Our experience as tour leaders on the Camino

Yes, we’re back!

We’ve left this blog unattended but it was for a just cause – we were busy preparing  for the Food Lover’s Pilgrimage!

Eunate, Navarra
Beautiful Eunate church, on our first day of walking

What is a Food Lover’s Pilgrimage?

It’s a great way to combine the classic pilgrimage route with good food: 14 days from Bilbao to Santiago, walking and eating (all right, some bus riding was involved as well). The tour is run by Utracks, a well-known Australian operator which runs specialist active European holidays, and developed by S-Cape, a Spanish tour company specialised in active travel. We were hired to be tour leaders, after two years working as local experts in the Galician section of the tour.

Throughout the two weeks, travellers experience parts of three different routes, the Camino del Norte (on the coast), the Primitivo (the original, very little known and so beautiful!) and the classic French Route.

What did we eat?

From the Basque Country passing through Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y León, Asturias and finally Galicia we were able to see and taste the different cuisines of Northern Spain. A mix of traditional cooking, Michelin-starred restaurants, wine producers and local expert guides made it quite exciting!

tapas graffiti Logroño
Best graffiti ever (in Logroño, La Rioja)

As you might have noticed, it says “food lover’s” pilgrimage, not “gourmet”. This is because the focus is on all kinds of food, not only special or exclusive ones: we had a tapas tour in Logroño, traditional roasted lamb (lechazo) in Burgos, Francis Paniego’s traditional menu at Echaurren Tradición, homemade beef stew on the Grandas Lake, 2-Michelin-starred delicacies at Casa Marcial, octopus in Lugo and ended the tour with Lucia Freitas’ great menu at A Tafona in Santiago.

Marqués de Riscal winery Frank Gehry La Rioja
Marqués de Riscal winery and hotel by Frank Gehry (La Rioja)

We visited two wineries, so extremely different: Marqués de Riscal’s colossus in Elciego (La Rioja), with its multi-language videos, millions of bottles, amazing architecture and perfectly oiled marketing apparatus. On the other end, Vía Romana in Belesar (Galicia), a tiny and relatively new winery, with a few barrels of wine and their breathtaking views of the Ribeira Sacra.

Where did we stay?

Burgos Cathedral hotel
Blurry photo, but what a view we had from our hotel room in Burgos!

From city hotels to rural houses, lodging depended on circumstances. If we were in a city, a central location was preferred so that we could move on our own and explore (we all had some free time every day, which was great). In the countryside, small and quaint rural houses all to ourselves. There was free WiFi everywhere, which was such a welcome change from the situation of only five years ago, when most hotels wouldn’t have it.

How was the walking?

Camino de Santiago
Going downhill, what a pleasure (not)

We walked nearly every day an average of 10-15 kilometers, usually easy walks although we had some serious business in Asturias with the Camino Primitivo. The great thing about doing the Camino this way is that the routes have been chosen so that the difficulty goes up day by day, letting one get used to it, and the best bits were chosen. So no boring road marches, but beautiful hay and oak and chestnut forests or coastal walks like the one near Ribadesella, following the Northern Camino.

Asturias beach cows
Cows in the sun near the beach – welcome to Asturias!
Camino Primitivo, Puerto del Palo
At Puerto del Palo, the Hospitales route, Camino Primitivo

In Asturias, near the end, we had the hardest -and I’d say greatest- experience:  the Puerto del Palo/Hospitales leg of the Camino Primitivo. We knew it was going to be uphill, but at a certain point we just couldn’t believe our eyes: surely somebody had painted the arrows in the wrong place, that couldn’t possibly be the way up! Well, it turned out that it was… and we made it! Tired and knackered, but we did it.

Getting to the hotel and being able to enjoy the terrace on the Lake of Grandas, with nice weather and a gin & tonic didn’t hurt one bit.

gin and tonic on the lake
The reward at the end of the walk

The experience was so good and enjoyable it almost feels sinful to call it work: we’re so lucky!

The summer looks quiet, with some tapas tours and cooking classes already planned and more on the way. I (Anna) will use the next couple of months to work a bit more on the web (any help or suggestion are welcome!).

The only thing that still bugs us is: which way should the shell go? Because whichever way it is, half the time it’s wrong!

Camino de Santiago shell
Follow the shell! Now, which way is that…?
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