The Camino de Santiago de Compostela – or parallel to it

Wednesday 14 – Saturday 31 August

Just as we were ready to leave Bilbao, the Guardia Civil decided to “have a chat with us” and fill in the same paperwork all over again as we’d already completed with the Customs guys a week ago.  Needless to say, we smiled sweetly and remained polite and helpful…

We had a final couple of quiet nights in the bay, before finally heading West again on Wednesday, lowering the Basque courtesy flag as we cleared the outer breakwater.  We made an 11-hour passage, dropping anchor just outside Santander, in what looked like a quiet bay, for an overnight stop.  Once all the day trippers had left for home, and the golfers on the course above us had given up for poor light, it was just us – and the wedding couple being photographed on the beach against the sunset.  Unfortunately the swell kicked back in, and it wasn’t the most comfortable of anchorages.

Alongside the training wall
in the salt marsh

On Thursday we covered only 14 sea miles in a continuing uncomfortable swell, with winds (also) up and down.  We followed the Rio (river) Suances to anchor alongside the training wall in what is effectively tidal salt marsh: a fascinating array of bird life including heron and an osprey.  At last we had a completely peaceful night.

Asturian coastline, and beyond

On Friday morning it took us a while to lift the second (kedge) anchor at our stern, placed to ensure we didn’t turn and block the channel as the tide rose and fell in the river.  Once back out at sea we enjoyed dolphin spotting, and avoiding lobster pot floats, set in 80 metres of water.  The coastal scenery here is beautiful, fronting a backdrop of majestic mountain ranges rolling away inland.  Eventually the afternoon breeze filled in, and we finally tied up safely, after trying to understand the well-meaning advice of the locals

[follow me: you’re heading for a sandbank; don’t tie up there, you’ll fall over
when the tide goes out]

to the right bit of the town quay wall in Ribadesella, in time for supper on land with a view of the sunset – our reward for a 55-Mile day.  A brief stroll through the busy streets suggested an attractive town with lots to offer the passing sailor: especially the unique way of serving the local ‘sidra’, or cider – by pouring it from a great height.

Sunset from Ribadesella
Cirque du Soleil on tour

On Saturday we covered a further 26 Miles in fairly light winds to slip into Marina Yates in Musel, on the West side of Gijón.  Now in Asturias, we received a warm welcome from Montse, who speaks really good English and couldn’t do enough to help.  Once again, we completed the appropriate paperwork, in our experience required in every Spanish port, along with passports, crew list, insurance and registration documents.  Cirque du Soleil was in town, right next to us in the ferry port, with Kooza, but having seen a different show at the Royal Albert Hall in January, we didn’t indulge this time, just enjoying snatches of the soundtrack.

We spent longer than we expected here, dealing with some routine servicing, dithering about the forecast wind conditions outside the very sheltered marina, and cycling into town for provisioning and a little sightseeing.  Mate collected an impressive set of bruises down both calves when Daisy, her bicycle, decided to have a strop at a pedestrian crossing, and throw herself on the pavement complete with two loaded panniers – and Mate wasn’t even riding her at the time.

The castle on the bluff,
just up-rio of San Esteban de Pravia

On Friday 23 August we finally slipped our lines, paused to take on around 500 litres of diesel (€ ouch €), and had a somewhat surreal day, sailing West some 400 Miles South of the UK, but hearing clearly on the VHF radio Falmouth Coastguard dealing with an incident in ‘home’ waters.  Fortunately we also picked up the closing message that the divers had been found safe and sound.  Meanwhile we enjoyed a comfortable beam reach, heading in the same direction as the relatively low swell.  We settled for the night in a lovely spot just above a small castle on a bend of the river above San Esteban de Pravia, enjoying a brief swim after the heat of the day.

Is this secure –
or even safe?

On Saturday we took the dinghy to shore, and found a somewhat dubious landing beside some rickety fishermen’s platforms that jut out into the river.  We secured l’arret carefully and walked beside a main road uphill to find a small town with a smaller supermarket.  Having ticked off almost none of the items on the shopping list, we then spotted a group of shops we’d missed on the way in, one of which was a much bigger, more pleasant store with a good butcher’s counter, fresh fruit and vegetables, and even a few gluten free items.  It turns out that Soto del Barco is a pilgrim rest point on the Camino: one can only hope the accommodation offers more than the provisioning.

We sat out a rainy Sunday that included a thunderstorm, wondering if Summer was coming to an end already.  We were entertained trying to be twitchers and identify local bird life: we definitely saw a kingfisher, what might have been a buzzard high overhead, and a large version of a dipper along the water’s edge.

