What to Expect

Pilgrim Documents 

There are two key documents that all pilgrims need to be concerned with. One is the Pilgrim’s Passport, which certifies and documents your pilgrimage. The other is the Compostela, received in Santiago to indicate completion of the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims Passport

The Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim Credential), commonly referred to as the Pilgrim’s Passport, can be obtained in several ways. One is to obtain a letter of recommendation in your home parish, bishopric, etc. certifying that you leave as a pilgrim. You can also obtain one in a church, certain albergues or some other location such as a local office of the Friends of the Camino, in the starting point of the pilgrimage. If you are uncertain go to the Gronce web site. Look at the albergues for the route and place you wish to start. Under Basic Datos, there is an item, Expide la credencial. If it indicates "Si", you can get one there. There is usually a small fee, about 3€, for obtaining one. This certifies that the bearer is traveling as a pilgrim. It permits the bearer to use facilities reserved for pilgrims. When it is initially prepared, it states whether the pilgrim is traveling “a pie” by foot, “a caballo” by horse, or “en bicicleta” by bicycle.

Once the pilgrimage commences, it is necessary once a day (more or less) to have the Pilgrim’s Passport sealed (stamped, signed and dated) at one of the parishes, albergues or other establishments en-route. This is easily done and is usually part of the check-in procedure at an albergue. 

Elena Credenciales

2 pages of a completed Pilgrims Passport

Some people become so enamored with the seals that they go out of their way to have them stamped at churches, monasteries, etc. throughout the day and even run out of room, requiring an additional credential to include them all!

The “Compostela

The “Compostela” is the certificate awarded to those who can prove that they have covered the requisite number of kilometers of the pilgrims way. They are issued by the Oficina de Acogida del Peregrino attached to Santiago cathedral at Rúa do Vilar 1, 1º in Santiago de Compostela. Its hours are 10:00-14:00 and 16:30-19:00 (10-2 and 4:30 to 7). To qualify for the Compostela, a pilgrim must complete at least the last 100 kilometers to Santiago if traveling by foot or horse or 200 km if traveling by bicycle. Below is an example of the Compostela.


The Spirit of Pilgrimage

My initial interest in the Camino de Santiago stemmed from an interest in medieval life and I often thought of this during my pilgrimage. I finally concluded that it was not possible for me to gain insight into the motivations that would cause medieval men (and the few women) to undertake the personal sacrifices and separation from family to willingly undertake the pilgrimage to Santiago. They would have made their preparations knowing that the way was difficult and perilous and that many would not return. Some did not go willingly; it was their penance or sentence for some misdeed or crime.

However, once embarked on the pilgrimage, the pilgrim of medieval times had to find the motivation to keep going, despite physical problems, the rain, heat, and cold; this is equally true today. Part of the motivation is sheer determination to reach the goal. Another part is the sense of participation in something larger than one’s self, the fellowship, reinforcement and support of other pilgrims. In addition, a medieval traveler would have had even greater spiritual support from the Church, since there were religious orders along the Camino whose sole purpose was to protect and provide for the pilgrims.

There is a special bond between those that travel the Camino. Some pilgrims travel by foot — “a pie” is the term entered in the book at the albergues — others by bicycle and a few by horse. The bond is strongest between those that travel “a pie.” Some people start out on their pilgrimage with others, but most travel as couples or by themselves. However, you never feel you are traveling alone. Due to the spacing of towns with good albergues, most people leaving an albergue in one town will end up in the same place at the end of the day. They will also encounter each other along the Camino during breaks, whether in the open, at fountains or in bars. You recognize and greet each other, and pull out a chair.

Early on I, as did other pilgrims, started greeting the people we met as we passed - “Hola, Buenas Días,” — always with a smile. These greetings were returned, frequently with “Buen viaje” (Have a good trip), or some other wish in Spanish. We also greeted other pilgrims we met. We seldom saw the cyclists again but they would always call out when they went by. In Santiago and Finisterre, whenever we recognized a fellow pilgrim there were greetings and occasionally a brief conversation, regardless of how well we knew each other.

