Vasco impressions – June 2015

A camino waymarker in the Basque country (Euskadi)

 Camino Vasco del Interior – Irun to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, June 2015

Tolosa

Our party of three planned to walk the Vasco del Interior in a leisurely nine days staying exclusively in albergues. As it turned out we added an extra day, resting and sightseeing in Vitoria Gasteiz. And we stayed in a pension in Tolosa rather than the albergue.

Overall I’d say it was an excellent camino, although you need to adjust your expectations as it’s quite different from a route like the Camino Frances. Much of the early walking is in built up and commercial areas beside the road (generally on pavements and cycle paths that run between the towns). This tends to peter out up the valley as you move away from the conurbations. Thereafter the roads are really not an issue, apart for a small section close to the river Ebro where you have to walk on the verge of a busy national road.

Walking in the Gipuzkoa region

Much of the nature of the route is defined by the topography. The first five days, to the tunnel, are characterised by the rolling Basque countryside, where you have two distinct types: one, walking along the valley floor, which is relatively flat but which you share with the motorway, national road, train line, river, factories and warehouses and conurbations – or otherwise, negotiating the up and down of the adjacent hills which are wilder and often wooded.

Day one is largely of the up and down type, whereas the following two days, from Hernani to Beasain, you are mainly walking inland along the valley floor.

From Beasain, the industry thins out and finally disappears when you reach the magical old town/gothic quarter of Segura. After this you have the option of taking the hillier variant GR34 up to the village of Zerain before returning to the valley and on to Zegama, which nestles below the limestone cliffs containing the San Adrian tunnel.

Towards Santo Domingo de Calzada

The walk up to the tunnel is quite strenuous but rewarding. Coming down the other side and going towards Salvatierre / Agurain, you enter the agricultural plains, occasionally crossing low-lying hills. This continues through Vitoria Gasteiz to the point at which you cross the Ebro, after which, the flat expanse of the valley spreads itself before you, as far as the eye can see.

The smallish homely albergues tended to be about half full, with around half a dozen other pilgrims – so few enough to get to know everyone and yet avoid queuing for the showers. However I suspect we were travelling in a pilgrim ‘bubble’ as the guest books suggested this was an unusually large group and that none, one, two or three pilgrims a day would be more typical.

 

Albergues:

You can make the whole way staying in albergues. Taken over 9 days the average distance would be 22.5km per day, with the two longest days being about 30km each. Taken over 12 days the average is about 17km with the longest day being 22km which includes the walk up and through the San Adrian tunnel.

 

  1. Santiagomendi – like a youth hostel, unstaffed with a proper kitchen (but nowhere nearby to buy food) and a great view over San Sebastian and the coast
  2. Andoain – in a block of flats 5 minutes from all amenities in Andoain. Looked basic but fine.
  3. Tolosa – 1km before the town. More like a youth hostel/group establishment
  4. Beasain – lovely converted old pilgrim hospital run by volunteers. Microwave only, but all amenities nearby.
  5. (Zerain mountain alternative) – run by helpful people in the village. A nice location in a traditional building next to the bar and shop.
  6. Zegama – a kind of porta-cabin with bunks and a kitchen with cooker and microwave, that functions quite well. All amenities nearby.
  7. Salvatierre / Agurain – cosy modern house with showers and drying area in the garage. Microwave only. Amenities nearby.
  8. (Alegria – didn’t visit), but town looked nice.
  9. Vitoria Gasteiz – private albergue run by the association that also looks after the old cathedral (which is next door). Large, newish and with all facilities

    Vitoria Gasteiz

    View from the cathedral bell tower – Vitoria Gasteiz

  10. Puebla de Arganzon – nice local albergue occupying a house with a small garden. Village shop and lunchtime restaurant nearby.
  11. (Salinillas de Buradon – didn’t visit)
  12. Haro – nice albergue in the town, about 10-15 minutes from the centre, occupying a house with a small garden. Amenities nearby.

Best things:

– The Basque people (and the Spanish people in the latter stages!) were universally friendly and helpful.
– The way-marking is excellent
– The food was fabulous with an abundance of delicious Basque tapas (pintxos) in most bars, although if you make several stop-offs a day (hard to resist) it can work out to be quite expensive. Haro is the wine capital of Spain.
– Many of the towns and villages are very pretty and have preserved their heritage and historic buildings
– The old cathedral at Vitoria Gasteiz is wonderful and no pilgrimage on this camino is complete without taking the guided tour of its renovations. The guides describe the involvement of pilgrims in its history.

Puebla de Arganzon

Puebla de Arganzon

Recommendations

I think that my experience was hugely enriched by being with people who speak Spanish. Without a reasonable command of Spanish or Basque you will miss out on a lot.

There was a lot road walking in the early parts, but nearly all of this was on pedestrian paths beside the roads, rather than sharing the highway with traffic. So it’s pretty tolerable, especially if you have the right shoes i.e. a walking shoe with a cushioned sole. And it gets easier the further along you go. I think it’s a good camino to walk with others, as there may not be other pilgrims around and conversation can make the pavement walking pass more agreeably.

This interior route passes through strongholds of Basque nationalism. You will see many different murals and flags advocating for the fights and rights of political movements. It’s worth being aware that nationalism and political consciousness are, for many people in these parts, serious and sensitive issues.

Here’s a link to a set of photos on Flickr

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