A mystical experience on the Camino

The only good thing about the A Pociña de Muñíz albergue when I stopped for breakfast was that while they ripped me off with a 2 Euro filtered coffee when their real coffee machine sat idle right there, was that they recommended that I take the Soutomeride variant that goes through an ancient forest and by an equally ancient church instead of by the “main” Camino.

So there I was, still fairly early in the morning, walking and meditating as I entered this age-old forest with 350-year-old chestnuts, among long ago ruined buildings covered with every plant imaginable that I arrived at the back of the aforementioned church of San Salvador de Soutomerille. I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of four pre-Romanesque horseshoe windows. Never had I seen such beautiful, old windows on a building, in what appeared a semi abandoned church in the middle of an enchanted forest.

But wait. At that moment as I approached the church taking a picture of the window, I heard an angelical voice coming from inside.

What is going on? How can this old church that probably does not even have electricity, in the middle of a forest have music? Do they have some sort of record player? Spotify? And the voice, it is angelical, and the music, sounds like Hildegard von Bingen. I am mystified, baffled, confused, and ecstatic all at the same time. The singing stops and I slowly walk around the tiny church. There, by the door is Ingrid, a German pilgrim and amateur singer who was singing through a broken panel on the door to check out the acoustics. A very human and perfectly reasonable occurrence, but for me it was a mystical experience.

You do not believe my story? Turn up the volume and watch the video below…

BTW if Ingrid or anybody that knows German pilgrim, amateur singer Ingrid reads this please leave a comment below!

Camino de Santiago #3, the Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo is not only the original Camino, but also the most intense. Yes, it is half the distance of the other “main” Caminos, The Francés and the Norte, but what it lacks in length, it makes up plenty in beauty, ruggedness, physicality, and authenticity.

As you know I had been planning this Camino since I finished the North route last year. It did not disappoint. Here is the story:

Around the year 800, a hermit in Galicia called Paio (or Pelagius) was guided by lights and angels to St. James’ tomb. After telling his local bishop, king Alfonso II “El casto” went to check out what the fuss was about, thereby creating the first pilgrimage. As the Reconquista developed, new routes were established leading to the North and eventually the Francés route, which is today the most popular.

So, I took a train to Oviedo, the ancient capital of Spain during the Moorish occupation. It is a high-speed train only halfway, as the mountains that separate the plateau from the shore has not been breached by the high-speed line yet, making it is a five-hour journey. I arrived in Oviedo just in time to run to the albergue -an old seminary- before it closed!

I shared room with Vicente, a retiree from Valencia whom I would continue to bump into well into the Camino.

Downtown Oviedo is lovely, clean, and full of sculptures! It is so cool! The walk out of town was pleasant enough, and soon you are in the middle of the countryside in total pilgrim mode. The first day is an easy 24Km to Grado, where I had been years ago with my Land Rover. A dip in the frigid river quickly got rid of the day’s hiking inflammation. The albergue is an old horse brokerage house, and there is a cute town square with restaurants and a working church where the priest is happy to give me a pilgrim’s blessing.

The second day brings the first important climbs of the pilgrimage. With hot temperatures and sun, the last climb took a toll, but fortunately I would not have to tackle it first thing next morning.

The next five days are a thing of beauty. I chose the Hospitales variant which takes you up over the tree line for a day of ridging 1000 mts over sea level. Amazing, you do not even miss the cafés! The following three or four days are just as impressive: natural, rugged, and fairly uncivilized. although without the altitude,

About halfway through you cross the grassy paths of Asturias to the dense forests of Galicia. After the city of Lugo with its amazing Roman walls, you have a day of a lot of asphalt, although the views are lovely, your feet pay the price. Then you have a final day of hillside living, before merging into the popular Camino Francés with all the “tourists” doing just the last 100 km (62 miles) to say they have done the Camino. So, the last three days are crowded and rainy on top of that.

