The Walking Village - All Your Camino de Santiago Questions Answered
The French St James way also known as the Camino de Santiago Frances (the path to Santiago) is a 800 km long pilgrimage through northern Spain starting on the foot of the Pyrenees mountains in St Jean Pied de Port and finishing in Santiago de Compostela. Every year nearly 300.000 pilgrims do the way, however only roughly a tenth start in St. Jean. Also popular starting points are the big cities such as Burgos or Leon, however most of the people walk the last 100 km from Sarria to Santiago since this is enough in order to receive the official pilgrimage document called Campostela issued by the catholic church. Apparently, your time in purgatory is being cut by half if you take the burdens of pilgrimage upon you and walk to the cathedral where the remains of apostle St. James are supposedly resting. Here is the post explaining why I decided to walk the camino.
The way leads you through six provinces being famous for different wonderful things: 1) Navarra is the Basque Country and is in my opinion one of the best culinary paradises in Europe 2) La Rioja - no comments needed I think and yes it’s THE Rioja which is written on your wine bottles 3) Burgos is a charming city and marks the border where you don’t get amazing french croissants anymore 4) Palencia is basically a wheat desert of flatness where you ‘unpack your brain’ for 180 km 5) Leon and Castilla marks the end of the ‘meseta’ desert and is famous for its amazing tapas served for free with your drink 6) Galicia is home to the world famous octopus and it’s celtic origins. It also always rains there.
The camino is a walking village. The faces you started with in the beginning of your journey will accompany you throughout the whole way and will eventually become your friends. Sometimes you have delays of one or two days but generally you tend to stay in your ‘time zone’. Of course new faces are added to the community along the way. People are friendly, supportive and helpful. Everyone is in the same boat and there is only one way - to Santiago. I’ve rarely felt such a magical bond between complete strangers. The willingness to connect on a deeper level and to dedicate all your attention towards other people’s life stories is incredible. Pilgrims are becoming sick, have injuries and in all these situations you can count on your fellow pilgrims helping you through it with a smile.
Eat. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Walk. There are different guidebooks supporting you through the way by dividing the path into digestible pieces as well as suggesting you stay in more interesting places. If you follow the guidebook you’ll make it in round 32-34 days without rest days depending on the book. You received at the start a pilgrims’ passport which is to be stamped in Albergues, churches, cafes and donativo stalls along the way in order to provide proof of how far you’ve walked.
Sleeping on the Camino
Due to the increasing amounts of pilgrims every year the infrastructure improves along the way and today you basically have a place to stay and to drink a wine every 5 km. The accommodations vary from luxurious hotels to basically shacks. The standard pilgrim accommodation is a bed in an albergue (a dorm). Every village, town and city has at least one municipal albergue responsible to give refuge to pilgrims. These albergues house sometimes dozens or even hundreds of people for a very cheap price of 5 EUR or donation basis. It’s not always easy to get a good night of sleep in a dorm with another 100 people so naturally also private albergues opened up which offer a bit more cozier experience (4-20ish beds).
There are also people who camp outside. Wild camping is officially forbidden however I didn’t meet anybody who had problems because of it. Many found asking in the monasteries a good way to camp in their grass areas.
Eating on the Camino
I’ve read horrific things about food on the camino before I went and was honestly surprised and intimidated by it. I couldn’t believe that the Spanish would not feed their pilgrims well. I was right. I wasn’t gonna be disappointed. We ate like kings. I made sure I had a picnic bag in my backpack containing beautiful goods from the local supermarkets: jamon, salami, bread, shrimps (if available), ali-oli (spanish garlic mayo), tuna. Overall my personal picnic bag was a bit redundant because you can eat every 5 km but I need to admit that the menus tend to be very similar and after 35 days you don’t wanna eat the same old tortilla (spanish omelette with potatoes) and bocadillos without mayo or butter (sandwiches).
