The Camino de San Salvador is perhaps the most mountainous of all the Caminos de Santiago. This short, pilgrimage path of only 119 kilometers (74 miles, figures by my GPS tracks), will physically test most of you! Do not be fooled by the short length.
Take as much time as you need to do this amazingly glorious route from León along the French Way to Oviedo, the start of the Camino Primitivo. Your legs, especially your knees will thank you for it!
“Mountains have long been a geography for pilgrimage, a place where people have been humbled and strengthened, they are symbols of the sacred center. Many have traveled to them in order to find the concentrated energy of Earth and to realize the strength of unimpeded space." ~ Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom
If ever there were a mountainous pilgrimage "sacred center" as the quote above describes, Oviedo is one. It is a city of churches, mighty and ancient!
Even though the above author of the quote is Buddhist, her words ring true in regard to medieval pilgrims. Yes, she is addressing the mountains themselves as a sacred center, but what could be more sacred than a sacred center in the mountains?
Since time began, humans have been drawn to the mountains. If you walk the Camino de San Salvador, traveled by many ancient and modern feet, you will arrive in a secred center, Oviedo, barely less important than Santiago de Compostela itself.
The San Salvador pilgrimage route was created for pilgrims desiring to also visit the Cathedral of Oviedo along the route to Santiago. This is because within the cathedral is the Holy Chamber or Cámara Santa, containing the famous Shroud of Oviedo. This shroud or "Sudarium" is believed to be the very cloth that covered the face of Jesus at his crucifixion.
There is a reference in the Bible, in the book of John, 20:6,7 and I quote the NIV version ~ "6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen."
There is a well-known Spanish saying that goes as follows: "Quien va a Santiago y no al Salvador, visita al lacayo y no al Señor." ("He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador [the Cathedral in Oviedo], visits the servant and not the Lord.") ~ Author Unknown.
Because of this tradition, many pilgrims set off from León to visit the cathedral in Oviedo, 119 kilometers to the north, over treacherous mountain passes. It makes a lovely combination with the Camino Primitivo, which begins where the San Salvador ends.
Here is our GPS tracks of the entire route, uploaded to Google Maps. It is fully interactive and can be opened, pinched and moved around. I will break down each day's section in the pages to follow, just scroll to the bottom for links to an individual section that you desire to see.
Here is the elevation profile for the entire route, taken from my photograph on the San Salvador credential, see below.
Because of the historical and spiritual significance of the Camino del Salvador, you can obtain a special credential for it, shown in the photo below. We first visited the tourist office next to the Cathedral in León, having information that we could obtain the special credential there. We were told they no longer carry it, but that we could obtain it at the Albergue de Peregrinos Las Carbajalas, at the monastery of the Benedictine nuns. It is south of the center of town, just steps off the French Way, where it enters the city from the south.
For a small fee of 3 Euro each, we obtained our credential, and returned to the center of town to visit the Cathedral.
This credential has lots of information on it, including a list of albergues, location of services, the elevation profile, and a general map of the Caminos del Norte, shown below. You can see the interconnectedness of these three Caminos on the map.
At the end of your Camino de San Salvador, you can get a document that certifies your completion called the Salvadorana, in the Cathedral of Oviedo, that is similar to the Compostela at the end of the Camino de Santiago. You will need to have your credential stamped at least twice a day to prove your pilgrimage.
The Salvadorana also grants the pilgrim a free entry into the cathedral. Be sure you get the Salvadorana first, as the admission price is not insignificant! For more information on the Cathedral of Oviedo, click on the link for their official website.
When we walked this Camino in the early fall, of the few pilgrims we encountered most of them were Spanish. You will need whatever elementary Spanish you know, or be prepared for lots and lots of hand gestures on this pilgrimage!
I would most certainly not advise this Camino to be your first Camino, as your up/downhill hiking and endurance skills will be put to the test. This is not a well-supported route, with long distances between albergues, up and over high mountain passes.
If this is your first Camino, you should probably have backpacking skills, long-distance hiking skills and the flexibility to weather cultural complications.
Surprisingly, there are many public fountains (fuentes) along the route, so water is less of an issue than on some Caminos.
Because of the distance between towns, you should absolutely always carry high energy snacks in your pack at all times.
The route is well-marked, with many types of waymarks you would expect, depending on the region you are walking through. They vary from concrete waymarks, to wooden, and there are always the supplemental yellow painted arrows.
The San Salvador begins in the region of Castilla y León and continues through it for about half of the entire Way, to the highest point at a mountain pass called the Venta Pajares. The waymarks in this region are distinct, initially made of concrete, but also of wood.
