If you take the coastal route to Santiago, starting from up near the French border, after around ten full walking days you will get to a town called Castro Urdiales. It’s the first stop in the province of Cantabria, and an indicative welcome to the region.
Castro is a medieval port town, which thrives on sardines, anchovies and tourism. The population doubles in summer, as hot and bothered inland Spaniards make their way up to the refreshing north coast. Castro’s water is sparkling, clear and icy cold. The sand is soft and clean. The tall, sandstone streets of the old town are packed with bars, and it seems possible that everyone in them is a fisherman or fisherfolk. The alleyways are caked with salt and tiny grey barnacles – at least that’s how I remember them (although that might be my imagination embellishing things in order to compensate for my hopeless memory and unfortunate lack of photos). One thing I can’t possibly forget though, is the massive church on the edge of the sea. La Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción was started in the 13th century and they finished building it in the 15th. It’s gothic style; austere, daunting, and refreshingly, strikingly asymmetrical. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen – up there with Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I’d have to say I prefer it to just about any other I’ve seen in Spain, which are quite a few. I’m not sure what it was that captivated me so much about this particular church. Perhaps the oldness of it, its proud resilience and rugged presence overshadowing the port. Or the fact that this unsung beauty was such a pleasant surprise. I’d never even heard of Castro Urdiales, let alone that it had an immense medieval church (and castle) that, in my humble opinion, outshines* many of the bigger, better known cathedrals in Europe. (*in a decisively non-shiny way)
Castro was an unexpected delight, as was the rest of Cantabria. Of the four Northern provinces, it was definitely the one I’d heard the least about. After passing through the Basque Country, which had such a strong identity, Cantabria seemed comparatively unassuming. As far as capitals go, Santander was nondescript, as were quite a few stretches of the Camino, which involved a lot of unexciting road – simple, tiresome getting from A to B. Walking along highways is always unpleasant, and we pilgrims complained about it no end. When it was hot, the tar cooked our feet, and when it was windy or rainy it was just plain dangerous. The scenery along roadsides tends to be monotonous, which warps time and creates a sense of futility, I often felt like I was walking on a treadmill; going and going and just not getting anywhere. I’d much rather do 20km cross country than half that along a road, but unfortunately this wasn’t always possible. Fortunately, the tedium of these moments was offset by some incredible upsides, which were all the more fantastic for being unexpected. The real jewels of Cantabria were places I’ve never heard of before and that I’ll struggle to get to again. Mostly they were small towns and hidden beaches, which stole my heart and made all the dusty searing bitumen worthwhile.
Aside from Castro Urdiales, some other Cantabrian highlights were:
Laredo: Never so much have I enjoyed a gelati, as when walking the 4km, pristine white beach at Laredo. And never have I felt so appreciative of mass constructed identical beachfront high rises, as when they shaded me and my gelati.
Santoña: is where Spain’s most famous anchovies come from. A point which we were reminded of all too keenly, as the pilgrims hostel was right next to the canning factories in the industrial zone. The air was pretty thick. Some excited kids we met had done a tour of one of the factories, where they had reportedly been told that Santoña produces 90 thousand million tonnes of anchovies per day!!! A rather impressive figure, I’m surprised the ocean has anything left in it. And I wonder how many little old Spanish ladies it takes to clean all those anchovies? Fish factories aside, Santoña was quite a nice place, with a great beach and buzzing plazas in the evenings.
Santillana del Mar: according to Jean Paul Satre, the ‘most beautiful village in Spain’. According to this Jean, it’s definitely a contender. It’s nowhere near the sea (as the name suggests), but deep in forest, which is equally lovely. If you like medieval buildings (with carved shields and encryptions above doorways), brightly decorated window boxes, and cobblestone streets, you’ll love Santillana. It has great buskers too.
Cobreces: wins the prize for most glorious beach day. The hostel was overcrowded so we set up camp on the beach for a bit, to rest before coming up with a plan (to sneak into the hostel at night, which was coincidentally a disused women’s jail). I distinctly remember lying on the beach (using my poncho as a towel), looking out to sea, and thinking “This.is.bliss”. One of the happiest moments of my life.
Cliffs: Cantabria’s cliffs are spectacular. If you ever take the North Way and are faced with variants to the Camino, remember: providing it’s not too windy, always take the most coastal route. Even if it’s the longer path, I promise you it will be worth it.
