The Camino del Salvador is a 118km camino from León to Oviedo, famed for its mountain scenery. Bookended by two fabulous historic cities, the Salvador is otherwise an isolated, rural trail taking in some of the most beautiful views that any route of the Camino de Santiago has to offer.
Here are our highlights of the Camino del Salvador.
Medieval Art in León
As one of the most famous destinations on the Camino Francés, and a popular starting point for a shortened version of that camino, León is worthy of a sightseeing day before starting the Salvador for the scope and brilliance of its medieval art.
The city’s 13th-century cathedral is one of the most significant Gothic churches in Spain, and its towers and spires provide a fascinating contrast with the smaller, older and darker pre-Romanesque churches towards the end of the Salvador.
In particular, the cathedral is known for having the largest set of stained-glass windows of any church in the world, covering about 1,800 square metres. Some windows depict biblical stories, and others contain scenes relating to the camino itself, but my favourite window has always been the one showing grumpy faces stuck inside plants.
The other unmissable highlight of León is the church of San Isidoro and, in particular, the Royal Pantheon. Containing Visigothic column capitals but better known for its stunning 12th-century murals, the pantheon is often described as the ‘Romanesque Sistine Chapel’. The wall and ceiling paintings are extremely well-preserved and include such scenes as the seven churches of Asia on one ceiling vault and a monthly agrarian cycle on one of the arches.
In the church’s museum, the chalice of Urraca, an important 12th-century queen of León, is yet another beautiful example of the city’s medieval legacy.
The Mountains of Castile and León
The first stage on the Salvador is hot, shadeless and mostly flat, although pilgrims switching from the Francés will find it positively bursting with plant life after the endless plains of the Meseta.
On the second day, there is a glimpse of the mountains that give the Salvador its identity, beginning with roadside cliffs after Beberino and the climb to the Alto de San Antón after Buiza.
It’s on the third day of most pilgrims’ itineraries, however, that the landscape fully reveals itself. After setting out from Poladura de la Tercia on the ‘queen stage’ of the Salvador, it’s only 3km to the most celebrated viewpoint of the camino: the Cruz del Salvador, with almost 360-degree views of both nearby and distant peaks.
In winter, the entire scene can be covered in snow, while in spring or early summer, yellow flowers create an explosion of colour across the landscape and provide a striking contrast with the green of the valley floor.
Two further passes shortly afterwards, including the Puerto de Pajares, offer more stunning views. All told, the mountain vistas of this stage are likely to form some of your best memories of the Salvador.
The Forests of Asturias
The Salvador is a journey through two distinct Spanish regions — Castile and León and Asturias — which is typified in a very long day (or two short ones) in the middle of the camino that showcases the natural scenery both have to offer.
Soon after crossing the regional border at the Puerto de Pajares, the sweeping views and rocky crags of the Spanish heartland are replaced with paths through lush green forests that recall Asturias’ more famous camino, the Primitivo.
From Llanos (Chanos), the new Munisteriu alternative route is an adventurous, forested path on a mountainside that can be tough but rewarding with waterfalls, tiny wild cherries and strawberries, spider web tunnels and other insect life.
Back on the main trail, the subsequent Fresneo-Herias section is also largely through thick forest, providing a striking contrast with the shadeless paths earlier on the Salvador.
The Magical Atmosphere of Bendueños
It is not an exaggeration to say that the donativo albergue at Bendueños is, quite simply, the best albergue on any Camino de Santiago route. It is not directly on the camino, and the 1.5km detour from the path to the albergue includes a switchback uphill climb, but it is beyond worth it for the atmosphere, views and everything else that makes Bendueños such a special place.
The stone building is more reminiscent of a family cabin in the woods than an albergue. The bedroom features cosy single beds, plentiful blankets and a book nook, while the downstairs kitchen is stocked with all manner of drinks and snacks. These comforts alone would make this an exceptional albergue; however, Bendueños somehow offers so much more.
