On a pilgrimage in Cantabria, Tom Sweeney finds the Camino de Santiago's most scenic shortcut
The 72km Camino Lebaniego, which begins at the fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera and ends at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, just beyond Potes, is one of northern Spain's lesser-known pilgrimage routes. It's also the most picturesque.
You can walk it in three days or as part of a weeks-long trek on the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrims arriving at the monastery can kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died, and as 2017 is a Jubilee Year, the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) is open.
Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for completing the Camino Lebaniego is a certificate, but the coastal, woodland and mountain views make the effort especially worthwhile.
Dinner becomes a fixation for footsore pilgrims.
Cantabrians love hearty, meaty stews (cocidos) and serve them in glutton-sized portions. Earthenware dishes arrive piled high with pork, beef, roast baby goat, black pudding, sausages, spuds and beans. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of even skinnymalink pilgrims polishing their plates with chunks of dense rustic bread at the end of their evening meal is unremarkable.
Cocidos are simple yet nutritious - and delicious - and replace all those calories burned on the road, allowing you to set off again next morning with a spring in your step.
These beauts were made for walking.
One: for those keen on getting in touch with their inner selves while keeping in touch with the outside world, there's free Wi-Fi every step of the Camino Lebaniego, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information superhighway.
Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course midday menú del día including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €8 in roadside restaurants, it's as good as gratis.
There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes (69km), so have 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.
You'll need a credential (pilgrim passport) to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels (all serve evening meals), where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery. Apply for credentials at firstname.lastname@example.org. Splash out (€25) on dinner in the superb El Capitán restaurant in Potes, and end your meal with rock tea and orujo (the local hooch).
Cantabria didn't get as green as Ireland without being drenched. In high summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here, so pack warm clothing and waterproofs for spring and autumn walks.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) to Bilbao from spring to autumn. Both arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Line bus to San Vicente (alsa.es; book in advance).
To reserve a bunk in a pilgrims' hostel and for detailed info on the route, see caminolebaniego.com. Autobuses Palomeras (+34 942 880 641) operates a daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa takes you on to Bilbao.
See also cantabriaspain.co.uk and spain.info.