There is a saying that goes: “He who travels to Santiago and not to El Salvador honours the servant and ignores the master”, meaning that one should visit the Saint in the Cathedral of San Salvador, before heading off to visit Saint James in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
Out of the suburbs of León and onto the country path
To do this however, pilgrims have to take a diversion 120 kilometres along the Camino de San Salvador from León, through the Asturian mountains, to Oviedo. From there the usual path was, and is, along the Camino Primitivo, which rejoins the Camino Francés at Melide, though it is also possible to do as I did, which was to continue along the Camino del Norte.
The Camino de San Salvador is special, very arduous, very beautiful, and very solitary compared with many other Caminos. The way is extremely well waymarked, with almost enough albergues along the way to rest in nightly. In the few towns where there isn’t one there are cheap pensions in which to stay.
Pilgrim plaza, Cabanillas, complete with seats, and a cool fountain with potable water
This is not an easy Camino. It begins outside San Marcos, known otherwise as the Parador, in León. From here there is an 8km trudge along footpaths and roadsides through the suburbs of León and, to avoid aggravating a back injury, and tendonitis, I caught the bus along this stretch to the village of Carbajal de la Legua. From here the path immediately heads off on a dirt road through the countryside, basically following the contour line along the hillsides, generally staying away from the Rio Bernesga, but occasionally dropping down to go alongside it. This is the river pilgrims cross as they leave León on the Camino Francés, and on the Camino de San Salvador it is this river that pilgrims follow, up stream, for the first 40 kilometres or so. Leaving León it is a wide, silent, but fast flowing river, but by the time we leave it near Buiza it has become a narrower, noisy, and energetic stream bubbling across rocks and around bends.
There are three albergues along this stretch of river–in Cabanillas, La Robla, and Buiza, though La Robla is the only village which has a store and bars in which to buy food. This is a very pleasant and comfortable start to this Camino. Walking through the little village of Cabanillas the locals have made a delightful rest stop in a little plaza, complete with shady trees and a fountain with lovely cold, potable, water. Further along, the people of La Robla have provided a comfortable albergue on the outskirts of the village which has a splendid kitchen, dining area, and bunks for about 16 people, though I was the only person there on my visit, the next day pushing onto Pola de Gordon, where I stayed in a pension for €20. For those with strong legs and little time, there is an albergue 5kms further along in a refurbished school building in Buiza.
The view from the highest point was spectacular
Though this stretch of the Camino followed roads, they are mostly quiet, or with footpaths beside them and it is pleasant walking, especially with the now boisterous river for company. At Buiza things change. The path climbs steeply through the quiet village, complete with several fountains for topping up the water bottle, and then the serious climb starts. Briefly pausing to catch one’s breath, there are rewards looking back at the village of Buiza as it gets smaller, far below. The climb is long and steady with views across the rocky slopes to be traversed and very colourful hillsides bedecked with gauze, broom, and heather, along with small white and bright pink orchids flowering prolifically. With the rich green grass this is truly a picture at this time of the year.
Nearing the top of this climb the path was oozing water. It flowed over the ground, not deep enough to get into the boots, but enough to sound decidedly sloshy walking through it. Little streams bubbled, out of sight nearby, making their way eventually to much bigger streams rushing down the hillside.
The path, firm but awash with shallow snow melt
Cresting the top of this climb the reward was a magnificent view of more mountains, patches of snow atop them. This Camino climbs high, to almost 1,600 metres on the next stage, and so there are great views from a number of vantage points along the route. It means too that, along with the climbs, there are some serious descents, where care needs to be taken. There was no chance of getting lost, as the waymarks are so clear and plentiful.
The view from the highest point was spectacular
As I descended the final slope of this day I met Ender. It is this remarkable man who has, with the help of a team of enthusiastic helpers, waymarked the route with liberal splashes of yellow paint, and hammered in a variety of signs with arrows and shells. On this beautiful sunny day Ender was out checking that signs were upright and touching up the yellow paintwork, the rattling can in his backpack a giveaway! He was also out planning a rerouting of the track around the mountain which will happen in 2016. It should make the path even more scenic, and potentially easier as it will eliminate a tricky descent.
I had the pleasure of Ender’s company into the village of Poladura de la Tercia, where I stayed in the Posada, rather than the albergue. What a wise decision this turned out to be as there was no electricity, apart from electric light, which in turn meant there was no hot water for showering or for coffee.
The next day, though only about 15kms in length, was arduous. A long climb, a couple of snow drifts to skirt around, and a couple of extremely steep descents made for a tiring day, but fortunately it was well worthwhile with stunning views continuing, across to mountain tops and, as the day wore on, down wooded valleys. Heading down into the valley I was privileged to find the beautiful Romanesque church open in Santa María de Arbas del Puerto. This cool, quiet, simple building gave a welcome and peaceful respite from the tedious descent that was
to come after a short climb to the Puerto de Pajares, a mountain pass marking the border between León and Asturias. The descent from here, though offering stunning views, is on a narrow path, stony, with great care being needed. My arms were quite sore from using my poles so much as I descended and I was very glad to get to the nicest and most welcoming albergue on the whole of this Camino. Maria, the hospitalera, has a reputation as the ‘hostess with the mostest’, cooking dinner for the four pilgrims in residence, and returning next day for breakfast before we left. All this for €7 for the bed, and €10 for dinner.
Janet, with Maria (right), the hospitalera at the Pajeres albergue
Though the next few days, particularly that first day from Pajeres (also spelt Payares) had some steady descents, along with a few swift short climbs, none were as severe as the two days walking through the mountains. From here the path went through some delightful small villages where people were going about their daily business: washing in the public washing places, working in their vegetable garden, and gossiping while they waited their turn to be served at the mobile fruit and vege shop.
statue of San Salvador
The way was sometimes on narrow paths, but also on country roads as it continued its descent into the valleys. It passed through a couple of small towns, among them Campomanes, Pola de Lena, and Mieres, as well as those smaller villages, and at one point went up a steep hill to go past a beautiful, small, pre-Romanesque church–Santa Cristina de Lena–a real treasure and often open. From the final climb out of Olloniego, the city of Oviedo can be seen, and the end of a truly wonderful Camino is in sight. Here, at the Cathedral, the final stamp on the special San Salvador credential is given and a Salvadorana, a certificate of completion, can be collected. It costs €4, and includes a very extensive audio tour of the Cathedral, where of course you can visit the statue of San Salvador.
Though it was hardly necessary because the waymarks were so good, for navigation I used a guidebook in PDF format that I downloaded from the UK Confraternity of Saint James website, along with Google maps. The guide was useful for accommodation suggestions.
This is a delightful Camino: picturesque, quiet, and very much a road less travelled. I met only three other pilgrims along the way. Anyone wanting a short, but challenging, Camino need look no further than this one.