Friday, October 23, 2015

Camino Norte trip report - spring and fall 2015 - the logistics

Guemes Albergue
Camino trails have been an almost annual event for us, but in 2014 a mysterious period of severe leg pains struck Susan, limiting her walking to a hundred yards or so for a while. Throughout 2014 and early this year, she has gradually been extending her distance, more thru ibuprofen and walking through the pain than anything else. When she was able to do nine miles, we decided we were ready to attempt another camino trip, with no commitment as to how far each day, or how far we would get. Camino Norte looked possible, with short enough stages so that we keep most days at 20 km or less, and a max of 25 km. Rest days would be taken when ever we thought appropriate. That's the background. This post is about the facts of the trip you might need to know. The experiences will have to be another story.

The spring trip was in May - June from Irun to Bilbao.
The fall trip was in Sept - Oct from Bilbao to Vilalba.

On the plane trip into Bilbao for the 2nd trip, our checked luggage with hiking poles, swiss army knifes and tent stakes never arrived. We found an excellent store Decathlon Capital in Bilbao that had the exact poles Susan needed, plus the knives, and I found a pole along the way. We never had to use our tent, so got by without stakes.

Perazzoli and Whitson's Northern Caminos was our primary guide, though we had the Wise Pilgrim Norte app on our android cell phone. We also had an iPad Mini with the Camino app. We had a Kindle Reader on both devices, and that was very useful when part way thru the 2nd trip, we accidentally left our guidebook behind. I had also gotten the Kindle version of the guide, so at that point we would transcribe the guide to paper each night to have the next day's walk in hand, and the device was available in case we needed to zoom in on a map. The Wise Pilgrim Norte app was useful in one instance in that its where to sleep revealed a place to stay that was not in Northern Caminos. The Kindle Reader did a very good job on the phone, presenting the guidebook in useful chunks. I didn't use it constantly out of concern for the battery.We sometimes looked at The routes might vary from our guide, but it sometimes had more accommodations. We would try to follow the yellow arrows unless our guide specifically said to do something different and we agreed with the reasoning. In some cases the yellow arrows led to PUDs - pointless ups and downs.

We had an android LG 8 Gig phone and an iPad Mini 2. 1st, 8G is not large enough for an android phone. I would like to add a few more apps, and don't have enough storage. I've got a big SD card, but internal storage is what counts for storing apps. 

2nd, the iPad had trouble getting wifi coverage. usually ok, but sometimes I would have no problem getting wifi on the phone, but the ipad would not even show the network. Also, I got a vpn app (Tunnelbear) and it would have more problems connecting on the iPad than the phone. The iPad was great once it had a connection, but the wifi was an issue. I was really glad I had an iPad with cellular service, as that would work when the wifi would not. That required a Spain sim card. We had a Tuenti card we got from Movistar, and topped up at the post office.

We found the terrain the most difficult of all the routes we have been on (Arles, Le Puy, Geneva, Mozarabe, Porto, French (the traditional) route.) While our plan was for 20 to 25 km days, in practice, 17 to 22 was what we could do. We booked ahead with when we could, as we couldn't walk further if nothing available. It was stressful and time consuming to do the booking each evening. If your Spanish is good you could call the place directly and save maybe 10 to 15 euros per night. Based on what others said, things were not really that crowded. They would walk into town and find something. However I still suggest reserving Saturday nights if you can, and checking for Spanish holidays. This was Sept-Oct and hunting season, so in one village, the place we booked ahead was full of hunters, and another place there was closed, so other pilgrims without reservations had to walk back to the albergue in the town before - fortunately only a half kilometer back. The albergue at Guemes had 50 people registered the night we were there, so we were a little spooked about the number of people on the trail. Later we learned that quite a few people spend multiple days there, healing up or helping, so of that 50 people maybe 15 or so were new that day. A must do experience, by the way.