But nothing compares to arriving at the plaza del Obradoiro and standing in front of the Cathedral. For me it was 310 km (200 miles) in 11 days.

The Cathedral has been totally renovated and I could finally go down to the crypt to see the tomb of St. James third time is the charm –it had been closed for restoration all my previous times. Lunch was at the amazing Santiago market, where I had the best hake I have ever tasted. With no train spots available that day, a flight to Madrid that afternoon ended my adventure.

How does it compare to the other Caminos? Well, the obvious facts are that while shorter, it is indeed more intense, beautiful, natural, and rugged. I loved every step of it, even the hard climbs and descents.

Which shoes to wear on the Camino

Shoes are arguably the most crucial element in your Camino kit. You are going to walk many hours a day for many days. The number one issue with pilgrims is blisters. You have been warned.

I am really excited to walk my third Camino this Summer, and I needed new shoes. For my first Camino I used Salomon XA Pros, and they were formidable I did the whole Camino with nary a blister (I might have gotten a couple of “hot spots” -pre-blisters- but never developed full blisters).

For my second Camino I chose the same shoe, only newer model in bright blue. Unfortunately, these did not perform as well as the first pair, and I ended up losing both my big toenails, twice (yes my toenails were cut very short, but wet feet in a steep downhill are going to slide). If you have never lost your toenails, it is not painful, but it is a bit of a nuisance, and they take almost a full year to grow back out.

This year I did my homework. I did a comparative spreadsheet checking out a few internet websites. (attached) –it is in no way comprehensive, or professional– it is just a few references from a few random running shoe websites. Once I had my ranking, the move was to find the best price, that is where the Palm Beach Outlets come into the picture. New Balance, Nike, and Asics all have shops there, and the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 came in as the best ranked at the best price. I “broke in” the Nikes during Easter break and loved them! I will give you a full report after my Camino…

Here are a few pointers on Camino shoe buying:

  • Unless you are doing the Camino in the Winter, you do NOT need boots. Most pilgrims walk in the warmer months, and you do not want your feet baking inside of boots.
  • I once met a very bright German pilgrim; PhD in math, an internet startup in Berlin in their fourth round of capitalization… but his feet looked like steak tartare from wearing Alpine hiking boots!!
  • On the other hand, you do not want to wear sneakers/running shoes/tennis. They are not designed to pound the ground for miles with a backpack on, and you will also soon develop blisters.
  • The ideal shoes are trail running/hiking shoes. They are designed for this kind of thing.
  • When you are at the shop, with the laces undone, inch your foot all the way forward, you should be able to put a finger between your heel and the shoe. This means that your shoe should be half a size to a full size bigger than your “normal” shoes. Your feet will expand when walking for hours every day.
  • Gore-Tex or no Gore-Tex? When it rains, your feet will eventually get wet, Gore-Tex or not. So, I opt for NO Gore-Tex, this way when it is not raining my feet will breathe, and when it rains, they will get wet either way. Remember if you are in the Gore-Tex club you are going to have to stop and take your shoes and socks off every so often to let them breathe a bit. A rhythm busting nuisance when you are walking.
  • Soles: the terrain you are going to walk on is going to differ vastly from long stretches on tarmac (yuck) to grassy fields, but most of your walking is on dirt tracks, so you do not need a super aggressive pattern (unless again, you are going to walk in the mud of winter)
  • Once you have your shoes, make sure you break them in. Try to walk at least a few miles with your new shoes in order to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
  • Your feet do most of the work on the Camino so make sure you take care of them! Remember to have your toenails cut very short.

A whole blog post could (and might) go into socks. For the time being remember wool and no stitching…

Thinking of the Camino

As the Summer approaches and I get closer to walking the Camino again, my excitement increases with every passing day. So what was my surprise during my Christmas break that the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid had an exhibit about the Camino!

I went with my old student Hikaru from Japan. The exhibit was very extensive with lots of photos, artifacts from musical instruments to books, including the first ever travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus!

