Posts Tagged Camino; Camino de Santiago
In many respects the great cathedral cities of Burgess and Leon serve as bookends for the meseta on the Camino. It starts almost immediately as you leave Burgos and you “feel” that left the meseta after suffering through the long industrial entrance into, and exit from, Leon. (Technically, it would take one more day before the meseta was behind me as the pilgrim catches a final look at the broad, flat agricultural plain during the second half of the day after leaving Leon). While I enjoyed this region more than I thought I might based upon some early warnings, nonetheless there was a sameness to the relatively flat terrain with massive wheat fields and big sky. But for the occasional town or village, monotony may have developed. The last two days in the meseta illustrate this well.
After my “nero” day in Carrion, I targeted a 40 kilometer day, so I was planning to get a particularly early start, but was again locked in at the albergue until 6:30 a.m. Yet, I was still out before sunrise. The route this day is on the Via Aquitana – a restored Roman road. Yet, this stretch is one of the longest on the Camino without relief or services. The day’s walk was again more challenging from an aesthetic standpoint – a hard dirt path alongside a roadway with little scenery. The intermediate towns of Calzadilla de la Cueza, Ledigos, and Terradillos de Templarios (this town once was home to a 13th century church belonging to the Knights Templar) provided a respite from the sameness of the hike, but they seemed to be very aged and tired. Many homes and other buildings were made of only mud and straw (“mudbrick”) and, of these, many were dilapidated and many were closed, especially the churches in these towns.
“Ricky”, who I had met five days earlier when he had started his Camino in Burgos, and I past one another a few times this day as it seemed as though when I stopped for water or lunch he’d walk by and then I’d do the same. (Ricky asked we call him by that name because he knew we’d have trouble pronouncing his real, Japanese name.) We spoke little that day, but always exchanged a vigorous wave. (Who knew then that we’d walk together 5 days later and we’d finish in Santiago the same day.) I saw few other pilgrims, except a number on bicycle. The monotony of the landscape did provide a good atmosphere for solo, contemplative walking, which can be good for the soul.
With an ambitious goal that day, I walked later than most days. The sky had turned overcast, which didn’t help my impression of Sahagun (my planned destination) as I climbed uphill and crossed over train tracks into the town around 5 p.m. Somewhat like most of the towns and villages in this region, Sahagun exhibited a past that spoke of significantly more prominence and importance than the modern day.
Sahagun looked and felt old, grey, and tired. Yet, it was a most vigorous city in the medieval times. King Alfonso VI was educated there and reared the area after defeating his brother for control of the monarchy. The city was the center of development by the Benedictines of Cluny, which controlled over 100 monasteries. The town has various remnants of its past, particularly some diverse architectural styles (including significant Islamic influence from the Moors that resulted in what is now called the “Romanesque-Mudejar” style.
Arriving a little later than usual and seeking to get another early start (and a little privacy is good for the soul sometimes), I stayed in a simple hotel, named, perhaps not surprisingly, Alfonso VI.
The next day was very similar. Out early for a 37 kilometer day with the town of Mansilla de las Mulas as my targeted destination for the night. The route started out pleasantly as I crossed over a river (“Rio Cea”) on a bridge first built by Alfonso VI and walked through a grove of poplar trees, but soon the path returned to a flat, dull route on a hard dirt trail along side a road with a similar 17 kilometer section with no water or services. The guidebook does say that this stretch is “one of the best sections of Roman road in all of Spain.” Perhaps it was, but it was still flat and dull with no water or other services.
The path into Mansilla was flat, unlike the fairly typical situation where the approach is often uphill to the town or village (presumably for defense purposes in the middle ages). The entrance to the town immediately signals to the traveler that time has not been as unkind to Mansilla as it has to a large number of the meseta towns. A pretty square with statutes and a water fountain welcomes pilgrims. Remains of the 12th century fortifications can be seen here as well just beyond the square. (In fact, a walk through Mansilla reveals that over half of these ancient walls still remain.) Although it has lost five of its six 13th century churches, the town seems to have modernized with the times. Mansilla also has an excellent albergue, excellent private hostels/pensions, and some good restaurants as well as most any services (supermarkets and ATM machines) a pilgrim may need.
