El Camino Norte: From San Sebastian to Bilbao.

We are both very anxious, we have been planning this pilgrimage for ten months. Karen Lewis and Bill Boyle, a classmate of Jim’s from high school, college and medical school and his wife, actually planned the trip through Mac’s Adventure and we joined them. We then recruited our neighbor Peggy Scott to walk the first week from San Sebastian to Bilbao with us and another neighbor Margaret Deutsch and her friend Mandy Victor-Pieczarka to walk the second week from Bilbao to Santander. We have all been training with long walks in Pine Colorado, Great Barrington Massachusetts and Boston, but as the summer went by and the pandemic resurged everyone started rethinking the safety of this trip. Four weeks prior to the start everyone had withdrawn except Sandy and Jim. Our take on the pandemia is that we are now in the “new normal” and we need to proceed to live our lives. We are both fully vaccinated and Jim has received a third vaccination. We try to live cautiously, wearing masks indoors and avoiding crowds outdoors. We are not anxious about Covid, we are anxious about the intense physical challenges to our old bodies that lie in wait for us over the next five weeks. We have read two books and a number of blogs about the challenges of this Camino which involve constantly changing weather, very muddy and steep ascents and descents, lack of services such as bars, restaurants and stores along the way and very few other pilgrims to share the experience with. We are both very anxious BUT, we have each other. We are soulmates, best friends and lovers. We will support each other and we can do this.

Day one: San Sebastian to Getaria. 15.6 miles with an elevation gain of just over 2,000 feet, 7 hours 21 minutes.

The stalkers accompanied us to the starting line. So nice of them to get up before seven to see us off.  We actually took a taxi to the starting line as we had walked all of the Camino through San Sebastian.
Adios, hasta luego.  Our Camino started with an uphill climb
and steps.

8am and the sun is finally coming up.
Perfect weather for day one and beautiful scenery.
Sandy just hates the big rocks, especially down hill.
That is all water on the right side of the trail.  It gets much worse than this in a few days.
This French woman and her partner started out while we were saying goodby to Dick and Andrew. We caught and passed them but they passed us again while we were taking pictures. We never saw them again. She snickered as she passed Jim and this is her sneer as she passed Sandy.
Our first of many views of local livestock.
Camino artwork.

        Sandy well ahead of Jim which seems to be our normal.


Snack time, very important to hydrate and eat.
The first 2.5 hours of day one of a five week trek are done.  The day is exquisite and we feel good.
I ask nothing more: the sky above me and the path under my feet.
Livestock and Bay of Biscay.
Only 787 km. to go.
It’s not an easy trail to walk at times.
Jim is always checking his apps to be sure that we are still on the correct path.
Very steep and rocky.  You will notice that Sandy is always well ahead of Jim.
We are constantly looking for the yellow arrows.
Directing us left.
Love seeing these signs.


The steep streets of Orio.
The Camino takes us through so many interesting passageways.
We did lose the Camino briefly in Orio but found it again and had cervezas sin alcohol with our lunch at this cute little bar.
Massive steel fishing boats. We have yet to figure out what type of fishing they do.
Looking down on Playa de Zarautz which at 2.8 km is one of the longest beaches in Spain.
We walked many miles with Klara, a recently graduated physician from Germany. Talking with other peregrinos, pilgrims, really helps in passing long tough miles.
A selfie on the beach with Klara.
One of the traditions of El Camino is carrying a stone from home and leaving it somewhere along the trail as a symbol of leaving ones burdens and sorrows behind. Karen Lewis gave us two stones to carry for her and Bill. Karen wanted her stone left on a beach and as playa Zarautz is the longest in Spain it seemed appropriate to leave it here.
Karen’s stone on the sands of playa Zarautz.
Such perfect weather for our first day and beautiful scenery.
Our last few kilometers of walking were along this beautiful seaside promenade running from Zarautz to Getaria which can be seen in the distance.
Getaria, looks much closer than it is as the walk goes well inland to the left.
Happy peregrinos, near the end of day one, looking forward to a cocktail and pintxos.
Over seven hours of walking 15+ miles to get here.
Getaria’s most famous person, Juan Sebastián Elcano was the captain who completed Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.
Checking in to our two star Hotel Itxas Gain.


Our room just above the entrance.
Cute little town but we are too tired to do any exploring. Had a few pintxos with wine and died.
The beginning of day two, Getaria to Deba which is only 12.5 miles, but there is over 2,200 feet of elevation gain which is brutal.  We are still in Getaria and we have this steep hill ahead of us. See the yellow arrows on the left and right making sure that we climb the hill.
At the top, looking down. That was one hard start to the day.
We thought that this was bad but we have a lot of learning yet to come.
This couple passed us without much conversation but we became friends later on even though Ben hates the New England Patriots because we beat his Seattle Seahawks.


