As my friend and I walked the Camino again in September, we both agreed that, during the intervening years since we had last walked the route it had become very crowded, and had lost some of its rugged appeal. There is, of course, nothing wrong in being surrounded by every nationality under the sun. In fact it was great to mix with young enthusiastic South Koreans, sophisticated and very well equipped Japanese, singing Russians, silver haired Americans, and many other nationalities from around the world, but it was a bit of a stampede at times.
Fortunately, we were walking fairly slowly, so often the first flush of pilgrims would overtake us in the morning and allow us to experience some solitude. Beth and I have walked many of the pilgrim routes that criss-cross Europe, and it is possible to find some where you can walk all day without meeting anyone. But the Camino, due to all the publicity that has surrounded it in the last few years, has become very attractive especially for first-time walkers. It still continues to offer a varied selection of reasonable facilities, amazing scenery and the usual camaraderie that you experience with walkers wherever you might be. However, I personally find the crowds something of a hassle and I object to the use of mobile phones, but suspect medieval pilgrims would have been the first to use them had they been around. What I certainly didn’t object to was that there are now many cafés that have opened up serving ‘flat whites’ and fresh orange juice!
Surprisingly, Beth said she was very tempted to walk again in the winter, maybe even over the Christmas holidays when it would undoubtedly be peaceful. As most of the municipal hostels remain open throughout the year it would be possible to complete The Way, although one might have to walk longer distances between hostels each day. However, that wouldn’t matter if it was cold and crisp; not so good, of course, if it was pouring with rain. The majority of municipal hostels in Spain do not supply blankets, so a first-class sleeping bag would be ‘a must’. We then began to discuss one of our favourite topics, ‘food’. It would be unlikely that any of the ‘pop up cafes’ would be open, so it would be back to relying on the little shops you find in the villages. The majority of my girlfriends think I am completely mad, for both walking long distances and staying in hostels for 6 Euros a night. And I am sometimes inclined to agree, when I have been obliged to stick to the rules and leave at 8 in the morning, after the person in the next bed has disturbed you with a cacophony of snoring throughout the night.
But there are many compensations, the main one being how cheap it is. You can walk for weeks without breaking the bank, and arriving after a wonderful day’s walk, then sussing out the hostel facilities, particularly the communal kitchen, can be a lot of fun. Also, Beth and I find the challenge of preparing a meal from items you find in the local shop is a very levelling experience. We always eat frugally but tastily, with lots of vegetables, salads, nuts, and fruit etc. This September I went down one whole dress size and felt quite unnerved when, on my return home, friends kept asking me if I was ‘O.K?’
It always surprises me how little food you need when you walk. I find the less I eat the more energy I have. My regime whilst walking is always no dairy products, red meat, wine or spirits. Although my indulgence is to share a glass of beer or two with Beth at the end of the day. As neither of us have eaten much, and this is our aperitif before dinner, it’s also the time when we become a little giggly, and put the worlds to rights. I guess we are not that much different to medieval pilgrims in our use of convenience foods, bread, cheese, nuts, fruit, honey and wine. We decided if we were walking one Christmas we would have to splash out on a Santiago Tart, made from eggs, almonds, sugar, butter and lemon. Simply delicious.
Being deprived of luxuries for a short time and acknowledging that we all eat and have far too much ‘stuff’ is an important reason for me to continue walking. Nevertheless, I recklessly of course, fall back very quickly into my old habits after completing a walk. I’ve already started on the mince-pies and mulled wine prior to Christmas.