As with almost everything else around the globe, the Camino de Santiago has been greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The pilgrimage ground to a halt when Europe went into lockdown in spring 2020, but as Spain began to reopen in June and July, it became possible to walk the camino again.
Being residents in Portugal allowed Wendy and I to consider walking to Santiago on the Portuguese branch of the camino from our home in Lisbon. This would allow us to start walking from our front door and not have to fly to a starting point, and to be able to travel home fairly easily in case of emergency. Additionally, there would be no 14-day quarantine upon return and most of the pilgrimage would take place in a country which had been relatively successful in containing the virus, where we had public and private health insurance, where we could speak the language and where we were aware of the restrictions in place, having already lived through them for several months.
With all that in mind, we set out from Lisbon on 1 September 2020, arriving in Santiago de Compostela via the Portuguese central route 32 days later. Here’s how our pandemic camino was different from any of the others we had walked before.
Fewer Pilgrims on the Trail
As you would expect, there were far fewer pilgrims walking to Santiago than usual. During the 20 days it took us to walk from Lisbon to Porto, we saw an average of less than one other pilgrim per day. Of those pilgrims, we saw only one on multiple days. From Porto onwards, there were more pilgrims, but it was still common to walk for several hours without seeing any other walkers and to have only two or three others staying in the same albergue as us, if that. In Armenteira, on the Variante Espiritual, we had the 25-person capacity municipal albergue completely to ourselves.
These observations are supported by official information from the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago. In September 2020, only 419 pilgrims received a compostela after walking the Portuguese central route, less than five per cent of the 9312 who did so in September 2019. The drop-off on the Portuguese coastal route was even more dramatic, from 3902 in September last year to 110 in September this year.
This reduction in numbers also affected the cultural make-up of our camino, as every single pilgrim we met was either European or living in Europe. Pilgrim office statistics reveal that on all caminos in September 2020, the eight most represented countries were all European, with few or no pilgrims from places like the United States, Australia, South Korea and South Africa, which are often well represented on the camino in non-COVID times.
This lack of pilgrim traffic had both its advantages and disadvantages. It meant there weren’t many other people to share stories and build a bond with, and it was especially lonely for the solo pilgrims we met along the way. On the other hand, walking at this time gave us uncrowded trails and more opportunity for peace and reflection, not to mention no bed race and a better night’s sleep.
Masks Rule, OK?
In Portugal, masks became mandatory in shops and other indoor public spaces (and on public transport, although that wouldn’t typically affect pilgrims) in early May once the country began its reopening process, and this rule was still in place while we were walking in September. Having become accustomed to wearing a mask during the intervening four months, it seemed normal to me to wear one indoors on camino.
While we were walking in Portugal we also wore masks outdoors in urban areas (as we did in Lisbon), although this was not mandatory at the time. My estimation in Lisbon prior to the camino and in urban areas on the camino was that masks were worn outdoors in Portugal by roughly half the population.
In Spain, where the pandemic has had a more devastating effect, mask-wearing in outdoor public spaces had been made obligatory by the Spanish government by the time we walked and failure to comply could result in a fine. Although we felt that we were wearing masks more often than most pilgrims we came across while in Portugal, we wore them even more regularly once we crossed the border. This rule seemed to be mostly respected by locals, as I only noticed one or two people not wearing masks outside in the Galician cities we visited on camino. In fact, it became so normal to see everyone wearing masks outdoors in the nine days I spent in Spain that it seemed unusual and slightly unnerving to see many people not doing so once I returned to Portugal.
We also noted more subtle differences surrounding masks in Spain compared with Portugal. In both countries, mask-wearing was not essential while we were walking on socially-distanced rural paths. In Spain, however, if a non-masked local out for exercise or walking a dog came towards us, it was common for that person to put on their mask solely for the purpose of walking past us on the trail. To reciprocate that care and respect for the health of others, we did the same.
In both Portugal and Spain, hand sanitiser was widely available during our camino, though it was optional in Portugal and mandatory in Spain. On more than one occasion after entering a store in Spain and not immediately seeing sanitiser or initially opting not to use it because we had just sanitised at a different shop a minute earlier, a staff member pointed to the sanitiser and requested that we use it.
