Week 20: Mi Vuelta a España

09/01/23 – 15/01/23 206 km

What a night in the tent! It rained torrentially from the moment I got inside until 4am. Remarkably when I stumbled out just after 8 o’clock everything was bone dry. I broke camp before daybreak and set off towards Serdio, climbing endlessly along the edge of a working mine, using only the light of my head torch. After a quick coffee I dropped back down to the coast and the stunning village of San Vicente de la Barquera.

I got stopped by the Guardia Civil on the way down. I’m a verified tramp now, I’ve come to expect it. However, this time they were genuinely concerned. They wanted to know why I was the only lunatic walking the wrong way. I should have been heading west. After chatting for about fifteen minutes, and blocking the local traffic, we left on great terms. In fact they were so impressed with my endeavour that the co-pilot gave me 10€ to buy lunch. Yet another interaction that blew me away, could you imagine that happening in the UK? I couldn’t, but I might be wrong…

I had my second piece of luck in the village. After a chance encounter with a young lad from Catalunya I found out that I might be able to pitch my tent in the campsite in Santanilla del Mar. Although it was closed, they were happy to help pilgrims. It might not sound like much, but I knew that the security of an official site would guarantee a solid night’s sleep. There was also the prospect of a shower.

So I carried on along the coast, and what a coast. The views were spectacular and I was in my element, buoyed by the generosity of the Guardia Civil. I still had a long way to go and arrived as the sun was setting. After finding the owners of the campsite and explaining who I was, they allowed me to pitch up. Just as I was about to settle down to yet another pot noodle dinner a young cyclist from France showed up. His name was Mathieu and I have to say he was one of the nicest guys I’ve met so far.

After telling him about the luck I had had that day he followed up by saying ‘…it hasn’t ended yet my friend…’ and proceeded to cook and share his food. We had a lovely dinner of rice and chicken and spent the evening chatting about our respective journeys. He is cycling around Spain taking photos in the hope of becoming a photographer. I hope to see him again one day. The only negative was the freezing cold shower. At least I was clean.

The next morning despite the dry night, my tent was soaking. Go figure! It was the condensation of course, and absence of wind. I shoved my wet gear into my bag and made my way down to the village for a coffee.

Santillana del Mar is one of those charming places that I will have to revisit. Its 12th century buildings were incredibly well conserved and it was a real magnet for tourists. Including a bunch of Italians who treated me like a celebrity. As I said, I’m a genuine tramp now and belong to the road.

The walking was relatively boring that day as the landscape became more industrial the closer I got to Santander. The highlight of the day was my stop in Requejada where I invested my 10€ in a Menú and ate like a king. The chickpea seafood soup concoction was divine and I could have eaten a week’s supply in one sitting. Full and feeling content, I made my way to a hostel in Santander where I immediately extracted my wet kit and began the process of drying out the tent. The owner was amazing, and as I was the only person in the communal bedroom, she allowed me to take over the whole place.

I was out of the hostel before 9am the next day and left town through the industrial wastelands of the port. Normally those walking the Camino take a boat across the Golfe de Gascogne which spans the mouth of the rivers which converge to make the port of Santander. I had come too far by foot to get a boat now so I had to pick my way through industrial warehouses that store the produce ready for export. It was perilous and at times near to impossible to navigate but after two hours I finally reached a footbridge that would allow me to cross to the otherside. At this point it started to rain. I was soaked before I had time to put my waterproofs on.

Once across I followed the river towards the northern tip where the boat would have dropped me off. It had taken me twenty kilometres and four hours to cover a twenty minute boat journey. At least the rain had stopped. After this I started to cut inland towards the town of Güemes where I would stay in one of the most famous Albergues on the Camino del Norte.

The place was run and founded by an elderly gentleman called Ernesto, who as a priest, had travelled the continents of Africa and South America in the seventies, in a Land Rover. Every single wall, shelf and sometimes floor was covered with the most amazing collection of photos and artefacts from his trip. He called it his ‘gap year’ (which lasted 27 months) where he studied vigorously in ‘the university of life’. He was a remarkable guy but the whole place had the air of a cult and I am not sure I could’ve stayed longer than a night.

That said, I enjoyed the communal dinner, if not the conversation, where a retired fireman managed to alienate a whole generation (the youth) with a throwaway comment. The next morning, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise and as I climbed out of the valley I was happy to be back on the road and following my own rhythm. Eventually the path joined a road, which I followed all the way to Laredo. Skipping the vast estuary before Santoña, famous for its anchovies. Once in Laredo I stayed in a convent with a Swiss walker called Benny.

After a quick coffee with Benny, which he kindly paid for, I was back on the road again by 8:30 the next day. I chose to take the coastal route as I had not enjoyed the previous day’s walk, in particular the absence of a view. I was not disappointed, however after the first five kilometres the weather changed and after a heavy mist blew in off the Cantabric Sea I was forced to cut inland to the original route as navigation became near to impossible along the cliffs. In fact it was perilous!

It was raining hard by this point so I stopped in Liendo for a coffee before climbing up into the hills once more. After a few hours I dropped back down to the coast and passed through the town of Castro Urdiales before cutting back inland to the Albergue in Santullán. It was filthy and all of the shops were closed but the washing machine was free so I couldn’t complain.

I skipped breakfast the next day so I could leave early. I was keen to get to Bilbao where I would take Sunday off. After dropping down to the village of Onton, where all the bars were closed, I was back on the coast. As it was Saturday I was surrounded by walkers and cyclists for the first time in weeks. I was glad for the distraction and the endless sea views. After twelve kilometres I finally crossed the border into Pais Vasco and found an open bar in the village of Ondarra. I was starving.

Having stuffed my face, I joined a cycle path that took me the remaining ten kilometres or so to the suburbs of Bilbao. Here I was headed for the bridge at Portugalete where I intended to cross the river before the final push into town. It was only when I arrived and saw the monumental construction that I remembered that you couldn’t cross the bridge on foot. Instead passengers crossed in a carriage suspended just above water level. I was furious, the mistake cost me an additional five kilometres. Later Cristina informed me that there was a separate walkway above the structure that suspends the carriage. I won’t tell you what I said…

After what seemed like an age, it always does after a mistake, I finally arrived at my hostel in Bilbao. I set up camp in the local bar and enjoyed a relaxing evening and Sunday watching the football. Along with several glasses of the local wine Txacoli. I left on first name terms. It was so nice to feel normal, even if it was only for a day!

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