Walking the Camino Frances in Our Retirement

Planning ahead means getting into shape, collecting the bare necessities, and planning when, how, and for how long you will manage your Camino de Santiago.

If you can afford and plan to use hotel accommodation, restaurant meals, and luggage carried then this account is not for you. In our five Caminos between 2006 and 2015, we stayed in albergues, cooked our own or shared meals and carried our own backpacks. Our last Camino we were 72 and 77 years old and it took us 44 days of walking compared with between 30 and 33 days earlier.

We flew from Vancouver to Gatwick with Air Transat and out of Stanstead with Ryanair or Gatwick with Easyjet to Biarritz – the best airport for the start of the Camino Frances. The disadvantage of this was that many flights arrive in Biarritz too late to catch the last train from Bayonne to St. Jean so twice we stayed in Bayonne catching an early train the next day. In Bayonne, we could stock up on picnic fare for our crossing of the Pyrenees or if the weather was bad via Valcarlos. When we did arrive late in St. Jean Pied de Port not much accommodation is left and once we did book ahead with L’Esprit du Chemain who kept dinner waiting for our late train. The Pilgrim Office may be closed for dinner when you arrive but will be sure to open later to make sure all pilgrims are accommodated even if it means on the gym floor of the school.

Camino Frances Pyrnees

Before we left we practiced walking with boots and packs at least 20km especially up and down hills. We picked September/October to be able to harvest most of our garden, though I believe April/May is also considered ideal. Summer is hot and busy and winter can mean snow on the mountains until March.

Our boots were well broken in and we carried comfortable hiking socks and inserts (cotton or polypropylene inside wool), comfortable quick dry underwear including long underwear for sleeping and cold weather, two pairs of zip-off hiking pants, two quick dry tops one long and one short sleeve, a fleece jacket, rain jacket and pants or good poncho and backpack cover, a hat for rain and for sun, sandals for town or the shower and a good headlamp for walking in the dark. Some pilgrims also carry street clothes, but we didn’t bother. We had lightweight sleeping bags, washing gear with quick dry towels, first aid kit and medications. The hospitaleros  do carry good first aid materials and most villages have well equipped pharmacies. We don’t carry a cell phone, camera, or computer but some do and there are plugs for recharging in most albergues. We used the computers in the albergues, libraries, tourist offices or municipal building we passed through.

Backpacks Camino de SantiagoMost albergues with kitchens do have equipment, except those in Galicia, so for cooking, we stop at local shops and markets to buy what we need. We carry a lightweight pot, Tupperware, zip locks and cutlery for leftovers for lunch and one year we brought instant coffee and spices from home. We always ask if anyone would like to share a communal meal unless there is one in the albergue. We carry one litre bottles of water and keep them filled and a lightweight shopping bag. Lots of salads, fruit, fresh food when available, soup, pasta, and yogurt seems to fill the bill. Whenever we can we enjoy the local cheeses and sausage with fresh bread for our picnics.

All our essentials go into zip locks in our neck pouches which we guard carefully: Pilgrim Passport, passport, tickets and extra cash.

Large places have banks and cash machines, but smaller places take only cash so we carry small bills for food and accommodation. Some accommodation is listed as “Donativo” and we pay whatever is fair. One place closed down because pilgrims taking advantage meant they had no money to repair the roof. At Rabanal, however, they were able to put solar panels to heat the showers because pilgrims were more generous. We tried to stay in “parochial”, municipal, as well as many private and generally paid between 7 and 15 or more euros per person for a bunk bed with showers and sometimes a kitchen – a real bargain. We always tried to leave the albergue and the hospitalero with a good impression. Many are volunteers and they all take very good care of us.

There are places where it’s worth or essential to book ahead. If we decide to stay in Bayonne, we book a hotel near the station, we have booked in St. Jean, but the Pilgrim Office will find a place too. In 2015 we decided to split the climb up the Pyrenees by staying in Kayola (or Orrison) and booked that stay. Now we read that one needs to book Roncesvalles, (www.albreguederoncessvalles.com/reservas.php), where you can also reserve meals as well as a bed.

