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.