Not in Spain, but in the UK, Bank Holiday Monday was cloudy with very little wind.  We set off anyway and enjoyed a pod of dolphins leaping off Cabo Vidio.  With better wind in the afternoon, we made some good speed, ending the day 32 Miles further along the coast and a couple upriver to Navia, where we had a free night alongside the Club Náutico Deportivo pontoon, just below a road bridge.  Once again, we were the object of much interest, with people standing staring from the quay wall, and often taking photos.

The following morning, we took a brief stroll around this rather uninspiring town, finding a supermarket that sprawled endlessly around odd corners – not uncommon here.  After lunch onboard we slipped the lines and in a repeat of the previous day’s conditions, pottered another 19 Miles to the Ria de Ribadeo.  Once again, we pushed against the swell to enter the ria from the sea, finding much calmer water inland of the coastline, where we dropped the mainsail as the waves crashed against the rocks, before passing under the 30-metre high road bridge to anchor off Castropol, on the Eastern side.  The view up the ria towards the hills was reminiscent of the Lake District, especially when it became shrouded in mist.

The Ria de Ribadeo

This ria (river estuary) is wide and shallow, with sandbanks that shift constantly, so we were careful to watch our depth sounder readings, and also not to drop anchor on a vivero, where shellfish are farmed.  On Wednesday we needed to hop across to Ribadeo marina to take on water, but as we weren’t staying overnight in this bouncy, uncomfortable berth, we were charged twelve euros for the privilege.  We escaped briefly as soon as possible for a leg-stretch up the steep hill into the attractive old town, and were glad to slip back to our calm, comfortable anchorage for another quiet night.

We celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary sailing the final leg of our not-quite pilgrimage along the seaward route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, 90 Miles to A Coruña.  We set off mid-afternoon from Ribadeo, raising the mainsail as we headed into the wind and out to sea.  Once clear of the ria, and heading West once again, the airs were light enough to use the gennaker instead of the genoa, but the wind soon backed, spoiling our angles, so we changed back to the genoa.  In the evening we had our first proper visit by dolphins, a group of six to eight playing around the boat for a good 15 minutes.  A Spanish warship, on patrol locally, called us over the VHF and politely requested most of the usual information, in a friendly manner.

We motored for a short spell, until at sunset the wind picked up and we were soon down to the first reef in the mainsail, and the staysail.  We were very puzzled by a visit from an owl, possibly a little-eared owl, who looked like (s)he wanted to land on our very unstatic tree, but gave up after a couple of circuits and headed back inland.  Soon afterwards Mate spotted a tail sticking up out of the water surface right alongside the boat, and a huge eye apparently looking us over…it might have been a trigger fish?

Mate took the first night watch, until 0200 on Friday morning, just keeping a good lookout for any shipping, especially fishing vessels, which are not always lit but are always unpredictable in their movements.  She enjoyed ‘joining the dots’ of the lighthouses, Los Sigüelos at Punta Estaca de Bares, and at Cabo Ortegal.  Our speed was so high, she was concerned we would arrive before daylight, and left the sails poorly set for the wind angle, to slow us down to six or seven knots through a fairly lumpy swell.

Very tired and cold by the time Skipper relieved her, she tried to doze in the cockpit, until called to assist with a gybe as we changed course somewhere off Cedeira at 0330.  Eventually conditions calmed a little and she snuggled below into a warm sea berth, glad to sleep properly.  Having maintained Force 4-5 all night from the NE or NNE, as light began to seep into the early morning sky the wind dropped right away; Mate’s entry in the log at 0730 reads “glad to get off the rollercoaster”.  We made a misty landfall to anchor opposite the city in Ensenada de Mera, settling down for a proper rest just as the rest of the world was beginning its working day, at 0925.  Distance: exactly 90M; average speed: for us, a very respectable 5 knots, over 18 hours.

Modern art installation: the port control tower on A Coruña breakwater

After a lazy Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, we pottered across the bay to find a berth in Marina Coruña, amongst an array of international flags.  This is the first marina that feels transient: yachts are passage-making, rather than just sitting here most of the year going nowhere.  Between the marina and the commercial port area stands the Castillo de San Antón, now a museum of archeology and history, beautifully floodlit at night, while the marina is guarded from the breakwater by the port control tower, a distinctive ‘rugby goal post’ of glass and concrete.

L’Escale in Bilbao

Monday 5 – Tuesday 13 August

Having dozed away Sunday afternoon recovering from two days at sea, it was time to make our first landfall on Spanish, or rather Basque, soil.  We pottered across the harbour in the dinghy, to land at the private yacht club to which we were nearest – not to the warmest of welcomes, it has to be said.

