Thinking of completing the camino, it’s difficult to put my reflections into words. Everyone’s reasons are different but for me it was to accomplish something great. While walking soo very long (780km) you come across many obstacles – those obstacles you face change your thoughts on the situation again and again.
There is an obvious sense of achievement which occurred for me from the very beginning. On the first day you walk over the Pyrenees from Saint Jean Pied de Port, it’s one of the hardest days in my opinion (especially being untrained and not the fittest person). At the top you stand at Col Lopoeder 4,688 metres high (or about 16,000 feet). My feet were already in agonising pain and blisters started forming. The weight of my backpack did not help either (it is advised to carry no more than 10% of your body weight), why did I bring my flask? I emptied and sent items away almost three times. There is also no way to describe the pleasure of meeting such wonderful people – those you meet traveling with you and the locals you get to meet in passing. It’s hard to put into words.
On day 1 going up the Pyreenes to Roncesvalles, I was lucky to be walking with Amit from Israel and Ai’hwa from Taiwan. Ai’hwa had been living across Europe for several years and Amit often volunteered and walked groups who were blind. At one point I recall having to sit down in agony (feet), suggesting they continue on without me but they wanted to wait saying “pilgrams of the camino are there for each other”. It doesn’t sound like much but the kindness of strangers is an odd concept to me living in this cynical and mostly materialist world.
Ai’hwa ended up even getting married to a man she walked the camino with, they’re now living in America. It must be something special right?
I recall my friend Jane from NZ who had walked the camino some years before telling me not to worry about having to put up with unkind or rude people on the camino as it was easy to go your separate ways, either choosing to stay somewhere else or move on without them. Thankfully, the situation of the camino really does allow you to make your own choices and this was the case while spending about a week with a group of Italians (I am part Italian by the way). At first, it was great, we would always find a refuge that had a kitchen, with a few euros we’d cook together and share the food with others staying there. It was a great way to bond, meet new people and share our love of food and culture. But, in the end after insults and judgments about them knowing better – them being from the North and my father’s family from the South I stopped enjoying our group, the jokes were disrespectful an unnecessary. I decided that without causing a fuss, I would stop in a town one evening letting them go ahead. I get it, it’s not all about the people although, besides the fresh air, beautiful landscapes, the goal in mind, great food and physical issues – People are what made it for me, and I’m talking about types of people I would never meet altogether elsewhere.
When I arrived in Burgos (17-5-16) I felt terrible. I had bronchitis and a fever which made it hard to sleep at night and breath normally during the days. I blame a hostel I stayed in at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, called Abadia Cistercience Albergue de Peregrinos it was a very cold night but besides that, the rooms were damp, dirty and windows were not air tight.
I recall standing in a very long queue to get to the front desk at the municipal (usually you can only stay 1 night in the refuges’), but one hospitaleros came straight up to me saying he could tell I wasn’t well, that although I’d gotten in late and would be staying on the most packed top floor, if I wanted I could stay another night and his colleague and him would take care of me and offer me dinner that night. It was great to hang with the locals and at dinner they explained how they had become hospitaleros after completing the camino because they wanted to give back. That night I was also lucky to bump into a some friends I had met on the first night of the camino which was also surprising. Unfortunatly, trying to sleep that night with a big Swedish man in my bottom bunk snoring loudly all night and keeping everyone awake was not ideal but you can’t have everything.
The hospitaleros who’d taken me to dinner the previous night suggested I stay another night but how we would need to leave the refugee in the morning while the building was cleaned. That wasn’t a problem for me especially as these two hospitaleros took me through the city (a little tour of Burgos), they explained how in the past people who lived in the towns would be lined up on the streets in the morning handing out offerings to the passing pilgrims. We reached the University coffee shop for breakfast but what was unusual to me was although 1 hospitalero and I ordered coffee and toast, the other ordered a glass of wine. He said, this is normal in Spain and you drink when you feel like – It was a bit of a shock to the system but fair enough right? Back to the story, they were so kind, they made me lunch in their apartment and said there was a spare bed there if I wanted to rest up another night. I didn’t end up staying, but as I was still unwell a German girl who was also sick and I stayed in a hostel the following night.
