The Tunnel Route

The Tunnel Route/Via de Bayona/Camino Vasco del Interiór – A route linking the Voie Littorale to the Camino Francés via the old Roman road through the San Adrian Tunnel.

History. The route was used in pre Roman times as the main route between France and the plains of Alava.  It was the Romans who improved it by constructing a roadway up to and beyond what is now called the Tunnel of St Adrian, high up in the Sierra de Urquilla, to facilitate the passage of merchandise through the Sierra. Vestiges of this roadway can still be seen.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the still existing commercial route through the Tunnel grew in popularity with pilgrims arriving from France.  This was because the coastal route had become too dangerous for travellers, (on account of the attacks on the Cantabrians by the Normans) and, somewhat later, because passage through Navarre from Roncesvalles had become too hazardous (on account of the struggles between Castile and Navarre).

The Tunnel’s use for commercial purposes faded in the 18th century when a new road was constructed via Salinas de Leniz.  Its popularity as a pilgrim route also waned in favour of a revitalised Camino Francés.

Armiñon, the church of San Andres

Armiñon, the church of San Andres

The Route. The historic Via de Bayona started in Bayonne, as its name suggests. However, for the specific purposes of this overview and its associated guidebook, the route starts in Hendaye, close to Irún, a border town in the NE corner of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. It and the “Camino de la Costa” (or “Camino del Norte”), form natural continuations of the Confraternity’s “Voie Littorale,” the route from the Gironde (via Bayonne) to Hendaye.

It winds past fields and over wooded hills to Hernani and Urnieta before following the narrow, high-sided but commercialised valley of the Rio Oria to Beasain.  From here, it becomes more and more rural as it passes via the ancient towns of Segura and Zegama.  It continues through woods up to and beyond St Adrian’s Tunnel, and descends to the plains of Alava Province before tracing its way along the Camino de los Romanos towards Vitoria.  The route continues SSW from Vitoria, along rural roads and tracks, to Estavillo, where the route forks South for Santo Domingo de la Calzada (via Haro and the Rioja vineyards), and West for Burgos (via the Pancorbo Gorge) where both routes, respectively, join the Camino Francés.

Approximately 200 km to Santo Domingo, or 260 km to Burgos.

Much of the route can be managed on two good wheels. The Confratemity’s Guide to the Tunnel Route contains a section for cyclists in respect of the route to Santo Domingo.

The route has its fair share of tarmac surface to be trodden, particularly through Gipuzkoa Province, but this is, and can be relieved by some very enjoyable off road walking. To Hernani, the route is quite taxing through the hills behind the coastline, but between Hernani and Zegama, * it gets generally flatter as it traces its path along the Oria valley. From Zegama, you start the 8.5 km climb up to approx 1150m. It peaks l km beyond St Adrian’s Tunnel before dropping down to Zalduondo and the gently undulating plains of Alava, which you cross to reach Vitoria-Gasteiz. There is easy walking as far as Subijana (to the south of Vitoria), after which point there are steep descents before La Puebla de Arganzón **, and Briñas.  From here the route takes you through the vineyards of La Rioja to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The route to Burgos from Estavillo lies across the rolling countryside of the Province of Burgos, passing through Miranda de Ebro, the impressive Pancorbo Gorge, Briviesca and Monasterio de Rodilla, before joining the Camino Francés at Gamonal, Burgos.

*The Confraternity’s Guide to the Tunnel Route describes an alternative, but unwaymarked route from Segura to Zegama. This takes you off the main road and along a much more scenic, but slightly longer and more taxing route.

**On the hill route out of Subijana, The Friends of the Camino of Miranda de Ebro have waymarked a diversionary alternative route to La Puebla de Arganzón, which avoids the steep downhill route to and much of the tarmacced route from Villanueva de la Oca.

The route to Santo Domingo is well marked by a combination of finger posts, yellow and black-painted angle irons and ground level pointers, not to mention the painted yellow arrow. The route from Estavillo to Burgos is also well waymarked.

