If you’ve already done the popular Camino Frances, or fancy something more challenging, this is the original Way of St James, the first major pilgrimage route to Santiago, and you won’t meet too many people.
It was King Alfonso the Chaste, in 814, who first made the 342km pilgrimage from the city of Oviedo, in Asturias, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Ever since, pilgrims have been making their way on foot (and cycle) to the great cathedral at Santiago by various “Ways”, the most popular being the Camino Frances, or the French Way. These days it’s difficult to avoid the crowds so the Camino Primitivo, running through remote areas of Asturias, and relatively unknown, is particularly attractive.
Oviedo to Grado
Oviedo was the capital of Christian Spain, when most of it was occupied by the moors and the construction of its Cathedral spans eight centuries. Around it there’s a charming network of medieval streets with shops, restaurants and a huge covered market, perfect for stacking up on supplies.
There’s a lot of road walking today, but at least there’s little traffic and I arrive at the attractive town of Salas to find I’m staying in the Castillo, a little castle adjoining the town’s main gate.
There’s also an Asturian Renaissance church, apparently a masterpiece, but like most churches it’s locked so I can’t visit.
Salas to Tineo
The morning brings sun and a long uphill climb to around 650m through fields covered in spring flowers. As if to emphasise the starkness of the landscape, there’s an Autopista running on stilts beside me. The regular hum of car engines disturbs the silence, but at least it takes the traffic away from the roads I’m walking.
I continue on tracks made muddy by cows, and see solitary women tending their flocks of sheep. Life here seems to have remained the same for centuries, and people still sport traditional wooden clogs. Tineo is a gaunt town, straddling the hillside, full of old people and empty buildings, but a decent spot to spend the night.
Tineo to Berducedo
Today is market day but I’m keen to get on as the sun is shining. I’ve a choice whether to descend to the valley through Pola de Allande or the high level Hospitales Route. The guidebook says this is the most demanding section of any Camino but also the most rewarding. It’s so isolated that three hospitals were built to give shelter to pilgrims.
Construction of this hydroelectric project began in 1946, and, when it opened in 1955, the reservoir was largest in Spain and second largest in Europe. It needed 3000 workers and I can still make out their abandoned houses on the hillside. The Hotel Grandas, just above the lake, was once the manager’s office and has wonderful views from its terrace.
Embalse de Salime to A Fonsagrada
Next day, I follow the lake before climbing up to Grandas de Salime, an attractive village with a 12th century church. From here it’s upwards to an array of wind turbines, and I surprise a deer who beats a hasty retreat. Laid out of front of me is a carpet of vivid red heather and yellow gorse, and I’m leaving Asturias and entering Galicia.
I may be dreaming, but the landscape really does seem to change. It becomes more manicured, less wild, and the mountains lose their sharp edges. I arrive in A Fonsagrada where legend has it that St James came here and turned the water in the fountain to milk. There’s no sign of that now, but they’re celebrating Corpus Christi with a rock band playing Spanish hits, on a huge stage in the square. The pubs are heaving and I take the opportunity celebrate my arrival in Galicia.
A Fonsagrada to Lugo
Overnight the weather turns and it’s a damp trek up to the 14th century Pilgrim Hospital of Montouto. Unlike the others I’ve seen, this is reasonably intact, probably because it functioned into the early 20th century. It’s a place to shelter from the rain and admire the Neolithic dolmen nearby, almost invisible in the mist.
I pass through a number of dry stone Galician villages, looking like they’ve been carved into the landscape before arriving at O Cadavo Baleira. Apparently Alphonso the Chaste battled the Moors here, protecting the pilgrimage route.
It pours down all the way down to Lugo, one of the most impressive cities on the whole route. The Romans built its massive walls, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can walk the 2km circuit, admiring the 12th century Cathedral of Santa Maria, a fine mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical.