A pilgrimage in Spain - a holiday with a difference.
We holiday a lot with our kids and they have seen some great destinations - Croatia, Italy, USA, France, Portugal, Australia and Netherlands. Their last trip was to the Maldives - yes very spoilt - so hiking 20km a day for a week was going to be something completely new for our gang. So what actually is the Camino de Santiago and what did this adventure entail?
What is the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago (the way of to Santiago or the way of St James) consists of a variety of routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The remains of St James, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, were discovered in 812 AD and people have been walking the route ever since to pay homage. Traditionally it was one of THE pilgrimages, up there with Rome or Jerusalem, that Christians took.
In 2017 over 300,000 took the pilgrimage and it is growing in numbers compared to the mid to late 1980s when only 700-3,000 took to the trail. I am certain many of the actual paths have changed over the years as cities and highways were built but the actual pilgrimage and its goals I am sure remain the same. Some do it for religious or spiritual reasons, some for a fitness challenge. Some people do it to find themselves. We did it for many reasons. A holiday with a difference, a breakaway from screens, to push the boundaries of what our bodies and minds can do and to just be outside in nature.
When to walk the Camino
We went over the Easter period, which took in late March/early April. In the lead up to the walk the clouds had dumped every last drop of rain in that part of Spain and the cold was also present. For us that live in the desert of the UAE it was going to be challenging to understand what to pack for 5 degrees and rain. We just aren’t bred that way. But for us it was just perfect - no one really was worried about the rain or mud and thankfully we all just ploughed through. The trail wasn't that busy and the accommodation was plentiful. This can change depending on the route, distance and season you take. If you are contemplating walking in the warmer months be prepared for crowded accommodation and many of the albergues (pilgrim hostels) are closed in winter.
Where to start walking the Camino
If you are short on time and can’t commit to walking the full 800 0r so kilometres, try the last 100 (or 114km) from Sarria to Santiago. You need to walk at least this distance (or cycle 200km) to receive your official certificate at the end, which was a big motivator for our kids.
This was a good distance for walking with kids as you average around 15-20km per day for six days. We did have days of starting early in the dark but then we had one day which was shorter and more leisurely. We aren't big hikers AT ALL - in fact In the lead up we did one long practice walk – a 20km urban hike through the back streets of Dubai. So walking on a warm winters day in a city wasn’t really something we could compare to six days of walking the trail in Spain.
Starting the journey
We set off walking the Camino as three families – five kids, three mums and two dads. We flew to Madrid from our homes in the UK, Dubai and Abu Dhabi to meet up. From Madrid we took a five-hour train ride to Sarria over some really interesting and changing landscapes of Spain.
Our apartment (Rentxacobeo) was a short walk from the Sarria train station but if your staying elsewhere you may want to pre-arrange transport to your hostel. Once we had checked-in at our apartments we took at short 10km walk for an amazing lunch at Casa Barbadelo.
Casa Barbadelo is an albergue with a fabulous restaurant where the food, the wine and ambiance were the perfect way to kick-off our adventure. We were introduced to the pilgrim (or pilagrino) meal which for 10 Euros included a first, second and third meal choice and wine - lots of bottles of wine!! It is here that marks the 108km starting point to Santiago.
We also got our Camino passports here which are stamped along the route to prove you walked the distance. We also purchased many of the other trinkets - such as the camino shell to tie onto backpacks and more raincoats. As my raincoat had been stolen by my 11 year old I decided to splash out and get the poncho to keep me and my backpack dry in the rain. This was the most unflattering tent one could wear, I felt like a sumo, and gave great amusement to my fellow travellers whenever I threw it on.
Destination: Sarria – Portomarin
Accommodation: Pension Mar
Distance: 24km 33,557 steps
We had a big day ahead of us on the first day. It was a dark drizzly morning when we started but it didn’t dampen our spirits. To get started we had to pass through green rolling hills and we were deep in farming country. The cowsheds all along the Camino had a certain smell (stench) that I will never forget. It was a mixture of the dark sticky mud, cow poo, and wet hay. A wet sweet crap smell that got stuck deep down in your throat. I can still feel it now as I write.
Each of us took turns in leading the trail. From small seven year olds to strong over something year olds. The sights along the trail and the novelty of the first day of seeing cows, horses, chickens, and the beautiful nature of Spain did slow us but it was worth it. We were overtaken a number of times by a group of pilgrims on horseback. These huge steads were strong looking and beautiful and were definitely working up a sweat. The kids were wanting to know why we didn't take the horse option but they looked so wild that I am glad we took the walking route.
Just 5kms out of finishing for the day we got stuck in a crazy down pour. The rain was fierce and piercing and there were no bars to run into so one had to keep going. When some of us found a little bar we were truly soaking wet and sat sipping our wine while the kids played. We could have sat there all day except the end was in sight and we took off invigorated from the wine. It was right about then that one of the souls on my favourite hiking boots came off, so I messaged ahead to my husband, who was already at the hostel, to buy some superglue.
The challenge of arriving in Portomarin is a long staircase heading up the hill in to town - the last thing you want to see after walking all day! However we pushed on past this obstacle and leaped up the stairs. It was at this stage the other soul of my boot decided it had enough and fell off in the main street of Portomarin. I begrudgingly acknowledged it was the end of the road for my favourite hiking boots and tomorrow I would be starting out in my runners.
Our accommodation in Portomarin was a backpackers hostel, Pension Mar, and our family of five were all-together in one room. It was a shared bathroom but as there was only one other room on our floor that wasn’t such a problem. The number of radiators in the room meant heaps of space for drying shoes and jackets but they were so hot during the night I felt like I was suffocating and had to throw open a window for fresh air. Some of the best things about Portomarin was the Italian restaurant across the street (an amazing pilgrims meal), the supply of hiking and camping shops and the massage chair in the hostel!
Destination: Portomarin – Lestado
Accommodation: Hosteria Calixtino
Distance: 11km of a 19km walk and only 16,476 steps
The day started out clear and fresh and we watched the sun rise as we left town on our way to Lestado. The hills were steep and wet but the sun was warm. However it didn’t last and the winds started and then the rain. Once the rain started my 8 year old, Siena, struggled to get warm and was miserable. Siena is a heartkid with a prostect health valve which makes it hard to put weight on and with less meat on her its hard to warm her up. Her mind went through many stages of anguish – “why did we take her on the trip”, “how much further”? Kevin and I took turns keeping her mind occupied and trying to keep her happy.
Our other two kids had continued on with the rest of the group, so I had to keep messaging Ruby, our 11 year old, to make sure she was still in sight of the group (she had the habit of walking far ahead). As we reached the ridge of one hill you could see across to other hills that were now dusted with snow. A sight that while the sun was still shinning was lovely to see, but once the clouds came over and the rain start pouring it quickly turned to hell.
We layered up with all the clothes and jackets in our backpacks to make our heartkid happy and then Kevin ran ahead to catch up with our other kids. We tramped on. She must have looked so miserable under her layers of coats as people stopped to look in and check on her. It was just one of those things that you had to keep moving to get to your destination.
Ruby finally messaged me to say they had found a place to eat which helped our steps get bigger. Then another message from the group – snow had started falling. This seemed to make Siena happy-ish. We finally made it to the cafe which was jammed packed with walkers trying to get warm and dry from the rainy/snow. The food was welcome – a big pile of bacon and eggs, coffee and Cognac for parents and hot chocolate for the kids.
The rain had really started turning in to snow. It was going to be tough to get the kids moving – they all looked miserable (Siena’s lips were blue) – all expect Miss Ruby who was enjoying the adventure. Not one of us expected snow in Spring and therefore weren't packed for it. It was decided to put the kids in a taxi straight to the hostel and I volunteered for that job. It was such a good decision as not more than 4km up the road we drove into a blizzard and many pilgrims walking the route were looking for rides to get out of the snow.
To be honest I don’t know if I could have mentally gone on myself so I am glad the other adults had the opportunity to (although at the time they may have been cursing me). They stopped in many bars along the way to warm up on wine and cognac and hot chocolate, while the four kids and I played Uno and watched Spanish TV at the Hostel. I did wonder if the rest of our team would turn up with hypothermia, however, they turned up cold and wet but happy. Challenge achieved!
We stayed at The Hostel Calixtino which was remote but had everything we needed. Isabella the host was lovely and so accommodating. It was an old renovated barn and farmhouse which was cosy, clean and modern. Piping hot water in the shower and great drying racks for shoes and socks. The chef made a wonderful lunch and dinner and breakfast was a huge meal that sent us out the next day very happy.
Destination: Lestado – Melide
Accommodation: Hotel Restaurante Xaneiro
Distance: 21km 29,511 steps
Starting off the next day I had so much energy in my system - I was itching to get out and run. I think if you miss any part of walking the Camino you have massive regrets. So I was keen to make up for it. The morning was beautiful and foggy and the birds singing. The path was muddy and after a while you don’t even notice how wet your shoes were and it didn’t even dampen anyone’s happy mood. I think after the challenge the day before everyone was happy.
