Two weeks traveling with Christian pilgrims in Northern Spain finds cows, pinecones, flowers, castles, and friends.
By Liliia DeCos
What’s better than taking a long walk with your little one in the countryside of Northern Spain? Taking 14 days of long walks together.
The Camino de Santiago has been traveled for centuries by Christian pilgrims following the Way of St. James. In April, my husband, two young girls and I walked from León to Santiago de Compostela.. Though few children make the journey and there were several bumps on the road, it was an unforgettable experience that challenged both body and mind.
On “the Camino,” you walk, laugh, talk, dance, savor Spanish cuisine, and soak in the natural beauty around you. You’ll say “hi” to every cow and sheep, collect flowers and pinecones, place a stone atop every kilometer marker, and talk and dance with strangers every day. We loved it – and the kids loved it every bit as much.
Why Walk the Camino?
Seven years ago in Barcelona, I met a young woman who had just spent 35 days walking the French route of the Camino de Santiago. It was the first time I’d heard anything about this pilgrimage, known in English as the Way of St. James. The paths are walked by Christians from various points in Europe to the Santiago de Compostela where the remains of the patron saint of Spain are said to be interred.
I was fascinated by her story. This journey sounded so extraordinary, challenging, and a little bit crazy . . . C’mon! Walking for 35 days straight? After the concept finished swirling around in my head, I added this pilgrimage to my bucket list, although I couldn’t even imagine when I would ever have such an opportunity. I was studying in Finland at the time, and I wasn’t even sure when – or if – I would ever be back in Spain.
Fast forward seven years, and low and behold, my husband, our two daughters, and I found ourselves living in southern Spain for three years. Walking the Camino de Santiago was in the back of my head the entire time, but scheduling was always an obstacle. When we decided to move away from Spain to seek more adventures before our girls start school, the thought of leaving Spain without walking the Camino de Santiago was killing me. Watching The Way, a movie about the Camino was the final straw: We decided right then and there that we would use our final two free weeks in Spain to complete at least a portion of the long-awaited pilgrimage.
We set our goal for 300 km (186 miles) in 14 days with our four- and two-year-old daughters in tow. We had some rough patches due to bad planning, bad packing, and mixed luck with the weather. We actually had to throw away half of the things in our backpack, take a train to avoid heavy snowstorms, and almost bought a ticket home when we were halfway through our journey. Honestly, it was a tremendous challenge – and there were days where someone or the other refused to walk – but we stuck it out!
Walking the Camino de Santiago ended up one of the greatest trips we have done with our children so far – right up there with Everest Base Camp. The Camino de Santiago offered us life-long memories: We will be forever grateful for our time along “The Way.”
- Travelers: Liliia and Jose, plus girls ages 4 and 2
- Date: Two weeks in April 2019
- Itinerary: Walking the French Way of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), starting in León and ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, finding accommodation along the way
- Budget: Approximately $30-45 per day for each adult for food and lodging. (Our kids were little enough to share our beds.)
The Good Stuff
Experiencing the Camino with Our Children
The Camino de Santiago will be an unforgettable trip for anyone, but if you decide to do it with your kids, believe me, your experience will be simply extraordinary! The Camino is not like any other trip. You don’t have a “must see” list of sights on the way. You don’t bother with arranging transportation between the sights or fuss over opening hours or book tickets (think of waiting to see the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona with a minimum of 2 hours of waiting in line before you get in).
No other trip besides multi-day hiking in the mountains gave us that much alone time with our children. No laptops, TV, or video games to compete with. With full attention from both parents, it was an amazing bonding time for our family, and I believe we grew closer to one another during this experience. Besides bonding time, the kids loved being outside the entire day. We didn’t rush it either, walking at our four-year old’s speed and some days not making more than 15 km a day.
When planning our pilgrimage, we didn’t find much information about doing this trip with children, so we were very pleased to find out that children are quite welcome throughout the whole trail. Initially, we were not sure how well we would fit in the auberges (special hostels for pilgrims) with kids or even if we would be allowed to stay there at all. Have no fear! We were warmly welcomed at every place we stayed, every restaurant we ate, and all along the trail other travelers greeted us constantly. I think our eldest daughter loved meeting people the most.