We stayed in albergues several times, and that is where we met most of the people that we saw on the trail. However, it wasn't too restful for us, and I got a bad bedbug attack, we think from one of the albergues.

Re the bedbugs. It took a couple of days before I was sure they were bedbugs, not fleas or mosquitoes. We use a lot of inner bags - turkey bags, etc., so most things are tightly sealed. As soon as we suspected bedbugs, we inspected everything on a white sheet and found no signs of bedbugs. My sleeping bag was the most suspect, and I had it in a dry bag when not in use. Once the attack happened (30 bites), I didn't want to get that bag out again until I had it treated, so there it stayed, and no more albergues the rest of the trip. Susan had no problems. (post trip note - I inspected it again at home, treated it, saw no sign of bedbugs, so assume my attackers moved back to their original hiding place).

This is a spectacularly beautiful route, from coastal town up over the ridges and around the inlets down to the next town. Much of the time, the ocean is in sight. One pilgrim, on his first Camino, said "when I see the ocean, I'm happy. When I don't see it, I'm not." I definitely would not suggest this as a first Camino. You do not get the sense of history that you get walking on the Camino Francis, through the towns that grew up around and because of the Camino. On the Norte, it is about fishing. There are glimpses of the original camino times, but that was not the reason for the towns.

Primitivo Norte split
The waymark quality varies. Usually fine, but sometimes there are competing markers. We carried our phone and iPad devices, but I tried to not use them for navigation, just for email, etc. at the end of the day. However, on a couple of instances, we got lost enough to need Google Maps to get back to the right point. Usually when we strayed off course, a local realized it, and warned us. We found that Google Maps is often wrong on exact locations. The pin representing a town may be at an intersection a half mile away. A street address may be 100 yards away from the actual location.

Trails - Most of the time - 80 to 90% - we were walking on hard or paved surfaces - quiet country roads mostly, but sometimes busy. Portugal roads would be a breeze after the Norte. However, after a few weeks our feet adapted, and after a few miles of rocky dirt paths, we were happy to again place our feet on pavement.
From not so good to worse

Language - for the most part, we had to rely on our Spanish, which is very basic. Also, in the Norte regions, Spanish is the 2nd language. Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia each have their own language, so when you hear Spanish, it is with an accent of the underlying language, and was sometimes difficult for us to understand. We did learn towards the end of the trip about Google Translate, microphone mode. It will listen and translate both sides of the conversation to text on your device, and also speak the translated phrase. It works fairly well if you can keep your sentences short and pause between, so both of you understand.

Food - the food is perfect for someone doing hard manual labor, lots of meat, fat, carbohydrates, and a bottle of wine. It tastes wonderful for a while, but we did get desperate for fruit and fresh vegetables. One one occasion we were served a fresh fruit salad, tomatoes, lettuce, kiwis, oranges, apples, balsamic vinegar, and more - best thing I have ever had in Spain. You do see fruit for sale in the groceries, so we would frequently get some to carry with us. Later in the trip we found that if you look closely at the a la carte menu they will frequently have a mixed grilled vegetable plate. That plus one of the lighter appetizers and the house wine equals the menu del dia in cost, and is a good change. In most cases, there was a bar at an appropriate location for lunch, so only a couple of times did we carry sandwich material, and some of that got tossed, because there was an undocumented bar discovered along the way.

Weather - On the May - June segment - Irun to Bilbao, we wore full raingear maybe six days, but only light intermittent rain. On the Bilbao to Vilalba segment in Sept - Oct I think we started out with full rain gear on (pants, Packa) three different days. Again, just light and intermittent rain. I carried a bag labeled Cold Weather with fleece pants, midweight Smartwool top, fleece socks. I only used the socks, and those to sleep in. Some of the nights were cold, and they do not turn the heat on until November in your lower star dwellings.