Having reached Mansilla, I knew I had substantially completed the meseta. It had its pros and its cons. There was beauty to the starkness and the accompanying “big sky” country and the flat terrain meant that 40 kilometer days were possible. On the other hand, time has forgotten much of the region and there was a sadness to many parts of the mudbrick villages and farming communities.
All that said, now having walked through it for 4 or 5 days, my experience in the meseta recalls another writer’s description of this region that not only do I find accurate but is said better than I could say: “The Meseta is sparsely populated. The scattered, earth-coloured villages are often camouflaged in the open plain, and only a church tower – or nowadays a grain silo — identifies their location. With mechanization of the land, many of the villages are now abandoned or inhabited only by older people, the younger set having either emigrated or moved to the large towns in the 1960s and 70s in search of work.”
The final “bookend” to the meseta is the important city of Leon. While the guidebooks tell us that Pamplona has the largest population of any of the cities along the Camino, my sense wad that Leon was certainly the largest city. But before getting a chance to see its famous Gothic cathedral and other interesting sites, I still had to cover almost 18 kilometers from Mansilla.
Once again I was out walking before the sun rose and the day was beautiful. That said, the following description of these 18 kilometers into Leon is probably all that needs to be said further:
“If you were going to skip one day on the camino, this would be it. Much ahs been done to improve the safety of the pilgrim approach to Leon, with pedestrian bridges and overpasses, but the route still involves a lot of industrial walking.”
With a good, cool morning and flat (albeit visually unappealing) terrain, I was able to arrive in Leon by noon and enjoy a half of a day off and to see much of the city.
After a good rest at my favorite albergue, as usual I woke early and as usual planned get an early start on the day’s walk and my second day in the meseta. So as to not disturb those sleeping I carried my gear downstairs and packed to leave. A pair of Frenchmen joined me as they too were heading out early. We “knew” each other from other short “visits” on the Camino, but we shared little due to our language barrier.
We had rain on the very first day leaving St. Jean and climbing over the Pyrenees. Since then, the weather has been nearly perfect, but this morning it was cold and gray and raining lightly. The Frenchmen headed out before me as I grabbed a cup of coffee and croissant. I was out as usual before sunrise on a very cloudy rainy morning, it was dark. And, with a path that led through trees outside of town, finding the way marks was difficult. I actually stopped before exiting town trying to use the light from a lamp to see the next yellow arrow. I used this pause to put on my rain jacket, pull out my headlamp and put the rain cover on my pack. It looked like the day would be challenging.
The trail was an earthen path that widened into a narrow, two-tract lane – about the width of a car. The official “way” was removed from but paralleled the main road between Hontanas and Castrojeriz. The path didn’t appear to actually be a country road – maybe a rarely-used trail for some farm equipment. Because of the previous night’s rain there was considerable puddling and in the very limited early morning light I had to watch my steps if I wanted to keep my feet dry.
The day brightened a little. I turned off my headlamp. I had covered about 5 kilometers in just over an hour when I turned left and came out on the paved road. Considering the remoteness of these towns and the early morning hour, I was surprised (and just a bit concerned) when I saw a car stop at the intersection of the road and the Camino path – and seemingly wait for me as I approached. As I got closer the passenger got. Glimpsing up, I was relieved – very surprised (because I was certain that only the “Frenchmen” and me had started out early), but relieved – to be greeted by George (from Arizona), with whom I had shared the paella dinner the night before.
George directed his flashlight beam at my shoes as he said, “somebody took my boots this morning.” I guess somewhat defensively I said, “well, these are mine – I’m sure.” He quickly agreed that the Vasque Mindbenders that I was wearing were not the boots he was looking for. I explained about how the Frenchmen and I were the only other ones out early and that they were probably 20 or 30 minutes ahead of me because I waited to have a cup of coffee before leaving.
My walk continued on the road through San Anton and into Castrojerz, an interesting town with castle watching over its medieval streets. After a cafe con leche and a brief rest, I made the gradual (but significant) climb in a light rain up to Alto de Mostelares. I enjoyed a brief break at the summit in a shelter with Frida and Jen (from the albergue the prior night). We then had a very steep downhill to a relatively flat and mildly rolling path for the rest of the day. I passed Frida, then she caught back up in the town of Itero de La Vega where we searched for lunch spot, but most things closed – Easter Sunday. Finally, we had to double back to the albergue at entrance to town – where we lunched on bocadilla of ham and cheese and ran into Jen (again), Carmen (from the day before), and David (from the albergue the night before).
