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Top Tips From a Vetran

When to Go -

Many people time their pilgrimage in order to arrive in Santiago shortly before 25 July, when for several days the city celebrates the feast of St James. August, the traditional Spanish holiday month, is also hot, busy and crowded on the camino. If you prefer to travel at a cooler, quieter time, choose April to mid-June or, and this is perhaps the least busy period,-1-mid-September to November.

The disadvantage of going on, pilgrimage in autumn is that some hotels and restaurants are closed then and some refuges and bars in small villages may also be closed. The weekend prior to Spanish national day (October 12th) is a fiesta and accommodation hard to find in the big cities. However in spring and autumn refuges are less full and there are no problems with lack of water in some of the villages.

How Long Does It Take?

The distance between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and Santiago is approximately 800 kilometres. Walkers, depending on their pace, stamina and desire to have some rest days, generally allow between four and six weeks, while cyclists will need around two weeks on average..

Pilgrims Passport or Credential del peregrino'

This is essential if you wish to stay in the Refugios.

The Abbey at Roncevalles will give you a Pilgrims Passport at the start of your journey, apply to the Abbots office. If you get this document stamped (with the 'sello' or rubber stamp) at monasteries, churches, town halls ('ayuntamientos') or other establishments long the way, it will serve as proof of your pilgrimage and help you obtain a 'compostela' or certificate of pilgrimage when you arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago . The record has to be shown at refuges if you wish to obtain accomadation.

The pilgrim record is known as the 'credential del peregrino' and is available in a number of places in Spain, and pilgrim refuges. 1996 pilgrims who wish to stay in the refuges along the way and to obtain their' compostela' in Santiago are recommended to carry the Spanish' credential' . There should be no trouble in getting both documents stamped as described above. It may be helpful to have a letter of introduction from your parish, college or similar organisation to present when requesting a credencial although this is not always required.

Maps and Guidebooks

A basic map is theTelegraph Online's Web Map of Pilgrim routes in the middle ages to help you to locate the camino in its geographical contextWhy not Order some excellent maps of the route from our BOOK LIST

Whatever mode of transport you use, good maps are essential and a detailed guidebook (especially for walkers) may also be helpful. If you have been following the GR65 (Le Puy to Roncesvalles) in France you will find nothing to compare with the French 'topo guides'. All the commercially-2-available maps are inadequate mainly because of the amount of road-building that has taken place in northern Spain, particularly Galicia, in recent years.

If you want a single map that covers the whole of Spain the recommended one is published by Kummerley and Frey. The Michelin maps 441 and 442 are to be preferred to the Firestone ones and are easily available. Military maps on a larger scale are available in Spanish cities but only for that region and not all are up to date.

A very attractive and recent book of maps is The Way of St James by the late Elias Valina; published by Roger Lascelles, it consists of 70 hand-drawn colour maps plus a Spanish glossary and list of refuges. This book can be obtained from via the - Telegraph Online Newspaper Book List

The larger (and heavier) is Elias Valina's authoritative The Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Editorial Galaxia, 1992) which contains a wealth of historical and route-finding information (including some town plans) as well as details of accommodation and the words and music of pilgrim songs. It is available from the Confraternity at £15-95 including postage(£16-65 overseas).

Pilgrims who read Spanish easily will find a wealth of guides in Spanish bookshops. Two of the best ones are that by Millan Bravo Lozano: Rutas a Pie: el Cam/no de Santiago published by Everest which is particularly clearly laid out, and the more compact Camino de Santiago, Andando bicicleta by F. Imaz (and others) published by the Spanish Federacidn de Asociaciones Jacobeas at 1300 ptas.

Preparing for the Journey

Some people like to make meticulous preparations for their pilgrimage, while others prefer lust to leave on a summer's day. But for less experienced walkers some initial preparation and training can make a lot of difference to one's comfort on the camino. If you need to buy (light-weight) boots or good-quality shoes get them and break them in well before you leave.

Trainers are not adequate in bad weather, particularly the winter months. For sore or 'hot' spots that can develop on feet, animal wool available from chemists, provides excellent padding. Dr Scholl's adhesive foam is also effective. Clean socks (wool/cotton looped variety) each day also make a big difference.

You could consider joining a local rambling club and go for weekend walks, starting with slower, shorter ones, and gradually build up speed and stamina. If buying a rucksack for the first time, try on several and get the one that fits you most comfortably. When out walking wear your rucksack and increase its weight gradually until you are carrying all your equipment. If you plan to sleep in pilgrim refuges you will need a light-weight sleeping bag, with a sleeping mat and small torch as useful extras. Ear-plugs and lip-salve are also useful.

Finally you need to be prepared for continuing and torrential rain especially in Galicia and for the problem of never really getting dry. keeping dry clothes (and money etc.) in plastic bags is a great help. Cyclists with 27" (touring) wheels will find inner tubes scarce and tyres non-existent so you may wish to bring spares. A 1993 cyclist found cycle repair shops in the smaller places better stocked and more pilgrim orientated (eg Sahagun, Villafranca delBierzo) than the larger cities. Spares were more readily available for bikes with 26 and 28" tyres.


A basic knowledge of Spanish, via evening classes or home-study tapes, will add enormously to your enjoyment. English is not spoken in rural Spain and is rarely spoken intowns, even in tourist offices. Expect to have to communicate in Spanish all the time and you will be surprised at the progress you make. Take a small dictionary with you or buy one in a town bookshop. Once you reach Galicia you may find that people answer you in Galician ('gallego') which is related to Portuguese.

Getting to Spain - by land, air or sea.

This guide starts lust before the French/Spanish border and assumes that pilgrims will have reached the French border town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, possibly using one of the three routes across France (from Paris/Tours, Vezelay or Le Puy) that meet near Ostabat. There is a direct train service from Bayonne to St Jean five times a day.

The first two trains, the 9.28 and the 11.28, took bikes in 1993. Bayonne can be reached by train from Paris or by coach from London: Eurolines have a London to Bayonne service at a cost of around £125 return. Bilbao has direct air services from London and, if using Iberia, it is possible to return from Santiago. Bicycles are carried free of charge within normal weight limits.

From Bilbao there is a frequent coach service to Hendaye (tickets and stop in the Plaza Arrezola). From Hendaye take the train to Bayonne, or cyclists are recommended to cycle to Cambo-les-Bains and pick up one of the two morning trains to St Jean.

If you want to start the pilgrimage in Pamplona there is a coach service from Bilbao; two 1992 pilgrims were allowed to take their bikes on the coach, but this probably depends on individual drivers and how full the coach is.

Direct trains go from Bilbao to Logrono and Burgos on the route. If you stay overnight in Bilbao the calle Bidebarrita has several hotels and is convenient for the station on the other side of the river. The cathedral at Bilbao is dedicated to St James and has a modern statue of him. Now that it is no longer possible to send bicycles registered from Victoria Station to France, an alternative way for cyclists to reach St Jean is to fly (on a cheap charter) to Lourdes.

This worked very well for a 1992 pilgrim who used St Peter's Pilgrims, telephone (081 )-698 3788. If you prefer to travel by sea Santander is the port of arrival for Brittany Ferries' services from Plymouth. There is a direct coach service to Burgos from Santander run by Continental Auto from the bus station ('estacidn de autobuses') which is not far from the ferry port. The journey takes 3 hours and costs around 1195 pesetas.-


Staying in smaller towns or villages is often much more enjoyable than searching for accommodation in the big cities.

If you do decide to stay in e.g. Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos or Leon, try to avoid arriving in the early evening rush-hour between 6 and 8pm when roads and pavements are crowded and hotel rooms possibly already taken, especially at weekends and fiesta times.

