Bordeaux to Bilbao Spring 2020

Diana and I spent last Saturday at our local Company of Pilgrims gathering. We have been to a few of these but had taken last year off as we had no plans to return to walking then. We enjoy these events as they feature good talks on some of the routes – this year the Primitivo (we walked this) and part of a route from the south of Spain from Cadiz via Seville to Santiago. There were also talks on what gear to bring, accommodation and food.

It was a fun day highlighted by John Bierly speaking – he is the author of a number of guides and came over from the UK for the event.

I still feel bad for how our time in the Basque Country was spent during our Norte/Primitivo walk in 2016. It is epic countryside with great walks on highlands looking over the sea, brown sugar beaches and great cities/villages and towns sprinkled throughout. My planning was overly dominated by the realities of the time we had and I tried to impose a timetable over and ignoring very challenging geography. We had some very long days -as much as 42 kms – and a number of others in the mid to high 30 range that beat the crap out of us. More than the physical difficulty, and the low morale that this precipitated, was the sense of lost opportunity to enjoy the journey. We walked through towns and villages that looked worthy of a longer stay and pushed forward too heard.

We learned some valuable lessons and applied them to the rest of our Camino. Shortening days and adapting to the foreign rhythm of Spain and the foreign rhythm of the Camino. The plan now is for an average daily walk of around 25 Km rather than the 32 we averaged in 2016. We hope this will allow us to end our walking days with a Basque lunch typically available between 12:30 and 2:30 in the town that is our destination and allow some exploration without exhaustion. Rather than walking through Getaria, Deba and Gernika we will add two stops between San Sebastien and Bilbao.

In 2016 we based ourselves in San Sebastien for a number of days and this allowed us to get over jet lag and take the train to French border and walk back to our apartment there – an oasis of good planning. We next went from San Sebastien to Zumaia – after a rest day – a 35 Km trek that went past the recommended stop at Zarautz (23km) and carried on past the very inviting seaside town of Getaria. Our new plan will stop in Getaria after 26K of walking and be followed up with a 17K leg to Deba the next day (this dog leg replaces the 40k Zumaia to Ziortzabeita marriage threatening slug fest of 2016. Deba to Markina will take another day and then Markina to Gernika made famous by bombers and Picasso. The Basque portion of our hike will end after a hike from Gernika to a bus stop near Larrabetzu in the outskirts of Bilbao. God willing the sun will shine like in 2016!


Random Thoughts

While some are fresh I thought I would get down on paper (sort of). 

  1. Get help when buying gear. There are good packing list online in Camino Forums etc but a great store with staff who have done similar trips will help you pare down to essentials. We saved money and time by spending a bit more, getting good advice, and getting it (mostly) right the first time. Robinson’s Outdoor store in Victoria presented at our local gathering of pilgrims and took a whole afternoon with us in store. Diana looked great and the gear performed really well. I looked like a hobo and the gear performed really well. 
  2. Make a decision. Be a poncho person or a jacket person, trail runner or hiking boot, or wool or synthetic etc don’t try to bring 2 of everything of things that are not next to skin and perform same function. While advice is available everywhere it is often strident, convincing and contradictory. I will do a gear review later and offer my opinions (perhaps stridently). 
  3. There are stores in Spain. The only gear related problem we had was a lost pole tip cover. Diana went 3 days or so until we found one in a hardware store. Our route was not as popular as French route so pilgrim specific support not as plentiful- but Spanish are enthusiastic outdoors people so lots of stores or sections of stores to help if you need to replace something or have unexpected need. So you don’t have to pack like it’s your only chance to get it right. 
  4. You don’t have to be right. Listen to your wife/spouse. I didn’t have exclusive rights on being correct on lots of issues – way marking, logistics, food, lodging, etc. Pay attention to what you are experiencing and don’t be looking to justify decisions made with incomplete information. 
  5. Don’t try to win. It’s not a competition to be purest pilgrim, first up, longest stage, fastest pace, best dressed, worst smelling, most economical, most puritanical,etc. Have an opinion, share it or keep it yourself, be willing to change it when faced with new experiences. It’s like life – shit happens, plans change, it rains – so be prepared to adapt. 
  6. Suffer. It’s good for you. Rain sucks, feet hurt, you get sick, you need to poop in the middle of nowhere, no one understands a word you say etc. It’s ok to be unhappy sometimes – you may have good reason – acknowledge that the whole world sucks, you hate Spain, the Camino, the French, whatever. It will pass. While it will pass don’t feel the need not to feel it, acknowlege it, embrace it, laugh at yourself. Suffer, laugh  and move on. 
  7. I read a book on Falkland War by English commander that commented on the importance of good cheer in difficult situations. So when you are done suffering be cheerful. Be cheerful most of the time. You volunteered. 

