If you are looking for a road less travelled, a path with beautiful scenery on a daily basis, a path where there is a mixture of nature and picturesque villages, a path with historical Roman ruins and anthropomorphic necropolis, the Camino Olvidado fits the bill. If you like the boisterous, mobile village atmosphere of the Camino Francés and meeting pilgrims every night, sharing meals and conversation, this is probably not the path for you.
The journey begins in Bilbao, on the Camino del Norte, and crosses diagonally across Northern Spain to Villafranca del Bierzo on the Camino Francés. Unlike the Camino Francés, albergues are not regularly spaced in almost every village. Indeed, the only accommodation many nights will be in hostals, hotels, or casa rurales, though we had a couple of nights, high in the mountains where the opposite was the case.
There are several long stretches where the path leads through unpopulated valleys, except for horses and cows, and it is unlikely you will see another person on those days. However, for me, that solitariness is part of the attraction of this path. I walked with my friend Jill for the length of this Camino and was very glad of her company. We were able to, among other things – share accommodation thus reducing costs, share problem-solving especially on how to enter our various accommodations with their key quirks (we had a few challenges unlocking doors!), and consult each other on the best place to head to each day. This is a path where it would probably be wise to have a device, with access to GPS, along with the numerous apps available. We used, and regularly consulted, three between us – the Camino Olvidado app found on www.caminoolvidado.com, the Wise Pilgrim app, and the Maps Me app.
What can you expect on the Camino Olvidado? Rather than providing a blow-by-blow account of our journey, I will instead select some highlights to share.
The Camino passes through delightful villages and towns. One of the first ones that caught our eye was the town of Balmeseda. It has several interesting buildings, including the 15thC Gothic Church of San Severino, and the ayuntamiento, apparently nicknamed the ‘Basque Mosque’ because of the very ‘Moorish’ columns in its verandah. Inside the Church there were a number of statues: Saint Roche/ Roque, patron saint of pilgrims and Saint James. The path leaves town through the narrow passage of San Lorenzo before crossing the ancient medieval bridge. In these beginning stages we were very close to rail transport, which we had to use for the first couple of nights, commuting back to Bilbao each night, due to lack of available accommodation (it was booked out for the weekend) at our destination. This had the added bonus of being able to walk those first days pack-free!
In this first part of the journey, other villages/towns we were especially taken with were Espinosa de los Monteros, Aguilar de Campoo, Salinas, and Cervera de Pisuerga. Having started at just above sea level, by Espinosa we had gently climbed to more or less the start of a plateau which we would continue on for the weeks to come and from that point we were at somewhere between 800–1,100 metres. Once on the plateau, whenever we were near bitumen roads, constant companions for us were the snow poles, and occasionally, signs warning of snow – though at 38°, in those first weeks, that was unlikely to be a possibility for us.
After the village of Retortillo we were obliged to detour to Reinosa, a biggish town and the only place we could find accommodation. There was a bonus however, as it turned out there was a fiesta on. We had no qualms about catching a taxi back to the path the next day. This stage is well worth making time to explore the wonderful Roman ruins at Retortillo, some still being uncovered. This is the Roman town of Juliobriga – a massive archaeological site, and includes a very interesting museum.
Walking towards Aguilar de Campoo, across open valley roads, along dusty tracks with no shade, it was very hot. We were quite tired and disheartened approaching the town as progress seemed so slow and, as is so often the case in these Spanish towns, there was quite a run-down, industrial area to get through first. However, once reaching the centre of the town we were captivated. It is a busy town with arcaded buildings under overhanging verandahs, and was positively humming with the many Spanish tourists visiting.
We broke the following stage up by stopping at the village of Salinas overnight, staying in a hotel with eclectic interior design features. This too was a town filled with interesting buildings, and spacious plazas, with the Rio Pisuega on the edge of the town. The next day we followed this river – a treat for Australians who (normally!) often don’t have rivers to walk along, and taking a break at a fishing refuge, unattended in the middle of the week. The day that we walked this stage was the day of ‘the funeral’ and, resting on a rock by the riverside, we turned on the phone and watched a little of the service in London. For days, every time we had stopped in a bar, the only vision showing on the inevitable television was about the life, and death, of Queen Elizabeth.
After following the river for the day, we arrived at another delightful town – Cervera de Pisuerga, another arcaded town which obviously has, at times, a lot of snow. It is also a town where the ‘bikies’ stop for a break. The path is getting closer to the Picos de Europa, and motor bike riders come in their droves from far and near to enjoy riding the windy roads. It is quite astonishing the numbers of bikes passing through the town.
Along the way we passed many churches of varying sizes. Sadly, many were closed, but occasionally we would find one open, or someone would have a key and open one for us. I even got to sing in a few of them!
We took a taxi detour to see the Hermitage of San Bernabé in the Parque Ojo Guareña. Unfortunately, we were unable to get there during the opening times of the Hermitage, but we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the area, along with the spectacular views. This Hermitage is in the largest cave system in Spain, and though it was all closed the day we were there, it is possible to do tours of a small part of the complex.
Sadly, we were unable to see inside, but another chapel that was very special, partly for its beautiful and solitary location, was the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Velilla (Shrine of Our Lady of Velilla). As we climbed the hill to the church, we passed a herd of horses grazing, and, resting on a wall while admiring our surroundings, these horses, roaming free, continued grazing on the grass outside the church, while a donkey laid claim to the cloisters, sheltering, and grazing in turn. The only other building near this church had a plaque above the door reading Casa del Peregrino 1579.
Though a lot of this path is on a plateau, there are several more strenuous climbs to be undertaken. Ender, who has been responsible for reviving this path, is very fond of the mountains and has devised several alternative ways into the mountains, but weather must be considered, as if it is inclement, it may not be safe.
There is one climb that has no alternative route (other than catching a bus or train), steadily climbing gently up the valley to the ancient village of Fasgar at 1,318 metres then climbing further to 1,636 metres with stunning views out over the beautiful valley of Campoo de Santiago. Not only are there views of the lush, green valley, but at the top of this climb there are spectacular views of the mountains. There is a short descent to the valley floor, with a beautiful little chapel making a perfect lunch spot. It is here that the hard work begins, with around 6 kilometres of a rocky, narrow, sometimes steep path descending through a very narrow valley. At the end of this path though there is a reward in the village with the amazingly long name of Colinas del Campo de Martín Moro Toledano, a town that has been declared an Asset of Cultural Interest. A fascinating village with very friendly residents.
The Camino continues through small, ancient villages, sometimes with bars for refreshment, sometimes not, passing another anthropomorphic necropolis (the second one on the way), and through holm oak forests, before descending to the third reservoir on the Camino and the last few stages. Here, it is very close to the Camino Francés.
There is a certificate, the Olvidada, available for this Camino, but a word of warning: it is only available, currently, from the tourist office, which is only open Monday to Friday 10am to 12 noon. This certificate is only available in Villafranca del Bierzo but. if obtaining that is not important to you, it is possible to stop in Ponferrada and then continue on the Camino Invierno to Santiago del Compostela.
The Camino Olvidado, or Forgotten Way, is remote. It is, at times, quite strenuous. It is challenging – accommodation sometimes difficult to find, access to food, whether at bars or at restaurants, needs to be thought about each day, and there are stages which are physically challenging. For some, the isolation of this way could be emotionally challenging too. The rewards though could be great – peace and tranquillity, historically interesting sites, and stunning scenery.