We always tried to arrive at each destination by 2pm to be sure of getting a bed. The routine is to park one’s backpack in order outside the door if you decide to explore or shop before it opens. It is a good idea to shop then since Spain does have a siesta in the afternoon. If the albergue is full the hospitalero may phone around to find you a place or may give you a mattress on the floor.

Three times we have climbed the Pyrenees, once in 100kph gales, but the views are well worth it. Twice we went through Valcalos because of bad weather. Both arrive in Roncesvalles if you leave early in time for the 4pm opening. The next day in Basque country is also beautiful but not so steep. The route to Pamplona is green like Galicia, crossing rivers and through beech woods. Once we stopped at Larranosana which has no shop, but usually we stop at Zubiri which has several.

Day three ends at Pamplona. Sometimes we have moved on the Cizur Menor to stay with Roncal, the place with the lovely garden. Once we stayed at a German run albergue in a park called Paderdorn, but our favorite was the cozy convent at Trinidad de Arre on the bridge before Pamplona.

Then up the hill to Alto de Perdon by the windmills and steeply down the other side to Puente la Reina where our albergue is run by the Padres Reparadores which also has a nice garden. Though once when we couldn’t get in we had to move on the municipal albergue at Cirauqui – a long day and up a steep hill.

All five times we’ve enjoyed the municipal albergue at Estella at the entrance of town. But we always made sure to explore the rest of Estella with its lovely churches and Town Square where families gather in the evening. Three times we stopped at Isaac Santiago in Los Arcos, but twice we went on to Casa Mari at Torres del Rio. But once all that was left were mattresses on the kitchen floor. But Mari had stocked her refrigerator and cupboard with zucchini and tomatoes for everyone to share.

The last town in Navarre was Viana where we stayed in Andre Munoz. Some prefer the albergue with the nuns who provide a meal but one sleeps on mats on the floor. In 2015 we were lucky enough to arrive on a Saturday during a fiesta with music, fireworks and Running of the Bulls through town. What amazed us was that children dressed in white letting off firecrackers stayed so clean!

Then on to La Rioja through vineyards to Logrono where we cross massive community gardens. We stayed there once but mostly hike on to the hill town of Navarette, the river town of Najara and the village of Ventosa.

Then on to Azofra where the popular albergue has two beds to a room and a beautiful kitchen and dining hall. Once we stopped at Redecilla to avoid the rain, once to Granon where the choice was either the Bell Tower with communal meals and mats on the floor or a private albergue with paid meals. The Pilgrim Menu is usually soup, sometimes meat but often vegetarian main meal, bread wine, and a light dessert. Our favorite stop in La Roija has been the lovely Casa del Santo at Santo Domingo.

Next towards Burgos. From Redecilla we stopped at Villafranca Montes de Oca at the old schoolhouse. Four times we stayed at Belorado with the storks on the church roves, three times at the private Quatro Cantones with a swimming pool in the garden, and once (our favorite) at the cozy Parish Hostel run by the Swiss Association near the entrance of the city. Before Burgos is the lovely wilderness of Atapuerca renowned for its ancient people. We picnic in San Juan de Ortega then head to the private albergue in the village of Atapuerca. There is now a shop in the village. Each time there we were greeted by the same lovely hospitalera.

From Atapuerca we have stayed either in Burgos or on to Tarjados. The first Municipal albergue was in the park, but it now sits up the hill behind the cathedral. But in 2015 we managed to find the lovely Divina Pastora Albergue and stay the night. In Tarjados the municipal albergue does not have a kitchen but we have brought picnic supplies from Burgos and the hospitalero leaves a thermos of coffee and some cookies for the morningJ

We have never stayed in San Bol, but a friend who has loves it for its peacefulness. We love walking in the early mornings for the peacefulness walking in the dark (with headlamps when needed) with Orion on one side and the Milky Way on the other. But we have to turn around to enjoy the sunrise.