Accommodation along the camino ranges from luxury hotels like the state-run paradors to very basic pilgrim refuges ('refugios'). The word 'hotel' generally indicates a higher standard of comfort (at a price) than 'hostal', which in turn implies more comfort and facilities than a 'fonda' and, going down the scale, a 'posada'. Most hostals and fondas provide acceptable accommodation at a reasonable price. A number of bars in Spain also have rooms, sometimes elsewhere in the village or town.

Even if a bar is full or has no rooms, they may know somewhere else to try or know a neighbour who will put pilgrims up in their home ('casa privada'). It is also worthwhile asking at restaurants. The word 'habitaciones' means 'rooms'and 'camas' 'beds'. If you want to leave early in the morning, you should arrange to pay the night before and ask to be shown how the exterior locks work. Otherwise, you may have to wait until well after 9am.


Pilgrim refuges (or 'refugios') exist in many towns and villages, provided by monasteries, the parish, the town hall, the regional Amigos del Camino de Santiago or by individuals who enjoy meeting pilgrims.

A number of new refuges were built last year (Holy Year) particularly in Galicia where there should be refuges every 10 to 15 kilometres. It is not known if they will all have wardens in 1994 or be open early and late in the season. Facilities in the refuges vary considerably: sometimes only foorspace is available, while other refuges have bunk beds or mattresses.

A sleeping bag is essential, a sleeping mat advisable, an inflatable pillow and plug for basin useful. Refuges described in this guide as 'basic' will have floorspace for sleeping bags, electric light, a cold water tap and a w.c. Other facilities, where known, will be mentioned, e.g. shower, kitchen(with or without pans etc.), bunk beds, hot water, drying facilities etc. In July and August there may well be serious water shortages in certain places on the camino when the supply will-6-be turned off for up to 12 hours at a time.

Please be sparing in your use of water. You will probably be asked by the voluntary warden ('hospitalero') to show your pilgrim record (and/or 'credencial')before being admitted as the refuges are intended for true pilgrims, on foot or travelling by bicycle, not just holiday-makers. Nor are they intended for small or large groups with back-up transport or for motorists. Despite this, in busy months you may still encounter large groups with their attendant disadvantages. Some refuges, including the Refugio Gaucelmo at Rabanal, do not accept large groups and do not accept bookings made in advance by leaders who arrive early with a vehicle.

At busy times preference is also given to walkers over cyclists, simply because it is easier for a cyclist to go on to the next refuge. However each refuge, with or without full-time wardens, has its own house rules, or lack of them. Some refuges charge a small set fee of

150 to 500 pesetas, others request a voluntary donation while others still make no charge. The doors of most refuges are locked 11pm and pilgrims encouraged to be away by 8am.


Prices at campsites have risen considerably over recent years. Some charge the motorcycle fee for bicycles, so that two people with bikes can pay more than if they arrived in a car. Some class I sites charged 2000 pesetas plus in 1992 for two people, two bikes and one small tent, although the average was around 1000. Sites were nearly all crowded (and noisy) in July and August. Opening times and facilities are listed for campsites.


It is sensible, particularly in towns and cities, to establish your accommodation first, and lock up your bike and bags before going sightseeing.

If possible lock your bike to a solid fixture in the garage or lock-up place and, of course, if you have to leave it in the street. For personal valuables an old-fashioned, out-of-sight money-belt may be safer than the modern, more visible versions. Don't assume that you can leave anything safely outside in towns, even in quiet places; sad but true all over Europe.

Road safety

Lorries and cars are usually considerate of cyclists. Times to take particular care are when starting off (keep to the right) and late afternoon when you and drivers behind you will be travelling into the sun. Walkers should walk on the left of the road facing oncoming traffic. 'Camino' safety is also an issue and cyclists on mountain bikes should respect the rights of walkers on narrow paths.

Dealing with dogs

Spanish dogs are less of a problem than French ones but can occasionally be troublesome. Walkers will find a stick useful for a number of reasons, including keeping a dog at bay. Keep away from sheep and cattle being guarded by dogs and don't turn your back on dogs until at a safe distance. Avoiding eye contact is another tip. It is possible to buy a special alarm that emits a high-pitched noise that is supposed to stop a dog in its tracks; the cost is around £30. The word used to get dogs to 'sit' or 'lie down' is tumbate! said with authority. A1992 pilgrim said she just ignored dogs, pretended they weren't there and had no trouble.

