Camino de Santiago coastal route

by Carol Ungar


The Camino de Santiago, or St. James’ Way as it is known in English, is the fruit of legend. Or perhaps a blend of legend, fact, belief and superstition. Evidence that the Apostle James was ever actually in Spain is flimsy, as the first mentions date from as late as the eighth century, but the story runs something like this:

Obeying Christ’s instructions, the apostles divided up the world to spread the word of the Bible, and James was assigned the Iberian Peninsula. When he failed to convert Spain to Christianity, he returned to the Holy Land, where he was beheaded in 44 C.E. by Herod Agrippa and his body thrown to the dogs. There are several vague explanations as to how the Apostle’s relics ended up in a remote corner of northwest Spain, but according to one version his remains were picked up by two of his disciples and taken by boat – a stone slab with neither rudder nor sail – to the town of Iria Flavia, now known as Padrón, in Galicia. They were discovered some 750 years later by a hermit called Pelayo, who was guided there by celestial music and lights shining toward a spot on the ground. Pelayo brought along Bishop Theodomir, who authenticated the find as the bones of the Apostle James.

This was clearly a feather in the cap for the cause of the Reconquista – the struggle of Iberian Christians to overthrow their Islamic rulers. The call to visit the Apostle’s tomb drew Christians from far and wide, and what started as a trickle of pilgrims soon grew to a flood.

The first documented route, known today as the Camino Primitivo, was taken in the early ninth century by King Alfonso II of Asturias from his court in Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela. One of the most active routes in the early history of the pilgrimage would later become the Camino de la Costa or Camino del Norte – the northern route. Pilgrims would either make their way overland across the French border or by sea to one of the ports on the Cantabrian coast, and from there they would head westward to Santiago.

Our walk offers a taster of the San Sebastián-Orio stage of the Camino del Norte. We begin with a ride up the Monte Igueldo funicular railway, built in 1912, arriving at the old-style amusement park that retains much of its Belle Epoque charm. The tower you see was built in the 18th century to keep watch over the ocean and attend to the needs of the heavy maritime traffic in the area. In the 19th century it became part of the line of fortifications designed to defend the city from attacks during the two Carlist wars. In the early 20th century, during San Sebastián's golden age of tourism, the tower was remodelled as a lookout tower for the Igueldo amusement park. We will stop briefly at the summit to enjoy the best possible views of Donostia, La Concha Bay and the surrounding mountains.

After the photo opportunity, we’ll walk along the road to join the Camino proper, following the yellow arrows and scallop shells along country lanes, passing Basque farmhouses and watering points for pilgrims, and, fingers crossed, enjoying spectacular views of the Bay of Biscay. We then leave the Camino behind and catch a bus back to town – unless you want to keep walking, and walking, and walking… Santiago, here we come!