When we started our trip, we didn’t know what to expect from our kids in terms of walking and we were not sure ourselves whether we would be able to carry all our belongings and two kids on our shoulders. Our oldest daughter had just turned four one week into the Camino trip and the little one was not yet two. We didn’t expect much from either one of them, but we were up for a surprise.
Every day they were walking more and more. On the first day, our oldest walked no more than 5km (3 miles) in a whole day, but by the end of the trip she was scoring 17 km (10 miles) easily by herself. Our little one was eager to walk as well, and we let her do so whenever she wanted.
Obviously, we were very slow, but we didn’t care much. Much more importantly was how we felt during this adventure, and we felt great! Aside from those days when it rained non-stop and we were pretty miserable, wet, and cold. Those days we didn’t walk much, instead we spent time socializing at the auberges or at the restaurants along the Camino.
Much more surprising was that in 14 days our children didn’t ask once for their movies or technology. They had our full attention and that was enough for them. It turns out our kids want cartoons only when their mom and dad are too busy with their “important” stuff. This realization really struck me as sad.
Challenging Both Mind and Body
When you start the hike, it’s difficult to envision what it feels like to walk 20–25 km (10–15 miles) every day. It impacts your body and mind. Two days in, I was so sore that I wasn’t sure I could keep up. We soon realized the challenge of it and adjusted our goals. A daily norm of 25 km was lofty, so we took it slower and our flexibility made the adventure much easier and definitely more enjoyable.
We also over packed (as usual), making it more of a challenge than it needed to be. We had to reconsider our needs and accept the simple fact that in reality you don’t need many items. Even with kids. So, we trashed half of the contents in our big backpack. We felt much lighter after that and as a result, obviously, it became even more enjoyable to stroll through Spanish villages, farms, fields, and forests.
It was at first a challenge to be alone with your thoughts for hours at a time. Even though we were walking as a family, it didn’t give us that much time to chat. We each had his several hours a day to walk silently deep in our own thoughts. My time alone was when our youngest daughter was sleeping in her baby carrier on my back. While not truly alone, this gave me two hours of walking meditation.
Many of the other pilgrims we met had recently quit their jobs or divorced, or they were grieving over a lost loved one or experiencing some other major life event. However, there were also a few adventurers like us, there to simply enjoy the scenery while experiencing the trek.
If you do the whole French Way you will end up walking 30–35 days. This is ample time to think of your life choices and your goals. I believe that in our day-to-day routine we are so caught up in the busyness of life that sometimes we forget what really matters. Camino de Santiago is the type of trip where you will have an opportunity to reflect. And for some, find life changing conclusions along the way.
Meeting Amazing People
Camino de Santiago is about the people just as much as it is about the scenery. I am not superstitious, but, after experiencing it firsthand, I believe the Camino attracts special people. Those who choose this journey want to open their hearts to other people and face new challenges and experiences. It is hard to explain it, but you can feel a special energy coming from the other pilgrims you meet along the way.
Most travelers complete 20–25 km per day and so the faces of fellow pilgrims become more familiar along the Camino. Those priceless moments spent together with other pilgrims over dinner and a bottle of wine won’t easily be forgotten. Joking, laughing, telling stories in the evening after the whole day of walking are vivid memories from the Camino de Santiago. And being with our kids helped to break the ice when meeting new people. Somehow you don’t see many families on the Camino, so often travelers were very curious and excited to meet our family and talk to us about our experience. And we were glad to share.
Discovering the Beauty of Northern Spain
Spain is considered a hot beach destination for many travelers. Some would venture to Barcelona or Madrid and maybe others explore Granada, Seville, and Cordoba in the south of the country (Andalusia). But for most people, Spain begins and ends in Barcelona and along the coast. It is quite a pity, since Spain is such a diverse and beautiful country.
