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 and very luxurious. Walking the 114km of the Camino with kids was something completely outside of anything we have done as a family. So what actually is the Camino de Santiago and what did this adventure entail?
What is the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago (or the way of Saint James in English) consists of a variety of routes that all lead to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain where the remains of St James are buried. St James was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus and rumoured to be the first martyred. His remains were discovered in 812 AD in Santiago and people have been walking the route ever since. There are many routes the lead to Santiago through Europe and North Africa but the more popular routes are from France, England and Portugal. Traditionally it was one of the important Christian pilgrimages - with those to Rome and Jerusalem.
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 (compared to the Maldives) and a breakaway from screens and a challenge for all us and to push the boundaries of what our bodies and minds can do.
Why we walked the Camino
We set off walking the Camino as three families – five kids, three mums and two dads. We flew to Madrid from the UK, Dubai and Abu Dhabi to meet up. We went over the Easter period, which took in later March and early April. In the lead up to the walk the clouds had dumped every last drop of rain in that part of Spain. The cold was also present. Everyday we would check the weather forecast in the hope it would show us the clouds had passed and lovely spring weather had finally began in Spain. 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.
In the lead up we did one long walk – a 20km walk, which was an 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 walking the trail in Spain. If you are short on time and can’t commit to walking the full 800km Camino from France, we suggest you look at the last 100 (or 114km) from Sarria to Santiago. You need to do at walk at least this distance (or cycle 200km) to receive your official certificate at the end, which was a big motivator for our kids.
We all meet up in Madrid to start the train ride to Sarria where we were starting our hike. Madrid was hot and sunny and it was a beautiful break from the rain we encountered when in Granada in the days prior. The kids were excited to see each other and the parents likewise to see our great friends. We finally arrived in Sarria after a joyful five-hour train ride and embarked to cold and rain. At this point still a novelty for the desert dwellers that live in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Once we walked the short distance to our apartment we geared up for a short walk in the rain to a glorious afternoon lunch at a place called the Barrilo. The food, the wine and ambiance were the perfect start to kick off our adventure. It was here we got our passports for the Camino, which are stamped along the route to prove you walked the distance. As my raincoat had been stolen by my 11 year old I decided to splash out and get the poncho to keep my backpack and me dry in the rain. This was the most unflattering tent one could wear and gave great amusement for my fellow travellers.
Day 1 Sarria – Portomarin
24km 33,557 steps
We had a big day ahead of us on the first day. Thankfully we did our little practice walk the day before and were ready for it. 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. We were overtaken a number of times by the pilgrims on horseback. These huge steads were strong looking and beautiful. They definitely worked up a sweat.
Each of us took turns in leading the trail. From small seven year olds to strong over 50 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.
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 two of us mum’s and three of the kids found a little bar we were well and truly soaking wet and busting for a toilet. The bar was a little old farmhouse and barn that was lovingly restored and it was so peaceful siting in their establishment for our wine and wee break. The kids played with the owner’s son and we enjoyed another beautiful Spanish red wine. We could have sat there all day except we had to finish the last three kms and get out of wet clothes. The end was in sight and we took off invigorated from the wine. It was right about then that my favourite hiking boots decided they had had enough and the soul off one shoe decided to peel off, so I text ahead to my husband, who was already at the hostel, to buy some superglue.
The challenge of arriving in Portomarin was crossing the big bridge only to see a long staircase heading up the hill in to town. We pushed on past this obstacle as we were near the end for the day and nearly skipped up the staircase. However, the other soul of my boot decided it did not want to continue and it too came off. It was then that I begrudgingly acknowledged it was the end of the road for my favourite hiking boots and tomorrow would be starting out in my runners.
Our accommodation was like a backpackers hostel but thankful 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. It was so hot during the night in fact I felt like I was suffocating and had to throw open a window for fresh air.
Day 2 Portomarin – Lestado Hosteria Calixtino
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 and that makes it hard for her to put weight on. She is tall and thin with very little meat on her body and it can be hard to warm her up – physically and mentally. Her mind went through all the stages of anguish – “why did we take her on the trip”, “Why didn’t she stay at home”, “she never wanted to come anyway”, “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 other families, so I had to keep messaging the group to make sure Ruby our 11 year old, was still in sight (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 heart kid happy. Then my husband had to run to try up and catch up to Miss 11 year old to give her the wet weather gear. Siena and I tramped on. Taking turns in been miserable. Typically when you want to get somewhere faster, I swear her steps became smaller and smaller. She must have looked very miserable under her layers of coats as many 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 and I just couldn’t help but stop and get photos of Siena walking in the frozen rain drops falling. We finally made it to the first 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. I just couldn’t fathom trying to get Siena motivated to walk another 10 km – I felt mentally spent from trying to peep talk her that first leg. People that know Siena know how stubborn – I mean determined – she can be. It was decided to put the kids in a taxi and I would take them to the hostel. It was such a good decision as not more than 4km up the road we drove into a blizzard. I was concerned for everyone walking as we hadn’t packed for snow – we packed for Spring. Many pilgrims walking the route were looking for taxis or 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 and Pneumonia for my husband. However, they turned up cold and wet a couple of hours later 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 huge meal that sent us out the next day very happy.
Day 3 Lestado – Melide 18km
Hotel Restaurante Xaneiro
21km 29,511 steps
Starting off the next day I 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.
At one place along the trail 23 14-year-old Irish schoolboys overtook us. We would regularly run into them at different stops along the way and have chats with the headmaster and teachers.
The first part of each day the walk seemed to be faster than later in the day and as the girls were dragging their heals picking 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 the Irish schoolboys were staying at the hotel. Along the Camino you will be introduced to the pilgrim’s meal, which is a set menu of three courses – first, second, and desert and with a bottle (not a glass) of wine thrown in all for around 10 Euro! They were filling and delicious and would normal include 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 out 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.
Day 4 Melide – Aruza Rosende Apartment 14km
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. They had a meat pie with a shortcrust pastry that was to die for. Speaking of dying, the kids 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.
Day 5 Aruza – O Pedrouza
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. To make things fun along the way there were countless games of tag, singing 99 bottle of beer on the wall and my favourite – Pooh Sticks – a game made famous by the author A.A. Milne in his Winnie the Pooh books. The rule of the game is to each find a stick and drop it one side of a bridge and the first stick to make it out the other side is the winner. My eldest Ruby downloaded an app that was like Shazzam for plants where you could scan a plant or flower and it would be identified. She carried many pieces of her collection along the route and had a zip lock bag full of specimens such as pinecones and leaves.
Day 6 O Perouse – Santiago de Compestala
18km 28,893 steps
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 “the seas were angry that day my friends” another Seinfeld reference 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. I was super proud. The kids did it. We did it. Our families did it. We lay on the ground as did the before 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 of a Parador. The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos is the final hostel along the route and 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 once again 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 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.
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.
Travel with kids
The walk was an easy 15-20km per day over six days. 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. My 11 year old discovered a great app which was like Shazam for plants. She was constantly scanning plants and flowers - getting their botanical names and their origins. She was a great book of fauna knowledge.
Tips for doing the Camino with Kids