Refugios, and/ or finding a bed on the Camino.

A friend on Facebook wanted to know more about hostels, accommodation, curfews &c on the Camino – so here goes…

The classic place to stay on the Camino is in pilgrim hostels – also known as refugios, or albergue de peregrinos (or albergue for short). These come in two basic categories, the non-commercial and the commercial, which may or may not imply a difference in price or standard of comfort…

The non-commercial refugios are run by the local council (refugio municipale, or muni),a parish church (parrochiale), a religious order, or possibly one of the pilgrim confraternities who exist to assist pilgrims, such as the British Confraternity of St James, who have a refugio in Rabanal. These are often partly or wholly staffed by volunteers, so at the very least you do your own washing up. They tend to the spartan: big dormitories with minimal shower provision, and bunk beds which tend to the rickity. They are, however, cheap: mostly still €5-7 a night, and some of them only ask for voluntary donations. (It is the height of bad form to abuse this. Some pilgrims really are unable to find €5 every night for a bed, but everyone else should reckon to leave at least €7). The main downside from our point of view was the fact that the refugio day meshes poorly with what a cyclist might want to do, and with the Spanish attitude to evening meals – the curfew is strictly observed, and if you’re not back by ten, you’re locked out. In the sole refugio in Leon, the curfew was actually 9.30, which makes it quite difficult to have a proper dinner. Meanwhile, the lights go on, ruthlessly, at six – though you may well have been woken by the inevitable loons who get up at three in the morning to walk in the dark. I do not understand these people at all (especially when there isn’t even hot weather to worry about!) 

Once you get into Galicia, the municipal albergues are all built to a standard, very ugly pattern, and illustrated with a stylised cartoon mouse (who we nicknamed St Mouse).

The private albergues are usually a bit pricier – though not necessarily, the Albergue de nostra Señora del Pilar, where we stayed in Rabanal, and which was the nicest refugio we found, was only €5 a night. These vary tremendously, from being basically indistinguishable from non-commercial albergues, to bordering on cheap hotels. Some of them have private rooms, or 4-6 bed rooms. Most of them will do your laundry for a fee (usually around €8 to wash and dry). There are even one or two super-luxury albergues that have swimming pools, though I can’t see the point of this given that most pilgrims don’t pack swimming costumes. On the other hand, having suffered the snoring, I think the people in Pamplona who are running a ‘capsule hostel’ are geniuses, and I would definitely have stayed there had we spent a night in Pamplona. It combines appropriately sparse surroundings with the chance of privacy and a decent night’s sleep. The refugios can be hard on introverts, and in any case, you’ll need earplugs and a torch.

Private refugios are more generous with the curfews – 10.30, or even 11 is standard. I can’t imagine you’d want to stay out much beyond that anyway – certainly we were always shattered – but it does take a good deal of pressure off finding food if you got in late.

Virtually everywhere seems to provide free wifi. You are expected to bring your own sleeping bag, though pillows are provided and there are usually spare blankets. In Galicia, all the refugios provide you with a paper sheet and pillow slip, which is an excellent idea (they seem to be made of the same stuff as tea bags). The authorities work hard to control bedbugs, but it can still be an issue – though not one we faced, thank goodness.

However, refugios are not the only options. You can also opt for hotels (which are fairly cheap in Spain), pensions, or rooms above a bar. We stayed in all of the above at one point – and in Leon, we were even driven to Airbnb, so full was the city (there is also only one refugio. Leon is not really pilgrim-friendly, unlike Pamplona). The better hotels often have special rates for pilgrims. With the exception of Airbnb properties, they will all stamp your pilgrim ID.

   
    
Scenes from our favourite refugio, in Rabanal.

  The most eccentric decor we encountered, in Triacastella (though the refugio was perfectly nice). 
A bad photo of St Mouse, with a devotee…

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Day 3: Estella to Navarrete

This turned out to be a bit of a day for humility! It contained some miserable lows, but some very unexpected good stuff, too. It was a day when we, in different ways, all had to confront hard things and unwelcome truths – and find the strength to go on, even if that also meant admitting that we weren’t going to be able to stick to the original plan exactly….

