Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido

Hiking across northern Spain on the Camino del Norte and the Gran Recorrido


The beach at Hondarribia and Hendaye beyond

Hi! I’m Dan. I work often as an international and experiential educator and a wilderness guide, and sometimes as a writer and textbook editor. But from December 2012 through March 2013 I took a break to visit friends throughout Spain and hike across the north on the Camino del Norte (Northern Way) and Gran Recorrido hiking trails.

The Camino del Norte is the northern, coastal route of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James or Saint James’ Way), which is an ancient pilgrimage with many paths that converge on the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where tradition holds the remains of Saint John (Santiago or San Diego) are located.

People of many backgrounds have traveled the routes to Santiago and the coast beyond for over a thousand years, and for a diversity of reasons. As with much of history, it’s impossible to know or prove when or why people began taking this journey. Some believe it began with ancient Celtic peoples, who may have made the trek for ritualistic purposes. Others contend that early Romans walked the road as a form of sun-worship, following the sun as it set into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the edge of their world, the coastal town of Fisterra.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, historians believe, the pilgrimage began to gain in popularity among Catholics. The Camino enjoyed a surge over the next few hundred years, which eventually waned, hindered by the tumult of the Plague and the Protestant Reformation.

In recent years, though, the Camino has come back into its own, and the number of pilgrims completing the minimum 100 kilometers leading to Santiago (the requirement to receive the Compostela, the official stamp certifying completion of the pilgrimage) has increased steadily, reaching 192,000 in 2012. The only year on record with more pilgrims was 2010, when it was a Holy Year of Saint James (año Jacobeo), and 272,135 pilgrims completed the journey.

The majority of pilgrims follow the Camino Francés (French Way), an interior route through the arid northern plains and the cities of Pamplona (Iruña), Logroño, Burgos, León, and others. The Camino del Norte, on the other hand, follows the coast, and offers a lush, forested landscape far removed from the dry, flat Camino Francés and is more well suited to people who are most comfortable when they are within sight of the ocean (like me!).

In 2008, I started hiking the Camino del Norte with a friend, and we never made it out of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria in the Basque language, Euskera). Later, we learned that we had been hiking part of the time on the Gran Recorrido 121 trail instead of the Camino. We weren’t too concerned about what trail we were on, because we knew we were going the right direction, and the scenery was amazing! (You can read more about the Gran Recorrido trail on the Itinerary page.)

In the end, though, we were drawn back to Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía), where we had started our hike, to see James Cotton headline the Hondarribia Blues Festival. It was well worth cutting our hike short to see one of the greatest living blues harmonica players, especially in the beautiful town of Hondarribia, just a short boat ride away from the great surfing beach of Hendaye in France.

But the decision to stop hiking the Camino left me with the feeling that I had compromised my goals, and represented a larger pattern I had fallen into in life. So I returned, not to listen to blues or surf or enjoy good weather, but to finish the hike I started four years before, to take some time to think, and to practice accomplishing goals. And while reaching Santiago was an important part of that, the success of the trip depended more on reflection, learning about the cultures of the places I visited, and following through with my plan.

If you’d like to learn more about me and my history with Spain, please click on Why Dan Quixote?, and for more information on the route I took, click on Itinerary.

Thanks for reading, and Buen Camino (have a good walk)!