There I went. Carrying a tremendously heavy backpack, I closed the door behind me and faced the freezing cold on my way to Santiago. It is almost unreal, but today marks a year since I commenced my journey!
For me, eating is pleasurable pastime. Tasting makes me ecstatic, chewing makes me smile and cooking food in general (vegetables in particular) makes my heart sing. Prior to my departure, I thought my journey through France and Spain would be an amazing opportunity to dive into these countries cuisines. Although I did enjoy some culinary delights featuring impulsive decisions at way-too-expensive restaurants and delicious meals served at some of my host families, walking somehow transforms the act of eating… especially when you’re watching your wallet.
If you’re planning to walk the Camino del Norte with a tiny budget, here are some tips to adjust to a pilgrim’s eating pattern without going broke.
A pilgrim’s eating pattern. Yeah, that’s right. It’s a thing. You know what it means? It means you’re hungry ALL THE TIME. I remember waking up regularly in the middle of the night with a feeling in my stomach that, when offering a visual description, resembled a very upset black hole. I swear I’ve felt the insides of my stomach touch as it was desperately trying to find the last remnants of the chips I had quickly devoured half an hour before bedtime. All I’m trying to say is that your body needs fuel when you’re walking most part of the day and it will ask for it. So you’ll need to be smart about what you fill your black hole with to save money besides attempting to properly nourish your body.
Depending on whether I’m seeing someone special and what the weather is like, the second or fourth thing on my mind once I wake up is coffee. On the Camino del Norte I always took some instant coffee with me to brighten the day! Once I’d enjoyed my first cup of coffee, breakfast options included lukewarm Greek yoghurt as some albergues didn’t have a fridge, crackers with avocado and tomatoes, slightly stale bread with cheese and, on days I forgot to arrange brekkie beforehand, granola bars or Maria biscuits. In most albergues you can opt for breakfast or it will be included in your night stay, however, don’t expect a savoury breakfast. Spanish brekkie often consists of coffee and cake, biscuits or toasted bread with jam.
I admit eating cake for breakfast revealed a whole new world to me, however, when it comes to my breakfast habits I like to mix things up a bit. Excessive amounts of baguette and jam in France made me excited to organise my own breakfast whilst walking the Camino del Norte, which was similar in price and a little bit more nutritious. I won’t lie, I did enjoy a large piece of cake here and there though 😉
Lunch is probably the easiest meal to do on the cheap. You only need three things: a baguette or a big piece of bread (opt for a wholemeal one, or one with lots of seeds), your favourite cheese and/or ham, and an amazing vegetable (capsicum, cucumber, tomato, you pick!). Make the sandwich, cut it in half, wrap one half and eat the other! Congratulations, you’ve just made lunch for two days! On the Camino, enjoying a spectacular sandwich on a break was like a big hug. I’ll forever cherish the moments that my Camino mate and I would just sit somewhere, be silent and eat. When the shops are closed or there is another reason you’re not carrying your bundle of tasty goodness along… fear not! In pretty much every bar in Spain you can buy bocadillos (sandwiches) or other edible delights, however, these aren’t always the most inexpensive lunch choices!
All along the Camino del Norte you’ll be able to get a pilgrim’s menu ranging from €10 to €15. This isn’t costly when you’re enjoying it sometimes, but when doing it daily it’ll quickly turn into one of your main expenses. Besides that, I often found these menus included lots of fried foods, something I personally enjoy eating sometimes though not daily. Check if your albergue has an equipped kitchen, if so you’re all sorted for a delicious dinner. Sometimes there might be a microwave allowing you to heat things up – think soup, rice, lentils etcetera. My go-to Camino meal was a mixed salad with bread or nacho chips (my all time fave). It was what I always enjoyed eating and felt my body needed after a long day of walking and… it’s ridiculously cheap!
In between meals I ate an impressive amount of apples, carrots, capsicums, granola bars, Maria biscuits, nuts and chips. When walking the Camino, eating becomes a necessity and I advise you to choose that which you eat wisely. Eating only cookies might seem great but it’s not the way to go (I tried and it made me feel horribly weak). As you’re body is demanding food often, it’s easy to pick unhealthy, sugary foods that give you a quick hit. However, if you balance it out with the healthier options it’ll be more satisfying for your body, as well as your budget in the long run. (Do try cake for breakfast once though, it’s fantastic.)
What should I pack?!
Yes. I’ve been there too. In the middle of the living room surrounded by piles of stuff that seemed extremely convenient for all these possible situations I assumed I was going to end up in. **SPOILER ALERT** You don’t need it, none of it. As all of the things you think will happen won’t and you’ll never be prepared for all that which will happen instead. So drop the bear spray, pour yourself a drink and read this blog post on what five things I think you cannot walk without.