Opening and closing times

The daily timetable in Spain differs markedly from that of Britain and France. Cathedrals, churches, monasteries and museums open at 9 or 10 until 1.30 or 2pm and reopen around 4.30 or later. Summer opening times, where known, are given here. Winter, with its shorter opening times, is usually from October to March.

In most towns and villages there is an evening Mass at 8pm, occasionally 7.30 or 8.30, not at all in the smallest villages except on Sunday mornings. Many churches are kept locked and may not be opened to casual visitors, even those with good Spanish. Country churches are often cleaned on Saturday afternoons, which may give an opportunity to see the interior. Food can be bought up until 7.30 or 8pm but often not between 2 and 5pm.

In small villages you may have to ask where the shop is. This edition of the guide indicates the existence or not of shops in very small places. Lunch and dinner are served around 2pm and 9pm or later respectively. Fortunately, bars often have delicious 'tapas' or savoury snacks of many kinds, which help to fill gaps. If you are hungry at the wrong time for a meal, ask in a bar for 'unaracidn' of what you fancy and you will be given a full helping.-8- A Spanish sandwich is a 'bocadillo' and is also available at most times. Breakfasts in Spain are generally very modest, although some bars and hostals do a cooked breakfast after about 9.30. Note also that bars in some of the very small villages will not necessarily be open all the time, especially in spring and autumn.

Planning the Day

It is important to plan each day, using this guide and your map.

The route in Spain is not easy and the Pyrenees are only the first of several mountain ranges you will encounter. An indication of the number of kilometres between places is given, and warnings of the more difficult stretches. Try to start at 6 or 6.30 (or earlier) in hot weather and have break-fast en route a bit later. It is also a good idea to stock up the night before with fruit or yogurts and plenty of water. If you can, reach your destination by 2pm in time for lunch and a rest in the hot part of the afternoon. You will then have time to visit places of interest in the town which will re-open around 5pm. In autumn it gets light quite late so if you are leaving early make sure you can see the yellow arrows. Cyclists should ensure that they can be seen by motorists on the roads. There are one or two days when walkers will need to carry a fair amount of food and water with them as shops are non-existent in some areas.


Prices in Spain are now comparable with the rest of western Europe and hotel rates have risen quite rapidly in recent years. In restaurants the set 'menu del dia' is very good value and ranges from 700 to 1200 pesetas, with wine not always included in the cheaper menus. A full meal with wine, a Iacarte, tends to cost from 1700 pesetas upwards. Some 1993 prices are given as a guide to what you might have to pay in 1994. Breakfasts are not normally included in hotel room rates.

Returning from Santiago -

There are various ways of returning to the UK from Santiago, short of walking or cycling back, depending on the time and funds at your disposal.

By Air

- if you are in a hurry there are scheduled Iberia flights from Santiago to Heathrow, but it is almost impossible to get an-62-economy single ticket (£180+) at short notice, especially in late August and early September. If you have a return flight already booked and want to change the date it could cost you an extra £100.

It is worth enquiring at a travel agent about charter flights from Santiago to Luton and from La Coruna to Gatwick. Bicycles are carried free of charge, within normal weight limits, subject to certain conditions, which may include packing in a special container.

By Coach

Eurolines and the Spanish company Alsa run coach services from Santiago to London and Paris for around 14,000 ptas. and also to Hendaye on the French/Spanish border. Alsa may take bikes for half the price of an adult ticket; if so you and your bike travel together.

The Eurolines coach to London is good and faster than going by train and ferry. If you decide to return by coach it is best to go in person to the Estacidn de Autobuses at San Cayetano, or you could try a travel agent first. A Dutch company has a special coach service known as the Fietsbus, which takes about 40 passengers and their bikes.