In O'Cebreiro we encountered a large group of people traveling together. There were 39 people in the group, ranging from a couple of children about 10 years old to several people in their early fifties. They created problems in the albergue because of their numbers and created havoc in the nearby mesón where everyone was buying their meals. In the morning the group completely overwhelmed the two-person staff trying to handle the orders for coffee and toast. Eventually one of the men went behind the counter to make and serve the coffee. From then on we dreaded them. If they arrived at a bar ahead of us, although they separated into two smaller groups, all of the places were taken or the food was depleted. They walked faster because all they had were small day packs like students use, but covered the same distances per day. They had a van that carried their main back packs with clothes, sleeping bags and air mattresses. All of the other pilgrims were upset with them because of that and that as a large group, they stayed together and did not mix with others—the general opinion was that they were not true pilgrims. They were not behaving within the spirit of being a pilgrim. They were “turistas,” —always said with disdain.

The Camino

The route of the “Camino de Santiago” is well marked for pilgrims to follow. In recent times it has been marked with yellow arrows to show the direction. Below is a photo of a friend taken as we passed through a small village, which I believe is Rabanal del Camino. Notice the yellow arrows on the corner of the building.

Rabanal Arrow


Above is another painted on a wall on a street in Porto (right half, mid way up). These are painted on trees, curbs, streets, sides of buildings, rocks, backs of signs, even power line poles - wherever there is a need to confirm or change the direction.

The designation of the Camino de Santiago as a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987, followed by the Pope’s visit to Santiago in the Holy Year of 1993, resulted in upgrading of the markings in several areas, particularly in Galicia, where there are now concrete markers and milestones. After using the arrows for so long, I did not find the improved markings more useful. As pilgrims, we were so used to looking for the yellow arrows that when we reached Santiago we joked among ourselves about continuing to look for them after we returned home. Despite the markings, it is possible to get lost, or at least confused, particularly in cities and large towns but you are always able to find someone who can help you get back on the trail. Years afterwards, you will notice a yellow arrow somewhere and recognize it for what it is. in 2008, I noticed a series leading away from Montmartre in Paris. Recently I was in Tavira, Portugal and noticed them crossing a bridge. I backtracked and found they started from the Igreja (Church) of São Tiago (Santiago) and there was an association of friends of the Camino de Santiago in Tavira (Associação dos Amigos do Caminho de Santiago de Tavira).    

The route that constitutes the “Camino” varies from foot paths to field roads to wide crushed stone paths to verges of busy highways. For example, in walking from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles, I walked on the edge of a highway for several kilometers, and also on a path less than a foot wide with a steep drop-off on one side. That same day the route went along a rock fault upthrust for 1/2 kilometer and across several other rock fault upthrusts, as well as passing through several villages. Later, in the (comparatively) flat Castillian plains, I followed a long, straight, essentially level Roman road for 12 boring kilometers and afterwards, along with other pilgrims, complained of the rough surface. However, weeks later, approaching O'Cebreiro, I walked for almost six kilometers in a steep uphill climb over a rocky path that was not only rougher but also had flowing water, mud and liquid cow plops.

The Camino frequently passed through farms and led into fenced areas through gates. I was astounded on one occasion to come out of the cover of the woods only to realize I was passing through a horse pasture with about fifteen horses. There was a woman, another pilgrim, standing among them entranced by the sight. Just outside of Burgos, I walked among four horses who were grazing, including a playful young colt. For the first time, watching the colt, I truly understood the word gambol. As I completed the climb out of Nájera, I passed near a farm building. As I did so, the doors opened and a flock of newly shorn sheep came out, led by a goat, and kept in their places by two dogs. I have walked behind several small droves of cows (but not too close) and through them and have had to prod strays out of the way to get by. Many were obviously milk cows but others appeared to be destined for the dinner table.

In all of the villages, barns are an integral part and the cows and sheep were led in and out through the streets and paths to and from their pastures. Someone once told me of a village in Germany where every morning the cows would be led out of the barns and back in the afternoons. In that magic village, a man with a machine would come out each time shortly after the cows passed by and sweep the streets. I assure you that none of the villages on the Camino had such a wondrous machine. In some places the stench of the urine and piles of manure was almost overpowering and the road was slippery from the manure.

Most farmers in the areas we passed through used tractors, although the shift from oxen has only occurred recently in some areas and many farms still have the old wagons, plows and other implements to be pulled by the oxen. In Galicia, en route to Palas de Rei, we walked by two farms where they were still using oxen to pull their plow. In another sign of the past still lingering in Galicia, twice I saw women walking with heavy loads balanced on their heads.