The day started to clear. Rain gear came off and skies brighten. Most of my fellow pilgrims were stopping in Boadilla del Camino (our albergue in Hontanas had recommended another new albergue there), which would make for a 28 km day. I decided, however, to push on another 6 kilometers to Fromista (making its a 21-mile day) as part of my plan to shorten my time in the meseta. Sun begins to peak through as I walk through Boadilla. The trail then followed a canal that cut through the agricultural landscape, so the terrain were perfectly flat, so I made good time heading towards and into Fromista. Low on euros, job one was finding an ATM, which I did right away. Unsucesssful at the Santander cash machine, I ran into the Frenchmen, who had left the albergue just before me that morning. Fortunately an ATM across the street had an adequate supply of euros and I restocked.
I secured a room at the San Martin hotel and headed for an outdoor table to put my feet up and relax. While enjoying my afternoon cervesa, Ciaran from Ireland (another pilgrim about my same age) joined me in the café. Two days before his son was to start the Camino, Ciaran decided to go as well (how’s that for planning!). Now his son was a few days ahead of him, but they’d meet up in Santiago. (I was see Ciaran several times in the days to come – and, we would finish in Santiago at the same time and see each other at the Pilgrim Mass.)
Showered. Walked around town. Stopped in church long enough to focus on the day (it was Easter Sunday), give thanks and offer prayer. Back at the hotel I ordered some wine and pasta and worked on photographs, journal and blog. I called Cheryl and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in a private room – my second one after 13 days on the Camino. My second day in the meseta was not the monotony I had anticipated. The landscape had included traversing a high ridge and the scenes were more varied than the first day, including an interesting medieval town, a canal cutting through the agricultural plains, and the more modern town of Fromista.
Upon leaving the great cathedral city of Burgos, the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago enters a region known as the “meseta.” I had read about it in Camino guidebooks, and I had heard about the meseta – both from people who completed the Way and from Spanish pilgrims familiar with this part of their country. For many this region is thought to be the most challenging on the Camino – not because of any physical challenge relating to the severity of the terrain (such as climbing through the Pyrenees), but as a result of the mental challenge relating to the monotony of the topography.
“Meseta” is simply the Spanish word for “plateau.” Meseta refers to the high, plains of central Spain. While the meseta occupies a large portion of central and northern Spain, my walk on the Camino was in the northern part, just below the Cantabrian Mountains, just west of the Pyrenees and extending across most of the northern edge of Spain to Galicia in the far northwest. One well-written website about Spain describes the meseta as follows:
Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. During the growing season, the northern Meseta shimmers golden with cereal crops and then retreats to a dusty dryness, while in the southern half vineyards, rows of olive trees and the saffron-producing crocus carpet the otherwise barren plateau. Flocks of sheep roam large stretches of the Meseta, moving south along ancient rights of way (“las cañadas”) in the fall and returning north in the late spring.
This region is largely known as “Castile” politically or “Castilla Y Leon,” which is the largest autonomous political subdivision in Spain. It plays a critical if not dominant part in the history of the Iberian Peninsula and the evolution of what is now the country of Spain. The region is home of the Castilian language, which we know today as “Spanish.” The northern part of the meseta historically is dominated by landmarks, villages, monuments, and other remnants of both Roman history (as gold was discovered in the mountains just to the north, which was mined and transported for the empire) and the Reconquita (as Christians retook the land for the Moors/Muslims). El Cid – one of Spain’s national heroes – and Don Quioxte – the protagonist from one of Spain’s most influential works of fiction – are from the meseta region.
I was prepared for boring, flat and open vistas. When thought of from a negative perspective, this landscape lacked definition or interesting landforms. With endless fields of wheat, the colors were dominated by basic, vibrant hues (blue sky, white clouds and green fields) with little variation or nuance. From a positive perspective, the meseta recalls American landscapes like Montana and its “big sky” with brilliant cloud formations against a spectacular blue background and grounded by a verdant, green base. Yet, the “warnings” I had received to prepare for long, flat, straight pathways near roads, led me to develop a plan to reduce my time in these area. While I was averaging 20 to 30 kilometers a day, I determined that if I could add 10 km a day, I could turn 5 days in the meseta into four days. Physically I figured that the flatter terrain would also make it easier to press for longer daily walks.