What more can I say about Cantabria? Well for me, it was where the Camino got real. It wasn’t as spectacular or unique as the Basque Country, and by that point the novelty and excitement of “being on the Camino” had worn off. In Cantabria I began to settle into a more solid (but relaxed) routine. Acquaintance-pilgrims became friend-pilgrims, and 90 thousand million tonnes of in-jokes started rolling. A spontaneous, rain-enforced fiesta brought our little groups into a big group – there’s nothing like a torrential downpour in a caravan park to start a pumping, tightly-packed, wind-up-radio-powered gazebo party. The (really) hard days of walking (occasionally hindered by hard nights of “drinking all the wine because we can’t carry it in the morning”) helped cement the sweaty bonds we were forming. Evenings in the albergues (pilgrims hostels) became more and more family like.
If you’re wondering how the albergues work, the answer is, it varies. In a few cases, accommodation is free, but you are expected to leave a donation according to your means and your appreciation of the hospitality offered. This is how it was back in medieval times, when pilgrims (whether kings or genuine paupers) took vows of poverty and lived on the charity that they encountered on the road. Their accommodation could range from a hay bale in a loft, to a private room with a three course dinner. These days it’s somewhere in between, but much more organised. The majority of albergues charge a nominal fee (about €5 – 10), just enough to cover the basic costs of the establishments, which are usually local buildings converted into bulk accommodation. They provided a mattress and a roof, somewhere to handwash clothes, and if you’re lucky, hot showers (often shared). We stayed in monasteries, convents, an old converted train station, schools, a priest’s house, student accommodation (it was uni holidays), campsites (with permanent tents, though many pilgrims also carried their own), sports facilities, indoor soccer courts (on gym mats on the court), and the jail (criminal). As it was peak season, there were often too many pilgrims for the albergues (which ranged between 8 – 100+ beds), and in most places you couldn’t reserve. Overflow spilled into regular youth hostels and pensiones (privately run bed and breakfasts), but these sometimes booked out too. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the quality of all types of accommodation, and it was impossible to predict which albergues would fill. This complicated planning. Sometimes you would stop at a particular town in the hope of an assured nights sleep in a 50 bed albergue, only to find there were no beds left. But surprise surprise, there’d be something available in a 10 person hostel a few kms down the road. Sometimes the manager would let us throw down extra bed rolls, sometimes not. The biggest difference was the fact that some albergues were run by amigos of the Camino who truly wanted to help and foster pilgrims, and others were run by opportunists who just wanted to make money. Five euros may not sound like a lot for a night’s accommodation, but if you multiple that by 100, taken in cash, every night of summer, you realise how these disused buildings are making a pretty penny, with very low operating costs. Needless to say, toilet paper, power plugs, and hot water were in constant short supply. Damp and dustmites were not. I’m not just criticising Cantabria, but the entire north route, which just wasn’t equipped for the increased number of pilgrims in peak season. I think Cantabria was actually the best region in terms of albergues.
My favourite 3, which I recommend to anyone doing the North route, were all “donativos” that provided cosy accommodation, home cooked food, extra helpful advice, and that warm fuzzy pilgrim vibe that makes you want to stay on the Camino forever. They were all run by volunteers and funded purely by donations.
La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto, Güemes: is a north route institution, run by Father Ernesto and a host of almost disturbingly kind and happy volunteers. Pilgrims are greeted with congratulating handshakes, cold drinks, food, wine, and music. The albergue was built by a priest who inherited a lot of money, and also plays host to community organisations, charity fundraisers, and all kinds of altruistic endeavours. The albergue has a huge garden, and when I arrived, the lawn was dotted with pilgrims reading, stretching, practising Tai Chi, and one of the volunteers playing relaxing didgeridoo music in the background. When thinking of Güemes , the word ‘Utopia’ comes to mind.
Albergue de peregrinos, Santa Cruz de Bezana: run by Nieves and José, this homely albergue only sleeps 16, and I had the feeling of staying for a night with a kindly great aunt and uncle. The town itself is a ‘hole’ (as we say in Aussie); there’s no reason to stop there except to stay at this albergue. Fortunately they’ve got a cute, grassy, ramshackle backyard, with a tonne of chairs and sun umbrellas, and the nearby servo (service station, petrol station) sells nice cold beers. We all had dinner together at a big long kitchen table, and after washing up, Nieves sat down for over an hour with us to explain not just the following day’s walk (which had some complicated variants), but a 3 day plan with insider tips on which towns to stop at, albergues to stay in, and numbers to call. The final touch was, instead of everyone getting up at their own time and consequently waking everyone else, they got us to agree on a common wake up time. At the decided hour (6am), we were brought back to the walking world with some Pink Floyd and the smell of fresh coffee.
Aves de Paso, Pendueles: this was recommended to us by Nieves, so of course it was lovely! It was newly refurbished and well run, and the owner Javier was another chatty wealth of information. If you go there, get there with time to spare in the afternoon. This part of the coast is dotted with gorgeous little coves.
I’ve just realised that last albergue was actually in Asturias, which I guess means I’ve come to the end of my chapter on Cantabria. Until next time, of course.