In June I completed just under half of the Camino Frances route of the famous Camino de Santiago. We started in Leon and walked 326 km from there. We’d have done the whole route if there had been time, but sadly that is no longer possible with the new 9-5 lifestyle I’ve finally succumbed to. The carefree days of good old Granada couldn’t last forever!
Two of us walked together for 12 days, covering around 27 km per day, passing through picturesque towns, villages and farms, and mesmerising landscapes. There were a few lows along the way, but ultimately the Camino de Santiago is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life. Here are ten reasons why:
1) Making new friends
You can’t predict who you’ll meet on the Camino. But, inevitably, you will meet people you don’t normally hang out with, and these are the ones you learn something from. Take Igor, for instance – probably the coolest Spanish guy I’ve ever met (based largely on his impressive Britpop knowledge) but given our age difference of ten years (sorry Igor) I may never have met under other circumstances. Then there were the two Dutch ladies who looked after me when I got sick, and the Finnish lady who played cards with us – all much older but we got along famously. The most important thing to keep along the Camino de Santiago is an open mind.
2) Practicing Spanish
It’s been a year since I left Spain and therefore a year since I stopped speaking Spanish on a daily basis. For me, getting my Spanish back up to a fluent level was a fundamental goal on the Camino, and walking every day with Igor (see above) helped me achieve that. But even if you don’t speak much Spanish, or none at all, you’ll be amazed how much you improve if you are forced to use it every day, in relaxed and social contexts. By the time we’d reached Santiago my confidence speaking Spanish was fully restored.
3) The food
The thing I miss most about living in Spain is the food, and on the Camino I was basically always hungry. Every day and night we ate well. The Menu del dia usually did the job for lunch – pasta or salad for starters, pork or beef steak with chips for main, and either ice cream or ‘flan’ for dessert, along with a beer and a coffee. All that for about €12. We’d push the boat out a bit for dinner, spending €15-20 per night. But for this we’d get fresh homemade tortilla, mixed grill platters, and of course the delectable pulpo al gallego – fried octopus served on a bed of potatoes and sprinkled with paprika, Galicia’s most famous dish.
You don’t have to spend this much on food – most of the hostels have kitchens where you can cook up your own feast – but we budgeted for it, because frankly we’d have been powerless to resist anyway.
4) The wine
Rioja might actually be my soulmate, and we had plenty of time to catch up on this trip. But I also met her cousins, Abadia and Mencia, who gave Rioja a good run for her money. These wines were absolutely delicious, and available for much less than what you’d pay anywhere else. So seeing off half a bottle a night hardly dented the budget. Grapes grow in abundance in Galicia and the wine produced in the region is every bit as good as Rioja (sorry Rioja, you’re still my number one).
A bottle of good wine from a restaurant on the Camino Frances will set you back €15-18.
5) Seeing Northern Spain
Before this trip, the only other part of northern Spain I’d seen before was the Basque country, and that was quite a contained experience. What I really craved was the chance to see the great green and mountainous areas I’d read and heard so much about. Admittedly, this wasn’t entirely what we got during the first few days – the stretch between León and Ponferrada is quite arid and plain at times – but as we closed in on Galicia the landscape started to change dramatically. If you’re more used to the south of Spain like me, it’s quite difficult to believe you’re still in Spain when you see all that green in front of you. All those cows and hills. It’s like being in France, or plausibly parts of the UK! Except it’s not, really. The heat reminds you of that, as well as all the Spanish people.
6) Increased physical fitness
Let’s face it, all that walking is going to help you drop a few pounds and increase your physical fitness, and that’s never a bad thing. Me and my friend are both pretty skinny, but since hitting 30 we’ve suffered from the increasingly worrying muffin-top infliction – whereby side-stomach fat starts to hang over shorts, causing a muffin-top like appearance. Perhaps not a major weight-related issue in the grand scheme of things, but significant to us nonetheless, and the Camino was the perfect antidote. However, with all that incredible food and wine at our disposal (see points three and four), we didn’t really make as much progress as we’d have liked. But some progress was made (a loss of at least 1 cm), and we actually felt fantastic at the end of the Camino. Once your body gets used to the pace and rhythm, 25 km in a day feels like a walk up the garden path.
7) Discovering Santiago de Compostela
Standing in the centre of Praza do Obradoiro, the main square of Santiago de Compostela, is an amazing experience. Pilgrims arrive in droves throughout the afternoon, exhausted after walking hundreds of kilometres to reach the city’s famous cathedral, and practically throw themselves to the ground. Some people cry tears of joy. Most people hug. It’s a joyous scene, even long after you’ve arrived yourself. And that’s just the start.
Give yourself at least two nights in Santiago de Compostela, so you have plenty of time to explore. The bustling old town is full of small medieval-style bars and excellent restaurants – El Papatorio serves amazing fillet steak and mocha mousse – and you mustn’t miss the chance to see the midday Pilgrim mass take place in the cathedral. The congregation is huge, the architecture incredible, and the swinging of the Botafumerio (a large thurible used for burning incense) is quite spectacular.
8) Value for money
Where else can you get all of the above for so little money? If you’re travelling from anywhere outside of Europe then flights probably won’t be cheap, but a typical daily budget for the Camino is around €35, which includes accommodation and three meals. Some people do it on far less, others on far more. The minimum you’ll need, if you want to prepare your own meals and camp, is about €10 a day. But sleep is so important on the Camino, personally I really don’t think it’s worth compromising on. Beds in the albergue hostels sell for €5-12, and a decent meal every night goes a long way.
9) The thinking time
The Camino de Santiago gives you a fresh perspective. The people you meet, the communities you pass through, the simple life you experience, the camaraderie… it makes you take a look at your own life and realign a few things. I didn’t do the Camino to ‘find myself’, but if you’re open-minded about meeting new people and experiencing new things, inevitably those encounters will affect you and your outlook on life. That 72-year-old Italian guy, for instance, who passed us on the second day of our walk. He’d set off from Astorga at 5am that morning – the town where we’d started the previous day – and had overtaken us by 10:30. He was a machine, an inspiration, and had walked all the way from Seville!
Even if you walk with other people, there’s still plenty of time to mull things over quietly. Living in the city just doesn’t allow that sort of time for reflecting on life. Time is precious, there’s never enough. On the Camino, you’ve all the time in the world.
10) The sense of achievement
Not only is walking the Camino de Santiago an incredible holiday idea, but it’s also an amazing life achievement – even if you only manage half! That’s still over 300 kms you’ve walked, and it’s unlikely you’ll do that many times in your life. It’s more a test of endurance than physical strength and fitness. Once you’ve got going the only thing you need to worry about is your stamina and motivation. But the people you meet, sights you see and food you eat along the way will take care of that. When you reach Santiago and witness all those other elated pilgrims embracing each other, it all starts to sink in – what you’ve actually just achieved. And it also feels great to tell people you walked 326 kms when you go home.