Walking the Camino: Albergues, Albergequette, and a Few Recommendations

Albergues—you gotta love ‘em.

Seriously, you do. Anyone who has done a lot of backpacking through Europe will probably think of—and mistakenly call them—hostels. All the accoutrements of a hostel are there—dorms filled with bunk beds, shared communal bathrooms, lockers, opportunities to wash your clothes in a tub, and hard-limit lights out.

There are differences, though. Namely, these are:

  • Early to bed, early to rise. Even though locals love to dine late, party into the night (and carry on until morning), Albergues have relatively early lock-out and lights out times—usually 9:30-10pm. Miss lockout because of one more glass of vino tincto? Good luck. Pray your host is gracious. Also, you’ll probably need to be out of the albergue by 8:30a, at the latest. I know most hostels have lights out and kicking-out time but most lights out are late and loose. Kick out is later than albergues.
  • License and Registration, ma’am. When you check in you not only have to provide your passport—verifying your identity and acts as not only a security measure but also a tracker in the rare chance you don’t check-in, call, or arrive when and where you are supposed to. You also have to provide your credencial or Camino Passport. This book of stamps acquired along The Way is proof that you are a pilgrim, giving you the privilege to stay at the albergue.
  • We’re Here All Week One Night Only. Most Albergues will let you spend one night and then you need to be making your way to Santiago. There’s always exceptions—especially if you are injured or sick. The rule, though, is get your rest and and get packing. Literally.

Beyond these three, albergues and hostels are pretty similar. Never been in a hotel before? Keep reading….

  • Dorm and Bunks—some are in rooms of 4 beds, some 12-16, some up to 100. Of course there’s also the occasional double room. There’s the occasional albergue that uses mats for regular or overflow use. Many will provide a pillow, blanket and disposable sheets. Other will before some, occasionally none. This is why most people bring a sleeping back, sleep sheet, or both. Some will bring a travel pillow while most seem to get by balling up their jacket and turning it into a pillow.
  • Squeaky Clean. Bathrooms in albergues make some people nervous. Most of the alburgues I stayed in had men’s and women’s bathrooms with multiple stalls. I understand that is not always the case, though.
  • Squeaky Clean, Pt 2. Most albergues will have a washbasin and a clothes line for you to wash your clothes. Increasingly, albergues are installing clothes washers and dryers as an additional service/ revenue source.
  • It should go without saying but….
    • Albergues are coed. This was never a problem for me but I’ve heard of the occasional modesty issue. The rule to follow—don’t stare at anyone’s junk
    • Bathrooms—Usually not a problem. If it is, talk it through—ladies go first while the guys go out for beer, for example. Same rule applies—don’t stare at other peoples’ junk.
    • At 10-12 Euro a night, please stay polite and moderate your expectations. Most hosts are either volunteers or hosting at their own property.

Alberguequette

There are definite codes of conduct for albergues—mostly they can be summed up in the rule of be courteous and respectful. But for some helpful remdinders, here’s a few details:

  • Respect curfew/ departure times. Folks have to get ready for the next crowd.
  • Be quick with your shower—no one likes to wait in line only to find no hot water.
  • If you are leaving early in the morning, take your things out into the hall and pack up there—don’t wake up the folks squeezing out every moment of sleep.
  • Likewise, lots of folks find the red light headlamps useful. They don’t wake up fellow pilgrims as easily.
  • Also to preserve the silence and peace—don’t organize your pack using plastic shopping bags or trash bags. They are noisy and wake people up. Use nylon or mesh bags, instead.
  • Don’t put your backpack on the bed.This keeps things clean and prevents you from transmitting bed bugs on the off chance they are there.
  • Respect the rules about walking poles and boots staying in the hall/ outside. It keeps things cleaner and easier to prepare for the next day.
  • If the albergue/ host provides a meal, make sure you keep your word about your plans. If you are eating there, don’t say yes and then change plans—unless you’re willing to pay for dinner twice. Likewise, don’t say no and expect to have room at the table for you.
  • If you’ve left your clothes on the clothes line, make sure you get them in before nightfall. Nothing like fresh fallen dew to dampen your clothes!!
  • Leave the lower bunks for the less mobile, elderly, or injured.
  • Check out this video from the Don’t Stop Walking series: https://youtu.be/mJkYrKTLGuw. As a matter of fact, watch all of them!

