Let’s have a talk, quite literally, from boots on the ground. I’m not going to cover the final 100k of the Camino Frances. It’s the most widely walked stretch and has been written about countless times. And I’m about to walk it. Again. But the first 700k of the trek from St Jean to Sarria has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. And, lets face it, so have I. Both as a person and a Peregrina.
I had many different considerations this Camino. This time I walked alone. And contrary to popular belief, Covid isn’t over quite yet, although mask mandates will be over on 20th April in Spain – except hospitals and the like. So health was a concern for me, as well. But Spain’s vaccination rate is north of 95%. That’s what happens when your country is decimated by a pandemic. The population tends to get onboard. Its funny that the anti-vax movement never got legs here. There were initially some anti-mask protests but those didn’t catch on in a country where the average age is nudging retirement. People with a Covid bullseye on their foreheads.
Masks on the Camino are nowhere when walking. They are currently required when entering any business or building in Spain. But more than 50% of the time, Pilgrims and proprietors of businesses along the way never used them over this past month. Certainly after check-in closed for the day in a pension or Albergue, no one staying there wore one. I guess if you’re sleeping together in a large room, why bother during dinner?
But I have grown more comfortable taking the mask off after two years of clinging to it like a security blanket. I grew even more comfortable after a long conversation about immunity, evolving epidemiology, and pandemics with a Dutch doctor over coffee before Ledigos. So the mask mandate demise in Spain is going to be welcome for me.
Covid did impact some of my choices and it changed the experience, in some cases for the the better. I stayed off-stage a fair bit due to going slower. And often secured an individual room, if at all possible. This meant I never stayed in the same places as my previous walk from St Jean in 2017. And I had some remarkable experiences. For those of you arriving over the next few months to begin your Camino, I’ll share a few of my musings here.
I am not a fan of reservations for accommodations. It can mean you miss serendipitous experiences when you don’t stop in a small village because you already have a reservation. I waited until the middle of my daily walk to see how I felt before I started thinking about where I might stay for the night.
So many experiences are driven by the people running the cafe or restaurant. And if you walked the Camino pre-2020 and hope to come to Spain and have a similar experience, there is a huge chance that the Albergue is not being run by the same people. Keep in mind, many Albergues you might have stayed at before are under new management. Perhaps equally as great, but not the same as before.
I was unaware, before living on the Camino, that a lot of Albergues and Pensions are run by different people year to year. They sign up with the owners for a year or two, then move on. An interesting business model.
New business trends on the Camino
Fruit in your single room. Chocolate on your pillow. And shampoo, lotion and body wash. Even at the down market pensions. And bigger breakfasts. With proprietors constantly asking if you are happy or if they can do anything for you. Oh, and small little shops inside Albergues stocked with fruit, cold cuts, cheeses, water and beer. This Camino served as recon for our new business to track what people are seeing and expecting from further back on the trail. We need to differentiate ourselves. Jeff enjoyed my market research safari and photos with a ton of ‘We need to do THIS!!!’
Bed and Board
I stayed at some great places. Here are just a few.
~ I loved staying in Villatuerte instead of Estella in the first week. And there are two wonderful Albergues there. La Casa Magica (Under new management). And Albergue Etxeudina where the host included bfast and cooked me whatever I asked for.
~ On the long, dry stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos there is a new food truck that has popped up. A welcome sight on a warm day. It has only been open a few weeks. An experiment by a Canadian couple living in Viana, they have chili and chocolate. Even red velvet cake and homemade brownies. Check them out and tell them Kelli says ‘Hi’. They’ll remember.
~ In Beldorado, two days from Burgos, I would stay at Hostal B in a heartbeat. The guy is wonderful and his cooking is to die for. A new trend is having a small grocery shop within the building. Mostly because Pilgrims often arrive at times when cafes and restaurants are not serving food. And they are desperate to eat. Hostal B hits all the right notes. I was really sick there (I didn’t write about it at the time as I’m tired of talking about being sick). The guy took great care of me.
~ Meeting Point Albergues are prevalent in the Meseta. They are usually new and clean. I enjoyed them and they have affordable private rooms.
~ There is an Albergue in Castrojeriz run by a Spaniard and his Korean wife. Orion Albergue right as you enter the town. She cooks authentic Korean food – one of the best meals on the Camino. And they have a small grocery store with all your Asian favorites. Many many Koreans walk the Camino. The place is a gold mine.
~ In Fromista I was saved on a cold snowy day by the owner of the Doña Mayor Eco Hotel. Lovely place. They weren’t open yet but she saw me sitting outside waiting for my pension to open and worried about me as it was very cold. She called me in and gave me hot tea. It’s completely refurbished and looks amazing. Next time!
~ I already sang the praises of Hotel Real Colegiata. Parador-lite. But a better locale in the old city of León with rooms for a fraction of the Parador. Not far from the Cathedral.
~ Albergue rural L’ Abilleiru in Santaibañez de Valdeiglesias is a little off the beaten path but well worth the extra 500m. The owner personally iced my achilles and her son’s cooking is delicious. One of the best beds on my Camino.
~ My stay at La Trucha in El Acebo made the end of a very long day seem like heaven floating on the clouds. A room with a view, three bouquets of fresh flowers, plus candles.
-And finally, an amazing place to eat and stay in Cacabelos. Moncloa de San Lázaro is a secret haven. They know hospitality and they know mouthwatering food. Not exclusively for Pilgrims, it has a Napa Valley wine country vibe. I felt instantly at home and didn’t want to leave. If you don’t want to stay there you can pop in to their tienda for a stamp on your credentials, and a free cup of wine. It’s tradition.
Semana Santa is hitting the crescendo this weekend. But there are still processions to be seen.
While my Camino will be done in a week or so, next Sunday or Monday, I hope this helps those coming up behind me over the next few months. Buen Camino.