New Camino del Norte Guidebook Fills Unmet Pilgrim Need

You may know that I help moderate an Internet Camino forum. It’s a great way to keep abreast of developments in all things Camino. A couple of months ago I found myself gently corrected when I made a bold statement, “There is no good Camino del Norte guidebook in English.”

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Gérard du Camino’s French guidebook to the Camino del Norte.

I’d shared the results of research in this topic in an article entitled, The Hunt for a Good Camino del Norte Guidebook, in which I compared English, Spanish and French guidebooks. In advance of my 2012 Camino del Norte, after comparing what was available in languages I might understand, I dusted off my 5 years of high school French and bought Le Chemin du Nord, by Gérard du Camino. It proved to be a great choice — very thorough directions, maps, and accommodation info.

The problem, of course, is: what if you’re an English speaker who doesn’t understand any French?

Enter a new book, The Northern Caminos, by Dave Whitson and Laura Perazzoli. It was Whitson who noticed my Camino Forum post and alerted me to his new creation. After reviewing this new guide, I’m pleased to say a pressing need has been met. Whitson and Perazzoli have created a guidebook that will be a big help to English readers who choose the Northern caminos of the del Norte, Primitivo, and Inglés. The guide offers real to-scale maps (hear us, O John Brierley), good historical and cultural background, and a warm and readable style that quietly assures pilgrims that they’re in good hands.

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Whitson and Perazzoli’s new guidebook to the Northern pilgrimage routes to Santiago.

That’s not to say I fell in love with this guidebook. There are a few details that I hope will be amended in a second edition. One of the most helpful planning tools a guidebook can offer is a chart of each day’s elevation profile. It’s a big help to know when you’re just about to reach an 800 meter climb, or when you’ve finished your ascent and can rest and prepare for the climb down. Unfortunately, this guide offers scant elevation help, giving only total ascent and total descent stats for each day.

The authors’ descriptions can be so sparse as to be unhelpful. The Ribadesella to Sebrayo stage, a 31.5 km march that ends disturbingly at the Sebrayo albergue that has no grocery store or restaurant nearby, is a good example. A word of warning about this important detail at the beginning of the chapter could be very helpful for pilgrims. Instead, we learn in the chapter’s last phrase: “Sebrayo: Albergue de Peregrinos …. but no food of any kind.” In contrast, the French guide warns upfront that “revitaillement” (resupply) must happen at Ribadesella.

(In truth, I discovered in 2012 that there’s a grocery truck that stops by the Sebrayo albergue each evening to provide pilgrims necessary ingredients for assembling dinner in the albergue’s kitchen. Also, after a walk of about 1.5 km across a small valley to the road behind the albergue pilgrims will find a bar/cafe happy to serve a simple meal.)

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Lots of blank space on many pages.

A mildly annoying feature of this new guide is the rather generous use of white space. When a person is carting a camino guidebook across hundreds of miles it’s great to know it’s jam-packed with as much info as possible per kilogram. Hopefully the next edition will ditch the artsy white space and fill it instead with other helpful content  that pilgrims would rather carry.

There are a few other quibbles. I’m not sure why the book’s La Caridad to Ribadeo Stage (p. 168 ff) recommends a southerly route through Brul rather than a route to Tapia that would follow the scenic coastline through Santa Gadea toward Ribadeo. Whitson and Perazzoli suggest that the waymarking is not sufficient, but their book could provide a detailed description that would adequately guide a pilgrim even without excellent way marks through an uncomplicated coastal walk. On this stage I’d certainly take the Tapia option and then follow the coastline toward the Ribadeo bridge.

Flaws? Well, sure. But these guidebooks are often revised in subsequent editions, and they become better and better over time. What we have now is a very good start, and Whitson and Perazzoli are to be commended — and thanked — for a great contribution to the needs of English-only del Norte pilgrims.

Does a Real Pilgrim Take the Train?

Day 6: Santander to Mogro — Two nights ago at Guemes the hospitalero clearly warned us, “Don’t walk across the railroad bridge between Boo de Pielagos and Mogros.” He knew this was a huge temptation for pilgrims because there are only two alternatives: walk an extra 11 km to and from the nearest foot bridge across the Pas River or for 1.3€ take the train to cross the hundred yard wide channel.