Primitivo Stage 11: O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

Last stage today. Last night was the Corpus Christi festival in O Pedrouzo that starts off innocently enough with lots of young kids in finery for first communion and then continues to the very early hours of the morning with increasing volume and enthusiasm until it ends abruptly at 5 in the morning. The stage for the band was about 50m from our pension and the band might as well have been playing at the foot of our bed. At least they were good, in an excruciatingly loud, sort of way.

 The fireworks at 2 AM that kicked of a real uptick in festival intensity sounded like a rolling artillery barrage. There was nothing to do but laugh and enjoy the band, explosions and pouring rain on skylight window. 

The pension had 7 rooms and the guests included Canadians, Mexicans, Spanish, Japanese, Chileans, Austrians and Argentineans. We had a communal breakfast and our host was a charming man who spoke Spanish in a way that while we did not understand him we knew exactly what he meant. 

The forecast was for a very rainy day but thankfully after a brief bluster while we ducked into a bar for breakfast 2.0 it was pretty pleasant – even sunny for long stretches. 

Strava link
We had 20km to get to the Cathedral in Santiago and it mostly flat trail. A little slick as it had rained a lot overnight – crowded in parts and then you find yourself alone. The walk was not very scenic – you can earn a Compostela (a document to verify your pilgrimage – good for claiming indulgences etc?) by walking the last 110km from Sarria into Santiago. People who do this get ripped of scenery wise as the last bit peaks at pleasant and thus well short of majestic. 

As we got closer there was a sense of excitement in everyone and the collective pace picked up. We ran into Niels, our Danish friend whom we had not seen for a few days. He was bursting with vim and vigor as his shin injury was much improved. We said a quick hello ad he was heading in for coffee and we were carrying on as we had just had breakfast 2.5. 

literally wash your scrotum

Santiago looks pretty ordinary as you enter and you feel like you should be done but phone says 3km still to go. By luck Niels appeared again and we were very happy to walk the last few kilometres with him. The cathedral appeared finally as well as many fine smelling bakeries that distracted us a little bit. 

All of a sudden you are done. 

Primitivo Stage 10: Azrúa to O Pedrouzo 

We woke to pounding rain and fog. We then quickly unwoke, rolled over, and hoped for better weather. Had worst meal of our trip last night- I wish an avenging Gordon Ramsay upon them. Really relieved not be food poisoned. It’s hard to make good restaurant choices when starving and impatient. Most of menus very similar so to tell apart you have to see who’s cooking. So again averaging down from previous night when we had best (close) meal of trip. 

The rain failed to stop so we shuffled down the road in the pelting rain. After 5 minutes of tough walking we ducked into first bar for coffee, juice and cake. Rain immediately stopped and we headed out into unsettled day. Only had 20km of flat walking along paths made a little slick and quite muddy from the overnight and morning rain. This will leave us with another 20km stage tomorrow to enter Santiago where laundry and rest await. 

Strava link
Lots of jacket on, jacket off action all morning. Quite crowded but most of cyclists rolled over and went back to sleep for the forenoon, anyway. Much more people and bars – but no increase in washrooms and so lots of fellas and ladies off to side of trail trying to be somewhat modest. 

Afternoon was all jacket on but we were lucky to be under an awning when it really got intense with only a km to pension. 

Trail got busier in afternoon with bikes out trying to make Santiago and horses in a large group. Even though trail is busier you have long stretches when you are alone. 