Weather and when to go.
As in most parts of the coastal areas bordering the Bay of Biscay, there is always a threat of wet weather.
This applies particularly between Irún and the Tunnel, and the higher ground will certainly be snowed-up in winter. Accordingly, spring and autumn are probably the best times of year to travel this route.  However, this should not rule out the summer if the heat of the plains will not bother you.

Where to stay.
It is only recently that dedicated pilgrim Refuges have started to appear on this route, but, in their absence, the traveller can rely on hotels, hostales agroturismo (chambres d’hôte) and the occasional fonda.  One or other of these can be found in or close to each of the main towns along the routes to both Santo Domingo and Burgos. In addition, local authorities run community youth hostels, some of which provide pilgrim accommodation.

Salinillas de Buradón, the gateway

Salinillas de Buradón, the gateway

Distinctive Features.
Verdant hill country, superb panoramas (weather permitting), the Basque people and their language, txakoli (a fresh white wine with a very slight sparkle), local cider, the plains of Álava, the vineyards of The Rioja, and not least, the Tunnel itself. Although the route has now lost its popularity with pilgrims, the aura of its former heyday still persists with the help of the many reminders, which still remain in the form of Ermitas and former Hospitales.
What not to miss. 

  • Ermita de Santiago on and the coastal panorama from Santiagomendi.
  • The walled town of Segura.
  • The 14th century Cross of the Ermita de Santa Cruz del Monte Aizkorri in St Martin’s Church, Zegama.
  • St James dressed as a pilgrim in the Church of San Saturnino, Zalduondo.
  • The wall paintings in St Martin’s Church, Gaceo.
  • The wall paintings in the Parish Church of Alaiza (3.5 kms off-route).
  • The Monastery of Estíbaliz.
  • Vitoria Old Town and The Basilica de San Prudencio, Armentia.
  • On the Santo Domingo route, the walled town of Salinillas de Buradón.
  • On the Burgos route, the impressive Pancorbo Gorge.

Guide book.
Please note that Pilgrim Guides to Spain # 4. Los Caminos del Norte, B: The Tunnel Route. By Tony Roberts, published by Confraternity of St James, 2010 has been discontinued and is now out of stock in our Shop. However this is still currently available as a free PDF from our CSJ Guides and Updates page.  Please consider making a donation to help us cover the costs of making this available.

2011 updates for this guide can be found on our CSJ Guides and Updates page.

Please see also: CSJ member Tom Barton’s Vasco impressions – JUNE 2015 – an account of his walk along the Camino Vasco describing recent improvements in the way-marking and availability of albergues.

There are no maps which show in detail the Routes described in the Guidebook. IGN have produced maps which indicate stretches of what they consider to be a route for pilgrims, but they do not always coincide with the route which has been waymarked by the local Amigos and described in the Guidebook. These maps can be viewed at scales of up to 1/25000 on as can satellite photos to larger scale.

Useful web sites
As well as the Confraternity of St James’ web site, you may find the following sites useful: –  In English, with maps and photo gallery.,  The homepage of Eric Walker, a Confraternity member and the author of our guide to the Camino del Norte. It includes some basic information about the pilgrimage, practical advice for those contemplating walking the coastal route, and detailed descriptions of all branches of this less frequented route to Santiago.

A knowledge of Euskera is not necessary and while it is possible to walk this route without knowing any Spanish, pilgrims are strongly urged to learn as much as possible of the basics of Spanish before they set out.  Please see our FAQ Do I need to speak Spanish or French? for suggested ways of learning.

Feedback – which we welcome – from anyone who follows this route should be sent to tony.roberts19* [To reduce the risk of spam, we have removed direct e-mail links from this site. To use this address, copy it into your normal e-mail program, but replace the ‘*’ with the conventional ‘@’, before sending your message.]


Thanks to Tony Roberts, May 2011

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