One of my many surprises came when I saw a book about the Camino from my father’s teacher Walter Starkie. My dad had always spoken about Starkie’s scholarship with the Roma folks in Spain, but he never mentioned his passion for the Camino.

All in all it was a beautiful exhibit and now I am even more fired up for my pilgrimage this Summer, as I attempt the Camino Primitivo, the first pilgrimage done by King Alfonso II from Oviedo to Santiago…

Love letter to El Camino (sorry, en Español)

Every day that passes I am closer to getting back on the Camino. This Summer I hope to walk the Primitivo, from Oviedo to Santiago, the same one that king Alfonso II -the first pilgrim- did sometime around 840 to check out St. James’ tomb. It is apparently the most rugged and thus the most beautiful although it is only 14 stages at 314 km (about 195 miles).

The other day I saw this beautiful video/love letter from Condé Nast Traveler, which while not 100% authentic, it does capture the spirit of the Camino, so I am sharing it with you in this tender time that is Christmas.

Enjoy.

Arriving in San Sebastian!

Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.

The Camino Part II

Since I ended my Camino last year I was itching to get back to my pilgrimage. It did not disappoint. Exactly a year to the day, I boarded a bus to Astorga, the city where I finished last year. Four hours later, I arrived. I did not want to spend the night in a place that only had sad memories and heartbreak for me. So I walked to Murias, the first village out. It was a gorgeous evening walk on one of the longest days of the year. I passed by the obligatory tiny chapel and yellow arrows. The small Albergue was a repurposed, old, one classroom schoolhouse. Just about everyone inside was already dozing. But I walked to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner with a glass of wine. Then crawled into bed after a quick shower.

My Camino proper started, like last year, on my Dad’s birthday. It is a tiny, silly way for me to honor him and to celebrate with him, walking with his old walking stick. Right out of Murias there is a small detour to one of the prettiest villages in Spain: Castrillo de los Polvazares. An ancient, untouched stone village. Stone homes, stone streets, stone church, stone everything. I made the detour because I remember driving there with my father in his massive Mercedes and being so awestruck by the beauty of the village. My morning walk is always my favorite. The dew on my legs, the silence, loneliness, the cool.

The path was a slow but steady climb to the second highest peak of the route, past Rabanal del Camino, where I stopped to chat with a Benedictine Monk in his monastery, and Foncebadon, to Cruz de Fierro, the site of an ancient Roman temple. It is a tiny iron cross on a massive wooden post. Pilgrims are supposed to drop off a stone picked up at the base, but with the accumulation of stones, they are now suggesting leaving flowers. I had a pebble I had been carrying since Navarra.

After cresting for five odd km. the descent is very technical, putting a lot of pressure on feet, shins, and knees. I was out of the Maragateria area and into El Bierzo, a previously forgotten region of Spain that is now on the map since their wines became noticed some years ago. I eventually stopped at Acebo a lovely village of stone homes with slate roofs.

There are three basic types of albergues a pilgrim can stay in. The municipal or public ones, the parochial or church affiliated ones and private ones. I normally chose my albergues in this order. In Acebo the options were parochial or private, I stayed at the parochial, run by a wonderful American couple that had left the US because of President Trump (they can hardly be blamed).

My walk the next morning led me by a wonderful 18th C. altar in one of the tiny chapels along the way. I always stop and chat with the attendant, while I get my official stamp to prove my visit, which I will need in Santiago. Breakfast was at the gorgeous village of Molinaseca. And the walk continues past fields and vineyards to Cacabelos. The Albergue at Cacabelos is paradise for me. It is set up along the inside wall of an 18th C. neoclassical church, right up my alley! The next day I end up at Herrerias, the base of the third highest climb of the route. There is only a couple of private albergues and the one I choose is super cute. The bedroom only has 8 beds so it is very quiet. There is a neo-Hippy project next door called Project Brigid where they do music workshops, and they lend you their kitchen. I signed up for their yoga class in a small clearing, surrounded by high trees, next to a lovely stream. It was by far the best yoga session of my life.

