Walking El Camino de Santiago

Former nzherald.co.nz news editor Simon Winter takes on the 775-kilometre Spanish Pilgrim Trail

Spain: The pilgrim trail's dirty little secret

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Pilgrims staying at the Boadilla del Camino albergue share a mid-afternoon drink. Photo / Simon Winter
Pilgrims staying at the Boadilla del Camino albergue share a mid-afternoon drink. Photo / Simon Winter

"I'll tell you once I've passed you," was what this 60-something Brit said as she rushed past us (the other way) towards an albergue we'd just visited.

Welcome to the Camino's dirty little secret.

All the dross about finding one's self and the voyage of self discovery is often a mirage. Few of our fellow 'pilgrims' are on a religious journey, and most don't have a clue who St James was or what he did with his life.

Most start with mighty ideals but by mid-trip, for many, there's a new priority - the daily race to the dorms.

Actually it's sickening, but in the end, almost everyone gets sucked in - at some point.

With headlamps on, pilgrims in the albergues - where they live in 8-, 12-, 16- or 40-person dorms - start rummaging around from 4.30am in an effort to get the jump.

From there, the race is on.

Last week, in the small village of Carrion de los Condes, at the monastery of Santa Clara, the pilgrims were packed up ready to begin their early morning charge before 6am - but the nuns wouldn't open the doors.

Our Camino companions hadn't read the small print and watched out the window as the competition got the jump. Doors don't open at St Clara until 6.30am.

And American Jo, who is doing the Camino for religious reasons, was left in tears one afternoon, wanting to quit mid-pilgrimage after constant pushing and abuse from pilgrims in the late grab for beds.

Albergue pilgrims "were horrible", and she'd had enough.

Our encounter with the British woman is pretty typical of what goes on.

After walking 27km in searing heat we just wanted to know about available rooms at a nearby albergue. But she knew it was already full and wasn't about to tell us, as she marched (and then ran!) for one we'd just seen - one we knew was empty. Which is what we told her. In the end we turned and followed her back, but you get the idea.

Around lunchtime, when it's dorm or walk another 8km, moral fibre's at a premium.

Goodness knows what it's like two months from now during peak season!

But not everyone's in on it. Some take their time - and their chances. Most, like us, just wing it.

There are other ways to do it. Some book ahead, others employ tour companies to plan, book and pay for private rooms in advance of their trip.

Now the brutal heat is also forcing us from our bunks earlier than expected. After weeks of driving rain and freezing cold, blazing 32 degree temperatures have arrived. The Spanish Meseta (high-altitude plains) is living up to the hype.

However, beds aren't such an issue for us - we're not sleeping in them!

After nearly 20 days and some some 400km, we've passed the halfway mark - and we can finally use the tent.

Route marker: 400km down, 375km to go.

* Simon Winter is a former nzherald.co.nz news editor. He and partner Lisa are following the sun through Europe.

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