A walking pilgrimage to Santiago is just that, a walking pilgrimage. For me this has meant that in 2000 km of pilgrimages I have never ridden in a bus or train or taxi to cover the marked pilgrim route. Every km has been walked — sometimes with pain but always with pride that I was never “cheating” by not taking some modern mode of travel. But somehow today felt different. Perhaps it was because of the recommendation of the hospitalero, or perhaps it was because my French guidebook also recommended it, or perhaps it was the quick and cheap Feve train service, or perhaps it was simply because I wanted a second night in the comfy Hotel Bahia in Santander. Whatever the reason, I decided to leave my over-developed pilgrim scruples behind and for the first time take the train for a brief portion of my pilgrimage. Forgive me, Santiago!

I awoke a little before Sebastian this morning and quietly read and wrote emails until he was awakened by his watch alarm at 7:30. After he showered we slowly headed to the bus station, stopping along the way to complete a very short wedding greeting video he’d promised a friend and then at a cafe for a last croissant together before he left. At the station we both felt very sad as he boarded the bus for Bilbao, the first leg of his trip back to Cologne. The knowledge that he’ll be in Seattle in late August was a partial comfort. Sebastian is a wonderful person and a good friend.

Back at the hotel after a shower and shave I double-checked train schedules and confirmed my plan for the day. I would return by train from Boo, then tomorrow i would take the train to Mogro on the other side of the river.

Knowing my walk would only be 14.4 km I left my backpack in the room and headed out the door with only a rain jacket and my French guidebook. I hoped to find a small bottle of water to carry but on Sundays in Spain almost everything is closed. As I headed along the pedestrian mall I managed to find an open newspaper kiosk and was able to buy a small water to carry with me.

The pedestrian mall opened onto a main arterial, which passed a barracks of the Guardia Civil then emptied into the streets and suburban industrial buildings of Penacastillo. At an intersection below its yellow stucco and stone church the camino turned right and played cat-and-mouse with the train tracks through small farms and trendy subdivisions until arriving first at Santa Cruz de Bezana and finally, Boo de Pielagos.

When I at first missed the path to the train station I wondered whether habit or Santiago or maybe Freud were telling me to walk the extra 11 km. But now it was already 3:00, my blisters were starting to complain, and the train back to the comforts of Santander was only a few minutes away.

Tomorrow I will complete the deed when I return by train, not to Boo, but across the river to Mogro. Santiago, I’m on my way — a little less of a purist this time — but I’m on my way.

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June 19, 2011 Olveira to Finisterre

Left albergue and walked to town of Hospital, last cafe before 12 km stretch of wilderness. Felt there that I couldn’t go on due to being sick and considered calling a taxi. Dragged self up hill out of Hospital and somehow managed to keep going to Cee. Catia and Jacueline caught up and had long conversation. Views of Cee and Concurbion spectacular as walked down into towns. Walk here began to make me feel I’d made the right choice, though at Cee I began to think about taking the bus to Finisterre. Learned that since it was Sunday the last bus had already passed.

Kept walking to Finisterre and finally came to Langosteire Beach, overlooking the town, still about 2 km away. Had cervesa with Catia and Jacqueline, Luke and Gal, then walked in water to Finisterre. Very sensual and beautiful with warm sun on my head. Arrived at albergue and decided to stay there. Received Fisterrana certificate and threw stuff onto my bed then set out to find Rocky. Finally found Rocky at beachfront bar with Monique.

Had long conversation and learned Sebastian would join us for drinks at Faro Lighthouse. Sebastian arrived at 21:00 and we had dinner then took a taxi to lighthouse. Watched sunset with Catia, Rocky, Monique, Sebastian. Seb and I shared last drops of Cilantro. Tears as I write this. Ultimately our group joined by another 8-10 more and much revelry and laughter.

At 23:30 time to get Seb back to his cab, so took cab back to Finisterre and had long, good bye conversation with him at waterfront, ending in long hug. After Seb’s good bye shared long goodbye conversation with Monique in which she told me I had done a good job of being a priest on the camino. Bed in albergue.

Next day: Long breakfast at street cafe including final good byes to Catia, Jacqueline, Monique and many others. Taxi return to Santiago, then dinner with Rocky, Luke, Gal, and Brooks and Jamie of Birmingham, AL. A beautiful and blessed camino 2011.

June 18, 2011 Negreira to Olveira

Long 32 km walk to small town of Olveiroa (Galego spelling). Learned that Catia and Jacqueline were just behind us, so hoped to see them today. Had long talk with Luke about “home” and vision.

Progressively sicker with fever and head cold throughout the day. By evening I was interested only in dinner and curling up in bed. Albergue is unique — 3 buildings spread across street from each other in this exceedingly small town. Besides the two cafe/bars and the albergue there doesn’t seem to be much in this town. So it’s rather quiet and pretty delightful. No light in the bathroom, so had to shower in the dark. Tossed and turned through the night and probably kept some awake with my restlessness.