Quite ready to “get her done” tomorrow and the weather looks like today’s for tomorrow so blech. Have to read up on what we are supposed to do at cathedral etc so we can be suitably reverent. We have enjoyed the journey so don’t want to get wrapped up in hugging statues, walking on knees, speaking in tongues, avian sacrifice (maybe chicken for lunch), etc. We will go get compostela  – the document that verifies your journey and probably go see the big ball of incense be tossed around at Pilgrim’s mass on Monday. We will see. Probably try to buy some non-hobo pants or shirt. Couldn’t be happier with my hiking clothes but Diana manages look presentable after hours in hers while people offer me change. 

Ultreya! (Westward ho!)

Primitivo Stage 9: O Hospital to Azrúa

We slept a little late after being plied with booze and food by our hospitable hosts. Slept in best bed in Spain. We lingered over breakfast so long our host questioned our motivation to continue but out we went into cool sunshine of Galicia. Its unseasonably cool by about 5 degrees and much drier than the previous 3 weeks – both things we are grateful for. 

We ran into a Colombian woman that we had met yesterday on way out of Lugo almost immediately. It’s surprising how warmly you greet the familiarity of a face even when you only passed a few moments together. You learn where they are from, where their journey started, how many Caminos they have walked and when they expect to arrive in Santiago. We also ran into our Milanese friends and agreed to have a beer in Santiago. 


Countryside continues to be exceedingly pleasant with eucalyptus groves and nice wide well maintained paths. We joined the French Route at Melide, about halfway through our day, and the volume of pilgrims increased by 10x in a matter of moments. The number of bars and restaurants that cater to us scaled proportionally so it was not as jarring as we imagined. 

Strava link
Demographics also skewed dramatically. The French route attracts lots of young people whole Primitivo was most often a second (or third or fourth) Camino for a retired crowd. More bikes on trail this afternoon on trail than we had seen in previous month. 

We had a bit of rain in afternoon but while hard for a few moments did not persist. Next few days look to be a bit wetter than we have become accustomed too. We have great rain gear so it’s not a huge deal but it can be a morale killer. 

After last nights wonderful accommodation we have averaged down a bit into a pension in Arzua at 40€ for night for a clean room with a long narrow terraza to watch the late afternoon rain while sipping on enormous Radlers from large plastic cups. Luxury of different sort. The shower was so small I felt like an astronaut on ISS. My bum kept adjusting the temperature and flow of water that made the experience even more memorable. 

We have two short stages of about 20km each left. Hopefully, we have laundry tomorrow. Diana had pants that were dirty enough that she was unwilling to pack in her rucksack leaving only the option to wear them. It’s very rural so while we pong there is usually something smellier to stand next to. 

20 days of walking done. Two to go. 

Primitivo Stage 8: Lugo to O Hospital (nirvana)

We had a good rest day in Lugo. The wall was a little underwhelming – high, wide, significant and a little hard to appreciate the context as city was quite close on both sides. What was surprising was how how much city a 2 km circumference wall could enclose. Good day to rest as the weather was dodgy. 

The cathedral was impressive and provided a one stop opportunity to see major church building styles from 1000 to 1850 in one building – with additions. 

Started walk today in fog from Lugo which made for cool start to long day – of almost 36 km. Although not much elevation it was a pretty low energy day for both of us. Every hill hurt.

The fog lifted around 1100 to a pleasant sunny day. Galicia is relentlessly pleasant with rolling green hills. The Irish contingent thought how much it resembles home. Almost no services today as we walked through almost no towns. The farms are bigger and prosperous here and pilgrim care not seen as much of economic opportunity.  

We were having a Radler and a bocadillo at 28km mark with two hours left to go when an Audi pulled up and discharged two very glamorous pilgrims with no dust or wear and tear. The driver fussed over their gear and set them off walking 5km to their country inn where he rushed ahead to prepare their rooms. We were a little low energy so we greeted this with a certain amount of resentment and derision. Sure it’s an individual journey nlh blah blah no wrong way blah blah – but give me a break. 

To work through our resentment we created a sympathetic- and highly unlikely- back story that justified this sort of behaviour. We got back to minding our own business. How they take their journey does not diminish or improve our journey. 

Long day ended at amazing rural inn run by an English couple Casa Camino. Everything got better in a hurry.  Hugely hospitable people with all mod cons.  Most comfortable bed in all of Spain. Plied us with too much food and booze.