The accommodation on the Camino now comes in all varieties. There are, of course, the hostels, which are called albergues in Spain and auberges in France. These are either privately owned and operated or run by the municipality of the local town. The latter may be managed by volunteers, who come and help for a period of time. I understood that, unlike the private ones, the municipal albergues can never turn a pilgrim away, even if it means finding a space for them on a concrete floor, nor could they be booked in advance. Usually, the accommodation is provided in dormitories but some of the albergues also have private rooms. Alternatively, beds may be found in monasteries and convents and, of course, hotels if a little more luxury is required.
There is no grading system, as far as I know, for the albergues but the ones belonging to the Red de Albergues tend to be of a higher standard as its association members have worked to promote better quality.
With the exception of four monastery or convent stays, I always slept in dormitories in albergues. For me, this was part of the experience of the Camino and, whilst it was a (big) challenge at times, I am still glad I decided to do that. I also appreciated the tranquil environment of the convents on the occasions I used them, especially after the bustling of the larger hostels.
I had no real idea about what to expect but had a vision of a lot of camaraderie, shared meals, noisy dormitories and goodwill. (I had obviously seen too many films!) There was certainly a large element of this but the Camino has become increasingly popular with thousands of pilgrims walking it each year. Many more privately owned albergues have opened up and, where they were, and indeed still are, basic places of rest for weary walkers, it seemed to me that there is now a much more commercial element attached in some places. This is not surprising, given that the Camino passes through a depressed area of Spain and its popularity has provided a much needed boost to local economies. That said, I still walked through many villages without seeing any people and which appeared deserted as the population had moved to the cities in search of employment.
The ambience of the albergues varied considerably and seemed to depend on the managers or owners. There are still some very traditional ones that have been opened by people who have walked the Camino themselves and have wanted to give something back. Needless to say, these, to me, were the most enjoyable. They generally had the most welcoming atmosphere, the best facilities and always provided shared, good quality meals. There were about three that I was drawn to for some reason (intuition or guidance) and decided to stay in even if it meant a shorter or longer walking day. None of them were a disappointment.
The albergues have very strict opening and closing hours. Pilgrims are expected to be on their way by 8 or 8.30am at the very latest and are, generally speaking, not to check in until at least 1pm, if not later. They are also only permitted to stay one night. These rules were strictly adhered to. Having decided before I started that I was only going to walk 20km a day, on average, I was never in a rush to leave in the morning and was invariably one of the first pilgrims to check in in the afternoon. I had plenty of time and didn’t need to rush.
Albergues range widely in size. I stayed in one that only had 10 beds and another with over 300. Sometimes these are in one big dormitory (the largest one I slept in had 100 beds) but mostly they are divided into smaller ones. One even had a curtain across the bunk with a power point and wifi socket. Very luxurious!
Traditionally, a pilgrim would not book ahead for their bed but would hope to find somewhere to rest when they arrived at their destination for the day. This is still what most people do and, originally, also was what I intended. Indeed, I did so for the first week and the last couple. However, two factors changed this. Firstly, on the third night there were so many pilgrims that there were insufficient beds for everyone and people had the choice of walking to the next town or sleeping on the concrete floor of a school gymnasium. The issue of the beds continued for some throughout the way and, even when booking, I was not always able to book in the village I wanted to stay. Secondly, I fell and broke my wrist and decided that I could not cope with an arm in heavy plaster, carry a pack and worry about whether I was going to find a bed for the night. Consequently, I booked ahead and sent my pack on to the pre booked albergue .
Beds usually cost €10 or €11 and a disposable sheet and pillow case were included in that. I used my own fairly lightweight sleeping bag and was very lucky in that I never encountered any bed bugs. Some of the municipal albergues do not charge for a bed but just ask for a ‘Donativo’ or donation. I didn’t stay in any of these so don’t know if sheets or a pillow case was provided.
The dormitories were always going to be a major hurdle for me. There were odd occasions when I actually had one to myself but that was rare. Pilgrims invariably got up between 5 and 6am, even though it was dark outside. Little consideration was given to anyone who may have been still sleep as lights were turned on, bags were packed and there was little attempt to be quiet. I never really became accustomed to this as I have always been overly conscious of being considerate to others (part of my very strict upbringing) and found myself becoming quite angry on occasion, which was definitely not in the spirit of the Camino!
Many of the bathroom facilities I found extraordinarily inadequate. Given the number of pilgrims, one toilet and a couple of showers for 30 people seemed to be somewhat deficient. At the other end of the scale was one beautiful albergue, which had a bathroom attached to a 10 bed dormitory that was only occupied by women. There are also some albergues with communal showers, which are obviously not for the shy and retiring! Thankfully, I didn’t encounter too many of them. However, whatever the standard of bathroom, there was usually hot water and that is what matters when you are cold and wet!
Many albergues offer an evening meal although in the larger towns this was not always the case as there were so many other cafes and restaurants to choose from. The meals could either be at a set time with all pilgrims eating together or, if there was a cafe or restaurant as part of the albergue, pilgrims could eat when it suited them. As I always walked alone, I enjoyed the places where the meals were taken together as it provided a good opportunity to chat to other pilgrims, sometimes using a variety of languages! It also meant that I did not eat alone in a strange restaurant if I hadn’t managed to join up with someone as happened occasionally.
The meals themselves were fairly standard, homemade and always started with soup. This was usually followed by a choice of pork or chicken, or sometimes pasta, chips, and salad. Dessert was fruit, yogurt, ‘flan’ or, when in Galicia, Torte de Santiago. The soup was generally the tastiest and most nutritious part of the menu for me. The meal was always accompanied by a pitcher of wine. Wherever I stayed, with one exception, the price was €10 or €11 (at that time). The one exception, at Albergue Camynos, Ambasmestas, was for an entirely different calibre of meal.
If breakfast was available, it usually cost between €3 and €5 and was invariably bread, jam and coffee so provided sustenance but no more than that. However, there are plenty of tempting cafes and bakeries along the way so breakfast was never a problem.
Boots were never, ever, allowed in the dormitories. There were either racks in the entrance way or, in the very large albergues, there were whole rooms where footwear could be left to dry.
Given the sheer numbers of pairs, it was a wonder that everyone found their own again the next morning! I did have one exception though and this was in the smallest albergue. I was the last to leave as usual and there was only one pair of boots left. They looked like mine. They were the right size but I had only walked a few steps before I realised that they felt different. On closer inspection, they had a very comfy insole inserted. Either the Camino provided me with what I needed or they didn’t belong to me! A little while later, I caught up with two lovely English ladies that I had been chatting to the day before and realised my boots were on Colette’s feet and she hadn’t even realised they weren’t her boots!
There are carriers all the way along who will transport your pack and the albergues usually have the contact details for the local transport companies. It appeared that certain carriers covered specific parts of the route. The cost varied but I usually paid between €3 and €7, depending on the distance and the carrier. My backpack was left by the front desk (or wherever the albergue manager advised me to leave it) in the mornings with the transporter’s label attached and filled in with my name and destination. The albergue front desk normally had these labels but occasionally they were a bit hard to find! The packs were collected later in the morning and delivered to the next albergue. I only had one occasion when my pack didn’t arrive and that seemed to be the fault of the departure albergue, who had not given it to the transporter (someone else’s bag was picked up but not mine). In this instance, one of the the wonderful owners of the albergue in which I was staying went to fetch it for me.