I’ve been in Spain almost three months now–and my tourist visa is running out. I’m leaving very soon, honest! It’s been a great break, but time to get back to teaching.
I’ve spent most of my time in Madrid getting visas, resting from the Camino hike, reorganizing everything I own and getting over a cold, but I have tried to put in some tourist time. Here are some photos in no particular order.
Most would consider me an experienced long distance hiker. I’ve completed 1,405 miles on the Appalachian Trail (summer 2014) and I just finished The Camino in Spain. Each trail is different. I found there were things that were unique to the Camino de Santiago. While there are many paths to Santiago, I took the most popular, The Camino Frances or The French Way. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago. I skipped the first 30km to avoid hiking the mountains during the first week of April. (It turned out to be a good choice. There was heavy snowfall and part of the trail was closed that week). I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2016. It took me 37 days to walk the 450 miles (750km, approximately), which included a day off in both Leon and Burgos.
It turned out to be a cold spring, with substantial flooding. If you are lucky and have great weather, you probably need to carry even less than what I did.
WHAT NOT TO BRING
First let’s start with what you DON’T need.
Tent–It’s mostly private land, so there is almost nowhere to legally set up a tent.
Cooking equipment–There are bars, cafes, grocery stores and restaurants in every little town where you can eat or buy prepared food. If you want to cook, stay in a hostel with a kitchen.
Water purification–Every town has a fountain and the water is probably better than what comes out of the tap in Atlanta, GA, although, that’s not saying much.
Laundry soap–You can hand wash items with the same soap you use for your body. Hostels will supply soap for automatic washers.
Pillow–Every hostel I stayed in had a pillow.
Blow up mattress—Every hostel I stayed in had real mattresses. I did see at least two churches where pilgrims could stay for free, but they slept directly on the stone floor. If you are really on a budget or going during July/August (the height of the season when places run out of beds), you might want to bring one of these along.
Food—I carried only a few snacks—nuts, cheese or fruit. Towns are 2-6km apart and you can almost always find a place to eat.
Carry less and you will enjoy it more. Most guidebooks will say that you should keep your pack under 20 pounds. I carried less than that on the Appalachian Trail! I didn’t weight my Camino pack, but I’d guess it was 10-12 pounds.
WHAT TO BRING
Sleeping bag/sleep sheet—I did the hike in April/May 2016. It happened to be one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We had several unseasonably cold nights. Some dropped to freezing. I was grateful I’d brought a summer weight, down sleeping bag and added a blanket in a few hostel. If you hike when it’s warmer, you can probably just do with a sleep sheet or bag liner. Most hostels had blankets, but not all. Some don’t even have sheets, so bring something.
Camp towel—You need something that dries easily, so no cotton towels. Mine was fairly small, but others had towels large enough to wrap their bodies in. Get something you can attached to the outside of your pack on sunny days so it can dry while you hike.
Clothes—By far, the most important item is good walking shoes. I like Merrill trail runners with thick soles and I add an additional insole. Next is socks. I use silk sock liners and Darn Tough hiking socks. I had three sets of each. For the rest of the clothing, make sure everything is rugged and quick dry. No Cotton or blue jeans. These are the clothes I brought, which includes what I wore each day. This is about one set more than you have to have, so it’s possible to carry even less. Three sets each of underwear (sport bras and quick dry panties), shirts (two long sleeve wool, one short sleeve poly). Two pair of hiking pants. One button down camp shirt that could layer over my shirts (optional). One pair hiking shorts (I only hiked in their twice. It was cold most days). A travel vest with lots of pockets. BTW, I hate the pants with the zip off legs. They sound like a great idea, but the zippers seldom hold up and they always seem to hit the place were my thighs rub together when I walk. Can you say blisters? Men’s pants seem to be better made than women’s. My hiking companion found pants that resisted stains and light rain. They were superior to mine.
Spare shoes—I have an off brand that looks like a pair of Crocs, but a bit lighter in weight. I wore these around town and they doubled as shower shoes. Many people use flip flops. The advantage of Crocs is that they can also be used for hiking short distances if you have bad blisters or very swollen feet.
Water bottle—I just re-use a soda or juice bottle. Nothing is lighter weight or less expensive. When the bottle gets banged up, I buy a new drink. You don’t have to carry a lot of water at any given time since almost every town has a fountain where you can fill up. Lots of people use those large bladders that fit inside a backpack, but I don’t like them. They leak, are tough to clean and way too easy to overfill. Water is heavy and since there is plenty of clean water readily available, it’s unnecessary to carry much.