Las Arenas

Aitzgoyen, neo-Basque, 1909

We wandered first along the promenade, originally populated by families of wealthy business owners around the turn of the last Century.  They commissioned famous architects of the day to design grand houses facing the sea, and well away from the heavy industries that used to line the banks of the Nervión River that leads to Bilbao itself.  We soon realised that we were well out in the leafy suburbs here at the port, and it’s some 10km by Metro into town.


We admired the Vizcaya Suspension Bridge, the oldest in the world and still in operation, carrying pedestrians and vehicles across the river by gondola every few minutes.  We passed on the opportunity to take the lift within the tower framework to walk across the overhead gantry – some 45 metres above the ground.  Instead we experienced our first taste of Basque food, treating ourselves to lunch; fortunately the waiter was patient with our mangled attempts at Spanish.

A ‘Fosterito’

Pinpointing the local Metro station for another day, we were able to find our way to the tourist office in the city centre for a very helpful chat with one of their guides, a free map and the purchase of a travel card.  This is a bargain for anyone visiting the city from outside and for more than a day, as we both travelled on the one card (purchase price €3, minimum ‘loading’ and top-up €5), and saved around 40% on every journey by Metro, bus and tram – it more than paid for itself.  The Metro system is clean, simple and efficient.  It was designed by Norman Foster, and has only been running since the early 1990s.  Some of the stations in the city centre have entrances that look like giant prawns.

On one occasion, we landed at Getxo marina to walk along the breakwater and around the beach to explore the old fishing harbour at Algorta.  The brisk Northerly breeze was blowing straight onto the seafront, whipping the sand up into clouds across the promenade.  Soon rain accompanied the wind, and we took shelter up narrow flights of steps between old fishermen’s cottages to the heart of the village above: the square in front of the church of San Nikolas – the patron saint of sailors.


‘Puppy’ guards the Guggenheim

Bilbao, capital of the Basque Country and very proud of its heritage, is a relatively recent discovery for tourists.  Until the virtual collapse of heavy industries such as shipbuilding and mining in the 1970s, it was a thriving, dirty, noisy port.  After a period of decline, Government money was committed to beginning the re-invention of the city by inviting Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry to design the Guggenheim, a museum of contemporary and modern art.  It is now the most-visited attraction in the city; one evening we strolled along the riverbank where it is situated, enjoying the sunset reflecting in the titanium panels of its curvy construction.

Bilbao is a fairly small city, and the key sites of interest can be reached easily on foot.  We spent time in the Casco Viejo, the old city, just East of the river from the more modern districts.  Here we enjoyed the Plaza Nueva, a cloistered quadrangle lined with boutiques and pintxo bars: pintxo (pronounced pincho) are the Basque variation of tapas, savoury snacks mostly served on bread, and are enjoyed with a glass of local Rioja Alavesa or txakoli, a pleasant white wine; both are served chilled.  Every bar everywhere has platters of these lined up on the counter, and some are delicious works of culinary art.

Sampler stitched on linen

Just outside the Plaza Nueva is the Basque Museum, the Euskal Museoa, also known as the Museo Vasco [Welsh-speaking readers may notice the apparent mutation of B to V; although Basque is thought to be the oldest living language in Europe, and similar to no other, I detected examples like this that made me think about the ancient Celtic cultural links].  In my quest to pinpoint something unique about each place we visit, I decided this was my museum choice of all those available, but to be honest, I learned more about Basque culture, customs and history from the Internet.

The museum is interesting, to a point; unfortunately every item is described in Basque and Castellan Spanish, but very little in English; some of the displays feel rather unrealistic and contrived, and there is a feeling of “well, we were donated this, so let’s exhibit it”. 

We found an interesting scale model of the region created in 3-D from nutmeg wood, that illustrates very clearly the rugged terrain of the Basque Country and the scattering of communities that inhabit it.  It is accompanied by a series of electronic tablets that give a well-written and informative selection of facts and figures about the region.  I’d have loved to be able to purchase a book or DVD of this to take away and absorb in comfort, as the room was extremely hot and one had to stand to read.

The museum illuminates a largely peasant community, whose livelihoods were earned shepherding, creating textiles from fleece and linen, or fishing, as well as local manufacturing of ironwork, ceramics and chinaware.  Many men went away to sea; it is said that the best seafaring explorers were Basque.  My favourite artefact was a 19th Century red (!) linen shawl, exquisitely embroidered. 