Now you might think this is a silly thing to be on an essentials list but I became rather appreciative of water on my Camino journey… and that was when I ran out of it on a hot and strenuous day. In general, I felt stronger and more energetic being fully hydrated. Water brought me some sort of relief; I loved being able to wash my hands and face to cool down, restore and then move on again. So don’t forget your H2O, it isn’t fun being without.
two: a basic first-aid kit
Basic doesn’t mean you’ve got to bring a defibrillator machine. Instead, tweezers might come in handy for the occasional ticks (yes, I had a few) and paracetamol is always useful when experiencing extreme period cramps or horrific hangovers (yes, I had a few of those too). As there is nothing better than giving your feet some love after a long day of walking, iodine, plasters, foot cream and the like will certainly come in handy. Don’t forget about personal things you need. Having pretty bad allergies, my anti-histamines made the difference between residing in the abyss of hell and a great night’s sleep. Don’t go overboard though; just take a few (personal) necessities!
three: a writing thing
Will you write everyday? Probably not, however, there will be times you want to plan possible stages, make a drawing or simply jot down an experience, a thought or feeling. As I love writing and drawing, I took a lightweight notebook but I’m aware this doesn’t count for everyone. In case you bring a guidebook you could write in that (I didn’t bring one, but I saw people doing this and loved it!) and, of course, you could always use a writing tool or app on your phone. Don’t underestimate all the things that will pop up in your mind during your walk. Even if you don’t see yourself as the writing kind of person, it might be nice to pen things down in order to make more sense of them.
four: a feel good item
A what? A feel good item! It’s like a feel good movie – you watch it and it makes you feel fantastic. When walking the Camino, pack something light-weight that can instantly change your mood from OK to yeey! I loved having these moments of pure joy by simply bringing a few of these items. First one: coffee sachets. Wherever I went, I’d be able to wake up in the morning and make myself a cup of coffee. Do I need to say more?#instantbliss Second one: super socks. Before I left, my friends gave me a pair of bright pink hiking socks that quickly turned into my super socks. Sleepless nights, burning blisters or my weekly existential crisis, it didn’t matter. Whenever I would wear them, I felt like Wonder Woman. Third, and final, one: mascara. Although most days this item didn’t even enter my consciousness, there were moments it made my day cause it made me feel absolutely f* fabulous! You wake up feeling like shit? Tadaa! Mascara’s just made you unshit yourself. Done with wearing the same outfit for two months in a row? Mascara makes your outfit obsolete, so your outfit no longer has to occupy any of your mind space. For me, there were days on my Camino when everything was just a bit better with mascara. Whatever it is that makes your mood transform, take it to brighten those days when you think your internal sun has taken a sabbatical.
five: an intention
The final Camino essential is the only non-material item on the list. Good thing about those items is that you can bring as many as you like without being burdened by additional weight. Whatever you decide to take on your Camino walk, an intention is something that can guide you through difficult or unexpected moments, more than any physical item will. Before I commenced my journey, I set the intention of opening up to whatever happened to me. I figured that if I’d keep reminding myself of this idea, it would allow me move more freely through the feelings that would come up or situations I would encounter. In the end, returning to something fixed inside me encouraged me at all times. Set an intention for your journey, something that you really want to realise or learn, and repeat it to yourself regularly. It doesn’t take up any space in your backpack but it sure is useful in plenty of unforeseen situations.
Packing for the Camino is tough, especially because you want to feel prepared. First of all, you won’t be… but that’s the beauty of the entire journey! The Camino is one big suberb surprise that’s going to be way more enjoyable with a little less just-in-case-crap in your backpack and, of course, with these five things you cannot live without! Happy walking!
Whilst walking from Arles to Spain, I received several Instagram messages from prospective pilgrims asking me to share my thoughts about camping on the Camino de Santiago. Initially, I planned to camp most of the Way but, as with all the things that I initially planned, they went a little different and I ended up shipping my tent back home as soon as I got to Spain. For all of you who are thinking about bringing a tent – and yes, I know some of you do as I’m aware of the endless forum threads regarding this topic – here are some questions I reckon you should ask yourself first.
do I want to save money?
Camping on the Camino doesn’t necessarily help you save heaps of money. Unless you want to free camp of course; a choice I hold an opinion on which I’ll share a little while later in this post. Furthermore, a distinction must be made between pilgrims who start their Camino in the Netherlands, those starting on the more popular French routes and those walking the Camino del Norte.
If you are commencing your journey in the Netherlands, taking your tent might aid financially as accommodation is sparse and expensive here as well as in Belgium and the North of France. Do consider departing in a period where temperatures at night are above zero and, in case they don’t, pack gear appropriate for these circumstances.