We lived in southern Spain for three years and this pilgrimage was my first time visiting the northwest. I didn’t expect it to be so different, but it is. From the practically 50 shades of green to please your eyes, to the unusual architecture, food, and people speaking unique dialects in each of those regions. If you want to experience the “other” side of Spain, the Camino de Santiago will walk you through its most picturesque parts and will give you the opportunity to soak in all its charm.
The Not So Good
The Wet & Cold
Weather is something you shouldn’t take lightly, especially since you will spend all of your time walking outside. Rain, hail, wind, and snow can really affect your journey and overall experience. Unfortunately, rain is a common thing in northern Spain, especially in Galicia, and it’s best to pack a rain jacket and waterproof pants and learn to deal with it. We started our journey in April, supposedly a perfect time for Camino; however, it rained a good half of the trip. A few times it even hailed, and some sections of the Way were buried in snow. At times, the weather conditions forced us to walk slower and even take a train once to avoid snowstorms in the mountains. We were unprepared for such weather conditions and there was a time when we almost gave up this whole adventure.
We hiked the French Way Camino de Santiago in the beginning of April, supposedly a not very crowded period of time and I was still surprised by the number of pilgrims we encountered on our journey. The last bit, particularly the final 100 km, felt extremely touristy and commercial, and it was a challenge to connect with people on that stretch. To avoid the crowds, you can choose less popular, but more challenging paths or you can hike off-season. There are also other lesser-known Caminos or ways to get to Santiago with several accommodating trails and hostels along the way.
Somehow, I imagined the Camino de Santiago as narrow paths deep in nature, far from roads. In reality in turned out that in many places Camino is overtaken by highways and country roads. The days we walked along the highways were very disappointing: it was so loud we couldn’t even talk, the air wasn’t fresh due to exhaust gases, and the scenery wasn’t stunning at all. Now, reflecting on our journey, I accept Camino as it is: beautiful and ugly, exciting and boring. Walking Camino de Santiago is experiencing its best parts together along with its worst. It can also be challenging at times to stay positive throughout the whole journey. There are times you’re freezing cold, or sweating in the sun, or walking on a loud highway for several miles. In fact, the Camino is not supposed to be just a pretty walk; it has a much deeper meaning that its pilgrims are searching for along the way.
The Bed Bugs
Yep. We were bitten by bed bugs at auberges throughout the Camino. A couple times our eldest daughter got badly bitten – once in a public auberge and once in a private room of a mini hotel. Both places looked sparkling clean and we still don’t understand how it happened – but it did. Apparently, bedbugs are a known problem along the Camino, but usually during summer when it is hot and there are a lot of visitors. I would recommend bringing along lavender oil (to prevent the bites) and a cream that will reduce itchiness if you do get bit. A sleep sheet or sack can also help, but is something else to carry. Also, always wash your clothes on the hottest setting to help stem the infestation.
Good to Know
How to Choose a Route
Which part of the Camino de Santiago to walk is probably the most important decision to make. Before choosing the route, I would recommend reading more details about each way. Every route has something unique to offer. Here are five routes:
- The French Way is the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago. It begins at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France and ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Its length is nearly 780 km (500 miles) and it takes 30-35 days to complete if you walk around 23-27 km (14 to 17 miles) per day. During the summertime, it can be very crowded.
- The Portuguese Way starts in Lisbon and traverses Portugal from south to north, ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It travels for 610 km (380 miles). Many people start in Porto since it is shorter, only 227km (140 miles). The Portuguese way is becoming more popular every year and pilgrims describe it as very scenic.
- The Northern Way begins in Irún and spends approximately 825 km (500 miles) crossing 4 provinces: The Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. It is the most challenging route so it requires good physical condition and may not be suitable to travel during winter. On the plus side, you won’t see hordes of people on this trail.
- Camino Primitivo (The Original Way) follows the thousand-years of footsteps made by the original Christian pilgrims through unique landscapes. It is approximately 230 miles (370 km) long and starts in Oviedo.
- The English Way is the shortest of all the routes recreates the route of travelers arriving by boat from northern Europe. It has two starting points, Ferrol, 118 km (73 miles) and Coruña, 75 km (46 miles).
