3 Days on the Camino del Norte

We decided to do a few days on the Camino del Norte path as part of a larger northern Spain road trip. We didn’t have enough time this trip to allocate to the entire Camino, which takes about a month. We chose the del Norte path since we were already planning to travel along the northern coast and this path follows right along where we had already planned to go. We really like the ocean and so we chose a few days on the trial which follow the sea fairly closely. There are also parts of this trail that are more inland. The days on the Camino del Norte are broken up in 12-18 mile days or 20-30 km on average. We planned on doing 4 days but ended up only doing 3. Mainly because we packed way too much and after 3 days of carrying our heavy packs we were ready for a change of pace.  Here are our recommendations if you are planning on doing all or part of the path and some lessons we learned.

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  1. Pack light, you need way less than you think you do. People always say that but it is so, so true. We knew we were packing pretty heavy but we hadn’t ever done something like this and just weren’t sure what our weight limit would be. We had 65 L packs and while they weren’t completely full of stuff they were much too heavy. What feels okay when you briefly put your pack on at home and walk around will start feeling very heavy after a few miles of walking. Most people we saw had under 40 L packs.
  2. Bring snacks- lots of snacks. Siesta is no joke. If you walk all day and arrive at your destination late afternoon/evening you may not be able to find a meal for several hours. While restaurants may be open, often the kitchen won’t be open for dinner until 8 or 9pm. There may be a grocery store in the town you are staying at but sometimes they close for siesta as well. We would recommend carrying some type of snack with you each day. If you don’t have anything when you start the day we would recommend stopping when you do pass a town with a restaurant or store that is open in the afternoon. Even if you aren’t hungry right then or even if you want to just push through and finish your day we would recommend grabbing at least a small snack to tide you over until dinner time.

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  1. Take a break during the day and take your boots off! The first few days we took a few short breaks but were worried that if we took our boots off we wouldn’t want to put them back on, or it would somehow feel worse putting them back on after a break. The third day we walked we came to a large beach during the second half of our day and decided to take a bit of a longer break to sit on the beach. We took the advice of a fellow pilgrim we had talked to and took our boots off. Our feet felt so much better the rest of the walk that day having had that break out of the boots. We saw lots of people who were doing the entire Camino who had hiking boots or shoes and more of a hiking sandal that was open toed. We didn’t have that option since we only did a few days but it definitely seems like a good idea if you are going to be walking for many days in a row.
  2. Bring clothes that dry quickly. Your clothes don’t have a ton of time to dry if you are washing them when you are done walking for the day and then you head out to start walking again in the morning. Even if it isn’t raining it may be humid or cloudy which won’t help things dry. Many of the albergues along the way don’t have laundry so you will be hand washing, ringing your clothes out and then hanging them outside.

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  1. Hiking poles are SUPER helpful. This path follows the coast and has a lot of hills. Hiking poles are very helpful at taking some of the weight off your feet and giving you more stamina to get up all those hills.
  2. Take time to talk with other pilgrims on the trail or people you meet along the way. Some of our best memories from this trip are thinking back on the people we met and talked to. Even though it may have been a brief conversation over lunch it’s just nice to be with other travelers and people of like minds.

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  1. Don’t be afraid to take a detour off the path. We took a few detours during our days on the Camino, all of which were to see some of the great beaches we had read about prior to our trip. Detours will make your day of walking longer but they can be worth it! There are footpaths along the coast that are easy to follow. These trails meet back up with the official Camino trail at some point so you can get back on track
  2. Know that there are buses that travel throughout the trail as well as train stops along the way. This is good to know in case you need/want to skip a day of walking or if you need an out like we did. We are not the type of people to say we are going to do something and then not do it to the fullest. We planned to do 4 days of walking but after 3 we just needed to stop. We will need to try the camino again some day, with much, much less stuff in our packs! Know that it is okay to be honest with yourself and that doing what you need is okay.

