Here are my answers to some frequently asked questions about El Camino Frances (from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela and the Atlantic Coast). If you can’t find the answers to your questions here – click on ”Contact” and send me an e-mail.
Remember all pilgrims on El Camino have their own unique experience of the road. IBe careful weigh my advice against your own gut feeling. My truth is not necessarily your truth. Much of what I write is based on my trek in 2011, but I’m keeping the site updated as long as this site is public (my latest updates were made in January 2014).
”ALBERGUES” and ACCOMMODATION
There are numerous ”albergues” (hostels) of various kinds and standard along the Camino. Some are run by religious associations, others are local and some are privately owned. During the winter, some Albergues are closed. In March, menu of the winter closed places open up again. A current list of open albergues you can get where you collect your pilgrim’s pass (read more below).Prices range between five and eight euro (2011). Some albergues are formally free of charge, but you are free to donate what you can and want. There is always some form of washing facilities for clothes. Often there is a washing machine and sometimes even a tumble dryer but other times we have to make do with an old-fashioned washtub and a clothes line. That’s why I strongly recommend clothes that dry easily – especially if you are walking in the winter. Some shelters offer cooking facilities, but walking alone, I preferred the nice company of fellow pilgrims, having the ”pilgrim menu” at a restaurant rather than messing around in a primitive kitchen. It was worth 10-11 euros per night.The pilgrims are sleeping in bunk beds in dormitories that sometimes accommodate 6-8 people and other times, upwards of one hundred persons. Most of the time, men and women share dormitories. Most albergues close at 10 pm. By then everybody are strictly asked to be in bed with the lights off. Usually the pilgrims start to pack up and leave before dawn – around 5 am.If you prefer more private accommodation, there are countryside bed and breakfasts. Or Casa Rural as they are called in spanish. Towns and larger villages also have hotels.Ask for pilgrim rates. Take the opportunity to treat yourself with a stay in a nice hotel occasionally. It makes life easier and you will rarely experience such comfort and feeling of luxury again when you get to sleep in a room with a clean, soft bed with an en-suite bathroom.During high season the albergues can get full. If you do not want to stop walking early in the day, a tip is to choose your accommodation in villages or albergues located between the recommended main stops. You can also get an updated list by following this link.
BACKPACK AND LUGGAGE:
The luggage should of course be as light as possible. Approximately ten percent of your body weight is usually a recommended measure. Remember that you also have to carry one or two liters of water and some snacks in addition to your clothing and other stuff. There is no need to bring a lot of clothes because you will still need to wash. Buy clothes in lightweight breathable material that dries easily. Avoid cotton, which dries slowly and which will get soaking wet if you sweat or walk in damp or wet weather.
On rare occasions bedbugs are found in albergues. I didn’t luckily have any encounters with the bugs myself and met only met only one couple along the road who had had the misfortune to suffer the. The albergues have strict procedures for dealing with the bugs and the couple had received quick help to sanitize their luggage. Many thousands of people walk El Camino each year and the small risk of encountering bugs don’t deter them. So do not let them deter you either. There are bug sprays available to buy in some countries. Search the internet or ask in expert stores.
BEST TIME TO HIKE?
The answer to the question about when the best time for hiking, depends on who you ask. As I began walking in March, it was still a lot of snow and cold damp weather, which made the hike an occasionally tough experience. The gray weather and lack of green trees also dampened my mood.
When I returned in late June, it was a completely different experience of beauty, ease and joy. The fact that more people are walking in the summer, were more a benefit than a burden. The downside is that it can get very hot at the high plateau after Burgos during heat waves. My advice is that if possible, walk your Camino somewhere between mid-May and mid-July. Otherwise fall/autumn is probably beautiful too.
Take care of your feet. Infected blisters are really dangerous which I experienced personally. I ignored my sores and they became infected. I got blood poisoning from the open wounds and had to spend a week in hospital. NEVER GO BAREFOOT in the shelters WITH WOUNDS or open blisters ON YOUR FEET – NOT EVEN IN THE SHOWER. Read more under ”Foot-care” and ”Shoes and socks”.
