The Way of St. James: El Camino de Santiago

A pilgrimage on this path can last for days, weeks or months as you trek toward Santiago de Compostela.

Housed in everything from ancient monasteries to sports complexes, an albergue provides modest accommodation and is available only for those walking the Camino. At a cost of 6 to 10 Euros (US $9 – $14) per night,  it makes this an affordable trip for many.

After walking a typical day of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and arriving at the door of the albergue, pilgrims present their Camino passport (credential) to be stamped by the host. Most albergues provide bunk beds in close quarters. Even a simple bed becomes a luxury after a few walking days.

It is difficult to resist the urge to race some days, to ensure a spot at an albergue, as reservations are unheard of. But an important lesson to learn while walking the Camino is that trusting souls are always cared for. Also available in some towns and cities are hotels and small inns.

After a rainy, cold and particularly long walk one day, we arrive at the albergue to find the last bed had just been given. We  are taken to a church annex, where we receive mats on the floor, a hot dinner and breakfast. Donation only, please. After dinner we travel through a secret tunnel to the church to participate in a special service for pilgrims in an ancient choir loft and treated to a tour of the spectacular golden church.

It is traditional in Spain to eat dinner at 10 p.m, by which time most pilgrims are deeply asleep. The restaurateurs along the Camino have accommodated pilgrims with special meals served between 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Three courses and red wine are served, often on white tablecloths for about US $12.00.

During the day, walkers may stop for a bocadillo, or snack, consisting of fresh crusty bread stuffed with ham and cheese, among other local delicacies. The tapas, bite-sized treats made of local ingredients, can be meals in themselves. Bakeshops tempt with hot chocolate-filled croissants. One memorable dinner is served by the kind host of the albergue.

It consists of a local specialty of garlic soup, bread and fruit, all for a small donation. Seated at a long table, the humble meal serves to remind us of the frugal meals enjoyed by pilgrims of the past. It is typical to  share dinner with a varied group of pilgrims.

Several languages might be spoken all at once, with everyone translating the bits they understand to help one other. Lots of red wine, laughter and stories are shared and friendships grow as the meal disappears.

The Camino is a great leveler, as humility and compassion grow within each pilgrim. Blisters can fell a former marathon runner, while a demure 70-year-old woman hikes past blister free – for the moment. Everyone cares for, encourages and supports each other along the way. Strong international friendships bloom.

It is an excellent walk for women traveling alone since there are many others to join with along the way. Takako, a retired teacher from Japan, walks every step of the Camino alone, meeting only a few pilgrims who share her language. But everyone she meets adores her. Small in stature, she wears all white clothes to protect herself from the sun’s rays.

With the day’s map hanging  from her neck, she walks slowly and steadily, at times gesturing that she can’t  continue. A passing pilgrim always embraces her and tells her to keep going. After weeks of wondering, “where is Takako?” we find her on the last night, at a celebratory pilgrim’s dinner in Santiago, surrounded by fellow admiring pilgrims.

Excitement mounts as we come closer to Santiago de Compostela. The last morning we walk into Santiago to the large, busy square in front of the famous cathedral. At noon each day, a pilgrim’s mass is held for the arriving walkers.

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