I started my assault on the meseta by leaving Burgos before sunrise. As I approached and then walked right next to and past the cathedral on my way west out of town, I watched the moon as to hung between the cathedral’s tall, Gothic spires. I had hoped to be hiking by 6:00 a.m., but the albergue was locked down (and we were locked in) until 6:30 a.m. After passing by the cathedral in the limited morning light, I started looking for yellow arrows to show me the way out of the city on the Camino. Just a head of me I saw a woman (“Carmen”) glancing around, like me, for some indication as to which streets and what turns to take to leave the town and enter the meseta.
I caught up to Carmen (who is from the southeast of Spain) and we worked together to find “the way.” A few minutes later we ran into “Lynn” from British Columbia and the three of us headed out into the broad landscape as the sun was rising. (Little did I know then, on Day 12 of my journey, that despite separating and reacquainting various times, the three of us would walk the final 20k together into Santiago 17 days later. But – that is the way of the Camino.)
The first 11 k of the meseta lived up to its reputation. We met “Ricky” from Japan on his first day the Camino – he started that morning in Burgos, which reminds that not everyone starts in St. Jean. Many Spaniards start in Pamplona or Burgos or Leon. In Puenta La Reina (on my fourth night) I had dinner with Frank from Austria who had actually started his walk – his Camino – in Austria. A few nights later I would bunk with friends from Holland that started in Holland and walked the entire way over three years – this year they were finishing the last third and planning to arrive in Santiago about the time I planned to do so. (I would see Ricky many more times over the next 17 days and – amazingly – would see him too in Santiago. Again, that is the way of the Camino.)
The hiking was comparatively easy. Good conversation (see previous post) provided considerable interest, where the landscape offered little. As predicted, Day 1 in the meseta was a long haul, made challenging mostly because of the sameness of the steps. Carmen enjoyed our conversation, at least in part, because she said she could practice her English with a Canadian and an American. Our destination was a small town named “Hontanas.” As I began to tire I was slightly distressed because I knew we had gone over 30 kilometers, but I could not yet see the village. We only “found” the town when we were right upon it because it sits low, almost below – protected from – the plain.
Late in the day we neared the tiny hamlet of San Bol. We were tempted to stop, take off our packs, rest and drop our hot, dusty feet in the fountain there to test the pilgrim legend that such a soaking in this special fountain cures the weary traveller of all foot pain. Yet, when we saw that it involved a detour – even though it was just a half of a kilometer – we marched on because our destination was less than 4k ahead. Tired and ready to stop, we eased ourselves down into the town that had been all but hidden from us. Carmen headed for the municipal albergue and I went to the private one across the street. We met later for a celebratory cervesa (beer).
My albergue that night would prove to be the nicest pilgrim hostel of the trip. It was relatively new, so everything was clean and worked well. The shower was roomy with a changing area plenty of hot water and no timer shutting off the flow every three minutes. This hostel featured a beautiful courtyard with large picnic table where I met Frida from Germany, Jen from Australia, and David from Denver. That evening I joined Jen and Frida around a large dining room table to enjoy a large “family-style” paella with other new friends from Arizona, Holland, France, and Florida.
If you walk the Camino de Santiago, you will be referred to as a “pilgrim” or, in Spanish, a “peregrino.” You need to pick up a “Pilgrim Passport” in St. Jean (or from one of the many confraternity associations around the world), which document provides access to the various “albergues” (“pilgrim hostels”) set up along the way to Santiago. In most towns and villages along the Camino various bars, cafes, and restaurants offer a “pilgrim meal” at dinnertime, which consists of a starter, entrée, dessert, bread, water & wine for a modest price (usually 9 or 10 euros). And, when you finish the Camino in the city of Santiago, the evidence that you have completed the trip and are entitled to receive a “Compostela” is your pilgrim passport, which has been stamped at 30 to 50 (or more sites) you stayed at or visited on the Way. The point here is that the idea of being a pilgrim or being on a pilgrimage is at the very core of attempting to walk the Camino de Santiago.
