Camino Recap III – Season, Pace, Route & All The Rest
Bonjour my friends, from a very warm SW France.
It’s going to be a scorcher here this week, and the only thing brightening the horizon are the many sunflowers that have gone into full bloom all across the valley. They are so pretty in July. The yellow fields are a sure sign we’re in the full swing of summer (and there’s much I have to share about that), but before I take you to France I must finish my story from Spain in May.
Of all the things I’ve written about the Camino, the last subject left untouched is a retrospective of what I did right (for me, anyway) and what I would/will do differently if/when I go again. I’ve already covered the gear part of this so I won’t talk clothing again, but there are so many other aspects of doing the Camino (route, time-frame, season, pace etc.) which I feel might be useful pieces for aspiring pilgrims to know.
So I’m doing a final blog post on that today (final, I promise!!), and I do apologize in advance for those of you who may already have had enough of the Camino (admittedly it’s been a longer series than I planned!), but such is blogging life sometimes. We write for we must, and the result is just what happens along the way.
Let’s wrap it up and dig right in, shall we?
Season Matters (IMO Spring & Fall Are Best)
As you all know I decided on a Spring Camino, starting April 21st and ending May 30th, and weather-wise (honestly) I think I timed it pretty darn well:
- The start was wet, but interspersed with days of lovely, not-too-hot sunshine.
- The middle was very hot and dry (altho’ that’s typical of the Meseta region).
- The end was cooler, especially in the moist/wet area of Galicia.
Overall we got 5 days of full rain, 8 days that were overcast or foggy while the remainder were a mixture of sunny and hot. Our temps never got higher than 33°C/91°F (which was high enough!) and never went below freezing. It was OK!
Oh and we saw SO MANY spring flowers, probably my favorite perk of it all.
I could have started earlier and probably avoided some of the heat we hit in the middle, but the beginning would undoubtedly have been wetter and the high pass over the Pyrenees may not have been open yet (it opened rather later this year due to lingering snow). Still, going a few weeks earlier is something I would consider, taking the low pass over the Pyrenees as an alternative.
I would personally never go in summer as the heat, which my Nordic sensibility is far-too-sensitive to, would be too much for me. The Spanish hospitals would have to host me on a permanent hydration drip from Burgos to Villafranca del Bierzo.
I would definitely consider fall, especially later in fall as the temps cool down. In fact seeing fall colors and nature would be a real impetus to go again.
Bottom Line: Spring and Fall are still my favorite recommendations.
There Are Several 4-6 Week Routes (Some Easier, Some Harder)
I’ve talked about “The Camino” in a very broad sense throughout my blog posts these past weeks, but that’s actually not an accurate way to describe what I’ve done.
In reality, any path that leads to Santiago de Compostela is a “Camino”, no matter where it starts in the world and although there are many well-established routes (some of which date back to the 10th century), you could literally walk out your front door and start from your own backyard and you would be on the Camino. In fact that’s exactly the way the original Pilgrims did it, back in the day.
If we narrow it down to established ~600-900km range (4-6 weeks) paths however, you’re looking at the routes that run through Portugal and Spain. Here are my top 3 picks:
Camino Francés (“the French Way”): This is the pilgrimage I did, specifically I did the ~800km portion from SJPDP (Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port) to Santiago de Compostela. It’s undoubtedly the most popular Camino path, and for that reason I think it’s an awesome “starter Camino” for anyone considering their first Way. The path is well-marked, there are lots of places to stay and eat, and there are plenty of services (hospitals, grocery stores, taxi’s, buses, trains etc.) along the way. IMO it’s a great first Camino!
Camino Portugués (the “Portuguese Way”), This is another great “starter Camino” that runs ~610km from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela. Folks say this route is less crowded and easier (terrain-wise) than the Francés. Also in summer it’s a cooler route, if you stick to the coastal (vs inland) route. I’d love to try it.
Camino Del Norte (the “Northern Way”): This is known as being the toughest Camino in Spain. It follows ~825km of hilly northern coastline from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela and is often combined with the mountainous Camino Primitivo (the “Primitive Way”) from Oveido onwards for an even more remote and unique experience. The challenge -> the terrain is really hard! The reward -> way less people. This one is on my bucket list if I can ever get fit enough for it.
And of course there are other paths, some of which are even less frequented and quiet. So many options to try, each of which offer something different.
Bottom Line: Know that there are many Camino’s, so you can pick the one that speaks to you.
There Are Many Shorter Routes Too (You Don’t Have To Walk It All)
I personally liked (and wanted) the challenge of a longer hike, but for those wanting a shorter Camino there are really SO many options. Here’s just a few:
- A portion of (pretty much any) Camino. Lots of folks do the Camino in “bits”, taking a week or two here or there to tackle a portion of it, and then coming back the nest year (or years later) to do some more. I met a 75-year old Danish couple who had been doing this for over 10 years, starting in Denmark!