Some pilgrims stay in pensions, hostals (which are different classifications in Spain) or hotels, but most stay in the albergues, also called refugios. An albergue may be run by a church or religious order, a Friends of the Camino group, or the local government. For example, the one in Trabajo is run by the village but one in Rabanal is run by the British Confraternity of Saint James, whose members take turns acting as hosts. The charge for using an albergue in 2011 ranged from donations to 8 euros, about $12. Priority for using an albergue goes to those on foot, horse, bicycle and those accompanying others (such as the driver of a gear van for a group), in that order.


An albergue provides unisex communal living. Above is a typical scene in an albergue right after everyone arrives. The sleeping areas range from one very large room to several modest sized rooms, each with bunks, usually doubled tiered but sometimes single or triple tiered. The bunks are usually furnished with a mattress and either a blanket or a pillow. Spacing between bunks ranged from a very tight eighteen inches to a comfortable three feet. Many albergues provided additional space for back packs. I used ear plugs a lot and was not disturbed by the sounds from those that snored, as others were. Snoring led to angry words on more than one occasion.

Some albergues, primarily private ones, let you in as soon as you arrive. Many, normally city or parochial albergues, however, do not let people enter before 2 and even as late as 4 or 5 PM, causing pilgrims to wander around with their packs. This also results in a busy time inside as everyone tries to shower and wash clothes at the same time once they get in. The doors are closed and lights are out between 10 and 11 PM. All albergues require everyone to leave by a fixed time, such as 8 AM, unless someone is sick and should not travel.

Most had separate bathrooms for men and women but some did not. Showers and toilet areas provided privacy but not much more. A typical shower stall would have a lockable door and a single hook to hang towel and clothes; the stall would be deeper than it was wide so that there was an ostensibly-dry dressing area. However, there was seldom a curtain or door between the shower and the dressing area and the floor was usually wet after the first person. Getting completely dry was difficult. Most places advertise hot water but at least three times I finished my shower in cold water and once had no hot water option.

Recent guides to the camino now mention pay washers and dryers at some refugios.


When looking for the toilets, look or ask for “Aseos” or “Servicios.” Do not ask for “Toilets,” which is not in the Spanish vocabulary. Similarly, only ask for a baño if you are inquiring if your hotel room (habitación) has a room with a bath. The aseos in business establishments, such as restaurants, are usually segregated by sex and have doors marked with an icon, or a letter (H, M) or the words “Hombre,” “Señor” or “Caballero” for men and “Mujer” or “Señora” for women. However, some seem to prefer to use symbols that are not easily figured out by a non-Spaniard.

Bowl toilets are the type most commonly used. They are similar to those encountered in the US except for the flushing mechanism, which is usually self evident. In albergues, hotels and hostals, they will be clean and in good condition. Missing toilet seats and missing toilet paper are common problems in restaurants, bars and service stations.

Squat toilets were commonly used in the past and may be encountered in older bars and restaurants, particularly in poorer areas of Spain. In many of these, the squat toilet remains in the men’s room but a bowl toilet has been installed for the ladies.

There is no guarantee that a toilet will be nearby when nature calls. Whether it is a squat toilet or squatting in a private spot in the woods or bushes, the position and physical effort are the same. If you have not assumed the position since you were a child, you need to understand/think through the process. Put on your boots and most cumbersome clothing combination and think of what will be involved in going through the process in using the squat position in going to the toilet—don’t forget the toilet paper. Carrying your own toilet paper may be wise in any case since several blogs have commented on the fact that an albergue may not have toilet paper in the morning.

Fellow Pilgrims

The pilgrims I met were from many countries; mostly European but also from the US, Canada and Brazil. Ages ranged from teens (Spanish teenagers after school let out in late June) to the late 60’s. It seemed to me that ten to twenty percent were women but 2010 statistics indicate forty five percent were women. Many of the women traveled alone. Several pilgrims had started walking or bicycling far away from Spain: Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and even Finland. I sometimes had mental images of a river of pilgrims moving toward Santiago. Up to O'Cebreiro, each day there would be a few new ones. When I reached Santiago on my first trip, I estimated there were about 70 arriving that day. The peak is in August when most of Europe is on holiday.


Photo Developing

If you use a film camera, I recommend that you periodically have your film developed in a town where you stop. There will be more places that can handle 35 mm film than APS but both are available. However, if you have APS and use the panoramic mode, only a few places can develop it locally. Most send it to Madrid or another large city. Even Burgos sends such film to Madrid. The advantage of developing film en route is that you can verify that your camera is functioning properly and you can mark the photos while your memory is fresh. When you are finished, mail them home and let your family get a preview. When I arrived in Santiago, I selected one photo and had several postcard sized prints made and used them as postcards which I mailed to friends.


