If you were to attempt the Camino de Santiago, you would quickly discover that León is a very important city on the most well known route, the Camino Francés. However, before crossing the Roman bridge of the Río Bernesga, you might have stumbled across a signal showing an alternative route on the wall of the Monesterio de San Marcos. That sign, is the starting point of the rarely used Camino de San Salvador which connects León and Oviedo in Asturias. Any unsuspecting pilgrim might be confused by this alternative direction, especially given that Oviedo is north and totally the wrong way to Santiago. So why does it exist?
Well, the most condensed version ever, The Moors were taking over Iberia, the Christians fled north to prevent their valuable religious relics from being seized by the Arab forces. Later, pilgrims in Medieval times would divert to Oviedo to see the Catedral de San Salvador (hence the name) and continue directly to Santiago. During the Reconquista, the popularity of the route dropped in favour of the Francés due to the shift in political power south. Nowadays, it still is not a particularly well-known route, nor do many people use it. Therefore, I had to give it a go.
I had completed the Camino Francés just 6 weeks before setting off on this two- day excursion. The bike I had used, was swapped for the one that had some suspension and tailored more to my size. The weather was notably warmer despite snow having cut off major passes the week before, and I prepared a little better for this journey. To complete this journey, you can obtain a different booklet than the one you pick up from the Camino francés, though the original is still completely valid for use. At the end, you can obtain the Salvadorana providing you show stamps at the relevant locations. It’s also very useful to have local information at hand for guides and the oficina de turismo de León as well as most pilgrim hostels will have lists and numbers to help out.
I bought a book specifically for this journey and it suggested for a hiker it would take about 4 days to complete, but other guides go for 5. It was clear that there were few hostels for pilgrims for this route, which limits your flexibility of how much you want to walk during the day, for us as cyclists, that didn’t apply. If you have a good set of legs and a good bike, you could actually reach Oviedo in just one day. I went with the same person who accompanied me on the last trip, Rafael, and we set off on a bright Saturday morning armed with as much as possible.
We merged the first three stages from the book, to just one day, which would mean crossing the highest parts of the Cantabrian Mountains. Starting from León, you follow the Rio Bernesga north out of town, and within 5 km you are well and truly out of town and cruising through Carbajal de la Legua, which is where things dramatically changed. This track is not suitable for road bikes, and is a challenge for any mountain bike, so I wouldn’t recommend taking this route, and instead diverting to the CL- 623 to Lorenzana, and turning to the LE-4514. The track followed the Bernesga at times, while occasionally climbing the ridge to the right, it’s not really obvious where the signals take you either.
After at least an hour, you find a small hamlet called Cabanillas which was where we diverted back to the main road towards the first major town, La Robla. should you continue on the actual camino, you would stop through the villages of la Seca de Alba and Cascantes de Alba. The road itself is not challenging yet, and you are on the verge of entering the mountain phase, so the scenery starts to get better. La Robla is the last crossroads before you enter the Cantabrian mountains, and you do need to be careful here. It’s also the crossroad for another Camino called the Camino Olvidado, which connects Bilbao and Pamplona to Cacabelos on the Camino Francés.
La Robla itself is not a overly spectacular, it is workers town, known for it’s mining and industry, not much more. On the other hand, it is the perfect place to rest and top up on supplies, if need be. There is also a hostel for pilgrims leading out of town, and a train station in case you need it. Providing you stay on or near the N-630, the yellow arrows will guide you north. The camino actually stays right of the Bernesga and intermittently connects to the main road, before diverting to the hamlets of Puente de Alba and Peredilla the later of which has some beautiful stone houses, but little more to write about. There is also the Castillo de Alba, visible from various points of this road, but is a notable diversion and again unsuitable for bikes.
After about 4km, The Camino diverts from the main road towards Nocedo de Gordón, and the Valley gets a little wider. The road took us away from any cars and was a pleasant experience especially the scenery at this point. The Camino diverts you right of Nocedo towards Pola de Gordón under a tall bridge and from there we could see snow patches on some of the mountains for the first time. The condition of the Camino is actually very good, and the climb is gradual and you for the most part are running near the railway. Upon entering, you can notice fairly quickly, that this town is more picturesque than La Robla, and you cross the Bernesga to the centre to Calle de la Constitución. It’s worth noting that this one of the last notable town of any kind until you reach Asturias, so anything you need, like banks, supermarkets, post office etc, Pola De Gordón has them.
