They say there’s no such thing as a free meal, and I suppose that’s true about the pilgrim meal — after all, to be entitled to it, you need to have walked at least a hundred kilometres.
There are two large buildings on the Plaza do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, Spain: The very impressive cathedral, and one of the most expensive hotels in the city. The Hostal Reis Catolicos used to be a pilgrim hospital, and was converted into a plush parador hotel in 1953. But it retains a connection with its past by continuing to minister to some of the thousands of pilgrims who arrive in Santiago each year, providing a meal for up to ten people three times a day.
To be entitled to the meal, you must have received a Compostela (certificate of pilgrimage completion) within the previous three days, and to get that you must have walked at least 100km or cycled 200km. Other than that, though, the only requirement is that you are one of the first ten people to arrive at the meeting point outside the garage of the parador — only ten people will be accepted and the porters don’t make exceptions.
The meal itself is nothing special, it’s certainly not the food they serve to the paying guests, nor do you eat in the main dining room. In fact, the food is the same as is provided for the hotel staff, you collect it yourself from the kitchens and eat it in a small room set aside for the purpose. But the experience is fantastic — a last chance to spend time with other pilgrims, recount and hear stories of pilgrimage, and experience the hospitality that characterises the Camino.
The meals are served at the odd (for Spain) hours of 9am for breakfast, 12pm for lunch, and 7pm for dinner. Pilgrims start to gather outside the parador garage well before these times, although (depending on the time of year) you might find yourself among the fortunate ten even if you arrive just 15 minutes before the hour. Dinner is the most popular meal, and breakfast the least, so if you’re not keen on waiting for an hour or so, it’s a good idea to choose the early option.
When we finished the Camino Francés in April 2008, we took advantage of the meal three times. Our first experience was for dinner on the night of our arrival at the insistence of Peter, a pilgrim we’d got to know quite well along the way. Since six of us all wanted to eat together, we arrived two hours early and passed the time chatting. The next day we returned (much closer to the hour) for lunch and met a whole new group of people who’d all walked different routes such as the Camino del Norte and the Camino Portugués. Shortly before nine on the third day, we were leaving the city to walk to Finisterre and, passing the parador, decided to see if any places remained. There were only three people waiting, so we convinced our friend Tom to join us and had a great meal to send us on our way.
I don’t even remember what food we were served at those meals, though I have vague recollections of chicken for dinner and eggs for breakfast. I do remember that they served us wine, and that it was not bad. However, I definitely remember the atmosphere: incredibly positive, tinged with incredulity. Everyone was feeling a sense of achievement for having walked so far, was enjoying the company, and couldn’t quite believe that we were getting a meal for free.
On completing the Via de la Plata in April, I wanted to once again take advantage of the pilgrim meal. I searched online to find the hours and found a discussion about whether or not people should go. One argument was that accepting free food was like sleeping in a homeless shelter, and that pilgrims were being selfish for eating free food when they could afford to buy their own.
When we finished the walk in 2008, we certainly didn’t have much money in the bank and a free meal was welcome, but it was never about saving a few dollars. It was about shared experience — sharing a meal with people you might not have met yet, but who had just finished the same sometimes-gruelling pilgrimage as you had.
This year, we arrived in Santiago just before noon and attended midday mass rather than get a free feed, then celebrated our anniversary in style by having dinner in a nice restaurant. We got up too late to go to breakfast, but decided to try for lunch, arriving at 11:45 to find, in a classic case of good timing, that eight people were already there and that we made ten.
While we waited for the porter to arrive, we chatted with the others: four Spanish girls who’d walked the last 100km of the Camino Francés, a couple who’d cycled from Roncesvalles, a Spanish guy who’d walked alone, and a German man we’d met once on the Via de la Plata.
While we were waiting, two other pilgrims turned up but one of the others explained that there were already ten of us; they smiled sadly and said they’d come back for dinner. The porter arrived and told us we couldn’t go in with backpacks, then disappeared for ten minutes before checking our credenciales and leading us into the garage to take our names and ID numbers. Then he wrote out a coupon and gave it to the German man, who led us outside, through the main doors of the hotel, and through a warren of corridors to the kitchen.
We all collected trays and cutlery from a pile, and the chef doled out the meal: noodle soup to start, followed by potatoes and stew. We took some fruit and bread from the bowls, stuck the wine and water bottles under our arms, thanked the chef, and descended carefully to the dining room.
The white walls are decorated with framed calligraphic maps of the various caminos, and the atmosphere was friendly and energetic. While we ate, we chatted about our experiences and about St James himself, but didn’t really mention our plans for the future — we were still on the Camino.
By around 1pm we’d all eaten as much as we could, and returned our trays to the kitchen before saying goodbye to each other and heading our separate ways.
We certainly hadn’t paid any money for the meal, and we got lot more than just food, so whether or not there is such a thing as a free lunch, the pilgrim meal is a fantastic way to round off the Camino de Santiago.