I was waiting outside the Bilbao Airport terminal for the bus into the city after my flight from Dublin when I was approached by a young Irish woman who asked me if I had been at that airport in September 2014.
I had indeed, en route to and from the Camino Francés section I had done that year – from Burgos to Léon. Helena – that was her name – had recognised me from that time. She and her friend Gabrielle had also done a section then and like me were now returning in May 2016 to walk from Logroño to Burgos
Many Irish people like Helena, Gabrielle, and myself opt to do the Camino in sections – a week or two at a time – rather than the full route which typically takes about 30 days. The airfare is cheap and not everyone has either the time or the desire to do the whole thing in one go.
People outside of Europe generally commit to the entire Camino. In most cases it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the airfares from the States, Australia, South America or wherever are too expensive to warrant doing it in stages. Plus there’s the more authentic experience that walking it without interruption for a full month or more provides.
I stayed overnight in Bilbao and had an early night as the following day I was catching the 6:30 a.m. train to Logroño, the endpoint of my stage last year, and then a long 30km walk to Nájera.
The journey to Logroño from Bilbao’s Abando station took 2.5 hours. A walk of 30 minutes from the station got me to the Camino which is marked by directional signs all along its length. It was now 9:30 a.m. which was a little late to be setting out from the city – most peregrinos (pilgrims) would have left before 8 a.m. Still, there were people – singles, couples, groups – ahead of me and behind me. One is rarely if ever alone on the Camino – if you don’t see anyone up ahead or to the rear you may possibly have taken a wrong turn.
There was now a long 30km walk to Nájera. My 2016 Camino had begun.
Which prompts the question – why do it?
The Camino is no walk in the park. It requires stamina, strength and determination to withstand daily walks of between 20 and 30 kilometres. You have to be physically and mentally prepared. It’s often bloody hard work which will leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Physical issues – especially with your feet – that you may not be aware of if you haven’t been doing long training walks will very quickly manifest themselves. The food is just adequate and the accommodation – especially if you stay in the albergues (hostels with mixed-sex, bunk-bed dormitories) – can be spartan, not to mention uncomfortable and noisy. Plus there’s the Northern Spanish weather to contend with – days of torrential rain are not uncommon in the Spring and Autumn, the best times to do it as the heat of Summer can be too intense.
Some people, I think, have unreal expectations of the Camino. There was a thread on the Camino Francés internet forum originated by an American woman who asked: “where is the ecstasy?” She had heard so much hype about it being a blissful life-changing experience that she was disappointed by the reality. It was “just a series of very long walks”.
I met an Australian woman near Belorado who likewise was regretting her journey. She had been attracted to the idea of the Camino but had not appreciated the difficulties involved. Her feet hurt, she had blisters, she found her body didn’t really loosen up until the afternoons but, because of the need to get to an albergue early in order to have a bed for the night, she had to continue setting out early in the day. She “had no idea what it was I was thinking” when she committed to doing it and she regretted her decision.
So why do I do it?
Because I can, is one answer. I am of an age where I am very conscious that the time may soon come when I may no longer be able to do it. Carpe diem and all that.
Then there’s the experience of walking through the often very beautiful Spanish countryside not knowing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill.
And there’s the wide variety of people that one meets, people who are often interesting and/or funny. I think one of the biggest attractions of the Camino historically has been the meeting of minds that it lends itself to. When medieval pilgrims set out for Santiago – in most cases probably the only long-distance journey they would take in their lives – and met others from different countries or provinces the resultant exchanges of views and knowledge must have had a positive seeding effect when they returned to their respective communities. That was a time when travel really did broaden the mind.
The Camino is well serviced by accommodation – everything from the basic albergues to (for an occasional treat perhaps) Parador hotels in the major cities. Nor is there any rip-off. The prices are very reasonable and there is free WiFi in practically every place you stay.
The food is OK if not exactly haute cuisine. A typical pilgrim’s meal available in alburgues and restaurants along the way consists of a starter (e.g. a mixed salad), a main course (e.g. chicken and chips – *very* common) and a dessert (e.g. ice cream – often a choc ice in its wrapper). To drink you’ll usually have either water or wine and the wine is served by the bottle. All that for about €10. Very good value.
