Walk along any of El Camino’s numerous routes and you’re bound to come across one at some point or another. No, not a cross or a church or any other number of the religious paraphernalia one would expect to encounter on a pilgrimage, though there are plenty of those to be sure, but rather, a scallop shell. Adorning everything from T-shirts to buildings to the human body (tattoos of the shell were common), one could argue that the symbol has become nearly as inseparable from the popular pilgrimage as the saint who inspired it. Despite its omnipresence though, we never really grew tired of seeing depictions of the shell for each one was a reminder that we were not only on the right path, but following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims that had walked down that same path before us. And it is this interpretation of the scallop, as a symbol of the many roads one takes while walking on El Camino, that it draws its most significance. For, just as the many lines on the shell travel across it only to eventually converge at its base, so do the many routes and pilgrims of El Camino travel across Europe only to eventually become one in Santiago.
Below, a sampling of some of the many shells we came across during our time on El Camino.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
like inverted sun rays
at the calcified cathedral.
everyone of them.
Tracing the indentations,
each bump and groove
is a hill, rock, river traversed,
beer, blister, dinner shared.
Not to the ocean
or the rush
of circulating blood,
but to the stories
centuries of pilgrims are telling.
For nearly four years, the people of North Korea ran on “Pyongyang Time,” a self-imposedtime zone that kept clocks on the north side of the Korean Peninsula 30 minutes behind those of its neighbor to the south. As strange as this manipulation of something as universal as time may seem, it pales in comparison to that which takes place within the borders of a far less controversial country: Spain. Despite having lived in the country for nearly a year and having spent the past seven weeks walking through it day after day on El Camino, I am still trying to figure out what perception of time exists there. Familiar purveyors of hours and minutes can be seen in the form of clocks adorning local government buildings and watches strapped across wrists, but the time they read and the life that coincides with it obeys neither rules nor, in most cases, logic.
As an example, take the story we heard of a Zambian hostel owner currently living in Spain. After being invited to a couple’s home for dinner at 8 P.M., he arrived at the house surprised to find the kitchen lights off, no smell of cooking whatsoever, and one of his hosts still amidst an afternoon siesta. A little later, both husband and wife were awake, not busy in the kitchen heating up an already prepared dinner, rather serving drinks and chatting. At around 2 A.M. the cooking finally began and after dinner was over, coffee was served as the night was still apparently young. At 5 A.M. the evening came to a close and, instead of going to bed, the Zambian hostel owner instead opted to just drive back home as a new day, for him anyway, was about to begin.
Now, while this is an extreme example, it is by no means an anomaly. Ask anyone who has lived or traveled in Spain and you are bound to encounter a pantheon of head-scratching stories pertaining to the Spanish perception of time. On El Camino, having a loose grasp of this perception is crucial for nobody wants to walk for hours on end only to find that, at your destination, a service you need, whether it be a well-deserved meal or supplies from a pharmacy, inexplicably unavailable until an unforeseen hour or sometimes even day. And so, it is extremely important, whether visiting, living in, or walking through Spain, to have an understanding of the siesta and how everything else in Spain’s off-kilter timetable revolves around it.
Just as with Spanish, we had once thought of ourselves as competent in the language of siesta after we both had studied abroad in Spain as well as lived in Granada for nearly a year. Yes, we had our occasional mishaps as, for example, the time we suggested to go out for drinks on a weekend night at midnight. After uttering this apparent nonsense to our housemates, a great deal of scoffing ensued followed by an assurance that midnight would be far too early as the bars would be lifeless, not because the hour was too late but rather too early. And there was also the time we tried choosing when to go to a popular restaurant for dinner. Notorious for being hard to get a seat, we cleverly planned to arrive well after the dinner rush. Upon entering the doors at 11 P.M., a flustered hostess backed by a raucous crowd of diners asked us if we had a reservation. When we replied no, she made it very clear that we would not be getting a seat for the next couple of hours.
Despite these erroneous attempts at trying to conform to the Spanish hour though, most of our guesses were right and, returning to Spain seven years later to walk El Camino, we thought that our competence in the language of siesta had not grown rusty, unlike our Spanish. Oh, how we were wrong!
Take for instance the morning in which we made the silly assumption that, in a town with two restaurants that open at 7 A.M., one of them would serve food. Upon ordering a simple breakfast of tostado con tomate though, we were looked at as if we were crazy to be ordering food at such an hour and told that only drinks were being served at that time. Looking around the bar, we were perplexed to see a spattering of truck drivers sipping espresso as if they were in the midst of a grueling overnight drive and not on the cusp of what the rest of the world recognizes as the morning. And so, a day of walking was begun with no breakfast, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the following town we passed through around 8 A.M. didn’t have restaurants, all of which advertised themselves as breakfast establishments, closed altogether. At times we had to re-consult our watch to make sure that indeed it was 8 A.M. and not in fact 4 A.M. as it felt.