Nonetheless, a strange situation… the German girl I was with, she had had a bad knee, found it hard to walk but was told at the municipal she’d need to show a medical certificate to stay there an extra night whereas, I never asked for anything, but was shown true hospitality. I can’t explain why that was, but I can honestly say, the camino gives. It constantly happened to me and I am truly thankful.
I think my stay in Burgos was the longest on the camino, I stayed 4 nights because I felt very unwell. One day I ended up going to the hospital and found out I had a bad case of bronchitis. The visit to the hospital to see a doctor cost €50. I mention this as you can gain medical insurance although if it costs €50 for a doctor, then there’s no real point to use it you know.
I got to meet Vera (from Milan) in Puente La Reina, who was a wonderful person. We bumped into eachother again and walked together from Mansilla de Las Mulas through to León (where we decided to treat ourselves by getting a haircut) to La Virgin del Camino (27-5-16). What wonderful works of Gaudí! I also cherished how you’d get to see people you’d met before. At la Virgin del Camino we came across another piligrino, Angel a Spaniard we had a drink together with and went to visit the Basílica de la Virgen del Camino with. In a small boutique at the basilica, Angel stepped out showing us a pendant he’d bought for his daughter but, he had also bought one for both Vera and I. It was really touching.
Angel was the one to remind Vera and I about the Way of Saint James and the very first pilgrims who walked it bare foot or with far thinner shoes then we have today. He explained they had no rug-sacks or hiking boots, no medicines or thermal clothing’s and had fewer options than today. Hence, our pain is only the bare minimal of what the brotherhood set out to do back. The whole point, I agree with is to realise “we” don’t need all the “stuff” we have these days which we believe are of value. The camino is and teaches us about life because, all you need is somewhere to sleep (some people camp out) you wake up, you put on your shoes (looking after your feet), set out into the unknown because you can’t know what’s around the corner and eventually you need fuel. In between all of that, you meet many people and try to help others. The simple things.
In Rabanal del Camino (30-5-16), I was having some dinner with this young Spaniard sitting in this campsite with these older fellows. It was a bit like a revelation, we got into deep conversations about “how the camino once was”, “how not to behave”, “what a pilgrim truly is” etc. They stated how (and this happens) it’s not about waking at 4am in the morning with a torch on your head leaving in the dark to rush to the next place as though it’s a race. One, should be taking in their surroundings and allowing things to ‘just’ happen. To be honest, I never did wake at 4am, but there was that anxiety led by others where you slept, alarms blazing, hurrying, the impatience, not stopping to talk to locals, having their flight booked ahead of time from Santiago de Compostella and racing to the finish line. I had really taken in what these guys had told me. Strangely enough, I recall them telling me they felt I had the right spirit and they believed I had the right mind frame. I don’t know if that is true, but one can only try, and it’s true because on the camino unlike real life, when something bad happened, more great and unexpected things would occur following it.
I was especially lucky to come across a Roman Italian, Antonio on the last 100 or so kms to Santiago de Compostela. We had profound and interesting conversations. He was an engineer, enjoyed philosophical debates and was very down to earth too. He missed his wife, loved the adventure and had to walk slowly, which was fine by me especially as in this way you get to take in your surroundings with ease and care. We also stayed the night together twice and in a very lush albergue the last night where I cooked some pasta, he’d been craving. All I can say is I was very fortunate to meet this person. I ended up moving back to Italy last year, and in Rome he picked me up from the airport and I spent the day with him, his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The camino in this sense is similar to a lucky charm (and believe me I am usually skeptical).
