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Discovering Northern Spain: A Modern Family Pilgrimage Part 1

Discovering Northern Spain:  A Modern Family Pilgrimage Part 1

I was trying my best to settle into middle age. It had the outward appearance of success but came at a price:  miniscule time for family life.

And so it happened that there was a weekend that my better half and I were both home and not working.  He called me out of sorting the mountain of things threatening to take more real estate in the garage.  We did something we rarely did: sit down and watch TV.  He handed me a glass of Tempranillo. 

Rick Steves’ cheerful voice described Pamplona and the San Fermin. I was reminded of Hemingway and a wish from yesteryears to visit Spain.

Am I letting the best years of my life, our family life,  pass me by while we accumulate things?

Rick Steves talked about pintxos. I could almost taste the jamon, the pulpo, the bacalao, the chorizo.  He took us to Navarre, Galicia and the Basque country and somehow, managed to infect us through a TV show with the travel bug.

Beware of the travel bug, especially the Rick Steves kind.  When it infects you, your brain cells are consumed by thoughts of how to go.

We aligned two weeks off for both of us in the summer. Our kids were 4 and 5. We did our first family road trip in Europe.  We used the Camino de Santiago as the backbone of our trip.

What is the Camino de Santiago? 

Scallop: Symbol of the Camino and St. James

It is an old pilgrim route that leads to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain’s northwest Iberian peninsula.  There are actually many routes but the Camino Frances is the most famous one.  We went for the promise of a rich cultural journey.  The Camino is in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Camino de Santiago is supposed to be walked or biked. 

When walked, it could take 4 to 6 weeks to do the entire 800 km of the Camino Frances.

We only had 2 weeks to do this with two small children so we improvised:  we chose stops and took the autovía, the highway. The Spanish highways are well-maintained and easy to travel on.

Many times, our GPS liked to veer us out to smaller country roads…fun! Where we had to, we overrode the GPS directions, navigating the old-fashioned way, with our trusty Michelin map.  

We took our abbreviated version of the Camino Frances going to Santiago de Compostela (Part 1) and the reverse of the Camino Norte to get us back to Barcelona (Part 2).

If walking the traditional route of the Camino Frances is something that interests you, we suggest this resource:  Camino Ways.

Flying into Spain

We flew into Antoni Gaudí’s beautiful Barcelona.

We picked up our rental, an MPV, definitely more compact compared to what we drive in the US.  Will our luggage fit?  We have yet to learn about traveling light as a family, literally and figuratively.

After catching our collective breaths from the trans-Atlantic flight, we drove to the Pyrenees.  We passed by Huesca on our way to France’s Basque region.  Pastry from Tricas in Huesca made the trip sweet.  

Through the Pyrenees

Cows on the Road:  Slow Down

Camino Frances

St Jean Pied-de-Port

The Camino Frances, or the French Way, traditionally starts in the French Pyrenees.  

St. Jean Pied-de-Port is known as Donibane Garazi in Euskara, the Basque language.  In the Pilgrim’s Office, those who are planning to do the pilgrimage get their pilgrim’s passport.  They get this stamped along the way.


The Scallop and the Arrow Mark the Camino

Roncesvalles, Orreaga in Basque was wet and gray during our brief passage.  We stopped for history:  this was were Charlemagne was defeated.  Song of Roland.  


We did not run with the bulls.  What we did:  walked where the bulls ran and nibbled our way through the area of Calle de la Estafeta.  Travel opens our children’s palate to the flavors of the world.


Happy Day…With Wishes for More to Come

Bridge Over the Ebro River

Sculpture of Pilgrims Close to the Visitor’s Center

The neat little city of Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, known for its wine.  If you’re ever here, Calle del Laurel has excellent pintxos, or tapas.  They’re delightfully tasty and creative.

We took a detour out of the Camino and wandered out to Enciso for dinosaur tracks.  Parts of La Rioja reminded us of eastern Washington.


What to do in Burgos?  There are lots.  
What we did:  see the amazing Cathedral!  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We rewarded our children afterwards with helados, ice cream, and like this pilgrim, relaxed at the plaza.


Casa Botines

León, too, has a beautiful Gothic cathedral.  Its stained glass windows were being restored during our visit.

Our children found Antoni Gaudí sitting on a bench in front of the Casa Botines.  He designed this building that looks like a medieval fortress.  St. George  –whom they heard a lot about in Barcelona–  is slaying the dragon at the building’s facade.

Santiago de Compostela

We drove into Santiago de Compostela at night, under a blanket of stars.

Santiago de Compostela:  literally, St. James of the Field of Stars.

The next day we joined in the Pilgrim’s Mass.  The Cathedral was packed with pilgrims from around the world.  We celebrated a rite, old but in the hearts of the faithful, ever new.  It’s amazing that in this tech-ridden world, everyone respectfully kept their cameras and cellphones.

The site and the experience was moving.  Everyone watched in silence as the Botafumeiro, the giant incense carrier, went swinging high over our heads.

Main Altar of the Cathedral

A peaceful, joyous atmosphere permeates all over the city.  We watched fellow jubilant peregrinos cheering, clapping and singing as they make their entry into Plaza de Obraidoro.  There was something else I enjoyed:  a distinctly Celtic sound, the music from bagpipes.

Plaza de Obraidoro: View from the Cathedral

Food indulgence: Pulpo a la Gallega and Padron peppers.

When we visited, it was the week of the Feast of St. James.  We enjoyed visiting the fair.  Children’s food delight:  churros, especially the chocolate coated ones.

On the day we left, there was an outdoor concert.  The crowd hummed and kept the beat with the orchestra’s song, What A Wonderful World.

Personal Reflections from the Camino 

I summarize in four phrases the lessons I learned from the Camino:  

  • Less stuff
  • Less fluff
  • More travel
  • More life

On our return to Washington, I felt liberated.  I dipped in my newfound courage to say NO.

  • No, this time is for sharpening the saw. 
  • No, this time is for the people I love.
  • No, I’m not buying this and that because there is a better choice:  travel life light.    

One last thought:  make the most of what you’ve got.  We can’t afford month-long vacations.  But a little family time can be the best of times.

Buen Camino!

Thanks for reading our blog post!

-Kathleen PB

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4 thoughts on “Discovering Northern Spain: A Modern Family Pilgrimage Part 1”

    • Thanks Nicole! It was a special trip. And there were not only cows, there were also sheep on the road. A reminder to slow down and just take in the moments.

  • This was so great! I would love to take the kids along the Camino de Santiago! By foot would be incredible, but yeah, I would totally settle for going by car. Isn’t it amazing what slowing down and relishing in our time as a family can do for your outlook on everything? Thanks for sharing your experience and for inspiring family travel, in whatever way it works for you.

    • Thanks Melinda! I still dream of doing the Camino on foot or by bike but will wait until my kids are bigger. Life is typically a whirlwind and it’s those slower family days that help to keep us grounded.

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