I’ve always been interested in the idea of long distance walks and when I heard my New Zealand friends were planning to fly over and walk the whole of the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances), I jumped at the chance to join them for a few days. But how and when to join them? The whole route is about 800km so I would be dipping in and out.
Where to start?
I really liked the idea of walking over mountains to cross a national border imagining I’m in The Sound of Music. So I decided to start at the beginning in St Jean Pied de Porte in the French Pyrenees rather than try to join somewhere fiddly in the middle or do the last section to Santiago de la Compostela, which I wanted to avoid as it can be busy.
How to get there and back
Working out where to leave the route and how was harder. I bought a guide book (Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances by Sandy Brown) A useful book, divided up into stages, what to expect, accommodation etc, but it was not so helpful about advising how to get to and from the UK . I worked out the best route was London Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Bayonne with a train connection St Jean, then return by bus from Pamplona to Bilbao to fly home with the budget Vueling airline.
It is possible to travel from London to St Jean on one day but it is fairly knackering so I decided to split the journey in Paris for a night which was very pleasant. There are many points to leave along the route but it can take a bit of research.
What’s the walking like?
I do a fair amount of walking so I didn’t find it too challenging, most of the paths are well surfaced, mainly not that steep, although having to carry a backpack and walking day after day was more tiring than my usual day walks. The route is extremely well marked so it’s hard to get lost and it was more scenic than I was expecting. It’s very satisfying to walk completely across the country, over mountains, valleys, roads, and suburbs, seeing everything. Spotting Pamplona when coming down out of the hills, walking through long suburbs and up into walled city and out again back up into the hills was very satisfying.
Hostels and snoring!
I struggled with lack of sleep at the hostels. Some have enormous rooms and invariably SOMEONE snores (never me of course) and I don’t sleep well with noise. One night, unable to sleep I ended up quitting the dorm altogether and trying to sleep on a sofa in reception, which wasn’t ideal. If I went again I would probably add in the odd private room every few days to get a good rest and some peace.
Do I need to book accommodation in advance?
We booked hostels in St Jean Pied de Porte and Roncesvalles (first night in Spain) from UK – luckily we did as the latter was completely booked out when we arrived and turning people away, despite accommodating around 250! Normally in spring it should OK to turn up at hostels on the routes and find a bed. However this year (2023), it’s very busy on the Camino and we needed to phone hostels ahead and book a day or so in advance to guarantee a place. If you are travelling in summer or national holidays it can get very booked up. When you get past Sarria, the route is much busier so more planning may be needed.
What to take
I hate carrying a lot of stuff and I like a comfortable backpack, so purchased an excellent Osprey Tempest 28 Lt which is designed for women (especially small ones like me!). We were planning to stay in municipal albergues and hostels that line the route. Mattress and pillows are provided and often disposable sheets and pillowcase but usually no bedding. I took a silk sleeping sheet and 580g sleeping bag for spring/ summer which was fine. Mid summer you could probably get away with just a sleeping sheet.
What to wear
Merino wool or synthetic clothes are the best, as they are light, easy to dry and comfortable. I took a light rain jacket and didn’t bother with waterproof trousers as my walking trousers dry easily. I wore comfortable merino socks. I also took waterproof Otter socks for wet days which I did use as my boots aren’t very waterproof and it can and did rain.
Boots – need to be comfortable and worn but don’t need to be big boots, most of the route is on good tracks with not that much rough ground or climbs. You definitely need flip flops/sandals for hostels and trips out – this also gives your feet a rest and an airing.
Food & Drink
One thing I am very glad of is that I took is some muesli, cereal bars and EARL GREY TEA. It wasn’t always possible to get breakfast at hostels and I don’t walk anywhere on an empty stomach! Apart from day one over the Pyrenees (where only café /bar is at Orisson 8km in), there were cafés and refreshment vans on the way, but not necessarily where you want them, so for me cereal bars helped me on my way. I am a big tea drinker and I did take a flask but wouldn’t bother again, heavy to carry, hard to get milk and Spain has some pretty good tea choices at cafés.
If you want to get official recognition for the walk (you do!) and fun stamps along the way, you can order passports online in the UK from the wonderfully named Confraternity of St James, https://www.csj.org.uk/, and there are also other organisations worldwide offering passports. You can also pick them up from the town hall in St Jean but you will need to be there probably the day before you start walking to get one.
Bum bags are a must!
I think you definitely need something around your waist to carry money, passport (national and camino) plus maybe small items like tissues and lip salve, sun cream, and glasses. I wore mine all the time inside and out and it was invaluable.
Should I walk alone or in a group?
I was walking with two very sociable, easy going people and that was great, so we met “heaps” of people. A few people are in groups, a fair amount of couples and a lot of people walk on their own – both men and women – and it’s very easy to do. I found the route extremely friendly and sociable and most people we passed were chatty and happy to help . Being on the Camino feels like being a sort of “elevated” walker, locals know what you are doing and will point out the route if they think you have strayed. Everyone wishes you and each other a “Buen Camino” and this is probably the easiest greeting as there are so many nationalities, it’s hard to know who speaks what. Most Albergues offer well priced hearty communal evening meals so you don’t need to eat alone. You will probably meet more people if alone but will have to sort out any issues, accommodation and transport by yourself.
Most hostels, cafés and restaurants lining the route have good English and it seems to be the default language for most people travelling. I met Australians, Americans , Canadians, Namibians, Dutch, French, Germans, Polish, Korean, Taiwanese, and British and that was just in 5 days! It’s a great advantage having English as your first language. But I did try to speak my limited Spanish when I could.
“Dos cervezas por favor y un toscado con atun”
Travel in comfort
You can do this walk any way you want. There are hotels, bag carrying services, buses to skip the hard bits, people walk at their own pace, take rest days, go sightseeing, split the walk over several years.
Tips for Camino
I asked my friends currently walking the full Camino for things they really needed that they’d bought with them or had to get along the way. Here’s what they suggested..
- Waterproof gortex shoes
- Pegs,string/line for washing
- Powerbank splitter
- Bum bag
- Cable headphone
- Head torch white and red light- so as not to disturb others
- Washing powder
- Nail clippers
- Hiking poles – (most people have these, I didn’t)
- Safety pins
- Needle and thread
- Sheeps wool! (NZ way to treat blisters)