Everyone has heard of the Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James in Galicia. However, very few people outside of northern Spain know of the Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria, which is a pity. At only 72kms, or roughly 95,000 steps, the ‘Secret Camino’ is the road less travelled but the most scenic of all. (First published in October 2017.)
In the Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, close to the picturesque town of Potes, two thick walls either side of a courtyard separate the church from the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office – which is just as well. Were it not for the sound-absorbing stone, visitors queuing in solemn silence before the altar to kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died would have heard a little Spanish girl squeal: “Daddy! Look! The baby Jesus is riding Noddy’s scooter!”
She was right. Standing out from the array of rosary beads and religious statuettes in the shop was a small, red and yellow ceramic Vespa with the Holy Family on board. The little girl’s daddy was mortified, but the footsore pilgrims waiting to get the final stamp on their special passports (credenciales) nearly wet their pants laughing.
They had chosen a good time (mid-May) to walk the Camino Lebaniego – a few weeks earlier and they might have arrived at the monastery with their pants already sodden. Cantabria didn’t get to be as green as Ireland without getting drenched; in summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here.
The purpose of the pilgrims’ journey is to venerate the Lignum Crucis, reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, which would be a lot larger but for its early monastic custodians’ readiness to exchange fragments for favours.
When it arrived in Cantabria in the Middle Ages from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought by Saint Turibius of Astorga, it was the entire left arm of the cross, but splinter by splinter it was whittled away until it resembled a walking stick well on its way to becoming a chopstick.
In 1679, the monks cut what remained into two pieces and encased them in a gilded silver cruciform reliquary. The longer, vertical piece is exposed near its base, revealing the hole where the nail was hammered through Christ’s wrist.
The wood is Mediterranean cypress, which was and is common in the Holy Land, and carbon dating shows the tree from which it came grew 2,000-odd years ago. Science puts it in the right place at the right time, while faith verifies its bona fides for believers.
The Secret Camino is walked almost exclusively by in-the-know Spaniards, but that’s not because they’re keeping it quietly to themselves; rather, it’s put in the shade by the more famous long-distance routes, especially the busy, 790km Camino Frances, which has become even busier on the back of the worldwide success of the 2011 film, The Way, in which it and Martin Sheen co-starred.
Now, however, it’s the Lebaniego’s turn to shine – without the help of Hollywood lighting – because 2017 is a Jubilee, or Holy Year, on the Cantabrian Way, which occurs only when the feast of Santo Toribio, April 16, falls on a Sunday (the next one is in 2023).
During the current special 12-month period, which ends next April 15, pilgrims who pass through the monastery’s Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and comply with a handful of simple conditions will have the time they’ve accrued in Purgatory annulled. It’s like getting penalty points wiped from a driving licence.
Beginning at the fishing port and holiday resort of San Vicente de la Barquera, the Lebaniego can be walked in as few as three days or incorporated in a weeks-long trek that takes in the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago.
For those keen on keeping in touch with the outside world while getting in touch with their inner selves, there’s free wifi every step of its modest length, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information super-highway.
Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for walking the Lebaniego is a certificate of completion (a lebaniega), but it’s the coastal, riverside, woodland and mountain scenery that make the journey such a joy. Snappable sights that nature crafted or man made present themselves at almost every turn, so pilgrims should factor into their daily schedule time spent stopping to take photos.
Those who opt to spend a pre-pilgrimage night in San Vicente should stand on the eastern shore of the estuary just before twilight and look across the water. With some moody clouds to better highlight the historic towers, turrets and rooftops against the snow-capped mountains, the town looks like it should be hanging in a frame.
The mountains are the Picos de Europa, so named by 16th century cod fishermen and whalers from the Basque Country returning after months of hooking and harpooning in the waters off of what are now Newfoundland and Maine. When the Picos came into view, they knew they were nearly home – the Basques are the Cantabrians’ next-door neighbours to the east.
Pilgrims and holidaymakers are not alone in flocking to San Vicente. Thanks to the estuary and the nearby marshes, cliffs and dunes, many species of migratory aquatic birds congregate here; in the Picos, vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rule the roost.
Anyone with even only a passing interest in our feathered friends will find Fat Birder a fascinating online resource. Clearly a labour of love for English ornithologist Richard Crombet-Beolens, whose surname looks suspiciously like an anagram but isn’t, it includes a comprehensive section on Cantabria’s birdlife.
The Lebaniego has three stages – San Vicente to Cades (28.5kms), Cades to Cabañes (31.3kms) and Cabañes to Potes and the monastery (12.1kms) – and most people walk them in three days. However, the journey can be broken into four or five, which allows time for some peripheral exploring.
Any visitor attraction described as “the subterranean Sistine Chapel” had better live up to its billing. The natural cave of El Soplao, near Cades, does so with its extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, these last also known as eccentrics because they grow at gravity-defying angles.
The 240-million-year-old cave was discovered in the early 20th century during exploratory drilling for zinc deposits, which were there in abundance. Unfortunately for the prospectors, they knocked through into what became known as the Gallery of the Ghosts; fortunately for posterity, what they saw – before they turned tail and ran, screaming – helped ensure El Soplao has remained unspoiled.
The gallery is named after the group of 500,000-year-old man-sized stalagmites that look like spooks of the white bedsheet variety. Fear of the supernatural meant miners gave this part of the cave a wide berth, although apprentices were tricked into a first-day-on-the-job initiation they would never forget. Disappointingly, photography in the cave’s several galleries isn’t allowed, but on the plus side there are no bats.
A day on the go can be taxing, and food becomes a fixation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course menu del dia including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €10 in roadside restaurants, it’s as good as gratis.
