I decided to embark on this unforgettable trip with my mum and aunt

A trek across northern Spain uncovers some surprising secrets of walking the Camino de Santiago, from cider-filled water bottles to anti-blister socks and how to bypass yet-another uphill path. 

The goal was to complete one week of the Camino de Santiago with my mother and aunt. As the youngest of our trio, I should have felt relatively confident, but it was daunting to consider trekking 25,000 to 40,000 steps a day, day after day after day. What about blisters? Sore legs? Or boredom? After daily strolls for the past two years, the last thing I needed was more boring walking, but this trip had been planned pre-pandemic.

Lou, mum and aunt

The Camino de Santiago is a network of ancient pilgrim routes in Europe which come together at the tomb of St James in north-west Spain. It doesn’t have to be a religious experience; for me, it was simply a chance to hike somewhere new, stopping for snacks. I imagined fresh octopus served seaside, before refreshing swims in beautiful bays, and alfresco evenings with cheap carafes of vino.

There were 12 self-guided routes to choose from, including perhaps the most well known, Camino Frances (the French Way, 780 kilometres), the very long Via de la Plata (the Silver Way, 1000 kilometres) and Camino del Norte (the Northern Way, 466 kilometres). 

We chose a section of the Camino del Norte that started in one of my favourite foodie spots, San Sebastián. The only problem was I had forgotten it was located in the very mountainous Basque Country. Perhaps I should have trained for this. 

Expressing my concerns to my mother, 71, who “does the Camino” annually, she reminded me that her older partner turns up every year without any preparation. 

“He just hops off the airport bus and starts walking,” said Mum.

A few months earlier, I had looked into an exercise program which was supposed to take me “from couch to Camino” in 12 weeks. While I had successfully achieved the international transfer from my couch in Sydney to the starting point in Spain, it was the crucial bits in between that I skipped.

I really should have committed to those squats and lunges and weekend practice hikes, but it had seemed like too much effort.

Louise looking tired

And yet, here we were, checking into the first of seven hotels booked for us by Camino Ways. The company took care of all our accommodation and luggage transfers – an invaluable service. The alternative is to carry your backpack 25 kilometres a day and find places to stay as you go. (No, thank you.)

After dinner at one of the pinxto bars, we got a good night’s sleep before the big first day. Things didn’t go well. We couldn’t crack the offline map on our phones, so had no idea whether to turn left or right out of the hotel lobby. 

However, once we located the path, it was easy to follow the official yellow arrows that lead the way. Sometimes they were painted on walls or rocks or kerbs; others were wooden signs pointing the direction.

The route passed beaches, crossed bridges, traced rivers, headed inland, cut through forests, wrapped around villages, meandered down cobbled roads, and climbed and descended several mountains. 

“This must be the top” became our catchphrase whenever we reached what we thought was the peak, only to find it continued uphill around the corner.

A church was a good sign, always positioned at the highest point of a town. It was also a place to get a stamp on our Pilgrim’s Passports – proof that you have walked the necessary kilometres to obtain your Camino Certificate at the end. Monasteries, town halls, post offices, hotels and hostels may provide stamps, too, or QR codes (introduced in 2021 for the new digital passports).

Another fun feature of the Camino was the homes that locals opened to passing pilgrims, offering food and drinks (pay by donation). In a rural area, with nowhere to eat for miles, we joined the dining table at a farmhouse with a German man and an Irish couple, while the owner made us tea. It was a novel way to break up the day and use a bathroom instead of the bushes. 

Lou’s mum picking cherries

When we reached Zauratz in the late afternoon, we were thrilled to have paid extra for the half-board option, as it seemed too hard to go out looking for somewhere to have dinner. We could barely speak English, let alone Spanish.

The next day, at Deba, we read some information on the helpful Norte app that we had downloaded: “Wave goodbye to the sea. It will be exactly 80 kilometres before it returns into view in Bilbao.”

So much for my dips in the Atlantic Ocean. Bilbao was four days away. 

The torturous terrain from Olatz to Markina-Xemein was relentlessly undulating countryside, with no services for 16 kilometres. Confession: We detoured to Mutriku and caught the bus. For this is the great secret of the Camino: there’s always a road nearby where public buses run between the towns for 1.50 euros a ticket.

Three pairs piligrims feet on the start of the Camino de Santiago or “The Way of Saint James ” famous rout in Bilbao, Spain

Surprisingly, over the next few days, our bodies got used to it. We wore ArmaSkin anti-blister socks, popped painkillers, took long lunch breaks and did leg stretches. Our spirits were lifted by views of valleys and vineyards, birds twittering, donkeys braying and trailside stalls selling refreshments. 

Coming upon a crate of homemade cider, we swiftly emptied our water bottles and refilled them with booze. The next day we found an alpine tavern and quenched our thirst with cold beers. Drinking didn’t help us conquer mountains, but it didn’t stop us either.

The sights, sounds and smells kept us going. Honeysuckle, pine, mown grass and manure scented the air at various stages. One morning, the fog hung so low it was like walking through clouds. At a muddy intersection, we leveraged a tree trunk to reach a lower ledge, or “swing down like a pole dancer”, as Aunt Geraldine described it.

Every time we hit civilisation, we sampled the region’s tapas and gelato or dined in the plaza, where friendly locals helped us translate menus. And every evening, like magic, our suitcases would be waiting by the time we checked into our hotel. 

Arriving at our last stop, Bilbao, brought great joy and relief. We made it! After getting our passports stamped, we celebrated at a restaurant, where I finally found my octopus.

As I wondered if I would do it again, the two sisters discussed doing an easier route next time. For many people, the Camino becomes addictive, and normal life feels quite static. As my mother declared: “If I had three months to live, this is what I’d do.”

Louise in the rain

Take me there

Supported walks: Camino Ways specialises in walking and cycling holidays on the Camino de Santiago. Packages can be tailored to your preferred duration and accommodation standard. The company provides many resources such as a 24-hour emergency phone number, maps, fitness e-books, phrasebooks and beginners’ guides.

Explore more: caminoways.com

What to pack

* Hiking boots 

* ArmaSkin anti-blister liner socks 

* Sweat-wicking tops and hiking pants

* Sun protection (hat, sunscreen and sunglasses)

* A lightweight rain jacket

* A day pack, preferably waterproof 

* A refillable water bottle

* Cash, as cards are not always accepted in remote area

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