The climb to Cebreiro is the third highest in the Camino, but in the early morning, it is a breeze. A stop at the great bar El Arbol in La Faba provides great fuel to keep climbing. The view of the hills of Galicia from the top is awesome and the town of Cebreiro is really cute, with a fantastic, intimate church where I spend some time. I keep walking downhill to Triacastelas. The albergue is in rooms of four. I room with a Mexican girl, a South African fellow and Go from Japan, who will become my new friend.

I walk to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos in one gorgeous chestnut tree forest crisscrossing  gurgling streams. At Sarria I enjoy a wonderful empanada, the local pie, stuffed with tuna. The Camino now is a bit more crowded with busses full of “pilgrims” who only walk the last 100 km. in order to earn the coveted Compostela, the traditional forgiveness of sins for doing the Camino. These mostly Spanish folks can afford to do the walk with only a day pack – or just some water – as their bus will carry their kit from village to village. I must confess it does distract from the purity of the Camino, but they must be equally accepted as they are also pilgrims, even if all they are wearing is a bikini and a water bottle, as I saw one girl doing.

Galicia is a magical region of Spain, it’s ancient hills covered with chestnut and eucalyptus forests, streams and tiny agricultural plots. The food is delicious and the people are wonderful. My last two days’ walk is in the company of awesome Aussie Bec and our Japanese friend Go. After a good night’s sleep at a gorgeous little hotel, the walk into Santiago is an easy 9 km, just in time for the Pilgrim’s mass with the fabled Botafumeiro incense burner that somehow uncorks all my emotions as it swings across the naves of the cathedral. I only have time to get my Compostela before jumping on a train home, I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

The Camino is what the world should be like

Three months have passed since I finished my Camino for the year. I have had time to think and process my pilgrimage. In the meantime, a student from UNC interviewed me about my experience on The Camino, which helped me to vocalize my feelings about the experience.

My conclusion is that The Camino is what the world should be like. Pilgrims are generous,  considerate, and kind, we are all fairly equal, united in the task of walking to Santiago. Add to this the human and humane pace of walking, allowing you to talk to others, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, there are no unwanted interruptions, there is no need for technology. There are no hidden interests, we are all just walking and that is pretty much all there is to it. You can walk faster or slower, you can stop wherever you want. It really is a parallel world that is as much of a real world utopia as you can find.

I recently read this passage from Thomas Merton, a real modern-day mystic, and I immediately connected it to my Camino experience:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.

Unfortunately The Camino ends, and one returns to the world we have created. We return to noise and pollution, but even worse: to rude and aggressive people, to rushing, to everything we have constructed that separates us from peace, and beauty, and truth.

 

Gear for El Camino. What should I pack?

Many of my fans preparing for the Camino have asked me about my gear (ok, maybe just a couple of people). There are many Internet spots that explain what and how to pack, but here are my two cents, as Americans would say:

Walking 500 miles (give or take) in a month (give or take) carrying your backpack is an exercise in minimalism, physically, mentally and spiritually reducing clutter. By reducing stuff in your backpack, you also reduce it in your mental/spiritual backpack. I hope to soon be able to write about the emotional and mental process of the Camino. For now I will leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, and write about the material gear that goes in your backpack.

The German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260—c. 1328) preached, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] But in the capitalistic West, we think very differently. We all keep trying to climb higher up the ladder of success in any form. We’ve turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction. All we can really do is get out-of-the-way. The spiritual life is often more about unlearning than learning, letting go of illusions more than studying the Bible or the catechism.

