In his 6 day Guide to Camino del Norte, Rupert Parker Walks From San Sebastian To Bilbao
Most people have heard of the Camino de Santiago or its English name The Way of St James. What they probably don’t know is that pilgrims can make their way to the great cathedral at Santiago by different routes, depending on where they start. The most popular is the Camino Frances, or the French Way and, as a result, it’s more crowded. I know because I’ve already done it so fancy something a bit quieter. So if you do too, here is my 6 day Guide To Camino Del Norte
The Camino del Norte spans 822km, following the Bay of Biscay, from Irún, on the French border, to Ribadeo, before cutting inland towards Santiago. The full route takes about five weeks to complete but I’ve only got six days. So, I’m just going to walk the section along the coast, starting in San Sebastian and ending up in Bilbao.
The logistics mean that I arrive on a Vueling flight from London in Bilbao and then take the bus to San Sebastian. It’s less than two hours this way but covering the same ground on foot will take me six days. The green rolling hills, studded with quaint Basque farmhouses and lush forest, will be my constant companions for the next week.
Day 1 San Sebastian
I find it hard to leave the beautiful city of San Sebastian, with the sea looking very inviting, as the trail follows the long sandy beach. It soon climbs up to the headland beyond, well-signed, and then follows the road to Orio. This is an attractive fishing port and I cross the bridge over the river and climb out of the town.
I now leave the coast and stroll through rolling hills, covered with vineyards and the occasional church. Soon, though I’m back to the sea and drop down to Zarautz’s sandy beach, at 2.8 km, the longest in the region. At the far end is the resort, made popular in the early 21st century by the Belgian royal family who came here for their holidays. I’ve reached my destination but a dip in the sea is thwarted by heavy rain.
Day 2 Zarautz
Next morning the weather is improving and I take the road, following the coast to the fishing town of Getaria. From here it’s a steep uphill, on dirt roads and paved tracks, then a gentle descent to Zumaia, another typical Basque fishing port. Out of town, I leave the Camino to follow an alternative route through the Basque Coast Geopark.
This is a spectacular diversion with dramatic coastal scenery, layered sandstone cliffs sweeping down to the sea. These Flysch deposits, in alternate layers, record rapid changes in sea level. Over 60 million years they were pushed upwards, forming the strata I can see in front of me. Of course steep cliffs mean a lot of ups and downs and, by the time I arrive in Deba, I’m ready to drop.
Day 3 Deba
I’m staying slightly out of town so next day I retrace my steps and cross the river. Then make a steep climb on a good track to the Ermita del Calvario. Here’s there’s an old Probadero, used to test the strength of oxen by getting them to drag rocks over cobblestones. The path carries on past Olatz on a mixture of roads and forest tracks, completely rural apart from the occasional farm.
It’s a hot day and it’s important to take water breaks. As I result I end up chatting with my fellow pilgrims. There can’t be more than a handful, but they’re from all over the world including an elderly couple from China. Finally the track descends steeply to Markina-Xemein, past a huge black marble quarry. My hotel is just outside and I share dinner with an American couple who hope to reach Santiago.
Day 4 Markina-Xemein
Morning is bright and sunny and the first village is Ziortza-Bolibar, with its Simón Bolívar museum. His family left here for South America in the 16th century, and he was born there four generations later. Just beyond, at the Monastery of Zenarruza, the priest can’t understand why I don’t want his stamp on my Camino card. I could explain that I’m not going all the way, but he probably just thinks I’m a heathen.
Steep steps lead down to the village of Munitibar, then Olabe, on a mixture of road and paths. It’s getting very hot but there’s some welcome forest cover as I follow a stream. Then one last push uphill, with no shade, for a view over the modern city of Gernika-Lumo. The old town was destroyed by Franco’s bombers in the Spanish Civil War and they’ve not forgotten.
Day 5 Gernika-Lumo
Huge photographs in the square document the devastation and there’s a tiled version of Picasso’s famous painting nearby. Before I leave, I make a visit to see the remaining sapling of the old oak tree where the Lords of Vizcaya gathered over the centuries to swear allegiance. Then it’s an uphill climb to the Altos de Morga and Aretxabalgane.
It’s very warm and I’m struggling a little but it’s now downhill to the village of Goikolexea. A long flat stretch of road follows with painted slogans saying “Freedom for the Basque Country and Their Political Prisoners” and “This is not Spain nor France – Euskal Herriak Indepentzia”. Soon I arrive in the pleasant town of Larrabetzu, and celebrate with a beer in the main square.
Day 6 Larrabetzu
For the last night of my 6 day Guide To Camino Del Norte I’m staying in a farmhouse above the town and I wake to thick mist. I’ve contemplated taking an alternative path over the hills, but visibility is zero so there seems no point. So, for two hours I follow the road through a cluster of small industrial towns, before turning into the forest. The trail goes upwards on a mix of road and track.
At the top is Monte Avril, a pleasant urban park with extensive views of Bilbao below. Unfortunately it’s still slightly misty, so visibility is limited, but I can make out my final destination. I drop down steeply, on a long series of steps, and arrive in the city at the Plaza de Unamuno. This is the heart of Bilbao’s Casco Viejo and my hotel is close by.
This is the end of my 6 day Guide To Camino Del Norte. It’s a short Camino even though there’s still another 550km to Santiago. There’s been no religious motive for my walk, rather just a desire to see the beautiful Basque country on foot. It’s a fairly strenuous route, testing at times, and perhaps better tackled when the weather is cooler. However, I’ve been rewarded with excellent food and drink, some good companionship and, mercifully, no crowds.
Tell Me More About this 6 day Guide To The Camino Del Norte
Camino Ways, the Camino experts, organise self-guided tours on the Camino de Santiago, including the places I’ve described in my 6 day Guide To Camino del Norte. A 7 night self-guided tour walking from San Sebastian to Bilbao starts at €905 (around £810) per person sharing, including accommodation in private en-suite rooms, breakfast, 4 dinners, luggage transfers, online tour pack with practical information and 24/7 assistance number.
Vueling offers connections between the UK and Spain and flies to Bilbao from London Gatwick seven days a week, averaging 22 weekly flights over the summer season. Single flights to Bilbao start from £28.86. There are currently 23 direct routes on sale for the summer season from the UK to Spain and other European destinations. Vueling also partners with Avikor to offer Sustainable Aviation Fuel to travellers, with over 100,000 holidaymakers opting to contribute over the last year.
The Gatwick Express is the fastest way to get to the airport from central London.
Cicerone’s The Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo includes a step-by-step guide to the locations in my 6 day Guide To Camino Del Norte and further.