In Pamplona (6-5-16) I didn’t realise the second day I was there was a Saturday. The city was bustling with people everywhere. I decided to venture out (to find the post office and lighten my load) but also to discover and try “pinchos” (like tapas). The town was crazy busy, I was overwhelmed as to which bar to go to and because there were no seats anywhere this group of gentlemen at Bar Guria offered room at theirs. They gave suggestions as to which pinchos to try (they were all delicious although my favourite was the one with marinated capsicum, chili and anchovies).They told me about the town and their thoughts about the pilgrimage. As they had to leave before I did, I recall heading to the counter to pay finding out they’d paid for me. Crazy!
So I’d saved on my budget for the day having been offered from these locals. I decided to look around town – star attraction to see the the bullfighting ring Plaza de Toros (I’m glad there were no bulls fighting when I was there by the way). Funny enough I got there on the day of the Gran festa del marisco – a seafood festival (my luck) and not only got to enter the ring to check it out but tried the famous Spanish grilled octopus dish with paprika. I attempted to ask for some lemon, but they thought I was nuts!
The food in Spain is quite good and very reasonable priced. I was on a budget, but I’d usually get breakfast, consisting of toasted bread with some marmalade’s, a coffee (for sure) and a freshly squeezed orange juice. Sometimes the refuge you stay in will have it included in the dorm price (like the dinners in monasteries etc). For lunch, I would buy a baguette (which I could use for 2 lunches), some cheese, tomatoes and maybe some jamón – ham. Having my trusty “openel” (which I bought in Paris) came in handy (and not just for cutting food). For dinner I’d usually treat myself to the “pilgrim’s menu” consisting of 3 courses including desert, water and sometimes wine (costing on average €10). If the place I stayed had a kitchen I would organise to eat and cook together with others.
I really did miss my pasta being Italian and I wouldn’t suggest you buy it there (critiques from others). I’ll never forget Antonio, the Roman man I met and walked with during the last parts of the camino because he said he was in heaven once I did cook a simple pasta dish one night. He said how much it made him feel back at home and kept going in for seconds – which obviously made me smile.
(Continuation on food)..please think before you travel!
Please, I can’t accept the comments I’ve read about Spain making pasta and pizza well because I can assure you they do not! That’s alright though, I mean why would you go to Spain expecting to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or Italian food?? You’re in Spain, and it’s the one thing the locals would constantly tell me about certain pilgrims. They said some had all these expectations and weren’t happy since Spain wouldn’t meet there needs. Certain pilgrims didn’t even try to adjust to the Spanish ways, always smirking and making funny faces at the locals (some wouldn’t even try to speak Spanish) – I used to hear some English speaking pilgrims unhappy with service because the Spanish didn’t speak English – come on! Seems abit unjust and definitely closed minded to travel to another country and not try or want to blend in, learn the different customs and ways of life. This, to me, is a big negative, senseless comments about the camino… and after all the criticisms, I swear I hardly ever met an unwelcoming or rude Spanish person during this journey so shame on you. All you need to do is smile, be polite, try things and people tend to welcome you.
Anyhow, back to food: there are yummy soups, mixed salads, grilled fish, meat, paellas, pinchos (or tapas), flans and deserts, fresh breads, great cheeses, wine, chupito de hierbas (a minty digestive liquor)..mmm (even though the coffee in my opinion was not that great, it was still better than Paris) everything else, tick, tick, tick.
It’s also hard to recall the great places to dine, one in particular in Pamplona for lunch I’d recommend is called Catachu, but if you do stay at Xarma, the host will give you more great options. He was surprisingly helpful.
Spring is also the time of cherries, walking to Cacabelos (2-6-16) that day I really did decide to go at my own pace, I wasn’t watching for the camino signs (which aren’t hard to see), but instead, there I was walking and picking cherries from branches and they were truly delicious. I actually got lost that day (which is fine), I asked a lady about getting back to the path for the camino and she gave me directions – I went off the map that day. I happened to stop in a bar, decided to continue with my “lazy” day, and got a beer. Now, how can anyone complain? A pint of heineken with free yummy meatballs and some bread (it’s normal to get pinchos for free) for only €1? Crazy good, so I got another round. This is the life huh?
