Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Camino - Practical Questions I've Been Asked by Those Who May Walk the Camino

Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions I've been asked since my return. This list will be edited as the questions keep popping up so feel free to bookmark it and return.

Did you use a guidebook?

Most Americans use the following guidebook: A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley. We truly depended on this book. As such, we love John Brierly and also want to smack him on the side of the head when he's wrong and your feet hurt.

Where do you start?

Most start in St Jean Pied-de-Port on the French border and follow what historically is called the Camino Frances. It goes through a pass in the Pyrenees Mountains. You will literally be exposed to French, Catalan, Castillian, and Galician cultures doing this 800km (500 mile) walk. Because of my time limits, I started in Burgos. There's a direct bus that goes from Madrid's airport to Burgos. The village Terradillos de los Templario, a short bus ride from Burgos, is exactly half way along the Camino Frances.

You get to SJPP and the French border most easily by flying into France and taking a train. There are daily trains from Paris.

Do I need to climb mountains?

It depends on where you start and what you consider to be mountains. If you start in St Jean Pied-de-Port you are definitely heading through the Pyrenees. According to the most common guide book that Americans use (John Brierley), that first day is a rise from 200m (650ft) to 1400m (4750ft). Further on, heading up into Foncebadon where the Cruz de Ferro is placed, you are up at above 1500m (5000 ft). Both of these are gradual over the course of a day. In Galicia you face a steep climb in a short distance at O Cebreiro. It rapidly rises from 600m (1970ft) to 1300m (4265ft) in just 8km. Though this is stunningly beautiful, it's the steepest stretch.

At no point do you need mountain climbing equipment. I did all this with my hiking sandals and a hiking pole.

Is it blazing hot?

It depends on the time of year and where you start. The weather is comparable to higher altitude Southern California. If you go in June-August, expect it to be quite hot after 11am. It's a reason why many people prefer to start their day at 6am: by leaving early, you can finish before or rest during the hottest time of the day. I just went in September. It was wonderfully nice in Burgos, but when you are out on the meseta without any trees, it sure feels a lot hotter than it actually is. A 27C (80F) day might seem comfortable but bring lots of water. By the time I got to the rolling hills and the mountains, it got chilly at night but it would warm up to a nice cool, breezy day.

In the winter, it snows. It won't be hot.

Lastly, it rains for no reason whatsoever at any point, especially in the mountains. Spain juts into the Atlantic and when the rain clouds want to come in, they just come in.

Are there places to stay every 4-6 hours?

The Brierley book shows popular places to stay and there are more that it does not list. Places to eat and stay are almost always within two at most three hours walk at my pace of 5.5 kph. A typical pace of 4kph will put you within food and shelter at 3-4 hours at most. What will vary is the type of accommodations you will find.

What are these accommodations?

These are the four levels of accommodations that I found and used:
  • Albergue - dormitory bunk-beds, co-ed rooms, sometimes co-ed bathrooms and showers (private stalls). These are usually 5-10euro (slightly cheaper if you go to the municipal ones versus the privately run ones). They are similar to youth hostels because they are usually closed from 8am-1pm so that they can clean the facility. Most have kitchens that you can use to cook your food. Many offer three course dinners with wine for under 10 euro. Many have washers and dryers for a 3-5 euro fee each. Most now try to give many electrical outlets to charge your devices. Bring a sleeping bag or a bag liner because the pillowcase and liner they provide are pretty useless.
  • Hostal - inexpensive motel or possible rooms within someone's home. These are private rooms. They almost always have a private bathroom. The price ranges from 25-50 euro.
  • Hotel - Full service hotels like anywhere in the world. Prices start at 50 euro.
  • B & B - I found a lovely B&B in Villafranca del Bierzo. I had a private room but shared the bath and the breakfast and living room areas were wonderful.
Although I stayed in private rooms every few days, by the end I stayed in the albergues as much as possible because that's where you meet and bond with people best.

And don't forget, you can always share the hostal, hotel, and B&B with new friends. That can cut the cost.

Tell me about the stamps?

Order your credentials (a sort of passport) in advance for free at . You will bring these credentials with you and get it stamped wherever you stay and eat. You can also buy one at the starting city, but it's much easier and free to get it in advance so that you don't spend your trip abroad searching for an office that might be closed depending on when you arrive. The one at Saint Jean Pied de Port is 1/4 mile up the hill from the church on the Rue de Citadelle, among many stores. The credentials there cost 3 euro.

Remember to get at least one stamp each day and two stamps each day during the last 60 miles. That's required to get the compostela (certificate of completion) in Santiago de Compostela at the end of the trip.

The office to get your compostela is on the south of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. When facing the front facade, go to the right side, towards the rear. You'll see the fountain and the stairs / entrance to the south transept. Turn right and it's a few doors down on the left. Expect a long line. There's much fewer people at 8am if you're willing to wait until morning to get your compostela.

How heavy is your pack?

They say to limit your pack to 10% of your body weight. Obviously if you're smaller or thinner, this makes it tougher. My pack started out at 27-lbs with water. I hated it. I started to leave things behind everywhere so that I wouldn't have to carry it.

So my suggestion is: whatever you think you want to bring, bring less. Cut the weight in half. Everything weighs more after hours of walking. Everything weighs more after they get moist from rain. Everything weighs more when you are thirsty and hungry. Everything weighs more when you get blisters. I truly want to bring only 15-lbs with water next time, as that is a far more comfortable weight for me.

What would you bring in your pack now that you know better?

I decided I just need two alternating sets of clothes for walking and one for in-town to sightsee and eat dinner. This is my list if there is no chance for snow:
  • Small flashlight. I brought a rechargeable one because batteries weigh so much (I just recently found a rechargeable kind at the 99cents Only store. You squeeze it for a minute and it recharges. I wish mobile phones could be this easy!). If you go in the summer, you might not even need a flashlight, especially if you intend to start after 7am.
  • 3 underwear, thigh length because it reduces male chaffing. Two hiking, one for in-town.
  • 1 lightweight walking shorts
  • 1 lightweight walking trousers (I might skip this because I never wore them, even in the rain).
  • 2 walking shirts (athletic style so that they wick moisture easily and dry rapidly). 
  • 1 long sleeve lightweight warm shirt
  • 4 pairs hiking socks. This could be three but I value socks far more than any other clothing on the Camino. My blisters will testify how a clean fluffy pair of socks can be wonderfully soothing. Hiking socks are thicker and fluffier. I found "worker's socks" at Big Lots at 2/$5 that work as well as the expensive $30 pairs at the camping stores.
  • Safety pins (can keep things together AND be used with blisters)
  • Medicine. (cold & diarrhea). Just enough for two days because there are pharmacies everywhere.
  • Ibuprofen/Advil (I took it daily after every walk. I ached less and could walk around the village in comfort. If there's one suggestion I have for pain management, it's to take some just after you get to your accommodations. )
  • Various size bandages, enough for emergencies since there are pharmacies everywhere
  • A tiny tube of antiseptic cream like Neosporin
  • Mobile device charger and a small converter. I have a multi-port USB charger that already has the European power outlet so don't need a converter.
  • Earphones to listen to music on your device or earplugs if you don't like snoring
  • For some, sleeping attire (if you're like me and just sleep in your underwear, you can just pull off your shorts in your sleeping bag and don't need this. I used shorts that could be swimming trunks so it served double duty.)
  • flip flops or sandals
  • A few clothespins
  • A couple bungies and few carabiner clips
  • Camera charger because a mobile phone cannot zoom enough to see distance. I have done the trip before so I won't be bringing a camera with me any more.
  • For some, a very light journal if you don't journal on your smartphone
  • 6 empty small, 6 empty medium, 6 empty large ziploc bags
  • Water bottle with tube (much more convenient than having to reach around or take the bag off just to drink water)
  • Rolled up water bottle - rolls up and most importantly, it lies flat on your bed so you can have a sip of water in the middle of the night and it won't roll onto the floor (or onto the lower bunk)
  • Emergency pair of glasses
  • Very light towel, perhaps microfiber
  • Tooth brush, tooth paste, floss, nail clippers, loofa mit (nothing strips off dirt as quickly)
  • Rosary
  • Sleeping bag or liner (best if it's bedbug resistant - why take chances?!)
  • Rain Cape (for you and the backpack)
Pack small things in ziplocs (not the empty ones because they're for the trip). Ziplocs are total multi-use bags of awesomeness.

Things you will be wearing and are not in the pack:
  • one or two hiking poles
  • hiking shoes or sandals
  • 1 wide brimmed hat
  • 1 scarf for your neck if you burn easily or sweat a lot
  • Mobile device (if you want it like I do)
  • Camera (a mobile camera can't zoom well enough yet but when they do, I won't mention this). I won't bring one anymore since I've done the trip before.
  • The clothing you are wearing that day
  • A small very light day pack/purse. I used it to bring my valuables with me to dinner so that I wouldn't leave the passport and money alone in the albergue. Better safe than sorry. 
  • A lightweight mesh bag. This was useful to carry laundry that needed to dry a few hours more in the sun and air
  • Swiss army knife. I used it to cut food and open wine bottles. I learned this when I backpacked through Europe in my college days: nothing is as delightful as having a picnic at a park or stream with just some water, If you bring your pack as a carry-on, you cannot bring this on the plane. You will need to buy it after you leave the airport. Otherwise, it goes in the checked luggage.
Why so few clothes? Because you can just wash and dry your clothing at every stop. Believe me, you'll realize that we're too obsessed about washing clothes once your back starts to complain that the pack weighs too much.