Apart from mornings, afternoons have also been known to cause their fair share of frustrations for pilgrims on El Camino, us undoubtedly included. Normally, you can count on a shop being open until 2 in the afternoon, closing for a few hours, and then opening again at 5 or 6 until finally closing for the day around 8.
There have been instances though where the only shop in the village will be closed in the afternoon or for the entire day, in which case we are stuck going to a restaurant for our meal. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but, as you’ve probably guessed by now, in Spain it is. In one such instance, we spent the better part of an hour wandering in and out of restaurants around 7 P.M. asking to see their menu and being told time and again that each place didn’t start serving food of any kind until 8:30.
In another case, we heard the story of a fellow pilgrim who walked over twenty miles and arrived in a town only to find the local restaurant inexplicably closed. Ravenous from the day’s trek, he decided to walk an extra mile more to a neighboring village where he was told that the restaurant wouldn’t be serving food for another two hours despite it being 6:30 P.M. Faced with either returning to the previous village with no prospects for dinner or waiting for the early bird hour to arrive, he chose the latter.
If grappling with the matter of business hours wasn’t enough, you also have to be aware of the days when villages and seemingly entire cities shut down. One of those days occur every week on Sunday and if you ever happen to find yourself amidst the many and seemingly random Spanish holidays or the dreaded bridge weekend, you can be really out of luck. One time in Granada, we were told all of our classes had been cancelled for the day. Curious as to the reason behind our unexpected day off, we asked our school’s secretary who had informed us if it was a holiday that day. “I don’t know,” she replied. Confused but nonetheless happy, we went for a walk through the city and were surprised to find a parade moving down one it’s major streets. Again we asked for the reason behind the celebrations to a bystander and, once again, got the response of “I don’t know.” So, even if nobody is quite sure what holiday is being celebrated, you can count on everybody, businesses included, to act as if it is the biggest holiday of the year.
So, after learning many hard lessons over the first couple of weeks on El Camino, we now find ourselves making Nostradamus-like predictions far into the hazy and unpredictable future of Spanish time for, and it took us this long to finally learn this, there really is no point in trying to adapt, only prepare.
What and where you eat first thing in the morning can set the tone for the rest of the day, a fact that becomes especially important when that day consists of walking around 15 miles, hand washing clothes and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed; among other things far from the realm of tasks associated with comfort and relaxation. While walking El Camino, we’ve eaten a range of healthy, in-between, and poor breakfasts, as well as experienced café culture, eating in various albergues, and having breakfast on the road. What you will find here are vegan breakfast ideas for both cafés and on your own (and cost comparisons of the two), a few cafés we particularly enjoyed, as well as a breakfast language key.
It is entirely up to you (and your bank account!) if you want to begin your morning at a café or on your own at an albergue. In our experience, an average breakfast bill for the two of us at a café was 5.45€, while an average breakfast assembled on our own was 1.90€.
It is difficult to find vegan options on any Spanish menu, but you will always have at least one option at breakfast: tostada con tomate (toast with tomato). This is a traditional breakfast dish and each café has its own flair…or lack there of (read: toasted slice of white bread paired with a small packet of glorified ketchup). In most cases though, it is a toasted baguette topped with grated tomato, olive oil and salt. And, while it is typical to have a cup of coffee alongside the tostada, it is quite uncommon for cafés to have non-dairy milk unless it is in a bigger city (Granada, Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca), and even then it can be difficult to find. So, to avoid having a confused and, at times, bothered “no” muttered back to you after asking for soy milk, it’s probably best to order tea instead.
Another important thing to keep in mind when choosing to have breakfast at a cafe is what time it opens. Spain is notorious for mealtimes that don’t mesh with those that the rest of the world obeys and if you are expecting a place that serves breakfast to be open at the time you are leaving town, you could be starting the day on an empty stomach. In Mérida, we waited around outside until 9:30 for a café to open (the first one of the nearly dozen that were in the plaza) and we were the only customers until 10:00!
On Your Own
Most villages you stay in will have a supermarket or at least a small store, which makes doing breakfast on your own always an option. A favorite breakfast of ours was muesli and soy milk paired with a piece of fruit. We would have a bowl for dessert after supper and then one for breakfast again the next day. If we had any leftover milk, we would leave it in the fridge with a note for the next day’s pilgrims to enjoy. The leftover muesli, which was always of the chocolate variety, would of course never be left behind, rather taken with us as a snack on the road. Occasionally, you will come across basic stores that don’t carry novelties like muesli and soy milk. In cases like this, no matter how scarce the store’s selection is, bread and fruit will always be an option.
