Walking the Camino in the time of Covid

Please note this was published in August 2020; for recent info and advice regarding travel, please seek out updated information from the Spanish government on Spain Travel Health website (with travel locator form for travellers).

News just in, fresh from the Camino! Mark McCarthy, seasoned pilgrim and guidebook author, has just returned from his pilgrimage from Lourdes in France to Pamplona after a damaged knee put an end to his walk (for now). He is currently in quarantine back home in the UK and kindly took the time to answer my many questions on the ‘new normal’ on the camino right now.

One of the main changes to daily pilgrim life is the mask.
• In France, Covid regulations require you to wear a mask at all times indoor until you are seated.
• In Spain, regulations require you to wear a mask at all times, indoors and outdoors (if there are people around), unless you are eating or drinking. You are not expected to wear a mask when hiking on the trail. However, when you enter even a small village you are expected to put your mask back on. In the cities, everyone wears a mask all the time.
• In albergues you will be expected to wear a mask when walking around.
• Pilgrim families still develop with most pilgrims within the ‘family’ not wearing a mask when hiking or eating and drinking with the ‘family’. This may not be entirely logical but is the reality.

The albergues have also made changes to comply with new regulations.
• Bunk beds are only half occupied, and while places such as Roncesvalles ask that one pilgrim sleep in the upper bunk in the same four-bunk cubicle, this is not really policed. The consequence of this is that most pilgrims enjoy a bottom bunk. When travelling in real family groups, all four beds in a cubicle can be occupied.
• Kitchens are closed and you will have to purchase a meal in a bar or a sandwich from a shop.
• There is hand sanitiser everywhere (good to know you don’t have to stress about carrying lots with you).

Outside of the pilgrim specific accommodation and facilities, Mark told me the locals were still welcoming, but at the same time also very nervous. Some of the small villages the camino winds through has a mainly elderly population which is particularly susceptible to the infection, so I am not surprised that they are wary of lots of people travelling in from other countries to pass through their villages. (My guess is that the story of the peregrina who walked in a group of 17 and tested positive for covid-19, and had infected or been infected by one of the other 8 positive members of the group, won’t have helped …)

When I asked if the camino experience was more or less the same compared to other years, Mark told me that the reduced number of pilgrims meant less pressure for beds, which was a plus – 30% of pilgrims and only 50% capacity in albergues. The walk from Lourdes in France and toward the Spanish border was quiet, with very few pilgrims even in August. Arriving in St Jean Pied de Port the town was very busy, as usual, but with tourists, not pilgrims.

Mark cut the first stage in two and stayed in popular albergue Orisson between St Jean and Roncesvalles. There were 21 pilgrims that night, but the night before there were only 6, so they did not even do the usual round of introductions over dinner. The intro round is Orisson’s trademark way of breaking the ice and getting people talking to each other (also helped by generous amounts of wine), but if they were only six I suppose they shared a table anyway. Orisson has 28 beds and is normally full to bursting nearly every day of the season, with people booking months in advance to secure a bed!

The man in the van selling refreshments on the mountainside between France and Spain was still there though, that must mean there are enough pilgrims to make it worth his while? Or maybe he just enjoys serving the pilgrim community? Good to know he is there to provide tired pilgrims with water, snacks, eggs and bananas.

According to Mark, there seemed to be a lot of Spanish, Italian and German pilgrims on the early stages of the Francés, and despite the UK imposing a two week quarantine for people arriving back from Spain, the man at the pilgrim’s office in St Jean said there were even some Brits – but few if any Irish, which is unusual. Most of the pilgrims he saw were young, not the usual mix of all ages.

Some things never change though; Mark soon formed a camino family with two Italian and one German pilgrim and walked with them from Orisson to Pamplona before a knee injury forced him to cut the walk short. Hope it mends quickly, peregrino! And buen camino to all who are walking!

All photos courtesy of Mark McCarthy. Check out his brand new guidebook The Way to Santiago on Amazon!

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