Main entrance to Mercado La Ribera

We wandered some of the Seven Streets that formed the original heart of Bilbao, on our way to the riverside where we found the Ribera market hall and San Antón Bridge, from where the founding charter of the City was read in 1300.  Disappointingly the market was closed for the day, but the building is attractive in Art Deco ironwork and stained glass, and the array of pintxos on display was the best anywhere for variety and style.

In the centre of the Casco Viejo stands Santiago Cathedral, but it was heaving with tourists and entry was €5 each, so we opted instead for the much quieter San Nicolás Church, built in the shape of a Greek cross and decorated in the Rococo style.  Inside was all dark wood panelling, heavily decorated reredos and statues to various saints.

We also tried for a visit to the ‘Mama’ church, the Basilica of Begoña, 213 steps up a hillside to overlook the city…but it was closed for siesta.  Top tip: always check opening times before you decide to visit anything in Spain – we’ve been caught out more than once.  It was a good view over the city, and a peaceful atmosphere in the small plaza beyond the East wall of the church.

We strolled across the Arenal bridge, past the attractive façade of the Arriaga Theatre, and into Abando main railway station, to admire a stunning stained glass window that depicts various aspects of Basque life.  Crossing the Plaza Circular, location of a very helpful tourist information office, we headed a short way along the main ‘artery’ of the city: Gran Via Don Diego López de Haro (known as Gran Via) is a sort of Champs Élysées of important government buildings and designer shopping.  Down a side street is Café Iruna, famous for stunning tiling and Art Nouveau wood panelling, but they couldn’t offer Earl Grey tea, so we moved on, pausing at a delicious bakery nearby to sample local specialities.

View from the top

Northwards to the riverside, we crossed the Zubizuri pedestrian bridge, a modern construction with an amusing subtext: the ‘floor’ of the bridge was built of glass panels, presumably so you could see the water below your feet as you crossed (why would you want to??), but it rains a lot in Bilbao, and when it rained, the surface became dangerously slippery, so it’s been carpeted with black rubber, obliterating the glass and view.  The texture of the matting is reminiscent of astro-turf, and walking on it is a very strange sensation.  Safely North of the river Nervión, we made our way to the funicular station for a short ride up another hillside to take in the spectacular views of the city in a botxo (hole) from the Artxanda Park viewpoint.

The final highlight of our time in this fascinating and attractive city was the Alhóndiga, now known as Azkuna Zentroa.  Originally the city’s wine warehouse, it was reimagined by Philippe Starck and is now a centre for contemporary art, culture and leisure.  At street level, the exterior of the building looks as it did in 1905, but as you walk up a broad ramp and under one of four arches, you find yourself in a vast atrium, used for temporary exhibitions.  The interior contains a series of huge cubes, used for a variety of purposes, supported on 43 unique columns.  The leisure facility is at the top of the building, and includes a long, narrow swimming pool with a (opaque) glass bottom that can be viewed from below [when it is not closed for maintenance].

Urban greenery

We enjoyed a number of the plentiful green spaces the city offers, including the Jardines Albia, near Café Iruna, reminiscent of a leafy London square, and the Dña. Casilda Iturrizar Park behind the modern Palacio Euskalduna Conference and Performing Arts Centre.  The park was laid out in 1907 and makes good use of varying ground levels to create a series of inter-connected water features amid lawns and shade-giving specimen trees.  There is also a formal courtyard area, including a colonnade of tiled arches.

Not included in our itinerary, but of interest to sport lovers, is the ‘Cathedral to Football’, the San Mamés Stadium that is home to Athletic Bilbao.  This team has a unique philosophy in only employing players of Basque origin – and they are one of the top Spanish teams.

We rounded off the extended stopover with two nights on the visitors’ pontoon managed by the local tourist office in Santurtzi, famous as a landing port for sardine fishing boats.  As well as our nights at anchor in the harbour bay, our time with easy access to land and facilities was also free, including power and water.  This is very much a typical workaday Spanish town, where we found a convenient launderette and some reasonable local shops for food, fruit and vegetables.

Our first Biscay passage

Friday 2 – Sunday 4 August

It was obviously an important day, as the Patrouille Acrobatique de France, the French version of the Red Arrows, performed a fly past in the diamond formation over our anchorage with the red-white-blue smoke streaming – very impressive.  We set off at noon, motoring into a light headwind until we had cleared the Antioche rock at the NW tip of the Ile d’Oleron.  Needless to say, the tide was against us as well, so it was a slow first ten Miles.

