Camino Primitivo de Santiago – ‘The Original Way’
The Camino Primitivo is literally the Camino less travelled. Spanning approximately 343km, door-to-door, from the Cathedral in Oviedo to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostella, it is generally quieter than other routes to the tomb of Spain’s patron saint. It is an ideal walk for those who want to complete an entire route and do so in around two weeks. On this occasion, we took 19 days to reach Santiago (including ample rest days – it was also our holidays after all, but it is doable in less. The Ruta Primitivo presents at times a tough physical challenge but with that the gifts of being on a route of such incredible natural beauty, solitude and rolling, scenic mountainscapes. We are delighted to share some of our experiences walking this physically demanding, but absolutely beautiful, Camino Primitivo de Santiago. Our journey started in Oviedo like it purportedly did for the original pilgrim, King Alfonso II of Asturias, who in the 9th Century departed Oviedo to confirm the discovery of the tomb of St. James. As a direct consequence of that original journey, he built the first shrine to the saint, where Santiago de Compostela now stands today. Hence this route – literally going west from the Cathedral in Oviedo to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is called the Primitivo: ‘Primitive Route’ or ‘Original Way’.
Before we departed, we stayed in Oviedo a couple of nights, and this is to be highly recommended as it is a beautiful city, with much to experience and explore, including its magnificent cathedral. Indeed, the saying is you must visit both the master and the servant: the servant, St. James is entombed in Santiago de Compostella, and relics of the master, including the Holy Shroud from Christ’s burial, are venerated in the Cathedral of Oviedo.
On our first day’s walking, we started early in the morning – in light rain (in fact, our only rain of the entire Camino) – at Oviedo Cathedral – and followed the way markers out of the city, joining the rural pathway that leads on to the Camino Primitivo. A large city with significant suburbs, Oviedo can prove tricky to navigate out of, so it is good to research your exit well before setting off, particularly to make it easier to locate the first way-markers of the Ruta Primitivo. A great resource here and companion read for the Camino Primitivo as a whole is the Pilgrimage Traveller blog:https://www.pilgrimagetraveler.com/camino-primitivo.html. Our first night we spent in the albergue municipal in Escamplero. This was basic but comfortable. There is also a well-stocked shop just down the road from the albergue, and there we got our provisions for our first night en route. Our second stage took us on to Grado, a beautiful town, where we stayed in the albergue on top of the hill, the Albergue de Peregrinos. We also found a lovely restaurant, Autobar Restaurante, where the menu del dia was terrific and very reasonably priced. From Grado, we moved on to Salas where we overnighted in the Albergue Turístico Valle del Nonaya. From picturesque and friendly Salas, we walked on to Tineo, where we stayed in the 16th Century building of the Hotel Palacio de Meras. They even have great Guinness, (the proprietor annually attends the Galway Oyster Festival), and our stay was enhanced by the performance of the Irish women’s hockey team, and there was great craic with the gracious locals when we beat Spain: Viva Irlanda!
The Primitivo can be a tough challenge physically – especially these early stages where you may not yet quite have your ‘Camino legs’ – and there is a lot of ascending and descending through hilly elevations and valleys. We, therefore, decided as a group to stop whenever we needed to, and of course to take our multiple breaks along each stage, enjoying the luxury of fresh coffee, orange juice and tortillas in the friendly local cafés we encountered en route. Any Camino is a journey – not a race – so it is advisable – both for body and soul – to take one’s time and really enjoy the privilege of being on the original pathway west, from Oviedo to Santiago.
A real must-see part of the Primitivo is the section called the Hospitales, an ancient Camino route that includes lots of climbs and descents through spectacular mountainscape. This remote route acquires its name, Hospitales because of the ruins of ancient albergues that dot its path. We called this the ‘Primitivo within the Primitivo’; it is itself a long challenging ascent within the overall physically challenging Primitivo route. We stayed the night before in Casa Hermania, famous for the welcome, its shop that seems to sell everything and the giant coffee cups! We also had the luxury of our own rooms in the hotel. The Hospitales is truly a spectacular route through the mountains. It can be quite exposed as you climb so it’s advisable to have your layers ready. You are also only supposed to attempt the Hospitales if you can see the mountains clearly, early in the morning. It is well worth the extra effort, however, offering some of the most beautiful scenes of the entire Camino Primitivo, with wild horses in the distance.
We walked on through the Hospitales to A Mesa, (and this was perhaps the longest part of our journey), where we stayed in the fabulous new albergue there. This was also where we had a wonderful dinner of goat stew! Not to everyone’s taste but at least 33.33% of our group of three loved it! Grandas da Salime is a significant Primitivo milestone where in a sense you have accomplished some of the most challenging walking. This is the place where we all felt we now had our ‘Camino legs’. We were seasoned Primitivo peregrinos at this point. It is a beautiful small town, and a special experience is to go to evening mass where you can receive the pilgrim’s blessing from the parish priest. There are lovely places to eat and stay around the little town, and it is worth ringing ahead to book accommodation. Another feature of the Camino Primitivo are the little chapels that dot the route, especially when you cross from Asturias into Galicia. The exact crossing point is marked, and it is an amazing feeling to reflect at this point on what you have achieved, and on the wonderful journey that still awaits. The little chapels are also great for reflecting on the immediate journey, and on the grander path of life.
Our next stage took us on to A Fonsagrada and to a wonderful albergue a few km outside the town at Complejo ‘O Piñeiral’; again the accommodation here was great, and we also enjoyed a terrific menu del dia. Our next stage was to Albergue San Mateo in lovely O Cádavo, before setting off early the next day for Lugo. Lugo is a gorgeous city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the only city in the world with an entirely intact Roman wall), and it is worth spending a few days here. We stayed at the Hostel Cross, which is located right along one of the old streets – great for relaxing and just watching the world go by. We also had a most wonderful meal of scallops (grilled in their shells) and stewed liver.
An important consideration for us (as we were caught in this summer’s heat wave in Spain) was to get up early in the morning and to try to be walking by 5am; because like other Camino routes, it is advisable to try to have as much walking as possible completed before sun-up. The Primitivo can take that bit longer anyway – owing to its altos, ascents into and descents from the mountains – so it is worth getting up that bit earlier. You also get to enjoy the most beautiful sunrises in the mountains. After a few days respite in Lugo, we walked on to Ponte Ferreira and stayed at the wonderful Albergue Ponte Ferreira. Here we had the final meal (vegetarian and delicious) of our Camino Primitivo because after this point, the Caminos start to converge and you join the peregrinos walking along the many and diverse paths of The Way.
The Camino Primitivo may be a tougher route physically, particularly the first part from Oviedo to Lugo, but it is eminently rewarding. The adage really applies with the Primitivo: ‘You don’t do the Camino, it does you!’ And so with the Primitivo, it is advisable to go at your own pace, take in the incredible beauty of the route – especially the dawn breaking gently in the mountains – and relish the gift of walking this very special Camino. For us, it offered everything: great food, company, a break from the every day, and time for reflection. We also had the exhilarating climbs into the mountains, and the physical challenge of walking up (sometimes steep) inclines. As a less-travelled route, it retains a charm and unspoiled beauty, punctuated only by the angelus of cowbells as you meander by farms and hamlets, and above the clouds.
Buen Camino Primitivo!
With thanks to Tony Hall, Cornelia Connolly & Jim Lenaghan
Photographs by Jim Lenaghan