There are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Camino: a. you are never more than a few hours away from civilization, with supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and anything else you might need. b. there are laundry facilities at all albergues, so you do not need to pack many clothes, and c. basically all you do on the Camino is walk, eat and sleep. Having said all that, this was my packing list:

Shoes are probably the first thing to think of. If you are walking in the summer you do not need hiking boots. I saw plenty of people struggling with heavy hiking boots in the hot 30+ C° weather, plenty of abandoned boots, and plenty of feet like steak tartare. Good, broken in hiking shoes are perfect. Some people wear running sneakers, they are probably fine, although maybe a bit too lightweight for you and your pack, in my opinion. I packed a pair of cheap Flip-Flops for showering and a pair of water sandals for the apres-walking evenings.

You basically only need the clothes you are wearing and the ones that are washing/drying. Of course this depends on the season, but in the summer that means T-shirt, underwear, shorts and socks. As I mentioned before, as I am a snob, I carried three changes.

Since your feet are doing basically all the work on the Camino, and account for 25% of the bones in your body, you really should pamper them with the best socks you can get. Ideally hiking specific socks in a wool blend without seams. The higher up the leg they are, the less dust and grit is going to get into your feet.

Although everybody recommends hi-tech, moisture wicking, breathing fibers, for your T-shirts, I chose old school 100% cotton long sleeve shirts. The cotton because I am a snob and don’t like the feel of synthetic fibers, and the long sleeves because I also hate sunscreen and long sleeves meant I could avoid creams (and packing them).

For a second I considered athletic underwear, but ended up going with my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. Some things just like hanging the way they always do!

I carried two cargo shorts. The side pocket was extremely handy for my guidebook/map as I used it constantly.

It was never too cold for me until the approach to Burgos. That day I wore two long sleeve shirts all day long. That evening I surrendered to the cold and bought a hooded sweatshirt at the souvenir shop, the only shop open in Burgos that day, as they were celebrating their festivities!

For my bald head I alternated bandanas (which I would tie around my neck in the morning) in different configurations depending on the sun: a la Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, or a la Tupac Shakur, and a  “crunchy” boonie, or giggle hat that I could soak at fountains to keep me cool.

Unless you are going to camp or bivouac (which I saw plenty by the side of the Camino) you are going to sleep indoors, so a summer weight sleeping bag is fine. I chose to have one of my favorite cotton sheets folded in half (lengthwise, duh) and sown to create a sleeping bag. It might have been a bit heavier than the synthetic bags, but it was oh so comfy. Most albergues have blankets, so on cool nights I pulled a blanket over my sheet/bag. I did carry a pillowcase since the albergues all have pillows, in retrospect I could have used one of my three T-shirts.

Your minimal dopp kit with your bathroom supplies. I used Marseille soap – Jabón Lagarto – in Spain as I could use it for my laundry and my body, and my bald head, hahaha!

A lot of thought was given to what to read on the Camino, something meaningful but light. The library at the albergue in Roncesvalles, the first stop, is full of donated/abandoned Bibles… I ended up choosing The Book of Job and I do not regret it. I did finish it early and donated it to the Convent of Saint Claire where I was staying at Carrión de los Condes. I also packed a notebook and writing material to keep a diary and a daily Scripture reading for inspiration.  I carried two guidebooks: The Michelin Guide for quick reference on the go, and the Anaya “El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila” for more detailed reference.

Small flashlight – critical for reading and moving around the albergue after lights out. Mine has a wrist band which means I could hang it from the boards of the bunk above me, great for reading.

For towel I used a lightweight microfiber from Decathlon, it is not the most luxurious item, but it works. I must confess I was very jealous when James pulled out this exotic, gorgeous, printed Indian sheet. It is very refreshing to see flashes of glamour on the drab, technical, weight obsessed Camino equipment.

Water bottle, and make sure you have a comfortable, handy spot to carry it, I struggled carrying mine around in different locations until I settled on a hip strap. Although you are never too far from a fountain, there are a few long (over 10 km.) stretches without water. Also, you should always be drinking anyway, so even if you do not fill it up, always carry water. It is also handy to wash fruit, hands, etc. Some people carry water “bladders” but these seem tricky to fill up mid hike and are apparently expensive.