Finally, there is the getting-away-from-it-all feeling, leaving the real world of bills, politics, responsibilities and all that stuff behind, opting out of the normal routine for a while, focusing instead on the day’s stage, how long it’s going it take, where to stop for refreshments, getting into a walking rhythm and generally feeling better every day as the physical exertion releases all those happy endorphins. And at the end there is the sense of achievement of once more having finished it successfully.
That’s why I do it.
A word of caution in respect of accommodation: the Camino is in a sense becoming a victim of its own success. I have heard and read many stories this year of alburgues becoming full up relatively early in the day. People are setting out often well before dawn in order to be sure of getting a bed for the night at their destination. This can be very stressful and it can rob people of the enjoyment they should be experiencing.
I have always booked my accommodation a few months before travelling and this year I was very glad I did so. I had no worries about where I would stay any night as I had reservations in every place I stayed. (I use Booking.com – an excellent accommodation booking service.)
One way over the problem is not to do Brierleys. John Brierley has written the definitive guide to the Camino Francés and he recommends daily stages – Brierleys – that people (including me) tend to blindly follow. So, for example, stage 9 of the Brierley guide is from Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, 21 kms. The result is an influx of pilgrims into Santo Domingo and if the numbers are excessive there may not be enough beds to go around. What people should do instead is either stop 6kms before Santo Domingo at Ciruena or continue walking another 6kms as far as Granon. Don’t slavishly follow Brierley; do your own stages and you should have no problems if you haven’t booked ahead.
I also tend to use hostals rather than alburgues. Hostals (not to be confused with hostels) give you your own room and bathroom and so are very conducive to a good night’s sleep. Alburgues on the other hand are mixed dormitory bunk-bed establishments and you can be very unlucky if you are (like me) a very light sleeper and one or more of the other residents are snorers. Or if someone gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and make a racket in the process. Or if they decide to set out at an unearthly hour and wake everyone else up while they noisily make preparations. On the plus side, albergues are cheap and the communal evening meal is a great way of getting to know people.
There are travel companies that will pre-book all the accommodation for you and will also transfer your bag from one location to the next. Go for it if such convenience appeals to you but be prepared to pay through the nose. It is much cheaper to do it yourself. Nor is it a problem carrying your stuff on your back. I actually think it’s beneficial to walk with a backpack as it keeps your back straight. Several people who suffer back problems have remarked on how it has helped them. The trick is in choosing a good backpack and carrying only the minimum. Aim for a combined backpack/contents weight of about 7 kgs.
In Santo Domingo de la Calzada I stayed in the Hospideria Cisterciense, a hostal run by Cistercian nuns. And very nice it was too. A notice at reception stated that a daily Mass for pilgrims would be held at 7 pm and I decided to go. I had been expecting a large group of pilgrims to be present at the small church but there was only myself and a French woman – the other dozen or so attendees were elderly locals, mostly women. The priest was very elderly and frail and the poor man was on crutches and had to be assisted to the altar by a nun. He sat down behind the altar to say Mass. Communion was distributed by the nun. At the end the priest gave the usual blessing and, as this was a Mass for peregrinos, bade all walkers a Buen Camino! – the traditional Camino greeting and farewell that everyone uses.
My last day – day 5 – was from Agés into Burgos. There was torrential rain and it didn’t let up until I was well into the city. I finished about 1 p.m., stayed overnight in Burgos, got the 10:30 a.m. train to Bilbao the next day and flew back to Dublin the following day, Saturday.
Everything had gone according to plan and, once again, it was a most enjoyable Camino.
Next year my plan is to do the stage from Léon to Sarria and that will complete my Camino Francés.
After that, who knows? I may repeat a section, or I may do one of the other Caminos such as the Portugués or the Del Norte. Or perhaps walk from Santiago to Finisterre.
So many options, so little time!
Details of my previous Camino trips can be found on this blog at: