El Camino De Santiago: 8 Things That (Almost) All Small Spanish Towns Had In Common

If European country sides are hosts to small villages every few kilometers, walking the 500 plus kilometers from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela on the French route of the Camino de Santiago means you walk through many of them.

They follow the typical pattern of a European village: houses bundled together in a logical pattern, a church, a school, a restaurant or bar, close to a water source and all surrounded by farmland or forest. Walking the camino, the pilgrims get a glimpse of how the same structure of a village can look unique depending on the civilization(s) that has reigned there. Windows don’t look the same in Hontanas as they do Hospital de Órbigo, doors change height and width and materials go from wood and brick to straw and mud.

Door in the town El Ganso.
Door in the town El Ganso.

The historical heritage of the Spanish towns still doesn’t manage to make them drastically different, as there were elements that unified them all. Hence the purpose of this post.

In Spain, villages no longer serve the purpose they once did. The changes that industrialization brought ushered in migration to the cities for different kinds of work, much as it did in most of the world. Ruth Behar  writes, “The late industrialization of Spain kept people in the villages until the end of the 1960s and 1970s, but from then on the movement to urban centers grew in strength and numbers, and became irreversible.”

The pilgrim can sense these changes, as many of the towns were outright abandoned save the church, albergue and bar to cater to tourism. The generations are undeniably older. Some abandoned villages are even prompting a movement of “repopulation,” where people who have lost everything in the economic crisis, or people who are afraid of seeing their grandparent’s villages disappear return to the rural village to bring new economic opportunities and community life (In Calzadilla de La Cueza, a frighteningly empty town, we met a couple from the Canary Island who owned a grocery store called Tienda “Los Canarios” and were thrilled to meet people from all over the world who walked the camino. They were one of five or six families in the town).

The mass influx of tourism with the heightened popularity is undoubtedly positively contributing to the economic situation of these towns (and pilgrims have been of economic interest for centuries, although other issues of sustainable tourism and preservation of heritage are of serious concern. The New York Times reported in 2014 that over 240,000 pilgrims were expected to complete the camino that year, a stark difference from the 423 that completed it in 1984.

One would assume that due to the thousands of European, North American, South Americans, and Asian tourists who walk through their towns, the people would become accustomed to strange behavior, accents, or at least be less impressed by our presence. But this didn’t appear to be the case.

Some elderly men and women greeted us with warm smiles and were genuinely curious about where we were from and why was it that we decided to walk to the camino. Others, you sensed, were so thrilled to be sharing their native lands with foreigners and were proud to be showing it off.

Whether it was the province of Burgos, Palencia or Leon (Castilla y Leon), or the towns of Galicia, the towns themselves were different, but people are people (elderly are elderly) no matter where you are. The towns we visited had the following 8 elements in common:

Staring

Everyone stares. And they aren’t ashamed. Sometimes I wondered if people had ever seen a girl before.

Everyone is a man
This is an exaggeration. But sometimes it felt like it. Especially when they were staring.

The men were always drinking alcohol
This is also an exaggeration. Sometimes they were working. Sometimes they were slaughtering their livestock. But it sure felt like it when everyone was a man and everyone was always staring.

The women will be working

The bars full of men drinking were almost consistently staffed by women waiting on them, and often flirting.

The bars will be playing Top 40s without fail

Sometimes it feels wrong see a 87-year-old man drinking while “Lean On” or “El Perdon” plays in the background.

The men will yell loudly or ask questions

Whenever people complain about people from the United States being loud, I silently (and sometimes not so silently) ask if they’ve ever been to Spain. I love the volume and the openness.

The men will catcall you

If they’re not speaking loudly to each other or asking you questions, they will be not-so-discreetly commenting on your appearance. They will either directly or indirectly throw you a backhanded compliment. On one occasion in Palencia, Kimberly and I walked into a bar. A man looked at me in the eyes and said, “you are beautiful….but very sweaty.” People seemed to be affected by the sweat. Walking through Ponferrada we passed by a group of men eating lunch and we heard them say  – too loud to only be talking to each other – “those girls are beautiful but so sweaty.” WELL YEAH, WE’VE BEEN WALKING FOR HOURS.

Smells like manure
One Italian pilgrim complained about the poop all over the trails in many towns. She looked at a fellow pilgrim from Madrid and exclaimed, “I’m sorry about that, but that poop is disgusting. We clean that up in Italy.”


The villages may have shifted due to industrialization and migration, the  aesthetics may separate them, but there are a string of occurrences in each that remind you you are on the camino. In the same New York Times article mentioned earlier, it reports,

“The Spanish authorities “must strike a balance between developing tourism and maintaining the tradition of the Camino,” warned Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based writer, who spent two weeks walking in August. “Otherwise it will lose its soul, and therefore its appeal, before too long”

As long as elderly Spanish men sit in bars, listen to Top 40s music, drink, catcall the pilgrims and order from young, female waitresses, all while the manure stench permeates your nostrils (had to throw that one in), the camino won’t lose it’s raw and honest charm.

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