Recommended Albergues

The below are albergues that I have stayed in and I highly recommend each of them.

Sarria- Albergue La Casona de Sarria: On the eastern outskirts of Sarria, this albergue gives you either a head start on the day’s walk or let’s you have a few minutes extra sleep! The property has 2 medium sized dorms as well as double/ twin accommodations. There’s a large cubbie in the room for your stuff. There are men’s and women’s bathrooms and the bathrooms are arranged so that even the most modest won’t have any issues—and plent of hot water. The hosts provide disposable sheets, pillow, and blanket. There are reading lights at each bunk as well as a power outlet to recharge your phone and keep it nearby. The owners love engaging pilgrims and offer a happy hour with complementary drinks—coffee, soft drink, matcha, beer, and wine. The owners also are great to recommend a restaurant for dinner and will call ahead for you.

Portomarín- Albergue Gonzar: Probably my least favorite. It was a great location, at the top of the steps climbing into Portomarín—and there was a bar on the main floor, which was convenient for snack and breakfast. There were only 2 bathrooms, each with one toilet and shower. Again, the host provided blankets, pillows, and disposable sheets. The amazing part about this albergue was that the host did our laundry for us—4 Euro to wash, 4 Euro to dry. There were lockable lockers for our stuff. There was not an ample supply of power outlets—which were all taken up by a group of inspiring men in their 70’s. They had been friends for years and walked part of the Camino together. They all had CPAPs which was both loud and strangely soothing. And they took up the few power outlets. The establishment did have WiFi.

Palas de Rei—Albergue A Casina di Marcello: Another albergue on the outskirts of town. Another opportunity to get an early start or sleep a little later. The owner, Marcello, is great and a jovial host. His albergue is cozy, clean. Probably my favorite shower. He has laundry facilities (4 Euro to wash, 4 to dry). He’ll also cook dinner for 10 Euro. We chose not to and went out for pizza. He offers fresh linens to guests, a pillow, and blankets. I like that each lower bunk has a curtain to tamp down on light. There’s also a power outlet for every bunk, has WiFi. He also seems to have drinks available for purchase in the afternoons. I will say that you either need to get your breakfast the night before or be prepared to wait a while. It’s a walk to the first cafe.

Ribadiso— Pension Albergue Los Caminantes. I loved this village and this albergue. There were 3 establishments in the village—the municipal albergue (owned by the government), a private albergue (possibly regularly staffed by American volunteers?) and a cafe. That’s it. The albergue had many rooms, which it seems they had the option of partitioning during slower seasons. During high season its just first come first serve bed-wise. Again, there was a blanket, Pillow, and sheets. There was laundry and WiFi. This was the one place where there was the potential for a little embarrassment for the modest. The bathrooms were unisex—but the toilets were in each of their own private rooms. The showers had walls between the shower heads—and were completely enclosed, even if the walls were opaque glass. For a tall person like myself (6’4”) if I didn’t follow the golden rule of Albergues—don’t stare at another person’s junk—there could have been the potential to get an unintended eye-full! Thankfully I was the only one in the bathroom when I showered—and I was quick. I think what I loved about this albergue was that this was the one night we didn’t stay in a town—so we were “forced” if you will to socialize more with the folks we were staying with.

O Pedrouzo- Albergue Mirador de Pedrouzo. From a sheer quality of accommodation, this place was tops. A converted large house, this place had just opened. There were several smallish dorms—each with clean sheets, blanket, pillow, reading light and power port. There was a lockable locker and there were many, many bathroom—all newly installed or remodeled—throughout the building. I will say this was the one place I had a cold shower. Apparently I timed it poorly. They had laundry facilities, a cafe, WiFi and what looked like would eventually be a restored pool. Found as you are coming into town, this albergue is along the route but unlike others, you’ll have to get an early start—especially if you want to make it into Compostela for the pilgrim mass. This one was a little more expensive—14 Euro per night. But it was worth it. This was also the only place where they gave us key cards to get in and out of the building. I passed out before I found out if there was a hard lock-out time.