Our next stops have been either Hornillos or Hontanas both with a single street downhill typical of villages in the area. This is sheep country and we have enjoyed watching massive herds returning to the barns after spending all day grazing on the already harvested wheat fields. Next on to Castrojeriz once staying in the private albergue of Casa Nostra, once in a beautiful Casa Rural when all the albergues were full, and finally in the comfortable San Esteban at the end of the village. Next stage is up and down the steep Alto Mostelares with a very welcome van at the top selling drinks and fruit.

Into Palencia where we stayed twice in two different albergues at Boadilla,  once at Itero de Vega, once at Poblacion de Campos and twice at Fromista. This is irrigation canal country where sheep graze the harvested fields in fall. Once we watched while a shepherd and his dog herded a flock from one field to another when a sheep fell into a well and had to be pulled out by his shepherd none the worse for its fall.  In Fromista we discovered a cake shop selling enormous white cakes large enough to be shared by three or four pilgrims.

One of our favorite towns on the Camino is Carrion de Los Condes where we stayed at the Santa Maria Albergue with the singing nuns. They welcome us with tea and treats and invite everyone to share a meal and a sing-song. There is a park by the river where we once joined a Policeman’s’ Picnic and once we joined a wedding in the church where the bride arrived by horse-drawn carriage. Happy memories.

Our next destinations were usually Ledigos, Terradillos or San Nicolas, but in 2015 we needed to stop earlier at the lovely municipal albergue at Calzadilla de la Cuerza – spotless and with a most helpful hospitalero.

Next the province of Leon where at Sahagun we’ve stayed at La Trinidad. A very interesting town to explore with lots of history. But three times we’ve moved on to the farming village of El Burgo and the popular albergue called Domenic Laffi. After that, we’ve once, because of heavy rain, stopped at Religios at a private albergue called La Parada. But we usually head for the municipal albergue in Mansilla de las Mulas run by the very helpful Laura.

Leon Camino Frances

Next into the city of Leon where the Benedictine nuns run a large albergue and provide breakfast every morning. But be sure to return by 9:30 or the doors will be locked! Beyond Leon, we head straight for Villadangos where they will if you wish serve a lovely communal meal. Then we head for Orbigo with its Jousting Bridge and the friendly artistic San Martin.  But our favorite walled city is Astorga and the spotless Servias de Maria Albergue on the way in. All rooms are small and spotless and there is a terrace overlooking the countryside around. The Gaudi Palace, the Cathedral, the Chocolate and the Roman Museums and the walls are all well worth a visit.

Twice we’ve climbed to the ruined village of Foncebadon to stay. It is gradually being rebuilt slowly. Once we stayed at the rebuilt church and once at a vegetarian albergue where we celebrated a birthday with a Beatles’ Party. But three times we stopped at Rabanal at Gaucelmo where the lovely hospitaleros serve tea and breakfast and have an herb garden, orchard and a library with a fireplace. Since installing solar panels they have the best showers on the Camino Frances.

Downhill from Cruce de Ferera is a very difficult scramble. We have made it to Molinaseca and even to Ponferrada, but in 2015 we stopped at Riego de Ambros to give our knees a rest. In Molinaseca we suggest the private albergue must be better than the municipal one where we stayed, though in summer you can sleep on the deck.

The road to Ponferrada is a sidewalk unless you take the longer route through the countryside which we did once and got lost! But the San Nicolas Albergue is welcoming with living, dining and kitchen areas and a garden.

In 2015 we made it only to Cacabelos before stopping at the church albergue with its double rooms and stayed for two nights because of illness. Our usual destination was Villafranca del Bierzo on the Valcarce River where we stayed at the municipal albergue. A friend enjoyed her stay in Pieros at a private vegetarian albergue el Sabal y la Luna where she was asked and agreed to stay and work for a week.