Peter Robins geolocate website was very useful at times. If you are not aware of Peter Robins map website, you should be. Google for peter robins camino, and you will find it. However, if you have a device that knows its location, such as an iPad, then go to peter robins geolocate page and click both IGN maps and pilgrim routes. That will bring up a topographic map centered exactly where you are and it can be zoomed by touch, like any other touch device.  Our iPad mini had cellular service - t-mobile in the US, but I got a tuenti sim card for spain from the Movistar store at the start of the spring trip for about 25 euros, and it was still good for the 2nd trip. Turns out that if it is topped up within six months, its use is extended for another six months. I topped it up at a Movistar store at the beginning of the fall trip, and then again at a post office about 4 weeks later. (You must know the phone number, which is only available from the purchase documentation or tuenti emails since the iPad is not a phone).

There is a very useful map/document on Camino Norte that we got from the tourist bureau in Ribadeo in the region of Galicia. This has the route through Galicia, including the profiles for each stage. I think this is also available for the other regions (Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country).

We were not as doctrinaire as usual in walking every inch, and if the guide book said the metro ran to the edge of town, we would take it if possible.  We used taxis a couple of times to drop us at the start of the day a few kilometers out of town if that day's would be too far for us otherwise. This bus - metro - taxi aid was also used by other pilgrims. Along the coast until Ribadeo, bus transport is easily available. At Ribadeo, the trail turns inland, heading for Arzua on the Camino Francís. There the buses and trains go off to the side, and only taxis can be used to move towards the next trail town.

Training - minor comment. Everything is in kilometers, and I think it would be helpful to train converting all your distances to kilometers, so that I walked 25 kilometers doesn't require a mental conversion to miles on your part. Also, 25 km is a good training distance to strive for, with a pack. Once you can do that on any terrain, with your pack, you can handle anything in Spain. a very useful transportation website for looking for options on getting from one city to another, considers and combines multiple options - bus, train, rental car. The link is an example: options on getting to Villaviciosa (start of Primitivo) from Madrid. - With our slightly reduced daily distance from the plan, we found that we would not make Santiago, so decided to go out to Lugo, where transport to Madrid and our flight home would be available. A local bus line would take us to Lugo, and ALSA bus or the train would take us on. The trip from Lugo to Madrid was six or seven hours and the schedules made it longer so we looked at an alternative.

A few days earlier, someone told us about - sort of a formalized casual carpool. You signup on the website. Takes about five minutes. There are driver and passenger ratings as in We posted our desire: Baamonde to Madrid on Oct 13. Drivers independently post where and when they are going. Blablacar notifies us of anyone doing a trip nearby. We saw a number of drivers going from Lugo to Madrid at different times of day. One was leaving at 9:30am and would pickup at the Lugo bus station, and drop at Atocha station in Madrid. He had two places at 24 euros each. I bid on those, he accepted a couple of hours later. The only problem was that it was all in Spanish, and had to be paid for by credit card before I could communicate useful info with the driver. So did all that but wasn't sure it would all work out. There was always the train or bus if it didn't. Thru use of copy paste and google translate I found that had set me a code in the payment email, that I was to give to the driver only after I arrived in Madrid. Otherwise the driver wouldn't be paid. It all worked. nice ride, nice car, fast. Afterwords he rates us as passengers, we rated him as driver.

Music - on all of our trips I try to listen to local music, or more correctly, what the locals are listening to. I ask taxi drivers what the song is on the radio, in a restaurant or bar I will ask someone what is playing, and when I get home I will get out my notebook and try to lookup the things I heard. On the Norte I noted several songs or events:
Festival of the Children in Santander: (Unless you are into folk dancing, way more than you want to hear).
Juan Pardo & Amacio Prada: Probiña da Tola:
Loreena McKennitt: The Bonny Swans - this excerpt is in English - I would swear when I heard it in Spain, it was in Spanish.
Lole y Manuel: Tu Mira:
Lila Downs: Justicia:
Festival of San Froilán: Two different groups, mostly Orquesta Costa Dorada performance, but also an unknown chorale and percussion group.

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