BOOTS and SOCKS:
I prefer to walk in hiking boots of good quality with support the ankles. Other people walked in sneakers and seemed to be happy with that. I recommend, however, well-worn in hiking boots. Should you walk during late fall, early spring or in the winter boots are absolutely compulsory, as it will get muddy, wet and some times deep snow in the mountains. Buy your shoes one size bigger than your normal shoe size. Feet swell during such a long hike. Buy good-quality wool socks, even if they cost a little more. Wool breathes better and dries faster than cotton. When I started using a thin inner sock with a thicker outer sock, any tendency to blisters disappeared, (The double layers decrease the friction). I used double socks even when it was 37 degrees Celsius. Change socks one to three times a day. It is worth the washing! If possible, wash the feet when you change socks. Warm days, I had a small bottle with water just for the feet.
Bring light-weight bath slippers to the shower and/or a pair of sandals or sneakers to wear in the evenings. Most people think it’s nice to let the walking boots rest in the evenings when they walk around in the village or at the albergues.
Do not deceive yourself about the climate, just because you are traveling to Spain. Along the trek you will meet several climate zones. In highland areas in the Pyrenees and in the Galician mountains near the Atlantic Ocean, the weather can be like in northern Europe, even in the summer. However, on the Meseta, the high plateau after Burgos, it may become extremely hot in the middle of summer.
(If you are thinking of bringing your dog- read more under ”hike with dog?”)
In many books about the Camino, the authors write about encounters with nasty, wild dogs along the way. Much has happened since Shirley MacLaine and Paolo Coelho walked the road. I met only a a few, very timid domestic dogs on the road. With the increasing flow of hikers along the ”French way” (St. Jean – Santiago) the dogs seem have become accustomed to the sight of pilgrims. The more ferocious dogs, whose are guarding the farmer’s properties are now locked up. Wild dogs must have been removed, at least none came in my way.
(Read more about boots and socks above) Taking care of your feet is perhaps your most important task on the Camino. Take off boots and socks regularly during the day and change socks once to twice a day. Wash your feet when you take a break. Lubricate the feet in the evenings.
If you know that you easily get blisters on your heels, put on elastic medical tape before you walk, as a precaution. When blisters are a fact I think Compeed is a good (but expensive) remedy.
In many books people talk about a method of puncturing the blister with a disinfected needle and sewing thread, to get the liquid out (leaving the thread hanging from the blister to prevent it from sealing up again). I tried the operation and got a severe infection from the process. Hence, I do not recommend that method.
You need a good guidebook as a companion on your trek. The maps don’t need to be very detailed, since the road markings are generally very good. But here and there, it can get a little tricky because of road works or other changes to the normal route.
I chosed a book in Swedish to guide me from St Jean to Santiago. From Santiago to Finisterre, I used a book by John Brierley, titled A pilgrim’s guide to the Camino Finisterre. He has written guides forseveral of the routes to Santiago, including the most frequented one from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago.
HEALTH AND INSURANCE:
The staff at most albergues are able to help with minor wounds or call a doctor if necessary. The language can make communication difficult though – it is not certain that even doctors speak a single word of English. Some albergues have posters with information in English and a phone number that pilgrims can call. When I called that number the person who picked up the only spoke Spanish. Instead when I got sick, I called 112 (the emergency phone number in most of Europe). They spoke perfect English, and quickly sent a doctor who then made sure I got to a hospital.
NOTE 1: If you are a citzen of the European Union, always carry the blue health card. It provides free care in Spain (and the EU).
NOTE 2: Always have valid travel insurance. If you are a citizen of a scandinavian country and get injured or hospitalized – contactSOS International in Copenhagen on telephone +45 38 48 80 00. They speak Scandinavian and is a Help Center for insured scandinavians, they help you to contact a doctor, transport back home and settlement of insurance matters after returning home.
Highway crossings BEFORE LEÓN:
Some older books on El Camino Frances often tells us about a pair of nasty passes across the highway before Leon. Many people I spoke with, were so frightened of the crossings, they took the bus from Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon. The previously potentially deadly intersections are now replaced with nice walkways. So skip the bus.
Many people, especially women, are wondering if it’s safe to walk the camino on their own. I can only answer that very many people do.
It is common for those who walk El Camino to do so on their own, leaving their loved ones back home. However, you will meet a lot of nice people along the way and since all of them share the same experience, new friendships are formed very quickly. Who people are and what they do in their ordinary lives becomes totally unimportant.
I did not hear of anyone who had unpleasant experiences related to hiking solo. However, it is of course always important to use your common sense and be cautious with valuables and so on.
Most pilgrims are aware of the importance to drink plenty of water. But it’s easy to forget to compensate with minerals. In particular, it’s important to fill up your levels of magnesium and potassium. Only water leaches out of the body if you sweat a lot. Ask a pharmacist to recommend some good pills.