Since most people can’t take a full month of vacation to complete the journey, the majority of people walk smaller sections of a route. For example, we had only two weeks, so we started our journey in León, completing 300 km (186 miles) of the French Way. Next time – and I am sure we will be back – we will complete that section or try a part of a new route.
When to Walk?
You can hike the Camino de Santiago all year round; however, the “nicest” months are considered to be from the beginning of April through the end of October. I would recommend the end of April through May and September through October when it is warm and not very crowded. You can also hike during winter months, but you should be properly equipped for cold weather and snow.
Where to Stay?
The Camino de Santiago is truly a pilgrimage and for thousands of years there have been hostels (auberges) to serve Christians throughout all routes of the Camino. The cheapest and most fun place to meet other walkers is at the government auberges, sponsored by the church. Prices for a bed vary from 5–8 Euros. There are also government-supported private auberges, with prices running between 7–15 Euros per bed.
Government auberges are rather big; some of them can host up to 500 people in one building. Their rules are stricter: No alcohol, no partying, and 8am check out. At the same time there is often a kitchen with all the necessary utensils where you can cook your own meals. Some offer a simple, free breakfast/dinner for a donation.
Private auberges are smaller, some of them can accept only 50 people at a time. Usually there is no option for cooking, but there is a restaurant and/or bar where you can eat and drink. Another benefit is the later checkout time – usually between 9-10 am, and some of them don’t mind you staying even longer, which was nice when it rained in the morning. Both private and government auberges are clean and accommodating. There are always clean toilets, hot showers, and free wifi.
In order to be able to stay at these auberges, you have to show your “pilgrim passport” (see below).
Besides auberges, you can also opt for more private accommodation at small hotels. I don’t know for sure the situation on other routes, but you won’t have any problems finding a hotel at the French Way. The price starts at around 50 Euros for a double room and goes skyward from there. Having experienced both auberges and private hotels, I must say that the real magic of Camino de Santiago happens at the auberges. Challenging yourself to stay in simple accommodation, together with dozens of other pilgrims, is an essential part of the spirit of walking the Camino.
Where to Eat?
The Camino does not only feed the soul; I can promise that walkers will not go hungry! The Camino de Santiago leads you through countless little villages and towns with an abundance of restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Most private auberges have restaurants and bars at their premises, so you can order food without leaving the building. A typical lunch menu of the day costs 10–12 Euros, breakfast around 5 Euros, and dinner is usually ordered off the menu. If you choose to cook on your own, you will find supermarkets in bigger villages and towns. Since we traveled with kids, we always had little snacks along with us such as nuts, cookies, fruits, and chocolate and whenever we had a chance, we bought baked goods from fresh bakeries. More than once, we flagged down the bakery delivery van making its way through the little villages and bought fresh bread before it even made it to the stores!
What to Pack?
I would recommend packing your backpack as light as possible, if you decide to carry it on your own. You should also know that there is an option to send your backpack ahead between different auberges. It helps people who have a heavy pack or who are not in a good physical condition. As a downside to that, you must make it to your intended destination regardless of inclement weather or minor injury, etc. The cost to send your pack ahead is around 5–7 euros and this service is arranged by every auberge. It was quite tempting, but nevertheless, we never used this option because we never knew exactly how far we would make it each day. Some days it rained a lot, and we wouldn’t cover a lot of distance. We had no pressure to make it to a certain point on any given day and we loved this freedom. Also, it’s good to note that most auberges have a washer and dryer for guests so there is no reason to over-pack.
A few items to consider:
- Sleeping bag or sleep sheet/sack. Very few auberges provide you with blankets. We didn’t have a sleeping bag and had to use our jackets instead of blankets quite a few times. Not the best experience.
- Comfortable footwear. If you walk the French Way, don’t bother purchasing special hiking boots and poles. There is no need for them. Instead make sure you have comfortable sneakers or sandals because you will be walking a lot and your feet might swell.
- Flip Flops. Bring flip flops for showers and your own towel
- Rain Gear. Even if you hike during the summer bring a rain jacket. It might still get wet out there.
