Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela – the last journey?

Martin Brice explains why his 2020 Camino in Spain may turn out to be his last one.

A chap pushing a toilet on a trolley across northern Spain walked behind me for a couple of days before he caught up. Dominic turned out to be a rational, well-educated Austrian with a good reason for his quest. Yet that was by no means the strangest thing to happen on my journey. The biggest shock was to see, close-up and personal, a nation closing down. Economic catastrophe loomed.

Surely you are as frustrated as me during lockdown and dream, as I did, of being free to roam, to get out and walk, to stop and stare. For me there’s only one place to wander – and wonder – and that’s Spain. But this trip was so very different. Of all my trips to Spain, I hadn’t realised at the start that it might be the end!

While Covid-19, according to the IMF, is expected to take – temporarily – 12.8 per cent off the Spanish economy, many of the Spanish villages I walked through will surely see the collapse of their local economy. Compare this with the big crash of 2008, which produced a fall of about a third in the value of new homes in Spain. In comparison, Covid-19 is expected to take – temporarily –just 3 per cent off the UK economy and Brexit – permanently – at least another 5 per cent.

The joy of walking pace

After months of lockdown the plan was to walk 700km across the north of Spain, from Pamplona in the north-east to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west. To walk is to catch the smells of fields after rain, see the sun slowly rise above the vineyards, to feel the ancient stones under your feet as you pass medieval churches. You see the cows being walked through a hamlet by one man and his dog.

It’s not all wine and roses, though – you also see the poverty on the outskirts of big cities. And you realise with a shock that, even in the middle of nowhere, the internet connections are better than in the UK, because the government has invested in infrastructure. By the end of 2020, some 89 per cent of the population will have internet coverage at more than 100Mbps and the largest fibre optic network to the home in Europe: the UK’s Ofcom said last December 10 percent of UK homes has full fibre broadband.

There is much to be said for travelling at walking pace – there’s no better way to get the country under your fingernails. And my love affair with Spain goes back to the days of Franco – a time that, I have learnt, you never, ever mention in conversation with a Spaniard even now. Some subjects are too painful.

This route, one of the several pilgrim “caminos” that end at Santiago, crosses mountains, flat bits and then more mountains at the end. It passes hundreds of beautiful, ancient hamlets with fabulous stone buildings, Roman-era bridges and lovely countryside. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the most popular walks in the world.

Last year some 350,000 people arrived at the end and asked for the certificate of completion, or the “compostela”, with most walking the route that starts in from France. That number of customers ensures there is – or rather was – a huge number of bars, €40 hotels, €10 dormitories, restaurants, baggage transport services etc.

It’s very clearly marked. You can’t get lost: for the entire route it is unlikely you will find a gap of more than 100m without the ubiquitous yellow arrows. For the walker, it has everything you’d ever need.

I’ve walked or cycled several routes and in normal years this involved being part of an unorganised, cheerful, international, multi-lingual group that stopped in village bars and sat in the sunshine chatting before walking on through pleasant countryside and lovely hamlets. Nights were spent either in small hotels for about €30 or dormitories for about €10 a night. Meals were communal.

Not now

Gone is the constant stream of pilgrims walking through tiny villages. Covid-19 ended tourism, both Spanish and international – and tourism is almost fifth of the Spanish economy. To give you a few examples: some days I walked from 8am to 3pm entirely alone and one day did 40km –  the 26 mile distance of a marathon – and saw just one human being and have no recollection of seeing a car. Many bars and shops that thrived on trade from passing pilgrims were closed – many, I fear, permanently.

In Foncebadon, a village with a permanent population of about 26, there are usually four places to eat – only two now open – and six places to stay with three shut for the entire year. What I saw in October was the church hall with mattresses on the floor for 16 pilgrims, one albergue that was full (because government restrictions have cut communal sleeping accommodation to 40 per cent of the previous level), and a bar with rooms. This was repeated right across Spain – often I was the only person staying in a family-run hotel. The catastrophic effect on the economy – local and national – has really yet to be felt.

Next year and a vaccine?

Some Spanish pinned their hopes on next year and a vaccine. I am much less optimistic and fear anyone now thinking of holidays next year will drop a camino from their plans. Sadly, the ghastly word “staycation” has entered the English language. Many of those businesses will not survive a second year with turnover slashed to about 5 per cent of a normal year.

There’s a moral dilemma over whether it is a good idea to fly to Spain and spend a month or more walking slowly across the entire country. Some friends suggested I would spread the virus. But this is a decision for the Spanish government to make.

But when I was standing in the square outside the cathedral in Santiago it felt like a door closing. If these albergues and bars close for ever, pilgrims will have days of 40km to walk to find a bed. Not many will cheerfully sign up for that, and the entire camino culture may die. As a precaution, I have bought a tent to take if I can go again. But that word “if” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

I’d love to go. But this might be the end.

If the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) card for Brits were to be discontinued, if I were to catch Covid-19 and go to hospital, the currently-free access to Spanish health system would not apply. I would face a huge bill, perhaps for three weeks in hospital, maybe for ventilation in an emergency ward. Until 1 January this is free to me. (*)

Insurance companies that offer “Covid-19 cover” usually mean they meet the cancellation of a holiday booked by a healthy person in the UK who then moves that holiday to a later date. None I have yet found offer cover for medical expenses incurred in Spain by catching Covid-19 at a time when the UK government says only essential trips should be made: that guidance may be with us all next year, if not longer.

So while the virus has made life bad for all of us, our own UK politicians have made it worse. An end to holidays in the EU? Didn’t see that on the side of a bus. As for the chap pushing the gents’ urinal on a trolley to Santiago? He loved the journey so much he went on to Finisterre, to the end of the world, where he left it.

His journey went to the end of the world while mine may turn out to be the end of journeys.

* Since this article was written, the Christmas Eve deal has happened. While the future of the EHIC is still unclear, the card remains valid until its expiry date (cue: scrabble for passport!), after which the Government proposes to introduce an alternative. The latest information we are aware of is the NHS website HERE. This subject will be revisited by Kent Bylines as the situation develops.