If you use a camera or other device that requires recharging, you will soon realize that the facilities were not designed to support many users requiring such service. Expect to share an outlet.

Medical Attention and Assistance

Spain has a very good medical system and health care should not be a concern.

In all but the smallest villages there are farmacias (pharmacies) easily identified by a sign consisting of a green cross. Many pharmacists speak or understand English and those on the Camino are familiar with the problems encountered by pilgrims. They can sell medications over the counter which in many cases would require a doctor’s prescription in the US. Each one will have a notice on their door of a pharmacy in the area which is the duty pharmacy that will provide after hours service and on weekends and holidays.

Everywhere there will be some location where one can seek medical attention from a doctor. In some villages, there may be a medical center (centro de salud), which is not open all day. In others there will be more than one centro de salud as well as a hospital. In most but not all occasions, there will be a doctor (medico, doctor, doctora) who speaks English. If you are on the Camino and the problem is minor, not requiring hospitalization or expensive treatment, the costs will be minimal, possibly free. When I travelled the Camino, I visited a doctor twice. One visit cost 2000 pesetas; the other was free. However, see “Travel Insurance” on Planning Your Trip for other considerations.



Personal safety should not be a concern. Violent crime is rare in Spain. There are hazards whenever one travels but they are no greater for a pilgrim than for other tourists. There is a relatively higher risk of theft in Madrid, particularly when, as a new arrival, your attention is distracted trying to figure out where you are and how to get where you are going. With backpacks or luggage you are easily spotted as a tourist; if your gear is not being watched because you have your back to it, when you turn around, it may be gone. However, there are very few muggings or other attacks on people. The most significant personal safety problems are the perils of the Camino.

Spanish Police

There are three types of police in Spain. All will assist you in case of any problem. The Guardia Civil mainly police rural areas but also appear in cities. Their uniform is olive green. The Policía Nacional, wearing a blue uniform, operate in large towns and cities. The Policía Local, dressed in blue, can be found in smaller towns.

Emergency Number

There is a universal emergency number, 112, used throughout Spain and most of Europe for all emergencies.


Valuables are always subject to theft. After a long day’s walk, you will be tired and will sleep very soundly under conditions where there are many people around you, not all of whom are honest. Minimize the valuables you carry and take precautions. If you have two credit cards (or a credit and debit card—a good idea), do not carry them together.


While you are traveling as a pilgrim, your most important documents are your passport, the loss of which will complicate your return to the USA; your return tickets, and your pilgrim’s passport. You will use the latter on a daily basis but the others should be wrapped securely in plastic to protect them from water and kept in a safe location in your back pack or on your person. Keep a copy of your passport in another location, such as your wallet, so that it is unlikely that you would lose both. If you plan to travel much after you arrive in Santiago, mail your Compostela home so that it will be safe—it is irreplaceable.



The Spanish state railroad, RENFE (Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles), operates a variety of trains that connect many cities and towns. The fastest train, the AVE, connects Madrid, Cordoba and Sevilla using special tracks. The TALGO trains are also high speed and they connect many cities using the regular tracks. Other trains are much slower and while cheaper, take hours longer. RENFE has a very good web site with schedules, fares and other information available in English.

In Madrid the major stations for long distance are Atocha, Chamartín and Norte. These are all served by the metro system which has a line connecting to the airport. You can get a map of the Madrid Metro System here. The fares vary by class of service and quality of train and in general are very reasonable. For example, the June 2011 fares from Santiago to Madrid, a seven hour trip, are 67.10 euros for First Class and 50.60 euros for Tourist Class.


Buses provide inter- and intra-city connections and connect major towns to the smaller ones. There are many private, regional companies rather than a single national inter-city bus system. In some cities there may not be a central bus station but many little offices spread around town for each firm. In a small town, the bus station may be not much more than a garage used for other business with someone doubling as a ticket seller. Ask for the estacion de autobus or parada de autobus and someone will help you with directions. There are waiting places on the highways on the outskirts of villages where the traffic does not support a bus stop inside. Many villagers use busses to travel to the larger towns where they shop or conduct other necessary business. Fares are surprisingly cheap, and are paid to the driver if picked up on the highway.


In major cities and large towns there will be lots of taxis; their markings will vary with the region. They will have meters and there will be a green light and a sign “libre” to indicate they are free. Their rates, in general are reasonable—many Spaniards use them regularly for shopping—but watch the meter or agree on a price in advance. In small villages, there is probably someone who uses his car to provide an unmetered service for the locals. If you are in a small village and need transportation ask someone where you can find a taxi.

Perils of the Camino


Before leaving Madrid, I was told that the problems with the Camino were the feet, the heat and the cold. I would add rain to this list. Many people have problems with blisters. For my first trip, I followed a backpacking expert’s advice (Hiking and Backpacking, A Complete Guide, by Karen Berger, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995) and had no problems with blisters. However I had a problem with tendonitis.

I had to stop and rest for several days and adjust my pace early in the trip, because I over-stressed my ankles by walking too far on uneven terrain with a heavy load too early in my walk on the Camino. I used a bus to go from the point where I decided I really should see a doctor to reach a centro de salud (Medical Clinic). I experienced two days of rain, and their muddy after effects in Navarra. I then encountered a short spell of hot weather, but the main problem was cold weather due to an unusual weather pattern that set record low temperatures throughout Europe. Due to the hot weather experienced in Navarra, I sent some warm clothes home from Pamplona. As a result, I crossed two high mountain passes in cold weather with only summer clothes. It was 38ºF with high wind, fog and rain mixed with snow when I crossed the Montes de León at Foncebadon in late June . It was not as cold but foggy and rainy when I started my long trek from O'Cebreiro, the top of the pass over the Montes de Cebreiro.

I started out with a spare set of walking shoes but sent them back from Pamplona to reduce weight, relying on rugged Teva sandals for use in town. I failed to realize what it would be like to walk around town in cold rainy weather in sandals while my boots were drying.

On my second trip, in April 2000 along the Mozćrabe Route, from Salamanca, it rained almost every day. Several days I walked the entire day in rain gear. I had to resort to walking alongside the road because after two weeks of rain, many sections of the camino were impassable. More than once I had to retrace my route and make a detour of several kilometers because there was no way else to continue. I also made an immediate right turn to head for the safety of the nearest highway when a front crossed, the temperature plunged and it began to sleet.

My third trip happened to be during the month when a drought ended and Spain and Portugal experienced the heaviest rain in 30 years, and associated with that were cooler than normal temperatures.


Thieves and con artists are problems faced by travelers today, as their predecessors did in medieval times. I had a pair of trousers stolen from a clothes line at an albergue outside of Pamploña. A friend had 25,000 pesetas (185 dollars) stolen from his wallet in an albergue while he slept. He was subsequently bilked out of 33,000 pesetas (~250 dollars) loaned over several days to a fellow traveler who said he had lost his bank card and would repay him when he received a replacement card in León. Instead the fellow traveler disappeared when we reached León.


I encountered dogs everywhere but never had a problem despite some nervous moments. Those that were loose were usually friendly but there were a lot of very unfriendly ones behind fences or chained up. On the second day of my first trip, the path toward Roncesvalles led up toward and around a house, passing between two buildings. One building had two very large snarling dogs chained in the yard and the other had three. There was no doubt in my mind that they would make mincemeat of anyone they got hold of! It really was an act of faith to continue walking, following the trail, trusting that the chains would hold and they were not long enough to reach the path. That evening most of the people that had followed that route talked about those dogs. Later, another pilgrim swore that two dogs in one village had faked sleeping until he had walked by so they could come barking at him from behind. He held them at bay with his walking stick until the owner called them off. When I walked the Camino in 2011, dogs in the open ignored us; the barkers were those behind a fence.


Bugs were seldom a problem. The worse time I had was when I applied sun screen to my face mid-morning and was promptly surrounded by black mites that swarmed in front of my face and around my head. They remained with me for over an hour despite my best efforts to get rid of them. I think I was bitten by a mosquito only once. However on other occasions while traveling in Spain, I have had problems with mosquitoes at night, and thus think some type of bug repellent is recommended.

Road Hazards

The modern pilgrim faces modern hazards, such as sharing the road with cars and trucks, and in 1997 I passed at least three markers where pilgrims have died since 1993. Because the routes followed by the original pilgrims became main thoroughfares and eventually highways, the current Camino follows lesser paths, which are frequently not well maintained. The grass and weeds along a farm path are cut at the convenience of the farmer, not to provide a service to the pilgrims using it at his sufferance.

