It’s hard to believe that almost three months have passed since I finished my 2017 camino. I’ve spent quite some time going through my photos and video clips to put together the movie you can see at the top of the side bar. I managed to keep it under an hour, but only just! If you want to skip ahead to a particular section of this camino, the San Salvador starts at minute 21, the Primitivo at minute 32 and the Fisterra at minute 50. I hope it might bring back some fond memories, or perhaps inspire you to walk a new camino route.
I think it’s about time for a bit of a round-up of thoughts and impressions. This post has turned out to be rather longer than I planned and may not be particularly riveting for those readers who do not have an interest in these caminos, so you have full permission to stop reading here.
I will do a separate, much briefer, report on the Primitivo, Verde crossover and Fisterra caminos. I used the CSJ guide for the Camino de Madrid and Ender’s guide to the San Salvador, plus a lot of research on the camino internet forums. I also use the gronze.com website for planning, which I find extremely useful.
It is my habit to carefully plan my caminos, with the sure knowledge that I can and will deviate from my plan for any good reason, or just on a whim. I have averaged 27 km per day on all of my caminos so I know my comfort zones. I am ok with distances of 35 km although would prefer not to do too many in a row. I like to walk a short stage into a major city, so that I have time to sight-see rather than take a day off. In fact over my five caminos, I have never taken a day off, although I know it suits many to do so now and then. My planning involves a spreadsheet that is always at hand, including useful information, ie names of possible albergues, whether they take reservations, telephone numbers, cost, address, stage distance, etc. On this camino I diverged from my plan only on two stages when I crossed from the Primitivo to the Norte. From this can be deduced that I know myself pretty well and I am quite predictable – not sure if that’s good or bad, but I am open minded. I have updated this spreadsheet with comments on some of the accommodation I used and post it here. It may be useful to others. Please feel free to download it for personal use, but please credit me if sharing it.
So, here goes…
As you may know, I started out from Madrid with a ready-made ‘camino family’ including camigos I had met on three previous caminos and one who I knew only through much camino correspondence. What a team we were…Eli from Australia/Croatia with whom I walked from Lisbon to Porto in 2014, Paul from the UK who I met on the Via de la Plata in 2015, Marilyn from South Africa who walked the Mozárabe from Málaga last year, but had not previously met. We four walked the same stages from Madrid to León and formed a tight-knit group who would walk alone, or in twos, threes or fours as the mood suited. There was never any falling-out or harsh words, always looking out for each other, but giving each other space as required.
On a few occasions early on we coincided with Carsten from Germany who I met on the Norte last year. And from time to time I walked with Dave, with whom I had corresponded via one of the camino forums.
On a lonely camino such as the Madrid it was really great to have such easy company, most particularly at the end of the day when we might pool resources and cook up a communal meal or share a few glasses of wine at the local bar.
The Camino de Madrid is a truly lovely route, 330 km walked over 13.5 stages, with only a few days of notable elevation. Starting in Madrid at approx 650 metres, the first day is fairly flat, but stages 2 – 4 involve some significant climbs to reach the highest point at Fuenfria at 1,800m and then a drop down to Segovia at 1,000m. From there the trail runs through the farmland on the high plains of the meseta and is relatively flat, dropping to 750m over the next nine stages.
There was very little road walking, many interesting towns and villages to pass through, with even the tiniest villages boasting huge centuries-old churches. I loved the architecture – a lot of adobe buildings, many in ruin, but some well maintained and enough castles and palaces to keep any tourist happy. The paths meandered through rugged boulder-strewn foothills, sometimes along a Via Pecuaria (ancient drovers’ route), through rolling fields of crops waving in the breeze, over Roman roads (always rather uncomfortable) and through many sandy pine forests.
In the first few days (at the end of April) we experienced opposite extremes of weather – burning sunshine reaching low-mid 30’s C, torrential storms (though luckily after walking had ceased for the day) and absolutely freezing temperatures over the high pass at Fuenfria – I don’t remember ever being so chilled. There was snow overnight before we walked into Segovia, and on many stages we started the day walking through low cloud.
We passed through Segovia on day 5, leaving ourselves plenty time to take a good look around. Luckily we were able to leave our packs at an albergue whilst we admired the awesome aqueduct, the cathedral, the castle and the general laid back ambience of the city. A truly beautiful city that deserves a return visit.
The accommodation on this route was, on the whole, very good, we stayed in some pristine albergues with wonderful facilities, a convent, a well equipped wooden hut, a tiny place with just three bunks, village houses, and a huge palace where we had more bathrooms than pilgrims. We chose to stay in hostel accommodation a couple of times where there was no albergue, but there was an option in these towns to sleep on mats in the sports hall. Some of these places are privately operated on a donativo basis, and some with a set charge ranging from 3 – 10 euros, although of course the hostals cost considerably more.
We didn’t meet many other pilgrims, a couple of Spanish ladies who were walking the route in stages over holiday weekends, a French & Spanish pair of guys, and a Swiss woman, but we didn’t see any of these pilgrims on a regular basis, just a one-off. Although there was the lovely French/German couple that we first met outside Segovia, bumped into on the Salvador and saw frequently on the Primitivo.
Overall the signage and general pilgrim infrastructure on the Camino de Madrid were excellent.
The camino finishes at Sahagún, where it meets with the Camino Frances and here we immediately experienced the expected culture shock of suddenly finding ourselves amongst hordes of other pilgrims making their way to Santiago along the most popular route. We were on the CF for around 55 km and stayed in excellent albergues, before arriving in León where the Camino San Salvador commences.