When starting on the Via Tolosana however, and I think this applies to most of the French routes, it depends whether bringing your camping gear will make a financial difference. Although I’ve heard the gîtes on the Via Tolosana are slightly more expensive than those on the Le Puy and Vézelay route, you’ll be spending between €10-20 for a bed often including breakfast. A pitch at a campsite varies between €10-15. That could save you a little bit, but frequently there are no campsites at all or they’re not on route. This means you’ll have to sleep in a gîte anyway or detour from the route and walk back to it the next morning. If you don’t care walking the extra k’s or figuring out your own route, by all means take a tent; it might save you some cash. If you prefer following the waymarks and remain on the GR653, leave your tent. Even though I’ve pitched my tent on some beautiful spots, I didn’t like diverging from the GR all the time as it was such a beautiful route!
Walking the Camino del Norte? Forget about the tent. There are tons of albergues on route with prices ranging from €6-20. You’ll be spoilt for choice.
Even if you decide to leave your tent at home, you can still save some money! Make your own breakfast and bring things with you for lunch. Most of the gîtes in France have an equipped kitchen, so you can cook up a delicious dinner. In Spain, however, you’ll sometimes encounter unequipped kitchens, which makes cooking a little more challenging. Keep in mind that eating out and buying fresh produce in Spain is generally way cheaper than it is in France.
am I willing to carry the extra weight?
If you decide to camp, you’ll not just bring your tent. You will also need a mat, a sleeping bag, cooking gear, some other bits and pieces… BAM! That’s another three or four kilograms extra you’ll be carrying on your back. Oh that’s ok! Yeah, I thought so too and then I had to walk with it every day. Be wise, think again. Do you really want to make it more difficult for yourself?
why am I walking?
You’ve been walking for weeks on your own, you finally encounter other pilgrims (hooray!), they’re amazing, you walk together all day and then you have to say goodbye to them because you’re going off route to walk to a campsite. When this happened to me I was quite upset. I didn’t want to say goodbye! Stubborn as I am, I went to the campsite anyway because that’s what I told myself I would do! Things change. Your opinion on things might change. That’s OK! You don’t have to sit on your own in a tent four kilometres from the Camino route, even if that is what you decided you’d do in the first place. Eventually, I ended up realising I loved (!) being around people after a day of walking and that if I wanted some time for myself I could take those moments too in a gîte or albergue! I’ll be honest though, figuring this out took me about two months walking. Ask yourself why you’re walking? If you find that meeting other pilgrims is an essential part of your pilgrimage, bringing a tent won’t make you a happy camper!
a little note on wild camping
I haven’t been wild camping. Why not? To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable pitching my tent in the middle of nowhere. When overthinking this possibility, I saw myself running away being chased by a violent French farmer with a big shotgun. Apart from that, the idea of taking a dump in the forest probably was the deciding factor not to. This, however, wouldn’tt be an issue anymore as I’ve had the pleasure of walking 32 kilometres with a bowel on steroids. Talking to one of my Camino mates, he made a valid point about wild camping. For those people that run a gîte or albergue on the Camino, hosting you provides them with an income. It’s their life. They’re the people that make the Camino possible for all those longing to be a pilgrim. If all of us would take a tent and camp for free, I think we forget to acknowledge something that is such a beautiful part of this pilgrimage: connecting to one another.
In case you are thinking about bringing your camping gear, I ask you to think again. For me personally, the freedom I thought I’d experience by bringing a tent ended up restricting me. Bringing a tent does not necessarily add to your Camino experience, it makes for a different experience. Choose wisely!
And then you are back home. Like a character taken from one novel and placed into another narrative. One you recognise, though uncertain about the details. I remember opening my door, stepping inside my house and being overwhelmed by a feeling of completion: the circle was complete, I returned where I started. The actual journey had come to an end; however, the unease and discomfort that followed marked a new beginning. I knew immediately it was not going to be easy to return to that which I had departed from.
First came the excitement. Finally! No plastic mattresses and no throw away covers that attach themselves to you body during the night. My toilet! I almost hugged my toilet. (I restrained myself though as I realised that would have been a rather strange thing to do.) But the joy I experienced knowing I no longer had to take a dump on a different toilet every day, was out of this world. Taking hot showers, buying food and keeping it in the fridge, washing my clothes longer than the 30 minute quick cycle, rolling out my yoga mat and do yoga whenever I want, wearing ACTUAL clothes, meeting up with all my friends… the list of things that made me super excited about being back home goes on and on.
Unfortunately, the initial excitement didn’t last very long. After a few days, I started to intensely miss being on the road. Getting up early, being on the way, being outside and physically active all day, the rhythm, and, most importantly, the feeling of quiet/peace/space it gave me. Everything had been moving all this time and now it had all stopped. The feeling of standing still made me anxious and irritated. For 3,5 months I was heading somewhere, I had a destination and the movement towards that – in this case – physical location allowed me to open up and work with myself. Returning home, the movement that became so important to me remained absent due to the lack of direction.
So today I asked myself: Where do you want to go? I guess this question calls for for a mini-pilgrimage. It’s time to figure out which direction will be next.