Along the Valcarce valley, we have stayed at  Pereje’s municipal albergue, (not recommended), Vega del Valcarce Municipal, (friendly), Trabadelo’s private Crispeta, (excellent), Herrerias private vegetarian, (excellent) and our very favorite La Faba run by the German Association. Then the steep climb up to O Cebreio which some pilgrims reach on horseback!

In Galicia even though many albergues have kitchens, they do not always stock them hoping that pilgrims support the local restaurants instead. The municipal albergue at O Cebreiro is one of these. Sometimes we have hiked on to Hospital de la Condesa a renovated schoolhouse further on. Another pilgrim stayed in a private albergue at Alto de Poio where they had hunted a wild boar which they barbecued for dinner. She said it was delicious. Our stops at Alto de Poio have been for a second breakfast with the tastiest honey we have ever tasted.

Next stop is usually Triacastella where Aitzena is our home for the night. It has a beautiful living-dining area, a small well-stocked kitchen and even a bathtub hidden away. Twice we’ve taken the route to Samos. Once we stayed in the monastery one huge room with murals. Better is the new private Val de Samos with cozy duvets and a well-equipped kitchen. Then on to Sarria which, because it is about 100km from Santiago, is the starting point for many pilgrims!

In 2006 we passed on to the village of Barbedelo to stay in the municipal albergue there, but usually, we have stayed in the private Don Alvaro in Sarria with a lovely garden, equipped kitchen and even a sitting room with a fire. In 2015 we discovered the Monastery de la Magdalena at the top of the hill out of Sarria which became our very favorite place.

There is a very long hike to Portomarin where we usually stayed at the municipal albergue until we discovered the well- equipped and very friendly private Ultrea. Portomarin often has evening entertainment with pilgrims and locals in the squares and arcades. Once farmers were stomping grapes in a tub on a trailer and they shared grapes with us.

Up the long hill out of Portomarin we have stayed both at Gonzar and at Ligonde with a group of American missionaries who rebuilt an old barn. But this has since been closed. At Palas de Rei we discovered San Marcos near the church of the same name – very cozy with a living area, garden, and kitchen where you can buy breakfast before you leave. Once we stayed at Casanova’s Municipal Albergue, but mostly we head on to Melide where both the municipal and the private Pereira are good. Once we stayed at the oldest albergue on the Camino at Ribadiso, but the washrooms are down the garden so this is not convenient for us oldies!

In Arzua we have usually stayed in the convenient municipal albergue but in 2015 discovered that the old shoemaker’s shop on the way out has been converted to a lovely private Albergue da Fonte- friendly comfortable and well equipped. Weather permitting our favorite activity in every town and village has been to find where the local folk hang out and enjoy all the activities there.

Arca do Pino has a lovely municipal albergue but has been treated badly by many of the pilgrims who have partied and destroyed all the kitchen equipment that was there earlier maybe because it is the last stop before Santiago. In 2006 we heard all the noise and were dismayed to see the damaged kitchen in the morning.

Natasha and Vic Fiket in 2015 with Jeong da Jeong’s portrait

Twice we have stayed at Monto do Gozo where we were allowed three days. But in 2015 it had been turned into a homeless shelter. We never did see homelessness in Santiago de Compostela, friends showed us their favorite Albergue Acuario on the way into town and near the bus station and shopping centers. Friendly hospitalera and a lovely well-equipped kitchen. So we leave our packs there before heading into Santiago to get our Compostella and visiting the Pilgrim Office to print out our boarding passes and meet other pilgrims.

Another friend once stayed at the lovely albergue at St. Martin de Pinerio which is also a high-class hotel. We usually stay three days in Santiago which has many lovely places to explore. We are always sad to leave Santiago and to say goodbye to the many friends we have met along the way. We always collect e-mail addresses and have kept in touch with pilgrims we have met along the way.

This post was written by Natasha Fiket from Canada.  Natasha and her husband, Vic, have walked the Camino Frances five times since their retirement.

