The Northern Way or Ruta de la Costa is an alternative route to the popular pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago. The way takes in the rugged coastal landscape of the Basque country. As the French way gets more crowded, more and more people are opting to walk the Northern route to escape the crowds.
The history of the route began when the Muslim domination of Spain expanded northwards, making the French route more dangerous to Christian pilgrims. It followed the old Roman Road, Via Agrippa. The beautiful cities along the route like Bilbao, San Sebastian and Santander offer something a little different, and the gastronomic delights found across the Basque and Asturian provinces make this a favourite route for foodies.
Sold on the merits of the Northern way, I started in San Sebastian and decided to spend a month completing the route in its entirety. Armed with a tent, a sleeping bag and a backpack I later realised was far too heavy, I set off in the heat of a Spanish July.
Many pilgrims start at nearby Irún, but I was already in San Sebastian and couldn’t face a bus back towards the French border to start walking.
The first week was brutal. The rolling hills of the Basque country tore my unacclimated feet to shreds. I had blisters on top of blisters and genuinely debated what enjoyment I was getting out of the whole experience.
After arriving in Bilbao, the coastal scenery offered plenty of opportunities for relaxation and I soothed my feet in the chilly coastal waters several times a day. The blisters gradually healed and after the first week, the serious enjoyment began. Once you reach Ribadeo the hills are behind you. The terrain flattens out, the slopes become gentler and the walking less challenging. The route hugs the coastline until Galicia when you have the choice of joining with the French way at Oviedo or continue along the coast to join the English Way.
I free-camped my way across Northern Spain with relatively few issues. I was moved on from the police once and woken up by three intimidatingly large, inquisitive wild boars on one occasion, but on the whole, I would highly recommend doing some free camping along the route. There are plenty of reasonably priced albergues on the route if you feel like a break.
The Camino can be tackled in several short segments or you can do the whole thing in one swoop. If you have the possibility to do it in one, the experience feels much more immersive. Your feet will also likely need a week to acclimatise to the increased walking. The comfort didn’t really start for me until after a week in.
Also, you meet many people walking the same route at various different speeds and in various different locations. One of the most rewarding this was sticking around in Santiago de Compostela for a few days and bumping into these people who were completing the journey at the same time. You have a sense of camaraderie having completed the whole thing and I am still in contact with several of the friends I made during that long month of walking.