Santiago de Compostela- Hotel Rua Villar. I certainly do recommend, if you can afford it, to splurge a little when you get to Santiago. While you might assume the only place to stay in relative luxury is the Parador, there are many 2 or 3 star hotels that seem like the lap of luxury. I loved Hotel Rua Villar. You were not even a block away from the Cathedral. They have breakfast available, happy hour. Bathrooms are en suite. WiFi is great and there was air conditioning! They even had room service if you wanted it. I would note, especially if you haven’t travelled in Europe much, that there’s a difference between twin and double rooms. A double room is one double bed. A twin room is 2 twin beds, often pushed together. My very favorite thing about this hotel from a customer service view was this: I sent everything I didn’t need on the Camino ahead to the hotel. They held and had my extra bag in my room upon arrival. They helped me check into my flight and even helped arrange a taxi to the airport at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Are there other places to stay along the Camino besides Albergues? Heavens no! All along the Camino there are pensiones (lower cost hotels akin to a bed and breakfast) and even the occasional hotel. They just aren’t as frequent. But your travel costs are going to go up. Many folks seem to budget staying in either a double room in an alburgue or in a pension once per week—to knock the dirt off, talk a long shower or not have to worry about an early check out.

I also heard a couple tell of a farmhouse they stayed in. The owner opened their home, provided 2 amazing meals and gave them a lovely room to stay in. Accommodations like these—pensiones and farmhouse arrangements usually require some booking or enquiring at the tourist office in the local municipality.

I Can Name That Antiphon in Two Notes…

One of the gifts that the Church received in the second half of the 20th Century was the liturgical renewal movement–both in the Roman Church as well as Protestantism. Ironically, both happened in response to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. There was an explosion of interest and activity in rewriting our liturgies loosely based on the same text given to the church by Hippolytus.

I have always relished that when I, a United Methodist, lead worship it is essentially in the same shape (and using many of the same words) as all the other flavors and tribes of Christianity. It has helped us live a little closer to Jesus’ prayer that we might be one.

Walking into a pilgrim mass, I didn’t know what to expect but in retrospect I should have. The priest was praying many of the same words I do when I lead worship. So I could connect with the service. Also, this meant that when there were congregational responses–the Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, the Benedictus Qui Venice, the Memorial Acclamation, or others I not only knew where we were in the service but I could join in and pray the prayers in my own language.

Walking away from the Pilgrim Mass, my friend (an Episcopal Priest) and I were reflecting upon this phenomenon. We were approached by a younger British pilgrim–whom I believe remember her saying she started in Paris. She asked us if we understood the service so we explained not exactly the Spanish but how we knew the same service in English. She was someone who was not a person of faith but attended the masses. She had walked for weeks on end and these last 100km were valedictory as much as anything.

She kept asking questions… there was an openness there. Probably not looking to profess faith in Christ but at least process what she had experienced along this Christian pilgrimage route.I regret that as we were all turning towards the restaurants we parted company with her. My friend wanted pizza and, apparently, it was in a different direction.

We have so much more in common than what separates us and there’s a real strength in that. It seems as if we’re so bent to be original and innovative in the fleeting moment that we forget the rich shared language we have as a resource.

I think this rich legacy might be part of the renewed interest in The Way of St. James. We can speak of Ley Lines, the Milky Way, or even appropriate whatever sensibilities. But the Camino is deeply rooted in a 1,000 year old Christian tradition. And there’s power in that. There was no difference in the dirt I walked on in Spain versus the dirt I walk on in the Georgia Mountains. The purpose is different, the destination is different and who has walked on that dirt is definitely different–Francis of Assisi, El Cid, Charlemagne, even Jed Bartlett!!

Tying into a deep tradition and finding belonging are two of the pieces I think churches need to pay heed to. How do we help those walking into our doors find those things without having to fly across the Atlantic? And how do we help people ask their questions, process them, and either ask deeper questions or live into the responses?