We took advantage of the conditions to hoist the mainsail in anticipation of improvements once we were able to turn SW, and finally started sailing properly mid-afternoon, unfurling the genoa onto a close reach, and adding the staysail for average speeds around seven knots on a flat sea – perfect!  We were even able to stand Jeanny down, as BobbyCool was able and willing to steer us reliably on our chosen course.  We covered a fairly respectable 65 Miles in the first twelve hours at sea.

Unfortunately, as darkness fell, so did the wind, and it became sloppy in the slight swell.  With almost no shipping around, when Mate took the watch around 0100 Saturday, she was able to enjoy “Sailing down the Milky Way” below a sky full of stars undimmed by the new moon, which had already risen and set.

When Skipper relieved her at 0600, first light, he was able to furl the genoa and drop the mainsail single-handed, and then set the gennaker to catch any whisper offered by the NE 1-2.  By noon it was hot and sunny, and we’d achieved the grand total so far of 85 miles – in 24 hours – and only 20 since midnight: somewhat dispiriting in this sea area of such fearsome reputation.  Moods were lifted by a shoal of tuna feeding on the surface and leaping clear of the sea…but they didn’t come close enough to the lure on the end of our fishing line.

By 1400 we were halfway, and at 1800 the log records enough wind (N4) to achieve a downwind speed of around 5 knots, and BobbyCool back in charge of steering.  At 2100 we crossed the border into Spanish waters, and the courtesy flag was duly changed as the gennaker was furled for the night.  With the genoa set, our first sighting of dolphins at dusk was a brief delight.

As Mate took the night watch, her priority was to keep me moving in the right direction, and as quietly as possible, so that Skipper could at last get a decent rest.  However, with the wind continuing to drop and swing around all over the place, she became increasingly frustrated, failing to gybe the genoa cleanly onto the other tack, which necessitated a visit up to the foredeck, harnessed of course, to untangle the sheets from the forward cleats – all in the pitch dark, as cloud obscured the stars.

Hearing the curses from down in the stern cabin, Skipper dragged himself back on deck to reassure – and remind – her there’s no way to sail a sailing boat without any wind, and reluctantly they called Trevver back into action, relieving BobbyCool in favour of Jeanny, who can be asked to steer when the engine is recharging the batteries he’s draining – somehow the wonderful new solar panel doesn’t do so well at night…

Of course, it wasn’t long before the wind filled in again, just a tantalising little, and Mate started to wonder if she should risk disturbing Skipper again by cutting the engine and trying to sail.  As it was still only 7 knots, she didn’t bother, but at the 0400 watch change, Skipper decided to get me back to being a sailing boat, and between them they set my mainsail and gennaker, before cutting the engine and Mate retiring below for a good (peaceful) rest.

At 0600 on Sunday morning, after 42 hours at sea, we’d covered the grand total of 157 Miles, and by 0830 the wind had died again, the sails were furled again and the engine was back on again, still 20 Miles short of the waypoint at the entrance to Bilbao harbour.  My crew knew we must be closing land, as there was a clutch of small fishing boats just ahead, but although daylight it was very overcast and cool with light drizzle.  The first yacht we passed in two days was flying a British ensign, and then at 1030 the cry went up: “Land Ahoy!” [Yes, that really does happen]

We made the final approach into Bilbao tortuously slowly, finally anchoring in the very sheltered large harbour at 1415.  We’d covered 189 Miles in 50.25 hours – not an impressive average speed, but we’d crossed a corner of this notorious stretch of sea without incident, drama or seasickness.  Our first impressions of the Basque country of Northern Spain?  Grey, very built up and industrial…but the next post will describe the pleasant surprise of our first foray ashore.

At anchor in Bilbao Harbour
Sunset over Bilbao Port

Ile d’Aix

Thursday 1 August

After an early start to ensure Mate’s mother caught the 0802 train to Bordeaux, to begin her journey of several stages back home, a second batch of laundry adorned my lines before 0900.  A repeat visit to the market ensured a well-provisioned fridge, and then I had a brief wash down before my water tanks were refilled and I was made ready to go back to sea.

When the lock gates were finally reopened for the evening high water at 1830 I was on my way in no time, pausing only to allow Skipper to re-establish that a green light my side of the lock indicated that it was my right to leave (outward-bound vessels usually have priority), and the incoming local (smaller) yacht was obliged to wait for his red light to turn green…

The river was churning and sandy/muddy coloured, but we slipped easily back downstream under a grey, overcast and damp sky.  We pushed against a cold headwind out of the channel and across to Ile d’Aix, where we failed to set the anchor and took advantage of an available mooring buoy to spend a reasonably comfortable night amongst trip boats and alongside a very familiar shape of aluminium hull – maybe an old Allures?