What to expect when hiking the Camino in Spain

 

This is what large sections of the French Way looks like. You walk through small towns, 2-4 a day. Most will have a cafe or bar, a hostel or two and not much else. The Camino is clearly keeping these communities alive, though barely.
This is what large sections of the French Way look like. You walk through small towns, 2-4 a day. Most will have a bar, a corner grocery store, a hostel or two and not much else. The Camino is clearly keeping these communities alive, though barely.

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.

When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get used to looking for the while blazes on trees, usually located just above eye level. No so on The French Way. There are lots of scallops shells, but they can be anywhere--city walls, in the sidewalk, spray painted on roads, or sign posts. Most of the time, you look for yellow arrows (Flecha amarillo).
When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get used to looking for the while blazes on trees, usually located just above eye level. No so on The French Way. There are lots of scallops shells, but they can be anywhere–city walls, in the sidewalk, sign posts, or spray painted on roads. Most of the time, you look for yellow arrows (flecha amarillo).

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.

This is a typical hiker hostel, called Albergues along The Way. Some towns will have several and they come in different classes like municipal, private and donativo. I found them cleaner than I'd expected (though I have very low standards in this area) but often just huge open rooms with bunk beds.
This is a typical hiker hostel, called albergues, along The Way. Some towns will have several and they come in different classes like municipal, private and donativo. I found them cleaner than I’d expected (though I have very low standards in this area) but often just huge open rooms with bunk beds. BTW, “Perigrinos” means pilgrim. If you are hiking the Camino, you are considered a pilgrim. The cost was anywhere from a donation to 15 Euros. Early on the walk, they were mostly 5, but got more expensive the closer to Santiago.

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.

Most of the time you are walking between small towns. When I say small, I mean less than 50 people. There are lots of buildings for sale. Some homes are only inhabited during the summer. Over and over, we heard that the winter population might be less than 15 people. But the towns are spaced well--usually 2-4km apart, so if you don't find something in one, there's another soon. Still, not all would have a pharmacy. Only large cities had any gear for sale.
Most of the time you are walking between small towns. When I say small, I mean less than 50 people with buildings older than the USA. There are lots of buildings for sale. Some homes are only inhabited during the summer. Over and over, we heard that the winter population of these communities might be less than 15 people. But the towns are spaced well–usually 2-4km apart, so if you don’t find something in one, there’s another soon. Still, not all would have a pharmacy. Only large cities had any gear for sale.

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.

signOn 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.

Pilgrims meals were definitely a highlight. They were usually 10 Euros in price and included a first and second course, dessert and wine. I think it would be very difficult to be a vegetarian and hike this trail and nearly impossible to be vegan.
Pilgrims meals were definitely a highlight. They were usually 10 Euros in price and included a first and second course, dessert and wine. I think it would be very difficult to be a vegetarian and hike this trail and nearly impossible to be vegan.

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.

This was a common "second breakfast" for me--Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) and a tortilla. In the middle is deep fried bacon, which I had to try. Because it's bacon. And it's deep fried. And it's bacon.
This was a common “second breakfast” for me–Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) and a tortilla. In the middle is deep fried bacon, which I had to try. Because it’s bacon. And it’s deep fried. And it’s bacon!

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.

The closer you get to the sea, the more likely to see pulpo (octopus) on the menu. This is a common tapas item and I really liked it.
The closer you get to the sea, the more likely to see pulpo (octopus) on the menu. This is a common tapas item and I really liked it.

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.

Almost every bar served Estralla beer (Star beer, a local brew). A short, draft beer is a caña (usually 1.5 Euros). A cerveza is a large beer. I often ordered a cerveza con limón (beer with lemon), often called a shandy. I found it refreshing.
Almost every bar served Estralla beer (Star beer, a local brew). A short, draft beer is a caña (usually about 1.5 Euros). I often ordered a cerveza con limón (beer with lemon), also called a shandy. I found it refreshing.

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.

The hostels have bunks beds most of the time. A very few also have a storage drawer like this one and a separate plug in and light for each bed. Most of the time, you just put stuff under the bed and do your best to find a plug to charge your phone/camera.
The hostels have bunks beds most of the time. A very few also have a storage drawer like this one and a separate plug in and light for each bed. Most of the time, you just put stuff under the bed and do your best to find a plug to charge your phone/camera.

Day 1: Pamplona to Uterga

imageSunny but cold for our first day. Partly cloudy skies and temps from 34-48F with lots of wind. As long as you kept moving it was good hiking, but as soon as you stop, put on a jacket! We did roughly 17 Kim’s today and we all feel it tonight.

Kathy and Tim, from the back, moving ahead.
Kathy and Tim, from the back, moving ahead.
Climbing most of the day from 450meters to 750.
Climbing most of the day from 450meters to 750.
This was quite a hill. The last two miles were steep, and as you can see by the windmills, it was breezy.
This was quite a hill. The last two miles were steep, and as you can see by the windmills, it was breezy.
Saw this along the trail.
Saw this along the trail.
Camino art
Camino art
The is a famous statue at the top of the hill.
The is a famous statue at the top of the hill.
We stopped for lunch and a beer! When we got to the top of the hill, there was even a convince truck with wine, beer, snacks and sandwitches.
We stopped for lunch and a beer! When we got to the top of the hill, there was even a convince truck with wine, beer, snacks and sandwitches.
This is Kathy's first long distance trail. I think it was tough, but she made it.
This is Kathy’s first long distance trail. I think it was tough, but she made it.
The path is fairly well marked, but in a variety of ways.
The path is fairly well marked, but in a variety of ways.
I saw three shies along the trail!
I saw three shies along the trail!
The sky was particularly lovely.
The sky was particularly lovely.
This is a religious pilgrimage--and it's been an active for a thousand years. This is a statue of Mary just as you enter Utrega.
This is a religious pilgrimage–and it’s been an active for a thousand years. This is a statue of Mary just as you enter Utrega.

 

The Camino begins

The intrepid travelers! We stand in front of a statue com erasing the Running of the Bull, an event that has made Pamplona famous. Me, Kathy, Stef and Tim.
The intrepid travelers! We stand in front of a statue com erasing the Running of the Bull, an event that has made Pamplona famous. Me, Kathy, Stef and Tim.

The four of us have arrived in Pamplona, Spain and are doing the last minute chores before heading out on The Camino. It’s all very exciting and we expect to begin Friday morning, April Fools Day!

I’ve invited each of my companions to guest blog right here, so you can also get to know them

This is the plaza de Castillo (Castle plaza) a short walk from out hostel. I love hoe Europeans activly use their parks and public spaces.
This is the plaza de Castillo (Castle plaza) a short walk from out hostel. I love hoe Europeans activly use their parks and public spaces.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get a Russian visa (unsuccessfully) and getting over (ahem) some intestinal distress.

Tim arrived at the hostel a day ahead of everyone and I met him the next morning. We visited an amazing church that was build in the 1500's and simply beautiful.
Tim arrived at the hostel a day ahead of everyone and I met him the next morning. We visited an amazing church that was build in the 1500’s and simply beautiful.