you’re serious about swimming – and it is a massive perk of walking the Northern Way – you won’t want to brave the Atlantic in anything other than the hottest weather, so July and August might be the best time to go. If you’re less fussed about beach frolics, then any time between April and October is considered walking season. Winter is a no-go: the trail will be miserable, storm-bashed and slippery.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jose Antonio Gil Martinez] [Top box: Jose Antonio Gil Martinez] [Ribadesella: Larra Jungle Princess] [Best time: Alberto Cabrera]