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I reached Leon, Spain, on the 27th May this year, in peak Camino season.  Having begun my Camino in France, I had, at that point, been on the road for almost two months.  I had started walking on the Via Podiensis, taking in the stunning scenery of France, and now found myself a couple of weeks into the Camino Frances (confusingly named, as this is the part that meanders through northern Spain towards Santiago).

As much as I loved the Camino Frances up until that point (in peak season, it sometimes feels like being part of one long party), I had begun to miss the relative solitude and calm that I’d enjoyed on the Via Podiensis.  I missed the varied landscape, the greenness of the surroundings, and walking late into the afternoon without worrying whether or not I’d have a bed for the night upon arriving.

It was therefore at Leon, that I decided I was ready to experience a quieter and more physically challenging Camino towards Santiago.   I would take the Camino de San Salvador up from Leon to Oviedo (121 km), and then follow the Camino Primitivo (a Camino which runs between the Frances and the Norte) for the remainder of the way.

I hadn’t heard of the Camino de San Salvador before setting off on my Camino; indeed, there is no reason why I should have done, since there aren’t any major published guides to the route just yet.  This in itself was a huge attraction for me, because I had no idea of what to expect beforehand and was free to make my own mistakes.  It was actually a hostel owner that had recommended it as we shared a coffee one afternoon some days before reaching Leon.  I had been telling her about the great contrast that I’d experienced between the two Camino routes I’d traced up until then, and that I was looking for something a little more like what I’d known in France. Her eyes lit up, and she turned to the contour map that was hanging behind us on the stone wall of the hostel. She traced with her finger a line between Leon and Oviedo, and proceeded to tell me about a different Camino whose existence had escaped me up until that point.  She described it as a ‘hidden gem’, and didn’t hesitate to share with me a famous poem (among San Salvador veterans, anyway…) about the route:

Quien va a Santiago

Y no a San Salvador

Sirve al criado

Y olvida al Señor

He who goes to Santiago, without going first going to San Salvador, is he who bows to the servant and forgets all about the Master.

(Apologies for my dodgy translation.)

I thanked the hostel owner for her advice, and mulled over the idea of veering from the path that I’d decided to take many months earlier, in order to try something completely new and unexpected.  After much deliberation regarding budget, and the date at which I’d need to be in Santiago to catch my flight home (this new Camino could prolong my journey by almost a week) I decided to go for it. I’d come all this way for an adventure, and an adventure is what I was going to have.

With the help of 3G on my phone, as well as a visit to the Leon pilgrim’s office, I was able to gather some more information on the new route such as accommodation options, and places where food was available.

This site was particularly helpful to that end, as well as this brilliant guide, which I saved onto my phone.

As much as the idealist in me would have enjoyed setting out with no preparation whatsoever, and just seeing what the route brought, I was glad to have had both of these guides at my fingertips – particularly the second one, which contains indispensable pointers on some hard-to-navigate sections of the path. I was similarly thankful to have found out a little about the variants on the route, as some are weather dependent, and some more scenic than others.

I’ll leave *you* to peruse these if you’d like a little more detail on the specifics of the San Salvador. Below, for what it is worth, is the somewhat sporadic itinerary that I ended up walking.  Please note that the San Salvador can be walked in as little as four days, or as many as seven days.  I ended up doing four, because I was keen to have a ‘rest day’ to explore Oviedo. Also, budget concerns 😉

 

Day one: Leon – La Robla (27km)

On the 28th May, I set off on the first leg of the San Salvador.  Coming out of Leon, pilgrims walk past the famous Parador hotel, and it is here that you see two yellow spray-painted arrows on the ground below: one points to Santiago; the other, to Oviedo.   It felt strange *not* to be walking the quickest route to Santiago, and instead taking a detour, and mindfully prolonging my journey for the first time. How un-pilgrim of me. My fellow pilgrims and I frequently debated the use of cheeky shortcuts along the Camino in France. We reckon that medieval pilgrims totally would have gone for the shortcuts.

Much of this first day was spent ‘leaving’ Leon through suburbs, but soon the path ascended into shaded hilltop paths.  I walked through the leafy, dappled shade and looked out onto green valleys below. This was the solitude that I’d been craving so badly.

I spent the first night in the pilgrim’s municipal hostel industrial town of La Robla, in the heart of the hills.  There were only four other pilgrims there: Spanish walkers who had taken a long weekend to walk the San Salvador. The hostel itself was well-equipped as far as hostels go, with a kitchen and separate shower blocks for men and women.

It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that the accommodation and food options on the San Salvador are less copious than that which is found on the Camino Frances: understandable, really, as the number of pilgrims on the route is but a fraction of those that walk the more famous routes. I found this charming, however, and enjoyed the excitement of staying and eating within towns that don’t solely cater for pilgrims and tourists.

Day two: La Robla – Poladura de la Tercia (23km)

This day began with a relatively steep climb into the heart of the mountains, with stunning views throughout.  I really felt as if I had left the ‘beaten track’ once and for all. The municipal hostel at Poladura de la Tercia was once again very well equipped with a kitchen and even a TV and sofa (oh the luxuries!).  That night, I saw the same Spanish men that I’d come across in the hostel the night before.  In a gruff voice, one of them asked me in which town would be eating my lunch the following day:

“Pajares” I answered confidently, having verified the existence of a local bar in the area.

