By Nuala O Connor
Fancy a five or six day ramble through forests, valleys and beautiful Basque countryside? A mid-term-break sized Camino that’s easily accessible from Ireland and has great albergues?
Beginning and ending with a riverside walk, the Camino del Baztan is a joy in its own right, or as an alternative start to the more popular Camino Francés. Yet despite the excellent infrastructure and its proximity to Biarritz Airport, it remains a hidden gem. For those who enjoy a quieter Camino, this is of course part of its appeal.
I first became aware of this route in 2015, while on the Camino Inglés. I met two English ladies who were having a grand old time, walking short stages and chatting all the way. We walked together for a while and shared stories about past Caminos. They talked about their preference for less travelled paths and became very animated when describing their favourite one so far. I was fascinated by this tale of a walk that began as soon as they got off the airport bus from Biarritz, meandered through the beautiful Baztan Valley and involved a very memorable night in a museum albergue! We parted shortly afterwards and although I never saw them again, I was determined to find out more.
The long winter months are of course made for Camino planning, so I gradually found snippets of helpful information. The more I learned, the more I realised that those English ladies were definitely onto something. It was therefore no surprise that I walked the Camino del Baztan in May 2016 with my husband and again a year later with some American Camino friends.
If you’ve never heard of the Camino del Baztan, you’re not alone. It’s definitely one of the quieter ones. Damian and I met two other pilgrims in 2016: Spanish men from Valencia, who we saw every day. It was a similar story in 2017, when my friends and I met about four others during five days of walking. I’m at a loss to know why this is the case. The way-marking is excellent, there’s plenty of accommodation and while a reasonable level of fitness is required, the walk is within most people’s capability.
To give an idea of what’s involved, here’s a quick overview based on the ‘FAQs’ we found ourselves answering when we joined the Camino Frances in Pamplona. Those conversations typically started with a friendly pilgrim asking: ‘where have you walked from?’ and looking more than a little confused when we answered: ‘Bayonne, on the Camino del Baztan’…
What/where is the Camino del Baztan?
It’s a 110km (approx.) route from Bayonne Cathedral to Pamplona, through picturesque Basque countryside and the beautiful Baztan valley.
Most sources refer to the Camino del Baztan as one of the ancient pilgrim routes across the Pyrenees. One website claims that it’s an older crossing than those beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port. I have no idea if this is correct, but it’s a nice thought when walking on what feels like a very rustic and traditional pilgrim path.
What was it like?
Bayonne makes for a very stress-free start to a Camino and leaving the city is a dawdle: just keep the river Nive (the smaller of the two rivers) to your left and follow the recreational path towards Ustaritz. Most pilgrims then continue to the pretty town of Esplette on day one. Esplette is famous for its peppers and while it’s not technically on the Camino, it has all the necessary services for a very pleasant overnight stay.
After Esplette, the Camino heads towards the border with Spain and the big cash & carry stores, full of French shoppers availing of the cheaper prices. This is a strange sight after the quieter paths, but it’s a short-lived interlude before returning to rural roads and a gradual shift towards natural trails. The little town of Urdax provides a welcome stop before the first climb of this Camino. There’s an albergue in an old monastery/exhibition centre and a couple of private options, so it’s possible to stay here and tackle that 500m ascent the next morning. It’s an energy-zapping climb in the afternoon, but probably much less tiring first thing in the morning
From Urdax onwards, the Camino del Baztan really comes into its own. The climb through the forest gives a taste of the beauty that lies ahead, and eventually leads to the gorgeous village of Amaiur/Maya. It’s a quiet little place and the locals are genuinely delighted to see pilgrims stopping in their village. We’ve very happy memories of a meal in the tiny bar during a thunderstorm, where the lady kept bringing plates of food and the local teenagers helped with translation.
Amaiur was typical of many of the villages on this Camino: small places characterised by traditional Basque dwellings, immaculately tended gardens, friendly locals and very limited facilities. For that reason, a bit of planning is required each day and it’s important to carry food. Pilgrims can stock up in Bayonne, Esplette and in Elizondo, the largest town on the Camino and (roughly) the half-way point. While there may be small shops in other places, the opening hours can be somewhat erratic.
Incidentally, the town of Elizondo has become something of a tourist mecca in recent years, thanks to a best-selling crime trilogy, set in the Baztan valley by author Dolores Redondo. These books were a huge success in Spain and are now available in English. Aside from all of that, Elizondo is well worth a visit for its stately homes, artisan foods, crafts and some very delicious breads and pastries. It’s also the last chance to buy food before the Berroeta albergue and the next day’s walk to Lantz or beyond.
For me, the highlight of this Camino was the walk from Berroeta to the Puerto de Belate. (more about this below). It’s a stunning stage that includes forests, a mountain crossing and a climb that’s rewarded with panoramic views, wild horses and a feeling of being in a truly wonderful place. The Ermita de Santiago at the top was originally an old pilgrim shelter, lovingly restored in recent years and a perfect place to stop before the descent towards an old monastery and the remnants of a Roman road.
The final day’s walk to Pamplona is on country roads, through meadows of wild flowers and along the river into the city. It’s possible to join the Camino Francés at Trinidad de Arre, but continuing on the river path felt like a more natural conclusion to this walk. Not surprisingly, Pamplona was something of a shock to the system after five tranquil days on the Camino del Baztan!
How hard is it?
I’ve heard this route described as an easier start to the Camino Francés than the Ruta de Napoleón from Saint Jean Pied de Port. That’s true, but only to a point. The highest point at Puerto de Belate is 936m and involves a climb of just over 600m. It’s a slow and gradual climb, through a beautiful forest and unlike the first day of the Camino Francés, it’s typically tackled as part of a relatively short walking stage (about 16kms).
However, while the mountain ascent and descent are undoubtedly less taxing than the Ruta de Napoleón, there are other challenges that make this a more difficult Camino than some commentaries imply. Most days have a few ‘ups and downs’ and many people find the 500m climb after Urdax to be almost as challenging as the bigger one to the Puerto de Belate. In addition, some paths are poorly maintained and you may encounter mud, fallen trees, overflowing streams and other obstacles during or after bad weather.
We walked from Bayonne to Pamplona in five stages, stopping in Esplette, Amaiur/Maya, Berroeta and Lantz. Longer or shorter itineraries are also possible – the resources below have lots of helpful information.
If you’d like to learn a little bit more, these sources might be helpful:
For regularly updated information on the route, elevations and accommodation: https://www.gronze.com/camino-baztan
To download a free app for this route: Editorial Buen Camino
Gerald Kelly guidebook: Camino Baztan