Thursday, August 30, 2012

Camino del Norte: Bilbao to Santander

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
On my rest day in Bilbao I was very much torn between resting and sightseeing. This has often been a problem on this trip: you just want to rest in your bed but you also want to see the local sights... In Bilbao I managed to see the Art Museum (which was quite nice) and the famous modern Guggenheim Museum (which was rather disappointing: a lot of space and a lot of money for very little content). But what I enjoyed most there was a fantastic AYCE buffet and my single room in the youth hostel... Long distance hikers are bad tourists. I even missed the big fiesta that was going on in Bilbao with concerts and bull fights. Because of this fiesta it had been difficult to find accommodation in town and I had been very lucky to score a room in the youth hostel. But this hostel was rather weird. It has the charm and location of an Etap hotel: very clean and efficient and located right next to the highway. But it did not have any of the hostel amenities like a kitchen or a comfy sitting room. To my big disappointment there wasn't even a book exchange and therefore I had to buy new reading material in town.

Along the bike path out of Bilbao
The way out of Bilbao was as horrible as expected. A whole day you walk on pavement along old industrial buildings, run down high rises and motorways. There was absolutely nothing scenic about this stretch. Still in Bilbao I had run into two South African women who had come all the way from South Africa to hike the Camino - without a guidebook. They were completely lost and I helped them back on their way. But on this day I really started wondering why people come from that far only to walk on concrete through urban jungle and along huge highways and then sleep in huge dormitories with plenty of snorers.

It required a lot of planning to find stealth campsites every night but I was very lucky on this stretch. Although I mostly had to hike on highways through very populated areas I could always camp in the very rare forested areas in between. Forest here was another surprise: it feels more like Australia than Northern Spain because of the many Eucalyptus plantations. It smells very nice! But of course the forest floor is always overgrown with weeds and ferns and your only choice for a decent campsite is on old and abandoned forest roads.

I had not stayed in any pilgrims' hostel yet because I can't stand the dormitories, but my guidebook said that one of those albergues had a camping area. I hiked a 43 km day to get there and was not disappointed. Although the hospitalero could not understand why I insisted on camping instead of taking one of the free beds he assigned me a great camp spot. The hostel was big with 70 beds and offered communal dinner and breakfast. There is no fixed price for that: you pay as much or little as you can. The place is run by Don Ernesto, a Catholic priest and the next morning I had a long and very interesting talk with him.

Father Ernesto
He confirmed that the Caminos become more popular each year. He alone had hosted almost 6,000 pilgrims last year and expects more this year. The majority of pilgrims its from Spain, but Germans have the biggest portion of foreign pilgrims. The evening before I could see that hikers like me are really an exception. Everyone else was wearing "camp shoes" for dinner. I read the only one of 50 with only one pair of shoes... and a tent. In the morning everyone left really early in the quest for a free hostel bed in the next town. Only I was left behind chatting until 10.30 am, but it was only a short stretch to Santander.

Santander Cathedral
It started drizzling that day and a 8 km walk along a major highway did not improve my mood. I took a ferry ride over to Santander where I found a rather incompetent tourist information where staff was not willing to find accommodation for me. They told me just to go to the pensions or hotels. Although they had assured me that it would be easy to find a room for the night the first for places were fully booked... But I made a wise decision and went to eat at an AYCE buffet. The world looked much brighter afterwards and I started calling places instead of going there. Immediately I was lucky and scored a very nice and quiet room for 27 Eur - where I stayed and relaxed the rest of the day and next morning. Because of the difficult camping situation I am spending more money here in Spain than on any other part of this hike...

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