June 17, 2011 Santiago to Negreira

Met Luke and Gal at 09:00 at Plaza Obradoiro and Luke’s experience of walking to Finisterre/Muxia in 2009 was helpful in getting out of town. Arrows actually became plentiful after a bit and before long we were on a hill opposite the cathedral with a great view.

Continued up large hill and across ancient bridge over beautiful river. Much rain and wind into Negreira. Happy to find town, but albergue was on opposite side of town and separated from all shops and restaurants by almost 1 km. Got beds at albergue and walked back to town for lunch at local restaurant. Then grocery shopping and return to albergue for showers and laundry followed later by cooking by Gal.

Vegetarian dinner by Gal was huge and delicious. Best dish was friend cauliflower. Shared dinner with Matthieu and enjoyed wine and conversation. Shower and bed in room with 10-12 single beds. Quiet night.

June 16, 2011 Santiago Rest Day

Occupy Santiago tents set up in Plaza Obradoiro

Slept in late, then headed to Plaza Obradoiro to see pilgrims arrive. Heard joyful sounds of pilgrim family and turned around to see them arriving — Sebastian, Alex, Andreas, Catia, Annina, Nikki – many hugs, then led them to the cathedral office and on to mass. Attended mass together and locked arms after communion. Botafumeiro was spectacular. Mass full of joy — priest blessed us with thumb in cross on forehead. All very touching and a great liturgical close to our camino. Left the group so they could find their albergue and spent next couple of hours greeting incoming pilgrims including:

  • Roberto of Mexico — with wife and sister, staying at my hotel!
  • Natalie and Susan of Spokane
  • Christina and Meg Rayne of Boston
  • Addison and Alexa of Seattle
  • Joy and Joanne of Vancouver
  • many others.

Then nap at hotel room. Agreed that our pilgrim family would get together at 20:00 for dinner. Arranged to eat at same restaurant as last night with Luke and Gal.

Dinner with the family

Met our family plus 2 Germans — Eike and Simone — at restaurant. Andreas performed German Nazi/Swedish/Finn sketch to great effect. Poor food, but shots of house specialty afterward set everything right. Went out to street to hear Luke then Andreas play guitar and sing. It was awkward to sit in the middle of this pedestrian road, but no one wanted to say good. Finally said our goodbyes for last time, then off to bed to rest for tomorrow’s walk to Finisterre.

Pilgrim family in front of cathedral at Santiago. From left: Catia, Alex, Nikki, Andreas, author, Sebastian, Annina

June 15, 2011 Arzua to Santiago de Compostela

Awoke at 06:30 and began to pack at 07:00. Andreas insisted on cooking eggs for us — what a sweetie. Done with eggs and conversation at 07:30. Got mini pack from Annina. Hannes of Germany asked “What do you carry in that, your cosmetics?” Big laughs. Left my pack at the albergue door for the pack service and left with jacqueline for long walk (40+ km) to Santiago at 07:45.

Leapfrogged most of day with Addison and Alexa, and also with Pieter of Austria, whom I found to be pleasant and humble. Saw Roberto of Mexico! Could not believe my eyes. He had sent his cousin home as she could not handle the exertion. Lunch at O Pedrouzo, then long slog through farms and the endless Santiago airport until finally reached Monte de Gozo. Had heard from Stefan of South Africa that he was leaving at 18:30 so rushed to get to Santiago by 18:00. Had also heard from Luke that her was ill with sinus infection and diarrhea, so advised him to go to Farmacia/clinic on arrival by bus in Santiago.

Arrived at 18:00 in Santiago and talked and walked with Stefan. Heard Stefan’s good and important ideas about religious faith and encourage him to write his book. Realized that Stefan thinks I am a conservative Christian — I should send him a book by Marcus Borg about new views of Christianity and I think he will be surprised and interested in a different perspective on Christian faith.

As dropped off backpack with Stefan at my hotel saw Christina and Meg (Meg Rayne). They were happy and playful and I would have loved to visit more with them. Truly two very beautiful people. Also saw Jacqueline who was behind by only 20 minutes or so. Said a very sad “good bye” to Stefan, my dear pilgrim friend from 2008 as he got in his taxi to the airport. He is a dear person and much fun and inspiration to be with. Arranged dinner with Luke and Gal.

At dinner heard Luke’s many stories and really enjoyed together time with the two of them. Off to Hotel Altair for quiet night’s rest.

Arrival in Santiago.