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13 Comments

  1. Georgina on February 5, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Natasha, a very big WOW and WELL DONE to both of you for your inspiring and descriptive story of your Camino journey’s. My partner and I hope to do the Camino in the next year or two and are busy planning for the day. Thank you for the reviews you have generously given regarding the Alburgue’s you have stayed in. You have inspired and motivated us to get started sooner rather than later and we look forward to our Camino journey and hope it is as rewarding as yours has been.

    • natasha fiket on February 5, 2018 at 6:15 pm

      Hi, Georgina, Best of luck:) You won’t regret it:) Make sure you have excellent rain gear though If you stay in private albergues, you can book ahead by phone:0
      .

  2. Joni on February 5, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. Now that we have retired, we wil be following in your footsteps!

  3. Leslie Greer on February 5, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    Hello Natasha and Vic, thank you so much for sharing … I will retire next December and plan to do the pilgrimage April/May 2019. I will be 69 and hope to spend many retired years hiking the world and hope to meet many inspiring people such as yourselves along the way!

    • natasha fiket on February 5, 2018 at 6:18 pm

      Hi, Leslie, sounds wonderful:) As long as we were flexible about how far we could walk each day, and if necessary (illness or tendonitis etc) take the bus or stay over, it will be fine. We have met many lovely friends and only once had problems with a fellow with issues. Laura in Mansilla helped me deal with him and said to call the police if necessary!

  4. Maggi on February 5, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Hi Natasha. It’s really great to take part of your experience on the Camino. I have walked once from SJPP to Burgos and once from Pamplona Santiago. Now that I’m retired I will surely do it again. It’s a lovely way to spend a few weeks, and surely very healthy. I always stay in pilgrim hostels, it’s an important part of the great experience of the Camino.
    Last summer I did part of the Le Puy en Velay Camino ending in Cahors, then I had to to go back to work. This summer I will continue from Cahors and walk to SJPP or maybe to Pamplona. The Pyrenees are so beautiful, and so is the walking in France and les Gites (the French pilgrim hostels) are lovely, and very often include very good dinner and breakfast.
    Good luck on your next Camino!

    • natasha fiket on February 13, 2018 at 6:15 pm

      Hi, Maggie,
      Congratulations on your camino through France. We hear it’s not so crowded and very beautiful:) You’re right about the Pyrenees:0 It’s just as we got older we were happy to stay overnight in Kayola and not be in such a rush:) There is a kitchen there so we could get up early7, have breakfast and be first out in the morning:)

      Natasha

  5. Tom Pierce on February 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Great read. Can not wait to do my first camino after retirement in April/May 2023.

  6. Margaret Byrne on February 5, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    Thank you for sharing, I am doing it from 28th April to 2nd June.. I am 68yrs. So lovely to hear of your experiences…

  7. Sandra on February 6, 2018 at 9:52 am

    Hi Natasha,
    thanks to you sharing this with the community. Reading this, I yearn to walk again…

  8. Donna Lasser on February 12, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Natasha, I am walking the Camino in September with two childhood girlfriends. Loved your article. Thanks for sharing and for all of the tips. You two are such an inspiration. The three of us are in our 60th year and we thought we were getting up there in years. I live on the Sunshine Coast of BC. I assume you both are from BC also? Is there any way we can chat on the phone sometime or hook up in person, depending on where in BC you are from? Please email me with contact details, if you so desire. Thanks again.

  9. James on February 14, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Excellent story! I love reading these types of adventures people have on the Camino. I have been planning on going for a couple of years now and will finally do it April 2019. I will be retired at 55 and can take all the time in the world.

    Thank you for sharing!

  10. Dorothy Hogan on February 14, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Natasha

    Well done. My husband and I plan to walk the Camino , starting in late April or early May . I just retired two years ago so we are 66 and 65 respectively , so you have dismissed some of my lingering doubts.
    My first worry was the initial stage crossing the Pyrenees via the Route Napoleon so was glad to see that we can break the journey if needed.
    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

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