Here is the typical concrete waymark you will see in the region of Castilla y León, below. Rich and I are standing at the very first one to the east of the plaza, where the San Salvador officially starts (see farther below).
These concrete waymarks are placed along the Camino, so when you see one you know you are on the right path, however, they do not give you a direction of travel at all! Look instead for the painted yellow arrows.
In the region of Castilla y León you will encounter these helpful wooden waymarks, shown below. Notice the rays of the shell are meaningless for the denotation of the direction of travel. It is the direction of the yellow arrow that you follow. The one in the photo below directs the pilgrimage traveler to go straight ahead.
Halfway through the Camino del Salvador, you enter the region of Asturias. Here it is the shells themselves that denote the direction of travel, but usually accompanied by a yellow arrow as well.
The shell's rays join together at the middle. It is the middle of the shell that points toward the direction of travel. This is exactly the opposite as in Galicia, the region where Santiago de Compostela resides.
Below is a photo of a typical Asturian waymark, and the direction of travel is to the left, or towards the middle where the rays of the shell come together.
If you are combining the San Salvador with the Primitivo, when you cross over into Galicia, the shell waymark direction changes. In Galicia you follow the direction of the rays.
There are some confusing areas along the San Salvador, that if you are not paying attention, you could get lost. There is even a place where the "official" Camino is not recommended, and there is a waymarked alternative route that is better. If you use my website, and/or purchase my San Salvador eBook you will be fine! Otherwise pay close attention at all times.
It is always helpful the night before to read up on the day to come, so you will be better prepared, especially in the mountains!
The steep grades on this Camino are not to be underestimated. The hills are relentless. For me, the downhill was much worse than the uphill. My knees really felt the downhill pounding, despite my heavy use of trekking poles and use of knee supports.
Train for this one! While we did the entire route in five days, please consider making it six or more. In my writing, I have broken down our day three into two parts, a more sane approach as I understand it now. Our day three was a Herculean effort of almost 10 hours, with the last 20 kilometers of relentless downhill pounding. It was a very, very difficult day, for which I would not recommend.
Unfortunately, sections of the route were not well-maintained. Many of the off-road trails were so overgrown when we walked it that I frequently used my hiking poles to move brush and thorny brambles out of my way as I walked. This would be interesting if you are walking just after, or during rain. The Camino is a fluid thing, so perhaps this will change in the near future.
This photo below could be called "Where's Waldo?" (Rich). You can see the overgrowth on the trail.
A Spanish gentleman, known as Ender, is a pilgrim who for years has walked, maintained and provided much useful information for other pilgrims along the San Salvador. For ease of your planning, I have provided his suggestions for staging with some adaptations of my own.
Never was there a Camino where you need to understand your abilities, like on this one! We found out the hard way. The six to seven day stages shown below is what I would recommend for the average pilgrimage walker. Assess your abilities carefully and be flexible enough to change them if needed.
