For almost 300 kilometers, it meanders through the wild mountains of Asturias: The Camino Primitivo in northern Spain is the oldest Way of St. James and one of the most beautiful. Nevertheless, one rarely meets a pilgrim here.
It is supposed to have happened around the year 820 AD. On a hill near Solovio in the extreme northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, the hermit Paio saw a miraculous glow one night. Excited, he told Bishop Teodomiro about it. Together, according to the legends, they approached the hill and found in the forest of Libredón a simple burial place with the bones of the apostle James.
Bishop Teodomiro immediately informed Alfonso II of the discovery. The deeply religious King of Asturias set out from Oviedo to visit the apostle’s tomb. At the site of the tomb, he ordered to build a simple church, on whose foundations later the present Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was built.
King Alfonso was the first pilgrim of history. The path that he and his knights took through the mountains of Asturias is thus the oldest of all the paths in Santiago – the so-called Camino Primitivo.
The Camino Primitivo is a challenging Way of St. James
Increasingly, however, the path through the lonely mountains lost in importance. From the tenth century, the capital of the kingdom of Oviedo was moved to León. In addition, the pilgrims sought easier paths through more level terrain.
So soon the “French way” was born and became the preferred route of the pilgrims. Also in 2018, more than half of all 327,378 pilgrims were traveling on this main route. The Camino Primitivo chose just under 15,000 pilgrims.
“That’s exactly what irritated me on this path. I had no desire for mass pilgrims in single file and crowded hostels, “says Eva Poenicke from Cologne . The fact that the Camino Primitivo is less crowded, of course, has its reason: on some stages must be managed sometimes up to 800 meters. Also, the day marches are quite long with up to 30 kilometers, which makes this Way of St. James along with the northern “coastal path” to one of the most demanding.
About gravel roads and forest roads it goes in constant uphill and downhill. Flowering meadows alternate with dark chestnut and oak forests. Medieval stone bridges lead over crystal clear streams. Occasionally a fruity smell is in the air. Apple tree plantations for the tangy Asturian Sidra apple must stand at the wayside.
While eating, the pilgrims come into conversation
Again and again, the pilgrim comes in small villages past Romanesque churches and chapels. The imposing monastery of San Salvador in Cornellana illustrates the great importance of the Camino Primitivo for the Benedictines.
It is already late, when Eva Poenicke reaches the medieval mountain village Salas. The village, located in a valley, is a real eye-catcher: the parish church and the palace date back to the 16th century, the fortress tower, which today houses the village museum, even dates back to the 14th century.
Already in the early evening the terraces of the restaurants fill up on the village square. The only tourists here are pilgrims who have to leave early. You sit down at the table, although you do not even know each other. Eva Poenicke and the French pilgrim Elodi Icart quickly get into conversation with a hearty fabada .
Everywhere it smells wonderfully of the Asturian bean stew with chorizo sausage and the sweet and sour Sidra. The sumptuous five-course pilgrim menu for ten euros in the “Casa Pachón” is stunning. Eva Poenicke and Elodi Icart decide to spend a few days hiking together.
An original mountain landscape without hustle and bustle
At this stage, the path begins to unfold its full beauty – even if the nearby National Road temporarily clouds the experience of nature a bit. It goes through dense deciduous forests and pastures.
Until today’s destination Tineo, there are only 21 kilometers today. But the first seven of them have it all. Steep it goes serpentine like almost 400 meters up to Bodenaya. The more you look forward to the breather in the local pilgrims’ hostel, a quaint stone house with fireplace, lounge and vegetarian food.
The hostel is very popular. This is mainly due to David Carricondo. “Pilgrims do not just come here. I always try to build a community. We cook together, make music, talk and share our experiences, “explains the hostess from Madrid.
He has already gone eight times the most different ways of St. James. But the Camino Primitivo has inspired him the most. That’s why he took over the hostel in Bodenaya several years ago. “On hardly any other Way of St. James can you find such an overwhelming and original mountain landscape. Besides, there is not so much excitement here, “says David.
It was exactly this peace that Elodi Icart was looking for. The 26-year-old Frenchwoman from Bayonne had previously been on the coastal path for three weeks. In Villaviciosa, however, she decided to turn off for Oviedo Camino Primitivo.
“A good decision”, as she says: “The coastal path is also beautiful. But here you are even more in nature and less on streets. Besides, everything here is cleaner because there are fewer pilgrims on the way. “Elodi is looking for peace to think about herself, her life, her future. She is a nurse, but now she wants to do something different.
In the small mountain village there is fresh water
The following day is perhaps the most beautiful, but also the hardest stage before Eva and Elodi. It is 40 kilometers from Tineo to Berducedo. Almost 1000 meters of altitude are to be mastered. On narrow country lanes, the Camino Primitivo meanders through dense oak forests.
From Borres, however, the two hikers choose the variant via the so-called Hospitales Route. The path leads extremely steeply up to the hilltop, over which it goes to the 1146 meter high Pass del Palo.
You only hear humming bees and birds singing. Otherwise silence and fantastic panoramic views of pristine mountain landscapes. Occasionally you see another pilgrim in the distance. Along the way lavender, broom and heather bloom in bright colors. Vultures circle in the sky. Farther up, thick fog suddenly appears. Only at the last moment you can see the free-standing herd of horses.
In Montefurado, a small mountain village made of stone houses, there is finally fresh water again. Elodi says goodbye here. She wants to set up her tent and not continue to Berducedo in the hostel.
Lugo is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain
Through pine forests it goes the following day from 1000 to 250 meters steeply down to the reservoir Río Navia. At the bottom of the lake are the ruins of Salime. The inhabitants were resettled in the 1960s to Grandas, which is now called Grandas de Salime.
The next day gets back on its feet – 28 kilometers to Fonsagrada. Until Castro the way is still pleasant. But a gravel road leads steeply up to the 1100 meter high mountain pass Alto del Acebo, the border between Asturias and Galicia.
In Galicia, the mountains of Asturias are transformed into a green hilly landscape. After days in deserted landscapes and mountain villages, the small provincial capital Lugo comes to life.
Founded in Roman times, Lugo is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain . The still completely preserved city wall dates from the second century. It encloses the entire old town with churches, chapels, city palaces and dreamy squares. The restaurants smell of Galician Pulpo octopus and garlic fried scallops.
A she-wolf with puppy crosses the forest road
But the pilgrim quickly dives back into the lonely nature. In sleepy villages are horreos , the corn grain store typical of Asturias and Galicia. Again and again the path thwarts hilly meadows and huge eucalyptus forests, which smell so intense in the hot summer months, that one has the feeling to wander through a Finnish sauna after the infusion.
The Camino leads now more often on paved roads. One already thinks: now it is over with the loneliness, with the nature spectacle. Actually, one does not want to believe the shepherd Juan Manuel Garcia, when he tells of wolf packs that tear his sheep and cattle in the area. But only 20 minutes later, shortly after San Román, a she-wolf crosses the forest path with a puppy. She is almost as scared as the pilgrims.
There really does not seem to be much going on on the Camino Primitivo. For a long time he was considered to be the least known of all the ways of Jacob. Of course, he is no longer an insider tip, in 2015 he was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage. But on what other Way of St. James are you still encountering wolves and wild horses?
In Melide, legendary for its Pulpos, the Camino Primitivo finally passes into the French Way. The shock is enormous. One pilgrim hostel after another, restaurants, massage studios for troubled pilgrims.
The mass pilgrimage, against which Eva Poenicke wanted to flee, begins. Of course, Galicia’s green hills are still a dream. But after only a few hours one longs to return to the loneliness of the Asturian mountains.