If you’re craving a hot breakfast, having leftovers from the night before is always a good alternative. This always worked well for potato dishes but there were also many times when we would have to get creative as in when we used leftover pasta, reheated it in olive oil, and added a couple of apples we had on hand as well as a garnish of cinnamon. With a mug of chai tea, it was actually quite delicious! Our recommendation for ensuring as tasty of a breakfast as possible is to buy a box of tea and a plastic container of cinnamon; both are lightweight, easy to pack, and add a lot to whatever breakfast you are having!
Mérida: Malabar (in Plaza España, opens at 9:30)
non-dairy milk options for coffee
their tomato and avocado toast is great
Cáceres: Casa de Golosos (Calle Pario la Abuela, near Plaza Mayor, opens at 9:00)
non-dairy milk and large mugs of coffee (a luxury in Spain!
they have different oils for tostada con tomate (garlic, rosemary, orange, spicy pepper)
Salamanca: Atelier Clandestino (Calle Placentinos, No. 2, hours are from 9 to 4)
vegan snacks and desserts ranging from 3 – 6 Euros
non-dairy milk for coffee
the owners are a married couple who have walked El Camino before and are very nice
Breakfast Language Key
breakfast: desayuno (des-a-YU-noh )
tea: té (TEH)
coffee: café (cah-FEH)
(orange) juice: zumo (de naranja) (THU-mo [deh na-RAN-ha])
soy milk: leche de soja (LEH-cheh deh SO-ha)
tomato toast: tostada con tomate (tos-TAH-dah cohn to-MAH-teh)
lard: manteca de cerdo (mahn-TEH-cah deh THEHR-doh)—lard is a common ingredient in pastries
Do you have (soy milk)?: ¿Usted tiene (leche de soja)? (OO-sted tee-EH-ne…)
I want (coffee with soy milk): Quiero (café con leche de soja). (kee-EH-roh…)
What time does the café open?: ¿A que hora abre este café? (Ah keh OH-ra AH-breh EHS-teh…)
When walking El Camino, the variety of people one comes across can be just as numerous as the beds they’ve slept in or landscapes traversed.
In our experience, we have come across pilgrims that trek an upwards of sixty kilometers a day in an adrenaline-fueled test of their bodies endurance; or else a race towards a departing flight. And, on the less crazy end of the spectrum, those like Kate and I who are content with walking a fraction of that distance each day, teetering on the fine line of walking just enough to feel accomplished but not so much as to willingly bring chronic bodily ailments upon ourselves.
There are pilgrims who perform minor surgery on their feet day after day in the form of blister care and others who perform minor miracles by having no foot problems whatsoever. There are 87-year-old Italian priests and twenty-something college students. There are bikers, walkers, and apparently, horseback riders, though we haven’t seen any of the latter yet. There are early risers, late departers, eat-iners and going-outers. There are Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis, South Koreans, and Australians. There are the religious and those without any religious affiliation whatsoever, but in search of something outside of themselves all the same. And, while El Camino is traditionally a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, there is only one thing that unites all the different kinds of people, and it’s not Christianity, rather, the unwavering devotion to the all-knowing yellow arrows, or flechas amarillas.
Painted on rock faces, tree trunks, street curbs, and traffic signs, to name a few, the flechas are an ethereal lifeline of sorts, pointing each pilgrim in the right direction. While on El Camino, when we find ourselves lost along the way or unsure of whether or not we are moving in the right direction, we pray that a flecha reveals itself, giving us a sign that everything is okay. When we are in the dark or at a crossroads and there are no flechas to be found, we curse them for abandoning us. “How could such an omnipresent force of good be absent at such a time?” is a question that has often passed through our minds. Though, no matter how sparse their presence has been or how frustrated their absence has made us, whenever a flecha is spotted, we are thankful for it, for we are assured that we are moving in the right direction. And on El Camino, as in life itself, that’s all you can really ask for.
Since their inception over three decades ago, the flechas have become synonymous with the various routes to Santiago and for good reason. Despite being a pilgrimage route for over a millennia, by the 1970s, the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago had dwindled to the hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, a priest and El Camino scholar named Elías Valiña mapped out a route starting in the south of France and painted flechas along it every couple of kilometers or so to guide pilgrims towards Santiago. Elías chose to use yellow arrows because he had seen them guiding hikers through the mountains of France and took note not only of their visibility in the dull browns, grays, and greens of nature, but also of their durability to remain seen through variable weather and seasons. And so, the arrows were conceived and brought to life precisely at the time El Camino experienced a rebirth itself. The original route he mapped out, now popularly known as Camino Francés, attracts nearly 200,000 pilgrims every year and on countless other routes, including the one we have been walking on: La Via de la Plata, the arrows serve as a guiding hand, pointing pilgrims towards their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.
On your right—
On your left—
Only one way to go—
It´s a flecha fiesta—
We come to a fork:
Where are the flechas?
it´s time for siesta.
“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.