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.