The Route: There are two possible starting points. From the Camino del Norte, take the waymarked Camino Liébana from the lovely seaside town of San Vicente de la Barquera. This three-day trail has been used for centuries for the annual regional “romeria” to the Visigothic Monastery of San Toribio de Liébana, which houses one of the largest pieces of the cross believed to be the one upon which Jesus was crucified. The other departure point is Potes, a mountain resort town near the Liebana monastery. From Potes the trail leads southward across a vertiginous mountain pass, then follows the Rio Esla to Riaño and its reservoir. After some hillwalking, it crosses fertile flatlands to Mansilla las Mulas, where it joins the Camino Francés. Thanks to Tom Barton for the photos on this page.
Terrain: The route passes through the majestic Picos de Europa National Park, over spectacular mountains and through green valleys to the Leonese plains. The Esla river begins with a small trout stream alongside the path, and slowly widens to the broad river that flows into Mansilla. Walking conditions vary from mountain-bike paths, paved rural two-lanes and a very occasional length of carretera to herders’ tracks and a beautiful stretch of still-intact Roman pavement.
Waymarking: Volunteers from the local association have done conscientious work marking the trail. There are a few points into Cistierna and out of Riaño where it might be made a bit less confusing, but it is generally good. A map of the area is very helpful, and a small compass would not go amiss.
Weather/When to go: Mountain weather is notoriously changeable, ranging from superb in spring and summer to damp and cold in autumn, to very dangerous in winter. Parts of this path are impassable in winter, with the high-altitude sections closed to hikers after the first snowfall. The best time to go is from May to September.
Accommodation: Pilgrim accommodation is limited, with five albergues on the route (Potes, Liébana monastery, Portilla de la Reina, Cistierna, Gradefes). Pilgrims must rely on commercial accommodation. Casas rurales can be found in many places for 30€-40€ a night, and most small towns have an inexpensive hostal or pensión attached to the local restaurant/bar.
Guide books: The Asociación de Amigos del Camino de Santiago Ruta Vadiniense (www.rutavadiniense.com), in Cistierna, has published an excellent Spanish-language guide which can be ordered from them at firstname.lastname@example.org . Rebekah Scott’s English-language guide is reliable, informative and compact, and I found it very helpful.
Cyclists: I can see how this route could be favoured by hard-core mountain bikers. It requires good off-road skills and some very strong thighs, particularly the 1,200 metre climb to the Pandetrave Pass and a 2-kilometre stretch of sometimes-shifting coal slag.
What’s it like? : This is not a path for beginners, but pilgrims are not unknown here. The local association has done yeoman work in waymarking and its members keep an eye out for pilgrims and offer them plenty of support, especially in the stages near its Cistierna headquarters. Scenery is outstanding and dramatic, but this route will only appeal to the seasoned hiker who is happy with their own company. Towns with grocery stores are few and far apart, and there are almost no fuentes along the mountain section of the route. It is necessary to plan carefully and with a flexible timetable. The mountain section requires special care, as the weather can change quickly. Sadly, hikers have been known to perish on these trails therefore we strongly advise speaking with locals about the current conditions before venturing into the mountains.
Spanish: Some Spanish required - very few locals speak English.
Websites: http://www.rutavadiniense.com/. As well, http://www.caminodesantiago.me/board/camino-vadiniense/ features questions and answers, and updates by the few who know this route.
Confraternity of Saint James,
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Tel: (+44) (0)20 7928 9988
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Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela