Week by Week on the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is Europe's most well-known long distance trek. Historically, it's was a pilgrimage that begins on the pilgrim's own doorstep and led to Santiago de Compostela in northeastern Spain. Today, the same route is walked by hundreds of modern day pilgrims, adventure seekers and thru hikers.
There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. The most popular, and the one I personally walked in September 2018, is the Camino Frances. It runs from France to Santiago. Other popular routes are the Camino Portuguese and the Camino del Norte.
I've written about a typical day on the Camino Frances, but I have yet to capture my week by week experience I traversed through five regions of Spain on foot. Read on for a week by week account of life on the Camino de Santiago.
Week by Week Along the Camino de Santiago
Each week along the Camino Frances brought new adventures, new challenges, and new scenery. I’ve highlighted my route, distance, and thoughts from the week.
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First week on the Camino de Santiago
The first few days of the camino are many things to many people and mine was a roller coaster of emotions. I had walked 142 kilometers, about 88 miles, and was roughly 17% of the way to Santiago.
I wrestled with a lost wallet (more on that story and how I dealt with that in a future post). I wrestled with self-pity and self-doubt. I wrestled with blister pain and physically adjusting to carrying a backpack 24/7. I wrestled with the first homesickness I had felt in over three months of travel (certainly triggered by the helpless feeling of losing my wallet).
On the other hand, I crossed a mountain pass and the French-Spanish border on foot! I trekked through beautiful mountains and vineyards! I learned how resourceful I truly was and how generous human beings can be! My wallet was generously returned to me! I fell in love with the natural beauty of Spain!
To call Pamplona a town isn't really truthful. It's a city. In fact, it's the second biggest city along the Camino Frances. While I loved my calm, quiet experience in later villages like Villamayor de Monjardin and Torres del Rio, Pamplona takes the cake in week one.
You've probably heard of Pamplona because of the running of the bulls. Thankfully, I didn't have to outrun a bull while in Pamplona but I did visit the impactful statue and witness two kids pretending to bullfight in the streets.
The whole city is a delight, and the tapas there are great too. It's also a good spot to reassess what you've packed. If you need any new gear, stock up here.
There is something really special at the Albergue de Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles is the majority of people's first night on the Camino Frances and there is a certain camaraderie to the place. To arrive there requires walking 25.1 km from St. Jean Pied de Port up and over the Pyrenees mountains. The town of Roncesvalles is famous for the defeat of the French army led by Charlemagne and the death of the best knight in France at the time, Roland.
While this albergue's 183 beds don't sound appealing (larger room size = more chance of snoring neighbors) it's been recently renovated. The large rooms are partitioned into sections with 4 comfortable beds each. It's lovely courtyard is a perfect place to reflect on your first day on the Camino Frances and the volunteer staff are wonderful here, serenading you awake at 6:30 a.m.
What didn't the first week on the Camino Frances teach me? While I certainly learned a lot of lessons about packing properly, the most important lesson I learned was to listen to your body, not a guidebook.
The best laid plans don't apply to the Camino de Santiago. Many pilgrims go too hard, too fast and injure themselves. The damage you do in week one will certainly haunt you. Give yourself time to get “trail fit."
Even if you're feeling strong, I'd encourage you to break away from the guidebook's set stages. Why? Everyone has the guidebook. I found it freeing to go off-stage. I felt like I was seeing smaller villages and escaping some of the dreaded bed racing. Learning to make a reservation for the next town the night before also helped make my daily grind more enjoyable and less stressful.
Many people might say the wine fountain at the Monasterio de Irache is the highlight of week one, but I passed it around 9 am and wasn't feeling ready to toil the rest of the day tipsily.
For me, the highlight was walking through tiny towns like Burguete and larger ones like Pamplona where characters from my favorite classic, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, also visit.
Second week on the Camino de Santiago
In my second week on the Camino de Santiago, I hit my stride and walked 188 kilometers, about 116 miles, and was roughly 41% of the way to Santiago.
Burgos is a beautiful city, but the walk into it is not. I later discovered that there is an alternative route that runs by the river, but the route I took was a concrete jungle.
I walked my longest day into Burgos and still managed to enjoy the tapas scene and tour the (absolutely beautiful) cathedral early in the morning. My stay at the municipal albergue was one I'd repeat (great showers!). My only regret is that I didn't take a zero day in Burgos to enjoy it longer.
This albergue located in Nájera is miles better than the other options in town. It's wooden beds don't squeak like the metal alternatives do and there is a home-y vibe. Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time.
My second recommendation for the week is to stay at the only albergue in Villafranca de Montes del Oca (it's also a hotel and restaurant). While the rooms themselves are nothing special, the garden is glorious and the bar/restaurant was excellent too. Unfortunately, staying here makes a very long day into Burgos so I wouldn't recommend it for everyone.