There are ATMs in most major towns and some Villages. I had a rule of thumb to always have enough cash to last three days ahead. You can rarely or never pay by your albergue (shelter) with credit card and equally rarely in bars and shops in the country side.
To prove that you have walked the full distance of the Camino, you must obtain a pilgrim passport (”Carnet de pelerin” in French or ”credencial del peregrino” in Spanish). You collect stamps in the pass on all albergues (and other places along the way if you want.).
In the pilgrim office in Santiago and/or at the municipal albergue in Finisterra you get a your diploma (”Compostela”) when producing your stamped pilgrim’s pass. Formally, it is enough to walk the last ten kilometers to Santiago de Compostela to receive your diploma. Therefore the crowd of pilgrims thickens after the city Sarria.
Your Pilgrim Pass is one of the few things it is worth turning back for, if you happen to forget it along the road. So hold onto it tightly and put it in a waterproof plastic sleeve.
Are you starting your walk in St Jean Pied de Port, you get the pass in the pilgrim’s office (Accueil St Jacques, 39 rue de la Citadelle, for a map of St. Jean, click here).You are supposedly able to order a pass through the pilgrim’s office in Santiago via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please let me know if it works). On caminosantiago.com you find a list in Spanish over places in Spain where it’s possible to pick up a pass for a minor donation of one euro or two.
Some kind of hat with a brim all around, is an absolute must if your are walking in summer. The sun otherwise becomes unbearable and there is a real risk of sunstroke. A baseball cap doesn’t do the job well enough.
TRAVEL TO AND FROM
If you fly, you need to get to the Biarritz Airport. I flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Paris Orly. There, I switched to Air France for the flight to Biarritz.
If you are flying via Paris, note that most (if not all) flights between Paris and Biarritz depart from Orly airport. To travel between the Paris-CDG and Orly airports is time-consuming and a bit complicated.
From Biarritz, there is a bus service to Bayonne. I took a taxi from the airport of Biarritz to Bayonne, which didn’t cost me more than about 25 €.From Bayonne you travel to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on a small train. Find train time table here. Click here for a map of St. Jean.
Home, you fly from Santiago Airport. Those who walk all the way to Finisterre can take a bus back to Santiago.
Trekking poles or not?
An old fashioned trekking pole is a classic attribute for a pilgrim. Nowadays, many use modern trekking poles (but of telescope type to be able to pack them on flights). I tried it with poles but thought they were getting in the way and a nuisance to remember after breaks. I threw them away already the second day of walking.
Prepare by walking long distances with boots and your packed backpack before you set off on the Camino. You balance your body in a completely different way with a packed backpack than without, thereby using other muscles in the body. It’s also good to get the legs used of walking long distances on hard surfaces.
I did not have any lock to the backpack and there are few shelters that offer some cabinet lock.I usually wore with my valuables when I went out in the evening. That wallet, passport and phone, especially in larger cities.Many times I drove on trust and let things be left at the shelter. During my walk, I met no one who had been robbed, but it happens sometimes understood as everywhere in the world. It is quite good to learn what that applies in each place.In short – in big cities, it may be wise to keep a little extra caution but overall it felt very secure.
WALKING WITH A DOG?
Some readers have wondered about the possibility to bring the dog on the Camino. I don’t know much about that but what I do know is that most albergues do NOT allow dogs. Personally, I would not like the hassle to take care of both myself and a quadruped. Despite this, there are some bloggers who have walked together with their dog (it is unclear, however, whether it was on the Camino Frances, or any of the other routes to Santiago). From what I understand, they camped or slept in the open air along the way. (Camping is not as easy as it sounds, since it is highly limited in Spain where camping is allowed. Additionally increases the weight of your packing.
There are water taps along the way, but many have been declared unfit as drinking fountains. Still, it was never a problem to find drinking water. You can drink the tap water and refill your bottle or CamelBak in ordinary faucets. It doesn’t taste very good though. Sometimes I bought bottled water, but otherwise I made do with the tap water. I bought a two liter Camelbak (a water bag to stuff in your backpack with a hose sticking out through the lid of the bag). It gives easy access to water. I recommend that you have two liters of water with you. Drink a lot when it’s hot but don’t forget to fill up with minerals such as magnesium and potassium. If you drink a lot of water, without mineral supplements your body gets depleted of the vital minerals. This may in turn lead to cramps and other unpleasantries.