I loved the town of Foncebadón (1-6-16), it is up on a high hilltop (1,430 m), cattle scattered and German looking houses surround. In the coffee shops/bars I would always ask where things were made first – you want local produce right? I recall asking the owner if the small patisseries were local and he said no, but suggested his fresh homemade bread and cheese with sprouts sprinkled on top, soo satisfying. When I was leaving, I saw the cherries, and asked how much they were, but he told me to open my hands, then poured more than I could carry. Such a lovely guy. He even offered me a job and the other pilgrims thought I worked there. Very funny. I would love to go back there.
There’s really no explanation necessary, you just need to go and explore the South of France and the Basque country of Spain…walking. It is beautiful, with lush and rugged landscapes, where the guiri slang in Galicia sounds much rather like Napoletan dialect. You will find great generosity and be amazed by the history, art and colourful landscapes including arrays of poppies blossoming in the spring.
It’s mind boggling to think that today on the 5th of June, exactly 2 years ago was the very day I crossed over the border from La Faba (915m) to Galicia and stopped in Fonfría, Zamora (812m). I remember the walk to la Faba the day before, it was a killer with the sun blazing down on you making it much more difficult to climb those hills. But the walk up to O Cebreiro is also another difficult task, I stopped in Albergue La Escuela. Laguna De Castilla for a coffee, where I saw on the menu, this delicious creamy cheese on bread with honey (I’d recommend it) before arriving in O Cebreiro, 1,300 metres in altitude. The village is home to traditional mountain dwellings of pre-Roman origin, called ‘pallozas’. For more information click here.
Injury and Pain
I could write a whole book on how to prevent the pain you will feel, and it is troubling there wasn’t enough information provided when I researched what to expect on the Camino.
When I arrived in Pamplona (6-5-16) I stopped for 2 nights in a refuge called Xarma (I’d recommend it, the host is helpful, friendly and kind) since my feet were in a terrific state. I had blisters in the palms of my feet, also where I’d suffered from a bunion was a blister too..ouch! An Irish ex-militant also walking the camino suggested using menstrual pads in the soles of your shoes. This was a bizarre concept to me but he said they used them in the army, as they absorb the sweat and stop the rubbing of the foot. I dear say, it works! I told the host of the hostel that night about this little trick and besides lots of giggling, he told me that he never understood whilst clearing out men’s dorms he’d find menstrual pads in the bin. The discovery all made sense to him now. Not only that but the host also gave me a trekking pole, I hadn’t thought it was a necessity but I was wrong, when hiking down steep hills or the same up, trekking poles help you keep your equilibrium and keep your body aligned straight (meaning your backpack is not weighing you down).
Already in Roncesvalles (4-5-16) I saw a few people lying in their bunk beds with the feet raised upwards. I didn’t copy them at that point but realised during the camino, that 10mins this way does help circulate the blood and after walking so many kilometers in a day, you’re bound to get swelling.
If you’re like me, and you start to get shin splints or swollen ankles, the pharmacist is your friend. In particular a Spanish man, Angel I met in Virgen del Camino (27-5-16) suggested I use “Radio Salil” an anti-inflammatory cream with a eucalyptus smell – very potent, very good. Have a shower, and massage it in.
With blisters, no matter how grose this seems, you need a disinfected needle (use a lighter), disinfectant and cotton to pierce the skin from one side of the blister to the other, you leave the cotton in so that the blister won’t close up or get infected. A couple layers of gauze is best and tape to cover and seal so that the blister can breath – change each night/morning. Best to also soak your feet first in sea salt and warm water for a bit. DO NOT buy those first aid bandages from chemists. They do not help whatsoever (no matter what google tells you) actually they make things worst because the blister is sealed in and while you walk, the water in the blister will expand and you’ll find it very difficult to get the bandage off.