Yeah, there’s lessons for the Church on the Camino, as well.

Are You a Pilgrim or Are You on Holiday?

What a great question.

It was our second night on the Camino and the only night where we had to do a little bit of searching of beds to sleep in.

Before continuing this story, a little background. There’s a distinct rhythm and etiquette to Camino life. When you’re done walking for the day, you find where you are sleeping that night. Once secured, you check out your bunk for bed bugs (rare but unpleasant), roll out your sleeping bag on your bed, head to the shower, clean your clothes (usually with a wash sink and clothes line; occasionally in a washer/ dryer), and rest. Somewhere in there you check out your feet, evaluate your gear (is there anything I can get rid of), catch up with fellow pilgrims and figure out dinner. After dinner there’s further socializing with fellow pilgrims and potentially attending a pilgrims’ mass. Lights out around 10—something I graciously welcomed each night.

Back to the really great question.

I was sitting there on the edge of my bunk, my hand buried deep in my pack. I was looking for my travel towel and toiletry bag. I wanted a shower as soon as possible as we had just walked 27 kilometers. Across the room were these two British retired nurses. They were a few steps ahead of us in the evening albergue liturgy. After exchanging pleasantries–where’s home, small talk about the weather and condition of the roads (really? What was this,a Jane Austen novel?), and discussion as to whether or not to eat the community meal in-house or seek out a meal elsewhere–one of the ladies asked my friend and I, “So, do you consider yourself a pilgrim or would you say you’re on holiday.” We replied,”pilgrim” to which questioner replied, “how refreshing”.

A little more explanation:

The Camino de Santiago has experienced a dramatic increase in participation. In 2007 114,000 people walked the Camino. By 2018 the number had grown above 300,000–surpassing best estimates of pilgrims walking to Santiago during the height of its popularity just prior to the Reformation.

While “back in the day” everyone walking to Santiago was doing so because of their Christian faith (seeking a plenary indulgence for themselves or on behalf of someone else, seeking intercession for a health concern, or even a criminal sentenced to make pilgrimage to atone for their crime) the modern resurgence of The Way of St. James does not find everyone walking to Santiago doing so because of or in response to their faith. I’ll write more on the phenomenally explosive growth in interest in the Camino–and what the church might be able to learn from it–but for this post’s purpose it is good to note that people walk to Santiago for many reasons, not all of them religious. And this fascinates me.

In fact, to receive a Compostela certificate from the pilgrim office (an extension of the Cathedral) you must attest that your are walking for religious or spiritual reasons. You don’t have to be baptized, profess faith, be Roman Catholic, or consider yourself a Christian. You can be a seeker, a questioner, or even someone of another faith or no faith. If you can’t honestly say you are walking for religious or spiritual reasons, though, you receive a different kind of document from the pilgrims office–a Certificate of Distance. Those receiving a Compostela can also receive a certificate of distance, if they like.

So what’s the difference between being a pilgrim and “on holiday”? Intent, expectation, and disposition seems to have something to do with this distinction. Not that all pilgrims a somber, pious persons while those on holidays are the happy go lucky, half-drunk through-hiker. But there does seem to be something about approach. Do you receive each new day as a gift? Are you in a posture to receive whatever the day brings you–the terrain, people with whom you’ll be walking, the person serving you your 2nd Coffee 2 hours in on today’s walk towards Santiago, the weather, the conversations, the silence? Or is each day simply something to be tolerated, something to be rushed through in order to check another day off an itinerary of cheap accommodation, cheap food, and plenteous libation?

Not that these are mutually exclusive, mind you. I thoroughly enjoyed cafe con leche and my morning postre, bocadilla for lunch, and the evening’s pilgrim menu (more on food in a later post).

In life beyond the Camino de Santiago, do we think of ourselves a pilgrims on a jourmey–do we understand ourselves as on trajectory towards the source of our life with God? Or do we think of life as something nihilistic–void of meaning and simply to be endured or everything is so subjective that there’s no sense of a common life? Are we pilgrims or simply on holiday?