As the two previous blog posts have shown, there was no shortage of wonderful scenery or amazing “little things” along the Camino de Santiago to fill every moment of my walk. In this post I would like to give you an idea of what it was like to be a Peregrino (pilgrim) on the Camino.
I also want to include some basic information just in case you’re interested in doing the Camino. I know I was very frustrated in my initial research because it was hard to find useful information on what I needed to carry when walking the Camino. Perhaps it was there and I missed it because it was buried in the narrative about all the places I should stay an extra day to check out this and that building.
To begin, even though the Camino came about as a religious pilgrimage, there is no requirement for anyone to be religious or to have a religious intention for their walk. It’s quite acceptable to be just on a walk. Regardless of one’s reason for being on the Camino, it provides an amazing platform for a long walk.
Sustaining a long walk comes down to logistics: places to stay, food, water, and what to carry. And the Camino excels in all of these.
I typically walked through three, four, or more towns a day while on the Camino. Almost every town had at least one low-cost (five to ten euros a night) albergue. Having a low-cost place to stay every night meant that I did not have to carry a tent or a sleeping pad.
Before the walk I wondered about water. It turned out that every town on the Camino had one or more outdoor water fountains with good clean water. This meant that I did not have to bring a water filter and only needed to carry enough water to get to the next town.
As for food, almost every town had at least one bar right on the Camino where I could get a bocadilla (sandwich) or something else to eat. Most towns had a small store along the way where I could get a banana, a container of yogurt, or a candy bar. This meant that I could graze throughout the day and not worry about carrying a large supply of food or cooking gear in my backpack.
In some cases the spacing between towns was such that I would think in terms of where I could stop for first breakfast, second breakfast, early lunch, and an afternoon snack. There were very few places along the Camino where towns were far apart. In those few instances, I bought a bocadilla and stuck it my backpack to eat later.
A Peregrino Passport / Credential is required to stay at an albergue. I got mine before I left for the Camino. But it is possible to obtain one on the Camino. An albergue will stamp a credential when someone checks in for the night. And when someone reaches the cathedral in Santiago, they can present their stamped credential as proof of pilgrimage and receive a Compostela (certificate of completion).
Most peregrinos attach a scallop shell to their backpack. The scallop shell is the traditional symbol of the Camino. The scallop shell motif is everywhere, and one will be following shells or yellow arrows all the way to Santiago. A friend of mine gave me my scallop shell before I left for the Camino. There are also plenty of places along the Camino to buy a shell.
As for albergues they are very basic bunk houses / hostels. Some are better than others, but in general they are more than adequate. Their low cost makes it possible for many, if not most, peregrinos to go on the Camino for a long distance. They allowed me to keep my daily cost in the thirty to thirty-five euros range.
As a general custom albergues ask everyone to take off their boots at the entry way and place them in the boot storage area. This keeps the albergue clean and gives the boots a chance to air out. It also means carrying a pair of light-weight camp shoes or sandals in the backpack. I didn’t know anything about leaving the boots in the entry way until I arrived at the Camino. Fortunately I had packed a pair of Crocs that served me well.
The typical albergue provides a bed with sheets and a pillow, and a place to take a shower. They usually do not provide towels or soap. This means carrying a light-weight quick-drying camp towel and a small bar of soap in the backpack. I did not know about this practice until I reached the Camino. Had I known, I would have packed a larger camp towel. The first thing I did when I found no soap in the shower at the albergue in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was to go out and buy a bar of soap.
Most albergues have a sink for rinsing clothes and a clothes line for drying them. Some albergues will even do laundry for a fee. Most peregrinos, including me, rinsed out their tee-shirt, socks, and underwear very soon after arriving.
Unless the albergue is empty, staying at an albergue means sharing facilities with other people. This means possibly waiting to take a shower or to use the toilet. It also means sleeping very close someone else. A typical albergue sleeping room will have both men and women. I found having a sleeping bag, ear plugs, eye mask, and a light-weight head lamp made it easier for me to adapt to the surroundings.
