So, how does the film The Way compare with reality on the Camino at the moment? There is hardly any comparison between the two. Those scenes of Martin Sheen sipping Rioja and eating freshly prepared tapas … not going to happen. Imagine sleepy little villages where the sole bar used to serve about 20 people a day, and then imagine what happens when batches of up to 100 people suddenly arrive every hour or so. There’s still only 1 or 2 people working in the bar, but they are inundated with pilgrims wanting their credentials stamped, using the loo and wanting food and drink. The only way they can cope with it is to pre-make bocadillos – hard bread with a slice of ham or chicken in it. Even in the bigger places, on the Camino itself, that is all you can find to eat. No problem for a day or so, but after a few weeks your body starts to react against eating one more! Proper supermarkets are very few and far between, in fact I have only seen one and that was a Carrefour Express. The local supermarkets are similarly overwhelmed and if you find a crisp apple or a carrot that doesn’t bend, it’s your lucky day! The scenes of Martin Sheen eating evening meals of paella and other Spanish delicacies which the mama of the albergue had made, are similarly no longer possible. The nightly pilgrim’s menu is horribly the same every night: first course either a plate of lettuce with a few slices of tomato, or pasta with tomato frito, second course either pork or chicken with chips, third course either a natural yogurt, ice cream or a piece of fruit. Nothing wrong with any of it, except if that’s all you’re eating for over a month whilst taking significant amounts of exercise. But there’s no way to cope with the numbers otherwise. It’s easy to understand why some of the villages around the Pyrenees give out the Marie Celeste look, they don’t want their peace disturbed by hoards of pilgrims and they are close enough to the beginning of the route to be able to stay closed until they’ve passed through each day.
Accommodation is also completely different to the film. It’s not possible to just rock up somewhere at the end of the day and get a bed. Until last night I believed that the monasteries had a different attitude and that, even if they were full, they would allow you to sleep on the floor rather than turn pilgrims away. However, they too are overwhelmed and last night I saw three individual women (two of them in their 60s) who were weary and footsore refused shelter and told to walk on, even though there was no guarantee they would find a bed, or floor space, in the next village 5kms away. It was getting dark, freezing cold, the other people I was with who watched the refusals happen, felt that it was a disaster waiting to happen.
I was relieved that Pete saw what a bun fight the Camino had become whilst he was here, seeing as it’s his opinion I value the most. He left vowing not to eat another bocadillo for weeks! At Madrid airport he met a 25 year old German who was leaving the Camino due to a strained hamstring. He too comfirmed that the Camino was over crowded and not what he expected.
The good news is that it’s a UNESCO world herritage site, so they will have to sort it out soon-ish. The action of the Roncesvalles monastery last week of closing 100 beds seems weird but actually makes some sense. Roncesvalles is the large reformed monastery at the top of the Pyrenees where Martin Sheen is seen sleeping on the first night. After they built they new 300 bed dormitary, they kept the old 100 bed one available for overspill in high summer, but this year from Easter onwards it became full all the time and the food, staff and water infrastructure couldn’t cope. So now it’s permanently shut.
In my humble opinion they simplest way to get The Way back to what it used to be is for Santiago diocese to take back control over the credentials that are issued, perhaps only issuing 150,000 per year. At the moment you can get a credential for 2 euros from hundreds of places and no doubt the tour operators have boxes of them. You cannot stay in any albergue without a credential. You cannot obtain the Compostella at the end of the walk without a credential which has been stamped twice a day during the last 100kms for walkers and 200kms for cyclists and donkey riders.
I have given myself two more light days of walking to Burgos and then I will make a decision. If my ankle needs more treatment and is not improving, I’m coming home. Maybe I’ll return later to complete the walk, as many people do. If my ankle is getting better then I’m going to Decathlon to buy a cheap bike. I’m not here to get hurt or frightened if I can’t find a bed at night. If that floats other people’s boats, no worries, they’re welcome to come to the Camino and do that to themselves, but it’s not for me. With a bike I will be able to get off the Camino quickly if I feel I’m getting into a problem, and once off the route I’m fairly sure there will be no difficulty in finding shelter. So that’s the plan, and if anyone is thinking of walking the Camino it might be wise to wait a year or so. I’m sure the over-crowding will be sorted out, but this year’s influx has taken everyone by surprise.