Credit card/bank card/cash—Make sure to let your banks know you are traveling. Find an ATM card and a credit card that will work in Europe and won’t charge you an arm and a leg in fees. You will mostly need cash. Small hostels and cafes won’t accept credit cards.
Passport—You will have to produce this for every hostel.
Pilgrims Credential—This is your Pilgrim’s Passport which you will have stamped every day at hostels and cafes along the way. This is to prove where you walked and will serve as a nice souvenir later. You can get this along the way or order it ahead of time.
Plastic bag for your Passport/CCs/Credential/Cash/etc.—A simple plastic bag will store everything, keep stuff dry and will be easy to carry. This is essentially a waterproof wallet. I took mine with me everywhere–to the shower, I slept with it under my pillow. This is the one thing you cannot afford to lose.
Coat/Fleece—I wore my down jacket often during this cold spring. It packed up very small, but still kept me warm. I even slept in it several times. I like fleece for the warmth and light weight, but it doesn’t pack up as small as I’d like.
Rain gear—Jacket/rain pants/poncho or whatever combination works for you. This spring in Northern Spain was unseasonably wet and cold. We saw rain 32 out of the 37 hiking days. We got hail twice and saw lightening every evening for most of a week. I had a rain jacket and added an umbrella, which worked especially well in town. Near the end of the hike, the temperatures were just warm enough that I over-heated in a full coverage rain jacket. I’d wear the jacket, unzipped, and use the umbrella to keep out most of the rain. If it were very cold and windy, I’d put the umbrella away and add rain pants. If we’d had sunshine, the umbrella would have doubled as a parasol since there’s little tree coverage on this trail. I made sure the rain jacket was large enough to go over my down jacket in case it got really cold. Sometimes I wore the rain jacket just to deal with the wind. I’ve had poor luck with ponchos—somehow I can’t seem to stay dry in them. BTW, check to make sure your rain jacket is still keeping out the rain. I brought the same one I’d used on the Appalachian Trail two years before, but it had lost its waterproof properties. I had to replace it. I also recommend a pack cover, a pack liner (I use trash compacter bags, but any trash can liner will do), and I have each of my sets of items in multi-colored, water-proof stuff sacks. DON’T GET ALL YOUR STUFF SACKS THE SAME COLOR. Color coding makes it easy to know your clothes bag from your sleeping bag at a glance.
Backpack—The less you carry, the fewer features you need in a backpack. I originally thought I’d take a smaller, summer backpack that I used on the Appalachian Trail. However with so much less gear, I didn’t need anything large or substantial. I found a durable day pack and wore a travel vest (a vest with lots of pockets) to carry small items.
First aid kit—Don’t over-do it here. I’m talking about band-aids (plasters in Europe) and the anti-inflammatory of your choice. I also used a simple knee brace. Remember you will be able to buy what you need along the way. I highly recommend buying Compeed Brand for covering your blisters. Nothing sticks as well. They are easy to find in Spain.
Personal items—toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, comb, small bar of soap, small container of shampoo. You can easily replace this stuff as you run out.
Guidebook—I used the most popular English guide by John Brierley. The maps weren’t always accurate, but over-all it gave me the info I needed. He spends WAY too much time talking about things that are off trail (I’ve just done 20km and I’m not about to add an additional 5 just to see another church) and he’s clearly tuned into a spiritual side I can’t relate to. I saw a Michelin Guide that was smaller and about as good, though many hostels weren’t mentioned in it. As I used pages, I tore them out and threw them away to lighten my load.
Hiking poles (Optional)—I use them when going up or down hill and I think they save my knees. These can be difficult to travel on a plane with. If you don’t have checked luggage to put them in, consider buying a cheaper pair after you get to Spain.
