The Camino de Santiago is an ancient track: from at least the middle ages pilgrims were making their way to the Spanish city renowned as housing the bones of St James, one of Jesus’ apostles. In contemporary life it is the first European Cultural Itinerary and is walked by tens of thousands each year.
What we didn’t know when we set off was that the Camino is more than just one way; it’s a network of paths, all leading to Santiago. We were walking the Camino Francés, which runs from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, through Roncesvalles (on the Spanish side) on to Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and a host of smaller cities and towns along the way. The Francés is the most popular of all the Ways of St James, and when people talk about doing the Camino, they usually mean this one.
We were pressed for time after missing a flight from Vienna and Craig doing a boating course in preparation for an upcoming houseboat trip in France, so we decided to start three stages in, in Pamplona. As it turned out, we would have had plenty of time to start in St Jean, but we were quite glad we didn’t — it was March and the Pyrenees were covered in snow. We even walked through snow on our first day, as we climbed a hill when leaving Pamplona.
The weather was a major presence in our journey. Walking in March was a good idea in that we avoided the hordes of pilgrims that walk in summer, but it was cold. We both took polypropylene underwear and waterproof jackets, overtrousers and pack covers, and even so were wet through on more than one occasion. Being caught in a hailstorm once or twice (all right, four times) was an experience we will never forget, especially as we were always in the middle of nowhere when the hail started to fall. Definitely pack your belongings in waterproof bags within your pack if you are walking at this time of year, and don’t stint on the warm layers.
As New Zealanders, we are used to carrying all the food we need for an entire hike — that wasn’t necessary on the Camino! There are towns every five to ten kilometres along the route; the longest stretch with no villages was about 16km. We tended to visit a supermarket or shop in the evening to pick up food for dinner, breakfast, and a snack for the next day, and lunch was a bocadillo (sandwich made from a loaf of bread like a thick baguette) often filled with tortilla española (a fat omelette filled with potatoes). However, there are lots of bars and restaurants to eat at if you don’t want to cook for yourself, and many offer a three-course pilgrim meal, with wine included, for around €10.
There are plenty of places to sleep along the way, with pilgrim albergues (hostels) catering exclusively to the people walking the way. You’ll need a credencial (pilgrim passport) and to show identification when you check in to these hostels, which usually cost between €5 and €10. Some are council-run, others are privately operated, and they are all different! You’ll need a sleeping bag if you don’t want to freeze, though some do provide blankets.
One of our favourite aspects of the Camino was meeting people. We didn’t often walk with other pilgrims, but we quite often showed up in an albergue and found familiar faces. They were people to share stories, blister remedies, and a glass of wine or two with, and they really made the Camino special.
We highly recommend the Camino de Santiago. It’s a life-changing experience.