During my three week trek through the French route of The Camino de Santiago, the hours, the days, the towns, and the people started to mush together. I didn’t know if it was Sunday or Tuesday or if we had stopped in for a mid-morning snack in Rabé de Las Calzadas or in Hornillos del Camino.
Details have to be quickly jotted down in a journal or else, they are lost until somewhere down the road (literally or figuratively) you taste a tortilla de patatas that is as mouth-watering as the one you pounced on at the rustic family-filled bar in Carrión de los Condes in a corner while your friend rested her head on the table and the waiter gave a concerned look and you brushed in him giving him a we’re-fine-face, and Are You With Me assaulted your ears for the first time.
Or maybe you’re running one day through your suburban neighborhood in the humid heat and a wave of nausea overcomes you, because, this has happened before, and it’s a sun/heat/stomach feeling that is matched by the aches and rumbling vomit you experienced walking the 17-kilometer stretch to reach Calzadilla de la Cueza at 3:00 in the afternoon in June.
Some memories return with time when you least expect them, but some, despite the running together, were too unforgettable to backlog. Some of these come in the form of Albergues, the pilgrims’ hostels. The following seven albergues were the most memorable of the 500km that we did from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela.
Name: Albergue Amanecer
Location: Villarmentero de Campos
What made it unforgettable: Kimberly and I had been slow. Our third day walking, we still weren’t used the feeling of your feet bones crumbling under you, or the creaking of your hips as you took each step. We were approaching Villarmentero de Campos at the end of an endless (ironic?), sweaty day, as we walked past an bright yellow arch that read “Albergue Amanecer.” Barely able to take any more steps, we slowly approached the entrance. Hesitating before we walked in, we observed a lawn full laughing children, adults sitting and drinking in the community area, Bob Marley music, a friendly wave and invitation in, and the ultimate convincer: the hammocks.
We had arrived at a hippie haven and local hangout for the surrounding towns. Golden hour had almost arrived, electrifying the deep greens, blues, yellows, and purples found around the property. After having walked three days without hardly seeing anyone (could be due to our schedule), being greeted and welcomed by 15 complete strangers was a just what we needed.
Albergue Amanecer wasn’t the run-of-the-mill sleeping space for pilgrims; it was a community of pilgrims, non-pilgrims, chicks, chickens, donkeys, dogs and cats. An incredible four-course community dinner made by the chef Alberto cost €10, and you could choose among various sleeping options: bunk, teepee, or cement tunnel (We opted for the cement tunnel, because, when else can you sleep in one of those!).
The quotes, arts, and graffiti posted on the walls exemplify the message of the albergue and the people who pass through it. Unlike any other albergue we had seen or would see for the rest of our trip, it was one of the most memorable on the camino. If you pass through Villamentero, make sure to at least stop by the bar at least for a snack along the way.
Name: Albergue La Laguna
Location: El Burgo Ranero
What makes it unforgettable: El Burgo Ranero was a surprisingly packed town. Strolling up at 5pm meant that most of the albergues were already full, and to our dismay so was the municipal donation-based albergue. In resignation, we headed to the edge of town (a two minute walk from the ‘center’) to Albergue La Laguna, where we paid an extra €3 to sleep in a crowded, stinky room for 24 people with two bathrooms.
But then, we realized why it was all worth it: Vicente (veechentay). The Italian hostelero was a bubbling, fast-paced yet gentle, explosion of a man who was constantly ready to make an ill-fitted joke or comment. He wore a Palestinian scarf, baggy jeans and sneakers, and hair a la Justin Timberlake Ramen Noodle cut. His Spanish was more like Italian, but this didn’t stop him from conversing, or lightly shouting, to all of the pilgrims.
When we were checking in, a car pulled up blasting Juan Magan and out ran a Vicente look-alike carrying a plate covered in aluminum foil. He had wild greenish-black eyes, a pierced eyebrow, and sullen, beaten up kind of look to him.
Unknown man bursted into the office where Vicente was stamping my pilgrims credentials, too a second to stare at me, then handed Vicente the plate. Unwrapping the foil, I caught a glimpse of a hot plate of paella, which the man described as the ‘best in town.’ He saw me looking and even had me try a bit, just to ‘confirm it was really good.’ As the man left, he and Vicente stepped outside the office, exchanged a few whispers and the man got back in his car.
The two different rooms for pilgrims were separated by a triangle-shaped lawn with an above ground pool (where the ‘cool kids’ hung out) and lounge chairs for sun bathing. Sitting in one of the chairs, I was listening to music when I saw the paella man return. As the music blasted from my headphones I observed Vicente and the man walking and talking, throwing up their hands, and making comments to pilgrims. The man then squatted in front of me and started to fix the sprinkler. Apparently he can do a lot of things.
A few minutes later, the man was out of sight but I had switched to journaling. Then I heard the unmistakable squawking of chickens and shriek of peacocks. I turned around a behind me, the paella-sprinkler man was chasing after both. Why? I have no idea.
He then left.
