The Route: There are two possible starting points. From the Camino del Norte, take the waymarked Camino Liebana from the pleasant 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 Liebana, which houses one of the largest pieces of the True Cross. 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.
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’s 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 downright 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). Travellers 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 pension attached to the local restaurant/bar.
What to see: There are some remarkable monastic sites: San Toribio de Liebana, San Miguel de Escalada, and the Cistercian Abbey of Gradefes. These are severe, serene and deeply historic, and each is worth a thorough visit. Likewise, village churches along the way keep the charm and silence of ancient places of worship in this unforgiving countryside. A ten-kilometre stretch of Roman road reaches back millennia into another time. Out of Las Salas, the pilgrim can take a break on the porch of Generalissimo Franco’s favourite trout-fishing cottage. Outside Cistierna stands an apocalyptic landscape of abandoned mines and coal-processing plants – surely a good place for shooting music videos.
Guide books: The Associación 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 his 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. I do not want to frighten anyone away from this splendid camino, but the weather changes quickly, and passes can prove insurmountable as late as May and as early as September. Hikers die in these mountains every year. Wise pilgrims should confer with the locals on conditions over the mountains and heed their advice. Paths are not regularly patrolled. A bit of humility will serve the pilgrim well, and perhaps save him from an unhappy adventure – or even a tragic end!
Spanish: Along the entire Potes-Mansilla route, I encountered only two people who spoke English. A useable level of Spanish is required.
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.
Thanks go to Austin Cooke for the information on this route (July 2012).