El Camino de Santiago – The Basics

Holy Moses, I made it, I’m alive. And even better than alive!!! I survived walking almost 900 kilometers across Spain. Whoodda thunk it?? Not me. It was an experience like no other, completely and incredibly amazing. A life changer. I’m barely a week back from walking (we brought friends back with us and have had guests ever since!) and I think it still consumes 90% of of my thoughts. I continue to reflect on the whole 40 days, thoughts, memories, lessons learned, unforgettable moments…and figure I’ll probably end up blogging about at least some of that. But first things first.

So many people, especially in the U.S., don’t really know much about the Camino (uh, including myself until I pretty much walked out the door), so I thought maybe I’d start off with the basics of the walk, how it all sort of works, and then my after-thoughts might make more sense.

What is it? The most basic explanation is that it is a pilgrimage route across Northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the Galicia region, where it is believed are buried the remains of St. James. It has been around for more than a thousand years, and during medieval times was one of the most significant Christian pilgrimage routes. Traditionally, a pilgrimage can begin at your front door and end at the destination site, but over the years, several routes became more common. We followed the Camino Francés and began in St. Jean Pied de Port, just over the Pyrenees in France. There are also other starting points in France (Le Puy, or even Paris), and people who start as far away as Germany, following other routes down to connect to common points in France or Spain.

The Cathedral in Santiago, the final destination of the Camino. Enormous, impressive, gives me chills to even look at the picture.

How far is it? Um. FAR. 🙂 The route we took was nearly 900 kilometers, but like I said, there are people who do way more! AND there are people who do way less. To receive your official “Compostela” certificate, you are required to have walked at least 100 kilometers (or biked at least 200) and arrive in Santiago, thus making the last 100 kilometers (starting in a town called Sarria) the busiest. Most people walk, but like I said,  you can also bike it, do it on horseback or even do it in a wheelchair (amazing, right?). There are people who knock it all out at one time, people who chop away at it every time they can get a week away (A to B one year, B to C the next…etc.), people who walk part of it and decide they don’t want to do a stretch in the middle or walk in the rain or some other miscellaneous excuse who take busses or taxis periodically (depending on their physical capabilities, we sometimes refer to these people as Camino Cheaters) but still pass through many of the major stopping points.

I saw this and thought “Uh, seriously, what am I doing?” Teeheehee…

Where do you stay? Before you can begin the Camino, you register and get a pilgrim’s passport – this is like a little booklet that registers you with the Compostela office, says where you are from, where you are starting the Camino, how you are doing it (on foot, etc.), and why (religious, etc.). Along the way, you get this booklet stamped – at a minimum at every place you stay, but also other important places of note along the way – churches, restaurants, etc. It’s a cool way to look back and see where you’ve been and the progress you’ve made (and some of the stamps are really cool…hahaha). So ANYhoo. There are pilgrims hostels along the way called albergues, and if you have a valid pilgrim’s passport, you can stay at these. There are public ones, which are usually large (from 4 bunks in a room to sometimes up to 40 – 80 !!) and very simple – you basically get a bed, a shared bathroom, a place to wash and hang your clothes, and sometimes some other things (a common area, a kitchen, internet room, etc.). These ran about 5 euros a night. The private ones were generally a little smaller, tended – although not always – to be a little nicer (especially the bathrooms), and could cost up to 12 euros a night. And then parochial ones, which were usually in an old church/monastery, which provided the basics (this could mean a mat on the floor!) plus usually a communal dinner and breakfast, and were by donation only. We found these – although the most rustic – to be the most lovely experiences of them all. You could, of course, also stay in pensions (like bed and breakfasts) or hotels. But we only did that in Leon for a treat and then once we landed in Santiago (as a reward). Pilgrims through and through, I tell ya.

You have reached your destination. 🙂

Where do you eat? Some people buy their food at the grocery stores in town and make their own stuff. But many don’t. Many of the restaurants have pilgrim’s menus – somewhere around 10 euros will get you two plates (a first plate and a second), bread, a bottle of wine and dessert. What a bargain. And in some cases, like the parochial albergues, the volunteer workers cook for everyone and you all eat together. LOVED, loved, loved that.