Things I won't bring again:
  • iPad. I brought it in case of a work emergency. Many places have computers. This was silly of me and showed how my nervousness kept me from trusting the Camino. Learn to trust that you will be fine and you will be much happier.
  • Cold and flu medicine - there are pharmacies on every block in every city and usually one every few villages
  • So many bungees
  • Plastic bags. You can get plastic bags at the grocery store
  • Spoon and fork. The knife acts as a fork. As for a spoon, I didn't buy anything to eat that needed a spoon so I left it behind at some albergue.
  • Sunglasses. The hat was sufficient and it felt less personal when talking to people.
  • Shampoo - and maybe even soap. We're obsessed with this stuff. Our hair doesn't need to be shampooed daily. It's under a hat most of the day. As for soap, unless you're wallowing in the mud, most of the stuff just rinses off. I had one tiny soap bar that I used with the loofa and it was more than fine. 
  • Laundry detergent. I'll bring it but definitely just a small amount because you don't need much just to wash sweat and dust off. Most of the time, shampoo and ordinary soap are sufficient.
  • Inflatable pillow. Every place had a pillow. And even if they didn't I could have just rolled up my jacket and it would have been fine.
  • Wind-breaker. The rain cape was fine
  • Lip balm. It was drizzly often so my lips were fine. If I needed it I could buy it
  • Vaseline. My feet were sweaty all day so had no need for it after all. .If I needed it I could buy it.
  • Hair gel. Seriously, nobody expects you to look good on the camino. Buy some at the end of the trip if you really need it.
  • Big honking power strip. I need to buy a small plastic gadget that splits power to multiple outlets. I brought this thing because it's what I always bring to Europe on business trips. Well this isn't a business trip and it weighed 1/2 kg when a small splitter would weigh a couple ounces. It was handy but not worth the weight.
  • Umbrella. It was handy once I got to the village, but I could have lived without one until after the trip.
  • Coins. Coins weigh a lot. We Americans often pay with dollar bills, but they have 1 and 2 euro coins that weigh a ton. Use them up before reaching for a 5 euro bill.
  • The guidebook. Next time I'm going to just scan the stupid thing and keep it on my phone because it weighs so much. I did that for the most part anyway. I would just photograph the next few pages of my journey, delete the old pages, and use that so that the book wouldn't get wet while walking.
  • Electronics. I brought many more wires than needed just in case I left things behind. As though there aren't electronic and mobile phone stores in Spain.

Last minute items?

There are stores everywhere, especially pharmacies.

One tip that I think will help if you're starting at St. Jean Pied-de-Port is to check out the stores right next to the camino credentials office. The office is towards the top of the hill. Go to the church and head up the hill. It's 1/4 mile up the hill. Across the street is La Boutique du Pelerin (1 Place Floquet tel 05-59-49-12-77). You can email and pre-order items. When I repeat my trip, I intend to leave my swiss army knife at home so as to avoid checking in luggage or airport security and simply buy one at the store when I get there.

What shoes did you wear?

I think 75% wore hiking boots, 20% wore sneakers, and 5% like me wore hiking sandals. No matter the shoe, make sure it has excellent support and tread. Your feet will swell up after so much walking so don't get anything that's already snug while wearing your thick socks. Get something that's 1/2 size larger.

Where do you fly?

If you are starting at St Jean Pied-de-Port, then you usually fly into Paris and take the train down. If you are starting anywhere in Spain, it's much easier to fly into Madrid. There are direct trains and buses directly from the airport. Whatever you do, don't start walking the full walk on the very next day. Take a day off or walk only a few miles the next day because you will likely have jet lag.

Is it scary?

The United States is a scary country. Spain is not scary. I felt perfectly safe. The scariest thing for me was reading in Burgos how some bishop recounted his arrival to the cathedral and, on his way, saw a pilgrim getting eaten by a wolf. Say what? Well, that was centuries ago, and while I definitely saw dogs, I saw no wolves. The dogs were more scared by you clanging your hiking pole than you are by them.

Also there was the senior citizen who hiked very quickly but actually dragged his feat. And he didn't use a flashlight. Imagine hearing in the dark "shoosh shoosh shoosh shoosh" coming ever closer to you. Other than images of a slasher movie on the meseta, that was about it.

Is it only for the religious?