For dinner, Cantabrians love hearty stews (cocidos) and ladle them out in glutton-sized portions. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of skinnymalinks feverishly polishing their plates with chunks of bread is unremarkable.
Cocido lebaniego and cocido montañes, which feature on most menus along the way, differ only in that the former contains chickpeas while the latter has white beans. Otherwise, the big terracotta dishes from which both are served are piled high with ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black puddings and sausages.
Cocidos are nutritious and delicious and more than replace all those calories burned on the hoof, allowing pilgrims to set off each morning with a spring in their step. These beauts are made for walking.
At the 55km mark, two of the Lebaniego’s most photographed sights stand, in jarring contrast, a few metres apart. One is the small, 10th century church of Santa María de Lebeña with its tiny, overgrown graveyard where wildflowers have been spared the hoe. The other is the gnarled, barkless and sun-bleached trunk of a lifeless yew that has inexplicably been spared the axe.
Resembling a fist with the middle finger raised, it’s the rudest tree in the world. The parish powers-that-be must have a mischievous sense of humour or are blissfully oblivious to the obvious; either way, there it is – dead, defiant and crying out for a photo to be sniggered over later in the El Hayal hostel in Cabañes, 5 kilometres distant.
Typical of most hostels on the Lebaniego, El Hayal (+34 942 744203) offers B&B for around €20, and half and full-board are also available. It’s not the Ritz: guests sleep in singles or bunk beds in six rooms accommodating from four to 18 people with half-a-dozen shared bathrooms, but it’s well-run and spotlessly clean.
Although not exclusively for pilgrims, being principally a base for hillwalkers, cyclists and birders, everyone’s welcome to enjoy the food and facilities, which include a pool, and drift off beneath its rustic timbered roof.
Birders rise with the larks, but pilgrims needn’t get up early for the last stage of the journey. With only 12kms to go, there’s time to tarry over lunch in Tama, where a chunky tuna salad in the Hotel Corcal’s Casa Fofi restaurant is sufficient sustenance for the home stretch; anything more substantial might spoil the appetite for a mission-accomplished dinner in Potes.
After collecting that certificate from the monastery, there’s not a lot to do back in Potes apart from pottering around the narrow streets, admiring the medieval houses and dandering by the Deva River that runs through town; still, it’s a pleasant way to kill time until the best restaurant on the Lebaniego opens at 8pm.
In the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitán, where reservations are a must and tall people should beware the rafters, choosing from the menu isn’t easy: diners who spend 10 minutes deciding what to order frequently change their minds as soon as they see what those at neighbouring tables are having.
To avoid trying the waiting staff’s patience, opt for the house’s award-winning cocido lebaniego; a bottle of local red wine, rarely seen outside of Cantabria but top class; a dessert selection of local cheeses, which are among the best in Spain; and, to round things off, a pot of herbal rock tea (té de roca) with a generous splash of the regional firewater, orujo. At around €30 a head, it’s a steal.
As soon as that orujo hits the spot, it’s time to hit the pillow. The pilgrimage is over – but not necessarily so the adventure. Those with time to spare and a head for heights should hop on the bus the next morning to Fuente de, half-an-hour from Potes, for a daredevil cable car ride in the Picos de Europa National Park.
There are two cars, which sway and sometimes lurch in anything more than a breeze, each with a capacity for 20 passengers. The bottom station is at 1,090 metres above sea level and the top one is at 1,850 metres – a vertical ‘drop’ of 760 metres, or six-and-a-bit Dublin Spires. The trip, which covers a cable distance of 1.45kms, takes three minutes and 40 seconds and the cars can reach a top speed of 10 metres per second, or 36kms per hour.
Nervy passengers tend to observe the ascent and descent through splayed fingers, but even a peek-a-boo view of the mountains high above and the valleys far below draws admiring gasps. Only a fibber would deny it’s frightening: countless prayers are said in the church in the monastery, but plenty of Hail Marys are whispered aboard the cable cars, too.
The phenomenal international interest in the various caminos shows no sign of abating – year after year, they register sizeable increases in the number of people walking them. When next April 15 comes around and the Jubilee ends, the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office where everyone nearly wet their pants laughing will have issued more lebaniegas than in any previous 12-month period.
As people continue to return home to regale family and friends with tales of their experiences and share treasured photos, the Secret Camino won’t stay secret for much longer. It will, however, remain the loveliest pilgrimage route in Europe.
Talking of lovely: somewhere in Spain, a beautiful little girl is the proud owner of a unique souvenir of her visit to the monastery in the mountains. Her father may have been mortified by her excited outburst, but no doting daddy could refuse to buy his daughter a model of the baby Jesus riding Noddy’s scooter.
GET THERE: Ryanair flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus from Dublin to Bilbao. Flights arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Lines bus to San Vicente (book well in advance). To reserve a bed in a pilgrims’ hostel (again, book well in advance) and for detailed information on the Lebaniego route, see caminolebaniego.com. Autobuses Palomera (+34 942 880641) operates a three-times-daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa serves Bilbao.
PILGRIM PASSPORT: You’ll need a credencial to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels, where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Collect your credencial (€2) from the Church of Santa María de Los Ángeles, Calle Alta 24, in San Vicente. Apply at email@example.com or call +34 942 211563 (it might be wiser and quicker to phone, because they’re frustratingly slow at responding to emails).
TOP TIP: There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes, so carry sufficient cash for lunch stops and commandeer pastries and fruit from the breakfast buffets of your accommodation, where vending machines offer water (always carry a litre), chocolate and energy bars.