Not long into the day we stopped in a lovely church to get our stamps for our passports. The Priest pointed out St Daniel was their patron and I explained my son was Daniel and he handed my son a beautiful card. The kids lit the candles on the alter and there were beautiful printed verses from the bible which were particularly poignant in relation to the journey we were all taking. It was a special moment filled with love and kindness. I am not particularly religious but I did find myself very emotional and close to tears after I left the church. They say the journey will affect you spiritually, emotionally and physically and I did find that.
The first part of each day the walk seemed to be faster than later in the day. The kids would start to drag their heals in the afternoon and stop to pat dogs or pick flowers along the way. You couldn’t get too mad at them as they were taking in nature. It did start getting annoying when you have only 2kms to go and they are wanting to pick more flowers but question “are we there yet? - Yes it happens even when walking.
The hotel we stayed in was dated but warm and friendly. The owners had been running it for the past 20 years and they were so helpful with great English. They managed to get a load of our muddy clothes washed and dried and back to us by dinnertime and it only cost 8 Euros! For a family of five that was a great bonus as were running out of socks and mud free pants.
Dinner was great – although loud as a group of Irish schoolboy, that we kept running into along the trail, were staying at the hotel. Once again it was a hearty pilgrim’s meal, a first, main and desert and with a bottle (not a glass) of wine thrown in all for around 10 Euro! It was filling and delicious included my favourite - the Pilgrims cake, a delicious and light almond cake dusted with icing sugar.
After finishing another bottle of red wine - we managed to find the energy to take the kids down the road to some bumper cars which had music blaring. It was great fun after a couple of red wines but probably not a smart thing to take a kid on without having some sort of seat belt to hold them in.
Destination: Melide – Aruza
Accommodation: Rosende Apartment
Distance: 16km 23,026 steps
Today was a shorter walk and having a smaller number in front of you somehow meant you had a bigger spring in your step. Today also happened to be Easter Sunday (and April Fools Day). We were expecting many shops and cafes to be closed today but this didn’t turn out to be true. As we had a shorter walk today (and it was long gap in between coffee shops) we stopped for a leisurely lunch with a little establishment which had zero English, zero customer service but the best meat pie one could eat. The kids however didn't want to sit around - they were dying to get to the next stop to start planning their April Foods Day pranks, so the dad's went on ahead with the kids to get prepping and us mums could finish our drinks.
Destination: Aruza – O Pedrouza
Accommodation: Pension Lo
Distance: 22km 31,005 steps
Waking up was hard and no one was looking to a long day ahead. I defiantly wasn’t feeling it. Thankful the espresso and bacon and eggs kicked us in to gear and as the sun started to rise so did our spirits. It seemed weird to say that we had already completed 70km and tomorrow we would be in Santiago. It was mixed feelings. It was nearly over.
The day turned out great. It rained however but we were fine. Happy kids and happy parents. We definitely had all become faster walkers and the routine of each day was fun. Packing and unpacking bags each day was getting easier and thankfully the baggage service meant we could carry whatever we needed.
The number of places to stop have a drink and some food always made the journey enjoyable. It broke up the day into shorter sections. You’d constantly run into the same people along the trail then see them at lunch or dinner – like the Irish school boys and their teachers who were always up for a chat.
To make things fun along the way there were countless games of tag, memory games or singing "99 bottles of beer on the wall". Our favourite game along the camino was Pooh Sticks, a game made famous by the author A.A. Milne in his Winnie the Pooh books where Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh would find a stick and drop it one side of the bridge and the first stick to make it out the other side was the winner.
My eldest Ruby downloaded an app that was like Shazzam for plants where you could scan and identify plants and flowers getting their botanical names and their origins. She carried many pieces of her collection along the route and had a zip lock bag full of specimens such as pinecones and leaves. She was a great book of fauna knowledge - a real David Attenborough.
Destination: O Perouse – Santiago de Compestala
Accommodation: Parador de los Reyes Católicos
Distance: 18km 28,893 steps
Last day walking the Camino de Santiago
On our last day I woke up feeling a little sad and excited. Sad it was ending and excited it was the end. It was going to be our last day of packing and unpacking. Moving towns. Seeing the sights. Counting down the kilometres. But it was going to be the last day we shared this great experience together. Our families had known each as neighbours in an expat setting for over five years. The kids had grown up together and spent time with each other at nursery school and sleepovers. Spending each day together like this was fun and it was going to be sad to say goodbye and go back home to England, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was such a great chance for our kids to experience together and one experience they will never forget.
