A have failed miserably in my plans to blog (“often” I told friends) during the Camino. For some aspects of the journey, I planned well. For other, my expectations were inaccurate. By far, my biggest miscue was overestimating the time for writing blog entires. Perhaps the best way to understand this and, at the same time, to better understand the adventure is to gain some insight into a day in the life of an individual on the Way of St. James.
You awake early, typically whether you want to or not when you are staying in an “albergue” (a dorm-style overnight quarters where people sleep on bunk beds (in rooms of two to ten bunks a room). People are waking and rustling their packs and visiting the communal (and typically co-ed) bathroom facilities around or even before 6:00 a.m. Many like to hit the Camino early to enjoy the quiet and cool of the mornings or just to get an early start on the day. [In the summer months I understand this is particularly true because the weather is warmer and the greater numbers makes finding a spot (a bed) in an albergue (or at least your preferred or planned albergue) more challenging if you do not finish your walking early.]. Not surprisingly, people have different notions of being quiet and/or discreet. Hence, if you are sleeping in an albergue and you are still asleep at 7:00 a.m. you are an accomplished sleeper. I really enjoyed early walking and typically arise early so it mattered little to me. In fact, some mornings I have been among the first out the door.
People on the Camino “hike their own hike” so some are planning to walk 15 or 20 kilometers and others are looking to go further – 20 to 30 or even 35 kilometers a day. (And a few, based on my experience, will go 35 to 45 kilometers.). Considering that a healthy, fit individual can walk 5 or 6 km an hour under perfect conditions, everyone plans accordingly based upon ability, terrain (there are many hills and some small mountains), and daily objective. (Oh, and keep in mind that most carry a backpack with 15 to 30 pounds on your back.). AND, most people are injured or hurting. Yes, it was astonishing the number of people in the first week (and many for the entire trip) who had blisters, sore feet, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee injuries, sore toes, and/or Achilles problems. It’s hard to overemphasize the number of people who had some amount of blisters. And just about everyone had general muscle stiffness (especially in the morning or after any rest) and some back pain (from the backpacks). Such maladies had to be factored into daily distance objectives as week – and often those issues were controlling.
For most of us, breakfast was a stop at a “bar” (in Spain, the bars are not only important socially, but they serve some similar and many different functions from what most Americans think of a “bar”) after a couple of hours of walking where we would get “cafe con leche.” Literally, “coffee with milk” – but practically, we were drinking what Starbuck’s sells as “latte” – expresso with and an equal, or larger, portion of hot milk. (Although some would have Cafe Americano – expression with hot water.) With coffee we would usually have some combination of bread (you purchased the day before), toast, a croissant, orange juice (almost always fresh-squeezed), eggs & bacon, and/or tortilla (Spanish omelet – eggs, potatoes and onion, typically). I had eggs occasionally, coffee always, and an alarmingly amount of bread/toast/croissants/etc. As the days moved along I missed fresh foods and often bought oranges and/or strawberries (exceptionally good) to add to a breakfast of bread and coffee.
Mid-morning to mid-afternoon was typically a time of serious walking, interrupted by brief stops in towns and villages for re-supply, rest, water, and/or sight-seeing (typically, a 600 to 700 year-old church, or a remanent of a Roman wall or bridge). For whatever (or obvious) reasons, this time of the day was among my most productive as a typically felt very strong and eager. Lunch would consist of more bread, typically with some type of pork (ham, salami, chrizo, etc.) and/or cheese slipped into the middle of the baguette – called bocadills (“sandwiches”). There were a few other things possible at the same bars you’d stop at for breakfast, but – for me – not the most compelling items. Suffice it to say, there are no salad bars, Pizza Huts, or NYC delis on the Camino. This is where it became important for many of us to get create with stopping at supermercados (“supermarkets” that were anything but “super” – the breakfast cereal selection at WalMart takes up more square footage than most rural supermercados. And, just so my flippancy or attempt at humor is not misunderstood, this is a comment about how appreciative and grateful we should be and not an arrogant criticism of the way life is in most of northern Spain. Many of us would buy bread and nuts and fruit and chocolate and fashion a reasonable midday refueling so we could skip a few days of ham and cheese bocadillas.
Between 3:00 and 5:00 each day (but obviously sooner for some and later fir others), we would settle on a town for the evening and find an albergue. Some small villages had one, others had two or three and bigger town might have four or five. These albergues might be run by the local or regional government (a “municipal” albergue – almost always the least expensive: 5 to 10 euros a night), or by the church or other Christian organization (a “parochial” albergue – these often involved some communal activity and often more spartan conditions, but were typically as inexpensive as the municipal albergues, and often requested only a donation), or by a for-profit individual or business (a “private” albergue – typically 5 or so euros higher in price per bed). Many of these towns would also have inexpensive hostels or hotels or pensions (I’m still trying to distill the finer distinctions among the three) that offered private rooms with private baths – typically for about 30 euros a night (40 euros for a double).
Once an albergue is selected the pilgrim needs to check-in (which often involves a line, but not too long), get a bed, figure out how to get settled in their bunk area, keep a watchful eye for an empty shower stall, and consider whether clothes cleaning is a high priority that day and, if so, clean the offending items by hand or by trying to figure out how to use the washers and dryers at the albergue – not all had them. Or, by dropping your laundry off with a service at the albergue, which would cost 3 or 4 euros to wash and another 2 to 4 for drying.
With the basics of shelter and clothing hopefully under control, attention would turn to another basic need – food. There is not enough space here to discuss the nuances of eating times, siesta, business hours, and the like. Suffice to say that when pilgrims need food, restaurants and bars in Spain typically aren’t ready to prepare a meal. Thankfully, the volume of pilgrims spilling regularly into these town (as well as the potential for making money) has “encouraged” a number of establishments not only to be open but to offer a “Pilgrim Menu” most nights. I could spend an entire post on the Pilgrim Menu, but for our purposes here, many of us would go out and eat from these Pilgrim Menus, which offer a “first” plate or starter (“entre,” which makes much better use of the word than American dining traditions), which might be salad (“ensalada” – another whole post”), soup, pasta (I learned early that a menu that offered “macaroni with tomato” was offering spaghetti as a starter), etc. the second plate might be pork, or chicken, or (sometimes) beef, or fish – almost always served with fries. These meals almost always came with bread, water, wine and dessert. Dessert might be an apple, a nice cream novelty, flan (usually a good choice), yogurt, or rice pudding. As you can imagine, some were better than others. Some were quite good. As a number of people said, “it’s fuel, not food.” As a rule the food improved with each step west (Galicia was clearly the best in quality and variety), but for 9 or 10 euros (all in), it was hard to complain.
After dinner there was limited time for socializing, touring the town (the sun didn’t go down until 8:30 or 8:45), calling home, and/or getting organized for doing it all over again the next day. With a fairly strict “lights out” policy you had to have finished with your turn in the bathroom and settled in your sleeping bag by 9:45.
Then – up at 6:00 the next day and begin again.