Historically and generally speaking, a “pilgrim” is thought to be someone on a religious or spiritual journey – typically an actual, physical journey. Most undertake some spiritual journey in their lifetime (examining the “big questions” of life, like – why am I here?), which can be thought of as a pilgrimage, but it is more common traditionally to think of pilgrimage as a physical movement involving a spiritual motivation. Think of the “American Pilgrims” – a religious group seeking to preserve their interpretation of proper worship, who travelled to Holland and then to “Plymouth Rock.” Thomas Merton said: “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of the inner journey. The inner journey is the interpretation of the meaning and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”
In a very real sense, God sent Abraham on a pilgrimage. Christians and Jews have undertaken pilgrimages to the “Holy Land” (Jerusalem) for thousands of years. Other religious orders emphasize pilgrimage – one of the five major tenets of Islam is that Muslims are to journey to Mecca (the “Hajj”) at least once in their lifetime.
Originally (in medieval times), the individuals on “the Way” were out for much more than a physical challenge or a walk of spiritual discovery. One resource says, “A major motivation [for medieval pilgrims] was orandi causa – in order to pray, to seek forgiveness, to fulfill a vow, or to petition St. James for a certain blessing, such as healing.” Another source says, “in any case, the gaining of the plenary indulgence became a dominant motivation for the pilgrimage.”
To understand the historical Camino then we probably need to understand what is meant by “gaining a plenary indulgence.” What is an “indulgence” (or a “plenary indulgence”) and why would someone want (or need) an indulgence? I grew up in a Congregational Church in Connecticut. For the last 28 years I’ve attended a Lutheran Church. Neither of those denominations to my knowledge discussed or provided indulgences. The historian in me recalls that one of Martin Luther’s major criticisms of the “church” included the idea and the practices relating to indulgences. In my next “Thy Camino” post, therefore, I will explore this idea of indulgences and how it fits into a life of faith and what it means for the modern-day “peregrino” on the Camino de Santiago.
As I have indicated before, walking or hiking (you certainly do both) the Camino de Santiago is a far cry from the Appalachian Trail or other more wilderness adventures. The nature of the path on which you travel and the environment through which you travel are both quite varied. After 10 days of hiking I had climbed over the Pyrenees on paved roads, rocky slopes and snow-covered trails. I had followed a mountain stream through wooded terrain on a soft earthen path, walked through small towns and villages on quiet streets, climbed the Alto de Perdon on a hard, gravel surface, and walked through the streets of Pamplona where the bulls famously run each July. So entering the city of Burgos on Day 11 by way of a long, earthen path following a river that turned into a park and eventually a city sidewalk was much like a microcosm of the first 10 days.
One blogger aptly summarized the walking and hiking as follows:
Modern-day pilgrims on the Camino Francés pass through Basque country and right by the site of a battle in the French epic The Song of Roland. They walk through Pamplona (right up the street where the bulls run every July), Burgos and León (both of which have stunning cathedrals laden with images of St. James), and Ponferadda (which boasts a castle built by the Knights Templar). They also cross over mountains and a vast plain known as the meseta, pass by cornfields, sunflower fields, vineyards, and even a free wine fountain, ramble past groves of olive, fig, almond, walnut, and chestnut trees, and trudge through the mud on rainy Galicia’s frequently flooded roads and hills.
Both for modern as well as medieval pilgrims, the “magnet” drawing walkers into the city is clearly its famous cathedral. After traveling through a a variety of villages with simple, 12th century Romanesque churches, the architecture displayed by the cathedral reminds the pilgrim of the march of architecture as well as the refinements to the Gothic style, which replaced the Romanesque. The Catedral de Burgos, in fact, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Architecture historians remark how Our Lady of Burgos is a living exhibition that summarizes the evolution of Gothic architecture. The more obvious elements of the cathedral (the spires) exhibit a “high” or later Gothic with significant ornamentation.
Prior to the Gothic style, architects had to use much thicker walls to support the structure. Such building methods permitted only modest windows. The genius of Gothic architecture was the ability to build taller structure, but with simpler walls – this allowed for the large and long windows – which permitted much more light into the churches – emphasized by the use of stained glass.
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.