It was recommended, and next time I venture out on a long exhibition I will take this into account. You should wear 2 (thin) socks so that the friction is between the sock and shoe. Also, I’ve been reading about people talking about their feet overheating, this is bound to happen from walking for long periods of time. It was suggested and I wish I’d known sooner, that as soon as your feet do overheat, it is best to stop (there are many bars to have a quick drink) take shoes and socks off to dry out and allow your feet to relax – if you can, use a chair to put the feet upwards. You may think it’ll be harder to get stuck back into walking again, but this also stops the overheating and swelling of the feet.
What should you bring with you
- Boots – I did get hiking boots but recall our host in Saint Jean stating even mid boots or good comfortable running shoes would be perfect
- You should also bring sandals – there’ll be times your feet swell and even though it’s not fashionable some thermal socks with sandals do the trick
- Pants and shorts, I say go for those quick drying, light pants that zip off (I brought one pair plus some shorts, but I wish I had just two of those)
- Sleeping bag – I got an EXTRATHERM one, it only weighs 1kg, is water-resistant and very warm, a pillow case (sleep on the pillow provided but with the pillow case – I heard people getting bed bites but I never had the issue at all).
- Backpack – I got a 50 Litre one with a necessary rain cover (it is important that the contents do not weigh more than 10% of your body weight).
- Clothing – thermals (as soon as the weather started getting warmer, I sent mine (together with some other things which were weighing me down) to Santiago. This was a big mistake – it gets cold up in the mountains), thermal socks (I brought two pairs but was given advice to wear 2 thin socks at a time to avoid friction and getting blisters – I’d recommend this), and a hat for when it’s chilly.
- I recommend bringing a small first aid kit but in particular: a needle, cotton thread, some band aids, a lighter, cotton pads, tape, scissors, a good knife (I bought an opinel from Decathalon in Paris – definitely useful), sanitizer, disenfectant (which you can buy in Spain), arnica ointment or anti-inflammatory cream for swelling and pain which you will feel.
- I didn’t bring it but I’d recommend some vicks ointment (someone gave me some) in case you get a bit crook, but then again you can always buy it there.
- Water bottle (just one) you have to go light, water fountains are all along the camino to top up.
- Unless you’re planning to do a tiny amount of washing using a washing machine, most places have taps and running water to clean your clothes (which usually you do atleast every second day). Obviously you need some soap (and of course the toiletries: toothbrush, hairbrush, shampoo – but carry it all small)
- Hiking poles – very useful – I didn’t bring them but was given one from a hostel owner (optional)
- Money bag (I kept mine either on me, or under my pillow at night) I would suggest bringing it to the showers too. I never had anything stolen but, it happens. Someone’s boots went missing at a hostel, or were taken by mistake.
- Books – I brought a small diary but found no time to write. I would suggest two language books in French and Spanish.
How to get there:
I was coming from the other side of the world in New-Zealand, but decided after my stay in Paris to then get the train to St Jean Pied de Port, it usually has a stop in Bayonne where you change trains and in takes about 5-6 hours total. I recommend booking on www.raileurope.co.nz and you can pick the ticket up on the day (or before) from the station at the automatic train tellers – in this way you won’t be charged any extra. It was a lovely ride to Saint Jean.
Where to stay and where not to
For starters if you’re expecting an easy and straightforward beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port, think again. You will need to queue to get your credencial or pilgrims passport from the main information centre which is only a few euros (so no need to order it online – also most albergues will be able to sell you one if you start at a different section). The information can book you into accommodation there and will give you a list of stops with various albergues along the way. I loved the town of Saint Jean Pied de Port and as I’d had a rather big trip in Paris the week before (which is another story), I decided to stay an extra night. I stayed at Ultreia, the host is a gag and it was great fun eating altogether and gaining helpful advice.
If you want to stay in Orisson, almost 1/2 way up the Pyrenees you will need to book ahead. I heard they were booked out from a month or so beforehand.
There’s the main convent in Roncesvalles and that’s where everyone stays. The front desk won’t tell you but if you want to eat dinner there, book it with them otherwise you won’t have many options left.