Another recommendation is Albergue Rosalia in Castrojeriz. I had the best paella for a pilgrim's meal there and a great breakfast as well. The beds were also singles and not bunk beds (yay!)
This was the week that I really learned to embrace the dawn.
While I have many, many fond memories of this week on the Camino de Santiago, my favorite is of a simple morning sunrise leaving Nájera. I rested on a water trough and smiled at the sun with new friends. After appreciating it for a while, we danced our way down the trail (literally).
From then on, I embraced the early mornings and used my headlamp to navigate through the vineyards of La Rioja region, through the hot Meseta desert, and even into Santiago de Compostela itself.
Being an early riser is a definite advantage on the Camino Frances. If you leave early, you're likely to be the first to find a bed in the next town. You also beat the heat of the late afternoon.
If you do become an early riser on the Camino Frances, take extra precaution to be a quiet packer. Nothing is worse to a tired pilgrim than the sound of a rustling bag or an alarm clock you're ignoring for too long. I'll write a camino packing list soon!
Oh, I have so many fond memories of this week on the trail. I spent most of this week walking alongside new friends, making up songs and dances, and enjoying afternoon cervezas together. We also walked a lot and put in some very long days. Make this the week you find your “camino family" like I did, and the long days ahead will feel a whole lot shorter.
In terms of a sight or experience to look forward to on the second week of the Camino Frances, look no further than the cathedral of Burgos itself. It wouldn't be out of place in Paris. It's that beautiful.
Third week on the Camino de Santiago
On the third week of the Camino de Santiago, I walked 162 kilometers, about 100 miles, and was roughly 61% of the way to Santiago. I even took a zero day in Leon to enjoy all the city has to offer, and to recover from a pesky challenge I faced.
Week three brought me through the dreaded Meseta, the desert in the center of Spain. While many pilgrims dread the Meseta, I found the monotony to be comfortable and calming. It was one of the parts of the camino where I felt strongest, calmest, and happiest. I saw some of the clearest stars and brightest sunrises.
Leon is the biggest city along the Camino Frances. It feels like the first sign of life after a long, dusty slog through some sleepy towns. I spent my one and only rest day in Leon (particularly the self-guided tapas tour).
While I did love some smaller villages through the Meseta during week three, they were mostly non-descript, dusty places that served as a refuge for weary walkers. I loved the calm, but it's hard to recommend any of them specifically. The two villages that do stand out in my mind are San Nicolas del Real Camino and Reliegos because I stayed in lovely albergues in each of them (more on that later).
I found most of the albergues along the Meseta to be standard affairs, but there were a few bright spots along the way.
We started to make reservations at smaller albergues in smaller towns, and this one in San Nicolas del Real Camino charmed me. The staff was charming and friendly and the food was excellent. The town is absolutely tiny, consisting mainly of this albergue alone. There's also a small town square. We were lucky enough to catch a spontaneous play put on by the villagers.
Another good albergue was Albergue de Ada in Reliegos. The bunk beds were made of wood (no squeaks!) and the town itself was quaint. It was a happy accident, as we had planned to stay in the town 12 km sooner. Unfortunately, we ran into a bed bug infested albergue and had to walk on.
Dealing with bed bugs was not a fun part of my camino experience, but don't let bed bugs deter you from walking the Camino Frances. They can't harm you, just annoy you. Take any citing of a bed bug or possible bite seriously and douse your things in spray, wrap your bag in a black garbage bag and let it bake in the sun, and wash and dry everything on hot as soon as possible.
This might be a controversial tip for the Camino de Santiago, but I learned about the power of podcasts and pop music this week. I don't think there is anything wrong with listening to something while you're walking, though some pilgrimage purists might scoff.
The Meseta can be monotonous. There is a lot of beauty in the repetition, the arid landscape, and the big skies. There is also a lot of time. My feet would step just a little bit faster when I listened to songs with a strong beat. I could laugh along with a funny podcast and the kilometers would fly by. If I felt contemplative, an audiobook made good company.
Here is my go-to walking playlist and a collaborative playlist made by thru-hikers. In the future, I might create a list of audiobooks to listen to during your camino if you guys are interested (let me know below!).
It's hard to describe my favorite moments of week three on the Camino de Santiago. Walking in to miniscule towns. Rounding a bend to see the path lined with trees. The vastness.
There isn't a sight to strive for per se, just a space. It's the space that I think of most when I think of this stage of the Camino Frances. Space to think. Space to dream. Space to come into my own.