We had expected a lot of rain that day but it only eventuated when we set out in the morning. Everyone seemed to be eager to get to the end, so our team power walked all morning and we reached Santiago by 2pm. Not a bad statistics considering how slow we were six days earlier. We also had a number of hills to tackle that day but I was glad they weren’t as bad as expected. This section of the walk reminded me of New Zealand – the pine trees, the Australian gum trees and the horrible pest the Scottish gorse bush that has a beautiful yellow flower but spikey thorns.
As we got closer to Santiago the wind became super fierce. It always reminds me of the line from the TV show Sienfield “the seas were angry that day my friends” except it was “the sky was angry”. It could have been the gods talking and hitting us hard with some challenges – like a sign that we hadn’t suffered enough. We hadn’t walked enough. The snow hadn’t stopped some of us. We hadn’t had our questions answered or solved our riddles in life.
The closer we go to the end the more my seven-year-old son Daniel became more and more tired mentally. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a tall church and I pointed out the top of it in the distance. He could see the finish and just wanted it to end. I think he still could have walked many more kilometres but he was finished mentally. Yet my heartkid walked faster and faster. She saw the finish line and was nearly running to the end. I struggled to keep up with her. It is true what her cardiologists says – her heart is like a racehorse and the track and the conditions for her were just right.
When we hit the old town it was like the end of an episode of "The Amazing Race", the track to the finish line was super exciting. We saw the cathedral steeple and followed the maze and the arrows to the square. It was so beautiful and exciting. I would lie if I didn’t say I had tears of joy.
I did it. The kids did it. We did it. Our families did it. I was super proud. We lay on the ground as the pilgrims did before us for thousands of years and laughed and let the relief out. As we lay there they clouds decided to open up and dropped huge cold raindrops down on us. This got us up and running to our hotel – the magnificent Hostal de los Reyes Catolocios all about 100 steps away.
There is a line in the movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen as a father doing the Camino for his son, where the actor James Nesbitt states -
No self respecting pilgrim on the Camino would ever stay at a Parador – it’s utter decadent.”
To which Martin Sheen responds – “its my shout” and they all enjoyed the splendour and decadence of the Parador in Leon for the night. We too enjoyed the decadence the Parador in Santiago de Compostela.
The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos was originally built as a hospital by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand. It has been lovingly renovated and now is part of the luxury hotel chain the Parador. This was our reward at the end of the Camino.
I initially felt tight about paying to stay there as everything along the Camino was so much cheaper and as a family of five we would have to take two hotel rooms. But there is no way I regretted staying there (even extending to stay an extra two nights). I am glad my good buddy Jodi persisted in saying we had to experience it. It is a beautiful renaissance style building. Even when we walked in off the square muddy and wet they didn’t bat an eyelid taking our luggage and showing us to our room.
I started the journey with a lot of trepidation and my stress levels were high. Nervous about walking with kids, pushing a kid with special medical needs and travelling with friends and finishing as friends. But the closer I got to Santiago each day the lighter my load and the happier I became. I was proud of all the kids. I was blessed in that I didn’t hurt anywhere - my feet and joints were fine. I could have kept walking, and I think the kids could have also. But to stop was the right thing to do – while everyone still enjoyed it and yearned for more. The limit was just right for the kids. Everyday they were going outside their comfort zone. They dealt through physical and mental challenges everyday yet not once did anyone have a melt down. There were slow days and dragging their feet days, but nothing an ice cream or cola cao (hot chocolate) couldn’t fix. It truely was a great experience and I would urge anyone to do it!
Walking the camino with kids
If you think our kids are super athletes or professional hikers – think again. All these kids have been born and bought up in the Middle East where summer temperatures restrict any active outdoors pursuits. While they may be active in school swim squads or dance classes they don’t really have the practice of endurance. However what was on our side was the fact it was raining, muddy and they were outdoors. There wasn’t any heat and the snow was definitely a new concept for them all. Jumping puddles, collecting flowers, pinecones and leaves was an everyday occurrence.
Accommodation for my family of five was on average around 140-160 Euro with some places including breakfasts, which was a bonus when getting started each morning. But you can go cheaper with the Albergues, pilgrims hostels, which can cost around 10 Euros a night but I have a great fear of bed bugs and didn’t feel up for bunk beds in a dorm setting. The Parador of course been a 5-star was more expensive at 469 Euro for two rooms for a night and included a beautiful breakfast. Dinner along the Camino for our five was around 30-40 Euro total and this included the wine and drinks and the set pilgrims menu!! You just can't beat that in Europe.
Tips for doing the Camino with Kids