Phone/iPad/Camera/Journal (Optional)—Most hostels and restaurants have free wifi, so you can check in with the folks back home by email. I have an unlocked smart phone and put a Spanish SIM card in it. For 40 Euros, I got the SIM card, a new phone number and enough data for 3 months in Spain, since I use it frugally. Using Apps like FaceBook Messenger or WhatsApp, you can even make international phone calls for free when you have wifi. If you carry any of these items, make sure you have chargers for them, waterproof bags to keep them dry and a plug converter for Europe.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Most guidebooks will lay out a 30-33 day trek starting from SJPP to Santiago, roughly 500 miles. Take longer so you can enjoy it. Remember, you can start anywhere or you can walk other routes. If the Compostela (the document they give you at the end to verify you did the walk) is important to you, you only have to walk the last 100k (or bike 200k). And you can do this at your speed. Why push yourself with 30k day when 10-15-20 is so much more enjoyable? Personally, I say take all the time you can. Stay an extra day in Burgos and Leon and really enjoy those lovely cathedrals and art museums while resting your feet. It’s the journey, not the destination! Can you take 40 days? If not, then just choose a shorter route. Or decide to do the walk in sections.
WHEN TO WALK
If I had it to do again, I’d go in the fall. Spring will always be wettest, though this particular year had record flooding. July/August is the high season and the hottest time of year. It can be difficult to find a free bed in the hostels and sweating is not my thing. Winter is too cold for me and some hostels and cafes won’t be open. I’d go September and October, starting about a week after Labor Day. By mid-November, it’s getting pretty cold and dark, plus hostels and cafes in small towns will start to close.
I budgeted 35 Euros a day and came in a bit under budget. You can do it for less by eating from grocery stores and staying in the lowest priced hostels. You can easily spend more by staying in hotels or pensions and having a service carry your backpack for you each day (5-6 Euros a day).
Hostels are 5-12€. The closer you get to Santiago, the more expensive. Once you get within 100Km of Santiago, the prices are 10-15 Euros.
Food: breakfast of 2 eggs, toast and cafe con leche is 5-6€. A more common Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee for 3-4€. BTW, you’ll have to ask for butter and jam.
Pilgrims meals are 9-12€. It’s a big meal, including a first and second course, dessert and wine or water.
Coffee or a caña (short, draft beer) is usually 1.5 Euros.
Laundry—usually 3 Euros to wash and 3 Euros to dry. Typically, the hostel wants to do the wash, so double check your belongings as soon as you get them back. You aren’t carrying much and you can’t afford to lose socks or underwear.
I hope this information can help you have a successful hike!
While I like to think of myself as an experienced long distance hiker, I found there were things that were unique to Spain and the Camino de Santiago. There are many paths to Santiago de Compostela. My comments apply to The French Way, but you may also find they are true for other paths. I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago in the spring of 2016, roughly 750km.
Cold water only in bathroom sinks–This is a first world country, so you can expect working toilets. But don’t expect the bathroom sinks to have hot water, at least not in restaurants or hostels. Most taps are auto shut off, too. Almost every town you walk through will have a pilgrims fountain for water, also auto shut off. I find that this feature simply does not save any water since they go on for a full minute. BTW, while the toilets were always in working order, I hit three in a row with no seat! And it’s easy for public toilets to run out of toilet paper. Bring some tissues with you. I needed them about once a week. Do your best to use actual rest rooms, rather than go behind buildings or clumps of trees. This path goes through private property.
Showers are also auto shut off—Compared to the hostels I’ve stayed in along the Appalachian Trail, I found the Spanish hostels to be very clean. But the water was almost always auto shut off in sinks and showers. Again, this “water saving feature” often wasted water. I’d have used less without the device. Of course, you only need one idiot to leave the water running for this to be a good idea. Incidentally, the showers were nice and warm, even if you couldn’t adjust the temperature.
Lights are auto shut off—it wasn’t 100% of the time, but usually hall and bathroom lights are motion sensitive in hostels and many cafes. In practice you spend a lot of time in the dark in a strange bathroom, flailing your arms around, trying to get the light to turn back on. Or trying to remember where the switch was now that you can’t see. If you get up in the middle of the night in a crowded hostel to use the facilities, you are likely to flood the room with light when you step into the hall. Most of the lights I saw were LED, and I don’t think I saw a single incandescent bulb. Did I mention that you need ear plugs and a sleep mask? I used my buff to cover my eyes, but a bandana works too.
On Sundays, everything closed—It’s like living in the US in the 1950’s. And not just the postal service, government buildings and offices. I also mean the grocery store, pharmacy and almost all retail. While cafes may be open, they will likely have a reduced menu.
Dinner is served after 8p—Lots of restaurants don’t even open until 8pm. Bars that are open will often serve no food, not even appetizers, between 4:30 and 8pm. It’s not unusual for the Spanish to sit down to eat at 10pm and stay until midnight. Oddly, the small towns were most likely to make adjustments for pilgrims who want to eat early and go to sleep early. The larger the city, the harder it was to find food at, say, 6pm. In Santiago de Compostela, we found exactly 1 place that would serve food before 8pm.