Fourth week on the Camino de Santiago
On the fourth week of the Camino de Santiago, I walked 188 kilometers, about 116 miles, and was roughly 85% of the way to Santiago.
This section of the Camino de Santiago is particularly wonderful because you start to see greenery and life again. It's full of charming towns, heartfelt albergues full of spirit, a handful of lessons, and some of my favorite moments. I had really settled in to my daily life on the Camino de Santiago at this point.
I loved so many towns in this section of the Camino de Santiago it was very hard to choose. The mountaintop town of O'Cebreiro is the one I'd be utterly devastated to miss though.
That said, I wouldn't pass up a stay in Astorga for its Gaudi architecture, Molinaseca for its riverside, Villafranca del Bierzo for the charming albergue experience I had there, or Ferrieros for the woodland charm.
The albergue that I think of as the ultimate albergue experience is Albergue de la Piedra in Villafranca del Bierzo. It's run by a couple who fell in love along the camino themselves.
You're welcomed with tea and cookies. Some of the rooms have rock formations in them, as they were literally built into the surrounding mountain. Oh, and our room had a rain shower!
This week taught me the joy in letting go of the plan, losing your expectations, and just living.
I had built up the Cruz de Ferro as a major plot point on my journey along the Camino de Santiago. I would leave a rock from LA, signifying what I wasn't quite sure yet, and would live life anew. I woke early, staying in the closest town called Foncebadon (which has a great pizza joint by the way) to reach the cross at sunrise. In my head, I'd have my moment in silence and would walk on refreshed. Instead, I was surrounded by dozens of others. Some singing loudly. Some snapping pictures. Some chatting breezily. It wasn't what I expected. I felt nothing. No relief. Instead, I became a shoulder for some of my camino friends to cry on. It wasn't the experience I expected. It was deeper, better.
The Cruz de Ferro, and the following afternoon filled with laughter and lightness, is my favorite moment of week four too.
Fifth week on the Camino de Santiago
Half a week later, in the fifth week of walking the Camino de Santiago, I walked 108 kilometers, about 67 miles, to arrive in Santiago de Compostela. 799 kilometers, or 500 miles, and 31 days from when I started in St. Jean Pied de Port.
I didn't really want the Camino de Santiago to end, but my body did. The atmosphere after Sarria (the 100 kilometer mark) also changes because of an influx of pilgrims. I wanted to really feel the last few days of the Camino Frances, so I put in some long days here too.
Finishing in Santiago de Compostela felt like the end of my journey on foot, but I did continue on by bus to Finisterre on the western coast of Spain, known as the “end of the world" and a common ending point for ambitious pilgrims.
Obviously Santiago de Compostela itself is something to experience. It's a collective exhale and a beautiful city in its own right.
Instead, I'll highlight the tiny hamlet of Portos outside of Palas de Rei. It's a handful of buildings, a restaurant, and an albergue really. The garden is lovely and there is an off-the-beaten-path feeling that is rare so close to Santiago.
The albergue there, called A Paso de Formiga, is family-run and has a nice, slow atmosphere.
While I didn't love the town itself (it felt pretty utilitarian), this albergue in Arzua was top notch. The beds were comfy, the food was great, it was cleaner than clean, and the staff shared a few laughs with us.
Walking the Camino de Santiago is still my biggest accomplishment to date. I walked across an entire country and I know I could do it again, by just putting one foot in front of the other.
I think this philosophy is something I'll apply to other big goals in my life too. One step at a time. Set small goals that add up to bigger ones, and soon you'll be in Spain!
The days leading up to the arrival into Santiago were just different. I was more contemplative, more isolated. Many of us wanted to “walk our own walks" into Santiago, so we separated and stayed in different towns. Still, I would get encouraging texts or silly facetimes throughout the day from camino friends I had made along the way. I couldn't have imagined a better way to walk towards my goal.
Of course, the moment I walked into Santiago de Compostela will always be special too. My friend Loek and I woke up really early (not by choice, there were major snorers!). We arrived in Santiago just as the locals were walking to work. Loek walked ahead of me and I hung back to walk in solo, just like I started. It was odd to be having this out-of-body experience while so many people went about their everyday lives.
When I arrived to the square in front of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Loek was there. We laughed and hugged and spun around in the empty square. Later, we'd watch hoards of people do the same thing. I was thankful for my quieter morning moment.
After celebrating in Santiago de Compostela, we took to the beach.
Many people opt to walk the additional 80 kilometers to Finisterre, but I felt accomplished and emotionally finished after reaching Santiago. The bus ride there was the first time I had moved using anything other than my own two feet for 31 days.
A true sense of elation and relaxation came over me in Finisterre. I'm not sure that I've felt more confident, more at peace, or more accomplished in my life.