It’s the Camino, but not as you know it
The Camino Primitivo may be the road less travelled but it has all the scenery, peace, and sense of achievement you are seeking
Houses in Pola de Allande
The Puerto del Palo in Asturias, part of the Camino Primitivo, or Original Way
M y son Patrick and I are walking the Camino Primitivo – it’s the Camino, but not as you know it.
Below us, a thick mist fills the valleys, smothering towns and villages. In front of us lies the day’s first steep climb and, off in the distance, we can see the mountain peaks sticking through the clouds, black and jagged, luring us onwards to Galicia and, eventually, to Santiago de Compostela.
We began our 343km walk to Santiago in Oviedo, ancient capital of what used to be the Kingdom of Asturias, a place founded by monks in the 8th century and given capital status by King Alfonso the Chaste.
Alfonso’s journey to Galicia, on hearing the story of the finding of the bones of St James, became the first camino, the Camino Primitivo. The title denotes original rather than primitive or basic. But actually, it is rather basic, or perhaps under-developed is a more appropriate word.
In 2014, more than 160,000 people (or 68 per cent of all pilgrims) walked the Camino Frances, the main route from the Pyrenees to Santiago, via Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. Compared with that, only 8,275, (or 3.5 per cent of the total) walked the Primitivo. So at almost any time of the year, the camino through the mountains of Asturias is a wonderful way to be far from the madding crowds heading to Santiago by other routes. It is, literally, the camino less travelled.
But it is also much tougher than the other routes. As we head across the mountains to Grado, Salas, Tineo, Pola de Allande, La Mesa, Grandas de Salime and Pedron, the daily trek bring us up and down several hundred metres a day.
Sometimes climbing may be no more than a few hundred metres at a time but there can be several ups and downs each day. The greatest exertion is between Pola de Allande (552m) and Puerto Palo (1,146m), a journey over about 9km.
But the rewards are mighty – the elation of exertion, the sense of achievement, the views; the smells rising from a landscape that is farmed simply and intensively but not destructively; the people, their food and the reminder, looking down on the world from great heights, that loads of bothersome stuff in one’s life just doesn’t matter.
I adore the early morning – everything is calm; the feeling of communion with nature is intense and, being high in the mountains, one experiences a deeply satisfying sense of well-being. It’s is peaceful, the silence broken only by the sounds of nature – cocks crowing, bird singing and the tinkling of cow bells, or the trickle of a stream.
As the sun gets higher, steam rises from the landscape and soon the air will be warm. Insects will stir and chatter, and the landscape will emerge clearer, painted by upland meadows of flowers swaying gently in the breeze.
Not for nothing is Asturias described by the local tourist authorities as a natural paradise. In ancient times, the pagans and Romans came here for the mineral wealth trapped in the mountains. In Franco’s day, the mines of Asturias were exploited heavily for their coal and iron. But the dead and dying smelting plants and shipyards of Spain’s northern coast are evidence that those days are over.
Thankfully, the remnants of dead or dying old industries do not dominate Asturias. It is, rather, a wonderful place to explore and there’s no better way to see and get a sense of it than by walking through the mountains.
It clicked for Patrick. He was 25 then and waiting anxiously for the results of his finals. One day he said he realised now, looking down on the world, that exam results and other trials of daily life weren’t really all that important after all.
Asturias ends, appropriately, high in the mountains – in the pass at O Acebo, a 1,028m-high vantage point from which to peer into Galicia.
Just over the regional border that is marked by a row of wind turbines (of which there are many in the mountains, without seeming to destroy the landscape – at least to my eye), there is a gloriously eccentric pub-cum-cafe, cluttered with knives, watches, mugs, jugs and camino ephemera, in which we find several Lycra-clad Italian cyclists singing along to the Ronettes, Be My Baby, as the owner stamps their camino passports.
The first major settlement in Gallicia is Lugo, a sturdy city of granite, built on a bluff above the river Miño encased in a perfect Roman wall. Lugo has a fine cathedral where the Eucharist is on permanent display.
The topography declines gently into Melide, the pulpo (boiled octopus) capital of the universe, which is where the paths of the caminos Frances and Primitivo merge for the final, 170km, trek to Santiago, the musical city that never fails to lift the spirits.
THE PRIMITIVO DAY-BY-DAY
Day 1: Oviedo
A must start to the Camino Primitivo is a visit to the butter-coloured limestone cathedral in Oviedo. It holds a shroud in which Christ’s head is said to have been wrapped after his death. It also has a huge stone vats reputed to be one of those containing that water Christ is said to have turned into wine.
