Serdio, 21st May 2018

It’s nine years since I last stayed in a pilgrimage hostel and it’s odd being back: the shared bathrooms, the mixed and matched assorted washing, and the random conversations. The other thing I’d completely forgotten about was that warm feeling of calmness that you get when you’ve done the pilgrim chores of signing in, staking a claim for a bed, having a shower, and washing your clothes, that make you completely forget what a bloody annoying day you’ve had.

I’m currently sitting in the hostel garden being deafened by birdsong, while a horse in the field opposite occasionally raises its head to give a somewhat perturbed harrumph. The clothes I was wearing until about an hour ago are now dripping furiously from a washing line on to the grass below, in the shade of one of those trees that looks like the top of a pineapple. There’s a fair amount of activity around me. A man is conspicuously doing press-ups by the hostel entrance, four people are standing about throwing a Frisbee to each other with sloppy accuracy, and there is a heated group discussion going on in French on the table next to me. All is relaxed and good, apart from the fact that I am not supposed to be here at all.

The grand plan was to stay the night in the hostel in San Vicente de la Barquera. The town is the recognised starting point for the Camino Lebaniego, a spin-off walk from the main northern route to Santiago do Compostela. I have known that the route existed for a few years but didn’t know it had a name until January. While the vast majority of pilgrims passing through San Vicente are heading west, there’s an opportunity to head south into the mountains of the Picos de Europa, finishing 72km later in the monastery of Santo Toribio. For those who last the distance, there is a close-ish encounter with the largest surviving piece of the true cross that was used to crucify Jesus. For those who think that relics and the stories attached to them are utter nonsense, it’s just a good excuse for a walk. From my point of view, the whole Camino lies within striking distance of Sod Hall (this is a now converted farmhouse where my Spanish father grew up. I’m responsible for the new name, by the way), if anything goes wrong it’s only a bit of a stagger or a short bus journey back to the sofa and a cup of tea.

Earlier this morning, I’d spent a long half hour trying to explain the idea of a pilgrimage walk to my aunt who was in residence in the house next door to Sod Hall. It was a tricky experience, mostly due to do with my near total lack of Spanish, but also because my aunt is permanently trying to be helpful. When I was going over the route to her, she pointed out that there was a much quicker way to Santo Toribio that would take 20km off the distance. She’s absolutely right - it involves walking along the N621 road which for more than half its route is a mountain pass which barely has enough space for oncoming vehicles, let alone pedestrians. The fact that buses and lorries use it is scary enough. I’ve been through it on a bus and there are enough blind corners on it to think that you’re only a late braking manoeuvre from ending up like the final scene of The Italian Job, with the bus hanging over the Rio Deva. If it’s a choice of walking along the N621 or a motorway, point me in the direction of the M6.

My aunt’s other suggestion was giving me a lift to San Vicente. On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with accepting. It’s not part of the pilgrimage so it wouldn’t be cheating and it’s not a particularly attractive walk in the first place. I turned it down because I thought a gentle 12km stint would be a good introduction to pilgrimage walking before the serious fun begins tomorrow. I didn’t like the idea of bowling into the hostel sweat-free and without any suggestion of exertion. Most of the people staying there would have walked at least 25km to get to San Vicente. It wouldn’t seem right to step out of a car, walk up a short hill and demand a bed. Knowing my aunt, I’d probably carrying substantial rations as well.

Over the course of the conversation, something occurred to me that I hadn’t really taken into account: namely, my aunt clearly believed I was doing the entire Camino in one day. When I pointed out that overnight stops were involved and I wasn’t coming back for four days, the subject changed immediately. She was heading back to Madrid in a few hours, and traditionally this meant that I’d receive a food parcel. After a quick disappearance kitchen-wards, she returned with some chorizo, ham, and an apology for the lack of eggs.

Despite my efforts to protest that I didn’t really need the eggs - I’ve never had the heart to tell her that I don’t really like them that much - my aunt was having none of it. Eventually, a compromise was reached by which she’d go out, get some, and leave them with a neighbour. After finally convincing her that I was safe to take on the roads and paths of Cantabria on my own, we said goodbye and I headed off.

The walk to San Vicente includes negotiating a slope that I’ve christened “The Bastard”. The area around Sod Hall isn’t flat and no matter where you go in any direction, there will be some vindictive up or downhill. Bustio to Colombres is a wavy path of pure hell. Molleda to Prio is a strain on the knees whichever way you do it and there’s no easy way to get to Villaneuva, but they pale into insignificance compared to The Bastard. It’s about 500m long and so steep that there’s no benefit to having gravity on your side. Your steps are so tiny that your body feels the strain immediately. After about twenty metres, the mental stages pass through the gears from “awkward” to “ordeal”. Everything about it is unpleasant including the view to the industrial estate below. I’ve never climbed up it without stopping and I’ve never done it in either direction without recourse to casual blasphemy and weapons-grade swearing. The only good thing about it, today at least, was that it came near the beginning of the walk.