Nothing opens before 10a—The Spanish are not morning people. Since they eat late, they also start things late. Breakfast is often a café con leche and bread or croissant. A second breakfast may come about 10:30 or 11a. For hikers, it means you may or may not get coffee before you leave the hostel. If caffeine is important to you, I recommend putting tea bags in your water the night before. Generally, by 8am you can find somewhere that will serve coffee. This was fine for me since I hiked in the spring when the path wasn’t as busy, but in the summer it’s a race to get to the next hostel and secure a bed. People get up ridiculously early to beat the heat and other hikers.
Most hikers only do the last 100 km–I was shocked to get near the end of the trail and find myself suddenly among huge groups of hikes, fighting for bed space. Many were high school and college aged walkers on a mobile party. I love quiet walks on dirt paths, but some days were non-stop music and talking. You only have to do the last 100km to get a Compostela and that’s all these groups were after. I hated most of my last week walking, but was too invested to quit.
Siesta 2-4:30p—Cafes serve breakfast until noon and lunch is delayed until mid-afternoon, followed by a nap. Grocery store, offices and all retail will close during this time. A bar or café may or may not be open. (Even foreign embassies are closed during these hours.) Since this is often the time when you arrive in the town you are going to spend the night in, it’s pretty inconvenient if you need something from the pharmacy.
Bars serve food—Most bars have a kitchen, though their hours may vary greatly. Some will serve full meals including breakfast. Most will at least have appetizers, which you can easily make into a meal. In Spain, they are called pinchos, pinxos or tapas and you’ll find them in cases on the bar. You can usually just point at what you want. Common offerings are tortilla (A cake made of egg and potatoes, popular for second breakfast), deep-fried croquets (which can be cheese, meat, vegetables or just about anything), a skewer of olives and pickled vegetables, cheeses or a slice of French bread topped with anything—shrimp, cheese, ham, octopus…whatever they have handy. These are usually 1-5 Euros depending on size and variety.
Pillow and pillow case—Every hostel I stayed in had pillows. Most had at least a bottom sheet. Some also had blankets. A few provided (or sold) a single use, non-woven cover to put over the pillow and mattress. The pillows were not like we’d have in The States, however. They are longer—the width of a single bed—but narrow. And the pillow case is open on both ends.
I have spent the last couple weeks in Madrid, Spain. I’ve been my successful in getting work visas and firming up a couple of future jobs, so I can continue my adventure to see the world.
Next week I will fly to the Pacific coast of Russia to teach an English summer school course. I’ve been working on some conversation lesson plans, since you never know what will be available when you arrive. The job begins June 1 and will take me through mid-July. It comes with accommodations, so I think I’ve been very lucky with this position. The flight is over 16 hours, so getting there will be fairly brutal. Wish me luck.
When I finish my job in Russia, I’ll be flying to central Mexico to work for a private language school. A fellow teacher has already worked for this school, so I have a good feeling about the place. It’s also at a bit of an altitude, so perhaps not as hot as much of Mexico. As a bonus, they will give me Spanish lessons, a language I’m determined to be functional in.
In addition to lesson plans, I’m also working on two blog posts about the Camino de Santiago–things you can expect to find in Spain that are different from the USA and a list of what to take if you choose to hike The French Way. So, particularly if you are interested in walking this pilgrim’s path, stay tuned!
Tim, Anne and I took the train to Madrid a couple days ago. They took a walking tour yesterday morning while I had an appointment. After, we walked about seeing Madrid. Today, it’s a down day for me. Today, the virus is winning, so I’m not doing much. My hiking companion, Tim, is off on an adventure alone now and probably needs a break from me, anyway. My feet started hurting the last day of the Camino de Santiago, so there’s another reason to sit tight and heal. I’ve bought new shoes–my hiking shoes were pretty much finished by the end of 750k! Footware is one of my most expensive purchases!
Unfortunately, the hostel isn’t cooperating. We have to change rooms today and it’s required to check out for 3hrs while they clean. But the pace is really clean and the staff is great. So I’m hanging out in the lobby, waiting for a bed. All I really want to do is sleep. And while we have a few hours of sun this morning, the rain is back tonight. Will it never stop raining?
