Camino de Santiago #3, the Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo is not only the original Camino, but also the most intense. Yes, it is half the distance of the other “main” Caminos, The Francés and the Norte, but what it lacks in length, it makes up plenty in beauty, ruggedness, physicality, and authenticity.

As you know I had been planning this Camino since I finished the North route last year. It did not disappoint. Here is the story:

Around the year 800, a hermit in Galicia called Paio (or Pelagius) was guided by lights and angels to St. James’ tomb. After telling his local bishop, king Alfonso II “El casto” went to check out what the fuss was about, thereby creating the first pilgrimage. As the Reconquista developed, new routes were established leading to the North and eventually the Francés route, which is today the most popular.

So, I took a train to Oviedo, the ancient capital of Spain during the Moorish occupation. It is a high-speed train only halfway, as the mountains that separate the plateau from the shore has not been breached by the high-speed line yet, making it is a five-hour journey. I arrived in Oviedo just in time to run to the albergue -an old seminary- before it closed!

I shared room with Vicente, a retiree from Valencia whom I would continue to bump into well into the Camino.

Downtown Oviedo is lovely, clean, and full of sculptures! It is so cool! The walk out of town was pleasant enough, and soon you are in the middle of the countryside in total pilgrim mode. The first day is an easy 24Km to Grado, where I had been years ago with my Land Rover. A dip in the frigid river quickly got rid of the day’s hiking inflammation. The albergue is an old horse brokerage house, and there is a cute town square with restaurants and a working church where the priest is happy to give me a pilgrim’s blessing.

The second day brings the first important climbs of the pilgrimage. With hot temperatures and sun, the last climb took a toll, but fortunately I would not have to tackle it first thing next morning.

The next five days are a thing of beauty. I chose the Hospitales variant which takes you up over the tree line for a day of ridging 1000 mts over sea level. Amazing, you do not even miss the cafés! The following three or four days are just as impressive: natural, rugged, and fairly uncivilized. although without the altitude,

About halfway through you cross the grassy paths of Asturias to the dense forests of Galicia. After the city of Lugo with its amazing Roman walls, you have a day of a lot of asphalt, although the views are lovely, your feet pay the price. Then you have a final day of hillside living, before merging into the popular Camino Francés with all the “tourists” doing just the last 100 km (62 miles) to say they have done the Camino. So, the last three days are crowded and rainy on top of that.

But nothing compares to arriving at the plaza del Obradoiro and standing in front of the Cathedral. For me it was 310 km (200 miles) in 11 days.

The Cathedral has been totally renovated and I could finally go down to the crypt to see the tomb of St. James third time is the charm –it had been closed for restoration all my previous times. Lunch was at the amazing Santiago market, where I had the best hake I have ever tasted. With no train spots available that day, a flight to Madrid that afternoon ended my adventure.

How does it compare to the other Caminos? Well, the obvious facts are that while shorter, it is indeed more intense, beautiful, natural, and rugged. I loved every step of it, even the hard climbs and descents.

Which shoes to wear on the Camino

Shoes are arguably the most crucial element in your Camino kit. You are going to walk many hours a day for many days. The number one issue with pilgrims is blisters. You have been warned.

I am really excited to walk my third Camino this Summer, and I needed new shoes. For my first Camino I used Salomon XA Pros, and they were formidable I did the whole Camino with nary a blister (I might have gotten a couple of “hot spots” -pre-blisters- but never developed full blisters).

For my second Camino I chose the same shoe, only newer model in bright blue. Unfortunately, these did not perform as well as the first pair, and I ended up losing both my big toenails, twice (yes my toenails were cut very short, but wet feet in a steep downhill are going to slide). If you have never lost your toenails, it is not painful, but it is a bit of a nuisance, and they take almost a full year to grow back out.