Although most of the Camino was a path away from or separate from a highway, there were many sections where it was necessary to walk on the edge of a highway. The first time I had to do so extensively was during a steady rain when the normal path was too muddy. There was only a slight shoulder with a narrow section of pavement outside of the white line marking the edge of the road to walk on. I walked facing traffic and was very surprised once to feel as if I had been struck when one car passing another came from behind so close and at such high speed that I could feel the impact of the air push me. There were also short sections where there was no shoulder and no extra pavement, making it necessary to walk on the highway. I was acutely aware of traffic and was always ready to leap into the water or bushes if necessary.

Health Problems


Blisters are a common problem, particularly during the first weeks of the Camino. Blisters arise from friction against skin, in this instance the sides and bottoms of your feet. They can be avoided entirely or minimized. Avoidance requires breaking in your shoes gradually so that the skin has time to thicken or callus in such areas. It also involves taking care of your feet. A blister does not appear out of nowhere without warning. One is proceeded by a hot spot, a red area that develops because of the friction at a spot on the foot. You will notice an irritation or soreness. When this starts to happen, STOP and take remedial action; it will not go away by itself.

Check out the problem. Make sure your socks are not folded or creased and shake out your socks and boots to remove any debris that might have gotten inside. Also, use stuff from your first aid kit, such as moleskin or Second Skin, to protect the hot area. If the skin has broken, treat it like a blister.


Tendonitis is an inflammation or irritation of a tendon, a thick cord that attaches bone to muscle. It is most often caused by repetitive, minor impact on the affected area or by a sudden more serious injury. To prevent ankle tendonitis while hiking conditioning beforehand boots with ankle support help. Dehydration is also a factor in many hiking injuries. When it is dehydrated, the body doesn't function as well as it can. If you develop tendonitis, remember RICE.






Chapping is when the skin roughens or cracks as a result of exposure to cold or weather. The most frequent part of the body that chaps is the lips. Hands and feet are common cracking sites. But superficial cracking can occur anywhere, especially the delicate skin of shins, forearms and cheeks. If you look up chapped lips, you will find they are likely to develop if you live in a dry climate, spend a lot of time in the outdoors in the sun or wind or allow yourself to get dehydrated—much like the conditions on the camino. 

If you have simple chapped lips, frequent applications of an oil-based lip cream or one containing petrolatum or beeswax can help, MayoClinic.com states. Don't use flavored lip balms, which may cause you to lick your lips more often. For hands and other parts, apply a skin moisturizer.


Chafing is caused by sweating and rubbing. Walking isn't the only thing that can cause this problem. Any activity that requires skin to repeatedly rub against skin can lead to chafing. And moisture, either from sweat or rain, makes the problem worse. Some common chafing sites are the inner thighs and under the arms or breasts. If you start experiencing this problem, check out your clothing to address the source of the problem. In areas of repeated chafing such as the inner thighs or groin or under the arms or breasts, you can cut down on friction by dusting on some powder. Ointments such as Vaseline, Noxzema, zinc oxide ointment and cortisone cream can likewise help such areas of skin slip past each other. Chafing that hangs on for more than two days after the rubbing stops may have graduated into a fungal infection. 

Use a local Pharmacist or Health Clinic

You can always seek help for these and other common problems experienced by pilgrims by going to a pharmacist on one of the towns you pass through. In addition, consider visiting a local heath center or even a hospital. Because of the way the Spanish health care system operates and how pilgrims are viewed, you should have minimal costs and problems. 


Eating in Cafes, Bars and Restaurants

Bars in Spain are where everyone stops for coffee, sandwiches and other food. There are few fast food places on the Camino and most pilgrims hope fervently that there will be a bar in one of the small pueblos in each day's walk. Depending on the time of day and what your needs are, you can get coffee, water, soft drinks, wine, beer or something stronger. Coffee is always made on the spot, never served from a large pot as in many American restaurants. I depended on finding a bar every morning for my “café con leche” and something to nibble on, usually a magdalena (similar to a muffin).

Bocadillo doesn’t really mean sandwich but for practical purposes it does. Ask for a “bocadillo de queso” and you will get half a loaf of crusty bread split and filled with several slices of the local cheese. At one stop in a small pueblo, at a place that wasn’t even a bar, but where a woman catered to passing pilgrims from her house, my bocadillo was delicious country bread with several thick slices of excellent white cheese, similar to a pressed ricotta. Sadly, I never encountered that cheese anywhere else.