Yeah, travel is glamorous……LOL
The good news is that I was able to meet with the Mexican Embassy yesterday and get a visa to work there. I have a one year contract starting in the fall at a school in central Mexico. Part of the draw is that another teacher I know has worked there and can vouch that they live up to their contracts. That was a major issue at my last two posts, so I’d like to avoid that in future! The other draw is that the school will provide Spanish classes. It’s a language I really want to be functional in.
Early next week, I have an appointment with the Russian Consulate, also for a work visa. Getting the appointment was far more difficult than expected and I simply couldn’t not have gotten it without the assistance of the school I’ll be working for this summer. I hope it goes well and I have no issues getting the visa. I need to go to Russia to start my next position as soon as reasonably possible. Also, my tourist visa in Spain only allows me to stay until the end of the month.
Yesterday, Tim and I walked into Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We walked from Pamplona, roughly 450 miles (750k). To be fair, Tim walked every step of the way. I had a couple taxi rides and took one bus. So, I probably walked 400 miles. It took 37 days, which included 2 full days off for each of us. There was lots of rain, wind and cold–much more than I’d expected. It was the coldest, wettest spring for decades. Can I pick ’em, or what?
May 6, 2016
Tomorrow morning, Tim and I will arrive in Santiago de Compostela. It’s been 37 days of walking, hostels (albergues), backpacks and rain. Waaaay too much rain. I’m tired and have occasionally taken a bus or taxi ride in our 450+ mile trek, but only 2 full days off.
This hasn’t been what I expected. I tried not to have expectations for the trip, but, being a flawed human being, I find that I did.
I wasn’t expecting a huge spiritual experience. I’m simply not a religious person, though I do have a spiritual side. But, I guess I expected a sense of accomplishment, of completion. So far, I don’t have any of that. Of course, I’m still a handful of kilometers away. I still have my Compostela to get and I can still walk through the church door and have all my sins forgiven (plenary indulgence, AS IF!). It’s just that I don’t think any of those things will make any difference.
I’ve loved so many moments: Tim is an incredibly positive person and I’m humbled he’s agreed to hike with me, since I know he could out walk me any day of the week–as I was reminded of this week when he did 25k while suffering from a virus. We’ve had some great discussions, laughed and quizzed each other on Spanish vocabulary. We’ve also seen amazing views. I love the exceptionally clean farms and watching farm wives work in compost and plant new spring gardens. The constant rain has meant rich, green pastures with woodland blossoms. I’ve watched Spring come to rural Spain from eye level. So many flowers, green leaves, fast moving rivers. I’ve photographed the snow covered mountains (that we thankfully didn’t have to cross) and the long views from the top of hills. These are the most beautiful, fat chickens I’ve ever seen. I’ve met folks from all over the world and laughed with them, occasionally at them. I’ve seen rocks that reminded me of Pennsylvania and clay mud that looked like my childhood farm in spring. I’ve watched shepards and dogs herding sheep, and cows walking through town on their way to milking or new pastures. There was rain and hail, wind and the coldest, wettest spring in the memory of every farmer we talked to. There was also glorious sun that I never saw enough to take for granted. I’ve walked between eucalyptus forests, sat under 500 year old chestnut trees and hiked beside ancient stone walls with no mortar holding the rocks together. I drank from countless fuentes (fountains), some put there for medieval pilgrims who were guarded by the Knights Templar. I’ve crossed rivers on stone bridges built by Romans and sat in churches built in the 10th century. I’ve been blessed by a priest and hosted by a nun, both of whom wished me a “buen Camino.” I’ve eaten fresh seafood, amazing acorn and chestnut fed pork and drank a river of vino tinto and cafe con leche. My Spanish has improved–I can order a simple meal without resorting to English. If the albergue owner doesn’t speak my language, I can ask about accommodations, laundry and meals. I’m not quite functional, but so much better than a month ago. It’s been rich, joyous, amazing, surprising, exhausting, painful and humbling. It’s also been a reminder that no one walks their path alone, whether on The Way of Saint James or everyday life.
But there is also the loss of a friendship. Travel is stressful; backpacking is doubly so–stressing even the experienced hiker. It’s not for everyone. Sometimes you try things with the very best of intentions and things simply don’t work out. I don’t care what your guidebook says, this is not a walk in the park. I’ve learned before that, in general, traveling alone is easiest. Unfortunately, I’ve learned it again on this trip. The hard way. My feeling of loss can’t really be shared.
I’m not sorry I came, but it hasn’t all been positive. With every adventure is also pain