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  1. Do train ahead of time. We did not do much training and definitely didn’t do any training with our packs. We are fairly active people and we figured since we only planned on walking a few days on the Camino we would be okay. We are pretty busy at home, especially in the summer and we took this trip in September. So getting out for longer walks consistently just didn’t happen. We learned the hard way that being active and in shape is different than being prepared to walk all day with a heavy backpack on.
  2. Slow down your travel! This is probably the most important tip or lesson for us. This is actually a big part of what drew us to include a few days of walking the Camino in our trip. We tend to cram a lot into our trips because we want to see and do so much. We only have so much time in a given place and we don’t want to waste it. Walking forces you to slow down since there is literally nothing else to do except walk and take in your surroundings. You are walking to pretty small towns each day so when you reach your destination each evening there isn’t a list of things you must see and do in that town. The thing to do is to relax and take in the feel of the place you are in, to just enjoy it. We put our few days of walking towards the beginning of our trip to help get us into the slower pace and we do feel like it helped. The rest of our trip we did see and do a lot but we also took time to just be in whatever city or town we were in.

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  1. You will learn more about yourself and what is important to you. Another thing you hear a lot with the Camino but it is true! You have nothing but time when you are walking. Time to think, to dream, to plan, time to be with yourself or in our case with each other. We could tell how much this trip really changed us when we got home. We purged our entire house of things we didn’t need. We downsized our hobbies and other things in our life to allow us to focus on the things that are most important to us. Travel should challenge you and change you, on both of those fronts the camino certainly delivers!

If you chose to do the entire Camino or just a few days like we did hopefully these tips/lessons will help you. We would love to go back and try it again, packing much lighter so we can make it more than 3 days! Even though we didn’t do as well with the Camino as we had hoped it was still a good experience for us.

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Buen Camino to anyone heading out!

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-TFWYs

Visiting San Juan de Gatzelugatxe

San Juan de Gatzelugatxe for anyone who doesn’t know, is an island off of Spain’s northern coast. It’s in Basque country near Bilbao and San Sebastian. The island is connected to the mainland by a manmade bridge. On top of the island is a small church dedicated to John the Baptist.

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When we first saw pictures of San Juan de Gatzelugatxe we knew we had to visit while we were in Northern Spain! The place just looks incredible.  We later learned this place was also featured on Game of Thrones so it recently has been getting more tourists for that reason. We didn’t watch the show but we can certainly say that this place is beautiful! As long as you are up for a hike it is definitely worth a visit! We visited as a day trip from San Sebastian which was very doable. It was a little over an hour drive from the city. It is much closer to Bilbao so if you are planning to visit both of those cities it would be easier to get to San Juan de Gatzelugatxe from Bilbao.

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A more recent change to this place is that you now need a ticket to enter. The tickets were free of cost when we visited. You can book online ahead of time and then just scan your pass to enter. If you don’t book ahead of time you can get your tickets when you arrive but there will likely be a line you need to wait in to register for your tickets. We arrived just before 10 AM and then line was pretty small but having booked online we got to skip right through. Online it says this place opens to visitors at 10AM however there were people already at the top when we started our walk so they had to have let people in early. We would highly recommend getting there right when it opens so that you can be there before the crowds. Get your tickets here: http://web.bizkaia.eus/es/gaztelugatxe

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You will get great views of the church and the island as you walk the path down from the parking area to the start of the stairs. Then the real climb begins as you walk up the 231 steps up to the church. The staircase is pretty steep for much of the climb and fairly narrow. You will pretty much be walking single file. There are handrails the entire way but we would not recommend doing this walk if you do have mobility difficulties. The steps are cobblestone and uneven at times making it a bit challenging to navigate, wear good shoes for sure! The views of the surrounding coastline as you walk up are incredible, you will want to stop for pictures along the way! Once you are at the top you can see the church and if you would like ring the bell three times and make a wish. Total time it took us to walk from the entrance all the way up to the church and back down was about an hour and a half. We did see a small café and there was an ice cream truck setting up by the parking lot when we got back to our car. We didn’t eat at the café so cannot comment on the food or pricing but know that it is an option for after you hike.

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For more recommendations on what to do in the surrounding cities of San Sebastian and Bilbo check out our other blog posts here:

San Sebastian

Bilbao

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-TFWYs

How to: $1,500 Extended Weekend Europe Trip for 2

We both have full time jobs in the United States, and due to that we have some constraints around how much time we can take off for travel. We have been experimenting with the idea of how to pull off a long weekend trip with two major constraints that everyone has: time and money. This only works if you are within driving distance of a major hub airport in the US (we are closest to Chicago and Detroit so we look at both fares when planning trips). This post is broken out into the top expenses and how we minimize them.