As Kimberly and I were cooking our pasta dinner, he appeared in the doorway with Vicente. They offered me weed, and they themselves started smoking. He left again and we wouldn’t see him until he roared up at the end of the night with three men, ready to join the town party full of elderly line dancers.
The in-and-out of this man, and the juxtaposition of him and Vicente compared to the middle-aged German and French tourists was a stark difference from Albergue Amanecer. It was like Vicente and his friend were trashy Ibiza tourists at church camp in conservative Oklahoma.
When we said our goodbyes, Vicente gave us a parting gift (he’s actually a very sweet person). He gifted us his Italia sweatshirt, with the idea of taking it all the way to Finisterre. And we made it there. We watched the sunset at the lighthouse with the sweatshirt.
Humbled yet confused by his gift, we wondering why he gave us a thick sweatshirt, for July, and especially when most pilgrims are trying to get rid of extra weight instead of add more. It soon became “the sweatshirt.” After carrying it for several weeks, we finally left it in a hostel in Lisbon. It was time to go.
Name: Albergue Vieira
Location: San Martin del Camino
What makes it unforgettable: The front lawn leading up to the entrance was home to several chickens, hammocks, and lounge chairs in the sun. One of the chickens was petite, with long black hair. It seemed like a mix of a black haired sheep dog and a 70s diva cut with black fur boots on. As I sat in the lawn it would come up close to me. Stand. Stare, Squawk, and walk away. Rooms were decorated like a 10-year-old little girl’s room, with lavender walls and flower stickers. The community dinner was €9 and included local, organic products. The staff was excellent, friendly and inviting.
Name: Monte Irago
What makes it unforgettable: Foncebadon is a famed town from Shirley MacLaine’s and Paulo Coehlo’s accounts of dog attacks, and subsequent bloggers seemed to be obsessed with finding the so-called wild, ravenous dogs. I will admit that I was as well.
When I was disappointed to not find any dogs willing to rip my head off, I was even more upset to find a podunk town that resembled an American renaissance fair. While the outside was unremarkable, the inside was a warm, bright and peaceful space that offered donation-based yoga every morning at 8:00 and a to-die-for community dinner for €10. The night we were there they served a vegetarian garbanzo bean pesto paella. Incredible.
Inspiring quotes and heartwarming messages lined the fireplace, and the staff was happy and friendly. We mentioned we’d love to have a dance party, and after the dinner they pushed the tables aside and gave us free reign of the computer to play youtube videos.
While the space, the staff, and the atmosphere were unforgettable, my favorite part of the albergue was the second floor loft’s bathroom. As someone who frequents the bathroom more than any other place, I can appreciate a beautiful view and a funny sign. This albergue wins the award for best view seen from a toilet.
Name: Albergue Municipal de Peregrinos
What makes it unforgettable: It’s just another municipal albergue from the outside…but from the inside it’s a long corridor of rooms, where each door leads to a small, almost private room (beware: the walls aren’t walls, but rather separators that don’t reach the ceiling. Everything is heard) with two beds in each. The small space had closets, nightstands, and a small light. Warm and comfortable, it gave a break from the 20-person rooms we had become accustomed to sleeping in.
When we awoke at 9am, we realized that we were yet again the last people there (except for a group of hot cyclists!) and when one of the women cleaning saw us, she curtly shouted “Teneis que ir yendo…” (you have to start leaving). We got out just before they locked the door. Saved!
Name: Meson Anton
Location: O Cebreiro
What makes it unforgettable: All you need to know is this picture.
Name: Municipal Albergue
What makes it unforgettable: It wasn’t the municipal albergue itself (although the old school house was cool to sleep in, and the views were spectacular) that made this stop hilarious. It was the albergue next door’s restaurant, A Casa de Carmen, that did the trick.
The three course menu for €10 offered delicious caldo gallego, local-raised pork, and a scrumptious chocolate cake. The food, however, wasn’t the main attraction.
It was another feisty character, with the entertaining factor equivalent to that of Vicente in El Burgo Ranero.
Her name was Carmen. And she was a force to be reckoned with.
The owner and main waitress, she treated the seven tables of her restaurant like we were school children needing to be disciplined. When one table got too loud and she was trying to explain the menus options to another, she would quiet us all down and roll her eyes. When one French man didn’t quite understand what one of the dishes was, she had me come over and explain. When a German girl asked if one of the dishes was good, she signaled for someone at a different table who was currently eating it to give her opinion – “was it good?” She even brought out a 8-by-10 photo of her daughter, who was currently on vacation in Ibiza, and asked if anyone wanted to marry her. Kimberly looked at me and whispered, “I would die if my mom every did that.” I wonder if her daughter knows she does this.
The sighing, eye-rolling, complaining when a customer asked for more bread or wine and constant fanning herself was like watching the destruction of her business in front me. Because I was in a good mood, it was laughable. But if she was in any other circumstance, especially in the United States where “customer service” takes on a whole other character, she would be done.
What are your experiences with albergues on the camino francés? Do you have favorite albergues? Tweet at me @yasminesoyyo!