- The Last 100km Of Camino Francés from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela can be walked in ~5-6 days, and also qualifies you to get your Compostela (completion certificate). It’s by far the most popular section of the Camino, often quite crowded but very social!
- The Camino Ingles (English Camino). This is another ~5-6 day (~100km) route that starts on the Northern coast of Spain at either A Coruña or Ferrol and ends up in Santiago de Compostela. It’s another nice, short alternative.
Bottom Line: If you only have a week, you can do the Camino!
And Routes In Other Countries!
As you no doubt noticed from the map, Spain (and Portugal) are not the only places you can walk a Camino. In fact unless you’re dead-set on the idea of getting a Compostela (completion certificate) there’s no reason to walk to Santiago at all!
Personally I’m fascinated with the French Via Podiensis that runs ~700km from Le-Puy-en Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. According to multiple people I met on the trail, it’s a gorgeous route that tops the lists of Camino paths they’ve done. And it’s entirely in France!
I’m also very intrigued by the Italian Via Francigena which is actually part of an entirely different ~2000km pilgrimage that runs from the Cathedral of Canterbury in England to Rome (but can also connect to Santiago). I learned about it from fellow bloggers The Chouters who walked part of it earlier this year. It looks incredible.
These are just two examples, but there are masses of other routes and pilgrimages beyond these. So many options to explore IMO.
Pace Yourself (Don’t Follow The “Stages”)
Whenever you research the Camino Francés you’ll find books and websites split it into “recommended stages”, specifically 33 of them that vary between 19km (~12 miles) and 28km (~17 miles) in length. It looks nice and neat, but IMO I’d never personally recommend doing it that way.
The truth of the matter is, unless you’re a habitual long-distance hiker most folks simply can’t go directly from a “normal” lifestyle to walking 20+ km per day without enduring serious misery and/or injury. It’s just too hard on the body and feet, and this is true even if you’ve trained some beforehand (which I absolutely do recommend).
The better way? Start out with shorter days, and ease into longer days over the following weeks as your body builds-up strength & stamina. Also take rest days or shorten days if & when you need them.
We took 40 days to do the Camino, but I could easily have stretched it to 45 by putting in more rest days. Then again, I felt our progressive pace was near-perfect. We started slow and didn’t hit our longest day (28km) until Week 4 which kept us healthy and avoided so many of the (often horrendous) early injuries and blisters I saw in other pilgrims. Thank you, Jessica 🙂 Going “off-stage” was never a problem either and easily planned using the many Camino apps and websites available (see bottom).
Bottom line: Don’t try to be a He-Man. Start slow, listen to your body and choose a pace that works for you.
Lodging (Upgrade If You Can)
I already talked about the joys of communal bunk-bed living in my last post, so I’m not going to cover that again, but I will say this.
We stayed at communal-type Albergues (either municipal or private*) for most of the first half the Camino paying anywhere EUR 8-15 per night. They were fine and did the job, and cost us FAR less than private rooms which would’ve done (EUR 30-50 per night, double that at Hotels).
As our group grew however….those numbers changed.
Towards the end of the Camino we (and by we, I mean Jessica) discovered that we could book private rooms with 4 beds for only a small amount more than 4 individual Albergue bunk beds and WHOAH….they were SO much nicer. Real bedsheets, actual towels and deep, uninterrupted sleep which made you feel like you’d poured magical healing sprinkles over your entire body and mind. It….was…awesome..!
If and when I do another Camino I’ll definitely want to plan for more private rooms, either alone (say once per week splurge, if I didn’t have anyone to share with?) or in a share with Camino family that I find along the way.
Bottom Line: If you can manage the extra cost, upgrading your room every now and then is totally worth it.
How DO You Book A Room? Many Camino bookings can be done through booking.com, but a good portion of Albergues and private pensions are not on there (some Albergues like municipals, don’t take bookings at all!) so I recommend making use of the many in-depth apps/website resources (see bottom) while you’re on the trail to get a full overview of your lodging options. Outside of municipals, we typically booked 2-3 nights ahead, stretching that to 5-7 nights towards the very end, especially to snag those more-sought-after private rooms.
*Municipal Vs Private Albergues: What’s the difference? This link (Stingynomads) explains it all
Mind The Heat (Really, Seriously)
I’ve never felt more Danish than I did on the hot sections in the Camino. Of the 40 days I walked, I categorized 15 (or over a third) as “hot” and they were brutal and sneaky, sapping my energy to a point that I didn’t even completely understand until I ended up in hospital. Where I finally realized what I’d been doing wrong….
There’s the obvious stuff, such as drinking enough water, but here are the critical aspects for keeping you safe:
- Carry Enough Water (And Drink Often): It kinda goes without saying really, but in hot weather you gotta be drinking enough and you gotta be drinking often (and more than you think). You don’t need to carry enormous amounts on the Camino Francés as there are drinking fountains with decent regularity, but 2 liters is IMO a “safe” amount. It’s what I carried everyday.