Despite the measures in place, locals in both countries seemed to be going about their lives much as they had before as part of the ‘new normal’. In Portugal, for example, the street market in Lourosa that we passed by was busy even though the perimeter of the market was barricaded, masks were enforced, and temperature checks were taken upon entry. And in the cities we visited in Spain, the vibrant street life centred around bars and restaurants that is such an important part of the country’s culture seemed alive and well.
Accommodation closures for health reasons significantly impacted our camino in a number of ways. In Portugal, all municipal albergues were closed in September, while in Spain, some were closed and some were open. Private albergues or other private accommodation in both countries was more likely to be open than government-provided accommodation, but this wasn’t guaranteed. For example, according to a local newspaper article, only seven of the 25 albergues in Santiago de Compostela itself were open for the entire month of September.
From Lisbon to Porto, where there is less pilgrim infrastructure than from Porto to Santiago, municipal albergues are often the only pilgrim-focused option, even in a typical end-of-stage destination like Azambuja, Santarém or Coimbra. With these albergues closed, we had to find different accommodation in those towns, and on other occasions we had to adapt our stages to fit whatever accommodation we could find. For example, the closure of the albergue in Alpriate led us to walk at least 36km on our first day out of Lisbon, which had a weeks-long effect on Wendy’s plantar fasciitis-suffering feet. Three times between Lisbon and Porto, we had to deviate off the camino to find a place to stay.
This uncertainty surrounding lodging led us to call ahead and reserve accommodation one day in advance throughout our walk, something we don’t usually do because it can take away from the spontaneity of a camino. But it often proved necessary to contact accommodation providers just to confirm whether or not they were open, and if they were, we tended to book at the same time just to be sure of a bed.
Apart from the inconvenience of these closures, it was disappointing to miss out on the experience of staying at certain albergues or other pilgrim accommodation that we had been looking forward to, most notably the monastery at Herbón. Fortunately, some other highly recommended accommodation options such as the Vairão monastery and Casa da Fernanda remained open and we were able to savour the special feeling of those places.
The Pandemic Albergue Experience
Even albergues in Portugal and Spain that were open during the pandemic weren’t the same as we remembered from pre-COVID caminos, for several reasons.
To encourage social distancing, most albergues had a reduced capacity – often half – for the number of pilgrims who could sleep in one room, and in our experience there were usually even fewer pilgrims than that. On four occasions, we were given a dorm room and told that no one else would be assigned to that room. These measures had obvious advantages – occasional private rooms at communal prices, and no top bunks – but it meant that dorm rooms lacked their usual buzz and excitement when pilgrims start trickling in after a day on the trail. We often kept to ourselves, and it was difficult to know whether to approach people or not because of social distancing concerns.
Some albergues were also no longer offering sheets or blankets. We had heard about this before setting out while searching camino news stories and decided to bring sleeping bags for the first time (having brought just a sleep sheet on all our previous caminos). Since we often stayed in budget hotels due to albergue closures, we didn’t need to use the sleeping bags every night, but they came in handy at several albergues where no sheets of any kind were provided. We also brought inflatable pillows but they weren’t necessary as we only used them once.
Albergue kitchens were almost universally closed for our camino, which meant that we only cooked for ourselves twice in 32 days. While these closures encouraged social distancing and were completely understandable, it was nevertheless a bit disappointing to miss out on cooking together and sharing communal dinners, which can be a wonderful part of the social camino experience in non-COVID times. Additionally, for vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free pilgrims, being able to cook can take on added importance, especially in villages or small towns where local restaurants might not be able to adequately cater for people with those diets.
The Spirit of the Camino Endures
Despite these difficulties, the spirit of the camino was alive and well during our walk. It showed itself in the Portuguese woman who brought us water from her home when we had run out and the local fountain was dry, in the farmhouse-albergue owner who took us in and fed us even though she was officially closed as her mother lay dying in hospital, and in the indefatigable Fernanda, who invites strangers into her house and cooks them a communal meal worthy of Christmas lunch every single day.
Through the centuries, the camino has survived plagues, wars and the ravages of time, and still it endures. It has already reinvented itself during this modern plague and although a pandemic camino presents pilgrims with difficulties and challenges, that has always been part of the camino experience to begin with. Overcoming these obstacles makes reaching the tomb of the apostle even more meaningful, and even – or perhaps, especially – during these dark times, the Camino de Santiago remains a unique and magical experience for those who respond to its call.
Listen to episode 1.1 of our podcast for more on our pandemic camino!