Pola De Gordón is kinda the start of the next phase of the Journey, and my guide suggested that too. We rejoined the N-630 very briefly before turning off the LE-473 where you will pass through the small hamlet of Beberino before going through a major valley road with impressive views albeit briefly before turning off into another road, the CV 103-1to Buiza. If you are using a road bike, I recommend you stay on the N-630 as the section after Buiza is not suitable at all. The Camino from Pola de Gordon splits three times but all reconnect at the same main road eventually.
Buiza is a small village with a hostel for pilgrims and is practically the end of the road where the Camino splits into two, and both go off road, and climb. the most traditional route heads northwest and eventually connects to the N-630 via the ski resort of Valgrande Pajares. The other, which we took, headed over a mountain pass and connected to the N-630 via Villasimpliz. The road is called Calle Iglesia and the track practically disappears at the very top, and its a steep dirty descent to the village. You are met with spectacular views from the top of the pass, as well as the village of Buiza (which also has a hostel for any pilgrims on the journey).
Villasimpliz is nothing more than a hamlet, and has virtually nothing to offer anyone passing by, or so we thought, and kept going, joining the main road towards Villamanin, the next town. After passing through a short tunnel, we end up at the last crossroads before crossing the border with Asturias. Here, the higher mountains with a notable amount of snow on top are now becoming widespread and the natural views alone are worth the trip so far. If you have enough time, Villamanin is worth stopping at for a rest despite it being a little out of the way. This town has very distinct architecture typical of some of the mountain towns in this area, and the Plaza de la Constitución is worth checking out. This town is the last reasonably sized settlement until you reach Asturias, though there are some bars and hostels along the way.
The road is by this point, getting notably steeper, though by any standards, is not that taxing compared to most, and you are now approaching the border, where the highest mountains of the chain can be seen. The weather by this point was still holding up, but getting colder, only 9 degrees, and at this point you pass through Busdongo, which has very little to offer any traveler barring the odd bar towards the end. This village also happened to be the birthplace of one of the richest men in the world, Amancio Ortega which I didn’t know at the time.
Arbas del puerto is the last settlement before Asturias and has some amazing views of the Pico Cellón one of the many 2000m+ peaks that mark the border, and there is a large monastery, the Colegiata de Santa Maria de Arbas. It is well worth stopping for a few minutes to check it out and enjoy the views, and is where the traditional walking route reconnects. The last push to Puerto Pajares, is the hardest part of the climb to the top of the mountain pass. The top is nearly 1400m in altitude, and you are greeted with stunning views from both sides, and a notably greener looking Asturias. On a clear Day, Peña Ubiña, one of the highest mountains west of the Picos de Europa, is a dominant feature, and you can see the main road take you downhill, a welcoming change for any cyclist.
The pass is a worthy rest stop, popular for bikers and cyclists alike, the bars that are there are worth resting at before descending into Asturias. The village of Pajares is the first place you can stop at before reaching the bottom of the valley. There, you can spend the night in a hostel for pilgrims and would signify the end of the 3rd day for somebody walking. by this point, you keep descending, and after 19km, you’ve reached the town of Campomanes. It’s worth noting, that there are multiple viewpoints along the purely downhill part of the Camino, and you can easily reach the town in less than an hour, though it’s worth stopping for the endless amount of views. The Flor de Acebos is the most notable viewpoint during this stretch, and you can actually leave the roadside for it.
We noticed straightway just how different the landscape of Asturias became. The final stretch takes you to Pola de Lena via the AS 242 by bike, though the camino actually takes you directly north via the train station, where you will come across the Iglesia de Santa Maria de Lena, and connects with the cycling route about 6km later. There isn’t really any other point of major interest for the rest of the way until Pola de Lena, just the natural landscape, so go easy, and enjoy it like we did.
Within 30 mins we arrived in the town, and looked for the hostel that was on the booklet. You have to call the number, and the arrangement for us was made at the local police station, which led us to a building next to the train station. It’s a bit of a hassle, and your donation isn’t controlled, and keys to enter are limited. The lack of popularity of this route was evident as there was just us, and one other pilgrim staying the night. It’s likely that the system changes during busier times of the year, but it makes it more important than ever to retain all the information you pick up on this Camino. The most important thing is you can sleep well, as Oviedo where this Camino ends is just 36km away…