“Aren’t you going to phone them to let them know you are coming?” he asked.

“No, I’ll just turn up and see what they have on offer” I replied.

To my surprise, the portly man laughed. “They are preparing a three course lunch for us!” he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking over at his Camino companions, who were now trying to get the old TV to work, “it’s worth calling them”.

I nodded politely, thinking how civilised, and organised of them!

Later that night, I laughed with my Camino buddy, thinking of the ridiculousness of phoning ahead to organise lunch. It’s a bar, I thought, surely they are used to having customers??

Day three: Poladura de la Tercia – Campomanes (31km)

This was one of my favourite days of walking on the San Salvador – and potentially the entire Camino, too. The walk led me past an abandoned Parador hotel overlooking the valleys and hills in Pajares. I spent the morning walking along a narrow route tracing the winding cliffs, trying not to fall off, and thinking wishfully of how I would decorate the Parador hotel should I suddenly become a millionaire and be able to purchase it. I decided it would make a very nice spa retreat (!)

I arrived in the local town at around midday. As my Camino partner and I entered the small cliffside town, a five year old boy with a football ran up to us.

“Are you pilgrims?” he asked, his eyes wandering up and down our doubtlessly bizarre Camino attire.

“Yes we are!” I laughed, amused at his curiosity.

“Are you hungry?” he replied.

“Yes!” I answered, astounded that he’d anticipated our needs.

“Follow me” he shouted, running ahead, clutching the plastic ball under his arm, his blue Oviedo football shirt billowing in the breeze.

I looked at my Camino buddy in amazement, and we both followed the young boy in silence, who led us to the local bar.  We thanked our young companion for his help, and he nodded, suddenly shy, before running off.  The bar was one of those empty local places akin to that in the famous American Werewolf in London scene. A stony looking woman stood at the counter, with her back to us, wiping the surfaces hurriedly.  At this point we were famished, and the smell of warm food cooking in the kitchen sharpened our appetites further. It smelled good.

“Hi” I said in Spanish, straining to be heard over the chattering TV in the corner of the room.

“Hi” the woman responded bluntly. She turned and looked at me below a heavy brow.

“Erm, we’d like to get some food to eat please.”  My eyes wandered towards the kitchen door hopefully.

Without saying a word, the woman shook her head wearily.

“We have no food.  You need to call us ahead. We are preparing a three course meal for some other pilgrims.”

Oh dear. They were right.

I gazed pitifully at four gleaming coffee cups laid out upon the counter top. Each accompanied by a large, appetising biscuit.  I should have called.

The woman was kind enough to search out some leftovers in the kitchen for us, which turned out not to be so bad at all.  Our four Spanish comrades entered the bar just as we were leaving, grinning at the prospect of their delicious three course meal.

I learned my lesson.  It goes to show that it’s worth thinking ahead and planning ahead on the San Salvador when it comes to food, especially in remoter areas: local bars serve local people, and won’t necessarily stock up for tourist lunches, because tourists on this route are fewer and farther between than those that walk the Camino Frances.

That night we stayed in Campomanes. This town didn’t seem to have a municipal hostel, so we spent the night at Pensión Casa del Abad, which was a beautiful and welcoming pensión, and a bit of a naughty treat. You don’t appreciate the sheer luxuriousness of fresh cotton bed sheets and actual cotton towels (as opposed to microfiber!) until you’ve walked the Camino…

Day Four: Campomanes – Oviedo (40km)

I wouldn’t advise anyone to walk this in just one day!  Here’s how it happened: deciding to make the most of staying in a pricey pensión for the night, we woke up at the civilised hour of…. midday (!) and raced our way up and down hills, and through tiny villages. That evening, at around 7pm on the route, we had been high up in narrow forest tracks, and mist had begun to set in. Neither my Camino buddy nor I had brought a headlamp (I’d posted mine back earlier on the Camino – doh!) and it was looking as if we’d be walking in the dark. In the mist. On a hilltop. That’s when survival instincts kicked in and we sped up and down the final few hills, before cheering with elation when we spotted the glinting lights of the city below us. Luckily, night fell just as we entered the city, breathless as we were from the marching pace.

When I think of this final day of the San Salvador, I think mainly of the epic pizza that was consumed upon arriving in Oviedo.

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The following day, we took time to explore the beautiful city of Oviedo, which I’d describe as a pleasant mix between Barcelona and Paris (two of my favourite places!)  We made sure to pay a visit to the Cathedral, too: it is worth mentioning that there is a separate Credential and certificate for those who complete the San Salvador – the latter being obtained from Oviedo cathedral.

So there you have it, my personal experience of the Camino de San Salvador. This is a lovely little gem of a walk for those who wish to join the Primitivo on the way to Santiago, or indeed for those who have a week’s holiday and would like a taste of that elusive Camino ‘spirit’ that we all crave. The views are stunning, and the tracks are unspoilt. Please be aware, though, that if you’re looking for the ‘comforts’ of the Camino Frances (walking shops, cafés at regular intervals etc.) you won’t find that here… and that’s part of the beauty of it, I’d argue.  But *shh!*, promise not to tell anyone about it! 😉

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