This year I did my homework. I did a comparative spreadsheet checking out a few internet websites. (attached) –it is in no way comprehensive, or professional– it is just a few references from a few random running shoe websites. Once I had my ranking, the move was to find the best price, that is where the Palm Beach Outlets come into the picture. New Balance, Nike, and Asics all have shops there, and the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 came in as the best ranked at the best price. I “broke in” the Nikes during Easter break and loved them! I will give you a full report after my Camino…

Here are a few pointers on Camino shoe buying:

  • Unless you are doing the Camino in the Winter, you do NOT need boots. Most pilgrims walk in the warmer months, and you do not want your feet baking inside of boots.
  • I once met a very bright German pilgrim; PhD in math, an internet startup in Berlin in their fourth round of capitalization… but his feet looked like steak tartare from wearing Alpine hiking boots!!
  • On the other hand, you do not want to wear sneakers/running shoes/tennis. They are not designed to pound the ground for miles with a backpack on, and you will also soon develop blisters.
  • The ideal shoes are trail running/hiking shoes. They are designed for this kind of thing.
  • When you are at the shop, with the laces undone, inch your foot all the way forward, you should be able to put a finger between your heel and the shoe. This means that your shoe should be half a size to a full size bigger than your “normal” shoes. Your feet will expand when walking for hours every day.
  • Gore-Tex or no Gore-Tex? When it rains, your feet will eventually get wet, Gore-Tex or not. So, I opt for NO Gore-Tex, this way when it is not raining my feet will breathe, and when it rains, they will get wet either way. Remember if you are in the Gore-Tex club you are going to have to stop and take your shoes and socks off every so often to let them breathe a bit. A rhythm busting nuisance when you are walking.
  • Soles: the terrain you are going to walk on is going to differ vastly from long stretches on tarmac (yuck) to grassy fields, but most of your walking is on dirt tracks, so you do not need a super aggressive pattern (unless again, you are going to walk in the mud of winter)
  • Once you have your shoes, make sure you break them in. Try to walk at least a few miles with your new shoes in order to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
  • Your feet do most of the work on the Camino so make sure you take care of them! Remember to have your toenails cut very short.

A whole blog post could (and might) go into socks. For the time being remember wool and no stitching…

Camino de Santiago #3 Camino del Norte

People start the Camino de Santiago for all sorts of reasons: adventure, self-improvement, fitness, spending time with their partners or friends, personal growth, finding oneself, etc. Upon finishing my third Camino, I have found that my main reason is a spiritual one – which by the way was the original purpose of the pilgrimage.

This year I did the Camino del Norte which  “officially” starts on the Spanish border with France at Irún. I crossed the Bidasoa river that separates the two countries, had a coffee in France, got my first stamp on my Credencial (the pilgrim’s “passport” that gets stamped along the way) and so got my official start in France, how is that for one-upmanship? or just for snobbery! This Camino then goes all along the North shore of Spain until turning in at Ribadeo to finish at Santiago.

Technically this is the second oldest Camino. When European Christians first started going to visit the tomb of the Apostol James in Santiago they either took a boat to one of the nearby ports in Galicia or to Oviedo and then cut inland to Santiago – that is the Camino Primitivo. Then came the coastal route, and when the Moors had been pushed South enough, pilgrims started going along the interior of the country on much easier terrain than the constant hills of the coast, this would become the Camino Francés, the most popular and most long-lasting Camino.

Now, before I continue let me point out that specially the Camino del Norte is a bit of a scam. You see, the Camino really was abandoned in the XX Century. In 1978 there were only three recorded pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Then in the ’90s it came back into fashion with younger people going on this route of self discovery. With increased popularity regional governments needed to re-mark and really re-establish the Camino. For the northern route this was difficult since the medieval paths that would unite villages along the valleys were now taken over by roads, so especially the Basque and Cantabria governments reinvented the Camino as a hiking route over hills and mountains where medieval pilgrims would never have set foot as they would have been eaten by wolves, bears and/or assaulted by bandits!

My Camino was glorious. The first day it crests a long mountain with amazing views of the sea and of the valley inland, finishing in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s prettiest towns and with the best food in the world. The second day it rained, and on a difficult descent, with wet socks I hurt both of my big toenails. This would be a bit of an issue for the rest of the Camino, but you do need some suffering in order to fully enjoy the Camino!

The Camino del Norte is known for it’s beauty. You walk between gorgeous beaches to verdant valleys day in and day out, through postcard perfect villages and some of the prettiest cities in Spain: San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón… The down side, if it can be called that, is that there is little variety as compared to the Camino Francés which changes topography constantly from the wooded hills of Navarra to the dry tableau of Palencia. The Camino del Norte also lacks the spiritual “weight” of the Francés with it’s open churches, pilgrim’s masses, etc.

I can’t wait to finish the few days left of this Camino and get started on the Primitivo…