Basic first aid kit with whatever you think you might need – hopefully you will not use anything.

Bathing suit!

Trail mix, it is nice to have s snack without having to wait for the next bar.

Phone and charger.

Bug spray – I did not use it.

Sharpie, critical for marking stuff and writing on stones at mileposts.

Safety pins in case your clothes have not dried overnight and you need to “hang” them outside your pack.

Poncho that covers your backpack. Keep it handy in case of sudden storms.

Most albergues have laundry facilities for manual laundry. The bigger ones have washer/driers. Some of them will even treat you to detergent, so I packed a few of the liquid plastic pods in a zip-lock bag.

Pilgrims swear by the hiking sticks (that look like ski poles), I carried one of my dad’s old walking sticks that an old friend had given him. It was useful on technical climbs and descents and to poke at things.

Last, but not least a pocket knife is critical. You might only use it to make bocadillos, but it is always handy to have. I found an old Swiss Army knife that I had given my little sister years ago and that for some reason was in my dad’s desk drawer.

Buen Camino!

Camino Etiquette, Dos and Don’ts

The Camino is a totally individual experience whatever your purpose might be (sport, religious, spiritual, cultural, culinary, etc. or any combination of those), but it is also a shared experience. More importantly, the Camino is a physical space and a shared physical space. This means that it helps if certain social considerations are kept. Here are some of my observations and recommendations:

Dos

Be polite to all pilgrims and acknowledge them with a “Buen camino”. If they are sitting by the Camino, you might want to ask if they are ok or if they need a snack or some water.

Even on the “Donativo” albergues, please be generous with your donation, ie: never leave less than €5.

If you use the albergue’s kitchen, please leave it as you found it, or cleaner.

Banana peels and apple cores are totally biodegradable, so they are ok in nature, just not in the most visible part of nature. Put them out of sight.

Be polite about asking for a credencial stamp. It is quite rude to ask for a stamp at a bar / coffee shop if you do not purchase anything, regardless of how cool the place is, so go ahead, get a café con leche, or a bottle of water – you are going to need it! And don’t be pushy, the business gets nothing from stamping your credencial, so be patient.

Tipping in Spain. Hospitality workers in Spain have, by law, full contracts, which means (unlike in the US) that they make a full salary, they do not live from tips. Having said that, it is customary and always nice to leave some change on the table/counter. Those coins are weighing you down on the Camino anyway!

Hospitaliarios – the people who run the albergues are volunteers (except at the private ones, which are normally family run). So treat them nicely, they are there for you, not for a paycheck.

Pay attention to your shoes when you walk into the albergue. You might have to leave them outside – never wear them into the dorm area.

 

Don’ts

Do not ask pilgrims why they are doing the Camino. It sounds like a good ice-breaker, but while we all have our reasons, some might be more personal than others, and you really might not want to know. It is one thing for American college kids that are “finding themselves”, but not everybody is necessarily so open. If they want to, they will tell you.

Do not walk around the albergue in your underwear. No matter how sexy you or your underwear might be, nor how hippie the albergue is. Think about it, it is a downhill experience if we all went that way. (If in doubt read Immanuel Kant’s Universal Law).

Beds at the albergue are for people not backpacks. Your sweaty, dusty, muddy, wet, backpack belongs on the floor, a chair at best, but never on the bed.

If you cannot wait for the next village or the next bar to go to the bathroom, please find the most secluded spot and try to be as discreet as possible with your poop and the paper you use. A bush next to the Camino is not a good idea. And the paper flying around isn’t either. Don’t contribute to the eyesore.

Try not to make noise if you are going to bed later than most people or getting up before most people. Try to have whatever you need handy so you can access it quietly. I was deeply embarrassed one night when I had to rummage in my backpack for my earplugs.

Feel free to add or comment below!