The Camino Primitivo – the Original Way – is the beginning of the Camino de Santiago itself. According to tradition, the first pilgrim to Santiago was King Alfonso II ‘The Chaste’ of Asturias, who embarked from his capital at Oviedo in AD 814 to verify that the tomb of the apostle had been discovered the previous year.
Today, the camino that follows Alfonso’s journey is an up-and-coming route in the Spanish regions of Asturias and Galicia. As a relatively short pilgrimage of about 310 kilometres, the Primitivo is typically completed in 12 or 13 days. In 2019, the Camino Primitivo was the sixth most popular camino, accounting for nearly five per cent of all pilgrims among those who received a compostela in Santiago.
These are our highlights of the Camino Primitivo.
The Cider Bars and Medieval Legacy of Oviedo
The starting point for the Primitivo, Oviedo is famous for its sidrerías (cider bars), particularly on Calle Gascona in the historic centre of the city, a street known as the ‘Bulevar de las Sidrerías’ (Boulevard of the Cider Bars). Here, 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 Asturian 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 to begin your adventure on the Primitivo.
If you can drag yourself out of the cider bars, Oviedo has plenty of historic attractions to offer before you set out on the camino. 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 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 and is a wonderful example of pre-Romanesque art and architecture in its own right, highlighted by its splendid ninth-century frescoes.
The Naranco Churches
The crown jewel of Asturia’s pre-Romanesque legacy is Santa María del Naranco, one of a pair of early medieval churches on the slopes of Mount Naranco overlooking Oviedo, just over three kilometres from the provincial capital. Santa María was part of a royal palace built by Alfonso II’s successor, Ramiro I, and, although it had a civil function, it was consecrated as a church in AD 848 before becoming an exclusively ecclesiastical building in the 12th century. The remarkably well-preserved church contains early forms of various architectural elements, such as the barrel vault, that foreshadow Romanesque, the style that would become the hallmark of Spanish Christian architecture in the centuries that followed.
Nearby, the church of San Miguel de Lillo also once formed part of the same ninth-century royal complex. While not as elaborate and picturesque as Santa María, it is still an exceptional historic building and warrants a visit to round out your exploration of Asturia’s pre-Romanesque heritage.
The Naranco churches can be visited by bus or taxi – or on foot – from Oviedo before starting the pilgrimage. If you prefer to spend your Oviedo time in cider bars instead, however, a recommended alternative to the standard Primitivo route out of Oviedo allows pilgrims to visit the churches while on the trail before rejoining the main camino later that day at Lampaxuga. Staying the first night at the albergue in Escamplero makes for a short first day (about 18km), allowing plenty of time to experience the wonder of the churches and to ease into the rhythm of the camino.
The Primitivo doesn’t offer the variety of landscapes that are an indelible part of longer routes such as the Camino Francés. On the contrary, the countryside on the Primitivo is fairly similar throughout the pilgrimage. This doesn’t detract from its appeal, however, as the Primitivo is considered to be one of the most beautiful of all the routes to Santiago.
The Original Way takes you through forests and fields, up and down hills and alongside little streams, and, throughout this landscape, the greenery stands out above all. Between Oviedo and Lugo there isn’t a huge amount of historic or cultural heritage on this camino; instead, it’s all about the nature. And being surrounded by so much greenery – simultaneously monotone yet incredibly vibrant – in both the Asturian and Galician sections of the trail is likely to form some of your most lasting memories of the entire walk.
But before you prepare to bask in the nature of the Primitivo, a word of warning: while walking this camino, you are likely to gain a first-hand understanding as to why the countryside is so green. Hint: bring wet weather gear!
The Hospitales Route
The biggest milestone stage on the Primitivo comes towards the end of the Asturian section of the pilgrimage, when pilgrims are faced with the choice of taking the Hospitales route and climbing to 1214m, or the lower-elevation Pola de Allande route. The Hospitales route is not advisable in poor weather, but when we were faced with the decision, it hadn’t rained the previous two days and none was forecast that day. Banding together for safety, we and the other pilgrims walking the same stage as us formed two groups and went for it.
It was foggy as we left Campiello and became more so as we started climbing, although way-finding was straightforward. We passed the ruins of three medieval pilgrim complexes (giving the route its name), sheltering in the second one and reflecting on the history of the Camino de Santiago. As we passed the third ruin, the fog lifted and, for the first time, we could see the surrounding mountains and the valleys far below.
Descending from the apex of the Hospitales route, we reached the virtually abandoned village of Montefurado – with its population of one. We talked to the one, an old man named José, for a while. He had lived there all his life and once had three neighbours and 15 cows. By the time we met him, he had no neighbours, three chickens and a dog.
The Roman Walls of Lugo
As the only city in the former Roman Empire to still possess a complete circuit of Roman city walls, Lugo is possibly the most anticipated stop on the Camino Primitivo. And the imposing UNESCO World Heritage listed walls, built in the late third century AD as part of the reimagining of Rome’s defence system by the emperor Aurelian, do not disappoint.
To better understand the Roman fortifications there’s a modern interpretation centre containing three interesting short films, although the best way to appreciate the walls is by standing on top of them. And if you’ve walked 30 kilometres in one day to reach Lugo from Cádavo Baleira, what better way to celebrate your arrival than to walk another couple of kilometres along the ramparts? Alternatively, it’s worth considering a rest day in Lugo to explore the walls and the city’s other attractions.
If seeing the walls sparks an interest in ancient Rome, an impressive late third century Roman sanctuary, known as Santa Eulalia de Bóveda, is only 14 kilometres from Lugo. Opening hours are sporadic, so visiting requires planning, but it could be done on a rest day in Lugo if the timing is right. Another option is to visit the sanctuary while walking the Camino Verde crossover trail that links the Primitivo with the Camino del Norte, an alternative to the standard route that joins the Camino Francés at Melide.
The Primitivo has all the attributes for a wonderful social camino. When we walked in May-June, there was just the right number of pilgrims: enough so that it was easy to meet people, but fewer than the Camino Francés, whose popularity can be overwhelming at times. Accommodation options on the Primitivo aren’t as widespread as the Francés, either, meaning you generally walk the same stages with your fellow pilgrims and often end up at the same accommodation in the evenings. On the first few days of the pilgrimage, albergues such as San Juan de Villapañada and, especially, Bodenaya and its justifiably renowned camino spirit, are fantastic places to connect with fellow pilgrims.
On the Primitivo, we had a pasta party at an albergue in Berducedo, enjoyed a picnic with a handful of others in the ruins of a medieval pilgrim complex on the Hospitales route, and even shared a bottle of wine at 10:30am at Casa Méson in Paradavella as we sought shelter from the rain. And there was no better way to end the Primitivo than meeting up in Santiago with those we had walked with and who had helped shape our experience. Over wine and laughter, we shared stories, reflected on our journey and wistfully planned our next camino, hoping it would be as memorable as this one.
For more information about the Camino Primitivo, read our day-by-day account on our English in 10 Minutes blog, or listen to our podcast episode about it.