Aside from knowing what the Camino is, what its history is, what St. James is all about, and the importance of Credentials, Compostela, and shells there are a few other essentials that most people ask about prior to trekking out onto their first Camino. Common concerns naturally include: Where do I sleep? Where do I eat? How easy or hard is it to find my way along any of the Routes?
Each of these are great questions and one which we all ask. They also reflect the natural concerns about trekking on the Camino given that it is neither your typical holiday nor a traditional thru-hike experience.
Throughout France, Spain and Portugual (as well as the other nations along The Way), there are a variety of pilgrim accommodations which can be engaged. In Spain along the Camino Frances, pilgrims can stay in Albergues, in France you can stay in Gites, and in Portugal hikers can rest in Abrigaos. Each are essentially the same – a place to sleep, and stay for the evening with fellow travellers on the Camino. However, while many pilgrims strive to stay in pilgrim accommodations, they are by no means limited to these establishments. Pilgrims can stay in churches, cathedrals, fire halls, monasteries, cloisters, hostels, Pensions, and hotels. Each type of establishment has its own range of amenities, offers different options with regards to beds and rooms (ranging from dormitories which have dozens of people to a private room), offers varying options for dinners and breakfasts in the morning and costs a different amount (donative vs basic accommodations vs luxury privacy). Most offer showers, many offer sinks and lines to clean your laundry, some offer kitchens and a few I have seen even have a masseuse. In most cases it depends on your budget and wants. For us trekking on the Camino Frances in 2016 we stayed in a number of donative albergues which tend to be clean, have many amenities but are more basic. In contrast we have also stayed in several hostels which had private rooms, outdoor pools, and electronic laundry facilities. Accommodations – especially along the Camino Frances – are generally frequent though during the busy seasons, it can be harder to find a bunk or room, leaving you in the famed ‘race for the bed’ each day.
Remember regardless of whether you camp, stay in a church, rest in an albergue, or visit a hotel you are required to get your Credential stamped daily to receive your Compostella in Santiago.
The next concern for every pilgrim – and every person – is eating. Simply put, in terms of eating, Europe is the place to be! In France the wine, cheese, vegetables, Aligot, Aubrac sausages and chocolate are beyond description! While in Spain the wine, Cafe con Leche, Bocadillo con Queso, Churros, Paella, Churros, seafood were all amazing! In short there is an amazing array of food types, food options, and new things to try on your trek. However like sleeping and accommodations, the range of options changes with your budget. For many pilgrims the Pilgrim Menu or Menu of the Day offered at the Albergue is the most affordable and easiest to go with. For others, willing to explore the beautiful public squares and bars the range of options increases along with the cost.
For us, in Spain our day began by heading out early and finding an open bar to get a warm Cafe con Leche and Croissant. In France, we similarly began our mornings with our Cafe Americano and Chocolate Croissant (no judging until you sleep beside a French Bakery all night). On both treks, we also traditionally concluded each day’s trek with a cold pint of beer which we enjoyed while writing our journals. Yet in all of these cases, the coffee, croissants, afternoon pastries, and evening pints where luxuries which added to the costs. Regardless, throughout France, Spain, and Portugal there are an available range of options to eat aside from at your nightly accommodations.
Staying at the albergue or gite in the evening to eat – rather than trekking through town - offers you the companionship of the other pilgrims. By contrast, those willing to strike out onto the streets, grants a glimpse into the culture and society of the communities you trek through. Both options have their advantages and offer different experiences.
I should also note that even though one of us is vegetarian there were few difficulties in Spain or France in locating meals. Typically hosts provide such a large round of options you merely need to pass by the main serving and have more salad or side dishes. Admittedly many hosts – if they know in advance, will strive to provide hikers with a vegetarian option. As such being a vegetarian did not hamper me being able to get out, locate a range of food options and enjoy the culinary aspects of our Caminos.
Beyond all of this, in the mornings make sure you have filled your water bottle or bottles, ensure that you refill them en route – usually from the public fountains after making sure the water is safe to drink (potable).
Waymarking and Trail Makers along The Way
The final concern most people planning to undertake a Camino ask is about the waymarking. How will I know which way to go? Is it hard to know the direction I am supposed to follow?
From our experiences on the Camino Frances, I can whole heartedly assure you that locating and following The Way is not difficult. From St. Jean-Pied-de-Port across Spain the route is continually marked by blue and yellow shells as well as yellow arrows. In fact, but of the route can easily be considered to be over marked to the point where one feels that they are following a constant yellow line across Spain.
In France, while part of the Camino is marked with the traditional yellow arrows and shells, the vast majority of it requires an understanding of the GR system of trail marking. While this system is slightly different than many North American hikers or Camino Frances pilgrims may be used to, it is nonetheless very easy to learn and follow.
In addition to the generally clear and abundant trail markers along The Way, there are a number of invaluable guide books for each Camino route and typically individuals in any community on the pathway is kind enough to help you along. From our experiences, the people in both Spain and France were always incredibly hospitable and kind.
It is our understanding, from what we have read and heard of the Camino Portuguese, that the route is also generally well marked throughout the country – though perhaps not as excessively as the Camino Frances in Spain.
We have been told that from Lisbon to Santarem, the route is marked with the traditional yellow arrows of the Camino Frances as well as the blue arrows of the Camino Fatima. There are purportedly less markers and arrows than in Spain, but not so few that locating and following them is difficult. According to online resources and the John Brierley guide, this section has fewer pilgrims en route to Santiago but more pilgrims heading towards Fatima. Regardless, the Portuguese people are reputed to be friendly, talkative and willing to help pilgrims and this portion is not considered overly difficult. After Porto and on through to Santiago, the route is noted as being well marked with the traditional yellow arrows, shells, and trail markers with more frequency and increasing amounts of infrastructure to aid pilgrims.