|Day 1 - León - Buiza||40 Km|
|Day 2 - Buiza - Pajares||24 Km|
|Day 3 - Pajares - Pola de Lena||25 Km|
|Day 4 - Pola de Lena - Oviedo||34 Km|
|Day 1 - León - La Robla||27 Km|
|Day 2 - La Robla - Poladura||24 Km|
|Day 3 - Poladura - Bendueños/Campomanes||30/31.6 Km|
|Day 4 - Bendueños/Campomanes - Mieres||22.5/20.9 Km|
|Day 5 - Mieres - Oviedo||18 Km|
|Five Days Alternative:|
|Day 1 - León - La Robla||27 km|
|Day 2 - La Robla - Poladura||24 km|
|Day 3 - Poladura - Pajares (or Llanos de Somerón)||15 km (18 km)|
|Day 4 - Pajares (or Llanos de Somerón) - Pola de Lena||25 km (22 km)|
|Day 5 - Pola de Lena - Oviedo||34 km|
|Day 1 - León - La Robla||27 km|
|Day 2 - La Robla - Poladura||24 km|
|Day 3 - Poladura - Pajares||15 km|
|Day 4 - Pajares - Bendueños/Campomanes||15/16.6 km|
|Day 5 - Bendueños/Campomanes - Mieres||22.5/20.9 km|
|Day 6 - Mieres - Oviedo||18 km|
|Day 1 - León - Cabanillas||17 km|
|Day 2 - Cabanillas - La Robla||10 km|
|Day 3 - La Robla - Poladura||24 km|
|Day 4 - Poladura - Pajares (or Llanos de Somerón)||15 km (18 km)|
|Day 5 - Pajares (or Llanos de Somerón) - Pola de Lena||25 km (22 km)|
|Day 6 - Pola de Lena - Mieres||15 km|
|Day 7 - Mieres - Oviedo||18 km|
|Day 1 - León - Cabanillas||17 km|
|Day 2 - Cabanillas - La Robla||10 km|
|Day 3 - La Robla - Buiza||15 km|
|Day 4 - Buiza - Poladura||9 km|
|Day 5 - Poladura - Pajares||15 km|
|Day 6 - Pajares - Bendueños/Campomanes||15/16.6 km|
|Day 7 - Bendueños/Campomanes - Mieres||22.5/20.9 km|
|Day 8 - Mieres - Oviedo||18 km|
|Day 1 – León - Cabanillas||17 km|
|Day 2 – Cabanillas - La Robla||10 km|
|Day 3 – La Robla - Buiza||15 km|
|Day 4 – Buiza - Poladura||9 km|
|Day 5 – Poladura - Pajares||15 km|
|Day 6 – Pajares – Bendueños/Campomanes||15/16.6 km|
|Day 7 – Bendueños/Campomanes - Pola de Lena||10 km/8.4 km|
|Day 8 – Pola de Lena - Mieres||15 km|
|Day 9 – Mieres - Oviedo||18 km|
***Please note that kilometer distances are only approximate and may differ from my GPS measurements in the text!
Make no mistake, despite its pitfalls, the Camino de San Salvador takes the pilgrimage traveler through lofty and stunningly beautiful country. The vistas will amaze you and be worth the effort of the climb!
The Camino de San Salvador is also steeped with history, depicted in placards along the way. The culmination of the historical beauty along the pilgrimage way, is perhaps the 9th Century UNESCO, pre-Romanesque church of Santa Cristina de Lena, shown below.
You will encounter this church 25 miles south of Oviedo (on day four) and is one of five churches in this region of Oviedo, Asturias to claim the Unesco World Heritage classification. The two Naranco churches (Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo), up the hill west of Oviedo, the San Julián de los Prados, in Oviedo itself, and the Cámara Santa in the cathedral of Oviedo make up the five.
If you get to Oviedo via the Camino del Salvador, you will be able to see all five of these pre-Romanesque, 9th century UNESCO world heritage sites! Click the links in these paragraphs to see all these amazingly historic churches! You will want to spend a day in Oviedo, if you have the time.
We found that traveling to León was most efficient by train, from Madrid. If you choose this route, by flying into Madrid, you will take the Metro (click here for the metro map) from the airport at the T4 terminal. From the terminal, the C-1 Metro will take you west to the Madrid Chamartín Train Station, about 15 minutes later.
It is at the Chamartín station that you catch the train north to León. I would strongly advise you to book your tickets ahead, online at Renfe. We had to wait several very long hours for an afternoon train, since the earlier train was fully booked. It was not pleasant waiting in the busy and uncomfortable train station after the long overnight flight to Madrid from the USA.
It is a 2.5 hour train ride to León from Chamartín. The train station is to the west of town within an easy walk to the center. There are many choices of accommodation in León to book ahead if you so desire. There is also the main albergue as noted above, the Albergue de Peregrinos Las Carbajalas to the south of the city center.
We chose the Hotel Quindós, for its proximity to the start of the Camino de San Salvador, on the west side of town and a short walk across the Río Bernesga from the train station.
León is a city worth some visiting time as well, but we only took the afternoon to see it. Our time budget would not allow us more.
The Camino Francés goes through the city, and as it passes by the grand Catedral de León, it turns westward to walk through town. As the Camino approaches the Río Bernesga on the west side, it walks through the Plaza de San Marcus, shown below, containing the Church and Convent of San Marcus.
Here is a sunrise photo of the Plaza de San Marcus, as we saw it on day one, at the very beginning of our Camino del Salvador.
Be sure to locate this wonderful place and the pilgrim's statue, shown below, that marks the official beginning of the pilgrimage to Oviedo!
At the foot of the statue is this plaque, the official waymark to start your Camino del Salvador!
The Camino Francés continues to head west here, and across the river as the plaque shows, but the San Salvador turns northward to skirt the Parador de León to the east. You can stay at the Parador if you are up for a splurge, and be directly on the Camino San Salvador on your first day!
The Hotel Quindos, where we stayed, is very nice and comfortable, and only a few steps from the start, for a much smaller price tag than the Parador.
And thus, is your introduction to the wild, challenging and beautiful Camino de San Salvador. May you find the concentrated energy of the Earth and realize the strength of unimpeded space!
May your own pilgrimage journey through the sacred mountains of northern Spain, on the way to the sacred center of Oviedo, humble and strengthen you! Onward and Ultreia!
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