The views of the Asturian mountains from the albergue are fabulous, especially in the early morning as clouds and sunlight shift around the peaks. But, above all, it’s hospitalera Sandra’s warm welcome and delicious stews that create a special pilgrim atmosphere in the true spirit of the camino.
Directly opposite the albergue, the village church contains an extraordinary and recently restored 18th-century fresco cycle in which all figures, including saints and angels, are Black. The reason for this remains a mystery, although one suggestion is that the village priest visited the Caribbean before commissioning the paintings.
The pre-Romanesque Jewel of Santa Cristina de Lena
In the 9th century the flame of Christianity was kept alive in the Iberian peninsula in the tiny Kingdom of the Asturias. Here an innovative pre-Romanesque architectural style was created that was to play a significant role in the development of the religious architecture of the peninsula. Its highest achievements can be seen in the churches of Santa María del Naranco, San Miguel de Lillo, Santa Cristina de Lena, the Cámara Santa and San Julián de los Prados, in and around the ancient capital city of Oviedo.UNESCO World Heritage List
As the Salvador descends from the mountains, pilgrims who make a slight detour from the camino and are willing to wait for the 11am opening are treated to an extraordinary sight: the pre-Romanesque church of Santa Cristina de Lena.
Perched alone on a small hill in a valley, surrounded by mountains, this mid-ninth century edifice even today evokes the rural isolation that would become a hallmark of many later Romanesque complexes.
The interior is a small and austere but beautiful space highlighted by a raised, triple-arched apse. As with later Romanesque churches, there is little natural light, as only tiny windows could be inserted into the load-bearing walls. This creates a monochrome grey setting and a slightly haunting atmosphere befitting the moniker ‘Dark Ages’, although the extraordinary architectural achievement of Santa Cristina and the entire Asturian pre-Romanesque collection could be held up as an example of why that term is no longer in vogue.
The Cider Bars and Early Medieval Heritage of Oviedo
Oviedo is not only the end point for the Salvador, but its raison d’être: the northern diversion from the Camino Francés exists as a side pilgrimage to the city from where Asturian king Alfonso II undertook the first Camino de Santiago, in AD 814.
The Asturian capital is famous for its sidrerías (cider bars), particularly on Calle Gascona, a street known as the ‘Bulevar de las Sidrerías’. In Asturias, the cider is more sour than sweet and, as an acquired taste, it’s not to everyone’s liking. The real highlight, however, is not the cider itself but the ritual culture that surrounds it: at the sidrerías, staff pour small amounts of cider from bottles held high above their head into a glass held below their waist – all without looking! It’s fascinating to watch and makes for a great cultural experience.
If you can drag yourself out of the cider bars and have the energy after walking the Salvador, Oviedo has plenty of historic attractions on offer. The various eras of art and architecture on display at the cathedral span the entire Middle Ages, from traces of its early medieval incarnation as a royal palace to its Gothic tower and cloister. The most famous part of the cathedral, the Holy Chamber (Cámara Santa), contains two chapels: the upper chapel of Saint Michael, restored in the 12th century and famous for its relics and Romanesque sculptures; and the even more impressive ninth-century lower chapel and crypt of Saint Leocadia, built during the reign of Alfonso II himself. Atmospheric and eerie, the tunnel-like crypt evokes the long-forgotten past as over 1000 years of history swirls around you.
Beyond the cathedral, the important Christian heritage of Oviedo from the early Middle Ages – a time when most of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim control after the invasion of AD 711 – is also on display at the church of San Julián de los Prados. Although overshadowed by the more famous Naranco churches just outside the city, San Julián forms part of the same UNESCO World Heritage listing. It’s a wonderful example of pre-Romanesque art and architecture in its own right, highlighted by its splendid ninth-century frescoes, which are unusual for not featuring any representations of living beings.
While these attractions make Oviedo a worthy finishing point for the Salvador, it might not be the end of the road — for many pilgrims, the Camino Primitivo awaits!