How to Find a Cheap Flight: $800 for 2 Round Trip Tickets

Usually when I talk to someone about traveling they think the flights are going to be extremely expensive to go to Europe. A lot of this is due to their inflexibility: you can easily pay over $1k per ticket to go over to Europe, or you can often pay less than $400. When I say flexibility, that means both time and location: in the summer you will have a harder time finding cheap fares. Also if you are not too picky on where you are going it broadens your options even more. Here is what we do:

  • Go to Google Flights
  • Type in your nearest major international airport (Chicago O-Hare for us!)
  • In the “where to” box type in “Europe
  • Type in your date range – we have been doing Thursday to Tuesday trips because most flights to Europe leave late at night (after 7 or 8 pm) and return during the day on the way back – remember you lose time on the way there but make it back up on your return.
    • For example: we found a flight from Chicago to Copenhagen that departed at 10:05 pm CST and landed at 1:20 pm CET. If you can power through that first day you can get a good (if not a bit delirious) afternoon at your destination before having the best sleep of your life Friday night.
  • When you hit “search” you won’t just get a list of flights. A map will pop up which has the cost of the flights from your airport to the different destinations. As you move/zoom the map, it will reload for those locations. If there is nothing looking good at the moment, change your date range a bit or look back in a couple of days. Flights prices change all the time. This is where you might need to be a bit flexible.
    • You can also add in a “non-stop” filter to make sure you are only looking at direct flights. This will narrow it down even more, but it’s just that much more time you don’t have to be in an airport.
    • Google Flights also lets you track prices if you find a route that you are interested in
  • Don’t believe us? Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights for inspiration. Also, here is a direct flight we found to Stockholm just doing a quick search:Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.04.49 AM.png

Lodging $50-100/night = $300

It is a good idea to keep proximity to mass transit in your consideration when booking your lodging. Some countries are obviously more expensive than others which you should keep in consideration when booking your place. A couple of tips to keep your costs down:

  • Stay away from major hotels
  • Use AirBnB & Booking.com, find where you want to stay and sort/filter by price
  • Stay in a hostel if you are on the super cheap
  • Keep transportation in mind from a location standpoint: you can find a farmhouse out in the country for very inexpensive but you’re going to spend more than that on Uber/car rental.

Food: $50/day = $250

We are foodies. This is where we will gladly blow our budget and probably be willing to spend a bit more. You can definitely spend less than $50/day. There are a couple of key things you can do to keep your costs down:

  • If you are on the super cheap – go to a grocery store. You don’t eat out every day at home so you can save a ton by cooking at your AirBnB. Even if it is just some basics like fruit/granola bars/bread/wine (yes we know that last one isn’t food!) will save you a bunch of money in the long run. It’s also just fun to go into international grocery stores!
  • Look for lodging that includes breakfast (a true B&B) we always look at Booking.com
  • Avoid buying alcohol and ‘fancy’ mineral water at restaurants
  • Get to where the locals go. For example, if you’re in Athens, don’t eat in the Plaka neighborhood. A few blocks away you’ll pay 1/3 the price for a more authentic gyro. It isn’t too hard to find these spots, there are are a few things to look for
    • Away from the tourist areas (not filled with tourists… they are easy to spot)
    • Be cautious of TripAdvisor – we use it a lot and it can be a good for info, but it is heavily used by tourists so its typically skewed. Lonely Planet is a good second source that can be a bit more reliable.
    • This is not to say there aren’t really good restaurants in the touristy areas, but you will definitely pay a premium for them.

Transportation: Stick to a Plan $100

With transportation you typically have a trade-off: time vs. money. Public/mass transportation has economies of scale going for it, but it usually has the downside of not dropping you off where you need to be and taking longer than the alternatives. Bus/train/subway/etc. are all inexpensive options – especially when you are leaving the airport. The more individualized and faster but much more expensive option is Taxi/Uber. Maybe not nearly as available but what of a middle ground is an UberPool, which can be surprisingly economical but will take a bit more time. As for airport parking, you should look at parking at a hotel – we use Way.com with success. You basically rent a parking spot from a hotel near an airport and they let you use their shuttle service. We have paid as little as $5/day to park but the rates can vary.

Summary – $1,450 Total 

$50 left over! You can travel on the cheap – and you will probably feel like a baller if you take a weekend trip to Europe. Most of the travel tips in this post are principles that apply to more than just Europe. Everyone has their own priorities to keep in mind when planning a trip.

Would you ever do a long weekend to Europe? Please drop a comment below!

-TFWY’s