- Sun lotion, sunglasses, hat, & mosquito repellent. Protecting your skin and eyes is essential.
- Reading material. A good book to read on your own or to share aloud is always worthwhile.
- A good backpack. There is nothing worse than damaging your back or hips while hiking.
How to Get a “Pilgrim’s Passport”?
Regardless of the route you choose, once you arrive at Santiago de Compostela, each pilgrim heads to the Pilgrim’s Office to get a certificate that shows their completion of the Camino de Santiago. To get this certificate you must show your pilgrim’s passport that you can pick at any government auberge at the beginning of your journey. This passport identifies you as a pilgrim and allows you to stay at the auberges at a discounted rate. The receptionist registering you at each auberge puts a stamp in your passport so that there is a proof you’ve stayed at their place on a certain date. To make it more fun you can collect stamps at bars and restaurants and random rest stops created especially for pilgrims along the trail. It was an entertaining game for kids to collect and count stamps along the Way. In order to receive a certificate of completion a pilgrim must walk at least the last 100 km of any Camino route or cycle at least the last 200 km. Also, while not enforced, it’s stated you must have two stamps each day in your passport.
How Much to Budget?
If you decide to go on your own and you opt for auberges instead of hotels, your approximate budget per person will be the following:
- Auberges: 4–15 euros (depending whether is a private or a government one).
- Food: breakfast 5 euros, lunch 7–12 euros, dinner 10–15 euros. If you cook for yourself or pack sandwiches for lunch sometimes, it would be much cheaper. Also, it can be much more expensive depending on the restaurant you choose, food you order, and whether you drink alcohol or not. A bottle of wine is around 5–10 euros, 0.33l of beer is usually around 2 euros.
- Laundry: 2–3 euros per load.
- Train back to Madrid: around 30–40 euros depending when you book it. As a rule of thumb, the earlier you book, the cheaper it will be. Click here to book your ticket here.
Other than at your place to sleep and eat, there is nowhere to spend money. I guess there might be souvenirs to buy, if you decide to carry them. Souvenirs, as usual, range in price: from 3 euros magnets to much more expensive and exquisite items.
Do I Need a Guide?
Personally, I don’t see a point in hiring a guide for the Camino de Santiago. The Way is well marked and it is impossible to get lost. Finding a place to stay is also very easy since all the auberges are marked on the application maps.me that works even offline, or you can use an online application. Auberges are constantly changing; however, the following site can provide up-to-date apps that can help along your Camino.
If you travel with kids, I would definitely recommend against being part of a group. The reasoning is quite simple: It’s more likely you will be slower with your children than folks without them. On average people walk 22–27 km (14–17 miles). With our almost 2-year old and 4-year old, a comfortable pace was 15–17km (9–10 miles). Some days we walked even less. If you want to make it enjoyable and memorable, you have to make sure you walk at your own pace and you never know what your pace will be. If you’re considering finding a group or tour for company, don’t worry. You’ll meet plenty of people everywhere along the route.
Is it Safe?
Yes, absolutely. Violent crimes against pilgrims are extremely rare. In fact, there are plenty of solo female pilgrims as well.
How to Set a Kid-Friendly Pace?
On average people walk between 22–27 km (14–17 miles) per day. With our kids we walked 15–20 km (9–12 miles) per day. Some days though, we walked a lot, almost 30 km (19 miles) and other days no more than 10 km. I recommend checking to see how many miles your route is, then dividing by 22km (14 miles) per day, adding in an extra couple of days just in case. You never know what can happen, and it is always a good idea to plan extra days in for this type of trip. Should something happen during your trip or you run out of time, you can always hop on a bus or a train between most villages.
During our trip, it started snowing heavily in the mountains we were supposed to cross. Since we didn’t pack warm enough clothes, we decided not to risk it and instead chose to take a train around those mountains. It saved us a few days of walking, so we adjusted our pace and took our time walking and enjoying every bit of the Camino.
Liliia Sokotun deCos – November 2019
Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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