My Instagram feed is full of people on the Camino del Norte (check out Nadine Walks and Ben Camino and OTCamino), and I am filled with both memories and a little jealousy. I want to be walking on cliffs overlooking moody oceans!
(Oh, wait, I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I spent last weekend on an island with friends, where I took a good hike on cliffs overlooking moody oceans. Okay, nix the jealousy.)
But those memories… I know I never finished writing the day-by-day reflections from last spring’s walk on the Norte. The whole releasing-a-book thing got in the way. And it might be too late for me to go back and recreate that level of detail, but I did start thinking about some bigger picture posts I wanted to write to help others planning their own adventures.
Let’s start with where to stay on the Camino del Norte—or at least the first half of it. Eric and I walked from Irun to Llanes—about 375 kilometers (230 miles)—over 17 days in May 2018. That’s only half the time we spent on other trails, yet narrowing this list down to 5 was surprisingly hard. My Top 5 lists of the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés were made with a lot less waffling. And in the end, I could only do this by cutting the obvious one: Güemes.
I’ve written extensively about my stay with Padre Ernesto, and it was utterly magical and memorable. But you don’t need me to tell you about Güemes. Everyone goes there. Every guidebook recommends a stop there. It’s not an option; it’s a legend.
So here are my 5 favorite, but lesser-known, albergues on the Camino del Norte, in the order I found them:
Convento de San Jose, Zumaia:
I chose to walk a short day just for the chance to stay in this still-active convent, and it did not disappoint. We were there on a rainy afternoon, and I spent a long time exploring every corner of this volunteer-run donativo of small, simple rooms and airy green courtyards and garden.
“Even more than the famous grand cathedrals, it’s in places like this—worn around the edges and dented by passing time—that I feel most connected to the Camino as something sacred. This pilgrimage is woven into some of the earliest expressions of the Christian faith, tended and guarded by generations of faithful believers who dedicate their lives to the story behind it.”
Note: several of the older guidebooks and websites say that San Jose is only open June-September and has an 8-euro cost, but I was there in early May and it was open and definitely donativo.
Albergue Aterpetxea, Izarbide
Five kilometers past Deba, and about 300 meters up, is the private Albergue Aterpetxea. Tucked into the rural hills, the pilgrim accommodations are in a converted barn. There aren’t many windows, but there are lawns with picnic tables and comfortable-looking lounge chairs that would offer plenty of rest and light on a sunny day (I assume; this was another day of rain for us), plenty of lamps for warm light, and a separate area with couches and a warm fireplace. The owners keep a small bar and snack shop open all afternoon and offer a fantastic communal dinner. It was around their table that my Camino family formed (Peter from Australia, Michele from Spain, Olivier from France, and the two Giggling Germans), so perhaps I’m biased, but this kind of experience—in the quiet countryside, cared for by a family who have been here for generations—is where my Camino grows deeper, and where real relationships form. It’s easy to disperse and get distracted in towns, but remote albergues are where the real stories are often made.
Monasterio de Zenarruza
We almost stopped in Markina-Xemein. It had been a long, relentless slog to get that far, ending with a knee-breaking descent. There was a lovely town square and an albergue that looked inviting. But according to my guidebook (the unbeatable Village to Village Guide), just 6 kilometers away (and 200 meters of ascent) was the Monasterio Zenarruza, with its 14th century church with evening vespers, its moss-covered cloister, and its communal dinner. Of course we hoisted our packs and set out.
And Zenarruza was everything I could have hoped for. Silent except for the bells of the livestock across the road, cared for by a small group of aging monks who sold strong beer and fed us a simple dinner of pasta and beans—you could feel the long history of the Camino stretching out around you.
Albergue de Peregrinos de Larrabetzu
The Camino isn’t just about isolated mountaintops, though. Tucked on the top floor of a building just off the town square of Larrabetzu is a new (2017) municipal albergue. Another donativo run by a friendly volunteer, covered by signs in the indecipherable Euskara, and filled mostly with twin beds (no bunks!) and big windows, this space was a comfortable, welcome surprise on the outskirts of Bilbao. In the late afternoon, the square outside the albergue filled with local families, and I spent happy hours on a bench by the front door, watching kids play and parents visit and grandparents watch it all.
Albergue de Peregrinos Saturnino Candina, Liendo
We arrived in Liendo hot and dusty—the rain had finally passed and the Cantabrian sun was out in force. Most people that day walked on to Laredo, a few kilometers beyond, but seventeen of us stopped for the night. Liendo is a comfortably small village, big enough to have a couple of bars with pilgrim menus, and small enough that even I couldn’t get lost. The municipal albergue is a modest but comfortable building in the center of town, across the street from the church. There’s no full-time staff; the first pilgrim to arrive for the day picks up the key from the local bar, and someone comes by at about 4:00 to take money and stamp credentials. When Eric and I arrived a little after one, there were two pilgrims already there—an older Spanish man and a younger British woman, sharing a bottle of wine. We hadn’t even taken off our shoes off before they invited us to join them, and we found ourselves sitting at a cozy kitchen table, laughing with new friends.
And that’s the way the afternoon went. There was something about the sunny, open building, with its stocked kitchen and big front lawn and comfortable beds, that encouraged lazy, friendly camaraderie. The beds filled quickly, and we worked together to figure out and share the (free!) washing machine, and to plan our walking stages for the days to come. And when the sun finally went down, I slept better in Liendo than I think I did anywhere else on the Norte.
Tip: Stopping in Liendo also sets you up for great morning walk. The trail from Liendo to Laredo is one of the prettiest parts of the whole Norte, but it’s also challenging and better tackled in the morning, when fresh, rather than the end of the day.
El Convento, Santillana del Mar
The town of Santillana del Mar is one of those places I could either love or hate. It’s intensely medieval, and it knows it. The Cicerone guide to the Norte calls it “all cut rock and tourist kiosks.” It’s beautiful and full of good food, but there’s also a museum of torture and long cobblestone streets full of former cow barns that now sell leather purses.
Just past the tourist center, but still within the historic center, is El Convento, an active convent that is converting its empty space into accommodations for tourists and pilgrims alike. According to a sign in the lobby:
“Our establishment is part of Proyecto Eleos, an initiative born from the proclamation of the extraordinary year of mercy in the year 2016 by Pope Francisco. With your stay you contribute to creating jobs for people at risk of social exclusion and support fair trade networks in third world countries.”
But The Convent wasn’t just a social project. It was an incredibly beautiful, restful place. Open, airy hallways, led to two-person cells with tall ceilings and windows. Eric and I washed our clothes in the original convent laundry, and hung them in a walled courtyard full of flowers and cats. The indoor spaces were as comfortable and well-stocked as the outside, and there was even breakfast. It was a welcome retreat from the noise of the town, and out of everything I saw, the place I would love to visit again.
So there it is: recommendations for 6 (everyone stops at Guemes) of my 17 nights on the Norte. I guess I had a pretty great experience. 🙂
How about you? Did you visit any of these? Or what were your “shouldn’t miss” places on the Norte?