Camino del Norte – Cantabria
From Bilbao to Santander.
Many pilgrims begin their Camino in Bilbao because it has a well-served airport and many attractions to visit on the afternoon or evening they arrive. Starting in Bilbao also avoids the very taxing mountain paths in the Basque country which, hospitaleros have told me, account for a high drop-out rate. This they attribute not simply to the steep ups and downs but also to their observation that many pilgrims walk the first few stages too quickly which, combined with the demands of the mountains, causes physical damage to muscles and tendons. The section from Bilbao to Santander is much more gentle but not without its hazards.
This was my first personal experience of bed bugs on hundreds of nights on the Caminos. Moreover it was in a fairly costly convent – in Laredo with its sweeping beach and ferry-boat to Santoña which is on the pilgrim route.
Bed bugs give horrible bites and they last several days. They are more common in summer because that is when they are able to torture most. A few drops of sweat ignite their fire. Anti-histamine can help a little but regular showering in fresh water helped me most. In 2015 they abounded on the Camino between Guernika and Ribadeo. It was a pilgrim favourite at meal time.
Don’t expect much help from the medical services. I visited three pharmacies and the health centre in Santoña and not one could identify the bites which, generally are on legs, arms and trunk: the usually are in a straight line and they become huge. If you want a spray for your luggage go to a vet: they know all about bed bugs.
Beaches for resting.
Beaches call out for leisurely stops if the day is warm and sunny. Only the very disciplined pilgrim can manage to linger anywhere for an hour or so between albergues. Sand in a rucksack is a menace and in the buttocks, too. In the North of Spain they weather is often just too chilly or wet to be a great temptation even in Summer and beg bug bites sting in salt water.
The first town in Cantabria is the beautiful Castro Urdiales. It comes into view shortly after leaving the beach of La Arena. It looks near and the views on this stretch are full of land and sea and distance. The nearness is a mirage. The Camino winds on and on, each new bend revealing another kilometre or so which had been hidden from view. When the exhausted pilgrim arrives in Castro Urdiales there is still another 3 kilometres to the albergue which is on the other side as you leave.
The famous albergue of Güemes.
I’ll revert to the first person here because I am not going to be flattering about the albergue in Güemes. This albergue is run by by Padre Ernesto. It is well run and well designed: overall very comfortable. In the evening there is a talk, not mandatory but the pilgrims were rounded up to attend. The talk can be found here: Güemes history. Something seemed not quite right to me. It is as if the history of the albergue and the man behind it were intruding on the Camino of the pilgrims. The history had nothing to do with the Camino to Santiago. I would rather have spent the evening listening to the stories of my fellow pilgrims.
Another Ferry – into Santander
This section of the Camino de Norte has two ferry trips, nine fabulous beaches and the sea is within sight nearly all of the time. There is more to come in the next part through Asturias, but this one is unbroken beauty. Beauty cannot be spoiled by bed bugs.