Camino del Norte Day 9: Worth the hike

October 9, 2015

Bilbao to La Playa de La Arena, 15 miles

The guidebook’s description of today’s leg of the journey was less than inspiring: “As you slog through the first half of today’s stage, remind yourself that by day’s end you will be in a beautiful place…. Sometimes bleak, often forgettable, the walk… is poorly way-marked and best finished quickly and put behind you.”

This did little to facilitate a positive attitude toward the day, which was going to be a 15-mile plus walk on a long stretch of asphalt.  The guidebook even suggested skipping this section altogether and bussing on to prettier territory, but we decided to go ahead with our plan to walk after discussing this option with a few of our fellow peregrinos.  We all agreed that, as a part of the modern-day Camino experience, this stretch of the walk, if not beautiful, was still important and deserved to be traversed on foot.  Dale pointed out that the Camino was a trade and commerce route long before it became a religious one, and that continues to be the case, so why skip it for aesthetic reasons?

So we set out this morning prepared to hike as fast as possible through what we thought would be an industrial wasteland.

Day 9-1
An example of some of the “landscape” that we saw, outside of Bilbao

And yes, it wasn’t as pretty as the mountains that we had just left behind, and the walk itself was a tough one, 15 miles on asphalt and concrete under a cloudless sky with nothing but sun streaming down on us.  Several times I had to force myself to continue, and Dale had to offer more encouragement than usual.   I’ll admit that I didn’t always have the best attitude, especially when we spent miles on the walking path pictured below.  By the end of the day, our feet hated us.  I got my first blisters of the trip from hiking the hot pavement, two big fat ones on my right foot that demanded my attention.  For the umptenth time I was questioning our sanity for undertaking this outrageous journey.

Day 9-4
What the trail looked like much of the day: an asphalt walking path next to a bike path.

But in hindsight, we agreed that this stretch from Bilbao was definitely worth the hike, mainly for the reason that the townspeople we encountered were the friendliest and most helpful yet.  In several places, the path was not clearly delineated and we found ourselves standing on the street corner looking puzzled.  The first time this happened, we heard a man calling to us from an apartment window several stories above us.  We looked up to find an elderly man dressed completely in white.  He exuded a particular kindness and enthusiasm as he told us exactly how to find the path.  We joked afterward that the man probably sat in that spot all day just so he could be a trail angel (hence the white) and help lost peregrinos.

At other times, people stopped us on the street to offer assistance even when we didn’t actually need it.  At one point, when we were puzzling over several confusing markings at an intersection, a bicyclist pulled over and pointed us in the right direction.  Before returning to the road, he pulled out his wallet and proudly showed us the laminated card that verified his completion of the Camino in 2010, and then he wished us well.

In general, it seemed as if people were happy that we were undertaking such a journey.  We got more “Buen Caminos” and warm smiles from passersby than we have at any other point on the Camino thus far, and even bicyclists shouted it to us as they streamed past.  It was gratifying.  Prior to today, people had been for the most part courteous when we ask for help, but we hadn’t received a truly warm welcome until today.

I am grateful for all the people who made hiking from Bilbao to La Arena worthwhile.

Day 9-3
A church in the town of Portugalete, the halfway point of our day.  Portugalete was the most scenic part of our day until we got to La Arena.

Day 9-2

Oh, and there’s one other reason it was a good day: the trail has returned us once again to the ocean!

Day 9-5
Our first glimpse of the ocean in days!
Day 9-6
La Playa de La Arena

We’ve written a lot about Camino del Norte!  Read more of our Camino blog posts here.