Jim in rain gear, red waterproof coat and green pack cover. Ahead of Sandy for some reason, quite rare.
Now Sandy is ahead again and Jim is trudging up the hill being passed by another pilgrim.


We don’t really understand.
Naresh and Noah caught us from behind in the hills and they walked into Zumaia and beyond with us. They both just graduated from UC Boulder.
Sandy will keep up with anybody that passes us as she loves to exchange stories with them. That is still Naresh and Noah. They always ask if Jim is alright because he is so far behind, especially up. the hills.


Fence crossings reminiscent of England. 
Sandy loves to take pictures of animals.


Lots of snails when it rains,
and slugs.
We have to walk on busy roads sometime.
We stopped at this bar hoping for some lunch and a rude French woman slammed the door and said they were closed. She didn’t even want us to sit outside but we stayed and had our own snacks instead.


We went from a main road to walking straight uphill in this creek bed.
Stamping our credencial del peregrino. We are supposed to get two sellos or stamps per day in order to receive our Compostela in Santiago. Most churches and albergues have the stamps. This is in a small church in Itziar.
Leaving Itziar and the church. It was a very cute small town.
It looks easy, but we still have a few very tough kilometers to go.


Nice pictures Sandy, an ass of a cow and a donkey.


That is the beach at Deba, our Pensione is very close to that beach but a long way down.
After some brutal downhill streets, steps and slidewalks(not a typo) we finally come to this elevator which takes us to sea level.


Six and one half hours of walking, finally arrived at Pension Zumardi.  On arrival we shower, wash our clothes, hang them up to dry and have a cocktail before going out to dinner.


Jim picked this bar with good reviews. There was no menu and no service. The only things they had were a sandwich of lettuce, tomato, boiled egg and tuna and a Spanish tortilla plus red wine. We had two of each and it was delicious.
Day 3, Deba to Markina-Xemein. 16.75 miles, 8+ hours of walking and 2,953 feet of elevation gain. This is supposed to be our toughest day of the first week as there are very few facilities and it is a Sunday so everything may be closed.


We actually caught someone from behind. This is Eleanor from France who is walking El Camino Norte by herself. She tried walking it with a friend last year but the friend kept having “issues” and they were not able to complete much of the walk. She has been working for an NGO in Lebanon and needs some time away from the intensity in Beirut.
Jim trudging up another hill. The port below is Mutriku.


This is an albergue where we got another sello(stamp).
This tavern was right across the street from a small rural church and it was open on Sunday. We had cerveza sin alcohol and some pinxtos for lunch.
After lunch it was all uphill for miles. We walked all of that road with much more to come.


This is Lili from Colombia trying to get the flies off of this poor horse.


After all of the steep uphills we now have to deal with miles of mud puddles.

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At the top of a hill we ran into Lili and partner Theo again, Eleanor and two men from Krakow, Peter and Chris.


Seriously, you are in my way.
These are chestnuts and serious trip hazards.


Finally done. This is Jim’s view while lying in bed at Casa Rural Intxauspe and texting friends.
Casa Rural Intxauspe, the second floor windows are our room.
The grounds of our Casa Rural looking out over Markina-Xemein.
Dinner at Casa Rural Intxauspe with our new friends Ben and Illonka who are from Holland but live in Valencia. The couple in the background are from Brazil. The meal was spectacular.
Day 4, Markina-Xemein to Guernica. Supposed to be 15.5 miles with 2,335 feet of ascent but somehow turned into 18.7 miles over 9.5 hours. It was pouring rain when we started at 8am.


Rain-gear on.


Umbrella attached to backpack to leave hands free for poles. Doesn’t work for Sandy.  Jim hasn’t tried it yet.
9am and the rain has quit but we are heading up the steeps.


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We are overtaken by our friends from Oxford, Maggie and Neville. We walk and talk with them for a while.  Neville and Jim were both born in 1949.
Coming into Bolibar, home of some of the ancestors of Simón Bolivar.  There is a Simón Bolivar Museo which focuses mostly on the Biscayan people.

IMG_5342Looking back at Bolibar.

Looking ahead at the Monastery of Zenarruza.


The rain started again on the way up the hill to the monastery. That is Eleanor from France.


We stopped here and had a snack and on the way out the gift shop manager offered us a free coffee and gave us a medal of The Virgin Mary to keep us safe and healthy on the camino.


Free apples for pilgrims.


This was a long series of steps built in the woods which took us down at least one kilometer. It beat walking through the mud.


The final approach to Guernica took us much longer than we expected and was a tough slog. Our tour company had originally booked us into the Hotel Guernica but for some reason they had a cab meet us at the hotel and take us back to Markina-Xemein where we stayed last night. We had the same dinner at the Casa Rural as we had the night before and met a new crowd of pilgrims.
Day five, Guernica to Lezama is only 13 miles but with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Took us just under 7 hours with stops. We were taxied back to Guernica and started in this square at 7:30, one half hour before sunrise.
Sandy is a great route-finder, even in the dark.