Day 2: Grado
First taste of the Asturian countryside - green fields, voluptuous headerows, hills and mountains and rivers and small hamlets at every turn. After 26kms, we stop at a one star hotel in Grado, dining in a café filled with football mad locals and serving vast cauldrons of chicken and pasta soup, followed by an escalop of pork, with rice, salad and chips, and then fresh pears and a bottle of local red wine... all for another €15 each.
Day 2: Salas
On the way to Salas (26kms), the derelict monastery of San Salvador at Cornellana, founded in 1024, is being restored. Salas offers up a pretty boutique hotel, the Castillo de Valdes Salas, built into the town’s 12th century sturdy stone wall and gateway, through which all pilgrims must pass.
Day 3: Tineo
The camino from Salas to Tineo (20kms) rises 400m to 700m and rides the shoulder of the Sierra de Tineo. The views are to die for. In Tineo’s Hotel Palacio de Merás, local teacher Pedro Sanches extols how the comparatively under-developed Primitivo has its own special appeal - “a beautiful place to lose yourself and find yourself”, as he says.
Day 4: Pola de Allande
The way to Pola de Allande passes the derelict Santa María La Real de Obona, a mere 350 meter detour from the centre of a lush forest. Restored, this vast 13th century vast cut stone and stucco former Benedictine monastery would make an extremely good pilgrim hostel.
The old mining town of Pola de Allende (pop: 700) has a statue to locals who emigrated to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and many remnants of faded bourgeoisie solidity, of which the Hotel La Nueva Allandesa is one example. It is run by Señor Antonin, Danny di Vito’s separated-at-birth twin brother lookalike. With immense pride and energy, Sr Antonin serves us for dinner a series of family-made local dishes: a black pudding mousse and toast to start; then a huge tureen of thick cabbage and potato soup; plus a side dish of home-made sausages (more black pudding!) and beef blubber; and then the two main courses - a circular, two inch tall rough-cut mousse of vegetables, mainly cauliflower, peas and tomato, and tennis ball-sized meat balls wrapped in cabbage leaves and smothered in an orange-coloured sauce. Washed down by a litre decanter of red wine, we waddled towards dessert -- two types of yoghurt (one with honey, the other with honey-coated roasted wall nuts), chocolate cake and two types of cheesecake, and a bowl of rice served Asturian style.
Day 5: Berducedo
Somewhat against the odds, we walked 18kms the next day, which began with an immediate climb of 600m to reach Puerto Palo (1,146m), the highest point on the Primitivo. The night was spent in La Casa del Marqués, a simple bar with rooms above. A low key evening was welcome.
Day 6: Castro
The 27kms walk to Castro (and to our first genuine pilgrim hostel), is perhaps the most beautiful to date. For about 10kms, we walk at close to 1,000m and drink in the views.
Day 7: Fonsagrada
Castro’s hostel is everything a pilgrim respite should be: set in the countryside, it has all the rest and washing facilities needed and is run by cheerful people, serving hearty food to grateful walkers. Next day, the 1,000m pass at Acebo allows us descend into Galicia and Fonsagrada (29kms).
Day 8: O Cádavo
The 28kms way descents steeply into this fairly non-descript crossroads of a small town but our small hotel, the Moneda, is modern, warm, friendly and served all our needs.
Day 9: Lugo
Another gem of a provincial Spanish city of substance and history. The cathedral choir stalls, hewn from a single walnut tree, are in the centre of the nave, dividing the main body of the church from the altar. A splinter, reputed to be from Christ’s cross, is on display, mounted on another cross. Luxury comes courtesy of the Hotel Mendez Nunez.
Day 10: O Castrelo
A genuine pilgrim albergue, or hostel - at last! It is run by Nito, a character from central casting. Nightly, he performs a pagan Galician ritual for all pilgrims by making a punch from local hooch which he sets on fire in a wooden bowl and serves delightedly to all from a flaming ladle. We sleep well… 18 kms.
Day 11: Melide
A drive-through town but with pavement cafes for beer, wine, pulpo and, after another 28kms walk, the right place for a foot-resting session of people watching. Santiago is now just 50kms away.
Day 12: Salceda
The Albergue Turístico, 23 kms from our goal, is a lovely dollop of comfort, a collection of restored 19th century stone buildings set around a garden and pond, with uber-cool rooms decorated minimalist style, and a fine dining restaurant.
Day 13: Santiago!
The city’s narrow streets, bustling with locals and visitors of all ages, and from all parts of the world, never disappoints. Santiago is alive and exuberant, full of students and joyous pilgrims celebrating their achievement - an excited babble outside our hotel, the Hotel Rúa del Villar just beside the cathedral.