Today was a massive day. I was mostly alone on the road for about 10 or 11 hours over about 40km. It was also the day I crossed from Basque country into Cantabria – the neighbouring, comparatively placid province. I was woken up by a Swedish strobe light from the bed below mine. A man from southern Sweden seemed hell-bent on turning the once-dark dorm into a rave, swinging his headlight around at 6am. One light became two, two became four, and before long the only point to staying in your sleeping bag was spiteful protest.
I managed to get everything repacked into my bag and out of the hostel by about 7:15 – still well before dawn. The dark-blue night sky glimmered overhead as I made my way towards to coast, following the dim yellow arrows. After a few minutes’ walk I came to a seemingly-endless staircase. Flight after flight it continued, straight up through dense seaside forest canopy before finally levelling out into a tunnel of foliage. A glint of light at the end turned into a golf ball, which in turn became a gate and fencepost and horizon. I pushed past the gate, leaving the foliage altogether, and was greeted by a stunning sight.
Along the horizon were monolithic cumulonimbus illuminated by the rising sun, illuminated pink and gold and orange. Round a corner there was a row of wind turbines rotating with the gusts. I thought they looked more like the vertebrae in a dragon’s spine. The path wound its way along the coast, chiselled into the hillside, passing through crumbling ruins and little towns. Large white brush plants all but obscured the coastal view at times. The ever-present crashing of the heaving sea on jagged rocks below gave the occasional showering of salt spray. Nowhere deserves to be this pretty, I thought. Clearly, the Cantabrians enjoy a dramatic welcome into their province, famed for mountain stew and practically still-wriggling seafood. The endless skyscape of clouds and distant deluges provided a magnificent backdrop as pilgrims filtered into Castro-Urdiales, the first large Cantabrian town.
On the walk into Castro I struck up a conversation with a socks-and-sandaled Dane whose daughter was on the Danish Brexit negotiation team. He himself was an architect of Danish social housing, ostensibly doing the Camino as ‘research’ for how Spaniards maintain such good social cohesion. I bit my tongue instead of mentioning Spanish economic performance. It was true that there was a unique style of drab apartment building all along these coasts, and people seemed to congregate around pubs, cafes and eating houses.
I left the Dane and went to explore the town. A lovely little place with a dramatic bay and a lighthouse. After getting lost on a cliffside looking for the hostel and finding some kindly Scots who redirected me, I finally found the albergue. It looked reasonable, though there was already quite a crowd outside and reportedly only 16 beds. It was 1:30pm, and the Dane had said the next albergue was just 4km away. I decided to press on. Seven kilometers later, after some more stunning coast, blackberry-lined lanes and a gnarled coastal wood, it turned out the next albergue was ‘temporarily closed’. Some Italians I met soon after said the next albergue – three more kilometers – was, according to reviews, the ‘worst of the Norte’, with bedbugs and all. We inevitably ended up in a pub at 3pm and the barman confirmed this. There was a bus to Laredo, otherwise 27km away, at 6pm. We decided to wait. There was apparently a nunnery/church/albergue that was very nice.
Before long some Germans wandered into the bar. The six of them were doing an ‘easy’ Camino together, in that they had their bags ferried to the next stop and a taxi to pick them up wherever they wanted. They were very curious why an Australian could speak German decently, if at all. After chatting with them for a few minutes and watching them down several beers in succession – as only Germans on holiday do – they bought the whole pub a round of schnapps. They wished me luck and, in a whirlwind of booze, were on their way again.
I felt no shame in catching a bus with the Italians; no moral obligation to walk every step. In fact, the luxury of zooming over terrain that would have taken hours otherwise was not lost on us. We came to the nunnery in Laredo in a drizzle, where we were welcomed into an ancient church and shown to simple dorms. Before long a circle was formed, lyric booklets were handed out, and little Spanish nuns started leading the groups in such classics as ‘Oh, Jesus’ and ‘Hallelujah’ – yes, the Leonard Cohen version. There were even lyrics for ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Let it Be’. They used a Spanish guitar and drum surprisingly well. Afterwards, introducing ourselves in Spanish and French, my brain got quite a workout.
Afterwards, we all sat on long tables in a whitewashed hall filled with images of Jesus for a communal meal of bread and pasta. Simple, hearty fare with good conversation and plenty of wine. I got the feeling that this was what the Camino was all about – and, in hindsight, it’s one of the highlights. I had a conversation with an elderly Frenchman in very poor French; I think he told me to join a choir. I translated German into – again, broken – Spanish with middling success.
Looking back, this was an enormous, satisfying day. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of light rain and a dripping drainpipe.
‘Til next time,