After negotiating The Bastard, the journey lapsed into reassuringly dullness. The winding road to San Vicente (and it is a road) is underused, though it does tend to attract the kind of person who drives like a pillock because it’s quiet and wide, but doesn’t take into account the terrified pilgrim on the side of the road. It’s a steady climb too but worth it for the lovely descent into town when it finally comes into view. San Vicente is situated in a little bay with a bridge stretching across to the far bank. The tide was out and fishing boats were beached idly on the sand, while in the distance the Atlantic waves limped quietly towards rocky cliffs. I looked down over the town and mentally planned how I was going to pass my evening. I’d never spent more than a couple of hours in San Vicente and I was looking forward to a leisurely time, largely concerned with sitting on the beach and then taking in a restaurant as the sun went down. It all looked serenely idle, overseen by the most prominent building - the church of Santa Maria de los Ángeles. This is where the Camino Lebaniego begins.

Like the more famous routes to Santiago, the Lebaniego requires you to have a pilgrimage passport, but getting hold of one isn’t particularly straightforward. I had to do a bit of time on the internet to pin one down and the organisation that looks after the route didn’t go out of the way to be helpful. Over the course of several increasingly terse emails, I was told that I could pick one up from a church in Santander which was about 70km away from San Vicente. The other alternative was that I might be able to pick one up at the church of Santa Maria, but they weren’t sure and didn’t know what the opening hours were. In the end, I sent off for one from Santander and then had to jump through several hoops to pay for it.

The church was my first destination. It’s where I was going to get my first stamp on my pilgrimage passport, followed swiftly by my second one from the hostel next door. Except I wasn’t. The church was closed and was not reopening for a couple of hours. It was still worth the effort as the views are great and there was a brilliant piece of translation that was clearly done by clever use of the internet and stupid use of the brain. Apparently, the church of Santa Maria “forms a harmonious and strong group in which the characteristics of the mountain gothic are accused.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Far more disturbingly, the hostel was also closed and on a more permanent basis. The new occupant informed me that the building was no longer taking in pilgrims, though there was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise - namely arrows pointing to it, and a sign above the door decorated with various blue and yellow Santiago regalia stating it was a hostel. The current occupant was apologetic and gave me three well-rehearsed options in English, which included a friend’s place, which would cost 15 Euros, there were also hotels to try in the town, while the final option was to start the pilgrimage early and walk the 8km to the next hostel at Serdio.

I’ve walked to Serdio several times before. What I’ve not done is walk it in the afternoon heat carrying 10kgs on my back. Another problem I discovered after the ascent out of town in that I was spectacularly low on water. I was expecting to refill at in the hostel and had completely forgotten to do so. According to my bottles, I had less than 100ml and I knew there was a bugger of a hill to come.

The Lebaniego’s route is distinguished by red arrows as opposed to the Camino di Santiago’s yellow ones. Rather than being sprayed on walls and roads, they were neatly placed on fingerposts giving both distances and estimated destination timings. The way I was feeling, I decided it was just better to see where the arrows were pointing and leaving it at that. Times and distances were starting to look a bit on the disconcerting side. I could feel myself conspicuously slowing down and thinking of water.

There was a rare display of energy as I approached La Acebosa, but it certainly didn’t come from me. It was provided by a cow running towards me at a speed I don’t really associate with bovines. It was followed by a clearly livid farmer. With some considerable effort, he managed to outrun the beast and turn it around, kicking it up the backside for good measure and swearing profusely.

He wasn’t the only one cursing. La Acebosa is also the starting point for the final climb of the day and it coincided with the time when the sun was starting to melt my spirits. My vocabulary matched that of the irate farmer as the path swung nastily upwards and my steps got shorter and shorter. There was a bench at the top where on previous occasions I’d stopped for a drinks break. Today I just sat there, looking back over to San Vicente and the sea while straining to stop the sweat pouring into my eyes, and trying not to think too much about the one or two mini gulps of water I had left in my bottles.

At least I knew the worst was over for the day and that the rest of the route was on a sheltered road, though Serdio did seem a lot further away than I remembered. It was a limp over the finish line rather than a confident stride. I had walked around 20km - not particularly lengthy by Santiago pilgrimage standards - but it hurt. Signing into the hostel was done on a picnic table the garden, and as I dumped my rucksack, drank my own bodyweight in water and selected a bed, I realised if I’d gone straight here from my home, I would have would have walked a grand total of 5km. At any rate, I look knackered enough to fit in with everyone else…

(A version of this first appeared in the “Gullible’s Travels” blog