Steep and rocky again.
A wonderful Basque woman had this table of free goodies for pilgrims. She had cheese and pate, fruit, drinks, and pastel de natas which we shared.
Apparently all of the Basque prisoners have been moved to another part of Spain which makes it very hard for their relatives to visit them. They are asking for their return to Basque Country.


We met Ben and Illonka a couple of days ago, they were in the meal picture at Markina-Xemein. We walked and talked today before stopping at this bar for cerveza sin alcohol and some food. Illonka and Jim went inside to see what they had and they took us into the kitchen where the owner’s 84 year old mother was making vegetable soup and bean soup. She also showed us fresh anchovies which she sautéed for us.
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The chef kept coming out to check on us and make sure we were enjoying her food.
Final stop for the day, Lezama.
We need all the prayers that we can get.


This is the Agroturisimo Madarian where we spent the night with Ben and Illonka and also Peter and Brian from Ireland who we already knew.

Day six from Lezama to Bilbao is only 8.7 miles but with 1,277 feet of altitude gain in two miles it was quite tough for Jim.  

We saw this rabbit just as we were starting out.


Look how far ahead Sandy gets on the hills.
Sandy celebrating tarmac rather than mud and rocks.
This was supposed to be a spectacular view of Bilbao.
It’s all downhill from here.


Entering old town of Bilbao.
Cathedral of Santiago in Bilbao.  Pilgrims get in free, others pay €3.


We stopped at this great little bar for lunch, choosing pintxos is so much fun.


We made good choices, quite delicious.

And so ends our first six days with 90 of 500 miles complete.  One month to go.  We now have an off day to spend in Bilbao.





14 responses to “El Camino Norte: From San Sebastian to Bilbao.”

  1. […] walked almost half of the Camino del Norte just one year ago now. We did well from San Sebastián to Bilbao and from Bilbao to Santander. Jim […]

  2. […] and end on the 30th of October. We began this pilgrimage on 17th of September last year in San Sebastián Spain and ended it due to Jim’s health problems on the 3rd of October after walking just […]

  3. […] valedictorian and awards, while Jim has always been the practical grounded one. Karen planned our Camino trip as she and Bill were meant to be the anchor couple for that walk but a number of factors prevented […]

  4. Beautiful photos and love the story that goes along with them. Congrats on the first week done!

  5. Thank you for taking us along on your beautiful treck. Awesome scenery so expertly captured for posterity. We are blessed to be along for the hike virtually. Thank you for sharing so many details. You guys are amazing.

  6. What a beautiful and hard earned adventure! Thank you so much for sharing this with us all. Your honesty, strength, and positive attitudes are such admirable qualities. Hoping for more gorgeous days, less mud puddles and rocks, and many new friendships.

  7. victoria kinnally Avatar
    victoria kinnally

    Wonderful and detailed account of your progress. So fun to read and view pictures. You are making great progress. You both must have great muscles in your legs and strong hips.

  8. Bill and Karen Boyle Avatar
    Bill and Karen Boyle

    Thank you for this fabulous blog – love the descriptions and photos ! Wow – so scenic just as we thought ! You two are in fabulous shape after the first week between the elevation changes and doing it in the mud and rain Thank you for picking such a gorgeous beach to place my rock on – I feel truly blessed. Are you finding the arrows and navigation pretty easy so far ? What an incredible and spectacular journey you’re on ! Keep up the donkey photos , Sandy ! I LOVE them ! Happy trails , Karen

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Thanks Karen for tour kind words. The arrows are there but you do need to be careful and stay vigilant at looking for them. We have taken a wrong turn a couple of times and locals have saved us. We also keep checking two apps to be sure we are on the trail. Often you will have alternate routes to chose from and it can be hard to know which one is best. Today we chose pavement instead of going off the road and we ended up walking for miles on a minor two lane secondary road, fortunately it was not busy as there was nothing to separate us from the cars, we just walk the shoulder if the road. Perhaps we should have turned into the field.

  9. Spectacular walk. It’s everything I had hoped for when we picked it. Beautiful photos. Keep those animal photos coming Sandy. Wish we were with you.

    Take courage You guys are doing great!

    Easy for me to say….. Bill

  10. Thank you both for the wonderful pics and fantastic narrative. I almost feel as if I am with you. Even through the rain and mud, it is so inspiring. Congratulations pilgrims. Well done. 💓💓.

  11. You have such wonderful photos and narrative. I get a real sense of what the walk is like, and just how much elevation you have to climb every day. It does look spectacularly beautiful in places. Glad all is going well!


    1. Thanks Tina, we are having a great time.

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