From Roger Brankin, Summer 2019
The Camino Viejo/Olvidado, now formally titled the Camino Olvidado, is claimed to be the original and historical route to Santiago. It starts either in Bilbao or Pamplona and runs between the Caminos Norte and Francés to Villafranca del Bierzo, which is on the Camino Francés. As it passes very close to Ponferrada, there are options to continue on to Santiago, via either the Camino Invierno from Ponferrada, or the Camino Francés from Ponferrada or Villafranca.
The route was formed in the early days of Pilgrimage to Santiago due to the advancement of the Moors northwards, when a more northerly route was necessary, keeping to the mountainous areas for safety. It is probably the reason for the two starting places, as in warmer weather Peregrinos could follow the normal route over the Pyrenees as far as Pamplona, before taking the Olvidado. In winter, when mountain passes were closed by snow, they could walk the coastal route via Irún to Bilbao. With the Reconquista, pilgrims reverted to a southerly route, taking in cities like Burgos and León, a route made popular by the publication of the Codex Calixtinus. This route has evolved into the current Camino Francés.
The Camino Olvidado has been resurrected in recent years by the great work of Ender and his Amigos. It offers an alternative to the Caminos Francés and Norte, crossing unspoilt and varied countryside. Although it passes through several medium sized towns there are no cities. It is impossible to avoid asfalto and this Camino has its share, however, there are many stretches of woodland and riverside walks and kilometres of vehicular tracks. Ender has recently opened a route option from Bonar to La Magdalena over the mountains, which follows an old Roman road referred to in a document written in Latin and dated 902, thus predating the Codex Calixtinus by about 250 years. This option is similar to the central part of the Camino San Salvador, giving spectacular views, but much more demanding, involving hill walking and climbing to heights approaching 1800m or 6000 feet. Some of the stage distances of this Camino are long, in excess of 30ks.
The initial stages out of Bilbao are not particularly inspiring, but it is possible to avoid these by using the Bilbao-Leon FEVE railway, (see comments below). In fact if I was honest I would say the best of this Camino comes after Aguilar de Campoo. This is the meeting point of the routes from Pamplona and Bilbao. Unfortunately I could find no detailed information on the route from Pamplona, although I suspect it may be the prettier of the 2 options to Aguilar. (There is a challenge for someone!)
The Olvidado is being walked, but is still a route less well trodden. Numbers depend on the month. I started in the last week of April and in 18 days to Ponferrada I met only 2 other Peregrinos. However, with the pressure of numbers on the Frances and now the Norte and even the Via de la Plata, it is anticipated numbers will increase. There is also the attraction of a new Camino route!
Be prepared for solitude, but to some this is an attraction, and is more than compensated for by exploring parts of Spain undiscovered by Tourism. It is a Camino more suited to the experienced Caminante and therefore I would not recommend this Camino is walked as a first Camino. Consequently, this guide only includes the essential route information and not the ancillary information about what to take or wear or when to walk etc. It is assumed the experienced Caminante will know all this.
The total distances from Bilbao are in the region of:
to Villafranca via La Robla 510ks and via Vegacervera 530ks.
to Ponferrada via La Robla 480ks and via Vegacervera 500ks
Although it has been claimed the route has been re-marked recently, I found the marking varied greatly. Generally it is good, using arrows, shell signs and mojones. There is also a special metal sign with ‘Olvidado’ and the arrow formed by perforated holes, but with the dark rust colour I found these difficult to pick out, especially if they were in shady locations. However, in places marking was either virtually non-existent, confusing, even misleading, or in instances completely nonsensical. In 3 locations, at route junctions, the arrow was pointing in the wrong direction!
Fortunately I had a mobile with Google Maps which helped enormously. It also pays, particularly in the more remote areas, to have reasonable navigational skills and positional awareness, as well as good old fashioned common sense.
Along the route are several major options. At none of these were signs with place names and arrows to indicate a route dividing point or to give clarity, only markings in one direction only. If you are walking a stage where there is an option, it is necessary to concentrate on your progress to ensure you do not pass the point and perhaps find yourself on the wrong route option.
It is common now for GPS tracks to be available for downloading. Whilst a great asset in clarifying uncertain situations, these are not infallible. Also I have seen peregrinos walking with their hand held out all the time, looking at a tiny screen, instead of enjoying the Camino.
The accommodation infrastructure is not as regular as on other established routes. There are albergues and although some new ones have recently opened, there is still a heavy reliance on private accommodation, e.g hostales, hotels, casas rurales, thus making it a relatively expensive Camino to walk. The lack of accommodation can make some of the stage distances long and route planning a challenge. I found it sensible to ring the albergue, or book accommodation the day before, to ensure it was either open or existed. The one time I did not do this resulted in an extra 10ks in pouring rain!
The Olvidado is a less walked route. Consequently the restaurants and bars operate to traditional customs. Bars generally will not open before 11am – the exceptions will be located in towns which are on main roads, when these can be open as early as 06.30. Unless in a good sized town restaurants will only serve food until 3pm, or sometimes 4pm. Consequently it is a good policy to eat when you can.
It is always sensible to carry food for at least 1 day, although food for 2 days is better. There are always fountains to supply water. Many villages do not have a bar or shop, so it is sensible to know if you are going to need food in the future and buy it when you can. Most shops are open except the afternoon slot of 2-5pm. Some close on Monday afternoons and of course none open on Sundays, except some panaderías for a few hours in the mornings
As the route crosses areas of Spain untouched by external tourism a reasonable knowledge of Spanish is essential.
Most towns have bus connections, see www.alsa.es . The FEVE railway route from Bilbao to Leon runs beside the Camino – in fact it is hardly ever out of eyesight. The exception is if the Bonar-Magdalena mountain route is taken. The railway creates a safety net for escape in emergencies, or to gain access to the Camino if a shorter route is desired. See www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/horarios and then on the list to the left, click on FEVE.
Other route information
When researching for information in order to walk this Camino I found useful comments and detail on the internet, especially in various Camino Forum threads. One of these provided a PDF for the 2019 Olvidado Guide written by Ender. Although in Spanish, I was able to understand enough and extract sufficient information. However, as I discovered, some of the Guide is inaccurate and unfortunately misleading and my comments reflect this.
For Roger's 2019 guide booklet to this route, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and consider making a donation to the CSJ's work.
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