The day got off to a slightly gloomy start. Parochial refugio tend to be ruthless about chucking you out as close to seven as they can. Now, in Spain, in September, that means before it’s light enough to cycle…

However, we were able to have coffee and toast – and to admire the pilgrim art/ graffiti – before discovering the old part of town, which we’d completely missed the night before, and having a sustaining orange juice and tortilla (a remarkably good cycling breakfast, incidentally).

   
 In the refugio…

 

Church of San Miguel, near the refugio  
   

Palace of the kings of Navarre.

   
Detail on palace

  
San Pedro

Not far outside Estella you find Irache, where there is the famous wine fountain. It was originally established by hospitable Benedictines, and is continued by the local vintners. Sadly it was far too early in the day for a proper drink, but we had to sample it, and it’s not bad wine at all! Amusingly, a vending machine nearby sells tinned crackers, pate, and asparagus, so you could have a very civilised tapas or picnic lunch…

  
The vinyard’s website has more information- and a webcam.

Once passed Irache, the route became hilly again: 

 The distant cliffs were impressive.

   
The striking conical hill of Monjardin, crowned with a ruined castle.

 The little town of Villamajor de Monjardin – and its vinyards!
We made it into Los Arcos, a fine old town, for lunch in the main square, by St Mary’s parish church.

 

Despite the moody sky, it stayed dry while we drank coke and Kas Limon and ate patatas bravas and ham sandwiches…  
 The town gate and St Mary’s church
   
The choir gallery had a particularly gruesome depiction of St Roch, a patron of pilgrims, reportedly cured of plague by friendly dogs licking his sores.

 Baroque splendour in St Mary’s.

After lunch we headed into Logroño- it quickly became quite flat, but also very dull and dusty. We spent much of this stage wondering when we would actually cross the border into La Rioja…  

   Logroño skyline.
 
Logroño cathedral, a rather grim building. The smudges of black are from where local left-wingers throw paint at the decidedly fawning inscription to Franco.

Leaving Logroño was harder than expected – we started off on a good cycle path up to a reservoir:

   
 We should have been able to get on to the N120, but the road was marked as closed. So we carried on up the pedestrian path, which brought us to a fence where pilgrims traditionally make and leave crosses. So we did too, and said a prayer.  

The rest of the road towards Navarrete was somewhat dull, though it did have this splendid roadside billboard:  

When we got to Navarrete, we were faced with a choice, to go on or stay put. We probably could have gone on – but acknowledged that we needed a decent rest. As we came into the village, an old man stopped us and, as far as we could tell, asked if we were pilgrims, and told us that we must see the church’s altar. That decided us, so we stopped, even though it meant staying behind our target. We checked into a delightful, if eccentrically decorated Pension Peregrinado, had our washing done, and went to the pilgrim mass and blessing at the parish church. After the mass, the priest called us into the sacristy, where he showed us the impressive collection of plate – and a breathtaking altarpiece depicting Our Lady by Ambrosius Benson.

Totally unexpected. After leaving our names on the prayer board, and heading off for one of the best meals we had on the Camino, we were left reflecting on unexpected graces, and the fact that we’d have missed the experience altogether had we been determined to stick to the plan. Food for reflection…  

   The day was the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows – hence the image. 

Day 2 (Espinal-Estrella)

A mixed bag in terms of the cycling. Although the general trend of the day was a descent as far as Pamplona, there were some rolling hills early on. We got off to a bit of a slow start, too – it was a dark, cold morning.

   
Gentle countryside – to start with!

 The little town of Erro was followed by the really quite considerable climb up to the Alto de Erro. Jamie and Jo did a fair bit of pushing at this point, though it did allow conversation – including the question: was Jonathan actually half man, half bike, given his ability to just keep going up hils…? More serious things came up though, like grief and the meaning of life.
 Early morning mist still lingers in the foothills of the Pyrenees…

  Made it to the summit!

 There followed an exhilarating descent on hairpin bends to Zubiri. Apparently it’s a popular location for road races, and certainly most of the cyclists we saw were locals on racing bikes. 
We stopped at the sports centre cafe for surprisingly good coffee and some Spanish omelette,  before heading on to Pamplona. The German cycling guide remarked that “apart from the magnesite factory, the scenery is charming”, which sounds rather like damning with faint praise, but is actually pretty accurate.  

We perhaps spent longer in Pamplona than was strictly wise, but we needed to visit a bike shop, have lunch (rather spoiled for our resident vegetarian by Surprise Bacon in the patatas bravas), and of course see the cathedral. Had we had more time, it would have been good to have stopped there.

   
  The Basque country loves flags…   
Tenebrae ‘hearse’.

  
In the cloisters of the cathedral.

  
The countryside seemed to get more arid outside Pamplona, which was ironic, as the weather began to deteriorate. It was also hillier than we’d quite realised!

    
An encounter with a local cyclist and a foot pilgrim. Cycling the Camino allows you to be both on the main route and lost…

    
    
The last two shots are of Puenta la Reina, the queen’s bridge where two branches of the Way meet.

 
There followed a miserable 20k to Estella, through thunderstorms, passing what were probably interesting places, but it became one of the low points of the whole pilgrimage. Things weren’t improved by finding the first refugio full. Fortunately the parish refugio offered us a rather basic bed – but we were very late in and it was a scramble to get a shower and food before curfew.

On the other hand, we were comforted both by a double rainbow, and by the bar we found’s odd approach to sandwich names… 

   

Day 1, revisited 

I spoke a bit about the first day’s cycling here. I didn’t mention that we passed through Roncevalles, the sight of the epic battle between Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and the Moors – or possibly the Basques… There’s a monastery and some interesting churches, including one where pilgrims who died crossing the Ibañeta pass were buried. We also were afflicted by thunderstorms and heavy rain, so we didn’t get as far as we’d hoped.

However, the refugio we found in the little town of Espinal – Irugoienea, not sure what it means in Basque – was comfortable, and we had a decent meal and a beer. And then we went back to the dorm, and slept.

Some more photos:

  Heading up through the village of Valcarlos to the path, we saw this mural.   The chapel at the summit of Ibañeta – we stopped for Kendal mint cake.

 The monastery at Roncevalles.
  Inside the monastery.  Church of St James

 A sample of Basque…

 Help! There’s a rat in my refugio! 🙂

The journey before the journey…

As I posted at the time, our journey to the Camino was by train, and a bit of an epic. Stage one was simple: to get to St Pancras, where we joined up with Jamie, the friend who was accompanying us, recieved a blessing as pilgrims – and a blessing on our bikes – from another friend, Fr David, who you see in action here:

  
I’m not sure what the passers by thought of it, but it seemed right to seek a blessing at the start of the journey… At this point, Jo decided to name her bike Teresa, as in Avila. What better patron than that loving, tough, visionary saint, who spent so much time travelling for God in Northern Spain?

We then checked out bikes in, had a slightly ridiculous cocktail with a third friend, before making our way out to Golders Green and the fourth kind friend we were staying with, where we stayed up far too late talking. Her hospitality was much appreciated!

The next day was very long. We got a very early Eurostar, then cycled across Paris down the Champs Élysées – very exciting if you grew up watching the Tour de France – walked through the Tuilleries, before we made it to the Gare Montparnasse and partially disassembled Jonathan’s bike, as restrictions on the TGV meant that it had to go on in a bag, while Jo’s and Jamie’s could be wheeled on.

   
   
This bit was all very smooth. Paris turns out to be an extremely bikable city, and the drivers are very considerate to cyclists – at one point, we got very confused mid junction and nobody even honked. The first TGV leg, to Bordeaux, was also very good. Unfortunately, after that we ended up waiting four hours with conflicting information and little food, as the French railways seemed to be undergoing a spectacularly bad day. When we finally reached Bayonne, it was nearly eleven – no nice French dinner for us! But the hotel was comfortable and the night warm – we even managed a very pleasant glass of wine with a view of the old town…

  

Home again…

but the journey continues. In a way it’s easy to be a pilgrim in the physical sense – at least if you have decent health and an average amount of physical strength. The pilgrimage of the heart to God, that’s the tricky one…
I’m going to continue to post here for a bit. The plan of updates from the road didn’t work too well, but I have photos and a paper journal, so I’d like to record a version of it here. I hope it will interest you.

Thank you for your support.