It's for everyone. I'd say that 50% of the people had faith or spiritual-based reasons for their journey. Of the rest, I'd say 2/3 still had some questions or issues they were confronting: what do I do now that I've been laid off, It's my 50th birthday and I want to do something memorable. I don't want to go to university so what should I do, should I move to another city or country?

Is it lonely?

There are times when you walk alone for stretches. The longest stretch for me to be alone was about 3 hours. You do see people, though, as they walk by so it's up to you to decide whether to remain alone. I found it incredibly easy to chat with people. That might be biased because I am told I can have a lovely conversation in a room by myself.

The loneliest moment for me was when I was in a room full of people. I sat at a long table where the only English speaker was at the opposite end. Nobody at that table spoke English, French, or Spanish so I had nobody to talk to. The English speakers were mostly at other tables that were already packed. Admittedly, this gave me a great incentive to learn some German so that I could have a better chance next time.

Do I need to speak Spanish?

I can answer this in several ways.
  • No. You can get for the most part with English, though you will likely just be pointing at the menu.
  • Yes, you will be far better off if you speak some Spanish. 
  • Definitely yes if you want to understand what they're saying to make decisions about where to stay.
  • Not as much if you can speak French, German, Italian, or Portuguese.
Continental Europeans learn other languages. They say they don't speak, but they're just nervous. The worst English speakers are usually far better than our very good Spanish language speakers.

Camino specific words that might help if you know spanish but never thought you'd be taking a pilgrimage:

  • Backpack - mochila
  • Walking Stick - bastón
  • Blister - ampolla
  • Foot -pie
  • Leg -pierna
  • Pain - dolor
  • Medicine - medicina
  • Pharmacy - farmacia
  • Doctor - doctor
  • Vegan - vegano
  • Gluten-free - sin gluten
  • Vegetarian - vegetariano / sin carne
  • Normal Water - agua sin gas
  • Toilet - baño / servicios / lavabos / aseos 

What if there's no room at the albergue?

See if there's another one in town. If that's full, consider a hostal or walk to the next town. In September, I never had to walk to the next town or have to sleep outside.

What's the food like?

A pilgrim's menu is offered in many places and albergues. It costs around 8-10euro. It's a three course meal. The first course will be something like one of the following (or a choice of one of the following): mixed salad, spaghetti, soup. The second course will be something like one of the following (or a choice of one of the following): pork chop and fries; bacon, eggs, and fries; meatballs and fries; sandwich and fries; and of course, fries and fries. The last course is dessert where you get or choose: helado (ice cream), a piece of fruit, flan, cake. Bread and wine / beer / water comes with everything.

It's a good value. If you're not as hungry, you can order from the a la carte menu at a bar or restaurant. A bocadillo (sandwich) usually costs around 3-5 euro and are large and meaty. A tortilla usually means an egg omelette with potatos.

Walking around, you can grab an ice cream for 1-2 euro, a cafe or chocolate for 1-2 euro, a bottle of water (if for some weird reason there are no water fountains) for 1-2 euro, a soda pop for 1.5 to 2.5 euro.

There are cafes in the middle of nowhere. Bars and pubs are cheaper than restaurants. You will be charged for a seat outside on the terrazzo (usually 1-2 euro).

Credit cards?

Credit cards usually are taken at restaurants and supermercados but with a 10 euro minimum. Know your Pin number. If you don't have a Pin number, try just pressing the green RETURN button without a number. This usually works but some places (like the train and bus station) don't like this.

Albergues are cash only. You will need to carry enough cash to pay the albergues. ATM machines work with most US bank cards, but there is usually a transaction feel of 2-3%.

There is a credit card company called Capitol One that has a credit card without a transaction fee. Whether you use that company or another, remember to call the company and let them know the dates you will be traveling overseas and which companies you will be visiting.

Mobile Phones?

You can activate text, voice, and data with your own mobile company to work abroad. This is usually expensive. If you have T-Mobile, the regular subscription allows you to use the phone internationally. Confirm with them that they still have this feature.

If you have another phone carrier, or if you want a less expensive option, have your phone unlocked by them. This isn't a mechanical lock. They can lock and unlock your phone remotely. USA mobile phones are often locked by default. Once unlocked, you can buy a mobile phone SIM card at the airport or in town in Europe. Common phone carriers in Spain are Orange, Vodafone, and MoviStar. For the price of 25-40$US, you can get a couple GB of data, free text, and discounted voice for a month. If you're walking for longer than a month, you just renew.

Wifi ("Is there Wifi" is "Hay Wifi" and pronounced "I weefee") is available in many restaurants and now at most albergues. Notable exceptions are in tiny villages like Foncebadon where there is no wifi anywhere.

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