History of the Camino del Norte – Northern Way

Written by Shenda

The Camino del Norte is one of the oldest ways that people would have walked to Santiago de Compostela. After the discovery of the remains of St James in Santiago during the 9th Century, King Alfonso II ruler of the Kingdom of Asturias was the first to make the pilgrimage to the relics of St James. During the Middle Ages, the French Way became increasingly more dangerous as the Moorish armies pushed their way north. The Camino del Norte thus provided a safer route through Christian Kingdoms for pilgrims to reach Santiago de Compostela.

Assisting with establishing this northern coastal route to Santiago de Compostela for pilgrims was the fact that King Alfonso II established Oviedo as the capital of his kingdom. Thus any pilgrims travelling from the south-west of France or those who arrived into one of the many ports along the northern coast would have made their way to Oviedo before joining the Camino Primitivo (Original Way) to reach Santiago de Compostela and the relics of St James. From a geographical and practical viewpoint, many pilgrims recognised that following the coast to Oviedo was a much easier route than trying to traverse the Cantabrian Mountains, and thus why this route is also known as the “Ruta de la Costa”.

With the Reconquest of Spain in the 11th Century, the French Way became less dangerous and thus began to grow in popularity for pilgrims coming from France. During the 12th Century after the death of King Alfonso III, the royal court moved to Leon from Oviedo and slowly over the years Oviedo’s importance waned and this also impacted on the number of pilgrims taking this route to Santiago. Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo even tried to promote the church of Oviedo as a pilgrim destination by falsifying records but to little avail.

In the late Middle Ages the Black Death affected Europe from the 14th Century and due to the Reformation and subsequent political unrest in Europe in the 16th Century fewer pilgrims travelled to Santiago and thus the all the routes became much quieter. More recently the Camino and all the various routes are gaining in popularity again. The French Way is undoubtedly the best known and most walked but the Camino del Norte is also growing in popularity for those that have already completed the French Way and are looking to try a different route to Santiago.

The Route

Camino del Norte Map

Traditionally the Camino del Norte would have started in Irun which sits on the Spanish border opposite the French town of Hendaye. The route initially follows the rugged coast of the Bay of Bisacy, then the green and rocky cliff tops and sandy beaches of the Asturias coast to Ribadeo, in Galicia. At Ribadeo pilgrims would have had to take a boat from Castropol to Ribadeo or walk further inland and cross the river at a more convenient spot before heading for Lugo and then Santiago de Compostela.

There are many variants along this traditional route that allowed the pilgrim to cross over the Cantabrian Mountains to follow the French Way. From Torrelavega you could take the Ruta de Campoo to Carrion de los Condes. In Oviedo you have the option of continuing on the Camino Real to join the French Way at Leon or the Camino Primitivo via Lugo and then joining the French Way at Palas de Rey.

The Camino del Norte packages that we provide start from San Sebastian to Oviedo which gives you a real taste of this coastal and hilly Basque region. If you wish to continue onto Santiago de Compostela you have the option of going on the Camino de Santiago Primitivo, which takes you to Lugo and then has you joining the French Way at Melide.

If you would like to learn more about the Camino del Norte, get in touch with one of our Camino Experts! We can help you plan the customised walking holiday you’ve been looking for on the Camino.

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Originally published on 27th October 2016

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