Free Wi-Fi is readily available at most albergues and bars. I only ran into one town that did not have Wi-Fi. I made use of the iPad mini that I carried in my backpack.
As for dinner, many albergues have a bar or are very close to a bar offering an inexpensive (ten euros or less) Pilgrim Dinner. If I didn’t feel like a large dinner, I would usually get a bocadilla. Most of the Pilgrim meals I had were served at a set time (usually 7pm) at a common table reserved for peregrinos. Generally the food, except on a few occasions, was nothing special but more than adequate. I had only one truly bad meal on the Camino. For me, the best part of the meal was having the opportunity to sit down at a common table with people from all over the world.
Way more than I expected, other people were a big part of my Camino experience. The Camino is not an isolated walk in the backcountry. It is a popular walk and I saw plenty of peregrinos every day. With everyone sharing a common goal, the basis for a community in motion was in place.
In my case, I did not find speaking only English to be a problem. I ran into plenty of English speakers on the Camino. I also found that when people from different countries sat down together, more often than not, they spoke English.
Once I settled on a general daily walking pace, my community in motion began to have many familiar faces. We were all covering the same general distance every day. I saw some on the Camino, ran into others when I stopped at a bar to get something to eat, saw many of them at the albergue or at dinner. Some dropped out of sight and then popped up unexpectedly several days later. And some became friends.
By having the Camino in common, it was much easier than I expected to connect with fellow peregrinos regardless of their age, sex, or country of origin. These connections were an opportunity for me to learn about and share in their experiences. I don’t have space in this blog post to share the connections that I made on the Camino, but I can tell you that many of them were quite serendipitous and came at unexpected moments. All of them added so much to my Camino experience.
Although people were a very important part of my Camino experience, I did manage my walk to reduce crowds, avoid crowded albergues, and to have a good part of the day to myself. Almost all Camino guidebooks, regardless of their language, have the same general daily itinerary. A large percentage of, if not most, peregrinos follow some variation of the suggested itinerary. This means that albergues at end-point towns can become very crowded and be very impersonal.
Sometimes it is impossible to avoid staying at an end-point. But I found my most unpleasant albergue experiences to be in the end-point towns. The worst was at O’Cebreiro where there were eighty people in one room with less than two feet of space between each bunk bed. That and other things made the experience remarkably awful. I told my friend Robert from the Netherlands, “I feel like I’m in a #@%! prison.”
Robert and I were determined not to make the same mistake the next day. Unfortunately, this was one of the very few places on the Camino where the albergues were spaced very far apart. But we were willing to do whatever it took not to stay in the next end-point town. We ended up walking an extra 15km beyond the end-point town before we found an albergue we liked. The total distance for the day was 36km, and it was my longest day on the Camino. We did, however, end up having our best dinner and staying at one of the nicer albergues (Paloma y Leña) on the Camino. So it all worked out in the end.
I found the best way to manage my Camino experience was to do very little or no planning. I pretty much took everything day by day. At night I would look at my guidebook to review where I had walked and then check to see what was up ahead. I would then let how I felt the next day and the distance to the towns up ahead determine how far I would go.
For example, on the fourth day of walking I reached the end-point town of Puente la Reina at around 1:30pm. I still felt strong and knew that it was way too early for me to stop. I decided to walk another 5km to the next town of Mañeru.
The walk was amazing as I did not see another peregrino for the rest of the way. So if someone is looking for solitude on the Camino, the best way to find it is to keep walking after reaching an end-point town. The Camino will be empty.
And if someone does not want to stay in a crowded albergue, stay in a non end-point town. That night in Mañeru was perfect! There were only three other peregrinos staying with me at the albergue. And only two of us had the Pilgrim dinner.
I had dinner with a very nice young lady from Estonia who told me all about her country and what it’s like to live in a small Baltic nation next to Russia. That night was the only time I saw her on the Camino. But what I learned from her that night (and from everyone else I met on the Camino) is still with me and way more than I can consider sharing in this post. Learning about other peoples and countries was an important part of my Camino experience from the first day to the very last day.
I hope if you choose to walk the Camino that you will enjoy your Camino experience as much as I enjoyed mine.