Some people prepared most of their meals in the kitchens of the albergues. Most were like me and ate in the local bars and cafes. Wherever there was an albergue, there was a place where one could buy a meal. Often there was a bar with a “comedor” or dining room which featured a pilgrims’ menu. In many of these places, there was no written carta (menu) of the day’s offerings, and the man or woman taking your order would come up and advise you what was available for the first course, wait for you to make your decision and then repeat the process for the second course. For 8 to 10 euros (about 11 to 15 dollars), one would get two courses, bread, wine (or beer or mineral water) and dessert. We always finished a meal with a cup of coffee which was usually an extra charge.

In every bar, dining room and restaurant, save two, there was a television. If it was off when we started, as soon as a local arrived, it would be turned on, whether they watched it or not. One exception was the dining room at the Parador in Santa Domingo de la Calzada. The other exception was a small inn in Galicia where the owner said he had removed it because people did not focus on the food when it was on.

Types of Establishments

There is supposedly a hierarchy of eating establishments in Spain although there are many that blur the boundaries and the name is often deceptive. Restaurants take the upper end in quality, service, atmosphere and price. All have bars, although there are many bars that provide little other function; except in small towns and villages, where the bar may mask a comedor (dining room) where excellent inexpensive food can be found. The cartas in restaurants and comedors feature different dishes that are intended to be served in courses-a steak will not be served with vegetables and other side dishes. Cafeterias are a step below restaurants and offer platos combinados. They often display pictures on the outside showing the various offerings available, which comprise the meal—dessert and coffee are always served as separate courses. Dessert is included in a “menú” but not with a plato combinado. Coffee (or tea or infusion) is sometimes provided as an alternative to desert.

Asadores are restaurants that specialize in roast meats, usually over a wood fire (fuego de lena) or in an wood fired oven (asador de lena). There are other speciality restaurants: Sideria—featuring cider, Marisceria—fish and shellfish, Cerveceria—beer.

“Menú del Día”

Almost every restaurant offers a “menú del dia” or “menú turistico;” many of those on the Camino offer a “menú peligrino.” These are all multi-course meals at a fixed price, usually consisting of a first course, main course, dessert, bread and drink at a price lower than if ordered á la carte. They are seldom included on the carta provided by the waiter but are sometimes written on a board outside the restaurant or will be gladly described by the waiter if asked. A note of caution, if you do not speak Spanish well, do not expect an extensive conversation. You most likely will be frustrated if you try. In one modest place the dialog went something like this:

    ¿Ensalada o Sopa? (Do you want salad or soup?)


    ¿Pescada o carne? (Do you want fish or meat?)


    ¿Y para beber? (And to drink?)

    Agua mineral sin gas y vino tinto. (Mineral water without gas and red wine.)

The resulting meal was delicious.

Buying and Cooking Your Own

Cooking Facilities

Most public albergues have a kitchen with limited facilities, cooking ware and plates, glasses and cutlery. The ones I have seen had a modest kitchen including a stove, sink and food preparation area, usually a small refrigerator, but there was no certainty as to what else would be available. Some were very good with two stoves, a refrigerator, and were well outfitted with pots and pans, dishes and utensils. Many were short on one thing or another. Once after deciding to have a group meal with 12 people pooling our money to buy the makings, we realized well into the preparation that we only had the utensils for 6 people. We had to borrow glasses and some utensils from a nearby cafe to augment what we were able to scrape up from the pilgrims that carried their own. All of that contributed to the meal and the sense of camaraderie.

Buying Ingredients

Most towns and villages are large enough to have one or more small grocery stores. But do not expect to encounter a supermarket and the selections such implies. The small grocery stores will have very basic items. Do not expect to find varieties of lettuces and many fresh fruits. Some villages are too small to support a store and they are served by mobile shops, often consisting of a modest panel truck which makes daily visits to the village and sells fresh fruits and vegetables and other items from the rear. Its arrival is usually announced by the constant blaring of the horn and one can find its location by looking for the women going or returning with their shopping baskets. 

Suggested Recipes:

The following are some recipes suggested because they will be easy to prepare in the kitchens found in albergues and the ingredients should be easy to obtain in the villages one will pass through.

Pimientos con anchoas

Pasta with various sauces: garlic and oil, anchovy, fresh tomato; alfredo

Tomato bread, with ham

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2016 Richard W. Tripp, Jr.