The Camino de Santiago is a 500 mile emotional rollercoaster. Your feet ache and blister, you question why you are doing it, you have too much time with your own thoughts, you wake up before it’s light, you don’t sleep well… and then you stop in a cafe. Everything from that morning instantly becomes more beautiful and you learn to appreciate it.
It’s a funny kind of feeling knowing you have already walked 15km by 9am – I never really got used to it. I felt a deep sense of achievement just from doing what everyone else was doing. Normally such a sheep-like mentality wouldn’t appeal to me but the sense of community on the Camino is overwhelming, and the cafes play a large part in this.
I completed the walk with two of my closest friends from university, we thought one last challenge would be a great way to conclude our time living together (little did we know how tough it would be). Each day we walked between 20km and 30km and after a couple of hours (as many as we could manage fuelled by bananas and cereal bars) we would stop at a cafe for a slice of tortilla and an orange juice. The juice was always freshly squeezed and the tortilla freshly made and oozing. Even though we ate the same thing almost every single morning for five weeks, it always felt like a reward. Everyone stopped for these welcome breaks along the way and it was how we made some of our greatest friends on the Camino. There’s nothing like bonding over food to bring people together.
Food is our common ground, a universal experience– James Beard
The days were punctuated by these moments of delicious respite. Everyone would meet up again for a beer or glass of 1€ red wine in the evening and talk more openly than they would to their own families. I look back on these early evenings evidently with rose-tinted glasses (it must be the hue of the wine) and ignore the physical pain we were in. Talking about where you ached and comparing the size of your blisters was quickly normalised and airing your feet in restaurants was disgustingly acceptable (and necessary).
From unwrapping your most infected looking toenail to revealing your most guarded secrets, everything happened in these little roadside cafes while gesturing wildly with an olive on a toothpick or a swirling glass of wine.
Albergue kitchens are breeding grounds for memorable moments. On one occasion, 11 of us crowded round a long plastic table and gorged ourselves on pasta, salad and bread until the thought of walking the next day seemed impossible. Someone told me that we were eating with two men referred to only as ‘the Italians’ and in the space of that evening Riccardo and Augusto went from being complete strangers to the friendliest father and son duo on the planet. We saw them almost every day until we reached Santiago and are still in contact now.
The food wasn’t always of outstanding quality and our carb intake was about 17 times higher than the recommended (or legal) limit, but food and conversations formed a reward system that kept us going for miles and miles. I would never have been able to finish the walk if it wasn’t for this incredible sense of community surrounding the albergues and cafes. Food is a goal, a fuel, a conversation starter, a reward, a gift, a meeting place and a journey all in itself, and I never realised that more than on the Camino.