How far do you go every day? This depends. If you are pressed for time, you need to back it out and see how far you NEED to go to make it to the end. If you gave yourself a little room (HIGHLY recommend doing it this way) – you have some wiggle time to walk less if you are extra sore, stop and stay in a town you think is really cool, walk longer if you feel inspired. We did about 20 – 25 km each day, our shortest day was 12 and the longest was 33. Most people have a book or guide of some sort (or of course, there is an app!) that tells them what’s in each town – places to stay (including how many beds, what – if any – amenities, etc.), supermarkets, pharmacies, where to eat. So, a minimal amount of thought is necessary. Usually it goes something like “well, if we feel good, we can go X km and stay in Villasomething de Something…or if we are tired, we only need to go Y km…” – the longest stretch (which is why it helps to at least take a glance) is 17 km, without a single thing. So, if you’re tired but you think you can maybe make it one more town? 17km could be the death of you. Otherwise, towns usually pop up somewhere between 4 – 8 km.

What’s the terrain like? You name it, we walked on it. Over mountains, rocky or sandy paths, slate, concrete, dirt, MUD (oh good GOD the mud). Through the woods, vineyards, miles of nothingness (like, you start to see things sort of nothingness), along rivers, over bridges, through cities, through towns of 5 people, up up up and down down down.

What’s the normal day like? Routine is a brilliant part of the Camino. In my opinion at least. Some people get up and out as early as 5 am – to avoid the heat, because they walk slow, to “beat the crowd” – for whatever reason. Maybe just cause they’re nuts, which is what we think. We were always one of the last people out, and we didn’t normally leave until about 7. Crazy people. And you always had to be out by 8am. Normally there are bars open early to have coffee or a bite to eat and then you’re on your way, usually thinking “hm, I feel like I was just doing this” and if you’re me, giggling about it. And you walk your day away! The albergues don’t open normally till noon or 1, so you don’t want to get anywhere much before that – plus, you may stop and rest along the way, have something to drink or eat or whatever, and maybe roll into your destination like 2ish. Then, for us, SHOWER (the best shower ever after you have been workin so hard all day), wash clothes (hand washing in big sinks and then hang to dry…and hope that they actually dry!), and then some combination of rest/eat/journal writing/checking out the town. The albergues normally close and lock their doors at 10 or 10:30, some people (the crazy early risers) were in bed before 8. Rinse. Repeat. Hehehehehehehe…your body just gets so used to it.

What do you carry? Most people carry about 16 – 20 pounds of backpacked stuff. Couple changes of clothes, enough bathroom stuff to last a week or so (you can fill that stuff up in towns rather than carrying big bottles!), sleeping bag, etc. The norm. Not very much when it comes down to it, you basically wash and re-wash and I don’t know why I ever thought bringing a white shirt was a good idea. But anyhoo. Some people have a little less, some a little more, but it’s basically all about the same. A bunch of snails, living with everything you need on your back.

A couple of snails.

Who/From Where/How many people do it? Check this out. 2011 statistics from the official Peregrino office in Santiago. If I were to compile stats on our camino, they might vary slightly – but I think it’s all about timing. Now that school is out and the summer is starting, and considering most Spaniards have August off…those numbers all skew in different directions. For us, we saw TONS of over 60 folks and ran into very few Spaniards (mostly German, Italian, French, Dutch…). But really fascinating stats anyway. At least I think so.

Anyhoo. Those are the basics. Just the facts, how things work and the logistics of it all. That’s not the good stuff, the good stuff is all the parts that made is so…ugh…I can’t even really find the words. But I’ll try. Next post.

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4 Responses to El Camino de Santiago – The Basics

  1. Pingback: Summer Goodbyes from Northern Spain – Parting Shots « Northern Exposure Spain

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