At this point Eli decided to rest up overnight and take time to enjoy the city whilst Paul, as planned, ended his camino here. So Marilyn and I continued alone having picked up new credenciales at the albergue del Convento de las Carbajalas
We were very glad to leave the crowds of the Camino Frances behind us as we stepped onto the San Salvador. We had already walked 12.5 km to reach Leon and we continued a further 20 or so to reach Cabanillas, our first stop on the Salvador. 8.5 km of this trek out of León was alongside a road, on pavement, but we could (if we had known) have walked a large stretch of this on a riverside path. After reaching the residential area of Carbajal de la Legua we were once again in beautiful countryside with significant sections of elevation, passing through open moorland and shady woodland until we reached the tiny hamlet of Cabanillas where we stayed for the night.
Stage two started well on track alongside the river Bernesga for 4.5 km, but then we took a suggested diversion between Cascantes and La Robla that took us off the road. This diversion started well enough, on track close to the river, but soon opened out to a wide gravel track that ran for a very long way between a highrise rail track and a massive power plant. Not at all nice. I don’t have experience of the main route along the road, but I would guess it would be more pleasant than this diversion. We were on and off the road for the rest of this stage, entirely on asphalt for the last few kms into Buiza. To be honest I can’t really remember the proportion of road/track walking on this stage, but I managed to take some pretty photos so there was plenty to take my attention.
Some forward planning needs to take place over these first two stages of the San Salvador. It is necessary to phone ahead to the albergue keyholders to let them know of your intended arrival, so that if they won’t be around, they can arrange for someone else to open up.
At our end stages in the tiny hamlets of Cabanillas and Buiza there are no shops or bars. It is necessary to take food, not only for your evening meal but also, out of Buiza, for the following day. You obviously don’t want to carry food further than necessary because it adds a lot of weight to your pack, but keep in mind the time of day you will be passing through places where you plan to buy food. We were later than expected passing through the town of La Pola de Gordón and the shops were closed for siesta. We still had 5.5 km to walk and didn’t want to wait until 5pm for the shops to reopen, but we needed food for the night and the next long day. In the end, we appealed the the very good nature of the bar owners who, although they had closed their kitchen, cooked us a huge tortilla español and provided a salad. I’m not a huge fan of tortilla español but was very grateful for their kindness. We ate it that night and again during several stops the next day and still had some left over to throw away at the end of the day!
Many (I think most actually) pilgrims choose to split the stage from Buiza to Pajares in two, but we walked it in one. I knew it would to be tough, but we were in shape and definitely up for it. Although not very long at 24 km it involves accumulated uphill elevation of 833 m and downhill elevation 949 m. We were a little concerned about the weather because when we set off there was threatening low cloud and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to see much of the scenery. But in the event once we reached the first peak out of Buiza it cleared slightly and by the time we climbed over the collado del Canto de la Tusa the sun was shining from a clear blue sky. It was the most spectacularly beautiful stage of any of my five caminos. The two of us were totally alone as we trekked up and down the peaks and troughs of the mountains through the Picos de Europa. I felt so exhilarated that apart from occasionally being short of breath I wasn’t at all fatigued.
We had a bit of a shock on arriving at the albergue in Pajares when we found it full of pilgrims, not sure how many but I would guess maybe 8. Having been totally alone for three days this was very unexpected. All of these guys had split the stage into two and so had arrived well before Marilyn and me. The albergue was very comfortable with a good sitting area but the kitchen facilities are available only to the hospitalera who will cook for pilgrims on Tuesdays when the village bar is closed. We found the food offered at the bar rather primitive but were nonetheless very pleased that it was available and the cook and her young daughter were very friendly.
On the next stage we walked to Pola de Lena which was a day of wear and tear on the knees, with an accumulated downhill elevation of 1,043 m, uphill 366 m. Mostly through lovely treelined paths usually alongside a steep drop into the valley below, some on quiet country roads. First facilities are available at around 16 km at the town of Campomanes where there are bars and shops. Then a further 8-ish km to Pola de Lena, this stretch being more level and on or near asphalt. The town is very long and we walked right to the far end before we realised our mistake. The albergue, situiated in a local authority building, is about halfway through the town, very close to the railway station above and to the left of the main road. Plenty of beds and more loos and showers than I have seen on any camino, but sadly no kitchen or sitting area, but there are plenty of bars, restaurants and shops in this vibrant town.
Our final stage on the San Salvador I estimate was 7/8ths on hard surface, some on a riverside walk, but mostly on fairly quiet roads, again with a great deal of accumulated elevation – 515m up and 607m down. You will find the municipal albergue on the way into Oviedo, I saw it by chance, just a scallop-shell plaque by a door in a stone wall on the left side of the road. We rang a bell and the door mysteriously creaked open. The albergue is huge and situated in an old stone building with beds distributed over various rooms.
I am glad we had been walking for a couple of weeks before stepping foot on the San Salvador, we were walking-fit and coped well with all the elevation. I think it would have been a struggle to walk this camino without any warm-up. It is a beautiful route with excellent signage, particularly on the central stage over the mountains. The accommodation is very good. I highly recommend trekking poles to hep with all the elevation and to take some weight off those poor knees! We were for the most part (other than in Pajares) alone which suited us well, but this wouldn’t be a camino for a lone pilgrim hoping to find company.