The seats magically convert into two-tier, full-length beds at night and passengers are supplied with a blanket, pillow and slippers. The bikes are towed behind the bus in a large, purpose-built closed trailer. For further details and booking telephone the agents, Fietsvakantiewinkel, in Holland on (01031 )-3480.21844 (if phoning from the UK).

The Intercar direct coach service to Santander takes 15 hours and arrives at 3am. A handy fonda in Santander is the Pension Santillana, calle Isabel II, 18-1, reason-ably close to the bus station and ferry port. Book in advance if arriving late on (942)-22.87.37.

By Train to France -

there is a regular train service from Santiago to run on the border with France. The position for bikes is difficult: they are no longer carried free and are not allowed(generally) on long-distance passenger trains. A 1993 pilgrim paid 3875 ptas for his bike to be carried to Hendaye and encountered border problems between Irun and Hendaye. Cyclists are there-fore advised to cycle between Irun and Hendaye and then start again. Take your bike to Santiago station at least two days in advance of your travel, excluding Saturdays and Sundays.

Travel agents who are also RENFE agents, eg Viajes Pina, Republica de-63-El Salvador 6, will sell you a ticket, but check on your bike ticket as well. The bike then has to go to the luggage registration office at the station to be weighed and issued with its documentation. If you have no bike and aim to get your ticket on the day of travel it pays to arrive at the station at least 1 hour before the train leaves. People's experiences of travelling on RENFE with a bike vary considerably and any further hints for next year's guide will be very welcome.

By Train (RENFE) to Santander -

from Santiago the journey takes 12½ hours with a change at Palencia. Departure is around 9am with arrival at Santander around 9.3Opm. This includes about 2½ hours in Palencia which is sufficient time to see the fine cathedral. There is nowhere to leave luggage at Palencia but the cathedral is less than ten minutes away, across gardens in front of the station. (See under 'Coaches' above for accommodation in Santander.)By FEVE Train - pilgrims using the narrow-gauge, privately-run FEVE trains along the north coast (from El Ferrol to Santander or Bilbao, via Oviedo) will find FEVE easier to deal with than RENFE. It seems that bikes may be accepted on the overnight train only, but it is essential to check first. Getting information can be a problem but the Tourist Office in rua do Villar has a photocopy of the timetable. Otherwise ring the FEVE station in Ferrol on 37.04.33.

