Camino de Santiago: Cantabria, a land of many ways and few arrows | SummitDaily.com

Camino de Santiago: Cantabria, a land of many ways and few arrows

Gwen Edwards
Special to the Daily
Tree growing out of an old church along the Camino de Santiago.
Gwen Edwards / Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts written by Gwen Edwards chronicling her journey on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a trail of hundreds of miles across Spain. The Summit Daily is serializing Edwards’ adventures leading up to a fundraiser for “Phil’s Camino,” a documentary, with events around Breckenridge on Saturday, June 6, and Sunday, June 7.

We arrived at the locked doors of the albergue around 5 p.m. after walking more than 35 kilometers that day, which was much more than a typical walking day for me on the camino. We sat down, defeated, on the pavement. The Dutchman handed me some bread, which I reluctantly ate.

We’d started that morning at sunrise, a deep pink rise that lasered out across the fields of misty corn. I drank an Emergen-C in a tiny glass cup and tried not to listen to the conversation the Dutchman was having with the hospitalero about a horse trail and “very few arrows.” He’d decided the night before to take an alternate route through the mountains to reach El Astillero, a little suburb of Santander. After Bilbao, it was mutually understood that we’d try to avoid walking through major cities as much as possible.

Turning my attention to the Aussie, who was eating cookies and milk for breakfast, we agreed to walk with the Dutchman on this alternate route, which neither of us had much confidence in. We traded stories for a while of aches and pains in our legs and backs and finally packed up to leave.

Many wrong turns

The morning was dewy and glorious, and we picked eucalyptus leaves to shove in our pockets and packs to mask the smell of walking for many days in the same clothes.

As happened many times that day, we came to a fork in the road with no arrows. Using a map and our best judgment, we pressed on, getting lost at least a dozen times, all the while heading in the most general direction of El Astillero. We eventually stopped for a long Spanish lunch, which included things such as braised rabbit, bean and chorizo stew and red wine mixed with sparkling water.

We walked on and on, stopping sometimes for a coffee or to buy a piece of fruit or to put our feet in a rushing creek. After 10 hours until finally (finally!) we reached the albergue in El Astillero. Locked. Closed. As in the camino no longer passes through this way.

A couple of older gentlemen talked our ears off about how terrible it was to be stuck here with no place to sleep but never offered to help us. A sign on the door said to call the local police, which we eventually convinced someone to do. Miraculously, about 30 minutes later, a white van pulled up driven by the hospitalera of an albergue nearby, in Santa Cruz de Bezana.

She runs an albergue out of her home, by donation, and was called by the local police to come rescue us. This woman’s home ended up being the best place I stayed on the whole camino.

An old stone house, with exposed wooden beams, dark wood stairs and cozy, woolen blankets awaited us in Santa Cruz. The house was full of Spanish pilgrims and one crying Pole. The hospitalera made us tortilla de patata for dinner, and we lounged on couches in the evening, basking in our good fortune.

The next morning, I teared up a little as we left the tiny succulent garden, mewing kittens and red enamel coffee cups behind. The camino stretched out before us that day under freeways and over railroad tracks and past dirty little bars.

Into the rain

Very suspicious clouds loomed over the river valley stretching inland past the beach in the direction we’d be walking. All day had been spent walking the hills that skirted the shoreline. We’d taken a long, leisurely lunch on the beach, expecting to stop for the day in the seaside town of San Vicente de la Barquera.

When at last we’d brushed the sand from our packs and made our way over the bridge and into town, the Dutchman, consulting his now definitively faulty map, declared he didn’t like this town and wanted to walk on. Plied with chocolate and a promise to stop at the next place, be it hotel or hostel, I somehow agreed to keep walking. Straight into those rain clouds.

We trudged silently along, occasionally getting nearly side swiped by fast cars on the windy back road, for a couple hours taking care not to make too much eye contact, for we certainly each doubted the sanity of this decision. Something in my gut told me it would be all right, but my logical brain was sure the night would end in a rainy ditch on the roadside, especially since we’d not passed even a house since leaving the last town.

At last we saw a sign for a “casa rural,” kind of like a B&B, and as we turned up the road to find it, noticed one, half-hidden sign with a yellow arrow and the word “albergue.” We looked at each other, a suggestion of laughter on our lips. Could it be? A random albergue in the middle of nowhere in a town that was neither on the map nor in our guidebooks? We asked a man sitting on a porch with his dog, just to be sure.

“Si, si!” He pointed the way enthusiastically.

We walked into the two-bar town of Serdio and found a couple of beds waiting at the albergue, along with a large group of biking pilgrims. It’s hard to describe the relief I felt finding this place and realizing my gut feeling was right all along. Sitting under a weeping willow, watching an old man corral his cattle up a narrow street, my heart was glad and a sense of gratitude made the whole world around me glow in the setting sunlight. To trust the camino is to trust yourself. To trust yourself is to trust that something bigger is guiding you right along. Some days, it takes a little shove.

Gwen Edwards is the owner of Yellow Arrow Coffee in Breckenridge. Edwards took her pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in July and August 2014.


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