- Make Sure It’s Easily Accessible: Whether you chose a bottle or a hydration bladder, just make sure your water is easily accessible, otherwise you just won’t drink enough (see point 1).
- Supplement With Hydration Salts Or Drinks: You can buy hydration salts at any pharmacy, and Aquarius (the Spanish version of Gatorade) is literally sold in every grocery store and bar. Buy it and use it! This is something I didn’t do early on, and wish I had!
- Don’t Walk On Hot Afternoons: On very hot days, get up before sunrise and don’t walk past around mid-day. The heat builds in central Spain over the day and in summer will continue to rise until around 5 or 6PM (peak heat). Once it gets hot, don’t tempt it and don’t continue to push it, as it’ll just get worse. You can always taxi a portion…always.
- Carry An Umbrella: Obviously….need I say more?
Bottom line: Don’t underestimate the heat, even if you’re lesser Nordically-ingrained than me.
Bring A Camera (But Don’t Sweat The Type)
I took 8,585 pictures over the space of 40 days on the Camino Frances, and I don’t regret bringing an iPhone as my main camera at all. It was light, portable and allowed me to capture the moments I wanted to with ease, which is really the only thing that matters. Here’s the way I see it:
Did I capture what I wanted? Yes, I believe I did. My phone was always on me, always “handy” and that made photo capture very easy, even with hiking poles. My delay from seeing a photo I wanted to actually taking it was literally seconds each time, and for me as a photographer that was key.
Was the quality adequate? Surprisingly yes! By shooting in RAW mode and using Lightroom mobile I got pretty darn close to what I wanted, especially for my “fancier” pics. It was sometimes tricky to capture exactly what I had in my minds eye, but that kinda became part of the challenge too, and I actually enjoyed that aspect. Honestly, the photos turned out way better than I expected.
Can I make gallery-worthy large prints from my Camino photos? No, definitely not (but then again, how many pictures do I typically large print in a year?). I’m OK with that honestly, as it was not the main purpose of my Camino this year.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love my “big camera” (nothing beats the quality of a good DSLR),and will chose it every time for a serious photograph, but I am so darn happy I did not bring those 4 pounds of extra neck-weight with me for 800km of walking. My next long walk, I’m bringing my iPhone again, no question.
Bottom Line: Don’t sweat the camera (really)
Money Topics (And How To Keep It All Safe)
A last practical note on money and documents.
The Camino, inexpensive as it is, still requires money and that means you’ll need both credit cards and cash. In fact cash is still widely-used on the Camino, both at many of the smaller Albergues and some cafes/bars so you’ll need some on you at all times.
For credit cards, find one that does not charge any foreign transaction fees. For Americans good examples are Chase Sapphire Preferred/Reserve, Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture etc. There are many others.
For cash, use a debit card that does not charge for foreign withdrawals (or refunds international ATM fees) and also does not charge any foreign transaction fees. For Americans, Schwab has a great debit card that offers both of these (you just need to open an account). For Europeans, your local bank may offer this (our French one does). ATM’s are available in all bigger cities, so just withdraw a decent amount whenever you see one.
For security, put all these valuables in a compact RFID-block money belt (#amazonaffiliatelink) or pouch+lanyard and then get used to wearing that thing literally everywhere….on the trail, in the toilet, when you go shower, in bed etc. This may sound extreme, but I know of two pilgrims who had all their valuables (money/documents) stolen when they left them on their Albergue bed while they showered. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen and it’s easy to avoid.
How Much Money In Total? Between lodging and food, I’d say a middle-of-the-road budget is around EUR 30-45 per day. It can be done cheaper (cheaper lodging, less meals out) and of course more expensive (more private rooms/hotels), but IMO that’s a pretty typical range.
And Finally: Would I Do It Again?
This one is easy…yes, in a heartbeat.
It’s hard to articulate the effect the Camino had on me. It was harder than I expected, much harder, but that also bought out things deeper in me that I feared had been lost for all time. It reconnected me to people (so key, post-COVID especially), renewed my love of hiking (it feeds my soul), and reawakened my spirit of adventure. Most of all it taught me that I can achieve so much more both physically and mentally than my silly brain sometimes tells me. We all need that reminder every now and then.
So yes my friends, I would do it again and perhaps in a time not so far from now, for once the Camino calls it does so for life, and that kind of call is always worth taking.
I hope I’ve inspired you my blog friends, or at least not bored you to death. This is (finally, really!) the end of my Camino series, so if you have any last ditch questions do feel free to shoot in the comments below. Otherwise I’ll see you in SW France next week!
- Apps: Wise Pilgrim, Gronze, Buen Camino
- Websites: Stingy Nomads, Camino Ways, Follow The Camino
- Books: Wise Pilgrim Guidebooks, John Bierley’s Camino Guide (#amazonaffiliatelink), Village to Village Camino Guide (#amazonaffiliatelink) -> this last one you can buy on Kindle and carry on your phone!