Zubri was a disappointment. The town lacks accommodation and unless you want to sleep on the floor in the Albergue Municipal and arrive before 1pm, you will have a hard time finding somewhere in Zubri or the small towns before or after it. They should arrange more sleeping options! Me and Amit got a ride to another town on the lake close to France. It was a nice hotel. I was disappointed as I’d set out at the start of Spring, beginning of May because websites and research suggested this as the less populated time to travel the camino. That is far from the truth. I’m afraid thousands of people arrive each day. The locals in Zubri told us. However, I wouldn’t recommend walking in the middle of winter which is dangerous or the middle of summer as it’s just too hot. Maybe, it’s that the camino has become too commercial.
On the 20th May, I arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada only then realising I was there for the big parade ‘Santo Domingo‘ which is on from the 20th – 22nd May each year. There, I met a couple of guys I’d come across previously, one from Ireland, another from Australia so we went to dinner together and we drank a bit too much. It didn’t help I stayed in a terrible albergue Abadia Cistercience Albergue de Peregrinos – it was the coldest, dampest, dirtiest I had experienced. I woke with fever and later in Burgos had bronchitis too. I would not recommend this to anyone.
Update! A friend from the camino just told me about a really nice place he stayed at in Santo Domingo, Santa Domingo de la Calzada Albergue del Santo it looks beautiful, if only I’d known before.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada is also where you’ll find the chickens of Saint Domingo, this is an old tale please click here to read about the fable but to be honest by witnessing first hand chickens high up behind bars, I can’t say I was very impressed (even though each month the chickens are swapped – apparently).
It’s nothing terrible but if you do stop in La Virgen del Camino after León (27-5-16), the Albergue D’Antonio y Doña Cinia was once a mental asylum, you can see a new one built next door (if you check your surroundings). Fine place to stay nonetheless which reminds me of the morning I woke there. I heard my name being called by 2 Italians who’d brought there mocha, telling me the coffee was ready..mmm what a great way to wake up to the smell of espresso (then again, that’s just me). What gentleman.
In the Albergue en el Camino, in Boadilla del Camino, they don’t allow you to bring your boots inside, so there’s a rack set up outside – apparently someone had theirs stolen. Not a very great way to go and it is terrible that you have to worry about stealing ( keep your eyes open).
La casa de los Dioses located between Santibanez of Valdeiglesias and San Justo de la Vega isn’t a place to stay but a wonderful place to stop at during your daily walk. The owners live quite a hippy life here, they offer the largest range of food and drinks and a place to rest. All you need to do in return is leave a donation. They also have a cute cat here too.
I stayed an extra day in Rabanal del Camino (30-5-16) at Albergue La Senda as a doctor visited another guest and mentioned I should take it easy (bronchitis). I’ll never forget bumping into this young Spanish lad for the second time who was staying in one of the campsites there. The boy was from Madrid, he hadn’t passed his final exam of high school so instead of having to hear his fathers criticisms, he decided to do the camino. Long story short he was too cute and everyone felt sorry for him but he saved money to go gambling and asked for change from others – cheeky!
I’m going to name a few places I really enjoyed staing at but not in any specific order. In my opinion, if you have the chance to stay in the monasteries, they are the best because there are fewer people staying so you get to know everyone and it usually involves a communal dinner :
- Albergue Municipal in Mansilla de las Mulas – friendly family run refuge, owner is a doctor and can assist you, grandmother is soo funny.
- Albergue Camino del Perdon in Uterga – This is a lovely place after Alto del Perdon. The lovely lady below also helped me when she saw I couldn’t walk very well. Very kind and hospitable place.
- Albergue Liberanos Domine in Rabe de las Calzadas
- Hostel Xarma in Pamplona – fewer people to a room (dormitories consit of mens, womens or mixed) , there is a kitchen and lounge and a very helpful and friendly host. It takes 5 mins to walk to the city centre.
- Albergue A Reboleira in Fonfría a quaint town on the hilltop, a wonderful little discovery, private rooms are an option.
- Casa Banderas in Vilacha
Enjoy your camino and leave any comments or questions below 🙂