Part of the FAQ Consists of a review of the Excellent Guide

The Village to Village Guide


Tops Tips From a Camino Vetran

Physical Preparation
--- Test out your footwear with a fully-laden rucksack carried for extended periods on successive days walking on hard surfaces.
· Consider wearing impact-reducing insoles in your walking shoes / boots. There is a lot of walking on hard surfaces - tarmac and rocky paths. (But, again, try them out before you go as you may need to wear thinner socks.)
Desk Preparation
· Learn as much Spanish as you can. Almost no-one speaks English and very few people are used to communicating with people whose first language is not Spanish.
· If your command of Spanish is still not very good, prepare in advance some phrases that you think you might need, e.g. 'Will this door be locked in the morning?', 'Where do I leave the key to the albergue?'
· Make a list of places, distances and facilities for planning and preparation purposes.
· Save paper (and thus weight) by writing phone numbers, addresses for postcards, any other useful reference information in the back of your notebook / journal.
--- If you travel to and from Spain by coach, consider taking road maps which cover the journey (but send them on along the route, don't carry them while you are walking).
--- If you don't need a corkscrew and bottle opener (or the thing for getting stones out of horses' hooves), then a miniature Swiss Army knife is well adequate.
--- A lightweight, powerful headtorch is very useful (e.g. Petzl 'Tikka').
--- A bandanna can serve as a headscarf, hat, eyeshade, tablecloth, washcloth and a cleaning cloth for grubby washbasins. A lightweight sarong serves as a dressing gown, bathrobe, makeshift pillowcase, lightweight sleeping sheet and a sunshade.
--- Dental floss is useful as heavy duty sewing thread. Similarly, a small quantity of Sellotape and string, plus a few safety pins and cable ties also come in useful for improvisation and repairs.
--- When choosing your clothing, consider how easily you can handwash it and how quickly it will dry - important in Galicia where the atmosphere is wetter.
--- Don't overstock on toiletries and pharmacy items - they can all be obtained in most villages along the route.
--- Plastic bags are useful for protecting your belongings from rain and can double as a 'handbag' for your valuables when you have finished walking for the day.
--- Consider carefully whether you need to take a map - especially if you have a guidebook with sketch maps.
--- When pruning your packing list, concentrate on containers and papers / books.
--- Be absolutely ruthless about cutting down on the weight you carry. Don't forget that you might need to add two or three kilograms of water plus an allowance for picnic food to the weight of your pack.
--- 'If you haven't got it, you will have to make do without it.'
While walking
--- Attend to foot discomfort immediately you are aware of it - it only gets worse.
--- A sling for a water bottle can be easily constructed from a length of string.
--- Rest just before you enter the place where you will spend the night. You may still have quite a lot of walking to do to find what you want.
--- Take frequent rests during the day's walk. Take your rucksack off your back and try to lie down at least once.
--- When shopping for picnic food, buy cans with ring-pulls to avoid having to take a tin-opener.
--- Soaking feet in cold water (ideally with ice in it) is beneficial.
--- Keep a diary and write it up every day.
--- If your family and friends have internet access, consider sending 'round robin' emails or setting up a (free ) 'blog' page. (Internet access definitely available in Caceres, Casar de Caceres, Salamanca, Zamora, Ourense and Santiago de Compostela (and possibly elsewhere)).
--- If taking photographs is important to you, make your camera is easily accessible. If you can be bothered, it is helpful to note where you took photographs.
--- Make sure you have enough to eat. Walking all day expends a lot of energy and you need to be properly fuelled.
Mobile Phones
Other pilgrims I met all carried mobile phones.
For:It seems that a satisfactory signal is obtainable over most of the route and certainly in the towns and villages. Texting might well be the cheapest way to contact people at home. In places where I stayed (hostales and refuges) there was almost always somewhere to plug in a charger.) You can phone ahead to check that bars and hostales (and some refuges) are open.
AgainstA phone card weighs less if you want to telephone home. You need to carry a charger and an adaptor if you cannot buy one with a European plug. You need to be able to speak very reasonable Spanish if you want to telephone within Spain especially in an emergency.
Coping with the Heat
If you plan to walk in the summer months you are likely to have to do at least some walking in the middle of the day when it is very hot. Here are my thoughts on keeping cool:
--- start early in the day (in the dark?) and warm up with the day
--- take frequent rests
--- be careful about your caffeine intake - in coffee, Coca-Cola, etc. - it dehydrates the body
--- wear sunglasses (to give the illusion of shade)
--- tie a wet bandanna around your neck
--- stray well hydrated (500ml before you set out, and several litres while you walk)
--- make sure your water bottle is accessible while you are walking - make it easy to drink
--- keep a steady pace and don't rush
--- just accept that it will be hot and try to avoid thinking about how hot you are - part of it is in the mind.
Until I started out on the Pilgrimage, I had been to Spain only for two weekends, so the following were useful background to the country itself:
The Village to Village Guide to The Camino Santiago (Publisher simon wallenberg)
A Traveller's History of Spain - Juan Lalaguna (Cassell and Co / The Windrush Press)
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee (Penguin Books)
Spain - Jan Morris (Penguin Books)
Our Lady of the Sewers (and Other Adventures in Deep Spain) - Paul Richardson (Abacus)
In my opinion, this is the best book about lightweight travel: Beyond Backpacking - Ray Jardine (AdventureLore Press) (Ray has walked the 2,500-mile US Pacific Crest Trail at least twice.)
Language - I used the very smallest Langensheidt's Dictionary and the Lonely Planet phrasebook.

Wendy's Top Tips were written by Wendy Petty who walked the Via de la Plata in 2003 and are reproduced here with grateful thanks


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