The two top priorities for pilgrims on the Camino to Santiago are how to find their way on the route and how to find accommodation.
First priority: the route is very well waymarked indeed. Although I used the Eroski walking notes I could easily have walked by just following the yellow arrows and waymarks. However I like to know what’s coming and the distances involved. For those new to the Via de la Plata I say set off without fear. The locals know the route and I found they were very willing to help.
Second priority: there are many more options for decent accommodation nowadays than ever before. I had a list of the accommodation available along the way and planned my stages accordingly. But it was obvious to me that the economy of the camino is changing as the market becomes more competitive. Let me give a brief overview:
In Seville although there is no municipal albergue there is a huge number of options from very cheap hostals to expensive hotels. Usually I simply use www.booking.com I have found some real bargains over the years. This time I stayed in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz right in the centre of Seville. I booked the Hotel Murillo. The reviews said it was cheap and clean in a fantastic location. It proved to be all of these things.
From Seville we walked to Guillena here on my first Camino there was a horrid, dirty little albergue. Now the town boasts a private albergue which charges 12 euros and a new municipal albergue which charges 10 euros. We slept in the latter and the dead of night it was bitterly cold. Winter pilgrims need good gear and I was snug inside my sleeping bag.
However even on this first stop it struck me how the economy of this route has changed. Guillena is a small dormitory town of Seville with less than 10,000 inhabitants. It is a 23 kms walk from Seville. It now has three choices for pilgrim accommodation: the municipal albergue which costs 10 euros and the private albergue which costs 12 euros – both with beds in dormitories with no sheets and towels. The local Hostal Francés has twin rooms with en suite bathroom, sheets, towels, heating and food available(but not included) for 15 euros each. It emerged this was the case all along the route.
“But what about the communal experience of a group of pilgrims sharing the same albergue?” I hear people ask. In my youth I did more than my fare share of youth hostelling, camping and sleeping in bothies in the mountains of Scotland . I loved all of it. However nowadays sharing showers, toilets and dormitories unless it is essential holds little attraction. That doesn’t mean the communal spirit is lost. For example by the time we arrived in Carñaveral, 328 kms from Seville, we had met 6 other pilgrims. The albergue there closed some years ago and so we all checked into the into the Hostal Malaga. For a twin room it was 15 euros each for a bed and for a triple 12 euros. We were altogether for dinner and breakfast but enjoying privacy of showering and sleeping not to mention sheets, blankets, pillows, fresh towels and heating.
I really do hope that municipal albergues survive these changing circumstances. However they have to up their game. They have to be clean, provide comfortable beds with hygienic covers and provide for basic needs such as toilet paper and some heating when it is freezing.
For pilgrims, especially in winter, it is very economical to walk with a companion and share hostal accommodation. I also think that increasingly pilgrims will meet up with others on the way and decide to share the costs of a twin or triple room. Perhaps there is the need for an internet matching service for pilgrims before they leave?
Whatever the economic aspects of accommodation much more important is the human kindness and hospitality provided by many people along the Camino routes whether they work in public or private albergues, hostals or hotels.
On the day we walked to Torremejía, 195 kms from Seville, it started to rain heavily in the last hour. It was a 28 kms stage and we were tired by the end of the day. We battled through the rain and arrived slightly bedraggled. We were walking along the main street looking for accommodation when a man approached, “You’ll be the two Scottish pilgrims” he enquired. I was astonished. “How do you know that?” I asked. “In winter there are few pilgrims. Yesterday an Italian told me that there were two Scottish guys coming behind”. “Can you recommend a place where we can stay?” I asked. “Yes in my albergue” he replied. “Just come with me”. At that he walked us to his car, introduced us to his wife and drove us to the local Albergue Turistico which he and wife run.
It was a beautifully renovated historic building. "Beds for 12 euros", he said, showing us where the lights were and checking the water was piping hot. He gave us keys and explained he had to go because his father was ill. “Is there somewhere we can eat?” we enquired. “Everything is closed in the evening at this time of year...but I tell you what, have a shower, get changed and I’ll come back a little later and we’ll see what can be done.” On his return we again got in his car and we drove to the main street where he parked outside a restaurant. “This is my family’s place” he explained, “we’ve opened for you.” We were only two customers. We had a drink before dinner, a sopera with as much soup as we could eat, roast chicken with chips and salad, fresh fruit and ice cream for dessert plus coffee and a liqueur. Well it had been a hard day. He presented the bill for 23 euros. Of course we paid more which he accepted reluctantly. Thank you to Alonso and his wife Fernanda because of them and people like them we can all truly praise decent accommodation.
Next ...In praise of lentejas!