For lunch and dinner you can spoil yourself with a pilgrims menu which varies from 9-11 EUR and contains a starter, a main, dessert, a bottle of wine and bread! No vino, no camino! These meals are very simple and also start to get on your gastronomical nerves after a while. After entering Galicia we basically ate only fresh seafood caught in the amazing Atlantic Ocean close by. Sometimes if the albergues had nice kitchens and the town had a good supermarket we’d cook our meals ourselves.
If you are a serious foodie you also don’t need to be disappointed. You are walking through some of the best culinary centres in Spain and Europe. There are extraordinary restaurants along the way ranging from simple but amazing pub food to 9 course meals.
Landscape and weather
At the first day the majestic pyrenees need to be mounted marking the hardest day of the entire hike. Afterwards you walk through Navarrean woods and some open fields reaching La Rioja. Here the way takes you through vineyards until Burgos. From Burgos to Leon you walk through the meseta desert; a shadeless flat eternity going on for around 200 km. Many pilgrims decide not to walk this part but skip it by bussing through it. I don’t judge these pilgrims. For me the meseta was an integral part of my camino because it finally syncs your body with with the camino which allows you to bring your injuries and your mind under control. After Leon you find yourself climbing hills until you reach the highest point of the hike the Cruz de Ferro (1500m). At this place you should separate yourself from your burdens and lay down a rock representing them. The last part through Galicia are beautiful magical forest paths until Santiago.
I started on the 11th of September and by walking for 40 days the season has changed from summer to fall. The busiest camino month is August mostly because it’s the holiday month for Europeans but I think it’s way too hot to do the hike in the summer. I would recommend September or spring. Actually I want to do another camino next spring. However, this time I would choose the Camino Primitivo - a shorter one out of the 13 other caminos.
I was super lucky and it rained only 4 times, twice in the mountain peaks and twice in Galicia. Other than that the weather was beautiful. The temperatures were a bit high in the beginning at afternoon time but you can avoid walking in the afternoon by waking up earlier and arriving before the sun reaches zenith. Just skip the last bottle of wine.
I had the backpack at all times on me. My pack weighed 7.5 kg without water and food. It’s recommend to have a pack which is 10% of your body weight. It’s hard to pack light but it’s so worth it. You can buy almost anything along the way if you really miss something but your back and your feet will thank you for your light pack. Also the risk of getting blisters is lower once your pack is lighter. If you don’t feel like carrying your pack you can ship your pack to the next destination for 5 EUR. I don’t judge the ones who do.
My camino collection were two technical pants, four t shirts, one long sleeve shirt, one fleece and a jacket - for 6 weeks. On top of that I had a ultra light sleeping bag, a toiletry bag and a blister care bag. The most important items I owned were the wax oropax (german high tech ear plugs), a thermos for cooling my walking wine and a tiny leatherman knife which is so tiny that you can fly in the cabin with it.
You really do learn to account for every item in your pack and in your life. We simply don’t need so much crap as we think. After coming back from the camino I slowly introduce more things into my everyday life, e.g. I haven’t unpacked all the clothes I stored away in order to free my wardrobe for the airbnb people. Soon winter is coming though.
A lot of injuries happen on the camino. People are tired and exhausted not paying too much attention. This is why many injuries happen not during walking. There are also a lot of injuries because of the walking as well; knees, ankles and back are classic pain points. Unfortunately, someone died during my camino because of slippery wet stones.
However, my area of absolute expertise is blisters. There are heat blisters and friction blisters. One kind caused by high temperatures and the other kind by pressure of your shoes. There is one rule about blisters: prevent them. Once you get them it’s super hard to get rid of them and make them heal. Blisters are a bitch and can really ruin your entire experience. I struggled heavily with blisters around the second week but afterwards I got them under control. You learn a lot along the way.
With all the minor hardships it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The human factor in this pilgrimage is unique and something to strive for experiencing. Some of the friendships I’ve made I will cherish for many years to come. I've learned also a lot about my boundaries and how to love the people who surround me unconditionally. How to respect nature and be full of gratitude for everything I have.
You also live a different life for 40 days. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever done before. I slept in over 35 different places and I didn’t even care so much about it. Your body enters a meditative state while walking. This causes you to perceive things and time in a different way. Your mind is open for miracles and this is where they happen.